July 20, 2024
Close this search box.
Close this search box.
July 20, 2024
Close this search box.

Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

Chanukah: The Greek Side of the Story*

(This article originally appeared as “On Chanukah, We Met the Enemy, and they Was Us,” 21st December, 2001. * See “Hanukkah Reconsidered” by Louis H. Feldman (The American Mizrachi Woman, Vol. 54, no.3 (6-7), Dec., 1981) for a full discussion.)


“Chanukah is for me a Yahrzeit!

Thus said Professor Louis Feldman, a scholar of Classical languages and history, to bemoan the misrepresentation of the Greek side in the Chanukah story.

Most of us have been brought up with the idea that Chanukah, like Purim, has its “bad guys” and its “good guys.”  In the case of Chanukah the “bad guys,” in the words of the Al HaNissim prayer recited on Chanukah, are “Malchuth Yavan har’sha’ah,”  “the evil Greek kingdom” of Antiochus Epiphanes and the Syrian Greeks.  The “good guys” are, of course, the Maccabees.  The implication?  Prior to Antiochus the Jews of Palestine were pious and unassimilated, wrested them away from their observance by Antiochus’s evil decrees.

So what’s wrong with this picture?  Plenty, as it happens.

First, as Feldman and other historians of the period have noted, Hellenism was a fact in Judea long before the Maccabees.  Greek was known and spoken in Judea, at least in aristocratic circles, more than a full century before the reign of Antiochus IV (known as Antiochus Epiphanes, 175-164 B.C.E.).  Indeed, a century before Antiochus the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek.  The fact of this translation—the  Septuagint—tells us that Greek was commonplace, at least amongst the Jewish aristocracy.  Likewise the prevalence of Greek names amongst Jews; the Book of Ben Sira, authored around 180 B.C.E. and replete with Stoic philosophy; and evidence of hefty commercial relations between Jews and Greeks.  All point to the Hellenism’s inroads in Judea by the time Antiochus IV comes on the scene.

Second, Antiochus IV had in fact been educated in an atmosphere of religious tolerance, which he had inherited from Alexander the Great, from the Persians, and—most important—from his own father, Antiochus III, who had shown special favor to the Jews.  Moreover, as a practical matter, it was hardly in the interest of the Syrian Greek rulers, the Seleucids, who were in constant struggle with the Ptolemaic rulers of Egypt and with the Romans, to alienate a significant portion of their subjects.

What then did happen?  Here’s the real story.

It was Antiochus IV’s bad luck to ascend the throne in a time of both internal political conflict in Judea and of strife with Egypt and Rome.  The hereditary high-priesthood, a powerful position indeed, was at the time held by the pious Onias III, who (unluckily for him) was pro-Egyptian/Ptolemaic in his sympathies.  Onias’s brother, Jason, knowing that Antiochus needed huge sums of money for his campaigns against the Ptolemies and the Romans, promised the king substantial cash if the high-priesthood were transferred to him.  Antiochus agreed.  Jason, a committed Hellenist, instituted or permitted many Hellenistic and indeed pagan practices, without any compulsion by Antiochus.

Three years later (171 B.C.E.), Antiochus dismissed Jason as High Priest and replaced him with Menelaus, who had offered even greater sums of money.  Menelaus, who was not even a priest, was backed by the financially-powerful and highly-assimilated Tobiad family.  Antiochus of course “went with the money.”  Menelaus inaugurated his high priesthood by murdering Onias III and by plundering the temple treasury, and proceeded aggressively to advance the agenda of Hellenization.  That agenda, it must be remembered, represented a crossing of cultural lines, and potentially a total collapse of Jewish identity.  The First Book of Maccabees suggests that it was the Jewish Hellenizers—not the Greeks—who initiated the imposition of pagan culture in Judea.

The plot thickens:  In 170-169 B.C.E., when Antiochus was in Egypt battling the Ptolemies, Onias’s brother Jason, the deposed High-Priest, seized Jerusalem in a surprise attack.  It was this success of Jason, according to the Second Book of Maccabees, that led to Antiochus’s intervention in Palestine.  Antiochus could not afford unrest and possible civil war in Judea while he was attempting to conquer Egypt to the south.  Since the death of Alexander the Great in 323 B.C.E. Palestine had been the main bone of contention between the Ptolemies, who ruled Egypt, and the Seleucids, who ruled Syria.  In 169, therefore, with Menelaus as aide and instigator, Antiochus proceeded to loot the Temple, and Jews were murdered.

In 168 B.C.E., following a rumor that Antiochus had died, Jason again attempted to return and seize power in Jerusalem.  Supported by the majority of the people, Jason succeeded in expelling Menelaus and his Tobiad supporters who, according to the historian Josephus, begged Antiochus for help.  Antiochus at this time was on another campaign in Egypt and was frustrated as well by Roman intervention in his affairs.  He decided once and for all that he could not afford civil war along the sensitive border with Egypt, especially since a significant portion of the Jews in Judea sympathized with the Ptolemies, a feeling fostered by the large Jewish population in Egypt.

So in 167 Antiochus ordered the elimination of the Temple sacrifices and the observances of the commandments of the Torah, once again abetted by the Jewish Hellenizers in Jerusalem.  The revolt against Antiochus, already more than a year old, was picked up by Mattathias (Matityahu of the Chanukah story) and his Hasmonean family.  The first religious war in history had begun.

Nor can we ignore the economic side of the story.  Whatever else was going on, the Maccabean revolt was a struggle of a peasant groups and an urban plebeian class against the merchants and landowners, and those of high birth.  Landowners and merchants had experienced an economic boom under the Antiochid regulations.  The lower classes rightly felt left out.

Was Antiochus “anti-Jewish?” Was he an “antisemite?”  There is no evidence to support the assertion.  If he had sought to eliminate the Jewish religion he would have issued his orders not just for Judea but for the Jews of Syria and Asia Minor, where Jews were extremely numerous.  But his decrees were promulgated only in Palestine, and for purely political reasons.  Moreover, explicit religious-political measures to subject an unruly population, such as the ones Antiochus undertook, are without parallel in antiquity.  We must therefore conclude that the driving force behind them must have been Jewish Hellenizers, not Antiochus or the Greeks.  While we cannot let Antiochus off the hook, it is clear that the persecution came as a result of the civil war, and was instigated by the Jewish Hellenizers in Jerusalem.  The issues were political and economic, not religious.

What about the Maccabees?  The Maccabees had the good fortune to be fighting Anitiochus while the Syrian Greek monarch was busy on other fronts and Rome was seeking to weaken his power in the region.  But the 25 years of protracted Maccabean struggle was indeed an exercise in heroism.  The heroism of the Maccabees, at least before their descendants became themselves Hellenized, was evident in the fact that their real struggle was against their fellow Jews who assimilated and who were apostatizing, at least as much as it was against Antiochus.

Who were the villains?  Antiochus has been unfairly scapegoated by Jewish history and tradition.  The idea that a Jewish holiday could come as a result of a civil war between Jews is a proposition that surely was anathema to the rabbinic leadership during Talmudic times—who carried with them the experience of the struggle against Rome that was marked by intra-Jewish antagonism.  Indeed, in the discussion in the Talmud about Chanukah there is no mention of Hellenizers, of Jew against Jew, of civil strife as the genesis of Chanukah.  But the fact is that Antiochus’s intervention was the result of that intra-mural strife.  The villains were the plutocratic Jewish Hellenizers who exploited a political situation and who undermined the fibre and fabric of Jewish religious and social society.  Modern parallels are not far to find.

By Jerome A. Chanes

Leave a Comment

Most Popular Articles