Hellenism and the Maccabean Revolt

Few events in human history have so shaped the world as Alexander the Great’s conquest of the land in and around Mesopotamia in the 4th century BCE. Surely the conquest of the Persian Empire redefined the politics and the religious practices of the surrounding regions. Alexander united these lands into one under his name, however, he was more than just a mere soldier seeking fame, glory, and power on the battlefield. He was also a missionary, one that spread his homeland’s religious and spiritual beliefs to the far corners of the world known at that time. This Greek way of life, this center of the then civilized world was known as Hellenism.

Hellenism brought with it, where ever it was taken, a new way of thinking as well as a new pantheon of gods to be worshiped by the locals. In a small, nearly forgotten part of the world known as Judah, Hellenism would threaten and nearly crush the religion of Judaism practiced there. Its long established laws and rituals would be challenged by rulers, thinkers, and even its own high priests who were sympathetic to the Hellenistic influence which had come into their land. As a result, the locals revolted in a spectacular way. Led by just a few men, a small band of rebels liberated a nation and beat back the kingdom of Syria which had ruled over them after Alexander the Great’s death.

The spread of Hellenism throughout Judea threatened not only the Jewish way of life, but the very existence of the Jewish identity. The Maccabean revolt of 168 BCE was seen as a victory over the gentile way of life that had invaded their land, but did it actually defeat the Hellenistic thought that had already been introduced into the population? The evidence seems to indicate that although the Maccabean revolt did in fact win Judah religious and political independence from Syria and even though Hellenism did bring about benefits for the Jewish people, it would still leave an indelible mark on the people of Judah, so much so that its effects are still being felt today.

Before the impact of Hellenism on the Jewish people can be analyzed, its context needs to be explained. At the beginning of the Hellenistic influence over Judea, there was only Alexander who was championing the religion throughout his newly conquered lands. Even though he was spreading his religious system, he did not seem to be doing so by force. In fact, Alexander even appears to be accepting of the other religions of the empire. One account by Josephus in the Book of Antiquities tells of Alexander going to Jerusalem and offering sacrifices to the Jewish God (( Charles F. Pfeiffer, Between the Testaments (Grand-Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1959), 69. )). This account is disputed by historians, however, the fact remains that the mentioning of such an event, true or not, paints Alexander in a friendly light with regard to the Jewish people.

After Alexander’s death in 323 BCE, his empire was split up by his generals after seven years of war. In the end, in 315 BCE, four leaders emerged. These were: Antigonus, who controlled the central European Mediterranean coast to central Asia; Cassander, who controlled Macedonia; Ptolemy Lagi, who controlled Egypt and the southern part of Palestine; and Lysimachus, who controlled Thrace (( Ibid. 71. )). Under Ptolemy’s rule, Judah was still able to function mostly as an independent entity. Although tribute was still paid to the Egyptian ruler, the Jews were still allowed to operate autonomously in respect to religion. This was until the High Priest Onias II refused to pay Ptolemy IV the tribute as was the law. Ptolemy IV saw this as a sign of defiance of the political power of Judea and therefore chose a man named Joseph to be the tax collector for the region, effectively stripping the High Priesthood of its foreign relations duties.

Soon after this, Palestine was invaded and seized by Antigonus who was then beaten back by the combined forced of the other three powers. The area of Judah was now a chip to be bantered back and forth between kingdoms for the next ninety years (283 BCE – 198 BCE). At the end of this period, Judah lay in the hands of the Syrian king, Antiochus Epiphanes. Also known as Antiochus IV, he was born in Athens and served as magistrate there for several years. He also spent twelve years in Rome as a hostage. After this he came the the Syrian throne with a sense of purpose, to spread civilization (read: Hellenism) to his kingdom (( Ibid. 79. )). His means of doing so was not to quickly to subdue a minority nation and convert it to his religion. There was already a large section of the Jewish population who welcomed such a integration with the outside world.

