Professor Steven Katz, Hellenizers to Hasmoneans

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Steve Katz Continues
Hellenizers to Hasmoneans

The mighty Hellenistic Empire of Alexander the Great was broken. And with that as a cue, Professor Steve Katz, Head of Judaic Studies at Boston University, returned to give us his unique perspective on the interactions and tensions between the Jews and their contemporaries of 2000 years ago.

Israel in the Middle

The Empire had been divided into three parts. To the West were the Ptolemys in Egypt, to the Northeast and East were the Seleucids. Together, these forces would influence Jewish life for 100 years. (A third segment, the Antiginites?? were in Greece. They’d have no influence on the Jews.)

The reason these elements would have impact on Jewish life was based in geography. Israel, throughout history, has been in the middle with Egypt on one side and a power to the east on the other. Usually, one of these sides wants to conquer the other–and to do so, they have to go through Israel.

From 301-201, Israel was ruled by Egypt. We have few sources on this period. The most important are the Xenon papyri and what little we do know comes from this collection. We know that the Ptolemies befriended the Jews because they wanted loyal allies against Syria.

In 201, a war began between Syria and Egypt. In 298?? Syria emerged the victor. Seleucus III conquered Israel. He made a commitment to the Jews that they could continue to follow the faith of their fathers, a continuation of the policy of Alexander. As Katz pointed out, to conquer is easy–to govern is difficult. Despite this commitment of freedom of worship, Alexander practiced a policy of encouraging everyone to act like Greeks. This meant using the Greek language and participating in athletic games. What this created was a pull towards Hellenistic practice and behavior, particularly among the urban upper classes.

Fundamentally, said Katz, Judaism and Hellenism were opposed to each other. Judaism is monotheistic, the Jewish God is not a physical God. There are 13 attributes of righteousness, but no attributes of God. The Greek gods, on the other hand, had personalities and traits. The ethics and metaphysics of the groups were different as was their attitude towards the body. The Greeks, for example, participated in nude athletic competitions.

What this ultimately led to was a problem which would climax in the story of Hanukkah, which was as much a class and internal struggle among the Jews as a struggle between the Jews and the Syrians.

Jewish Factions

There were two Jewish groups in Jerusalem. One was descended from the priestly group. Called the Onaids, they controlled the Temple since the return from Babylonia. These were the “legitimate” high priests. They also became Hellenized, even participating in the Olympic games.

The second group was the Tobiads. This was the family that levied taxes. (Katz explained the tax farmer system, by which a family would put up tax money to the rulers of the country and then gain the right to collect taxes from the people.) Philo belonged to this family.

The Onaids and the Tobiads vied for power and sought alliances. The Tobiads were in favor with the Syrians, the Onaids with the Egyptians.

When there was a strong Jewish king, there was the possibility of a Jewish civil life. But from the period of Seleucus III, this was no longer the case. In 187, Seleucus III comes to Jerusalem. Seleucus III was succeeded by Antiochus III, then Seleucus IV, then Antiochus IV. Meanwhile, the Hellenizers were becoming more Hellenistic, polarizing the Jewish community. In the areas, this led to outrage and a group emerged that were against the Hellenizers. In the book of the Maccabees, they were called Chasidim.

Antiochus IV Wants to Rebuild the Empire

Antiochus IV decided he was a God. This was not uncommon in the near east–Pharoah had done it, as had Alexander and other kings. But Antiochus IV was unstable. Historians call him the “crazy one.” His political agenda was to restore the unity of the Alexandriam Empire. To do this, he had to defeat the Greeks to the north and the Ptolemies. The Greeks were not that much of the challenge. The Ptolemies were.

Against this backdrop, the Jewish Hasmonean rebellion–the Hanukkah story–was a subplot.

