expulsion of heliodorus 248.88.
(photo credit: )
Last year we knew that the story of Heliodorus in the Second Book of Maccabees was built around a kernel of truth. The story goes that the Emperor Seleucus IV (187-175 BCE) sends his chief minister to the Temple in Jerusalem to rob its treasury. To the consternation of the priests and the people, Heliodorus marches into the Temple, but there he is confronted by a golden rider on a warlike horse and beaten to the ground by two golden boys (3:25). He is dragged out empty-handed and hardly conscious.
It's a good story and has been illustrated by such great artists as Raphael in the 16th century and Gustav DorÃ© in the 19th, but was it true? That sounds most unlikely, but the Heliodorus stele (inscribed tablet) that was lent to the Israel Museum by the Steinhardt family and exhibited there last year tells a related story. It is written in pure Greek bureaucrat-speak and tells how the Emperor Seleucus instructs Heliodorus in 178 BCE to check the temples of the empire to see that they are suited to the needs of the population and their gods, and in particular to inspect the temples of Coele-Syria, the land later to be called Palestine and Israel.
Heliodorus sends the letter on to "his brother" Dorymenes, and he in turn writes to one Diophanes telling him, "You will do well to take care that everything is carried out according to the instructions." In other words, the emperor's orders are passed down the line, and probably it was Diophanes who tried to check the Temple and was prevented from raiding it, but the author of Second Maccabees just remembered the most important name, that of Heliodorus.
And from the stele - found with its base broken off - that was on display in the Israel Museum, we see that there is a contemporary record of the emperor's orders and how Heliodorus passed them on to his subordinates. But is the stele genuine? Today, anything that is not found in a controlled archeological excavation is suspected of being a fake. The stele was acquired by Michael and Judy Steinhardt from a collector and is of unknown provenance, so it is under suspicion, and although the Israel Museum exhibited it, it would not be the first time that its experts might have been mistaken.
However, a most interesting publication was printed this February. In an instruction dig in Beit Guvrin, three pieces of stone, inscribed in Greek, were found by young volunteers in 2005 and 2006. The pieces were small and of little interest until they were shown in 2008 to Prof. Dov Gera of Ben-Gurion University, who saw that they were part of the missing base of the Heliodorus stele. It is therefore clear that the stele is genuine, seeing that fragments of it have been retrieved from a controlled excavation supervised by experts. That makes us confident that the story recorded in Second Maccabees is based on a historical event.
Why was it couched in miraculous terms? Presumably to hide the role of the High Priest Onias in protecting the Temple treasures from the depredations of the emperor's servants, who were forced to go off empty-handed. The emperor would not have been pleased and the high priest might have been demoted, as indeed happened soon after.
THE STELE and its fragments now give us the confidence to follow the Hanukka story in the Second Book of Maccabees, which is rather different from the one in the First.
It starts with Heliodorus. The Temple treasures were betrayed by Onias's deputy, Simon of Bilgah, who had quarrelled with the high priest and told the Seleucids about the Temple deposits. Soon after events move quickly.
Within three years, Heliodorus goes so far as to murder the emperor, hoping to take the throne for himself, but he is foiled by Seleucus's younger brother, the energetic Antiochus, who rushes back from Rome and seizes the throne. He is thankful to Heliodorus, who has cleared his way to the throne, and is glad to facilitate the removal of Onias, still under suspicion, especially as it means an injection of cash from Jason, Onias's brother. Jason has bribed the new emperor to obtain the high priesthood from his brother and promised to build a gymnasium and sports stadium and turn Jerusalem into a Greek city or polis.
Jason even goes so far as to call the city Antioch-in-Jerusalem, which pleases the new Emperor Antiochus Epiphanes hugely. The people of Jerusalem are also happy as they can now become Greek citizens, have their sons educated as Greek gentlemen and gain relief from the taxes imposed on foreigners. Second Maccabees is not so happy as the young priests go to learn Greek and sports in the gymnasium and neglect their Temple duties (4:14).
But Jason is soon ousted by Menelaus of Bilgah, brother of the traitorous Simon. He usurps the high priesthood from Jason by offering the emperor even greater bribes, but he unable to pay up. So what does he do? He is now in charge and he robs the Temple of the gold plate that has been withheld from Heliodorus and his minions. The people and the old priest Onias are so shocked that Onias goes to Antioch to denounce Menelaus to the emperor. But before he can get an audience, Menelaus arranges to have Onias murdered by Andronicus, an accomplice of Heliodorus.
Even the emperor is shocked. He has Andronicus killed and banishes Heliodorus. In the eyes of the people the emperor has done the right thing though Menelaus, still deeply unpopular, remains in office in Jerusalem.
Now the "wicked Antiochus Epiphanes," as we are used to calling him, is keen to extend his empire into Egypt. He marches south and is successful in the Nile Delta until he is stopped by the Romans, who do not wish to see the Seleucid Empire extended any further. They force Antiochus to retire and impose an annual tribute on him to prevent further aggression on his part. He retreats back to Jerusalem and finds it in an uproar.
The population has deposed Menelaus and is celebrating the death of the emperor, who has been delayed in Egypt by the Romans and is thought to be dead. But he returns very much alive, restores the hated high priest and kills 40,000 of the population in revenge (5:14). Antiochus needs to have peace and quiet on his southern border with Egypt, Jerusalem is the center of his southern border area, what is to be done with those rebellious Jews?
Antiochus has no idea how to handle Jews; he has to consult his expert, the High Priest Menelaus. First of all, he is led into the Temple by Menelaus to demonstrate to the Jews that he is the overall master of their fate, and Menelaus allows him to rob the Temple further to pay his tribute to the Romans (5:21). Then Menelaus advises him to abrogate the ancestral laws of the Jews, like circumcision and keeping the Sabbath, to build an idol in the Temple and force the Jews to sacrifice to it and eat the entrails. All these indignities would keep them down.
For some Jews this was too much. The Maccabees fled into the countryside where Judah started their counterrebellion. After three years they managed to regain the Temple and cleanse it of pagan worship. They celebrated the festival of Hanukka for eight days, to make it like the Succot they had not been able to celebrate two months earlier, when they were "living like wild animals in the mountains and caves" (10:6).
They lit the menora for eight days like on Succot, not because they had found a small jar of pure oil with the seal of the high priest that lasted for eight days by miracle. If they had found such a jar, and it had on it the seal of the last High Priest Menelaus, would they have used it? This high priest who had usurped the position, who had robbed the Temple to pay his bribes, who had arranged the murder of the old priest Onias, who had led the emperor into the Temple, helped him to rob it and advised him how to forbid the Jewish laws and customs and to replace them with pagan ritual, would they have accepted the kashrut of such a man? Would you have bought a jar of oil from such a priest?
The writer is senior fellow of the W.F. Albright Institute of Archeological Research in Jerusalem.