Fundamental Judaism versus Judaic Hellenism

This lecture is gratefully indebted to Jennifer Michael Hecht’s Doubt, and to such scholars as Martin Hengel, and Elias J. Bickerman.

Hanukkah, Hellenism, and Judaism

Before this lecture turns to the victorious Maccabean Revolt against the Greek Seleucid Empire in Palestine, I would like to glance at the history and background of Hellenistic Greece.  It is necessary to know something about the spirit of those times in order to understand why secular and conservative Jews clashed with violent quarrels about their religion and traditions from 167-160 BCE. The Hellenistic Era is usually designated as the period from the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE to the death of the Ptolemy Empress, Cleopatra, and the subsequent incorporation of Egypt into the Roman Empire, in 30 BCE.  In a broader sense, Hellenism was the spread of Greek cultural traditions that had begun with Alexander the Great’s conquests. The Greek cultural tradition and its language ultimately penetrated to such areas as Rome, Carthage, India and other regions which had not made up parts of Alexander’s empire. 

But the word, Hellenism, also conveys the penetrating reach achieved by Hellenistic Greek culture into such countries as Persia and Judaea, which were nevertheless able to preserve their national culture, traditions and religions.

When Alexander died, his empire was initially carved up into three principalities or kingdoms ruled by three of his generals.  The kingdom with which this lecture is principally concerned is the Seleucid Empire, which ultimately won Judaea from the Ptolemaic Principality.  Pergamon, the third kingdom, is beyond the scope of this lecture. It is generally agreed that it was the mid- 19th Century scholar, G.J. Droysen, who coined the word, Hellenistic, to describe the period when Greek culture began to spread and dominate many areas after the death of Alexander.

The Hellenistic era was an exhilarating time, during which a new version of the Greek language, called Koine, spread across the conquered areas. It was an era when Greeks from different Hellenic cities began to colonize the lands they had moved to and settled in. However, Greek colonists were not always in the majority in those new places. Greeks were often the minority nationality in the settlement areas, even though they were usually the dominant class.  The indigenous populations kept their own customs and their own languages alive.

Seleucis I Nicator, received Babylonia when Alexander died and extended that kingdom to central Anatolia, the Levant, Mesopotamia, Persia, today’s Turkmenistan, Pamir and some of Pakistan. The Seleucids ruled for a long period, but their empire continued to shrink due to military defeats.  They held on to Syria until they were conquered by the Roman general, Pompey, in the 1st Century ACE.

 After winning a conflict with Egypt in 200 BCE, the Seleucids acquired Judaea, where Greek culture, or Hellenism, was beginning to be embraced by people who had come from a traditional Judaic culture.  This lecture will describe the conflict that developed between the Jews who clung to their original language, religion and culture and the supporters of the Seleucid King, Antiochus Epiphanes IV, during the years of conflict in Judah between 167-160 BCE.

I would like to review the effects and consequences of Hellenism before looking more deeply into its conflicts with Judaism.  Hellenistic culture’s most obvious and influential result was that a man who spoke Greek could move anywhere in the empire and find work and income.  In the Hellenistic era, people could live and prosper everywhere, but were at home nowhere. Where they did feel at home were the native cities they had departed and missed.  Although their moving led to greater prosperity, the transplanted people also felt a sense of unease and insecurity.  It is important to keep this fact in mind as we peruse the Hellenistic age because it sheds light on many aspects of the time, including religion. It was such an expanding era for commerce, travel, the arts, science and so on, that it is sometimes tempting to regard the period as having attained universal cooperation.  That would be an exaggeration, as wars and violence continued undiminished. But it was a stimulating time that led to wealth, freedom of movement and expanded intellectual attainment for many people.

Alexander the Great conquered region after region of the known world, but he was not only interested in military conquests.  He was also preoccupied with bringing about the spread of Greek culture.  It is a matter of debate among scholars whether his successors had the same policy concerning their Greek traditions. Whether or not Alexander’s successors shared his ambitious conception of Hellenism and the importance of its spread, their consistent practice was to adopt some of the local customs of the people they ruled.  The adoption of local ways was most likely a deliberate policy that helped them maintain control of their kingdoms. The indigenous populations in their principalities were allowed to retain their own cultures and religions.

The mainland of Greece suffered a decline during the Hellenistic era, but its conventions had already been somewhat played out. The modern, less-constrained Greek civilization began to disseminate a culture across the world that was in many ways different from the classical one of ancient Hellas.  While the traditional polytheistic religion of the original Greek gods and goddesses remained dominant, including the practice of the customary rites, people began to embrace the worship of different religions as well. The rites dedicated to Isis, Serapis, Dionysius and other deities became very popular. In the zeitgeist, or spirit of the times, the new religions, many imported from the East, competed for members and money. Magic was very popular, as was a complex and well-worked out system of astrology. 

