Tricia Miller, Jews and Anti-Judaism in Esther and the Church

, December 12, 2016

Tricia Miller, Jews and Anti-Judaism in Esther and the Church (Cambridge, U.K.: James Clarke & Co., 2015), 206 pp.

Dr. Tricia Miller, formerly a faculty member at Claremont College and currently a senior research analyst at CAMERA, has written a study that treats three important topics: Jews and anti-Judaism in the different versions of the Biblical book of Esther; the interpretation of Esther by Christian thinkers and scholars; and the currently fashionable hatred of Jews, Zionism and Israel among prominent Palestinian Christian churchmen and other Christian ministers and thinkers. Miller argues that the link between these three themes is the role that Christian interpretations of the book of Esther play as part of the background of anti-Jewish and anti-Israel accusations, especially regarding the right of self-defense against acts of terrorism and the use of “disproportionate” or “excessive” force against the enemy when under attack. Indeed, according to this view, Jews must remain passive and never respond to any provocation, threat or attack or inflict casualties upon their enemies and any Jewish retaliation must be regarded as an attempt to commit wanton slaughter or even genocide against the Palestinians. This double standard, when applied toward Israel as opposed to other countries, forms an essential component of what has been called “the new antisemitism,” namely an ideology that calls the legitimacy of the very existence of a Jewish state into question, and thus, goes farther than a denial of Israel’s right of self-defense.

Miller attempts to prove her thesis by tracing such anti-Israel positions to adaptations and interpretations of the book of Esther. Indeed, most of Jews and Anti-Judaism in Esther and the Church focuses upon the depictions of the first example of a successful Jewish armed self-defense against a royal plot of genocide in the Diaspora that took place in Susa (Shushan), capital of the Kingdom of Persia, in the fifth century BCE, celebrated annually on the Jewish festival of Purim. The first three chapters of the book are devoted to a lengthy, scholarly analysis of three different ancient versions of Esther – the Hebrew Masoretic text (MT); the Old Greek Septuagint translation (OG); and the later Greek Alpha version (AT), used in Book XI of Josephus’ Jewish Antiquities (c. 100 CE) and an old Latin text. These chapters are highly detailed and each chapter is divided into subtopics that discuss the salient features of each text and the different contexts in which the separate versions of Esther emerged. Unlike a number of Bible scholars, Miller supports the authenticity and basic historical reliability of the story of Esther and argues that events took place during the Persian period. She also presents cogent reasons for her dating of the compositions of MT, OG and AT, some of which differ from the dates of other scholars of the Biblical and Second Temple periods of Jewish history. The chapters on the three versions of Esther are well argued, highly detailed and full of factual information about the status of the Jews in the Persian Kingdom and especially, in the Hellenistic and Roman world; the relations between Jews and Gentiles (particularly Greeks); and the themes that the OG and AT share in common with Hellenistic Jewish literature. The latter include: the prayers of Mordecai and of Esther; invocations to God; dramatic dialogue; and explanations of the reasons for the king’s trust in Mordecai who replaces the wicked Haman as vizier. It must be pointed out that the original Hebrew text neither mentions God nor contains any prayers. The Hellenized Jewish translators/adapters added a dimension of religiosity absent in the text of the Hebrew Bible. Each chapter of her book is divided into subtopics and provides ample footnotes and an extensive bibliography as well. These chapters actually could form a separate, solid scholarly monograph.

As far as her thesis is concerned, her literal reading of MT shows that the Jews of Shushan acted in self-defense and killed only those who were their enemies and conspired to kill them. They neither committed wanton aggression nor vengeful retaliation and certainly not genocide. Miller correctly points out that both the OG and the AT Greek texts paint a different picture.1 While the decree to kill all the Jews and despoil them is rather straightforward in the MT (Esther 3:8-9), stating that the Jews “have laws that differ from those of other peoples and do not keep the King’s laws,” both Greek texts contain negative descriptions of the Jews. The OG refers to Jews as “hostile” and their laws are “opposed to other peoples.” They are in a state of “military alertness against everyone” and they are “ill-disposed toward our affairs,” and “commit … the worst deeds.” The royal decree in the AT, which appears in Book XI of Josephus’ Jewish Antiquities (c. 100 CE, in Greek) goes even farther, and accuses the Jews of being a “wicked nation,” “unfriendly” and “unsocial” whose practices make it “an enemy of your people and of all mankind.”2 Such descriptions reflect the common Greek and Roman perceptions of the Jews as “xenophobic” and “misanthropic.” It is noteworthy that the Jewish translators of the original text of the decree in the MT undoubtedly absorbed the anti-Jewish terminology prevalent in Hellenistic societies and rewrote the decrees in their respective Greek versions in the language of the Jew-hatred of their own times. Miller discusses this extensively and articulately in Chapters Two and Three. The reader emerges with a clear picture of Greek attitudes toward the Jews and Judaism and Jewish perceptions of them.

As for the Jews’ retaliation against their enemies, all of the texts list 500 deaths in Susa, while the OG notes 15,000 as opposed to the MT and AT’s 75,000 later on. The AT states that Esther asks the kings to “crucify” the sons of Haman, whereas the MT inconsistently notes that Esther asks the king that the sons of Haman be hanged, despite the fact that they were killed the previous day. All the texts are clear that only the enemies of the Jews who had planned to annihilate them were avenged. Both the texts and the book clearly demonstrate that the Jews did not exaggerate and there was no genocide.

