It is an ancient royal communiquÃ© that details the appointment of a new tax collector. And its text, newly deciphered after four recent archeological finds were put together, brings demonstrable veracity to the events that precipitated the Maccabean Revolt in 167-164 BCE and the story of Hanukka.
The significance of the communiquÃ©, sent from the Syrian-Greek King Seleucus IV (187-175 BCE) to the ruling leadership in Judea, emerged when it was realized that three inscribed pieces of stone found at Beit Guvrin's Tel Maresha between 2005 and 2006 belonged together with a larger stele piece that was donated to the Israel Museum in 2007.
The reconstituted stele, or inscribed tablet, yielded a text from the king dated 178 BCE - 11 years before the Maccabean Revolt. It set out instructions to his chief minister Heliodorus concerning the appointment of one Olympiodorus to begin collecting money from all of the temples in the region, marking the start of a significant, negative shift in Seleucid policy on Jewish autonomy. That shift culminated in a vicious Seleucid crackdown on the Jews of Judea and the looting of the Temple in 168-167 BCE, which prompted the Maccabean Revolt as memorialized in the Hanukka story.
The three smaller pieces, which come from the base of the stele, were unearthed under the aegis of Dr. Ian Stern's Archaeological Seminars Institute program "Dig for a Day."
For 25 years, Stern has brought amateur volunteers to participate in his excavations at Tel Maresha in the Beit Guvrin National Park. During a "Dig for a Day" seminar in December 2005, lucky participants found a broken stone artifact in a cave in the area which bore a Greek inscription. Although the find was exceptional, its full historical significance was not apparent at the time.
"The inscription contained 13 lines, many of them broken. The find was distinctive because it was written not on local, chalky kirton stone, but on higher-quality Hebron limestone," Stern told The Jerusalem Post.
The following June and July, two more pieces with Greek text were found at the same Maresha site, and excitement about the potential significance of the finds mounted.
Then, in early 2007, a large stele with sections missing at its base was provided on extended loan to the Israel Museum by birthright israel co-founder Michael Steinhardt and his wife Judy, of New York. Considered one of the most important ancestral inscriptions ever found in Israel, and exhibited at the museum that May and June, the stele has not been on display since because the museum's archeological section has been undergoing a comprehensive overhaul.
Purchased by the Steinhardts on the antiquities market from a collector in early 2007, the 178 BCE stele contains 28 lines of Greek text, outlining the royal instructions to Heliodorus.
In March 2007, shortly before the stele was displayed at the Israel Museum, Dr. Hannah M. Cotton-Paltiel, a specialist in classical languages from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and Prof. Michael WÃ¶errle of the Commission for Ancient History and Epigraphy at the German Archaeological Institute in Munich, published a translation and a research analysis of the stele text.
That same year, unaware of any possible connection to the stele, Stern consulted with Dr. Dov Gera, a Ben-Gurion University specialist in Second Temple Jewish history and Greek Epigraphy, over the three pieces found at Maresha. Gera, who then set to work deciphering the inscriptions on the first Stern piece only, told the Post that initially he hadn't made "much headway at all."
"It was only later, in the fall of 2008 at the warehouses of the Israel Antiquities Authority, that I managed to see all of the pieces Stern had found at his site together, and I began to recognize their similarity to the Israel Museum piece, which I'd seen during its exhibition," Gera continued.
"Working with the three pieces at the warehouse, spending time at the library and time at home, there was one particular moment when I just realized that the three [Stern] pieces belonged to the same inscription" as the one on the stele he'd seen the previous year at the Israel Museum.
When the stele was placed together for the first time - in February of this year - with the three fragments found by Stern's volunteer diggers, Stern proudly recalled, "They were a perfect match."
Another researcher who has worked with Stern, Tel Aviv University Prof. Yuval Goren, is certain, on the basis of its patina and the soil remnants attached to it, that the Steinhardt-purchased stele must have come from the same chalky cave area where the other three pieces were found. Together, the stele and its fragments constitute the largest inscription of its kind ever discovered in Israel.
The stele's deciphered text, from Seleucus IV to chief minister Heliodorus and two other Seleucid officials, Dorymenes and Diophanes, dovetails neatly with the second book of Maccabees. Seleucus IV was the elder brother of Antiochus IV, who succeeded him and whose persecution of the Jews is cited in Maccabees II as having sparked the Maccabean Revolt. Heliodorus is described in the same book as having caused the first open conflict between Seleucids and Jews by attempting to seize funds from the Temple of Jerusalem in the same year as the communiquÃ©, 178 BCE.