The hope and desire for eternal life became stronger in Hellenistic times.  (See “The Pagan Roots of Jesus and Mary” at for a more extended discussion of Hellenistic mystery religions.) The spread of the popular mystery religions was partly due to the hope for life beyond death. Those religions also offered a sense of community and of belonging to the uprooted citizens of the Hellenistic cities.

The great philosophies of the time were Epicureanism, Stoicism, Skepticism and neo-Platonism.

It is important to keep in mind that the influential philosophies of the day were generally confined to the elite, educated classes.  The naturalistic Epicurean philosophy had hegemony in many areas of the Hellenistic world. (Please see Atheist Philosophy- Epicureanism and Skepticism- for a more thorough discussion of both schools of thought at  Epicurean philosophy claimed the gods lived in bliss somewhere in the ether or cosmos, with no interest in mankind.  Epicureans rejected the concept of fate and embraced chance.  They believed the swerve of atoms determined many outcomes in the natural world.  They advocated the attainment of moderate pleasure, tried to avoid pain and did not mix in politics. They advised people to adopt a course of tranquil living, participation in philosophical discussions and kindness to others. 

Epicureans were well known for viewing the world with a naturalistic outlook, which we now call materialism, and they did not believe in an afterlife. Epicurean thought became very popular and its influence spread across Hellenistic culture.  It was finally and decisively wiped out by the end of the Roman Empire around 476 ACE. Epicureanism was a philosophy detested by the Christians, who tried to make sure that the philosophy’s written works were destroyed. They did not completely succeed.  There are a few Epicurean texts and letters that have survived.

There is an interesting declaration in the Talmudic Mishnah, which is one of the authoritative documents of Rabbinical Judaism. The statement reflects the conflict between Judaism and Epicurean philosophy. “All Israel has a share in the world to come, as Isaiah said: And all of your people who are righteous will merit eternity and inherit the land.

 And these are people who do not merit the world to come: the ones who say that there is not resurrection of the dead, and those who deny the Torah is from the heavens, and Epicureans.”  Malkin states that: “Only in Judaism did the name of the philosopher Epicurus come to mean ‘heretic’, and Epicureanism ‘heresy.” The Jewish word for Epicurean heretics was ‘apikorsim’.

The declaration from the Mishnah reveals the Jewish religion’s rejection and fear of Epicureanism.  It is telling that it was that particular philosophy, with its rejection of both immortality and divine providence, which was singled out. There is an inference that Epicurean philosophy was the most damning one to embrace.  Scholars say that the statement continued to be used as the basis of speculation about the meaning of Jewishness in the Middle Ages. It was discussed by such important rabbis as the famous Moses Maimonides, who denounced Epicureanism in the 12th Century ACE.

Modern Jews still use the term, “apikoros,” as the word for an unbeliever, or apostate. We shall be looking at some of the roots of the conflict between Judaism and Epicureanism in a few moments, when the lecture turns to Judah around 167 BCE.  The hated Seleucid ruler, Antiochus Epiphanes IV, established an Epicurean school in Jerusalem, as well as introducing other Hellenic practices, often with the cooperation and enthusiasm of some of the Jewish High Priests.

However, Hellenism was a period that gave rise to other innovations besides philosophy. There was a tendency among earlier scholars to view Hellenistic culture as a decadent period in terms of the arts and sculpture, a decline from the earlier Greek classical period.

But many works, Laocoon and His Sons, the Venus de Milo and the Winged Victory of Samothrace, are witnesses to the richness and talent of that eclectic period. In the present day, there is a new appreciation and reconsideration of Hellenistic art by modern critics.

There were many scientific advances in the Hellenistic era, and there was a large establishment of seats of learning, such as the Alexandrian Museum and the Alexandrian Library. Medicine, geometry, astronomy and engineering flourished.  Lucio Russo argues that the scientific method was established in the 3rd Century BCE, and died out during the Roman period.  He states that it was only revived in the Renaissance. 

It is important to have an overview of the history and culture of the Hellenistic era before we begin to discuss the Maccabean Revolt. Secular Jewish people, including some of the High Priests, embraced many aspects of Hellenism, which helped fuel the conflict between conservative Jews and Antiochus Epiphanes.  Hellenism’s dynamic culture, along with the promise of prosperity and advancement for those individuals who accepted it, was very enticing.  It is also important to keep in mind that, despite all the political and institutional differences between the different countries and their rulers, Hellenistic culture was a unity which bound the upper classes of society together.

The uniformity of the Greek language through each Greek settlement from India to Gaul reflected the cultural unity of the Hellenistic world.  Hellenic monarchy was the institutional unifier, while Koine, the lingua franca of Hellenic international culture, bound the educated and commercial classes together.