The wake of this is seen in the changing hands of the position of High Priest. The orthodox Jew, Onias, who was of the line of Priests descended from Simon the Just, was in fact the rightful man to fill the position. However, Antiochus saw the position of the high Priest, not as a religious position, but one that was political. To that end he allowed a man named Jason, a Hellenistic sympathizer, to bribe his way into being appointed High Priest in Onias’ place. While the king had the right to do this, it was not done before because of the former ideal of letting Judah govern itself. But the bribe of large sums of money as well as an aggressive Hellenistic agenda persuaded Antiochus to place Jason in Onias’ place (( W. G. Jordan, “The Significance of the Maccabean Period,” The Biblical World (Vol. 38.5 (Nov. 1911), 301. )).

Under Jason, the orthodox Jews saw a decline in in the sanctity of the priesthood. They called him evil, ungodly, and unfit to be the High Priest (( Apocrypha: Authorized (King James) Version (Cambridge, MA: 2004), 2 Maccabees 4:7-16. )). The priests that served under him did not even perform the services needed in the temple. Jason also had a gymnasium installed in Jerusalem. This was the first true tangible sign that the Hellenists were now firmly rooted into Jewish life. While many Jewish youths went to the gymnasium and practiced athletics nude, a slap in the face to the traditions of their forefathers, there rose a faction within the Jewish population called the Hasidim, or the “pious” (( Pfeiffer, 80. )). This split would only continue to grow as the next few events inflamed the situation.

After three years of rule, Jason was undercut by a Benjamite named Menelaus. Menelaus was not even of the tribe of Levi, the Isrealite tribe from which priests came. His bribing of Antiochus was enough to have Jason ousted and Menelaus installed as new High Priest under Syrian guard. A few years after, a false rumor began to circulate that Antiochus had died in battle while subduing Egypt. Seeking his power back after fleeing to Ammon, Jason rose an army and assaulted Jerusalem (( 2 Maccabees 5:5-7. )). Jason was defeated and driven back into Ammon, but the damage had been done. Antiochus had seen this as an act of rebellion and took out his anger on the city by launching an attack on the Sabbath knowing the orthodox Jews would not resist, and slaughtering large numbers of Menelaus’ opponents. The city walls were leveled and a fortress named the Akra was put in the citadel to keep the population under control (( Pfeiffer, 81. )). He himself then returned to his own land by way of Jerusalem. While there, he plundered the temple of its treasures and took the bounty back with him to Syria.

After his leave, Greek soldiers and the Jewish youth took part in Hellenistic rites in the temple courtyards which included the sacrificing of unclean animals and orgies. Circumcision, the keeping of the Sabbath, and Jewish feasts were outlawed and all copies of the Torah were destroyed. The Hellenists were converting the nation under force now and not under persuasion as it had been under Alexander and Ptolemy. However, there were those faithful to the Jewish law who refused to follow the new ways. One man, Eleazar, was flogged to death when he refused to eat pork. A mother and her seven children were killed for not paying homage to a Greek god. Another two women and their children were marched through the streets and thrown from a wall for performing circumcision (( Pfeiffer, 82. )).

As a result the split between the old way and the new way was becoming wider and more hostile. These hostilities and pent up angers finally reached and broke the boiling point when the Jews in the town of Modin were instructed to show their allegiance to Antiochus by sacrificing to pagan gods. The emissaries told the elder priest of the town, Mattathias, to set the example by going first. Mattathais though was not going to go along with it and refused. Through fear of the punishment refusal might bring, and unnamed Jew went forward to partake in the ceremony. Outraged at the unfaithfulness of the Jew, Mattathias went foreword and killed the Jew as well as the emissaries of Antiochus. Then he and his five sons destroyed the pagan altar and fled to the surrounding hill country fearing swift repercussions of their actions from Antiochus (( Pfeiffer, 91. )).

The early days of the revolt saw the inclusion of many who viewed Mattathias’ action as pious retribution for the hardships and infidelities the Syrians and Hellenists had put on them. In the early days of the revolt, victories came swiftly and in great numbers. However, one problem lay in their way, that was the Sabbath. One Sabbath, a Syrian garrison lay waste to an encampment of Jewish rebels who refused to even lift a finger to defend themselves. Seeing this as a huge impediment, Mattathias told his men that the defense of one’s body should be permissible on the Sabbath (( 1 Maccabees 2:32-41. )).

