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It is often the minor characters that play a pivotal role. So it is in the story of Hanukka, where every Jewish child knows the names of Judas Maccabeus and Antiochus Epiphanes, but who has heard of Heliodorus, intimate "friend of the emperor" Seleucus IV or chief minister of the empire, as he is called in the Second Book of Maccabees?
As in all good battles over religion, money plays an important part, and it certainly did so in the case of the Seleucids, the Syrian-Greeks, versus the Maccabees. Emperors are always short of cash, and use their powers of taxation to obtain it. But when times are hard, they pursue conquest and robbery to get their hands on it. So it was with the Seleucid emperors and the events of the revolt that led up to Hanukka.
We have to go back to 187 BCE, when Seleucus IV succeeded to the throne of his father Antiochus III, aka Antiochus the Great. Antiochus had wrested Coele-Syria, later called Palestine, from the Ptolemies of Egypt, who had held it for a hundred years after the death of Alexander the Great. The emerging Romans, not happy to see an expansion of the Seleucid Empire, finally accepted it as fait accompli but they imposed a heavy fine on Antiochus the Great in 188 BCE.
Before that, the Jews of Jerusalem had welcomed Antiochus 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.
When Antiochus the Great died, Seleucus IV continued the benevolent policies of his father and the contributions to the Temple. But he soon ran out of funds, and was interested to learn that the Temple housed a very great treasure.
THE GAME had been given away by Simon of Bilgah, who was deputy to High Priest Onias III, and on bad terms with him. Simon had told the local Seleucid governor that the Temple contained "untold riches... and suggested that these... might be brought under the control of the king" (II Maccabees 3:6).
When the news reached the king's ears, he selected his chief minister Heliodorus to go to the Temple to remove the deposits.
Not only did Heliodorus come but he had the temerity to enter the sacred precincts, not permitted to a non-Jew. As he and his men approached the treasury, they were confronted by the terrible figure of a horse and rider in golden armor flanked by two youths who beat Heliodorus to the ground. He was hauled out by his men and the treasury was saved. Onias offered sacrifices of thanksgiving and also prayed on behalf of Heliodorus who, recovered but empty-handed, went away acknowledging the power of the Almighty.
THIS ACCOUNT in II Maccabees continues with Simon, the deputy, accusing Onias of having frustrated the efforts of Heliodorus.
In the year 175 BCE, Seleucus IV was murdered by his chief minister and "friend" Heliodorus, the one who had failed to confiscate the Temple treasure. Seleucus's infant son was the rightful heir, but he was murdered by Andronicus, an accomplice of Heliodorus, who had committed and ordered the secret murders so that he could seize the throne himself. In this he was unsuccessful as Antiochus, the energetic brother of Seleucus, returning from Rome, took advantage of the murder and installed himself as Antiochus IV Epiphanes.
The matter went further. The legitimate High Priest Onias III, who had been slandered by Simon to the new emperor, was supplanted by his own brother Jason, who secured the position by bribing Antiochus. Jason started the process of Hellenization of Jerusalem but before long he was ousted by another usurper, Menelaus of Bilgah, the brother of the treacherous informer Simon, who had bought the position by offering even greater bribes to Antiochus. But as he was unable to pay up, he resorted to looting gold vessels from the Temple.
This so enraged the ex-priest Onias that he travelled to Antioch to report Menelaus to the emperor but, while he was awaiting an audience, he was assassinated. And who carried out the dastardly deed? Andronicus, the accomplice of Heliodorus, heavily bribed by Menelaus. Even the emperor was shocked, and ordered Andronicus to be put to death and Heliodorus banished.
THE ACCOUNT continues with Menelaus not being punished and reinstated as high priest in Jerusalem. Meanwhile Antiochus Epiphanes went on to invade Egypt but his victories there were frustrated by the growing power of Rome, which forced him to withdraw and imposed further financial penalties on the Seleucids.
The negotiations in Egypt had taken time and gave rise to rumors that Antiochus had died in battle. The people of Jerusalem rejoiced and deposed the hated Menelaus, but they were flabbergasted when Antiochus returned, alive. He took his revenge by killing thousands and reinstating Menelaus. And Menelaus took his revenge by advising the emperor to discipline the Jews by forcing them to give up their ancestral customs and adopt the Greek forms of sacrifice.
Thus began the great clash between the Seleucids and their Jewish Hellenists on the one side and the traditionalist Maccabees on the other. The reason we do not hear the above account is that the rabbis, like the historian Josephus, did not know the details given in II Maccabees.
One thing is clear, that the role of Heliodorus had been crucial throughout. He was ready to murder for gain and he was the first to try to rob the Jerusalem Temple. Though not successful, his actions were copied by the High Priest Menelaus and by Antiochus Epiphanes himself in 169 BCE, when he was forced to pay the Roman penalties.
AND IT was this class of action that led to the so-called wicked emperor's final downfall, according to II Maccabees. Soon after going to Babylon to fight the Parthians in 164 BCE, he took to raiding the local temples, fell ill and died there. In all this, he followed Heliodorus, who had been the first to attempt to rob the Temple.
Heliodorus murdered the Emperor Seleucus IV in 175 BCE, thus enabling Antiochus Epiphanes to come to the throne. It was Heliodorus who connived at the killing of the aging High Priest Onias III, which enabled Menelaus to remain in office and advise the emperor how to abrogate the Jewish observances, which in turn led to the revolt of the Maccabees.
The distinguished career of this Heliodorus started in attempted robbery, continued in bloodshed and ended in bloodshed, a pivotal role indeed in the story of Hanukka.
The writer is a senior fellow of the W.F. Albright Institute of Archeological Research, Jerusalem.