Many rulers of the various areas asserted some type of divinity, in order to assert their power and establish the institutional unity of their kingdom.  The Egyptian Ptolemies continued the Egyptian custom of proclaiming themselves god-kings, while other monarchs claimed a divine status without declaring themselves gods. Now that we have glanced at some of the background of both Hellenistic military conquest and cultural achievements, I would like to turn to the relationship between the Jewish people and Hellenistic culture.

Palestine, then called Judah or Judaea, was a small area that was situated between the Egyptian and Seleucid Empires.  From about 332 to 200 BCE, the Jewish people in Palestine were first ruled by the Ptolemies in the South, and then by the Northern Seleucids.  It was under the Seleucid monarch, Antiochus IV, that the conflict between Judaism and Hellenism began to fester and grow into a violent revolt.  The success of the resistance against Antiochus Epiphanes and the rededication of the Jewish Temple continues to be celebrated with the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah in December.

The conflict between Greek culture and Judaism took a long time to develop. Alexander the Great introduced the Jewish people into Greek culture, and the first Greek descriptions of Jews were that they were philosophers and wise men.  Some Greeks believed that the Jews were the descendants of the philosopher/priest ruling caste of India, the Brahmans.  The following story about the founding of the great library at Alexandria will illuminate the state of affairs between Greek culture and Jewish culture during Hellenistic times, before their unfortunate clash in Jerusalem.

Ptolemy, the first Greek-Egyptian Emperor, was very benevolent toward the Jewish people.  A century after the founding of the great Library of Alexandria, there is proof of the Jewish influence on that library in the form of “The Letter of Aristeas.” The letter dates from around 180-145 BCE. Aristeas was a Jewish scholar who was a chronicler of the translation of the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Jewish scriptures.  It is called the Septuagint because seventy-two scholars were said to have worked translating it.  Aristeas explained the origin of the Septuagint in his letter.  He stated that Ptolemy I sponsored a good friend, Demetrius, to gather books and scrolls for the Alexandria Library.

But the friend was also given the task of presiding over a large translation project which would make the important volumes of the various cultures of the Empire accessible to anyone who read Greek.  Demetrius had once been an official of Athens and a pupil of Aristotle, so he had excellent credentials.  The first translation project chosen was the Septuagint.  There was a great deal of Jewish enthusiasm for the project. Jennifer Michael Hecht states that the Jewish population on the island of Pharos celebrated the translation of the Septuagint with a yearly feast, when the text was read aloud.  The Jewish presence for the celebration and readings was large but there were also many non-Jewish participants.

 At that time, the 1st Century CE, the Jewish people made up about forty percent of the Alexandrian population.  When the gymnasium in Alexandria was opened to non-Greeks, many Jewish people chose to participate.  It is telling that the indigenous Egyptian underclass was not allowed into the gymnasium.

Despite the large Jewish presence in Alexandria, Jerusalem remained the historical center for the Jewish people. Even though most of them did not reside there, they felt that city, which contained their Temple, was their spiritual home. But many Jews were drawn to Alexandria and Antioch, which had become desirable places for them to settle. Elias J. Bickerman states that when the various emperors wanted to populate an area with loyal citizens, they would often offer the lands to Jews.  Jewish immigrants were given farmlands and vineyards in those new regions. They were allowed cash supplements until the first harvest and permitted to transfer their own laws to the new communities.  It is important to remember that the Jewish people entered the new cultures with a distinct cultural identity and religion of their own.

Jennifer M. Hecht has some interesting observations about the role of women in the Hellenistic era. Classical Greece severely repressed women, but Hellenistic pluralism had liberated women to some extent.  Cosmopolitan societies usually extend more freedom to women, because many of the “…old assumptions about gender and assigned roles for the sexes become looser, more shifting and less defined.” Hecht observes that the classic Greek world concentrated more on the male form in movement and emphasized male beauty.  But Hellenistic art “… depicted both men and women sitting at tables together, smartly dressed and comfortably enjoying each other’s company.”

She thinks it quite possible that some Jewish women might have found Hellenistic culture inviting. Jewish women were not as repressed as women in classical Greece, but they were still constrained by a patriarchal society. 

Hecht explains: “In the Jewish experience and in the wider Greek world, the kinship ties that bound women to men and men to their fathers were breaking down, being replaced by the cosmopolitan virtues of freedom and the mutual aid of loyal friendships.”

Hellenism was very attractive to many Jews. Ironically it was often the descendants and children of the old and venerated priestly caste that found the newer Hellenistic society more attractive. They had been well-educated and were usually prosperous enough to take advantage of the fashionable schools, the interesting philosophy and the arts.  They embraced the expanded knowledge of the more sophisticated society. Many of them were attracted to the enlarged trade and commerce of the Hellenistic world.  The result was that they began to fall off in their observance of the Jewish laws and religious observations. The ancient ways seemed narrow, restricted and out of date. 

