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Why Did Antiochus Issue Decrees Against the Jews?

One of the major questions that historians confront is understanding what motivated Antiochus (Antiochus IV) to issue his decrees against the Jews in 167 BCE. There are three main approaches that historians have taken. One approach views the decrees as motivated primarily by a desire of Antiochus to spread Hellenism or to culturally unify what was perhaps a crumbling empire. Another approach views the leading Hellenistic Jews as the main force behind the issuance of the decrees. A third approach views the decrees as primarily a response by Antiochus to what he perceived as a revolt by the Jews. The purpose of this article is to evaluate these various approaches. Before we do this, we will briefly summarize the events of the Chanukah story.

The Temple was rebuilt in the late 6th century BCE, but the Jews of Judea did not enjoy independence. They lived under the rule of the Persians for about 200 years, until the Persian Empire fell to Alexander in 332 BCE. Alexander died shortly thereafter, and for over a century Judea came under the rule of the Ptolemaic Greek dynasty centered in Egypt. Around 198 BCE, Antiochus III of the Syrian Seleucid dynasty wrested Judea away from Ptolemy V. Antiochus III was succeeded by his son Seleucus in 187 BCE. The latter ruled until his assassination and the accession of his younger brother Antiochus (Antiochus IV) in 175 BCE.

In the beginning of the reign of Antiochus IV, a priest named Jason purchased the high priesthood with a bribe, usurping the position from his brother Onias. At Jason’s initiative, many Jews in Jerusalem began to follow a Hellenistic way of life. According to II Maccabees 4:14, priests were no longer eager to perform their duties at the altar and preferred the activities in the gymnasium. A few years later, Menelaus usurped the high priesthood from Jason with his own bribe to Antiochus IV.

In 167 BCE, Antiochus IV issued his decrees against the Jews. I Macc. 1:44-50 describes the decrees as follows:

The king sent letters by messengers to Jerusalem and the towns of Judah containing orders to follow customs foreign to the land, to put a stop to burnt offerings and meal offering and libation in the temple, to violate Sabbaths and festivals, to defile temple and holy things, to build illicit altars and illicit temples and idolatrous shrines, to sacrifice swine and ritually unfit animals, to leave their sons uncircumcised and to draw abomination upon themselves by means of all kinds of uncleanness and profanation, so as to forget the Torah and violate all the commandments.

Whoever disobeyed the word of the king was to be put to death. Antiochus also ordered the burning of Torah scrolls and the death of anyone found with such scrolls in his possession. He also ordered the temple converted into one dedicated to Zeus Olympios.

Some Jews chose death as martyrs, but many complied with the king’s orders, willingly or out of fear of punishment.

The persecution reached Modiin, where Mattathias, a priest from the order of Yehoyariv, had settled with his five sons after fleeing Jerusalem. In Modiin, Mattathias slew a Jew who had publicly sacrificed upon a pagan altar. He also slew the king’s official who had ordered the sacrifice. Mattathias then fled with his sons to the mountains. Other Jews joined them, so that they too could avoid the persecution and observe the commandments.

Eventually, the Jewish fighters gained in numbers and began to strike back at the royal government and the apostate Jews. They demolished some of the pagan altars that had been erected. Mattathias died early in the revolt, but the revolt and the effort to liberate territories continued, led by his son Judah. Eventually, the Temple area was liberated, and on the 25th of Kislev in 164 BCE the Temple was rededicated and the sacrificial service restored.

The fight for independence continued after the liberation of the Temple, as parts of Jerusalem and most of the country were still under Syrian control. Judah died in battle in 160 BCE. But in 142 BCE Judea finally achieved independence. In 140 BCE the Jews officially accepted Simon as their leader. He was the only son of Mattathias still surviving.

There are three main approaches that historians have taken to explain the decrees of Antiochus IV:

One approach views the decrees as motivated primarily by the desire of Antiochus to spread Hellenism or to culturally unify what was perhaps a crumbling empire. In this approach, Antiochus presumably would have desired to interfere with other religions in his empire as well.

