Did Mark plagiarize Esther?
Published: 10 June 2017 (GMT+10)
Many times, skeptics try to say that the Bible is in error, when actually it is just using genre norms or figures of speech that we still use today. Allowing the Bible to use rich imagery and figures of speech while still affirming that it is completely accurate in its reporting allows us to enjoy the literary aspect of God’s Word as well as the historical.
Ryan B., US, writes:
Hi CMI, I have a question regarding Esther 5:3 and Mark 6:23 regarding the kings promising "giving half the kingdom" A skeptic claimed that Mark plagiarized Esther because of this phrase, however the two stories have very different details within them but my main question is was it a common practice for kings to promise "half their kingdom" even if they were being hyperbolic in their promise? I read that since Herod was a vassal to the Roman empire he wouldn’t have had the authority to hand over "half the kingdom" to his daughter but rather he was using a cultural idiom or being hyperbolic. What are your thoughts?
Thanks for writing in. First of all, it is erroneous to speak of Mark 'plagiarizing' Esther; it would more accurately be termed 'alluding to' Esther. And yes, most commentators, evangelical and otherwise, see clear parallels in the way Xerxes and Herod are portrayed in these two incidents.
Commentators on Esther note that Xerxes is portrayed in Herodotus as someone who often made rash oaths with disastrous consequences, so the 'half my kingdom', even if understood a bit hyperbolically, isn't out of character for him. (And note the salvation of the Jewish people would cost him 10,000 talents of gold, and risked a loss of face in the effective reversal of an unbreakable law, so it was a very substantial request from Esther).
With regard to Herod, as you noted, he was only the governor of the region and so couldn't literally give away any of his Roman ruled district, so his statement couldn't be meant literally. Second, making lavish public gifts to pleasing entertainers was one way that Romans would display their wealth, and he was probably expecting his stepdaughter to ask for an expensive gift, not the death of her mother's nemesis. It does appear to be something of a 'stock phrase' meaning "I will give you whatever you request, up to the largest gift I can possibly give."
But the bigger issue has to do the NT use of the OT, and it is simply erroneous to try to import modern sensibilities about plagiarism and reporting that simply didn't exist back then (and don't really exist now). Yes, Mark was accurately reporting what happened. But he was also doing so in a way that brought to mind another witless drunken ruler who was prone to making promises that got him into trouble. And we can still do this in modern reporting. For instance, people like Hitler and Churchill in the 20th century left such a powerful impression that today we still can cast evil or courageous people, respectively, as resembling one or the other to make our rhetorical points. Or we can speak of someone being a "Judas" or a "doubting Thomas" and everyone knows what that means.
So we really need to just allow the Bible the same rhetorical liberties that we use all the time, including alluding to previous historical people in our presentation of later people. And of course it is possible to do this while affirming the complete accuracy and inerrancy of the biblical account in question.