Most secular Jews probably did not see any moral failing in taking part in the civic celebrations, exercise and education at the Greek gymnasiums.  Jews had begun to enter the expanded middle class that had developed as a result of the democratic policies of the Hellenistic era. They were attracted to the government jobs and other positions which had opened up and entertained ambitious plans for their children’s future as well. It is likely that secular Jewish people did not imagine anything wrong with their participation in the new society and probably did not feel any less Jewish because of it.

The question of Jewish identity did not seem to be a troublesome issue for the new class of non-observing Jews.

We have only popular Jewish legend to rely on for the following story, so one is not sure of its reliability. But it does cast some light on the question of Jewish assimilation to Hellenistic society.  It was said that in 204 BCE, Ptolemy IV decreed that the Jews of Egypt become followers of Dionysius.  Ptolemy IV was dedicated to that Greek god.  The author of the Old Testament’s Maccabees II claimed that many Jews were pleased to comply.  The conservative Maccabean narratives were biased in favor of orthodox Judaism, so what is true and what is fable in their tales remains a troublesome issue. But the Egyptians were excellent record keepers and there is no extant record of Ptolemy’s order.

It is important to keep in mind that during Hellenistic times, many people joined mystery religions like the Dionysian one. Embracing a mystery religion had cultural cache and was believed to be an opportunity to attain an afterlife. The Jewish religion did not have a clear idea of an afterlife and the Greeks had the notion of an underworld where the diminished shades of the dead wandered around in perpetual melancholy. But many mystery religions promised a rewarding life after death and such a proposition was very seductive.  Elias Bickerman explains that a non-observing Jew, who had not been circumcised, and took up the ecstatic worship of Dionysius, Isis or any other pagan deity, was still legally a Jew. Furthermore, according to historians, there is evidence that even if a Jewish man achieved Greek citizenship, and many did, he still maintained “a Jewish identity.”

Scholars have noted that when the Biblical authors wrote about the beliefs of apostate Jews, they were not able to name any particular cult. 

Instead, they complained the apostate Jews were not keeping dietary laws, not observing the Sabbath, drifting away from religion and were estranged from ancestral doctrines.  It is obvious that the complaint of traditional Jews was more about the non-observance of the secular Jews, than about any particular belief system adopted by them that might have been alien to the Jewish religion.

But I would like to return to the story of, and possible explanation for, the alleged decree commanding Alexandrian Jews to worship Dionysius.  Perhaps there never was such a decree, but rather a type of benevolent coercion.  Alexandria had begun to be overpopulated and the governors of the city stopped offering citizenship to newcomers and to their descendants.  There were suddenly two tiers of Jews- the Jewish citizens of Alexandria and those Jewish people who could not even aspire to citizenship in the future.  The second generation of those people began to press for equal rights.  That state of affairs might explain Ptolemy’s action, but with all the careful record keeping in Egypt, there is a puzzling lack of written proof of such a decree.

Historians speculate that there was some sort of offer extended to those Jewish people who desired full citizenship.  There may have been pressure for them to join in the general Greek sacrifice. All citizens were expected to participate in the religious rites and ceremonies of their cities.  I have mentioned in earlier lectures that religion and government were intertwined in Greece. Sacrificing to the gods and taking part in the city’s religious festivals were taken as a sign of loyalty to the state. 

Perhaps Jewish people were given an opportunity to attain Alexandrian citizenship by becoming worshippers of Dionysius.   Secular Jews may well have been excited at the prospect of citizenship. Traditional Jews must have been horrified and would have refused to comply.  But there is no record of any Jewish people being persecuted for the refusal to worship Dionysius, which makes the reality of a draconian decree much less plausible.

Hecht states that stories began to circulate to make it appear that Greeks and Jews had been “natural” friends from antiquity. I am most indebted for her research in bringing together many apocryphal tales that circulated in Hellenistic times about Greek and Jewish linked origins.  There was a purported exchange of letters between Solomon when he was a child-king and his client kings of Egypt and Tyre.  A marvelous tale alleged that the sons of Abraham were companions of the Greek hero, Hercules, and that Hercules married one of the son’s daughters.  Other stories circulated that claimed the Jews, who were the older people, might have taught the Greeks important skills such as writing. Hecht writes: “…about 200 BCE, the biographer, Hermippus, speculated that early Greek philosopher, Protagoras, had been a pupil of Jews and Thracians.”  Maccabees II apparently believed that the Jewish people and the Greek Spartans were descendants of Abraham. Such tales reflected the excellent relations between Greeks and Jews during the Hellenistic era.  The alleged historical friendship between them in ancient times was allegorical.

I am indebted to both Hecht and Momigliano for the following facts about the attitude of Hellenistic Jews toward Moses and Abraham, the revered elders of the Jewish religion.  Secular Jews favored Abraham rather than Moses. 