In the message, which was presumably meant to have been seen by the residents of Maresha - one of the centers of the Jewish community in that era - Heliodorus is formally informed that Olympiodorus has been appointed, among other responsibilities, to oversee the collection of taxes with "moderation" from all of the major sanctuaries within the satrapies, or provinces, of Coele-Syria (later Palestine and Israel) and Phoenecia (along the Mediterranean coast of modern day Lebanon). It is presumed that this new appointment was necessitated by the death or dismissal of a former governor.
Olympiodorus's appointment as an overseer of all of the sanctuaries in Coele-Syria and Phoenecia - emphatically including the Temple in Jerusalem - was intended to expand the Seleucid Empire's financial jurisdiction, according to Gera.
Until that point, the empire had not taxed the Jews of the region. The previous king, Antiochus III, father of Seleucus IV and Antiochus IV, had allowed broad religious autonomy for the peoples of his empire's satrapies during his 222-187 BCE reign. And Seleucus IV had continued to respect his father's arrangements with the Jews - until, that is, the empire presumably began to run out of money.
As Stephen Gabriel Rosenberg of the W. F. Albright Institute of Archeological Research, Jerusalem, noted by in a Post oped last year, "The Jews of Jerusalem had welcomed Antiochus III by opening the city gates to his army in 200 BCE, in return for which he had given them a charter that allowed them to live according to their ancestral ways, exempted the priests from taxes and even made royal contributions to the Temple upkeep and sacrifices."
The appointment of Olympiodorus and the new requirement to pay taxes to the empire, as detailed in the stele, thus evidently represented a dramatic shift in the Seleucids' attitude toward the Jews. It may well have been regarded in Judea as a direct violation of Jewish religious autonomy - a breach of the written status quo as agreed upon in the charter with Antiochus III.
Temples at the time were the safest place to store money, according to Stern. The temptation to seek a share from the Jews' temple in Jerusalem for the indebted Seleucid Empire - which owed money to Rome over an indemnity exacted by the Roman Empire in response to Seleucid expansion in the region - was evidently overwhelming.
According to Maccabees II, it was Simon of Bilgah, out of spite toward the Jewish High Priest Onias, who mentioned to the local Seleucid governor that the Temple in Jerusalem contained "untold riches... and suggested that these... might be brought under the control of (Seleucus IV)."
As written in Maccabees II and depicted in Raphael's painting "The Expulsion of Heliodorus from the Temple," Heliodorus was sent by Seleucus to raid the treasure housed in the Temple. Upon entering, Heliodorus was confronted by a horse and rider in golden armor flanked by two youths who beat Heliodorus to the ground. His life was spared through the intervention of Onias, and he was hauled out of the Temple empty-handed.
Gera told the Post he personally hypothesized that it was not Heliodorus, but Olympiodorus, who attempted to enter the Temple and was rebuffed, and that the apparent confusion and/or historical revisionism was designed to portray the major figure of the region, Heliodorus - rather than a minor figure like Olympiodorus - in a negative light across the region.
Three years later, in 175 BCE, Heliodorus murdered Seleucus IV and took power, only to be quickly overthrown by Antiochus IV, who returned from imprisonment in Rome.
Antiochus IV, it is widely believed, sought to Hellenize the Jews (although a Hebrew University professor, Doron Mendels, disputes this in a new book, Jewish Identities in Antiquity, arguing that while, in the decade of the 160s BCE, the Greek Seleucid kingdom decreed that Jews must cease obeying the Jewish ritual commandments, it did not specifically require them to adopt Hellenistic practices.) In 169/168 BCE, the Temple was turned into a shrine to the Greek god Zeus, the Temple treasury was robbed, the Holy of Holies was desecrated and all Jewish religious customs were outlawed. Around 167 BCE, as false rumors swirled of Antiochus's death in Egypt, revolt broke out in Judea. Hearing of the uprising, the king marched his army into Judea in an attempt to suppress it.
As described in Maccabees II, "when these happenings were reported to the king, he thought that Judea was in revolt. Raging like a wild animal, he set out from Egypt and took Jerusalem by storm. He ordered his soldiers to cut down without mercy those whom they met and to slay those who took refuge in their houses. There was a massacre of young and old, a killing of women and children, a slaughter of virgins and infants. In the space of three days, 80,000 were lost, 40,000 meeting a violent death, and the same number being sold into slavery."
Ongoing violence culminated in the Maccabean Revolt against the empire, led by Mattathias and his five sons, Judah, Eleazar, Simeon, Yohanan and Jonathon. By 164 BCE, the revolt had ended in success, and the desecrated Temple was liberated and cleansed on the 25th of Kislev - the first day of Hanukka to this day.
According to David Mevorah, curator of Hellenistic, Roman and Byzantine Periods at the Israel Museum, the stele, along with the three Stern pieces, is now in storage at the museum. The reconstituted stele will go on prominent public display when the museum's new archeological department is opened next summer.