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Hellenism and the Maccabean Revolt

A culture conflict had developed among the Jews.There were those who believed in the old ways and were annoyed by fellow Jews who had let themselves be influenced by Greek culture. The latter were people who admired Greek education, schools and libraries. Some were interested in Greek philosophy and Greek art. Visiting the Greek gymnasium — for bathing and exercise — had become popular. Many Jews were attracted by athletic games. Many of those who traveled had a Hebrew name for use within their community and a Greek name for use elsewhere. Jews were tolerating the mixed marriages that the High Priest Ezra had forbidden. Some were abandoning circumcision and restrictions on foods.

There were conservative scribes who wanted their fellow Jews to be proud of their heritage, and they described Jewish culture as the oldest in the world and Jews as teachers of other peoples. Around 150 BCE a writer names Eupolemus wrote that Abraham was one of those who had survived the flood, that it was Abraham who had built Babylon, that Moses was the first philosopher, that he had invented letters and that he had taught the Greeks.

A few Jews argued that if there were gods, the gods didn't care. The devout countered with the claim that Jehovah (Yahweh) cared but that he worked in ways that were mysterious to people because mortals were limited in their understanding of His labors, and they argued that eventually the righteous would be rewarded and the wicked punished.

Meanwhile there was more war. In the year 217 BCE, Egypt (ruled by the Ptolemy dynasty) defeated the Seleucid dynasty — the Fourth Syrian War. But in 198 BCE, during the Fifth Syrian War, the Seleucid king, Antiochus III, won. Antiochus IV, whose reign began in 175 BCE, was ruling over Judea, and he assumed that the worship of Jehovah among the Jews could be transformed as easily as had occurred in his dominions farther east – where Jews worshiped Jehovah under the name of Zeus Sabazions. Antiochus assumed that the Jews of Judea would easily accept the notion that all worshiped the same God. In 167 he had the temple in Jerusalem rededicated as a shrine to Zeus, and some Jews saw Antiochus as compelling them to practice idolatry.

Antiochus was a pushy autocrat and sent a military expedition to force compliance with the new laws of worship. A military expedition came upon an old priest, Mattathias, in the village of Modein who refused to offer a sacrifice to Zeus. The priest struck down another Jew who was about to do so. With his five sons — the Maccabees family — and other rebellious Jews, Mattathias went into the Gophna Hills. Their rebellion won support from people across Judea. It was supported also by the author of the Book of Daniel — written as a war led by the Maccabees was unfolding.

The rebellion became a civil war among Jews and partly a war of liberation against Seleucid rule. The rebels were to be described in the First Book of Maccabees (two books that didn't make it into the Old Testament) as heroes who saved Torah law from suppression, but they were also portrayed as zealots who murdered coreligionists whom they saw as contaminated by Hellenism.

The Maccabee rebellion against Antiochus IV pleased a rising power on the Italian peninsula: Rome, which wished to see Antiochus IV weakened. To strengthen his forces against Antiochus, Judas Maccabeus, son of Mattathias, made a treaty with Rome.

In 141 BCE, more than twenty-five years into the rebellion, the rebels managed to expel the Seleucid dynasty's garrison from the citadel in Jerusalem. With irregular warfare the rebels wore down the Seleucid military, including its armored elephants — according to historian Max Boot, "one of antiquities most successful insurgencies." With the strength of Rome behind the Maccabees, Judea won formal independence — an independent Jewish state for the first time in more than four centuries. By then, Judas Maccabeus and other Maccabees had died and rule had passed to the last of the five Maccabeus brothers, Simon. Simon Maccabeus was chosen by the popular assembly as High Priest despite his lack of qualifications by birth. He also took the position of "ethnarch," or Ruler of the Nation, announcing that his family would rule only until a true prophet should arise. He created a festival called Hanukkah to celebrate both Judea's independence and the day that his rule began.

CONTINUE READING: Failed Geopolitics

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Copyright © 2017 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.