Abraham pre-dated Moses and had not followed the laws that Moses laid down in a later era. In Genesis 18, Abraham served milk and meat to the Lord, while Sarah made cake.  The Hebrew god dined with pleasure and did not seem to mind that the Jewish dietary laws were ignored by Abraham. Momigliano states that during Hellenistic times, secular Jews saw Abraham as less exclusionary and far less legalistic than Moses.  They took Abraham as a prototype because he had moved and found a new home rather than taking his people back to their origins.  Abraham provided a model for Jews that hinted at an outward-bound attitude rather than a secluded clinging to the law of Judaism.

But orthodox Jews believed that their laws had kept the Jewish people together during the exiles they endured and had contributed to making them a strong and unified entity. Jews had been tempted to drift from their religion many times, but were brought back to its observance by strong spiritual leaders such as Ezra the Scribe. When the Jews returned to Jerusalem about 538 BCE from the Babylonian exile, Ezra provided the rationale and motivation for them to take up their traditional laws.  Ezra was the famous scribe who followed his people to Jerusalem from Babylon. He was also a priest, a member of the priestly class, which was descended from Aaron, Moses’ brother.

When Ezra the Scribe reached Jerusalem, he was horrified by what he saw as the degeneration of his people.  Ezra and his followers managed to persuade and coerce the Jewish people to stop intermarrying with Samaritan and other tribal peoples, and to send non-Jewish wives away.

The Jews returned to following the laws of Moses, to observing the Sabbath, and to circumcising baby boys, a dangerous and irrational custom.

Now it was Hellenism that was beginning to threaten traditional Judaism. The story of Ezra and the pull of the old ways remained strong with some of the conservative Jewish people. They clung to their painfully won traditions and added more tales to reinforce the importance of those cultural practices. The conservatives claimed that Eve had performed purification rites after childbirth!  But Hellenistic Jews did not give credence to such stories. Nor were they interested in one isolating identity as a people.  The reinstitution of the old laws by Ezra the Scribe in an earlier era seemed irrelevant to those cosmopolitan Jews. They wanted to be, and many were, respected members of Hellenistic society and did not feel they were betraying their Jewish identity but enhancing it.

Orthodox Jews who continued to be observant of Mosaic Law and customs were angry and rejecting of the drift away from traditional Judaism.  Some zealots reacted with religious extremism, forming sects which left the cities in bands and went to live in the desert.  Hecht explains that they were “sharpening their knives,” as the phrase would have it, in anticipation of the day when they could re-institute pure Judaism, Mosaic Law and male circumcision. According to Hecht’s book, Doubt, most of the conservatives, which included the Jewish lower classes, were content to live quiet lives of Jewish observance, while the secular Jews pursued Greek educations and Hellenistic “chic.” For quite a while, the situation did not lead to open hostility and the society in Jerusalem was fairly stable.

What occurred then, when Judaea changed rulers and came under the rule of the Seleucid emperors?  Antiochus III marched down from the north, conquered the Egyptian Ptolemy around 198 BCE and gained part of the Egyptian holdings.  While Jewish traditionalists were unhappy with the transfer of power, there were many other citizens who were pleased with the new spirit of progress.  Antiochus III was an enthusiast for Greek culture, but he was not aggressive in his changes, so affairs continued stable between progressive and conservative Jews while he reigned. It is important to remember that most Hellenistic rulers did not try to alter the customs of their conquered peoples to a great extent. In fact, as I have mentioned, they often took on the guise of what their subjects expected in a ruler, in order to stave off discontent and rebellion.

The situation changed when Antiochus Epiphanes IV became the Greek King of the Seleucid Empire in 175 BCE.  He died in 164 BCE, so his reign only lasted about ten years or so, but the reverberations for Judaea and Jerusalem would linger into the present day.  Unfortunately for the Hellenistic Jewish community, they believed they had found in Antiochus a champion for their secular prospects.

Antiochus IV was mad for conquest, especially over the Ptolemies of Egypt. At one point, Rome decided not to tolerate his aggression any longer. There was a tense confrontation when a Roman commander had a line drawn in the sand, and dared Antiochus to cross it.  If Antiochus crossed that line with his troops, he would signal his intention to invade Egypt again, but this time Roman soldiers were ready to stop him.  

Antiochus prudently withdrew his forces and the Roman commander consented to shake hands with him.  In the present day, we still use the expression “drawing a line in the sand,” which originated with that ancient encounter.

In addition to his warlike maneuvers and desire for more territory, Antiochus exhibited certain eccentric traits which gave rise to jokes that changed his epithet, Epiphanes, meaning illustrious or revealer, to Epimanes, which meant cracked or mad. He had been a hostage in Rome during his early years, as security for his father’s good intentions.  It was likely there that Antiochus IV learned to pretend to be democratic in the manner and custom of Roman rulers and politicians. That may be why his behavior in his own kingdom was often considered eccentric, such as having conversations with the common people and running for public offices.  His conduct was out of character for a king who assumed deity and had coins struck of himself as a god.  Jewish rabbis have traditionally called him, “the wicked.”

