Having read the book 1 and 2 of the Maccabees and the struggle Jerusalem and Judaism went through during the Hellenistic times and especially during the reign of Antiochus IV, it came to my mind an interesting theory written by Thomas L Thompson, The Mythic Past, in which basically the author claimed that the Bible could not be understood as a historical document, and therefore, it could just be interpreted as a myth. A myth which basically aimed at creating a historical past for the Hebrews and for the “Holy land” of Israel.
The book states that due to the numerous deportations they suffered: the various conquests of Israel perpetuated by the Babylonians, Assyrians, Egyptians, Persians and others, the Hebrews had the need to create a past that would place them somewhere, a home land.
Book 1 and 2 of the Maccabees essentially explains the struggle that the Jews inhabiting Israel suffered due to the despotism and the intolerance of king Antiochus IV. The books explain the effervescent movement that flourished because of this intolerant and despot behaviour towards the Jerusalem temple and the Jewish law. The Maccabees, which were a Hebrew family inhabiting those lands, revolted against the reign and fought back to maintain their laws, costumes, traditions and religious beliefs.
By reading the books, seems that Antiochus IV and other kings of the time put lots of effort in controlling, fighting and even maintaining relationships with the Maccabees leaders of the time. It seems as if the region was of essential importance to dynasties such the Ptolemies and the Seleucids. The six Syrian wars that occurred on the region give evidence of how important was this land for both dynasties. However, the importance seems to be oriented towards a strategic importance. Koyla Syria was a key location within the Hellenistic world.
Various authors have shared their views on why they thought the Jerusalem temple was converted into a Greek Zeus temple, why the Jewish law was apparently abolished and why local costumes, such as circumcision or the Sabbath, were rejected. The reasons given point to two directions mainly: either the Seleucid king with his followers intended to abolish Jewish costumes, or internal factions orchestrated the anti-Jewish movements.
Paul Niskanen wrote that the book of Daniel, which states that king Antiochus IV, after being defeated at Egypt and raged by anger at his failure, became mad and tried to erase Jewish religion and laws. This seems to be a copy of Herodotus and the story of the Persian king Cambyses, who was defeated at Ethiopia, then became mad and the region was divinely punished. The similarities of both stories suggest that Daniel’s book author read the Histories by Herodotus and adapted Cambyses’s story to create Antiochus IV one. The killings that both kings perpetuated against their own families, their return to Koyla Syria, both turning mad after being defeated, or their death after ending up alone and without support, might also have directed readers towards the myth of wrong doing towards Jewish religion and the divine punishment suffered by both leaders because of their evil doings against the divine.
In a similar line of argumentation, Book 1 and 2 of the Maccabees put the blame on the king’s madness and his anti-Jewish behaviour. Elias Bickerman though, orientated his view towards an internal Jewish rejection against the traditional Jewish laws. According to him, the anti-traditional Jewish movement was orchestrated from within. The abolition was fruit of a Hellenisation process and led by people from the region. This process of assimilation of Greek costumes and religious beliefs and the rejection of Jewish beliefs wasn’t orchestrated by the Seleucids, but by Jews themselves. In a period when the Seleucids were involved in many conflicts and wars, seemed plausible that king Antiochus IV would have been keen of maintaining a friendly relationship with the area of Israel. The king needed to have peace in some areas so he could concentrate in others.
Therefore, it seems contradictory that the king might have decided, just because of madness and anti-Jewish feeling, to lead those initiatives. Bickerman points out that those anti-Jewish movements and the cultural changes that occurred in the area, were the result of a change in mentality by some of the Jewish factions within the area.
In my opinion, it might have happened that those events were fruit of either the king’s despotism or internal factions assimilating the Hellenistic culture. It might be that it was fruit of both factors together and other factors that escape our current knowledge and the evidences that have been found so far. What it seems clear by reading Erich S. Gruen is that Syria, Jerusalem, Moab and other regions of South West Asia went through a process of assimilation of Hellenistic costumes and beliefs. The arrival of the Macedonians and the Greeks to Israel or the introduction of Greek language must have influenced these communities. Even though the Seleucids and the Ptolemies had a strategy for tolerating local religions, Greek costumes mixed with local ones. The numerous deportations, migrations and settlements of Jewish communities within the Hellenistic world transformed Jewish costumes.
Judaism managed to maintain their traditions, costumes and religious beliefs though, while Greek polytheistic religions disappeared with the time. This might be because of the intolerance of a monotheistic religion towards other Gods. Maybe because the Hebrews managed to build a mythical past around them and a written record of their past and culture which remained until nowadays. That past might not reflect what actually happened, but nevertheless, gave them their culture and provided them with a mother land, the Holy land of Jerusalem.
I would even dare to say that their struggle for survival between huge empires such as the Babylonians, the Assyrians or the Egyptians, just to give but few examples, made them feel that there was a need to create a historical past, which emphasised the importance of their traditional and religious beliefs, the importance of the Holy temple of Jerusalem and its centrality within the Jewish world.
1 and 2 Maccabees.
Niskanen, Paul. 2004. “Daniel’s Portrait of Antiochus IV: Echoes of a Persian King”. The Catholic Biblical Quarterly. 66, no. 3: 378.
Baumgarten, Albert I. 2007. “Elias Bickerman on the Hellenizing Reformers: A Case Study of an Unconvincing Case”. Jewish Quarterly Review. 97, no. 2: 149-179.
Gruen, E.S. 2003. “Jews and Greeks” in Erskine, A. A Companion to the Hellenistic World. Blackwell. 264-279.
Thompson T. L., (1999) The Mythic Past: Biblical Archaeology And The Myth Of Israel. A member of the Perseus World.