Who was King 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.

NIV This is what happened during the time of Xerxes…
ESV Now in the days of Ahasuerus…

Clearly the NIV says the king was Xerxes, while the ESV says the king was Ahasuerus. Many translations struggle with the issue of how to identify the king of Esther. To complicate matters somewhat, the LXX and Josephus identify the king as Ἀρταξέρξης (Artaxerxes), thus giving us three options.

The Hebrew text reads אֲחַשְׁוֵרוֹשׁ (Ahasuerus), a name which is confirmed by other Greek translations, the Latin Vulgate, the Targums, and the Syriac translation. On the other hand, the name Xerxes is actually the appropriate Greek derivation of the king’s Persian name, khsyayʾrsha. What this means is that, technically, both names (Ahasuerus and Xerxes) are correct identifications for the son of Darius. However, the LXX’s identification of Artaxerxes is incorrect and an historical mistake (which does not make it into any English translations that I am aware of).

Here is a brief listing of the post-Babylonian rulers (Medo-Persia) and their corresponding dates to see where Esther fits into the historical scene.

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
Arses 338–336 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 Xerxes likely happens approximately 50 years after Daniel dies. 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).

And there you have it. Different Bible translations may use Xerxes or Ahasuerus, but they technically refer to the same individual. (Xerxes is probably more common in non-biblical literature). However, if you ever see arguments for Artaxerxes as the king during the time of Esther—don’t believe it!

Peter Goeman
Peter serves at Shepherd's Theological Seminary in Cary, NC as the professor of Old Testament and Biblical Languages. He is a husband, father, and sports enthusiast.
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