In Chapter Four, Miller correctly asserts that the Church Fathers (leaders and intellectual figures of Christianity from the second-seventh centuries CE) clearly relied upon the Greek Septuagint (and, from the fifth century CE, in the West, the Latin Vulgate) texts of the Bible. Therefore, they absorbed the anti-Jewish language of the decrees of the Greek texts, and misconstrued the attacks against the potential destroyers of Jewish lives as gratuitous acts of vengeance by a misanthropic people. Miller points out that many Christian interpreters of Esther expressed either ambivalence or outright antipathy toward the book of Esther and to acts of Jewish self-defense. However, it is difficult to attribute their negative views of Jewish retaliation against enemies directly or largely to such interpretations of Esther. It is more likely that they gleaned their opinions from the range of Scriptural texts cited in anti-Jewish arguments by Christian thinkers. These included their attitude toward Esther. Indeed, her discussion of Christian thinkers, clergy and scholars suffers from several shortcomings. It is not organized historically or chronologically, with some figures noted earlier in the book, whereas others appear later in Chapter Four. Furthermore, Miller does not always identify the writers as Protestant or Catholic or furnish their dates or institutional affiliations. To her credit, she also includes feminist scholars who have mixed views of Esther. Should a second edition of Jews and Anti – Judaism appear, it should include a separate, thorough and well-organized chapter on Christian interpretations through the ages, with numerous quotations from the sources, modeled after her excellent treatment of the texts of Esther.

The final chapter entitled “From Historic Anti-Judaism to Current Anti-Zionism” is a well written, comprehensive state-of-the-art assessment of recent trends among Palestinian and some American Christian figures. Miller discusses the prominence of Replacement Theory, namely the idea that Christians (and the Church) have replaced the Jews as God’s chosen people with whom He made an everlasting covenant. Accordingly, God rejected the Jews because they did not accept and killed Jesus, and therefore, the Temple and Jerusalem were destroyed and the Jews were exiled from the Land of Israel. It is commonly held that Christians jettisoned Replacement Theory with the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s, which exonerated the Jews from the charge of deicide, and when Pope John Paul II (1980s and nineties) embraced the Jewish people as an “elder brother” at the main synagogue in Rome. Indeed, after a long delay, the Vatican recognized the State of Israel. Similarly, Protestant groups espoused the idea of “two covenants,” one between God and the Jews and the other between God and the Christians.

Unfortunately, Miller proves that Replacement Theory is alive and well among Palestinian Christian leaders of various denominations. They maintain that the Palestinians have replaced the Jews; Jesus is a Palestinian; and the Jews of Israel and those who support them are oppressors just as the Romans and the Jewish establishment of the First Century persecuted Jesus and his followers. Of course, they condemn any measures of self-defense on the part of the Jewish State as oppressing Palestinians. Miller presents and analyzes all of these beliefs promoted by Palestinian clergy and by several American Christian thinkers, who are hostile to Jews, Judaism and Israel. She presents ample citations from sermons, pamphlets and books that bolster her claims and refers to the work of Dexter Van Zile who has published extensively on this subject. While most Christians reject this line of thinking, it has gained a following among different Protestant groups, even surprisingly among those who call themselves Evangelical Christians. This chapter can stand on its own as a monograph. Its importance cannot be exaggerated, given the climate in some of today’s churches.

Miller refers to works that have appeared in the past three decades. Such ideas, however, surfaced after the Six Day War in 1967, when the Jews of Israel no longer were under siege. In 1973, the late Hebrew University Professor David Flusser (d. 2000), a leading authority on early Christianity, wrote that he recognized “dangerous symptoms” and remarked “that it was some days after the Six Day War that a team of the Dutch Church Television came to make a film here about the Jews. … Then I met a new reaction to the Jewish reality. These professing Christians disliked Jewish soldiers – the conquerors – … and when they saw a group of them thanking God before the Wailing Wall, the Dutch television quickly took this picture to show Jewish militarism to Europe.”3 It is clear from Tricia Miller’s concluding chapter that the hostility toward the State of Israel, the Israel Defense Forces, Jews and Judaism has morphed into a full-fledged doctrine in certain Christian circles, far beyond what Professor Flusser had observed.

Whether the purveyors of such teachings and the revivers of Replacement Theory gleaned their views from their reading of Esther or from a wider historical context remains an open question. That being said, Jews and Anti-Judaism in Esther and the Church is an important, useful and enlightening book, and Miller deserves credit for raising these issues.

* * *

Notes

1 For a brief discussion of the Additions to Esther in the Greek and Latin texts, see: “The Additions to Esther,” in: E. Schürer, The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ (175 B.C. –A.D. 135), revised and edited by Geza Vermes, Fergus Millar and Martin Goodman (Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark Ltd., 1987), Volume III, Part 2, 718-722

2 The translations and further discussion appear in the classic study of Jew-hatred in the Greco-Roman world, Peter Schäfer, Judeophobia: Attitudes toward the Jews in the Ancient World (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1997), 206-209. Miller cites Schäfer’s work.

3 David Flusser, “New Christian Understanding for Judaism,” Orot, 14 (February, 1973), 17-18.

About Rivkah Fishman-Duker

Rivkah Fishman-Duker is a Lecturer Emerita in Ancient Jewish History at the Rothberg International School of the Hebrew University, Jerusalem.