Revolt of the Maccabees

Revolt of the Maccabees

Mini Teaser: The Biblical account tells a cautionary tale for Mid-East policy today—to those reading between the lines.

by Author(s): Robert Doran

As the insurgency in Iraq continues and questions about its outcome surface, one might look for possible historical parallels--and one of the most successful insurgencies against a colonial power in the Middle East was the Jewish revolt, under the leadership of Judas Maccabeus, against Greek Seleucid overlords in the second century B.C.E.1

The success of the revolt is still celebrated today by Jews as the Feast of Hannukah. Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox know the story because their Bible contains the First and Second Books of the Maccabees. Protestants, on the other hand, are less familiar with this narrative, because these two books are not in their Bible but belong to what are called the apocryphal books.

The story of the revolt is told in two versions, the First and the Second Books of the Maccabees (although the second is not a sequel to the first, but a completely different telling). While the First Book glorifies the deeds of the Hasmonean family "through whom deliverance was given to Israel", 2 Maccabees stresses God as the defender and protector of his people and their temple, if they obey his laws. These are differences in emphasis, however. Both versions hold that Jews must follow their ancestral laws, as religion and politics are inextricably entwined in their view. We are fortunate to have these two different versions, particularly as they describe the events from the perspective of the insurgents.

After the death of Alexander the Great, three major powers emerged in the Eastern Mediterranean: the Macedonian Empire in Greece; the Ptolemaic Empire based in Egypt; and the Seleucid Empire, which stretched from present-day Turkey to present-day Afghanistan.

The sheer size of the Seleucid Empire led to problems of control, and, during the third century B.C.E., it gradually shrunk, both in the western part of present-day Turkey and in the eastern side at Afghanistan and eastern Iran. While the Seleucids claimed sovereignty over this entire region, their core area comprised what is present-day Syria and Iraq.

The Seleucids were in constant struggles with the Ptolemies of Egypt for control of the coastline from present-day Lebanon to the Red Sea, which had been in Egyptian hands since 301 B.C.E. However, following the battle of Panion (200 B.C.E.), this entire region--including Judea--became part of the Seleucid Empire.

During the first twenty years of Seleucid hegemony over Judea there does not seem to have been any confrontation between the authorities in Judea and the Seleucid rulers. The Seleucid ruler had, in fact, generously allowed the Jews to be governed by their own ancestral laws in Jerusalem. The small state of Judea, with a radius of about twenty miles around its capital Jerusalem, was ruled by wealthy priestly and lay families. The situation is sometimes described as an idyllic one. However, there are indications of factional strife between and within the priestly families, and there was some friction between the rulers of Jerusalem and the Seleucid king. Lurking behind these frictions is the larger issue of what constitutes Jewish identity and who makes that definition.2

Jason, the high-priest of Jerusalem, is said to have sent money for a sacrifice to Herakles, but those carrying the money thought it inappropriate. Less extreme assimilation would be education in a gymnasion, which clearly some Jerusalem Jews underwent, and the ability to write decent Greek, which the author of 2 Maccabees possessed. A low level of assimilation would be avoiding contact with Gentiles as much as possible. The author of 2 Maccabees thought Jason was really not a Jew, but Jason no doubt thought he was. These frictions, however, did not lead to any serious conflicts--until 167 B.C.E., when an insurgency arose.

Scholars have given very different views for the cause of this revolt. The two greatest twentieth-century scholars of the Maccabean revolt, Elias Bickermann3 and Victor Tcherikover4, each placed the blame on the policies of the Jewish leaders and not on the Seleucid ruler, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, but for different reasons. Bickermann saw the origin of the problem in the attempt of "Hellenized" Jews to reform the "antiquated" and "outdated" religion practiced in Jerusalem, and to rid it of superstitious elements. They were the ones who egged on Antiochus IV and instituted the religious reform in Jerusalem. One suspects that he may have been influenced in his view by an antipathy to Reform Judaism in nineteenth- and twentieth-century Germany. Tcherikover, perhaps influenced by socialist concerns, saw the uprising as one of the rural peasants against the rich elite.

What follows is my own attempt to unravel what triggered the revolt, no doubt influenced by current events.

1 Maccabees and 2 Maccabees give different accounts of the origin of the revolt. 1 Maccabees blames Antiochus IV, the Seleucid ruler, for wanting to make all the people of his empire "one people, and that all should give up their particular customs." For the Jews, this would entail sacrificing to idols. Some Jews adopted these practices, but others, notably the Maccabees, did not. As those who adopted Greek ways are simply labeled as renegades, one cannot reconstruct what their views really were. According to 1 Maccabees, then, the king was attempting to hellenize the Jews, and this is how the Maccabean revolt is usually portrayed. From other sources on Antiochus IV, however, this view seems unlikely.

As Otto Mørkholm in (Antiochus IV of Syria) showed, while Antiochus IV was a great benefactor of the Greeks and generously endowed building projects in Greek cities, he also seems to have supported local cultures and traditions. What is fascinating is that, from the insurgents' point of view, the cause was the attempt to impose alien values--to homogenize all different cultures into one rather than respect the varied cultural and religious values of different groups.

A different approach is taken by the author of 2 Maccabees. In this work, the author sees the germ of the problem much earlier, when the Jewish high-priest asks for and receives permission from Antiochus IV to build a gymnasion, part of the Greek educational system, in Jerusalem. The purpose of this primarily military education was to form good citizens, those who would perform and defend the traditions of the city. To change the educational system was thus to change the city's polity, as had happened not long before in 188 B.C.E. when the victorious Achaean leader, Philopoemen, had abolished the Spartan educational system. Although there is a period of almost seven years between permission being granted to build the gymnasion and the beginning of the uprising, a time not marked by any disturbance, the author of 2 Maccabees holds that this educational reform of the high-priest abrogated the Jewish polity: "[The high-priest] destroyed the lawful ways of living and introduced new customs contrary to the law." For the author of 2 Maccabees, the real cause of the revolt was the desire of the Jewish political elite to mimic the ways and education of the ruling superpower--and the match was applied to the kindling when, after Antiochus IV's unsuccessful invasion of Egypt in 168 B.C.E., he revoked the Jewish privileges of following their own customs and ancestral laws and imposed those found elsewhere in his realm. The temple in Jerusalem became the temple of Olympian Zeus, and the Jews were forced to celebrate festivals in honor of the Greek god Dionysos. Antiochus IV was quite ignorant about the group with whom he was dealing. He did not understand their own particular religious and cultural traditions, but proceeded to treat them like everybody else. It was this arrogance of ignorance that started the insurgency. Antiochus allowed local traditions to flourish as long as they were seen as not posing a threat to the kingdom. If a city revolted, however, the tolerance ended.

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