Who is Ahasuerus in the Book of Esther?
Sometimes different Bible translations can lead to interesting questions. For example, if we were to compare the NIV and the ESV translations, we would come across a seemingly large difference. According to the NIV, Xerxes was king during the time of Esther, but according to the ESV Ahasuerus was king. Who was the king? Was it Ahasuerus, or Xerxes?
|NIV||This is what happened during the time of Xerxes…|
|ESV||Now in the days of Ahasuerus…|
Bible Translations and the Identity of Ahasuerus
Why does the NIV say the king was Xerxes, while the ESV says the king was Ahasuerus? The issue is one of translation, yes, but also of identification. To complicate matters somewhat, the earliest translation of the Old Testament that we have (the LXX) identifies the king of the book of Esther as Ἀρταξέρξης (Artaxerxes). Josephus also agrees with the LXX. Thus, we have three options for the king during the time of Esther: (1) Ahasuerus, (2) Xerxes, or (3) Artaxerxes.
As it turns out, two of the choices are actually the same. The Hebrew text reads אֲחַשְׁוֵרוֹשׁ (Ahasuerus), a name which is confirmed by other Greek translations, the Latin Vulgate, the Targums, and the Syriac translation. However, this doesn’t mean identifying the king as Xerxes is wrong. The name Xerxes is actually the appropriate Greek derivation of the king’s Persian name, khsyayʾrsha. It was normal for rulers to have multiple names. This is likely also the case for Darius the Mede being Cyaxares.
What this means is that, technically, both names (Ahasuerus and Xerxes) are correct identifications for the son of Darius the Great. Ahasuerus is what our Hebrew texts read, but the NIV uses the historical name Xerxes to clarify who the text is talking about. However, the LXX’s identification of Artaxerxes is incorrect and a historical mistake (which does not make it into any English translations that I am aware of).
The Persian King List
To see where Ahasuerus (or Xerxes) fits into the historical picture, here is a list of the post-Babylonian rulers of Persia and their corresponding dates.
|Cyrus the Great||550–529 BC|
|Cambyses I||529–522 BC|
|Bardiya (Pseudo-Smerdis)||522 BC|
|Darius I (the Great)||522–486 BC|
|Xerxes I/Ahasuerus (*Esther*)||486–465 BC|
|Artaxerxes I||465–425 BC|
|Xerxes II||425–424 BC|
|Darius II||424–405 BC|
|Artaxerxes II||405–359 BC|
|Artaxerxes III||359–338 BC|
|Darius III||336–330 BC|
For point of reference, Daniel is deported in 605 BC, and lives long enough in Babylon to be a part of the Persian dynasty under Cyrus the Great (539 BC). The story of Esther and King Ahasuerus likely happens approximately 50 years after Daniel dies (ca. 480 BC). Subsequent to Esther, Ezra leads a second return to the land of Israel about 20 to 30 years later in 458 BC under Artaxerxes (Ezra 7:1). This reconstruction allows us to understand a little bit more about the significance of the time during which Esther lived.
In summary, different Bible translations may use Xerxes or Ahasuerus, but they refer to the same individual. The reason they differ is likely due to the use of different names by the same individual (a common practice). Xerxes is more common in non-biblical literature, but Ahasuerus is the preferred Hebrew rendering. Interestingly, Daniel 9:1 references a difference Ahasuerus, thus showing that Ahasuerus was likely a throne name of some kind. Thus, Ahasuerus and Xerxes are the same individual by different names. However, if you ever see arguments for Artaxerxes as the king during the time of Esther—don’t believe it!