Tales of High Priests and Taxes: The Books of the Maccabees and the Judean Rebellion against Antiochos IV

Tales of High Priests and Taxes: The Books of the Maccabees and the Judean Rebellion against Antiochos IV

by Sylvie Honigman


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In the wake of the conquests of Alexander the Great, the ancient world of the Bible-the ancient Near East-came under Greek rule, and in the land of Israel, time-old traditions and Greek culture met. But with the accession of King Antiochos IV, the soft power of culture was replaced with armed conflict, and soon the Jews rebelled against their imperial masters, as recorded in the Biblical books of the Maccabees. Whereas most scholars have dismissed the biblical accounts of religious persecution and cultural clash, Sylvie Honigman combines subtle literary analysis with deep historical insight to show how their testimony can be reconciled with modern historical analysis by conversing with the biblical authors, so to speak, in their own language to understand the way they described their experiences. Honigman contends that these stories are not mere fantasies but genuine attempts to cope with the massacre that followed the rebellion by giving it new meaning. This reading also discloses fresh political and economic factors.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520275584
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 08/22/2014
Series: Hellenistic Culture and Society Series
Pages: 568
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.70(d)

About the Author

Sylvie Honigman is Professor of History at Tel Aviv University.

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Tales of High Priests and Taxes

The Books of the Maccabees and the Judean Rebellion against Antiochos IV

By Sylvie Honigman


Copyright © 2014 The Regents of the University of California
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-520-95818-0


2 Maccabees as Dynastic History


For decades, modern scholars have tended to stress contrasts between 1 and 2 Maccabees. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, this conviction of their divergences was based on stylistic considerations. The sober style of 1 Maccabees fostered confidence in the reliability of the information it contains. In contrast, the stylistic flourishes of 2 Maccabees and the author's indulgence in heavenly apparitions earned it scant esteem. A renewed interest in 2 Maccabees was triggered by several innovative literary analyses published in the 1970s and 1980s, which advocated a wholly different interpretation of the work's nature, based on a greater attention to narrative structure over style. One of these authors was George Nickelsburg, who pointed out that 2 Maccabees was structured by what was then inappropriately called the Deuteronomic scheme of history, whereby the evolution of events was explained through a four-part sequence composed of sin, retribution, reconciliation, and salvation. From this new standpoint, 2 Maccabees was now seen as theological history, rather than as a case of bad historiography. Nickelsburg's recategorizing of the work, which soon became the new consensus, only reinforced the conviction that 1 and 2 Maccabees are opposed in tenor and purpose. In Nickelsburg's view the main clue to the generic difference between the two was the scope and focus of their respective narratives, although he still read the two works as linear chronicles narrating the same events. As he pointed out, 1 Maccabees covers the whole span of time from the causes of the rebellion against Antiochos IV (starting from 1 Macc. 1:11) down to the establishment of the dynastic principle within the Maccabean family and the birth of the Hasmonean dynasty. Recounting the stories of the three brothers Judas, Jonathan, and Simon, sons of Mattathias, the narrative ends with John Hyrkanos succeeding his father, Simon. In contrast, 2 Maccabees deals with Judas's time alone, and does not follow its story even up to his death, focusing instead on the fate of the Jerusalem temple and the establishment of the Hanukkah festival. Further, the author is fond of "martyr" stories and epiphanies, and foregrounds the role of the martyrs as instruments of reconciliation and salvation, at the expense of Judas's personal role in liberating the temple. In consequence, the ancient author was either indifferent to political concerns (in Nickelsburg's view) or, as others thought, kept his distance vis-à-vis the Hasmoneans in spite of his admiration for Judas Maccabee. In the last few years scholars have become more cautious about the political ideas of the author of 2 Maccabees, but no consensus has emerged—except, perhaps, for the notion that politics was not his main concern.