Another approach views Menelaus and his Hellenistic followers as the main force behind the enactment of the decrees. In this approach, it is thought that Antiochus himself was indifferent about whether the Jews observed the Sabbath and holidays, the rite of circumcision, and the dietary laws. But in the minds of the Hellenistic Jews who found these rituals barbaric, it was important to reform Judaism to eliminate them.

A third approach views the decrees as primarily a response by Antiochus to what he perceived as a revolt by the Jews.

Language that supports the first approach is found at I Macc. 1: 41-43:

41: The king wrote to all his kingdom, for all to become one people and for each to abandon his own customs.

42: All the gentiles agreed to the terms of the king’s proclamation.

43: Many Israelites, too, accepted his religion and sacrificed to idols…

The first approach is also supported by language in a letter from Antiochus V revoking his father’s decrees. In this letter, quoted at II Macc. 11:23-26, Antiochus V is recorded to have written:

We have heard that the Jews do not accept our father’s decree for a changeover to Greek ways…

But a weakness with the first approach is that we have very little evidence of attempts by Antiochus to interfere with the religious practices of other peoples in his kingdom. One scholar has observed:

“Nor have we any information that other oriental cults were forbidden or in any way restricted…Neither Antiochus’ work as a founder of new settlements nor his religious policy entitle us to conclude that the king was an ardent protagonist of Hellenistic culture who concentrated all his efforts on the attempt to provide his kingdom with a common cultural basis…”

Accordingly, many scholars believe that the scenario described in I Macc. 1:41-42 is just an invention by the author. (I Macc. was probably composed around 100 BCE.)

In our second approach, Menelaus and his Hellenistic followers are the main force behind the enactment of the decrees. There is a support for such an approach in a statement by Josephus. At Antiquities XII, 384-85, Josephus writes:

“For Lysias had advised the king [Antiochus V] to slay Menelaus, if he wished the Jews to remain quiet and not give him any trouble; it was this man, he said, who had been the cause of the mischief by persuading the king’s father to compel the Jews to abandon their fathers’ religion. Accordingly, the king sent Menelaus to Beroea in Syria, and there had him put to death; he had served as high priest for ten years, and had been a wicked and impious man, who in order to have sole authority for himself had compelled his nation to violate their own laws…”

But where Josephus would have obtained this information about Menelaus persuading Antiochus IV is unknown. Very likely, it was merely his own speculation. None of the other narrative sources connect the decrees with Menelaus or his followers. Moreover, the decrees of Antiochus were not limited to particular rituals that Hellenistic Jews might have viewed as barbaric. The decrees essentially compelled the Jews to reject their entire religion. It seems unlikely that this was the vision of Menelaus and his followers, even assuming that Menelaus was an ardently Hellenistic Jew. Finally, it seems from II Macc. 4:16 that the Jews who followed a Hellenistic way of life were punished just like everyone else.

The third approach seems to be closest to the truth. It relies in large part on the fifth chapter of II Maccabees, which describes the events of 168 BCE. The chapter begins with mention of Antiochus’ second incursion into Egypt. According to the author of II Maccabees, the deposed high priest Jason heard a false report that Antiochus had passed away while in Egypt. Jason then took 1,000 men and mounted a surprise attack on Jerusalem (presumably to recapture his office from Menelaus). Some sketchy details about the fighting are provided and it is also mentioned that Menelaus had to take refuge in the citadel. This is followed by a digression about Jason’s tragic fate. Eventually, at verse 5:11, the author of II Maccabees concludes: “[w]hen the king received news of the events, he concluded that Judaea was in revolt.”

