Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Identifying Achashverosh and Esther in Secular Sources

Identifying Achashverosh and Esther in Secular Sources 
By Mitchell First 
This article is a summary of a longer article which will appear in his forthcoming book Esther Unmasked: Solving Eleven Mysteries of the Jewish Holidays and Liturgy (Kodesh Press), pp. 129-167.
     In this article, we will explain how scholars were finally able to identify Achashverosh in secular sources. We will also show that Esther can be identified in secular sources as well. Finally, we will utilize these sources to shed light on the story of the Megillah.

Before we get to these sources, we have to point out that an important clue to the identity of Achashverosh is found in the book of Ezra. Achashverosh is mentioned at Ezra 4:6 in the context of other Persian kings. The simplest understanding of Ezra 4:6 and its surrounding verses is that Achashverosh is the Persian king who reigned after the Daryavesh who rebuilt the Temple,[1] but before Artachshasta. But what about the secular sources? Was there any Persian king known as Achashverosh or something close to that in these sources?
     Until the 19th century, a search in secular sources for a Persian king named Achashverosh or something close to that would have been an unsuccessful one. Our knowledge of the Persian kings from the Biblical period was coming entirely from the writings of Greek historians, and none of the names that they recorded were close to Achashverosh. The Greek historians (Herodotus, mid-5th cent. BCE, and the others who came after him) described the following Persian kings from the Biblical period: Cyrus, Cambyses, Darius, Xerxes, and Artaxerxes.
    We were thus left to speculate as to the identity of Achashverosh. Was he to be equated with Artaxerxes? This was the position taken by the Septuagint to Esther. Was he to be equated with Cambyses? Or was he, as Ezra 4:6 and its surrounding verses implied, the king between Daryavesh (=Darius I) and Artachshasta (=Artaxerxes I). But why did the Greeks refer to him as Xerxes, a name at first glance seeming to have no relation to the name Achashverosh?
    It was only in the 19th century, as a result of the decipherment of Old Persian cuneiform inscriptions from the ancient Persian palaces, that we were able to answer these questions. It was discovered that the name of the king that the Greeks had been referring to as "Xerxes" was in fact: "Khshayarsha" (written in Old Persian cuneiform). This name is very close to the Hebrew "Achashverosh." In their consonantal structure, the two names are identical. Both center on the consonantal sounds "ch", "sh", "r", and "sh." The Hebrew added an initial aleph[2] (a frequent occurrence when foreign words with two initial consonants are recorded in Hebrew), and added two vavs. Interestingly, the Megillah spells Achashverosh several times with only one vav, and one time (10:1) spells the name with no vavs.
     Thereafter, at the beginning of the 20th century, Aramaic documents from Egypt from the 5th century B.C.E. came to light. In these documents, this king’s name was spelled in Aramaic as חשירש, חשיארש and אחשירש. The closeness to the Hebrew אחשורוש is easily seen.

     How did Khshayarsha (consonants: KH, SH, R, SH) come to be referred to by the Greeks as Xerxes?
  • The Greek language does not have a letter to represent the "sh" sound.
  • The initial “KH SH” sounds of the Persian name were collapsed into one Greek letter that makes the “KS” sound. A tendency to parallelism probably led to the second “SH” also becoming “KS,” even though “S” would have been more appropriate.[3] Hence, the consonants became KS, R, KS (=X,R,X).
  • The “es” at the end was just something added by the Greeks to help turn the foreign name into proper Greek grammatical form.[4] (It was for this same reason that the Hebrew משה  became “Moses” when the Bible was translated into Greek.)

  Identifying Khshayarsha/Xerxes with Achashverosh thus makes much sense on linguistic grounds. Critically, it is consistent with Ezra 4:6 which had implied that Achashverosh was the king between Daryavesh (=Darius I) and Artachshasta (=Artaxerxes I).[5]

