Chanukah and the Politics Behind the Maccabean Revolt
Traditionalists Versus Assimilationists
The origin of Chanukah is described in 1 and 2 Maccabees, which highlight a military conflict between the Judaeans and the Syrian king Antiochus, who attempted to force the Judaeans to abandon their religious practices. Many commentators have emphasized the conflict among the Jews themselves between “traditionalists” and “assimilationists,” as an important backdrop to the accomplishment of the Maccabees.
Some parts of the texts appear to support this view. For instance, 1 Maccabees records how some Judaeans adopted certain Greek customs, such as exercising naked in the gymnasium:
1:11 In those days certain renegades came out from Israel and misled many, saying, “Let us go and make a covenant with the Gentiles around us, for since we separated from them many disasters have come upon us.” 1:12 This proposal pleased them, 1:13 and some of the people eagerly went to the king, who authorized them to observe the ordinances of the Gentiles. 1:14 So they built a gymnasium in Jerusalem, according to Gentile custom, 1:15 and removed the marks of circumcision, and abandoned the holy covenant. They joined with the Gentiles and sold themselves to do evil. (NRSV)
2 Maccabees makes a similar claim, though it blames this Hellenization on the accession of the new high priest Jason (more on him shortly):
4:10 When… Jason came to office, he at once shifted his compatriots over to the Greek way of life. 4:11 He set aside the existing royal concessions to the Jews… and he destroyed the lawful ways of living and introduced new customs contrary to the law. 4:12 He took delight in establishing a gymnasium right under the citadel, and he induced the noblest of the young men to wear the petasos[a Greek-style hat]. 4:13 There was such an extreme of Hellenization and increase in the adoption of foreign ways because of the surpassing wickedness of Jason, who was ungodly and no true high priest, 4:14 that the priests were no longer intent upon their service at the altar. Despising the sanctuary and neglecting the sacrifices, they hurried to take part in the unlawful proceedings in the wrestling arena after the signal for the discus-throwing, 4:15disdaining the honors prized by their ancestors and putting the highest value upon Greek forms of prestige. (NRSV)
Mattathias and his son Judah Maccabee are seen to represent the traditionalists, since they “forcibly circumcised all the uncircumcised boys that they found within the borders of Israel” (1 Macc. 2.45-47). In this view, the authors of these texts belong to the traditionalists, since they praise the Maccabees for using their military strength to enforce adherence to Judaean customs on others. Yet this picture of internal religious dispute is not so certain.
What Is the Focus of 1 and 2 Maccabees?
Focusing on concerns about Hellenization, or even the revolt against the Syrian king’s effort to ban Judaean religious practice, may miss the larger picture painted by 1 and 2 Maccabees, incorrectly emphasizing a small number of verses at the expense of the larger story. Both texts barely focus on the issue of those who wanted to introduce Greek customs: both 1 and 2 Maccabees devote only 11 verses each to this topic ( 1 Macc 1.11-15, 2.42-47; 2 Macc 4.10-20) out of over 750 verses in each text.
Even the struggle against Antiochus IV Epiphanes can hardly be said to be the focus of the texts: 1 Maccabees devotes only the first six of sixteen chapters to the subject, and 2 Maccabeesonly chapters 5 through 10 (with one of those chapters occupied entirely by a martyrology of dubious historicity).Both texts also continue beyond the Syrian king’s death (in 1 Maccabees case, well beyond). Similarly, the purification of the Temple, often seen as the main theme of the Chanukah story, receives even less space: it is told in 23 verses in 1 Maccabees(4:37-59) and in only 8 in 2 Maccabees (10:1-8), outside the introductory letters. So, what really occupied the attention of the authors of these texts?
The main theme of these two works is not Hellenization, but power: men from different families sought power in Judaea, and a conflict emerged between them and their followers, with charges of Hellenization as only one element in the campaign to discredit the one side and establish the legitimacy of the other.
This is not to deny the historicity of the Syrian persecution or of the desecration and rededication of the Temple that led to the creation of the Chanukah festival, but rather to suggest that the questions of politics occupied more of the attention of both the Judaean leaders and the authors of 1 and 2 Maccabees. By over-emphasizing the role of Chanukah in these books, we misread them.
The Struggle Over the High Priesthood
The issue of leadership revolved around the position of the High Priest, who functioned as the overseer of the Temple and its cult throughout the Second Temple period. The role of the High Priest remained essentially unchanged from shortly after the return from Babylonian exile under Persian rule through the conquest of Alexander the Great and the later establishment of the Seleucid rulers of Syria.
