In Quest of the Historical Mordecai

Published in
On the Way to the Postmodern: Old Testament Essays 1967-1998, Volume 1
(JSOTSup, 292; Sheffield: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998), pp. 436-43

open footnotes


In the standard works, commentaries, encyclopaedias and monographs, wherever the historicity of the Book of Esther is discussed, there is usually to be found some reference to the possible extra-Biblical evidence for Mordecai. Here is an extract from a typical encyclopaedia article in The Interpreter's Dictionary of the Bible:

Reference must be made to a single undated cuneiform document from the Persian period, found at Borsippa, which refers to a certain Marduka who was a Þnance ofÞcer of some sort in the Persian court at Susa during the reign of Xerxes I. While a connection between such an individual and the Mordecai of the book of Esther is in no sense established, the possibility of such a historical event as is related in Esther cannot be dismissed out of hand./1/

Carey A. Moore, the author of the Anchor Bible commentary on Esther, is a little more positive about the implications of the reference to Marduka. This ofÞcial, who 'served as an accountant on an inspection tour from Susa', could be, he suggests, 'the biblical Mordecai because, in all likelihood, Mordecai was an ofÞcial of the king prior to his being invested in [Est.] 8.2 with the powers previously conferred on Haman'. To Moore, 'at Þrst glance all of this seems rather persuasive, if not conclusive'. While he is indeed careful to point out the uncertainties that surround the identiÞcation of Marduka with Mordecai, he nevertheless concludes that

since the epigraphic evidence concerning Marduka certainly prevents us from categorically ruling out as pure Þction the Mordecai episodes in the Book of Esther, it is safest for us to conclude that the story of Mo[r]decai may very well have to it a kernel of truth./2/

Robert Gordis, rather more boldly, appears to have no reservations whatever about the identiÞcation of Mordecai with Marduka. For him, the attestation of the names Marduka and Mrdk/3. is 'the strongest support thus far for the historical character of the book'./4. He writes:

A Persian text dating from the last years of Darius I or the early years of Xerxes I mentions a government ofÞcial in Susa named Marduka, who served as an inspector on an ofÞcial tour . . . [T]he phrase yø¡b b¡a'ar hammelekh, 'sitting in the king's gate,' which is applied to Mordecai repeatedly in the book, indicates his role as a judge or a minor ofÞcial in the Persian court before his elevation to the viziership.

The conclusion to be drawn is rather obvious:

That there were two ofÞcials with the same name at the same time in the same place is scarcely likely./5/

From Edwin M. Yamauchi we even gain the impression that the identiÞcation of Marduka with Mordecai has now become the consensus scholarly view:

Mardukâ is listed as a sipîr ('an accountant') who makes an inspection tour of Susa during the last years of Darius or early years of Xerxes. It is Ungnad's conviction that 'it is improbable that there were two Mardukas serving as high ofÞcials in Susa.' He therefore concludes that this individual is none other than Esther's uncle. This conclusion has been widely accepted./6/

Siegfried H. Horn concurs:

The result of this disco[c]very has been a more favorable attitude toward the historicity of the book of Esther in recent years, as attested by several Bible dictionaries and commentaries published during the last decade./7/

So secure is the identiÞcation of Mordecai with Marduka in his eyes that he can even invite us to reconstruct the personal history of Mordecai on the basis of what we know about Marduka:

It is quite obvious that Mordecai, before he became gatekeeper of the palace, must already have had a history of civil service in which he had proved himself to be a trusted ofÞcial the trusted councillor of [t]he mighty satrap U¡tannu, whom he accompanied on his ofÞcial journeys./8/

We ourselves are bound to ask, if such far-reaching inferences are going to be drawn, How well-justiÞed is the identiÞcation of Mordecai with this Marduka?