    We have an inscription from Khshayarsha in Persian which lists the countries over which he ruled. Among the countries listed are "Hidush" and "Kushiya," most likely the Hodu and Kush of the Megillah.[6] 
    Now that we have identified Achashverosh in secular sources, we can use these sources to provide some biographical information. Xerxes reigned from 486-465 BCE, when the Temple was already rebuilt. It was rebuilt in the reign of his father Darius I in 516 BCE. According to Herodotus, Xerxes was the son of Darius by Atossa, daughter of Cyrus. Xerxes was also the first son born to Darius after Darius became king. These factors distinguished him from his older half-brother Artabazanes, and merited Xerxes being chosen to succeed Darius. At his accession in 486 BCE, Xerxes could not have been more than 36 years old (since he was born after the accession of Darius in 522 BCE).
    The party in which Vashti rebelled took place in the third year of the reign of Achashverosh (1:3), and Esther was not chosen until the 7th year (2:16). Why did it take Achashverosh so long to choose a replacement? It has been suggested that Xerxes was distracted by his foreign policy. In the early years of his reign, Xerxes ordered a full-scale invasion of Greece. Xerxes went on the invasion himself, which took him out of Persia commencing in the spring or summer of his 5th year and continuing through part of his 7th year.[7] This invasion ended in defeat.
     From the secular sources and a solar eclipse that took place in the battles, it can be calculated that Xerxes did not return to Susa until the fall of 479 B.C.E.[8] Tevet of Achashverosh's 7th year, when Esther was chosen, would have been Dec. 479/Jan. 478 B.C.E. Accordingly, Esther was taken to the palace shortly after Xerxes’ return.       
    Do we have any evidence in secular sources for the main plot of the Purim story, the threat to destroy the Jews in the 12th year (3:7)? We do not, but this is to be expected. No works from any Persian historians from this period have survived. (Probably, no such works were ever composed.) Our main source for the events of the reign of Xerxes is Herodotus and his narrative ends in the 7th year of Xerxes.[9]

    Interestingly, there is perhaps a reference to Mordechai in a later narrative source. The Greek historian Ctesias,[10] who served as a physician to Artaxerxes II, mentions a “Matacas” who was the most influential of all of Xerxes’ eunuchs. (Probably, “eunuch” was merely a term used to indicate a holder of a high position in the king’s court.) “Matacas” suggests a Persian name with the consonants MTC, which would be very close to the consonants of the name Mordechai, MRDC.[11]  The information provided by Ctesias bears a significant resemblance to the last verse in the Megillah, which records that by the end of the story, Mordechai was mishneh (=second) to the king.[12] (Perhaps we do not have to take mishneh literally; the import may merely be “very high official.”)