Wheelings and Dealings

As the King of Syria, Antiochus IV didn’t deal with Jews in the street. He didn’t have to as he’d allied himself with the Onaids. (note–does this contradict earlier?) A high priest named Jason offered to turn Jerusalem into a Greek city for a price–he wanted his brother kept in jail. This was the first time the priesthood was bought and sold. Now the priest and others participate in creating a gymnasium, in going naked to the athletic games, and in the Greek homosexual mentorship practices. The name of Jerusalem itself was changed to Antiochea. Antiochus was so impressed with this he came for a visit.

Meanwhile, a family associated with the Tobiads made a calculation. If the high priesthood could be bought and sold, they wanted to deal. They depose Jason, who was at least of the priestly family; and from 175-167 there is a period of intense corruption. This might have continued if there were no external factors, but in 170, Antiochus IV decides to invade Egypt. He is successful, and in 169 he comes through Jerusalem on his way back from Egypt and plunders the Temple.

From his point of view, he was just collecting the taxes that had been promised and not paid by the priests. Although this was a common practice, he received what today we’d think of as negative press. By the time he got back to Damascus, he was bombarded by critics. To answer them, he created the first story of Jewish blood libel. He said his intent in plundering the Jewish Temple was not to rob it, but to rescue a victim–the Jew’s intended sacrifice.

Rome Comes on the Scene

In 168, Antiochus began his second campaign and now another force enters the picture–Rome. Rome doesn’t want either the Egyptians or the Syrians to get much stronger than they already are. The Romans send a message to the Syrians that they will help defend Egypt–and Antiochus goes home. There is a rumor, however that he’s been killed. Riots begin. He’s able to put these down, but kills some 80,000 people in the process. He’s angry at the Romans, at the Jews and at the priesthood. In response, he creates a new, coercive set of rules and taxes.

These events only underscored the complex internal Jewish conflicts. It became clear that, from the Hellenizers point of view, the fact of Jewish identity and practice was a problem. From those Jews who were not Hellenized or in the upper classes, the problem was the corruption of the priesthood and the embracing of Greek culture. Against this backdrop, Jerusalem was reconstructed, but the priest took shelter with the Syrians.

Alexander’s Pledge Taken Back

A campaign began to destroy Jewish identity, effectively rescinding the pledge of Alexander which had been followed from 323 to 167. Jews were forbidden to celebrate the festivals, to keep track of days in relation to the Sabbath, or to count months from Passover. They were forbidden to practice circumcision and Torah scrolls were violated. Soldiers ordered people to sacrifice to pagan deities. A statue of Zeus was erected in the Temple and a pig offered as sacrifice.

Katz compared these events to the Shoah. In the Holocaust, Jewish bodies were destroyed. In this period, however, we have a kind of cultural genocide–a desire to destroy Jewish identity.

Soon, the struggle was no longer between the Jewish Hellenizers and the rural areas. It became a conflict between the Jewish and Syrian states.

The Hasmonean rebellion, which we read of in the books of the Macabees, began with a family of priests from Modin, about 6 miles from Jerusalem. Matathias and his sons were members of this group. Simon was the brains and Judah the brawns of the Macabee clan. Simon understood a basic truth about Jerusalem, still true today–that the key is in control of the highways into the city. They defeated the first wave of Syrians and the revolt began in earnest at this point. Four great battles occurred in 168 and 167. The Syrians finally figured they couldn’t defeat the Jews and called a truce, in part because of the death of Antiochus IV and an ensuing power struggle within the Syrian camp.

The Hasmoneans are Victorious

The Syrians agreed to pardon those who’d taken part in the revolt and to return the Temple. The first Hanukkah was in 164 on 25 Kislev when the Temple was rededicated. This is the beginning of the Hasmonean dynasty, the 2nd Jewish commonwealth as an independent state, which would last about 200 years. (The first began with Joshua and lasted until the Babylonian conquest in 586. It was followed by occupation by the Babylonians, Greeks, Persians, Egyptians and Syrians until the Hasmoneans won it back.)

But while there was now an independent state, the internal power struggles continued. This was a period of challenge, it was also a time of creativity. Several factions and different religious groups appeared on the scene including the Christians, the Sectarians, the Sadducees and the Jews of Qumran.