Dear Rabbi Simon
With Purim approaching, I have a question for you.
The Talmud (Megillah 7a) records a debate as to whether Megillat Esther should be included in the Bible. Detractors of the idea argued that it could (in essence) fuel antisemitism. However, proponents observed that the events were already widely known throughout the civilised world; the chronicles of the Kings of Persia bore witness to the story. The proponents won the day and Esther won its place in the canon (albeit absent from the Dead Sea Scrolls).
If I referred to the Persian annals, where might I uncover the state version of this tumultuous period – an epoch that very nearly meant the annihilation of our people? It might be easy to suggest that such evidence was destroyed or forgotten over the millennia, but if it remains extant it would be of fascinating interest to the historian in me.
Thank you for your interesting question. The historicity of the Purim story has long confounded and divided scholars, with many taking a dim view of the matter. 19th century Reform thinkers, for example, were eager to pour scorn on the Scroll of Esther because the raucous celebrations associated with Purim were an embarrassment to them, and they considered the idea of a genocidal plot against the Jews to be implausible, if not downright preposterous. (This view is found, for example, in the early 20th c. Jewish Encyclopaedia; now available online, BTW.) This latter objection was tragically put to rest after the horrors of the 1940’s became apparent.
Turning to the substance of your question, I am not expert in the annals of ancient Persia, but I am delighted to recommend a new book from someone who has done wide-ranging research into the subject. It is called Purim and the Persian Empire, by Rabbi Yehuda Landy (http://www.amazon.com/Purim-Persian-Empire-Yehuda-Landy/dp/1598265199). We have a copy at Kesher too.
PS The Persian era in Jewish history poses particular challenges due to the enigmatic 164 “missing” years. Some preliminary information on the subject is here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Missing_years_(Jewish_calendar).
Enjoy your Purim all the same!