Judah to Jesus: After the Maccabees


ImageWoodcut of Judah Maccabee at the gates of Jerusalem

Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld (1794–1872)The Bible in Pictures


The rabbis of the Talmud asked the question, Mai Hanukkah? What’s this Hanukkah business? I was equally confused when I was a kid. In fact, when I first heard of it, I told my mom, “a girl in my kindergarten class says she’s getting a harmonica. Can I have one, too?”

Mom felt so guilty about my lack of Jewish knowledge that she junked the Christmas tree and enrolled me in Hebrew school the next fall. There I learned that Judah Maccabee fought the Syrians (or was it the Greeks?)  (actually the rulers were Macedonian) so that we could practice our religion. We few poorly armed Jews defeated the mighty Syrian army and after that everything was great. Not exactly. In order to write about Queen Salome Alexandra (Shalom-Zion) I needed to become somewhat disillusioned with the Maccabees and their descendants.

Alexander the Great was a Macedonian, but in love with Greek culture. His tutor had been Aristotle. When Alexander  conquered the Mediterranean world, he planted Greek-speaking Macedonian colonies and Greek (Hellenistic) culture everywhere he went. By the time of the Maccabees, everybody who was anybody in the Mediterranean world had become Hellenized, adopting Greek dress, Greek language, Greek customs.

DECIRCUMCISION and other acts of self-betrayal

High Priests of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem took Greek names (Jason in 175 BCE and Menelaus in 172). They built a Greek fortress-city (the Akra) next to the Jewish Holy Temple, complete with a gymnasium where Jewish priests and nobles exercised in the nude, a la Grecque. Some even went through the painful cosmetic surgery of de-circumcision — creating an artificial foreskin out of the flesh of the penis. Menelaus declared the pig an approved sacrificial animal and celebrated the festival of Dionysus, the Greek god of wine.

I learned from Arthur Waskow’s book Seasons of Our Joy that the Maccabee war was not just a war against the bad guys, but a civil war. Mattathias and his sons the Maccabees fought a guerrilla war against the Macedonian king of Syria, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, who had forbidden Jewish worship in the province of Judea. But the Maccabees also targeted the Jewish priests and nobles who were trying to Greekify the Jewish religion.

Hanukkah celebrates the cleansing and re-dedication of the Temple. But the Judean civil war did not end when Judah and his soldiers re-conquered Jerusalem in 164 BCE. Now came a power struggle. As soon as their right to practice their religion had been restored, the pious Hasidim, who had backed Judah, wanted to end the war. Judah kept fighting, to drive out the Syrians and the collaborators among his own people and to consolidate his power. His former allies became his enemies. Jews massacred Jews. Judah was killed by the Syrians when many of his troops deserted. His brother Jonathan took over leadership of the remaining rebels.

After a period of living in hiding and obscurity, Jonathan saw his opportunity during a struggle between rival claimants to the Syrian throne.  He became general of a brigade of tough seasoned Jewish soldiers. He sold their services to the highest Syrian bidder, changing sides more than once. This army enabled him to re-conquer Jerusalem. He had himself named High Priest and governor of Judea by one of the Syrian contenders for the throne.

When Jonathan was killed, his brother Simon took over and was able to secure a measure of independence. Judea no longer paid tribute to Syria. The Jewish elders and leaders, by acclamation, appointed Simon High Priest and prince.

Here’s the paradox: Though the Maccabees restored religious freedom and political independence for the Jews, their leaders — Jonathan, Simon, and later Simon’s son, John Hyrcanus– dressed and acted a lot like Hellenistic rulers. They wore cloaks of purple and golden ornaments and built Greek-style tombs, with columns. Simon was installed as High Priest by a Greek-style representative assembly. John Hyrcanus and his sons Judah Aristobolus and Alexander Janneus (Jonathan or Yannai) had Greek as well as Hebrew names. Aristobolus even added Philhellene — lover of all things Greek — to his name. Even the Books of the Maccabees where we learn the Hanukkah story are as Hellenistic in style as comic books are American. Each generation adopted more of the luxuries and manners of the dominant world culture – Hellenism. Sound familiar? Just substitute American culture for Hellenism.

Queen  Shalom-Zion was married first to the eldest of Simon’s grandsons, Aristobolus,  and then to Janneus. She lived with the constant conflict between staying in power and living a Jewish life.

One Response to “Judah to Jesus: After the Maccabees”

  1. Bernice Levinson says:

    Fascinating stuff…and we thought we knew everything there was to know about Hanukah. I’ll stay tuned to subsequent installments.

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