THE CHANUKAH STORY. Part 1 – “Reign of Terror”

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After the death of Alexander the Great, his three generals divvied up his Empire. The Greek city-states went to Antigonus. The northern region from Persia through Babylonia and Assyria was taken by Seleucis. The southern region, including Egypt and Palestine, was taken by Ptolemy.

For 125 years, the Ptolemies (i.e., Ptolemy I, Ptolemy II[1], etc.), ruled Palestine with a generally tolerant, hands-off attitude: as long as the Jews paid their taxes, they could govern themselves and worship however they pleased.

Even so, the Greeks expected their vassals to adopt their language, manners, customs, and ideals. Among other alien ideas, the Jews had to cope with the popular philosophy of Epicureanism that encouraged a life of cynicism, in which Divinity played no role in human life, and our only purpose was to free ourselves from concerns about morality so that we could pursue a life of physical pleasure. As has always been the case, this was a very fashionable and attractive philosophy for many people, especially among the young. Between the prosperity and the pleasure, many Jews were happy to be Hellenized.

In response to this, however, there was a conservative reaction among those Jews who still revered the Mosaic Law and the religious culture of their ancestors, and who maintained a firm belief that the royal line of David would one day be restored to the throne. These Jews became members of a political group known as the Hasideans. So the nation was soon split between pro- and anti-Hellenists.

Also during these years, there was constant fighting between the Ptolemies and the Seleucids, both of whom wanted control of the eastern Mediterranean seaboard which included Palestine. Finally, in 200 BCE the Seleucids, under Antiochus III, wrested Palestine from the Ptolemies. Still, Antiochus continued to allow the Jews freedom of worship and the right to govern themselves, so it didn’t make much difference and once again many people were perfectly content to be tax-paying vassals of the latest Hellenic emperor.

Antiochus soon decided that he wanted to expand his empire even further, and he marched into Egypt intending to collect more property. There, however, he ran into the latest contender for world domination, the Romans, who had only recently become the masters of all Italy and were now beginning their own expansionist policy. One look at the Roman legions and Antiochus turned back.

But he still thought he might be able to defeat these upstarts if he had the help of a truly united empire behind him. So Antiochus embarked on an intense project of Hellenization throughout his realm, including placing statues of himself, as a god, everywhere. In Palestine, of course, the Jews objected vehemently to this idol-worshipping project, and Antiochus decided to let them be — so long as they demonstrated their continued loyalty by providing taxes and soldiers. But then Antiochus III died, and the son who soon took over, ‘Antiochus Epiphanes’, was not so agreeable.

In time, the aristocratic pro-Hellenist forces in Palestine, believing it to be in their best interest to support Antiochus Epiphanes in his Hellenization program, convinced him (and very likely bribed him) to appoint one of their members, a priest named Jason, as the new High Priest. The High Priesthood, which controlled the great wealth of the Temple, had fallen into a corrupt institution. Within a year there were Greek statues and Greek rites in the Temple. In response to this, more and more moderate Jews flocked to the anti-Hellenist Hasidean party, and the divisiveness in Palestine approached a state of civil war.

Antiochus Epiphanes’ Hellenization project was successful in the rest of the Seleucid Empire, and even in Palestine he had some supporters. So, believing he was strong enough to face the Romans, he headed once again to Egypt. He was quickly sent packing by the Roman legions[2], and a rumor reached the Jews in Palestine that he had been killed. Members of the Hasidean party took this news as a signal that the time was ripe to purge the nation of traitorous Jewish supporters of Hellenism and desecrators of the Temple. Many were killed, and the Greek statues in the Temple were thrown over the wall and smashed.

Antiochus, however, was very much alive. And when news of the uprising reached him, right on the heels of his humiliation by Rome, he was enraged. He marched into Jerusalem, slaughtered thousands of people indiscriminately, installed new statues in the Temple, looted the Temple’s wealth, and invited pagans to come to Jerusalem and settle there. Still angry, he then outlawed the Sabbath, forced Jews to sacrifice pigs to pagan gods in their own Temple, and forbade circumcision.

It was a reign of terror.

(Tomorrow, we’ll talk about how the Jews fought back: The Maccabees)

[1] It was Ptolemy II who compelled seventy Jewish sages to translate the Torah into Greek. The translation is known as the Septuagint. Ptolemy II and his Greek subjects were pleased to have another volume of human wisdom on their shelves, but the sages grieved. They knew that without the Oral teachings, the Greek Torah was just another ‘literary classic’ that could only be read literally – as history and a description of social legislation – rather than symbolically and spiritually.
[2] In fact, the Romans declared themselves henceforth the ‘Protector’ of the Greek-speaking peoples, and Antiochus was forced thereafter to pay them an annual Tribute. So the citizens of Palestine were now, by some strange logic of politics, simultaneously the vassals of the Greek Seleucids while under the ‘protection’ of Rome.
Find out more about this fascinating period of history in

“FROM JOSHUA TO JESUS: A Brief Chronicle of the Kings, Empires, Legends and Ideas that Paved the Way to Bethlehem”!

The perfect little Holiday Gift!