The first Jewish Hellenist

When we think about Hanukka, we see it as a conflict between the Hellenists and the traditionalists.

sufganiot machane yehuda shuk jlm007  370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
sufganiot machane yehuda shuk jlm007 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
When we think about Hanukka, we see it as a conflict between the Hellenists and the traditionalists. The Hellenists sympathized with the Seleucids, exercised in the nude in their gymnasia, and followed their culture and language to qualify as young Greek ephebes, or soldier- gentlemen. The young priests neglected their Temple duties and went off to the gymnasium and some even reversed their circumcision so as not to appear too Jewish.
The Second Book of Maccabees is horrified at this (4:14 ff), and we do not sympathize with the youngsters, because the Seleucids also introduced pagan sacrifices into the Temple and tried to make the Jews adopt these practices. Matityahu was the first to refuse openly to do so, and when the Greek officer came to Modi’in and ordered Matityahu, as the local leader, to make the sacrifice and eat the entrails, he refused and, when another Jew rushed forward to carry out the order, Matityahu killed him and the officer and fled into the countryside with his five sons. Thus started the revolt of the Maccabees as recorded in the first book of that name. Matityahu and his sons are the heroes of Hanukka.
But the Hellenists were also Jews.
They recognized the Seleucid occupiers of the land of Israel, who had finally conquered it from the Ptolemies of Egypt at the battle of Banias in 200 BCE. The Seleucids went on to capture Jerusalem and eventually their emperor Antiochus Epiphanes, who had succeeded to the throne in 175 BCE, imposed the harsh rule that required the Jews to forgo their traditional practices and to bring the pagan sacrifices, inside and outside the Temple. So the Hellenists became the baddies.
But the Ptolemies, the co-inheritors of the Empire of Alexander the Great, were also Hellenists. They ruled from Alexandria in Egypt and introduced their Greek ways throughout the capital.
Their hold on the Land of Israel, before the Seleucids, was less direct and they ruled it through their protégés, the local great landowners, most of them Jewish. So were there Jewish Hellenists under the Ptolemies? Yes, and we know something about one of them, Tobiah, because he was visited by an Egyptian official called Zenon, who left a record of his journey to Coele-Syria (later called Palestine) in 259 BCE in a series of papyrii, that were discovered in 1915 in the Fayyum area west of the Nile.
Zenon was the factotum of Appolinaris, who was chief minister to Ptolemy II Philadelphus, and he went on a tour of inspection of the great landowners and to trade with them.
He came to Tobiah, at his country estate at Airaq al-Amir, near Amman in Transjordan, and brought him grain in exchange for a series of exotic animals and four slaves, which he took back to the Ptolemaic emperor, who wanted unusual animals for his zoo in Alexandria, and always needed slaves.
The Jewish landowner was on friendly terms with Ptolemy II and this helped his great-grandson Joseph ben Tobiah to obtain the post of tax farmer to Ptolemy IV some years later in about 220 BCE. This Joseph did very well for his master, collecting the taxes over many years, and also did well for himself.
But, more surprisingly, he did well for the Jewish people.
The ancient historian Josephus Flavius records that this tax farmer “had been an excellent and high-minded man and had brought the Jewish people from poverty and a state of weakness to more splendid opportunities of life, during the 22 years that he controlled the taxes of Syria, Phoenicia and Judea with Samaria” (Antiquities 12:224).
A most surprising tribute, that a tax collector had taken the people out of poverty, when one would have expected the exact opposite. To understand this recommendation, one must look a little more closely at the life of this taxman, Joseph ben Tobiah, and what Josephus tells us about him.
Joseph was part of a wealthy landowning family, the Beit Tobiah, who had a country estate in Transjordan, and he was an enterprising young man. When his uncle the High Priest Onias was unwilling to collect the taxes for Ptolemy IV, Joseph stepped in and volunteered to do the job. It was normally the duty of the High Priest to collect the taxes but Onias refused to send them to Egypt that year as he thought the Seleucids were about to take over the country.
But he was wrong. Surprisingly they were defeated by the Ptolemies at the battle of Rafiah in 217 BCE and it was then that his nephew Joseph stepped in and went down to Alexandria to make amends and close the tax deal with the emperor, and there he had certain adventures.
