Brit-Am Biblical Commentaries

  The Book of 

Antiochus and the Revolt of the Maccabees

The International Factors and Historical Processes in the Persecution of Jews by Antiochus Epimanes

[based on notes Yair Davidiy once made to help somebody with their homework]

Alexander of Macedon (356-323 BCE).
Alexander from Macedon had conquered Greece and conscripted the Greeks into his armies. He defeated the Persians and conquered Turkey, Syria, Phoenicia (Tyre), Israel, Egypt, Persia, and parts of Central Asia and part of India. He demanded the honor due to a god, deified himself, established Greek colonies in every place, encouraged Greek soldiers to marry local women, and strived to unify his conquests into one entity under Greek management in accordance with Greek culture. When Alexander died his Empire split up. Eventually the Seleucids received Syria and the Ptolemies received Egypt. At first the Ptolemies of Egypt ruled over the Land of Israel but later the Seleucids took control of it.
Antiochus Epiphanes was a Seleucid. He, in effect in several ways, continued the policies of Alexander. It is true that Alexander appears more liberal but he too could be harsh and cruel and knew how to punish in order to give a warning to others.
The Background:
In 168 BCE Antiochus invaded Egypt and the Jews in Jerusalem rebelled. Antiochus was afraid of having his line of supply interfered with so he returned to deal with the rebellion. The next year he once again invaded Egypt but was forced by the Romans to return.
The Jewish Rebellion was connected with the status of the High Priest and with the Hellenising Party amongst the Jews.
At this time the High Priest was the leader of the people. He was also partially responsible for collecting taxes and controlled economic clout in regard to various posts. The position was one of prestige and power.
Previously the High Priest had been chosen by his peers in consultation with the Sages. Honio (Onias) the third (the son of Simeon the Just) was one of the High Priests. He quarreled with Simeon Yamini who was also a priest and belonged to the Hellenizing party. Simeon Yamini then fled to Syria and persuaded King Antiochus Epiphanes to replace Honio with Yehoshua (Jason) the brother of Honio. Jason was a Hellenizer. Antiochus agreed on condition that large sum of money reach him and so began the selling of the post. Jason became High Priest and built a gymnasium in Jerusalem and began a Hellenizing policy. Simeon Yamini had a brother called Menelaus. Menelaus is the one who later advised Antiochus to persecute the Jews. Menelaus bribed the king to make him High Priest instead of Jason who fled to a place of hiding east of the Jordan. Menelaus was a Cohen (Priest by hereditary right) but not of the House of Zadok who at that time had the right that the High Priest be chosen from amongst them. The people revolted against Menelaus but the revolt was cruelly suppressed. A few years later (168 BCE, as mentioned above) Antiochus invaded Egypt. A rumor went out that Antiochus had been killed so Jason returned from east of the Jordan and seized the High Priesthood. Jason killed many followers of Menelaus as well as other innocent people. Meanwhile Antiochus was returning from Egypt to deal with the problem but before he reached Jerusalem the Jews had expelled Jason who once more. The next year Antiochus again invaded Egypt, was humiliated by the Romans and returned to Jerusalem where he issued his anti-Jewish decrees.
The Jewish Aspect
In ca 167 BCE Antiochus Epiphanes Seleucid Monarch of Syria and ruler of Israel introduced a series of decrees against Judaism. It was forbidden to keep the commandments, the Torah was prohibited, circumcision was forbidden, keeping Shabat was also proscribed. Jews were forced to eat pork and to participate in pagan ceremonies. In the temple was inserted a statue of the Emperor made to look like the god Zeus Olympias.
The scholar A. Tcherikover believed that the Hasidic Party (Pietists: extremely religious) of Jews amongst the religious were responsible for expelling Jason and that they opposed both Antiochus and the Hellenizers. Antiochus received the impression as if that the majority of Jews were actually in favor of Hellenization and that only the Hasidim were opposed. He issued his degrees against Judaism due to the advice of Menelaus. This led to the Maccabean Revolt. One of the Seleucid successors of Antiochus later had Menelaus killed since his bad advice had caused the Maccabean revolt.
Tcherikover lists a number of explanations suggested by other researchers as to why Antiochus persecuted the Jews. Tcheriker does not agree with these yet they should be taken into account. They are:
1. Insanity: Antiochus called himself Epiphanes meaning the god who reveals himself. His opponents changed this name to Epimanes meaning the madman. He claimed that the god Zeus was incarnated in his flesh. He was mentally disturbed and acted strangely even though he could be also logical and wary when necessary.
2. Hellenism: He believed in Greek culture and in the need to Hellenize others.
3. Unification: He wanted to make all his subjects one unified people.
4. Political struggles.
5. Reform of Judaism and of the Jewish people: This was an attempt to assimilate the Jewish population through nullification of the differences between them and other peoples.
All the above reasons have something in them. Nevertheless there is another aspect to this subject. International developments and historical processes were pushing towards the unification and synthesization of  religions. Increased strength was sought through unification into one entity.
It is worth bearing in mind that Antiochus ruled over a world super-power of that time. Everything he did and thought was influenced by geopolitical considerations. Another factor was his perennial need for money.
It is possible to at least partly understand the policies of Antiochus in light of what the other great powers of his time were passing through.
The Greeks and Hellenization:
The Greeks in Greece developed a culture (Helenism) which they were very proud of. They absorbed elements from other cultures including from Canaan and the Middle East in general. They founded settlements in Anatolia (present-day Turkey), Syria, North Africa, Gaul (France), Spain, Italy, Sicily, Sardinia, etc.
In their overseas colonies sometimes they intermarried with other peoples and sometimes they subjugated them and sometimes through their influence they induced others to become Helenised. From their point of view there was nothing better than to speak Greek, receive a Greek education, to worship Greek gods and to be considered Greek. In general they were prepared to accept as Greeks suitable foreigners who received Greek culture. Syrians became Greeks and considered themselves Greeks. In Judah the wealthy aristocratic class often became Hellenizers and considered themselves Greeks. In some cases by the time the Maccabean revolt broke out some families had been Hellenized fro several generations.
The need for a homogeneous culture in the Seleucid Empire which motivated the Hellenizing Movement and eventual persecution of Religious Jews may have been felt due to the threat from Rome and the example of Carthage.
Carthage in North Africa had been founded by Canaanites from the Phoenician city of Tyre. They also founded colonies in many places. At first they were rivals to the Greeks. Later they fought against Rome. Their general, Hannibal (247-183 BCE), led soldiers from Africa, Spain, and Gaul into Italy. For about 15 years he passed through the length and breadth of Italy. Several times he nearly conquered Rome. No Roman army dared to meet him in battle face to face even though they outnumbered him several times over. In the end he was defeated and fled to Syria where the father and forerunner of Antiochus gave him refuge. Rome defeated the Seleucids in battle and Hannibal again fled but was captured.
The forces of Carthage were mercenaries and conscripts from conquered peoples who received leadership and cultural influences of Canaan and Greece in the form that Carthage cast them. Carthage was eventually beaten due to lack of finances, lack of unity, and lack of loyalty on the part of their allied subjects. Even so the example of Carthage proved that it was possible to defeat Rome and that an imposed cultural and religious unity could serve as an effective substitute for ethnic homogeneity.
The Romans were almost beaten several times by Hannibal who humiliated them, defeated their armies, and induced their allies and subjects in Italy to abandon them. One of the reasons for Roman weakness in Italy was the willingness of other Italian people to work against them. After the defeat of Hannibal the Romans increased their efforts and determination to impose their cultural predominance over Italy and to unify Italy in the Roman pattern.
The striving for a homogenization of culture as an Imperial unifying element was a world-wide tendency of the time.
The Romans eventually beat Hannibal by attacking Carthage in North Africa and thus moving the plane of confrontation overseas away from home.
Hannibal had received refuge for a time with the father of Antiochus. Later the Romans defeated the Seleucids in battle and forced them to acknowledge Roman supremacy.