The author of II Maccabees continues (5:11-16):

“[H]e broke camp and set out from Egypt. With the fury of a wild beast, he took the city, treating it as enemy territory captured in war. He ordered the soldiers to slay mercilessly whomever they met and to butcher those who withdrew into their houses…[F]orty thousand fell by the sword and an equal number were sold as slaves. Unsatisfied with these atrocities, Antiochus had the audacity to enter the holiest temple in the whole world…With polluted hands he seized the sacred vessels and swept up the gifts deposited by many other kings…”

The author of II Maccabees clearly implies that Antiochus misunderstood the situation before him. In this view, there was no Jewish revolt in Jerusalem against Seleucid rule at this time, just a misunderstanding by Antiochus. But several scholars have taken a further step and speculated that Antiochus was correct and that there was a Jewish revolt in Jerusalem against Seleucid rule at this time. The first to take such an approach was scholar Victor Tcherikover. Whether or not Antiochus was correct in his understanding, it is clear that Antiochus now regarded Jerusalem as a hostile city and behaved toward it accordingly. Tcherikover theorized that Antiochus viewed the scribes and the interpreters of Jewish Law as leaders in the revolt and its aftermath, and as the ones who had the support of the masses. This Jewish Law had to be extirpated, Antiochus reasoned, if the city was to be controlled.

Interestingly, a story has come down to us in various ancient sources about the humiliating manner in which Antiochus’ attempt to invade Egypt was rebuffed in 168 BCE. When Antiochus was with his forces in Egypt at this time, Roman forces caught up with him in the suburb of Eleusis and ordered him to withdraw. When Antiochus said he needed time to consult with his advisers, the leader of the Roman forces took out a stick that he was carrying, drew a circle in the sand around Antiochus, and insisted that he make his decision before he took another step. Humiliated, Antiochus yielded and agreed to withdraw his army from Egypt. This event occurred about 18 months before the persecution of Judea was launched in late 167 BCE. It has been suggested that this humiliation influenced him and led him to overcompensate in the manner in which he responded to the rebellion he perceived in Judea. As one scholar has written:

“The explanation has both psychological and political plausibility…The rage of Antiochus IV is readily intelligible. It could not, of course, be vented against Rome. But the upheaval in Judea came at a convenient time and offered a suitable target. The introduction of a garrison and the intimidation of the populace by state terrorism had a larger design than simply to punish the Jews. It would announce Antiochus Epiphanes’ resumption of control to the diverse peoples and nations nominally under the Seleucid regime…Antiochus would answer any potential questions about his withdrawal from Egypt by taking the offensive in Palestine.”

The issue of precisely which Jewish communities were subjected to the decrees of Antiochus IV is also a matter that needs to be addressed. If we could determine precisely which Jewish communities were originally targeted, this would help shed light on the motivation behind the persecution. If we examine all the sources (which I cannot do in this brief article), the result is that there is no clear source documenting that Antiochus IV ordered his decrees on the Jews of the Diaspora. The source that would be the strongest support for this proposition, I Macc. 1:51 (“letters to the same effect he wrote to all his kingdom”), does not have to be interpreted this way. Even if it is, the passage is found in a section that does not sound credible.

The most reasonable reading of all the material points to punishment of a rebellious city as being the primary motivation for the decrees. Although some of the documents include language about an attempt by Antiochus IV to convert the Jews to Greek ways, this may have been only the external form in which Antiochus IV formulated his actions. The underlying motivation may still have been punishment of a rebellious city. The author of II Maccabees sets forth clearly that “the king…concluded that Judaea was in revolt (5:11).”

The author of II Maccabees clearly implies that Antiochus misunderstood the situation before him and that there was no Jewish revolt in Jerusalem against Seleucid rule prior to the enactment of the decrees. But some scholars have argued that perhaps Antiochus was correct and that there was a Jewish revolt in Jerusalem against Seleucid rule prior to the enactment of the decrees. Although fascinating and provocative, this still remains only speculation.

The above is an abridged version of a detailed article published in akirah, vol. 16 (2013), available online at www.hakirah.org. The author is a personal injury attorney who has published many articles on Jewish history and liturgy. His book collecting these articles will be published shortly by Kodesh Press. He can be reached at [email protected].

By Mitchell First

For more articles by Mitchell First, and information on his books, please visit his website at rootsandrituals.org.

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