Soon after the beginning of the revolt, Mattathias died and his son Judas Maccabee took his place as leader of the rebellion. Using the same guerrilla tactics as his father had done, Judas amassed great victories. Antiochus had underestimated his opponents at first, thinking that it was merely a small skirmish. However, upon the annihilation of his detachments to the area, he realized his mistake and sent his general Lysias to secure Palestine as it was a vital stretch of land in the governing of Egypt. Judas was ready for them though and in a surprise night attack destroyed the entire army taking all the booty for themselves. This victory, near the town of Emmaus, cleared the way for Judas to march on Jerusalem.

On arriving there, Menelaus and his followers fled and Judas and his followers took every bit of the city excepting the fort of Akra, and destroyed all the pagan symbols. They cleared the temple and rededicated it to their God in an eight day ceremony now known as Hanukkah thus ending the three year use of the temple as a sanctuary to the Hellenistic gods. Soon after, Antiochus VI died and the war was continued by his son. Lysias had besieged Jerusalem after a small victory over a Maccabean faction trying to starve out the rebels. However, during the siege he learned of an assault on the Syrian capitol and wanted to head there to defend it as soon as possible. He offered Judas terms of peace which included the voiding of all the laws which outlawed Jewish practices, Menelaus would be removed and a less extreme Hellenistic named Alcimus would take his place, and Judas and his men would not be punished. Judas was wary of this peace because of the hold Syria would still hold over the political powers of Judah, but the Hasidim had only wanted religious freedom, not total autonomy, and so they voted him down at a council and accepted Lysias’ terms. Judas and a small band of men left Jerusalem as a result (( Pfeiffer, 91-92. )).

Not long after, Alcimus turned around and executed many of the anti-Hellenists in the city contrary to the agreement. Judas was forced to fight him with a now smaller army and was crushed from sheer number differences. He was killed in battle and followed in power by his brother, Jonathan. Jonathan fled into the desert with his men and grew a new army. However, being a better orator than a soldier, Jonathan formed alliances with Sparta and Rome which both had hostilities towards Syria. Jonathan was assassinated soon after he had taken Alcimus’ title as Head Priest and the job fell to his brother Simon. Simon played politics with the new Syrian king Demetrius who was trying to get his throne back from an impostor. In return for acknowledging him as king of Syria, Demetrius granted Judea full immunity from taxation, which in effect finally freed them from Syrian rule and ended the forcing of Hellenism onto the Jewish people (( Jordan, 303. )).

At the end of the Maccabean revolt, the direct threat of Hellenism subverting the Jewish traditions was over. However, the damage had already been done. The Hellenistic traditions and thoughts had already found their way into Jewish life whether they had been wanted or not. The way in which Hellenism had its effects was twofold. On the one hand, Hellenism had immediate effects on the Jewish population and on their culture. On the other, it had left and indelible mark on the philosophy and way of life of the region.

Hellenism’s immediate effects on Judah are not very hard to understand. These range from the obvious suppression by force of the Jewish traditional laws to the building of gymnasiums and the willingness of the population to be involved in the outsiders’ way of life. At the beginning of the Hellenistic influence, soon after the Babylonian exile, a majority of the people of Israel did not live in Palestine at all. Most had remained in communities in the area of Babylon. Others had moved into greater Mesopotamia and Asia Minor, while a great number formed large communities in Syria. It is true that they never forgot their Jewish roots, since many still made pilgrimages to Jerusalem to pay dues to the temple. However, the dispersed Jewish people began to take on the traits and customs of the areas in which they lived. In particular, the Jews which had settled in Alexandria in Egypt were prone to taking on the traditions of their city. In so doing, they began to assimilate into the Hellenistic communities (( Pfeiffer, 84-85. )).

The temptation to join into the newer Greek society was not difficult to comprehend. The Greek way of life was easy and was more apt to have citizens consider their own pleasures instead of adhering to many laws and regulations to which the Jews were accustomed. Herein lay one of the greatest dangers to the orthodox law. With Hellenism focusing so much emphasis on the self, the old law of performing rites and conforming to codes of conduct did not appeal to the Jewish youth, not only in Alexandria and the rest of the dispersed peoples, but also in the land of Palestine.

