The prelude to Hanukka–from Egypt!

Hellenization could not save the Jews, it had to be the revolt and its aftermath, which we celebrate on Hanukka.

Knesset Menorah (photo credit: Courtesy Bank of Israel)
Knesset Menorah
(photo credit: Courtesy Bank of Israel)
The date is the year 188 in the Seleucid Calendar, which is 124 BCE in ours. It refers to a letter from the Jews of Jerusalem to their brothers in Egypt, telling them to celebrate Hanukka, and it heads the Second Book of Maccabees.
But the story it tells is quite different from that in the First Book, and at the beginning it says that it is based on a longer account given in five books by Jason of Cyrene, a city in Libya with a large Jewish population, west of Alexandria.
Scholars think that the Second Book stems from Alexandria, in Egypt, whose Jewish population filled a quarter of the city, and that the précis made of Jason’s five books gives us a version that was written in Greek, only 40 years after the event, and originated from Alexandria in Egypt.
This is how it goes: The Greek Seleucids captured the Land of Israel from the Egyptian Ptolemies in 198 BCE at the battle of Banias, in the north of Israel, and spread their Hellenistic culture throughout the land. The top population welcomed it and the legitimate ruling High Priest, Onias (Hebrew Xonia) was supplanted by his younger brother Jason (Joshua) who wanted to modernize to the new fashion.
When the new emperor, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, came to the throne, Jason offered him a bribe of 360 silver talents to become High Priest, and Antiochus, who knew nothing of Jewish politics, confirmed him. Jason also offered to build a stadium and a gymnasium-school in Jerusalem and to call the city Antioch-at-Jerusalem.
All this was welcome to the emperor; to have another city named after himself and to have facilities that would entertain his retired soldiers, whom he could now settle there. Jerusalem became a Greek city, or Polis, and this was welcomed by the population, that could now retain their taxes for local use and have their children educated in the latest Greek fashion. And Jason saw to it that the traditional Jewish laws stayed in place.
But the young priests of the Temple forsook their duties and ran to the gymnasium to become ephebes, young Greek gentleman-soldiers, and even reversed their circumcision so as not to appear too Jewish when exercising in the nude. Other matters remained as before, the Jewish laws were not curtailed and Jerusalem had the best of both worlds.
The villagers of Judaea, however, living around Jerusalem, saw none of the advantages and stuck rigidly to their traditional ways and culture.
In Jerusalem the new order did not last. When Jason sent his deputy Menelaus (Menashe) to take the taxes and his bribe to Antiochus Epiphanes, Menelaus assumed proud airs to indicate that he was really the one in charge in Jerusalem.
He offered greater bribes to the emperor, who readily agreed that he should be High Priest and replace his superior. Menelaus went back to Jerusalem with an armed guard and Jason had to flee to the estate of his Tobiad relatives in Transjordan.
It should be remembered that the position of High Priest was the only major post allowed to the Jews, as the overall secular administration was in the hands of the Seleucid authorities, as it had been with the Persian satraps before them. So the High Priest was the sole Jewish representative to the government, and he assumed both secular and religious control over the Jews.
The position was both powerful and lucrative.
When it came to the crunch, Menelaus was unable to raise the money to pay his bribe to the emperor, so he raided the Temple and sold off the gold vessels to Tyre, where they minted gold coins with it.
This dastardly deed came to the notice of the former legitimate High Priest Onias, who sped off to Antioch to report the crime to the emperor. Menelaus countered by bribing and sending his colleague, the regent Andronicus, after him, but he could not touch Onias, who was waiting in the sanctuary of Daphne.
Andronicus invited Onias to come and meet him, so he could arrange an interview for him with the emperor. Onias fell for it, he came out and Andronicus murdered him. It came to the ears of Antiochus, who was appalled and had Andronicus tried and killed, but Menelaus remained safe in office in Jerusalem, where he had replaced the golden vessels with brass.
Meanwhile the ambitious Antiochus Epiphanes invaded Egypt to extend his empire into that prosperous land. But he was stopped by the Romans who would not permit the Seleucids to expand their empire, and Antiochus was forced to retreat and pay the Romans a hefty annual tribute.
As these negotiations were on-going, Antiochus was severely delayed in Egypt and it appeared to the population of Jerusalem that he had been killed there. They had hated him and they rejoiced, forced out his High Priest Menelaus, and Jason came back. But Antiochus was not dead, he returned fully alive and burning with anger when he heard of the rejoicing at his death.
He massacred forty thousand of the population, sold forty thousand into slavery, and reinstated Menelaus to his post. Jason was forced to flee again.
Not surprisingly the situation in Jerusalem was tense, and to Antiochus’s grave displeasure Jerusalem was near his vulnerable border with Egypt; he needed to have the Jews subordinate and quiet. But how to deal with the rebellious Jews? Antiochus had no idea, so he turned to the High Priest Menelaus, who knew them well.
Menelaus led the Emperor into the Holy of Holies of the Temple to show that he was now the supreme ruler. He advised Antiochus to curtail the traditional Jewish laws and thus intimidate the Jews into submission. Circumcision was to be forbidden, keeping the Sabbath was forbidden. and so was reading the Holy Scriptures.
IN ADDITION, the Temple was to be dedicated to Olympian Zeus and the Jews made to burn unclean sacrifices and eat the entrails. All that Antiochus Epiphanes legislated.
This was altogether too much for the Jews, modernized or not, and the revolt broke out, with the Hellenized population of Jerusalem joining the country folk led by the Maccabeans, father and sons.
The Revolt gained strength and eventually the “few overcame the many” and Jerusalem was liberated from the pagan Seleucids, and Hasmonean rule established.
On the anniversary of the liberation, Hanukka was celebrated for eight days.
The account of the Second Book of Maccabees is very different from that of the First. There is no mention of Matityahu and his deadly defiance of the Seleucid officer, no mention of the Maccabees starting the revolt, but the result is the same. The revolt breaks out in the Seleucid year 145, which to us is 167 BCE, but this time it is the upper class in Jerusalem that cannot tolerate the severe sanctions of Antiochus IV Epiphanes.
The Second Book of Maccabees was written in Greek for the Jews of Alexandria in Egypt, who had lost their Hebrew, and used the Greek Septuagint for their Tanakh. They were very interested in the affairs of Jerusalem but in this case they seemed to have relied on a foreign source from Cyrene, in Libya.
The earliest copy that we have of Second Maccabees is from the Codex Alexandrinus Bible of the Fifth Century, so it does look as if this version came from Egypt. Why should it be so different from the account that we all learn in Hebrew classes? Jason of Cyrene probably had the story from the upper crust in Hellenized Jerusalem, whereas the villagers of Judaea kept their traditional ways, they did not “modernize” and when asked to make a pagan sacrifice they reacted violently.
THEIR STORY was written in Hebrew in First Maccabees, and the rabbis knew that book, and so did Josephus, the ancient Jewish historian, who uses it to describe their battles. It is likely that the rabbis did not know the Second Book, or ignored it, as it was in Greek, but the Greek-speaking Josephus also ignored it, so it is possible that it remained in Alexandria and did not reach Jerusalem till a much later date.
Thus it may have been a class thing. The version of the traditional classes was recorded in First Maccabees, that of the Hellenized upper crust in the Second.
But even the latter learned the lesson finally: Hellenization could not save them.
It led to intrigue, bribery, corruption and even murder, and the eventual abrogation of all the traditional Jewish laws. Hellenization could not save them, it had to be the revolt and its aftermath, which we celebrate on Hanukka.The author is a Senior Fellow of the W.F.Albright Institute of Archaeological Research, Jerusalem.