In the following decades students of 2 Maccabees essentially engaged in refining the new tenet that 2 Maccabees is theological history. Robert Doran defined it as "temple propaganda," while Jan Willem van Henten asserted that 2 Maccabees embodies a theology of martyrdoms. More important, in 1981 Doran was the first to genuinely depart from the tenet that 2 Maccabees is a linear chronicle, by interpreting its structure as a catalogue of three stories of temple liberation. Although in the last few years such heavily loaded phrases as "theological history," "pious author," and the like have tended to disappear from many of the studies on 2 Maccabees (albeit not all: far from it), the real question is not so much nomenclature as the repercussion on how scholars apprehend the work's subject matter and purpose. From this perspective it is not certain that any real shift has occurred since Nickelsburg. As used by students of 2 Maccabees, the concept of theological history is predicated on the modern delineation of the semantic field of religion. This means that the religious and political conceptions expressed in 2 Maccabees are taken as evidence of the author's personal insights. Insofar as he sought any performative effect, scholars argue, this belongs to the interpersonal register alone—such as inculcating moral principles in "Jews" and encouraging them to observe newly founded festivals.

It is striking that this same tacit perspective informs two recent comprehensive commentaries on 2 Maccabees despite their notable surface differences. Daniel Schwartz has advocated the heterodox view that 2 Maccabees was originally meant solely to encourage the observance of the Nikanor's Day festival, celebrating "the establishment of stable Jewish rule in the city [of Jerusalem]." Whereas the sections related to the Hanukkah festival commemorating the temple purification—the festal letters prefixed to the work and 2 Maccabees 10:1–8, containing its core episode—were purportedly added at a secondary stage. In the same line, Schwartz has argued that the subject matter of 2 Maccabees is "the history of the city of Jerusalem from the beginning of institutionalized Hellenization under the high priest Jason around 175 B.C.E. and until Judas Maccabaeus's victory over the Seleucid general Nicanor in ... 161B.C.E." Jerusalem is of interest to the author as the "Jews' capital city and also ... the capital of its territory, Judaea." In contrast he had no particular interest in the temple, as he was a diasporan Jew. In short, Schwartz rejects the accepted tenets that 2 Maccabees is about the Jerusalem temple and that the Hanukkah story is its original core, reverts to the old view that 2 Maccabees is a linear chronicle, and revives the diasporan hypothesis. That said, he does not question the view that the temple is a matter of "religion"— claiming only that, in the author's diasporan religious sensitivity, the people is more important than the latter. Hence the work's focus on martyrdom, a "typically diasporan" subject matter. And so he believes are the author's political concerns: "Our diasporan author insists repeatedly that Gentiles and their rulers respect the Jews and Judaism and are benevolent toward them.... And as for the Jews, all they want to do is keep the peace." Despite this diasporan relocation, Schwartz's analysis does not veer from the implicit premise that the author writes as a private man addressing fellow "Jews."

In his new commentary on 2 Maccabees, Doran has judiciously substituted the concept of theomachy for that of temple propaganda to describe the subject matter of what he sees as a subgenre of local history, namely "epiphanies of the patron god/goddess in defense of the city." As we shall see in this chapter, he has thoroughly revised his analysis of the narrative composition of 2 Maccabees with regard to his 1981 monograph, so as to incorporate new insights of his own and those of others. In substance, however, his definition of the work's subject matter and purpose remains unchanged. In his new phrasing he states that "the author intended to move his audience both to follow the ancestral traditions of the Jews by narrating how the ancestral God of the Jews had defended his temple in Jerusalem against attackers, and also to celebrate the new festivals inaugurated in honor of this defense." In short, encouraging "Jews" to celebrate festivals is a religious issue; and as such, a private matter.