It is impossible to completely understand the events that occurred in Jerusalem during the years of 167-160 BCE. We do know that they had devastating consequences for secularity and for the Hellenistic Jews in that community. Most of the Greek and Roman histories that would have related the story in a temperate manner are no longer extant.  That means we are dependent on the accounts in the first two books of the Maccabees, composed by writers sympathetic to the orthodox cause.  Josephus, (37 ACE -100 ACE) the Jewish historian, wrote about the rebellion, but his narration borrowed heavily from the Maccabean version. With such limited sources, it is difficult to establish a balanced account of the conflict.

The narratives of the four books of the Maccabees are not considered reliable and are likely historically inaccurate. The various Bibles that still include them place them in the Apocrypha section.

 Most scholars agree about the basic facts of the conflict, but they have come to different conclusions with regard to its cause. Many respected historians see the Maccabean revolt as having political and economic causes, while others view it as a religious struggle between Judaism and Hellenism.  The writer of the second book of the Maccabees was apparently the first person to coin the two expressions, Judaism and Hellenism.

The following history is the one agreed on by most experts of the period.  We know that the Hellenized Jews of that era did not practice many Judaic rituals, such as circumcision and keeping the Sabbath.  It is important to keep in mind that the Greek culture of the time was widely Epicurean, although lip service was still paid to the old gods of the Greek pantheon. Epicureans were prominent and well-represented in the Hellenistic cities of the world. Judaea and Galilee had many Epicureans in residence and there was a proliferation of that philosophy in those two areas. Antioch and Alexandria were both replete with Epicureanism.  It was well known that Antiochus IV embraced Epicurean ideals, or embraced them in spirit.  His practices were another matter altogether and must have horrified genuine Epicureans.

The high priest of the Jews at that time was Onias III, who was apparently pro-Ptolemaic and displeased Antiochus, Ptolemy’s enemy.  The book Doubt states that the Greek rulers saw the office of high priest as a sort of governor’s position, while the Jewish people viewed it as a divinely appointed one.

 When Antiochus fired Onias III and appointed Jason as high priest, it was claimed that Jason had bribed his way to the high priest’s office. That accusation was very likely true to some extent.  Antiochus IV needed money constantly and he was exigent in his demands.  However, Jason was Onias’s brother and commanded a loyal following as well. His people included the very large group of Tobiads, who according to Stern, had been against the Ezra-type of Jewish legalism for many years. Jason and his advocates envisioned Jerusalem as a Greek polis, or city-state.

Hecht states that Jason set about at once to make Jerusalem a city which made the best elements of Greek culture available to its citizens.  At the very foot of the Temple Mount, he built a Greek gymnasium.  Gymnasiums were usually dedicated to a pagan Greek god and were the center of Greek culture. It was essential for secular and ambitious Jews to attend, as crucial social and business connections were made there.  The gymnasium was not only a place of physical exercises, but one where philosophy and moral and ethical ideas were learned.  It was also considered essential for physical health by most Greeks interested in medicine.

It was not a place where traditional Jews gathered. The word, ‘gymnos’ meant ‘naked’ in the Greek language and most of the gymnasium’s activities were practiced in the nude. Jewish law banned public nakedness.  Greeks were uncircumcised, and the Jewish men’s circumcisions were obvious in the gymnasium. Hellenistic Jews who attended were eager to fit in, and so they tried various remedies to hide or reverse their circumcisions.

A common method was to use a copper weight hung on the remains of the foreskin until the skin stretched enough to cover the glans.  Celsus, the medical writer, described two surgical forms to reverse circumcision in his 1st Century “De Medicina.”  But such operations were very dangerous at that time, so copper weights and other less drastic methods would usually be employed. There were reactionaries who then decided to cut back the foreskin even more, so that Jewish apostates could not hide their circumcision.  Some historians believe the attempts to reverse male circumcisions may have been the reason why more drastic cutting of the foreskin was established in the Jewish religion.  Many Jewish men had stopped circumcising their sons and among secular Jews the practice was beginning to be viewed as outmoded and unnecessary.

The Maccabean version of the story fulminated at length against the Temple priests, who, and I quote: “…ceased to show any interest in the services of the altar, scorning the Temple and neglecting the sacrifices, they would hurry to take part in the unlawful exercises on the training ground.” The spread of Hellenism was becoming very worrisome to the orthodox who viewed the naked sports at the gymnasium as unlawful.

Paul Johnson states that even the most pious Jews had disputes among themselves over the influence of Greek culture.  The Pharisees apparently followed the Greek rationalist influence.  They created an oral law in an attempt to translate Mosaic Law into the contemporary world.  According to the Talmud, their rivals, the Sadducees, wanted to continue with the ancient written law.

