By Eliezer Segal
(AJNews) – The familiar Hanukkah story begins with the emperor Antiochus IV “Epiphanes” outlawing the practice of the Jewish religion and compelling the Jews of his domain to observe heathen rites devoted to Greek deities.
This narrative is found in the most detailed chronicle of the events, the works known as the Books of Maccabees, and in its general outlines it is consistent with other ancient versions.
And yet it is precisely that aspect of the story that historians have found baffling.
Why should Antiochus have wanted to tamper with Judaism in the first place?
If you learned about Hanukkah in a traditional Jewish setting, then this question might strike you as superfluous. Isn’t it obvious that disdain for Jews and Judaism is built into the fabric of gentile culture? Haven’t idolatrous nations always felt threatened by the ethical monotheism that challenges their immoral lifestyles? In these respects there is no difference between Antiochus and all the other malevolent oppressors of history.
In reality, however, the historical context of Hanukkah is quite distinct. The hellenistic régimes that ruled the Mediterranean basin had an admirable record for respecting their subjects’ religious traditions. This was true of the Ptolemaic dynasty centred in Egypt, which governed Judea in the third and second centuries B.C.E.; and more so of the Seleucids, based in Syria, who dominated from the early second century. Antiochus III, father of the Hanukkah villain, actively supported Jewish religious institutions (as a reward for their backing him against his Ptolemaic rivals); he channelled resources for the upkeep of Jerusalem and its temple, and granted the Jews a large measure of political and cultic autonomy.
At any rate, Antiochus IV’s aggressive religious persecution marked a radical departure from any previous imperial policy, and it is not explained satisfactorily by the ancient historians.
It has been suggested that Antiochus’s eccentric personality is enough to account for his anti-Jewish policies without having to seek any deeper reasons. In ways that call to mind the bizarre antics of Roman emperors like Caligula or Nero, he had a reputation for mingling among the commoners and bestowing elaborate gifts on complete strangers.
There are some scholars who see Antiochus’s persecution of Judaism as a natural outgrowth of the ideology of hellenism which was driven by a missionary urge to civilize the barbarian peoples. Unlike other subject nations, the Jews did not possess a pantheon of gods that could be conveniently grafted onto the Greek pantheon. That fact would have vexed Antiochus.
Some scholars have proposed that economics furnished the main motive for Antiochus’ strange policy. Pressures on the royal treasury were exacerbated by debts to Rome, by a lengthy military campaign by the Seleucids against their Ptolemaic rivals, and by Antiochus’ own extravagant lifestyle. This impelled him to support factions in the Jewish community who were ready to tolerate his pilfering of sacred treasures of the Jerusalem temple, and to ruthlessly suppress traditionalists who resisted such sacrilege.
Antiochus might even have absorbed some of his attitudes during a period that he spent as a political hostage in Rome, where he could have observed Roman policies like the outlawing of certain religious cults or the forcing of hellenism on some ethnic minorities.
One hypothesis goes so far as to suggest that the whole story of Antiochus’s persecutions should be treated with skepticism, because the Hasmonean propagandists who composed the books of Maccabees might simply have been recycling a standard motif of Babylonian royal propaganda that liked to depict the current monarch as the restorers of the ancestral religion that had been suppressed by their predecessors.
One of the most popular theories was formulated eloquently by the eminent twentieth-century historian Elias Bickerman. He insisted that the impetus for Antiochus’ suppression of traditional Judaism is not to be sought in Seleucid ideological or political interests, but rather, the king was drawn into the sectarian infighting of Jewish factions in Jerusalem. There were influential groups, led by prominent members of the priesthood, who were determined to modernize their religion so as to integrate better with the cosmopolitan hellenistic culture that defined civilization for much of the world. Their radical ideology aroused so much opposition among the Jewish traditionalists that its proponents had to solicit support from the Seleucid government.
The preceding scenario finds strong support in the narratives of the books of Maccabees and in the biblical book of Daniel, which reflects the concerns of traditionalists on the eve of the Hasmonean revolt.
Howsoever we might choose to assess the merits of Bickerman’s theory, it has been called into question for another reason: the historian was accused of anachronistically imposing his personal perspectives on the historical facts. In particular, his descriptions of the assimilationist forces in ancient Jerusalem seemed significantly shaped by the experiences of the radical Jewish reformers in Germany (as well as of Jewish communists in Russia) who had sought futilely to gain acceptance by abandoning Jewish beliefs and practices. The fragmented Jewish communities were therefore unable to offer effective resistance to the rising Nazi party.
It did not help Bickerman’s credibility that a very similar equation of ancient hellenists with modern reformers had been proposed by a prominent nineteenth-century theological apologist for Jewish orthodoxy, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch.
Academic scholars tend to be very suspicious of attempts to view the events of the past through contemporary lenses. Nevertheless, there is no denying that human nature remains constant over the ages; so it does not seem inherently implausible that internal communal discord could render us vulnerable to attacks from our enemies. Recent experiences confirm, of course, that irrational hatred of Jews and Judaism is indeed a persistent historical phenomenon.
Bickerman’s enthusiastic praises for the Maccabean resistance to oppression, in a work published in 1937, offered encouragement to Jews suffering under the Nazi persecutions.
So too, we might find legitimate encouragement in the historical lesson of a united Jewish nation successfully combating the onslaughts of our haters and oppressors.
Eliezer Segal is the Local Journalism Initiative Reporter.