The literary analysis that will be elaborated in this chapter and the three that follow has close affinities with Doran 1981, in that it sees 2 Maccabees primarily as a succession of self-contained stories in which meaning is communicated through a set narrative pattern. However, although the temple is the main signifier in which the meaning of the text is rooted, the narrative pattern that informs the second and main temple story (the Hanukkah story) is identified as a temple-foundation account (in our case, a refoundation), such as is well documented in several areas of the ancient Near East, including Judah/Judea, but is alien to the Greek cultural world. This contrasts with the pattern of temple liberation described by Doran, which is culturally common to both. The implications of this shift regarding the meaning and purpose of the narrative pattern informing 2 Maccabees, and hence of the work itself, are far-reaching. Basically, this alternative identification eschews the modernist delineation of the semantic fields of religion and politics, and places the temple within the realm of dynastic history. Moreover, the present analysis of 2 Maccabees' composition departs from Doran in claiming that the narrative pattern used is not consistent throughout, and therefore Doran's suggested scheme of catalogue form is inadequate. In its place, I propose the literary composition of the work as five discrete periods forming a cyclical (as opposed to linear) structure, the cyclical organization of time being another template rooted in ancient Near Eastern traditions—in particular, albeit not exclusively, in the genre of historiography.

As we shall see in this chapter, the cyclical structure of 2 Maccabees is complex, since it is based on the combination of three primary elements: the three successive temple stories, four kings, and four high priests—all three threads brought together in the last period of time. The first cycle is the story of Heliodoros (3:1–4:6), dominated by Seleukos IV and the pious Onias III; the Hanukkah story (4:7–13:26), is a double unit (comprised of 4:7–10:9 and 10:10–13:26) featuring Antiochos IV Epiphanes and his son Antiochos V Eupator on the one hand and the wicked high priests Jason and Menelaos on the other; the fourth cycle is Nikanor's Day (14:1–15:37a), built around Demetrios I and the wicked Alkimos; and the final cycle, contained in the last verse but one of the work (15:37b), refers to the Hasmonean period, in which the dynasty fulfills the two functions of pious high priests and royallike rulers together. The result is best regarded as a dynastic history that, like 1 Maccabees, was written to champion the Hasmonean dynasty.

The revised understanding of the literary composition and of the nature, meaning, and purpose of the narrative that will be explored in detail in this and the three following chapters is predicated on several fundamental premises that depart from the common view just presented. First, 2 Maccabees is situated in an exact geographical and cultural environment. This situation means that although in its form 2 Maccabees is written in Greek and is akin to Greek Hellenistic historiography, its content is the product of local literary traditions and local intertextuality, these time-old traditions being adapted to reflect on the one hand the political and social conditions of Seleukid and Hasmonean times and on the other the cultural and religious changes of this period. Second, it is essential to establish the social and cultural environment of the work in order to determine the precise connotations of the words and institutions referred to, in particular the institution of the temple. Under the native monarchies of the ancient Near East, including the old Kingdom of Judah, the temple of the patron deity of the city (as in Babylon), or alternatively of the dynasty (as in Jerusalem), was closely linked to the reigning dynasty. This close association between deity and king meant that, as an institution, the temple was to a large extent located within the sphere of the royal power, a fact that left its hallmark on the subsequent social and political status of ancient Near Eastern temples as well as on their symbolic representation. In particular, the temple's foundation itself was a royal prerogative. In subsequent times, the motif of temple building remained a major vehicle of ruler ideology. If we situate 2 Maccabees in this cultural context, the assumption that a literary work about temples and martyrs is theological history is clearly unsustainable, especially if theological history is conceived as a genre alternative to dynastic history. Not only is 2 Maccabees a work of dynastic history, but—in line with the Near Eastern and Judahite/Judean traditions of historiography—it also patently employs an ideological argument for dynastic legitimization: namely temple foundation. In other words, the narrative schemes of sin-retribution-reconciliation-restoration and of temple foundation (or refoundation) are actually subordinated to and even put at the direct service of dynastic legitimization.

The classic format of the temple-building account and the way this informs the narrative of 2 Maccabees—and incidentally also that of 1 Maccabees—will be explored in detail in the next three chapters. The present chapter will be devoted to refuting the currently prevailing view that 2 Maccabees is theological history and its implied consequences for the analysis of the work's subject matter and purpose.