They claimed that the practices of the Pharisees would end with more respect for “… the book of Homer {the Iliad} than for the Holy Scriptures.” Hecht states that this was one of the few times the Talmud mentions any literature other than its own, “…so Jewish interest in Greek literature must have been considerable.”

Many Jewish authors wrote in Greek, because Greek was the language of choice at the time. But those writers created a rich Jewish literature of their own even while composing in the Greek language. The laments of the orthodox about Greek literature superseding Jewish books, particularly Holy Scriptures, were exaggerated and inaccurate. In addition, when Jewish scholars began to feel threatened by Hellenistic education, they responded vigorously.  Bickerman has demonstrated that the Pharisees created a Jewish school system in the 2nd and 3rd Centuries BCE in reaction to the prevalence of the Greek system.  He argues that since Hellenistic Jews had begun to embrace the gymnasium, orthodox, legalistic Jews were then forced to create a conservative, alternative school system to preserve their traditions.

Hellenistic Jews went further. They began to question whether the Jewish laws should be changed.  Some of them were very uncomfortable with breaking the law every time they stepped into a gymnasium.  They thought that perhaps some of the archaic rules should be altered. They wanted the law against public nudity lifted and a modernization of the entire Jewish religion.  Hecht states that it was those progressive Jews who first produced written Biblical criticism, questioning if the Law was really as ancient as Moses, with many of them deciding it was not so old at all.

 They began to see the Torah as a book filled with allegory, fable and restrictions. Here is Maccabees I on the issue: “In those days lawless men came forth from Israel, and misled many, saying: ‘Let us go and make a covenant with the Gentiles round about us, for since we separated from them, many evils have come upon us.’ This proposal pleased them and some of the people went eagerly to the King.  He authorized them to observe the ordinances of the Gentiles. So they built a gymnasium in Jerusalem, according to Gentile custom, and removed the marks of circumcision, and abandoned the holy covenant.”

Jason, the new high priest, was not acting entirely on his own, but with the agreement of many of his fellow Jews.  He started to limit the sacrifices in the Temple and siphoned that money over to the Greek-oriented programs. According to Hecht, “… the Temple treasury served as a state bank in a sense- it collected the money and controlled the budget, so the high priest had remarkable power.” Rumors abounded that besides bribing his way into the office of high priest, Jason was also spending the Temple money on Antiochus.  Then Antiochus went too far. In 171 BCE, he fired Jason and replaced him with Menelaus.  Menelaus was even more in tune with Hellenistic cultural reform, but also with fulfilling Antiochus’ desperate need for money. He began to send Temple money directly to Antiochus.  Jason fled to Sparta. It was telling that both high priests had adopted Greek names and discarded their original Jewish ones.  The permeation of Hellenism into Jewish culture is brought to light by such details.  

Orthodox Jews were furious with the appointment of Menelaus as high priest and became more enraged when tales emerged of sacred items being taken from the Temple to raise money for the Seleucid king’s treasury.  The scribes and their followers formed a new sect called the Hasidim, which means pious.  They dedicated themselves to studying the Torah, observing the Jewish laws and rejecting Greek culture.

But many Jewish people saw some of the new developments as a positive sign.  Most of the citizens were in a mixed mood about the Temple funds.  Money for the Temple sacrifices had been draining the community resources for years and the people had been left with little to show for it.

It seems appropriate at this point of the lecture to relate the story of Miriam, who was apparently a relative in the priestly House of Bilga. She had abandoned the Jewish religion and married a Greek officer.  According to the tale, she kicked her sandal against the Temple altar, a sign of enormous disrespect, and said: “Lukus, Lukus, or Wolf, Wolf, for how long will you deplete Jewish money and not stand by them in their poverty?” She, of course, was addressing the Hebrew god.  After the Maccabean Revolt, when conventional Jewish order and religion were restored, Miriam’s family was said to have been punished for her act of disrespect to the altar, and by extension, god. 

However another narrative states that Miram’s family of Bilga was deprived of some of its appurtenances for Temple animal sacrifice because of its own remissness. When its turn came to conduct the rites, the Bilga family often arrived late and many never showed up at all.  This forced the family who followed them to do “double duty,” so to speak.

When the Bilgas lost their equipment, they had to borrow them from some other family, which was a great embarrassment.

There are learned rabbis even in the present day who teach that although Miriam was an apostate, she was a Jew in her heart when she reproached the Temple or god for not doing anything for the Jewish people in their need.  There are other interpretations I find more plausible.  Since the altar was representative of god, perhaps Miriam was accusing the Hebrew god of not performing well.  Her complaint implied that the deity was a wolf-god that devoured sheep, i.e. Temple sacrifices, and then gave nothing back to the people who had spent money for those rites.  We shall never know for sure.  But Miriam’s words infer that a great deal of Jewish money had been devoured by the practice of Temple sacrifice prior to Jason and Menelaus.  At any rate, the story of Miriam, metaphorical or true, sheds some light on the fact that secular Jews and others had been resenting the drain of their money to the Temple for a long period of time.