He mingled with the upper classes so as to gain an approach to the Ptolemaic emperor, he got the job of tax farmer and, at one of the banquets, he fell in love with a dancing girl and desired to take her to his bed. Josephus claims that Joseph’s brother Solymius slipped his own daughter into the bed instead of the dancing girl, so as to avoid a heinous sin, and so the resultant child of this union, Hyrcanus, was pure Jewish.
Thus Joseph had a good time in Alexandria and presumably broadcast some of its free and easy ways back home among the population that he taxed for the Ptolemies. It was this secular and libertine attitude that Josephus praises and claims it gave “more splendid opportunities of life” to his people.
The romantic tale of the dancing girl is ignored by serious historians who, in the past, also ignored Josephus’s description of the Tobiad estate at Airaq al-Amir as pure exaggeration.
Josephus talks of a wonderful white marble building with animal sculptures, surrounded by a lake, of caves hollowed out for protection, and of extensive mansions in this deserted part of Transjordan. This all sounds too good to be true, but it is accurate and has been recorded as such by serious explorers and archeologists since the 19th century. So Josephus is not to be sneezed at and the story with the dancing girl may well have a grain of truth about it.
Whether it was she, or the more acceptable niece, who was the mother of Joseph’s last son Hyrcanus, we shall never know. But Hyrcanus was an exceptional young man, just the sort of clever kid to be born from a “mixed” marriage, and through his example we can trace the development of Hellenistic ideas among the wealthy.
Hyrcanus took over his father’s taxcollecting duties, but they soon came to an end when the Seleucids finally defeated the Ptolemies in 200 BCE and Hyrcanus was forced out of Jerusalem to Transjordan. There he converted the old-fashioned family estate to “modern” Hellenistic models, making it the paradeisos described by Josephus, with the wonderful buildings still partly visible today.
His large white building was considered at first to be a temple, a palace, or a large country house, but it was surrounded by water and carried the figures of male and female lions at each corner, and above them, at roof level, the figures of eagles. Such figures are typical of Greek veneration of the dead, the lions guard the tombs of the heroes and the eagles accompany the souls of the dead to heaven. The surrounding water serves to emphasize the division between the dead and the living.
And at Airaq al-Amir, the Qasr al-Abd (“Castle of the Slave”), the name of the white building, there was a second storey of feasting rooms, called triclinia, where the mourners could celebrate the life of the deceased in typical Romano-Greek fashion.
In this way, the young Hyrcanus was able to construct a large Greek-type mausoleum to commemorate the lives of his noble ancestors, the Beit-Tobiah, whose aristocratic antecedents went back to the times of Nehemiah and probably earlier.
The family was an ancient, distinguished one and the young Hyrcanus was a proud successor and probably the last of the line. What he built and renovated on their estate was carried out in a purely Greek manner, what one calls the Hellenistic style, and in this fashion he erected the mausoleum to his family. He rebuilt the rest of the estate with a water source, or nymphaeum, he hollowed out two of the caves and made them into celebratory dining rooms, he renovated the old stone village chambers and had them plastered and decorated in the latest Hellenistic fashion.
He maintained his own private army, drawn from Greek mercenaries, in this deserted part of the world, and lived as a kind of high-class highwayman, imposing taxes and tolls on travelers and caravans on the nearby trade routes to Damascus in the north, and to the Mediterranean coast to the west.
He must have lived out here in the hope that one day the Ptolemies of Egypt would return to power, visit him at his Hellenized estate, and perhaps bring with them more dancing girls.
But if so, it was a vain hope, for Hyrcanus fell afoul of the new Seleucid rulers and his end probably came in about the year 168 BCE when the cruel Seleucid general Timotheus raided the estate and killed a thousand and more Jews that had been taking refuge there, as described in First Maccabees 5:13.
Thus ended the career of the Jew Hyrcanus, the last scion of a noble family, perhaps the son of an Egyptian dancing girl. And he was someone who could be considered to have lived a Jewish life as an out-and-out Hellenist in an era that was to see the rise of the Maccabees and their revolt against the Seleucids, yet he stood and died with his fellow Jews when attacked by the Seleucids on his own estate.
It was his father, Joseph ben Tobiah, who had brought the ideas of “the more splendid opportunities of life” from Alexandria and planted them in the head of his son and other co-religionists, and who can therefore perhaps be described as the first Jewish Hellenist.The writer is a Senior Fellow of the W.F.Albright Institute of Archaeological Research, Jerusalem.