Israel Museum receives stone 'letter'

2,200-year-old Greek-inscribed block details trigger for Maccabean Revolt.

heliodorus maccabi revol (photo credit: Courtesy)
heliodorus maccabi revol
(photo credit: Courtesy)
A 2,200-year-old Greek-inscribed stone block that provides unique insight into the background to the Maccabean Revolt has been unveiled at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. The newly deciphered stele apparently came from the area between the Judean Hills and the Mediterranean. It was uncovered years ago but its historic content was unknown until recently. It presents new information about Heliodorus, who, according to the Second Book of Maccabees, received orders to seize the treasure in the Temple in Jerusalem, but was driven from the sanctuary by the miraculous appearance of a fearsome horseman accompanied by two mighty youths. The block, which is 80 cm. high, 58 cm. wide and 14 cm. thick, documents a correspondence in ancient Greek between Heliodorus and King Seleucus IV, ruler of the Seleucid Empire from 187 to 175 BCE, in which Seleucus announces the appointment of an administrator to oversee the sanctuaries within the province that included the Land of Israel. "Taking the utmost consideration for the safety of our subjects, and thinking it to be of the greatest good for the affairs in our realm when those living in our kingdom manage their lives without fear, and at the same time realizing that nothing can enjoy a fitting prosperity without the good will of the gods, we have given orders from the outset that the sanctuaries founded in the other satrapies receive the traditional honors with the care befitting them. But since the affairs in Koile-Syria and Phoinike stand in need of the appointment of someone to take care of these (i.e. sanctuaries)," the Greek text on the stone block reads. The appointment of an overseer of the sanctuaries - including the Temple in Jerusalem - was intended to bring the province into line with the rest of the Seleucid Empire. The position included authority over the sanctuaries' revenues and, above all, taxes due to the king, which was likely to have been regarded by the Jews as an infringement of their religious autonomy. The episode recounted on the stone foreshadowed events yet to come. Less than 10 years later, in 169-168 BCE, the next Seleucid king, Antiochus IV Epiphanes - best known from the story of Hanukka - and his armies entered Jerusalem, massacred its inhabitants, robbed the Temple treasury, and desecrated the Holy of Holies. The appointment recorded on the stele appears to mark the beginning of Greek/Seleucid interference in Jewish religious affairs, which eventually led to the outbreak of the Maccabean revolt in 167 BCE. "The Heliodorus stele is one of the most important and revealing Hellenistic inscriptions from Israel," said James S. Snyder, director of the Israel Museum. "It contextualizes the Second Book of Maccabees and provides an independent and authentic source for an important episode in the history leading up to the Maccabean Revolt, whose victorious conclusion is celebrated each year during the Jewish festival of Hanukka." The eight-day celebration commemorates the rededication of the Temple after the Maccabees' victory over the armies of Antiochus IV over 2,100 years ago. The large slab with a yellowish patina and a gabled top and rosette still colored in red was lent to the museum by Jewish philanthropists Michael and Judy Steinhardt of New York, who acquired it recently from a collector, curator David Mevorah said Sunday. The exhibition marks the first public display of the Heliodorus stele. It is not known when the stone block was first found. The writings on the stele were deciphered and interpreted by Prof. Hannah Cotton-Paltiel of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and Prof. Michael Woerrle of the Commission for Ancient History and Epigraphy at the German Archaeological Institute in Munich. It will be on exhibit at the museum through June.