For others, who did not perhaps find the ideal of an easy life appealing, there lay the new found occupation of being merchants, students, and artisans. The bustling trade centers in which the dispersed nation of Israel lived was a far cry from the shepherd life their fathers had known. Many Jews found great wealth in the trading of goods with foreign powers. Others found the allure of the great libraries that Alexander had formed places of great knowledge and they soaked up the ideas and literature of other cultures, in some cases displacing their own in the process. And still others went to the new Greek schools to learn from the great philosophers and take up the arts. In doing all of this, Judaism and Hellenism began to merge into a single entity for the dispersed Jews.

This synthesis was not all bad as some might think. In Alexandria, perhaps one of the most monumental feats of literature was accomplished. The Torah and subsequent Hebrew texts were translated into Greek, a work known as the Septuagint. Certainly this was done so it too could be added to the great storehouse of culture known as the Library of Alexandria, but also for the Jews of the region who had lost touch with the language of their ancestors. Having been so far removed, geographically and culturally, from their homeland, the Jews of the dispersed regions had began using the major languages of the areas instead of Hebrew which was fast becoming a dead language. Not only Jews benefited from this translation. Non-Jews as well were now freely able to learn about the Jewish traditions. In fact, most of the Septuagint is now part of the Christian Bible.

Hellenism’s immediate effects were not the most important that it brought to the Jewish community at large however. Perhaps the largest significant change the Hellenization of the Jewish people was their overall philosophy. As stated before, the difference was between a relaxed, easy going culture and one based on strict adherence to laws. However, the underlying foundation being the easygoing atmosphere of the Greek philosophy was that of the allegory. The allegory was the taking of the old texts and reading new interpretations into them. For example, the Greeks thought that the Hebrew Bible was too vulgar when read in the literal form, so they viewed the stories of the patriarchs as lessons of life instead of actual fact. This distinction was pleasing to Jews who did not want to abandon their faith per sea., but also wanted to see their texts reflected in a Hellenistic light (( Pfeiffer, 87. )).

The departure from strict interpretation of law to one much more lax and open to meaning may have seemed innocent enough to them at the time, but the wide interpretations had begun to allow the diversion of meanings to all equally be true (( Marth Himmelfarb, “Judaism and Hellenism in 2 Maccabees,” Poetics Today (Vol. 19.1. (Spring 1998), 27. )). Since allegorical interpretation by its very definition is a subjective truth, no one group or personage may hold that their idea of truth is any higher than any other. As a result the Jewish tradition began to buckle under the weight of truths other than the one held as law. This social and philosophical collapse into submission to Hellenistic teaching may well be the reason so many Jews were unopposed to the building of the gymnasium in Jerusalem and the installation of non-traditionalist High Priests by the Syrian government.

Some Jews of course stayed orthodox throughout this process, all the while becoming more and more agitated at the increasingly liberal views of their kin. This opened a split in the Jewish community that would never heal properly. Even after the Maccabean revolt and expulsion of the Syrian influences that had brought Hellenism into the Jewish homeland, the split and the ideologies behind it remained.

The result of the split in the Jewish community between those who stayed loyal to the law and those who were willing to bend to the philosophies and religions of outsider nations was the formation of Jewish sects. This formation was something new and troubling the Jews who had until then lead a, for the most part, life of seamless integration into the tabernacle and Temple codes of law. There had been a unity among the Jewish people, but now there were only sects and division. Perhaps the most prominent example of this is the formation of the two main Jewish sects: the Sadducees and the Pharisees.

The Sadducees were a group of mainly priests and their followers who, while at the beginning were more apt to stay loyal to the law, where ready and willing to integrate with the Romans, who had by then taken control of the region of Judah from the Syrians. The Sadducees were men who would exchange the law for any philosophical view that would coincide with their own personal views. They could have been called Hellenistic sympathizers even though by the time they emerged, the direct Hellenistic threat to Judah was over. They were more sympathetic to pleasing the Romans than the orthodox sect of their own people (( Lawrence H. Schiffman, “At the Crossroads: The Jewish-Christian Schism,” Jewish-Christian Relations. (Apr. 12, 2005. ), 3. )).