This situation changed shortly before the persecution of Antiochus. The innovations of Jason the High Priest described above, such as the establishment of a Greek gymnasium, represent the first moment where we can see the High Priest using his authority to institute changes to the civic life of the Judaeans.
This action of Jason seems to have heightened the conflict over the holder of the office of High Priest. Three years later, Jason sent a man named Menelaus to bring money to the Syrians. Menelaus was the brother of Simon, whose perfidy is described in detail in chapter 3. Having quarreled with the high priest Onias, Simon, in anger, sent word to the Seleucid king that the Temple was hiding revenue, prompting the Seleucid general Heliodorus to raid its coffers (though, according to the text, the raid was miraculously foiled by God).
According to 2 Maccabees, despite his being sent by Jason, Menelaus outbid him and became High Priest in his stead, eventually conniving in the death of the earlier High Priest Onias. Jason then attempted to take the High Priesthood back by force, and it is at this point that Antiochus appears and begins his persecution, leading to the ensuing Maccabean revolt.
The Syrian Intervention in Judaea
In other words, the internal struggle over the office of the High Priest serves as the text’s explanation for Syrian intervention in Judaean affairs. 2 Maccabees places the entire Chanukah story in the context of a power struggle among individual Judaean aristocrats.
1 Maccabees skips this back story to the persecution of Antiochus and moves straight into the persecution itself in chapter 2. It focuses attention instead on the persecution and the triumphant struggle against Antiochus IV and the Seleucid kingdom.
But the broader political issue does appear later in the text. Chapter 6 describes the death of Antiochus IV, during a campaign in Persia, and the accession of his son, Antiochus V Eupater, as king. But the latter’s rule is challenged by Antiochus IV’s nephew, Demetrius I Soter. Naturally, each side looked for allies, including among the Judaeans. At one point, when Demetrius ascends the throne:
1 Macc 7:5 Then there came to him all the renegade and godless men of Israel; they were led by Alcimus, who wanted to be high priest. 7:6 They brought to the king this accusation against the people: “Judas and his brothers have destroyed all your Friends, and have driven us out of our land. 7:7 Now then send a man whom you trust; let him go and see all the ruin that Judas has brought on us and on the land of the king, and let him punish them and all who help them.”
Not only does this passage reveal the internal political struggle evident in 2 Maccabees, but it also helps us understand who the text considers to be “renegade and godless”: not necessarily those who attempted to introduce Greek customs such as the gymnasium, or even those who didn’t follow the laws as the author understood them, but someone who opposed his preferred leader. This passage thus recalls 2 Maccabees, which similarly calls Jason “vile” and accuses his supporters of wickedness.
1 Maccabees as a Political Tract
It seems clear from the time that 1 Maccabees’ spends on describing the political machinations of Judah Maccabee and his brothers that the author’s devotion to their cause was based more on support for their political and military success than on their supposed hard line towards foreign influences in Judaea.
For example, the text speaks approvingly of the Romans, even while acknowledging that the Romans had crushed and enslaved many other people, and Judah and then Jonathan form alliances with them and with the Spartans; it even reports how Jonathan claimed kinship between Judaeans and Spartans (8:1-31, 12:1-23).
More significantly, the author of 1 Maccabees approved of the brothers accepting Greek and Syrian patronage when it was expedient, refuting any notion that he might have been anti-Greek. In fact, much of the book is focused on alliances made by the Hasmonean brothers with various contenders for the Seleucid throne, and its author writes approvingly of their political maneuverings.
This period—from the death of Antiochus IV in 164 B.C.E. until the Roman conquest of the area a century later—saw much intrigue in the Syrian kingdom, as different contenders for the throne sought to establish their authority. The Hasmonean brothers made use of this when the opportunity presented itself.
Betrayals, Pretenders, and Alliances
For example, Alexander Balas (known as Alexander Epiphanes to the Maccabean author), who claimed to be the son of Antiochus IV, and who took the throne from Demetrius I Soter in 150 B.C.E., offered the High Priesthood to Jonathan in exchange for the latter’s support. An alliance with Alexander Balas was of use to Jonathan since, after the death of Judah, the Syrian governor had “chose[n] the godless” i.e., allied himself with the non-Hasmonean faction, “and put them in charge of the country.” This left Jonathan in the position of a rebel against the established authority.
Jonathan accepted Alexander Balas’ offer, assumed the role of High Priest, and continued fighting his Jewish opponents, now as an ally of one Syrian faction against the other. Later, after the death of Alexander Balas, Jonathan was captured and killed by the Syrian forces of Trypho, who was serving as regent for Alexander Balas’ minor son, Antiochus VI (though Trypho himself soon took the throne in his own right, upon the early demise of the young king). Apparently, Trypho no longer saw the deal with Jonathan as profitable and cancelled it.
