Hanukkah History

Happy Hanukkah! The eight-day festival of lights -- began at sundown on Sun Dec 6 ended at Sundown on Mon Dec 14. And then on Fri Dec 18 -- well, you know what happened on Fri Dec 18. Th new Star Wars movie opened, of course. The festival of lights – and then the temptation of the dark side.

The Hanukkah story and the Star Wars story both involve a heroic rebellion against an empire – and conflict within the rebelling faction. On this Hanukkah, let us review and remember that Hanukkah story – starting with the historical background.

The Historical Background

Alexander the Great's Greek-Macedonian forces conquered Israel in 333 BCE. Ten years later, 323 BCE, Alexander the Great died. On his death bed, Alexander carved up his empire and bequeathed various parts of it to his generals. Within another twenty years, the general that got Judea had lost it to Egypt. Another of Alexander’s generals, Seleucus, was more successful. Seleucus expanded on the holdings Alexander left to him, and established his own empire. The Seleucid Empire lasted 250 years, and, at its height, encompassed an area that included:
  • about half of what is now Turkey,
  • all of Syria,
  • all of Lebanon,
  • most of Israel,
  • a sliver of Jordan,
  • most of Iraq,
  • all of Azerbajian,
  • all of Iran,
  • about half of Turkmenistan,
  • half of Uzbekistan,
  • small chunks of Kazakhstan, Kyrgystan, and Tajikistan,
  • almost the entirety of Afghanistan, and
  • about half of Pakistan.

Big empire!

The ruling class of the Seleucid Empire were basically Greek-Macedonian, like Alexander.
In 198 BCE, the Seleucids took control of Judea, ending a century of Egyptian control, and returning the region to Hellenic rule. (“Hellenic” means Greek-based culture.)

The conquest by Alexander, followed up by the Hellenic re-conquest by the Seleucid Empire, introduced challenges and enticements to the Hebrew people: Greek sports, Greek art and architecture, Greek philosophy. The Hebrew people had been beat up on for centuries by Assyrians, by Babylonians, by Egyptians, but these Greeks were something else. They had not only a powerful army, but had more sophisticated thought. The Greeks could subjugate you by force, and then examine your concepts with Plato and Aristotle, win your heart with the tragedies of Sophocles and the comedies of Aristophanes, and top it off by dazzling you with some Euclidean geometry.

The first Plato I ever read was “the Apology of Socrates” in high school. It won my heart – I went on to be a philosophy major in college. So I guess you could say I can relate. I'm a "Hellenizer" myself.

In those BCE years, the Jewish urban intellectuals of Jerusalem found Greek thought very attractive. More and more of them were assimilating into the high secular Hellenic culture, abandoning Jewish tradition. Meanwhile, the traditionalists in the countryside – the country hicks from the small villages around Jerusalem – were having none of it. They didn’t buy that city-slicker sophistication. They had work to do, farms to run, no time for reading Plato or attending Greek drama, and no use for that new Greek gymnasium that had gone up. They had their own literary traditions and didn’t want them cast aside or overshadowed. To them, Hellenizing was turning to the dark side.

When the Hellenizers began to get their people appointed into positions as high priests over the Temple, the traditionalists fought back. The First and Second Book of Maccabees tell of the Maccabean Revolt in the 160s, BCE – before the Common Era. The Books of Maccabees paint the Revolt as a nationalist uprising of the Jews against the political and cultural oppression of Emperor Antiochus IV of the Seleucid Empire. To some extent, it was. But historians now understand that the root of the conflict was a civil war between orthodox, traditionalist Jews and secularizing, assimilating, Greek-influenced Jews.

Antiochus got involved in an attempt to quell the civil disturbance. He took the side of the Hellenizer Jews – and unfortunately escalated the conflict. In doing so, he abandoned the usual Seleucid practice of not interfering with the local religions. The standard approach of the Seleucid empire, over its vast range encompassing a great diversity of local customs and rites, like many empires, was: we’re going to take our tribute of taxes, we’re going to conscript some of your young men for the Imperial army, but you can keep your religion and your culture.

In Judea, however, Antiochus faced a situation in which his subjugated people were fighting against each other. To bring peace to the region, he entered the conflict, put the Imperial might behind the Hellenizers – the natural choice for a Hellenic overlord – and sought to quash the Hebrew traditionalists. To do this, he banned the traditional practices of Judaism, persecuted any Jew who maintained the observances, and required the people to follow Greek religious practices, including worshiping Zeus, which meant bowing to a statue.

The Books of First Maccabees and Second Maccabees say Antiochus was simply wicked. They don’t mention that persecuting the local religions was a total departure from the Seleucid practice in all other places, and they downplay the civil conflict the Jews themselves were having with each other.

As the books of Maccabees tell it, the Seleucids had been ruling over the Jews in Jerusalem for about 30 years when, in 168 BCE, the Emperor Antiochus IV was rumored dead. Jason, who had been the high priest of the temple in Jerusalem, until outmaneuvered by Menelaus, believed the rumor to be true. Jason took advantage of the perceived interregnum to mount a little army of about 1,000 – tiny, but not bad for a priest. Menelaus fled.

Next: But Antiochus wasn't dead. . . 

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This is part 1 of 3 of "A Hanukkah for Letting Go of Opinions"
See also:
Part 2: Yay for the Bumpkins...?
Part 3: Out Beyond Ideas

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