In contrast, the other group to emerge was that of the Pharisees, a group who played a major role in the New Testament of the Christian Bible. The Pharisees were the remnants of the Hasidim from the Anitochus IV period who were now even more apt to strictly interpret law as literal word from God. Their piousness was a double-edged sword. On the one hand, they were trying very hard to direct the nation of Israel back into the fold of their forefathers’ laws, and for that they gained great respect from the orthodox. However, by the same token, their sometimes over zealous adherence to the law meant ostracizing important groups of Jews from their rule. Most importantly, their piousness became one of the chief arguments of Jesus of Nazareth for “abandoning” the old law in favor of one that expressed personal accountability rather than the pharisaical treatment of law as a list of things that must be followed.

The fact that Jesus’ following gained so much ground in the early years CE, especially in terms of a Jewish following, is a direct result of the split that occurred earlier. The Pharisees had been so busy trying to keep the people focused on the law that they forgot about the meaning behind the law. In the same way the Sadducees had spent so much time reinterpreting the law over and over, the law itself became something lost to them. The Christian movement then can be traced back directly to the influence of Hellenism and the rift it cause in the Jewish people.

Jewish literature also shows the fact that Hellenism had leaked into Jewish loyalists’ philosophy whether they knew it or not. II Maccabees is a good example of this. Written some time after I Maccabees and by a different author, the style of writing is Hellenistic in its nature rather than the Jewish nature I Maccabees had been written with. I Maccabees compares and contrasts the heros of the Maccabean revolt with the heros of Israel’s path. In some way, the writer could have been trying to equate the acts of God in the lives of the patriarchs and so forth of the past with the actions of the heros of the revolt. Perhaps this was a way of lending credibility to their actions. II Maccabees, however, speaks of the nobility and piousness of the heros of the revolt. These concepts were not of Jewish construction, they were brought in by Hellenism and were Greek in origin. The author of the second book looks at the actions of the heros themselves to lend credibility to the revolt. The author tried to show godliness through action and not action through God (( Himmelfarb, 21. )).

In the end, it can be argued that the introduction of Hellenism spelled the death of the biblical Jewish people. The ideological split in the Jewish faith, those for the Hellenistic takeover of Judah and those loyal to the traditional law of Moses, was one that the people would never recover. Even after the Maccabees had driven the originators of the influx of Hellenism out of their country and gained political and religious independence for the Jewish people, the imprint of Hellenism never left the minds of even the most pious and orthodox. The split caused further splits and sects arose from the crumbling Jewish traditional ways of life. The Christian sect arose out of these splits and also became somewhat Hellenistic in nature. The Jews were not ready for the Hellenistic influx into their land and because of this they ended up loosing their cohesion and their way of life.

Even today there are a multitude of Jewish sects and while they all identify with the temple as the Babylonian Jews had they still all have different ways of seeing the truth behind the scriptures. In the same way perhaps it could be said the same Hellenistic views which split the Jewish people into factions are doing the same to the Christian church. With the ideology that interpretation yields truth and each truth is equally valid, the Church is heading down the same road as did the Jews of the Maccabean and Roman eras.

The Hellenization did yield some good benefits for the Jews though. Their Holy Scripture was translated so that all peoples could have access to it and learn from it. Through war against it, the nation of Judah gained its independence, however short lived it was, from any other kingdoms and became autonomous. It forced them to be recognized as a nation with ties to Rome and Sparta. It can also be argued that the integration of new ideas into Jewish tradition lead to the Jewish people being accepted more in the world than they had previously. Before, they had been a backwater people whom most had never heard of and by the end of the Roman occupation and after Hellenization had taken place, they were a recognized people.

Hellenism and the Maccabean revolt mark a major event in the world’s history even though it is scarcely remembered today. From them, the Jews rallied around a central power which united them in purifying the temple. They are responsible for many of the sects which arose afterwards and which are still around today. They are even partly responsible for the rise of the Christian movement. Indeed, the events of the few centuries BCE shaped the world even though it all took place because a small group of religious people went to ideological war with a foreign religion.

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