Our first step must be to examine the proem, since this is the place where the subject matter of the book is introduced. My basic hypothesis that 2 Maccabees is not structured as a linear chronicle necessarily impinges on the analysis of the proem, since it precludes the usual implicit assumption that the latter refers to the content of the book in a linear way. If, in contrast, we accept that it is not organized in a linear, sequential order, the fact that the proem not only gives primacy of place to Judas but moreover takes pains to stress his close connection with the temple becomes an unambiguous token of political support for the Hasmoneans.

Our next step will be to disprove the modern illusion that the sin-retribution (or measure-for-measure) motif was a naive form of causality used to demonstrate God's power in history. No one needs the obvious to be explained, and in societies in which the existence and workings of God (or the gods) in human destiny is a matter of knowledge and not belief, divine righteousness per se was a nonissue, and therefore no material for historians. What was of interest for the ancient was to know who and what caused the community's divine patron to get angry against His or Her people to the point of letting enemies invade their territory and attack His or Her temple; how the reconciliation was obtained, and, most important, by whom. In other words, who the sinner (or sinners) was (or were) and what was his (or their) sin, and who was chosen as the new legitimate leader by the people's divine patron. That is to say, the two alternative interpretations of the function of the measure-for-measure motif—either demonstrating God's righteousness or indicating who is the sinner and who the divinely elected leader—are precisely what makes the difference between "theological" and dynastic history. In truth, the author of 2 Maccabees exploited his rhetorical tools—and particularly the retribution theme—in a far less ingenuous manner than is usually assumed. Like Polybius, he used them as an effective rhetorical weapon at the service of partisan opinions, although he acclimated them to the cultural conventions of his own society. In terms of the latter, the meaningful hints to disclose his opinions do not stem from a fondness for epiphanies and martyrs; again, when divine powers are implicated as a pervading source of causality in worldly affairs, these are intended as clues of something else, and not an issue per se. The key lies in the way the moral qualities of piety and impiety are distributed among the characters involved. Quite simply, to describe some leading figure as a pious man is an expression of the author's political endorsement, whereas the opposite allegations of wickedness (impiety) indicate authorial opposition. In our case, the pious hero is clearly Judas Maccabee, whereas the vocabulary of impiety swiftly identifies Jason and Menelaos as his main opponents. The author employed the measure-for-measure pattern of causation to reinforce his case against Judas's main rivals, the "wicked" high priests Jason and Menelaos.


Excerpted from Tales of High Priests and Taxes by Sylvie Honigman. Copyright © 2014 The Regents of the University of California. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

Preface and Acknowledgments

Introduction: The Modern Semantic Categories of “Religion” and “Politics” and Ancient Societies
1. 2 Maccabees as Dynastic History
2. Temple Foundation and Royal Legitimacy: A Narrative Pattern and Its Message
3. Ioudaïsmos as the Legitimate Social Order Founded by Judas Maccabee
4. Royal High Priests and Temple Foundation: The Narrative Pattern and the Hasmonean Political Order

Introduction: Symbolic Universe, Cultural Codes, and Causal Analysis in 1 and 2 Maccabees
5. Hellenismos: The Social Order of the Wicked Rivals in 1 and 2 Maccabees
6. The “Religious Persecution” in the Light of Ancient Judean Cultural and Narrative Codes
7. The Causes of the Rebellion according to 1 and 2 Maccabees

From Literary Analysis to History: A Summary of the Conclusions of Parts I and II
8. Judea and Koile Syria and Phoinike under Antiochos III, 200–187 B.C.E.
9. Seleukos IV Philopator and the Revision of Antiochos III’s Settlement in Judea, 187–175 B.C.E.
10. Judea under Antiochos IV Epiphanes: The Reforms, 175–ca. 172 B.C.E.
11. Judea under Antiochos IV Epiphanes: The Suppression of the Rebellion, 169/8–164 B.C.E.

Appendix A. The Literary Composition of 1 Maccabees
Appendix B. The Literary Composition of 2 Maccabees

Index of Subjects

Index Locorum

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