Political Theologies in Early Judaism: The Books of Esther

My project inquires into the development of various “political theologies” in Hellenistic and early Roman Judaism (330 BCE–100 AD). In a general sense, I am interested in the close connection between the development of theological ideas and changing socio-political circumstances.

Throughout the Hellenistic and early Roman eras, Jewish communities are challenged by various political, social, and religious developments: As a result of the fundamental transformations of the Ancient Near Eastern world following Alexander the Great’s conquests, more Jews than ever before are now living in diverse diaspora contexts in non-Jewish, multicultural environments. I am especially interested in the ways in which Jews cope with (in most instances foreign) rule, while at times even experiencing oppression and persecution. I assume that, from a Jewish monotheistic perspective, a fundamental theological problem is to discern the relationship between God’s and man’s rule over the earth: God is not only understood as the “one-time creator” but also as the one who controls the course of history and in this sense governs the world. Obviously, this belief – expressed in ritual and everyday-life practices – gives rise to the question of how exactly God’s rule manifests (or should manifest) itself in society and politics.

In Hellenistic and Roman times, different Jewish authors and groups answer this question with a wide variety of concepts that can be described as “political theologies”: There is, for instance, support for Ptolemaic kingship as a government ordained by God; in other texts, we find apocalyptic imagery discrediting Antiochos IV. as well as dissenting opinions on Hasmonean and Roman rule. Some literary works support the respective rulers while others call for various kind of resistance.

My investigation focuses on the different versions of the Esther story, a Jewish novella which has been retold and reshaped over and over again in antiquity. This markedly political story about intrigue and deceit at the court of a powerful king features two Jewish protagonists who manage to save their diaspora community from extinction. However, the various ancient editions and translations (Hebrew, Greek, and Latin) modify this narrative as they ascribe different roles to the main characters and especially to divine intervention. They thus differ in their opinions on how a “happy end” can be achieved for a Jewish community in a potentially threatening diaspora situation.

Through literary and historical analysis, we can investigate this many-voiced discourse on “political theology” which has to deal with the relationship of religious ideas and the ever-changing socio-political circumstances in the Hellenistic and Roman empires.

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