There is a more general question to be raised here about what constitutes historical evidence, in addition to a set of more particular historical questions.
In the Þrst place, it appears to be necessary to insist that evidence for a Persian ofÞcial at Susa named Marduka, if that is really what we have, is next to useless in any debate about a historical Mordecai. For if on other grounds it seems probable that the book of Esther is a romance and not a historical record, it is quite irrelevant to the larger question of the historicity of the writing to discover that one of its characters bears a name attested for a historical person. Fictitious characters usually do. While it is wise not to 'dismiss out of hand', as Bruce T. Dahlberg puts it,/9. the possibility of such a historical event as is related in Esther, it is not the existence of a Persian ofÞcial named Marduka that makes it unwise. It is just reasonable scholarly caution. Similarly, it is simply untrue that it is the epigraphic evidence concerning Marduka that 'certainly prevents us from categorically ruling out as pure Þction the Mordecai episodes in the Book of Esther', as Moore claims/10/; they may be Þction, or they may be not, but the presence of a Marduka at the court of Xerxes, if that is really what is attested, is not relevant-unless they are in fact the same person. And Moore for one is not willing to identify the two persons without serious reservations. Furthermore, it certainly does not follow that because there was a historical Marduka it 'is safest for us to conclude that the story of Mo[r]decai may very well have to it a kernel of truth', since it is safer still to follow one's best judgment about the nature of the work as a whole. The theoretical possibility that the two names denote the one person does not translate into a probability that the story itself may very well have a kernel of truth. For what, we may ask, would a kernel of truth look like? Would there be a kernel of truth to the story if there was a Persian ofÞcial named Mordecai at Xerxes' court, but he was not Jewish, not the cousin of the queen, and did not become vizier? Or, what would the signiÞcance of a 'kernel' of truth be if the kernel was that Mordecai was a historical personage, but that there was no threat of genocide against the Jews, and none of the remarkable coincidences of the Book of Esther actually took place? Would the Mordecai of the Book of Esther in that case be a historical personage or a Þctional character? It is a nice question.
Secondly, and more importantly, the evidence of the Marduka text needs to be re-examined. In view of their comments on the text, it is hard to believe that many of those referring to it have actually consulted the original publications.
The text,/11. one of the collection of cuneiform tablets formerly in the possession of Lord Amherst of Hackney at Didlington Hall, Norfolk, was Þrst noticed by Theophilus G. Pinches in a communication to the Congress of Orientalists in Hamburg in 1902,/12. though he made no reference to the ofÞcial named Marduka. When, after Lord Amherst's death, the tablets were bought by the Vorderasiatische Museum in Berlin, the Assyriologist Arthur Ungnad noted the possible signiÞcance of the Marduka reference for the Old Testament, and wrote a paragraph about it in an article in the Zeitschrift für die alttestamentliche Wissenschaft for 1940­41./13. In the following volume the editor printed some lines from a personal letter of Ungnad to him, in which Ungnad developed a little further his view of the signiÞcance of the reference to Marduka./14. The text of the tablet (Amherst 258) was not published during Ungnad's lifetime, but appeared, along with six others of the 36 neo-Babylonian Amherst tablets, in the Archiv für Orientforschung for 1959­60./15.
The facts about the tablet are these: 1. Unlike several other tablets in the collection, no place of composition is mentioned; but according to Ungnad, it is probably Borsippa near Babylon,/16. as is the case with the other tablets. 2. Unlike many of the other tablets, it bears no date; but judging from the persons mentioned it must come from the last years of Darius I/17. or the early years of Xerxes./ 18. Its contents are a list of payments, both in silver and in kind, made to Persian ofÞcials and their retainers./ 19. Among them is one Marduka, who is referred to as the sipir of Ushtannu (line 9; in line 14 he is 'the sipir Marduka'). While Ungnad argued that sipir meant speciÞcally 'accountant', the term (preferably to be written sep·ru or spiru) is agreed to have simply a more general meaning of 'scribe' or 'administrative functionary'/20/; but the matter is of little consequence for the present purpose./21/). 5. Ushtannu is well known as the satrap of the province of Babylon and Beyond the River (Abar Nahara)./ 22. There is a reference at the very end of the tablet (line 26) to 'the land of Susa': 'Altogether 29 and 1/2 minas. Of which 5 minas 56 shekels the portion of Nabu-ittannu, apart from 5 shekels of silver from the land of Susa (mât ¡u-¡á-an-na)'.
The following assertions and inferences were made by Ungnad: 1. The Persian ofÞcials were probably in Borsippa on a tour of inspection from the palace in Susa./ 23. It is improbable that there should have been two high ofÞcials by the name of Marduka in Susa./ 24. Marduka is therefore certainly (gewiss) the Mordecai known from the Book of Esther, Esther's uncle./25.
It should be pointed out that the foregoing are nothing but assertions. There is in fact no evidence in the text that Marduka or anyone else had come from Susa to Borsippa, nor that there was any tour of inspection of anything. Some silver had come from Susa, it is true, but we have no way of knowing when, or whether it had been brought by the persons named in the document. There are indeed a number of Persian names in this document, but that does not prove, or even suggest, that we are dealing here with inhabitants of Susa rather than of Borsippa. People with Persian names are to be found, not surprisingly, in many corners of the Persian empire.
What is of even greater importance for the supposed identity of Marduka with Mordecai-and the fact has not generally been recognised-is that Marduka is some kind of ofÞcial in the entourage of the satrap Ushtannu. Since the headquarters of the satrap are of necessity in the principal city of his satrapy, Marduka is, in the absence of countervailing evidence, to be located there also. This means that what we can afÞrm with a high degree of probability is that Marduka is not a resident of Susa.
It is therefore incorrect to say that Marduka was an ofÞcial in the court at Susa (Dahlberg, Horn), or was a government ofÞcial in Susa (Gordis, Eissfeldt/26/), or was an accountant from Susa (Berg), or to state as a fact that he came on an inspection tour from Susa (Moore/27/), still less that he made an inspection tour of Susa (Yamauchi) or in Susa (Gordis/28/)! And it should not be claimed that 'the discovery of the Mardukâ tablet has given at least Mordecai historical respectability' (Horn/29/), since it has no relevance whatsoever to the Þgure of Mordecai depicted in the Book of Esther.
The substantive question, whether or not there was a historical Mordecai, is very much more difÞcult to answer than those who have appealed to the Marduka tablet have allowed. For the curious thing about the Book of Esther is that, although it has all the hallmarks of a romance, with its string of coincidences, its artfully told narrative, and its engaging characterisations, it can at no point be unequivocally faulted on historical grounds (which cannot, incidentally, be said in the least of the Greek Book of Esther). Much of its historical detail can in fact be substantiated, and the supposed errors it contains can be quite satisfactorily explained./30. On the other hand, its story-line is a string of improbable coincidences. Historians are compelled in such circumstances to trust their own judgment of the kind of literature that lies before them, in the absence of any speciÞc data that settle the question one way or the other.