    Most interesting is what happens when we analyze the secular sources regarding the wife of Xerxes. According to Herodotus, the wife of Xerxes was named Amestris, and she was the daughter of a military commander named Otanes. (In the Megillah, Esther is described as the daughter of Avichail.) Ctesias records that Amestris outlived Xerxes. Moreover, in the further details that Ctesias provides, Amestris is involved in royal affairs even in the reign of her son Artaxerxes.[13] Neither Herodotus nor Ctesias use a term like “queen” for her, but their description of Amestris fits what we would call today the “queen.” Neither gives any indication that Xerxes had any other wife.
    Some postulate that Amestris is Vashti. But this is extremely unlikely since there is nothing in Herodotus or Ctesias to indicate any loss of status by Amestris. Others postulate (based on verses such as Est. 2:19 and 4:11[14]) that Esther was never the main   wife of Xerxes, but was one of other wives of a lesser status. See, e.g., Chamesh Megillot, Daat Mikra edition (published by Mossad Harav Kook), introduction to Esther, p. 6. The problem with this approach is that the clear impression that one receives from the Megillah is that Esther was the Persian wife of the highest status from the time she was chosen in the 7th year of the reign of Achashverosh through the balance of the years described in the book. See, e.g., verse 2:17 (va-yasem keter malkhut be-roshah va-yamlikheha tachat Vashti).        
    The approach that seems to have the least difficulties is to postulate that Amestris is  Esther and that Herodotus simply erred regarding her ancestry. Although Herodotus traveled widely in the 460’s and 450’s B.C.E., he probably never set foot in Persia. His information about Persia is based on what was told to him orally. Every scholar knows that he could not possibly be correct on a large percentage of the details he reports (whether about Persia or any matter). Also, the impression that one receives from the Megillah is that Esther did not disclose her true ancestry for several years. Whatever rumors about her ancestry first came out may be what made their way to Herodotus.[15]
    It is striking that the name Avichayil means military commander.[16] It is not so farfetched to suggest that Avichayil might have had another name which resembled the name Otanes.  The Megillah tells us that Esther had another name, Hadassah.   
   Herodotus tells a story depicting the cruelty of Amestris. Amestris takes revenge on another woman by cutting off her body parts and throwing them to the dogs. Ctesias writes that Amestris ordered someone impaled, and had fifty Greeks decapitated. But scholars today know not to believe all the tales told by the Greek historians about their enemies, the Persians. (Herodotus, known as the “Father of History,” is also known as the “Father of Lies.” The reputation of Ctesias as a historian is far worse; he is widely viewed as freely mixing fact and fiction.)    
    Although he never says it explicitly, one gets the impression from Herodotus that he believed that Amestris was the wife of Xerxes even in the first seven years of Xerxes’ reign. But it would be understandable that Herodotus might have had such a belief. According to the Megillah, Vashti was gone by the third year of Xerxes. Xerxes reigned 18 years after that. To Herodotus and his informants, Vashti may have been long forgotten.
    We have no Persian sources for the name of the wife of Khshayarsha. But close examination of the name "Amestris" supports its identification with Esther. The "is" at the end was just a suffix added to turn the foreign name into proper Greek grammatical form (just as "es" was added at the end of “Xerxes”). When comparing the remaining consonants, the name of the wife of Xerxes is recorded in the Greek historians as based around the consonants M, S, T, and R, and the name as recorded in the Megillah is based around the consonants S, T, and R. Out of the numerous possible consonants in these languages, three consonants are the same and in the same order! Probability suggests that this is not coincidence and that the two are the same person. Probably her Persian name was composed of the consonants M, S, T, and R, and the M was not preserved in the Hebrew. (One source in Orthodoxy that has suggested the identification of Esther with Amestris, without any discussion, is Trei Asar, Daat Mikra edition, published by Mossad Harav Kook, vol. 2, appendix, p. 3.)
    Once we realize that Achashverosh is Xerxes, it becomes evident that the asher haglah  of Esther 2:6 cannot be referring to Mordechai. King Yechanyah was exiled in 597 B.C.E. If Mordechai was old enough to have been exiled with King Yechanyah, he would have been over 120 years old when appointed to a high position in the 12th year of Xerxes. Moreover, Esther, his first cousin, would not have been young enough to have been chosen queen a few years earlier. One alternative is to understand verse 2:6 as referring to Mordechai’s great-grandfather Kish.[17] Another alternative is to view the subject of 2:6 as Mordechai, but to read the verse as implying only that Mordechai came from a family that had been exiled.
   The identification of Achashverosh with Xerxes does not fit with the view of the Talmud. According to the Talmud (Megillah 11b, based on Seder Olam chap. 29), Achashverosh reigned between Koresh and Daryavesh. In this view, the Temple had not yet been rebuilt at the time of the events of the Megillah. (In the view of Seder Olam and the Talmud, the Persian period spanned the reigns of only three Persian kings. This is much shorter than the conventional chronology. The conventional chronology is set forth in the Table below. For more information about this discrepancy, see my Jewish History in Conflict: A Study of the Major Discrepancy Between Rabbinic and Conventional Chronology, Jason Aronson, 1997).
    That the king intended to be depicted in the Megillah was Khshayarsha/Xerxes is accepted by legions of scholars today, even if they question the historicity of the story. Within Orthodoxy, some sources that accept the identification of Achashverosh with Xerxes include: Chamesh Megillot (Daat Mikra edition), R. Isaac Halevy,[18] R. Shelomoh Danziger,[19] R. Avigdor Miller,[20] R. Adin Steinsaltz,[21] R. Yoel Bin-Nun,[22]  R. Yehuda Landy,[23] and R. Menachem Liebtag.[24]
    The Megillah (10:2) implied that we could search outside the Bible for additional information regarding Achashverosh. I trust that this search has proven an interesting one!
     Table: The main Persian kings from this era and their dates (B.C.E.):

Cyrus              539-530
Cambyses [25]   530-522
Darius I          522-486
Xerxes            486-465
Artaxerxes I   465-424[26]
Darius II         423-404
Artaxerxes II  404-358
Artaxerxes III 358-338
Arses              338-336
Darius III       336-332

Mitchell First works as an attorney in Manhattan and lives in New Jersey, and is available to lecture on this topic. He can be reached at

