Guest Blogger: Mitchell First
What Motivated Antiochus to Issue his Decrees?Antiochus (=Antiochus IV) acceded to the throne in 175 B.C.E. In the beginning of his reign, a priest named Jason purchased the high priesthood with a bribe. At Jason’s initiative, many Jews in Jerusalem began to follow a Hellenistic way of life. A few years later, Menelaus usurped the high priesthood from Jason with his own bribe.In 167 B.C.E., Antiochus issued his decrees:The king sent letters by messengers to Jerusalem and the towns of Judahcontaining orders to follow customs foreign to the land, to put a stop toburnt offerings and meal offering and libation in the temple, to violateSabbaths and festivals, to defile temple and holy things, to build illicitaltars and illicit temples and idolatrous shrines, to sacrifice swine andritually unfit animals, to leave their sons uncircumcised and to drawabomination upon themselves by means of all kinds of uncleanness andprofanation, so as to forget the Torah and violate all the commandments.Whoever disobeyed the word of the king was to be put to death. (I Macc.1:44-50).Antiochus also ordered the burning of Torah scrolls and the death of anyone found with such scrolls.Some Jews chose death as martyrs, but many complied with the king’s orders, willingly or out of fear of punishment.The persecution reached Modein, where Mattathias, a priest, had settled with his five sons after fleeing Jerusalem. In Modein, Mattathias slew a Jew who had publicly sacrificed upon a pagan altar. He also slew the king’s official who had ordered the sacrifice. Mattathias then fled with his sons to the mountains. Other Jews joined them.Eventually, the Jewish fighters gained in numbers and they began to strike back at the royal government and the apostate Jews. They demolished some of the pagan altars that had been erected. Mattathias died early in the revolt, but the revolt and the effort to liberate territories continued, led by his son Judah. Eventually, the Temple area was liberated, and on the 25th of Kislev in 164 B.C.E. the Temple was rededicated, and the sacrificial service restored. (The fight for independence continued after that. It was not until 142 B.C.E. that Judea finally achieved independence.)There are three main approaches that historians have taken to explain the decrees of Antiochus:° One approach views the decrees as motivated primarily by his desire to spread Hellenism or to culturally unify what was perhaps a crumbling empire. In this approach, Antiochus presumably would have desired to interfere with other religions in his empire as well.° Another approach views Menelaus and his Hellenistic followers as the main force behind the enactment of the decrees. In this approach, it is thought that Antiochus himself was indifferent about whether the Jews observed the Sabbath and holidays, the rite of circumcision, and the dietary laws. But in the minds of the Hellenistic Jews who found these rituals barbaric, it was important to reform Judaism to eliminate them.° A third approach views the decrees as primarily a response by Antiochus to what he perceived as a revolt by the Jews.Language that supports the first approach is found at I Macc. 1: 41-43:41: The king wrote to all his kingdom, for all to becomeone people and for each to abandon his own customs.42: All the gentiles agreed to the terms of the king’s proclamation.43: Many Israelites, too, accepted his religion and sacrificed toidols…But a weakness with the first approach is that we have very little other evidence of attempts by Antiochus to interfere with the religious practices of peoples in his kingdom.In our second approach, Menelaus and his Hellenistic followers are the main force behind the enactment of the decrees. A main support for this is that, at Antiquities XII, 384-85, Josephus writes that Menelaus was the one who convinced Antiochus IV to compel the Jews to abandon their religion. But none of the other narrative sources connect the decrees with Menelaus or his followers. Moreover, the decrees of Antiochus were not limited to particular rituals that Hellenistic Jews might have viewed as barbaric. The decrees essentially compelled the Jews to reject their entire religion. It seems unlikely that this was the vision of Menelaus and his followers, even assuming that Menelaus was an ardently Hellenistic Jew.The third approach seems to be closest to the truth. It relies in large part on the fifth chapter of II Maccabees, which describes the events of 168 B.C.E. The chapter begins with mention of Antiochus’ second incursion into Egypt. According to the author of II Maccabees, the deposed high priest Jason heard a false report that Antiochus had passed away while in Egypt. Jason then took 1000 men and mounted a surprise attack on Jerusalem, presumably to recapture his office from Menelaus. Some details about the fighting are provided. Eventually, at verse 5:11, the author of II Maccabees concludes: “[w]hen the king received news of the events, he concluded that Judaea was in revolt.”The author of II Maccabees continues (5:11-16):[H]e broke camp and set out from Egypt. With the fury ofa wild beast, he took the city, treating it as enemy territorycaptured in war. He ordered the soldiers to slay mercilesslywhomever they met and to butcher those who withdrew intotheir houses…[F]orty thousand fell by the sword and anequal number were sold as slaves. Unsatisfied with theseatrocities, Antiochus had the audacity to enter the holiesttemple in the whole world…With polluted hands he seizedthe sacred vessels and swept up the gifts deposited by manyother kings…The author of II Maccabees implies that Antiochus misunderstood the situation before him. In this view, there was no Jewish revolt in Jerusalem against Seleucid rule at this time, just a misunderstanding by Antiochus. But several scholars have taken a further step and speculated that Antiochus was correct and that there was a Jewish revolt in Jerusalem against Seleucid rule at this time. Whether or not Antiochus was correct in his understanding, it is clear that Antiochus now regarded Jerusalem as a hostile city and behaved toward it accordingly. The suggestion is then made that Antiochus viewed the scribes and the interpreters of Jewish Law as leaders in the revolt and its aftermath, and as the ones who had the support of the masses. This Jewish Law had to be extirpated, Antiochus reasoned, if the city was to be controlled.Finally, a story has come down to us in various ancient sources about the humiliating manner in which Antiochus’ attempt to invade Egypt was rebuffed in 168 B.C.E. When Antiochus was with his forces in Egypt, Roman forces caught up with him and ordered him to withdraw. When Antiochus said he needed time to consult with his advisers, the leader of the Roman forces took out a stick, drew a circle in the sand around Antiochus, and insisted that he make his decision before he took another step. Humiliated, Antiochus yielded and agreed to withdraw his army from Egypt. This event occurred about eighteen months before the persecution of Judea was launched in 167 B.C.E. It has been suggested that this humiliation influenced him and led him to overcompensate in the manner in which he responded to the rebellion he perceived in Judea.--------------------------------------------The above is an abridged version of an article published in Ḥakirah, vol. 16 and in the author’s book Esther Unmasked.