Upon Jonathan’s death, his brother Simon succeeded him and approached Demetrius II Nicator, one of the contenders for the Syrian throne, for support. Demetrius II was son of Demetrius I, the man who had defeated and killed Judah, and the great-grandson of Antiochus IV, who had persecuted the Judaeans less than twenty-five years earlier. Yet, the author of 1 Maccabees offers no criticism of Simon’s action, presumably because Demetrius responded by granting independence to the Judaeans, namely, freedom from tribute and control of all the strongholds in their possession. As he wrote:
1 Macc 13:41 In the one hundred seventieth year [142 BCE] the yoke of the Gentiles was removed from Israel, 13:42 and the people began to write in their documents and contracts “In the first year of Simon the great high priest and commander and leader of the Jews”
The succeeding chapters recount praise for Simon before closing with his death and succession by his son, John (Hyrcanus).
Independent Judaea: The Culmination of 1 Maccabees
The grant of independence for the Judaeans marks the culmination of the narrative in 1 Maccabees, and the arc of the story makes clear the intent of the text: Simon’s authority to rule, and indeed the entire independence of the Judaean land, came from the same Seleucid ruling family that had been responsible for the desecration of the Temple. Such a situation was awkward at best, and complicated by the fact that the Hasmoneans could be portrayed as illegitimate holders of this position.
While the Maccabees were members of the priestly clan, they were not members of the Zadokite line, until then the line considered by many Jews to be the legitimate line for a High Priest. The author’s concern therefore lay not with a traditionalist theology nor with accommodation to Greek or Roman ruling powers: his goal was to establish the legitimacy of the Hasmonean dynasty and of the independence of Judaea.
This reading is supported by the text’s date and place of composition: Judaea in the late 2nd century B.C.E. A supporter of the Hasmoneans, living in Judaea while the Hasmoneans were ruling the land but not without challenges, had good reason to defend their legitimacy.
The Hasmoneans as Assimilationists
In the end, the Hasmonean dynasty facilitated the incorporation of foreign cultural influence into Judaea. By 134 B.C.E., the year in which 1 Maccabees ends its account, Judaea looked awfully similar to other countries in this region: it was an autonomous entity ruled by a single man who combined both military and political authority.
The manner of rule might be different: the Ptolemies in Egypt had taken on the guise of a Pharaoh who was considered divine, and Hellenistic ruler cult offered divine honors to the Syrian kings, while the Hasmoneans combined the positions of ruler and High Priest into a single person.
Simon’s successor John apparently took the surname Hyrcanus in imitation of the broader Hellenistic tradition of marking a military victory by using as a surname the name of a defeated people (in this case, Hyrcania, a territory on the south side of the Caspian Sea). John’s successor Aristobulus even adopted the Greek title of basileus or king, according to Josephus (A.J.13.301).
Moreover, the Hellenizing element was baked into the Hasmoneans from the start: as Eyal Regev has noted in his“The Original Meaning of Chanukah,” the original celebration of Chanukah drew for a model on Hellenistic antecedents such as the Ptolemaia in Egypt.
Considering the behavior of the Maccabees and the thinness of the evidence for conflict based on a theological rather than political basis, we may suspect that whatever conflict existed between traditionalists and assimilationists was relatively minor. The presence of martyrdom stories in 2 Maccabees may suggest a concern with how the people should respond to outright persecution such as occurred under Antiochus, but for both authors the notion of a conflict between Judaizing and Hellenizing factions seems to have served primarily as a useful mechanism for their political agendas.
Implications for Chanukah
Many Jews today struggle with the Chanukah holiday despite its popularity because of the narrative that sees it as the triumph of fundamentalists over those who believe they can balance their commitment to the religious tradition with the modern world around them, rather than as a celebration of religious freedom. As we have seen however, that narrative ill fits the story provided by 1 and 2 Maccabees, the two sources closest to the events commemorated by Chanukah, who suggest that even the Maccabees recognized and accepted that there are foreign customs that Judaeans could adopt without threatening their own identity .
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December 2, 2018
January 6, 2020
Prof. Eric Orlin is Professor of Classics at the University of Puget Sound. He earned his Ph.D. from the Group in Ancient History and Mediterranean Archaeology at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of Temples, Religion and Politics in the Roman Republic(1997) and Foreign Cults in Rome: Creating a Roman Empire (2010), and served as general editor for the Routledge Encyclopedia of Ancient Mediterranean Religions (2014). He is also the co-founder of the Society for Ancient Mediterranean Religions.
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