[1] Admittedly, this is an oversimplification, since the Daryavesh who rebuilt the Temple is mentioned both at Ezra 4:5 and at Ezra 4:24.  See further below, n. 5.
[2] Both the Elamite and the Akkadian versions of the name Khshayarsha also had an initial vowel. In Elamite,“i”, and in Akkadian, “a”. See Edwin M. Yamauchi, Persia and the Bible (1990), p. 187.
   The name of the king is found in Aramaic in the panels of the Dura-Europos synagogue (3rd century C.E., Syria) without the initial aleph.
[3] That the transmission of foreign names is by no means an exact science is shown by how the name of  the son of Xerxes was recorded by the Greeks. The Greeks preserved the “Arta” of the first part of his name, Artakhshaça, but then just tacked on “xerxes,” the name of his father, as the second part of his name!
[4] I.e., convert it into the nominative case.
[5] With regard to verse 4:24, the proper understanding of this verse is as follows. The author of the book of Ezra decided to digress, and to supplement the reference to accusations made against the Jews in the reigns of Koresh through Daryavesh with mention of further accusations against them in the reigns of the subsequent kings, Achashverosh (Xerxes) and Artachshasta (Artaxerxes I). Verse 4:24 then returns to the main narrative, the reign of Daryavesh. The role played by verse 4:24 is that of “resumptive repetition.” This is the interpretation adopted by the Daat Mikra commentary to Ezra (pp. 27 and 35) and by many modern scholars. See the references at Richard Steiner, “Bishlam’s Archival Search Report in Nehemiah’s Archive: Multiple Introductions and Reverse Chronological Order as Clues to the Origin of the Aramaic Letters in Ezra 4-6,” Journal of Biblical Literature 125 (2006), p. 674, n. 164. This understanding of verse 24 only became evident in modern times when it was realized that linguistically Achashverosh was to be identified with Xerxes.
[6] Roland G. Kent, Old Persian: Grammar, Texts, Lexicon, p. 151 (2d ed., 1953).
[7] Many find allusions in the Megillah to the preparation for the invasion and to the invasion. See, e.g., Esther 1:3 and 10:2.
[8] See, e.g., William H. Shea, “Esther and History,” Andrews University Seminary Studies 14 (1976), p. 239.
  In the Persian system of regnal reckoning, 485 BCE was considered year 1 of Xerxes. 486 B.C.E. was only the accession year.
[9] See Pierre Briant, From Cyrus to Alexander (2002), pp. 7 and 516. In his narrative of events up to the 7th year, Herodotus does make some tangential references to events after the 7th year. For example, he refers to Artaxerxes a few times, and he tells a story about something that Amestris did in her later years. (She had fourteen children of noble Persians buried alive, as a gift on her behalf to the god of the underworld.)
   Later ancient sources write about the assassination of Xerxes.
[10] The Persica of Ctesias only survives in quotations or summaries by others. For this particular section of Ctesias, what has survived is a summary by Photius (9th cent.)
[11] Another version of Photius reads “Natacas” here. But this difference is not so significant. “N” and “M” are related consonants, both being nasal stops; it is not uncommon for one to transform into the other.
[12] See also Est. 9:4.
[13] This means that Artaxerxes I (who empowered Ezra, and later Nechemiah) was technically Jewish!
[14] Est. 2:19 refers to a second gathering of maidens, after Esther was chosen. Est. 4:11 records that Esther had not been called to the king for 30 days.
[15] It is sometimes claimed that Esther could not have been the wife of Xerxes because Herodotus (3,84) tells of an agreement between Darius I and his six co-conspirators that the Persian king would not marry outside their families. One of the co-conspirators was named Otanes. But Herodotus nowhere states that the Otanes who was the father of Amestris was the co-conspirator Otanes. Briant writes that if Amestris had been the daughter of co-conspirator Otanes, Herodotus would doubtless have pointed this out. See Briant, p. 135. Therefore, implicit in Herodotus is that Xerxes married outside the seven families.
[16] I would like to thank Rabbi Richard Wolpoe who first made this observation to me.
[17] That the name Mordechai may be based on the name of the Babylonian deity Marduk also suggests that Mordechai was born in exile.
[18] Dorot ha-Rishonim: Tekufat ha-Mikra (1939), p. 262.
[19] “Who Was the Real Akhashverosh?,” Jewish Observer, Feb. 1973, pp. 12-15.
[20] Torah Nation (1971), pp. 40 and 42.
[21] Talmud Bavli, Taanit-Megillah, p. 47, ha-Hayyim, and p. 50, ha-Hayyim.    .
[22] Hadassah Hi Esther (1997), p. 49, n. 8. (This work is a collection of articles by various authors.)
[23] Purim and the Persian Empire (2010), pp. 40-42.    
[24] For additional sources in Orthodoxy that accept the identification of Achashverosh with Xerxes, see Jewish History in Conflict, pp. 178-79.
[25] Cambyses’ name was discovered to be “Kabujiya” in Persian. His name is recorded as כנבוזי in Aramaic documents from Egypt from the 5th cent. B.C.E. He did not reign enough years to be Achashverosh. Nor did he reign over Hodu. See Jewish History in Conflict, p. 167. Although he is not mentioned in Tanakh, his reign is alluded to at Ezra 4:5 (in the word ve-ad).
[26] Another king named Xerxes reigned 45 days after the death of his father Artaxerxes I.


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