In 167 BCE Antiochus conquered Egypt but was forced by the Romans to retreat. Immediately afterwards he issued his anti-Jewish decrees. The decrees were designed, amongst other purposes, to unify his kingdom in face of Roman aggression while Rome itself was going through a process of unification of the Italian peoples under its rule. After 91 BCE all the inhabitants of Italy were to be considered Roman citizens and this was due to the demand of the inhabitants of Italy themselves.
Antiochus wanted to gain control of Egypt which was an important source of material and human resources. The Romans prevented this. They pressured him, closed him in, and provoked him. It was only a question of time before Rome would try to take over the Seleucid kingdom. Rome had already taken away the Seleucid possessions in Turkey to the north of Syria and in 168 BCE divided Macedonia (the one-time ally of the Seleucids) up into virtual Roman provinces. The kingdom of Antiochus however was a world power and did have (at that time) some chance against Rome. Antiochus needed money, and a stronger, larger more powerful kingdom. His energies were stopped in every direction. The Jews appeared to be easy victims. They gave the impression of being potential prey of least resistance with the apparent possibility that through them Antiochus would be able to increase his power. By Hellenizing the Jews Antiochus would obtain an augmentation of wealth, manpower, strategic depth, and greater control over economic resources. All of these potential bonuses in the eyes of Antiochus were his by right. The stubbornness of the Jews was denying him what should, to his mind, have been his and that his kingdom had need of.
The Jews revolted and under the leadership of the Hasmonean Family they won. Eventually the successors of Antiochus made peace with the Hasmoneans. One of the reasons for this was the ability of the Maccabees to play off rival factions amongst the Seleucids against each other. In the time of Antiochus there were no rival factions. Antiochus ruled with a firm hand. Only the religious Jews opposed him and seemed to stand in the way of unifying his kingdom.
It is possible to summarize and add to the above points:
1. Antiochus considered himself the incarnation of Zeus (the supreme god) and thus it was only fitting that this should be acknowledged by others.
2. He may have thought that most of the Jews really did want to become Hellenized Greeks and that this would be good for them. The Jewish Hellenizers encouraged him to persecute the Religious Jews.
3. Antiochus robbed the Temple treasury and stole Temple utensils. His persecutions were accompanied by the forceful acquisition of properties. [Similarly the German Nazis utilized human greed to encourage others to assist them in persecuting the Jews. Very very many Germans in Germany enjoyed the usage of Jewish property as well as professional openings vacated by Jews. So too, in the lands of occupation the inhabitants, who had little themselves, assisted in killing Jews and taking their possessions]. Both the father of Antiochus and Antiochus himself were killed attempting to rob pagan temples in their domain. The need and greed for finance is a factor not to be dismissed amongst the considerations of Antiochus.
4. Perhaps Antiochus did not have much else to do in order to increase his power apart from Hellenizing the Jews. Every other direction was closed off from him. He lived under the threat of Rome.
5. Other great powers to a degree had acted and acted as he did in regard to minorities under their control. It was in fashion amongst these powers to unify their peoples into one homogeneous entity.
6. Antiochus did not really depart from the example of his forebears. It can be claimed that he was merely following in the footsteps of Alexander the Great and taking his policies to a logical conclusion.
7. A claim has been made as if the Religious Jews "provoked" Antiochus. It was not the Religious Jews who invited the persecutions but rather external conditions. At some stage or other there was always a good chance that if not Antiochus then one of his successors would adopt the Forcible Hellenizing policies. Antiochus needed money, unity, and cultural homogeneity. At the most it may be claimed that the rebellion of the Religious Jews influenced the timing of the persecutions. The persecutions may also be viewed as simply a strengthening of the enforced Hellenization policies that had been in progress for some time.



Join the Brit-Am Ephraimite
Discussion Group
Just Send an
with the message

Main Page

Offerings and Publications

Go to
Next Chapter
in the Book of Daniel

Return to
Daniel: Table of Contents