Matters began to go against the Hellenized Jews.  Antiochus went to war again with Ptolemaic Egypt.  A rumor spread that he had died in battle, and the Hasidim and other zealots began rejoicing and rioting in public to celebrate his death.  Jason returned from Sparta with a fighting force and tried to regain power.  However, Antiochus was very much alive and on his return, he immediately defeated Jason’s revolt.  Furious with the turn of events, Antiochus marched on Jerusalem. When he entered the city, he immediately preceded to loot the Temple for its treasures.

Then Menelaus made a proposal that created an untenable situation.

His action was probably an attempt to seize the advantage over the conservative and zealot Jews and also to secure his position by pleasing Antiochus.  He petitioned the Emperor to decree that the Jewish people should live as a united group, under common Gentile laws, and that the adherence to Jewish law be made illegal. Such a decree would outlaw keeping the Sabbath, Torah study and other traditions sacred to many Jews.  Antiochus was very pleased with Menelaus’ petition.  The Jewish people were included in Gentile law and Jewish law was forbidden.

The Hasidim and other Jewish zealots continued to practice according to their ancient laws and rules in defiance of the decree.  Many of them became martyrs for their faith.  The story of Chana and her sons is a favorite tale of Jewish martyrdom.  Chana’s seven sons were ordered to bow before a pagan idol by Antiochus IV. They all refused, from the eldest to the two year old child.  The boys were all put to death, one by one, with horrendous tortures, but Chana, their mother, stood firm and did not ask them to give in.  The poor woman went mad two days later and died in a fall from her roof.

The situation became untenable when Menelaus attempted to force all Jews to make a symbolic show of solidarity with the universal Hellenist ideal.  He thought that the entire Jewish community should offer a sacrifice on a pagan altar. But he foolishly planned to use the Jewish Temple for this purpose. Hecht states that Menelaus was trying to turn the Temple into a sort of universal ecumenical center.  The god to be sacrificed to was Zeus, the chief deity in the Greek pantheon. By the Hellenistic era, Zeus had become a secular symbol to many Greeks. 

In fact, some Greeks equated Zeus with the Hebrew god and had no conceptual difficulty with the idea.

On December 15, 168 BCE, an altar was dedicated to Zeus right on top of the Temple’s sacrificial altar.  The Jewish people were enjoined by their law to worship no idols and not to bow to any divinity but the invisible Jewish god.  While the Hellenistic Jews most likely thought of the Temple’s dedication to Zeus as a kind of secular devotion, the orthodox thought of it as an act of the most unholy desecration. But even the biased writer of Maccabees II admitted in his narrative that the secular Jews were not forced to sacrifice to Zeus, but were complaisant about the order, as they were apostates. 

Paul Johnson argues that the order of Antiochus to sacrifice to Zeus “was not so much a desecration of the Temple by paganism as a display of militant rationalism.” Bickerman, too, speaks of Jewish writers during that era that translated Greek texts and simply changed or translated the name of Zeus to that of god. Not only the Greeks, but many pagans had no difficulty viewing the Jewish god as Zeus.  Momigliano points out that Josephus, the Jewish-Roman historian, wrote that the Samaritan Jews petitioned the Emperor to be considered different from the zealot Jews of Jerusalem. The Samaritan Jews requested, and I quote:”… that the Temple without a name be known as that of Zeus Hellenios.” In other words, they not only acquiesced in Antiochus’ decree, but were proactive in their enthusiasm about it.  It is important to keep in mind that many Jewish people were in agreement with the proposed changes.

However, as much secular people of the present day are attracted by certain aspects of Hellenistic culture, Antiochus IV was egregiously harsh and ignorant when he attempted to force either rationalism or Hellenism on all the Jewish people. Trying to compel what many orthodox Jews considered unspeakable desecration of their sacred Temple was a draconian act that culminated with the defeat of secularism in Judaea. 

The situation progressively deteriorated and concluded with violence in the city of Modein.  It is difficult to know exactly what transpired, because, as I have said, the primary source of information is Maccabees I and II and those narratives are partisan and flawed.  But here is the tale that is related in Maccabees. When the Emperor’s commissioners showed up in Modein to have the sacrifice to Zeus carried out, they met with resistance.  A priest named Mattathias Hasmon, his five sons and their followers staunchly refused. 

According to Maccabees I, a Jewish man came forward to obey the King’s command and do sacrifice in the sight of all.  Mattathias became enraged, and strode over to the altar, killing the Jewish man and the King’s representative.  The revolt of the zealot Jews had begun.  I am in agreement with Jennifer Hecht when she states her hopes that the Jewish man killed that day “fell as a martyr to secularism and doubt, and that his attempt to sacrifice as a token of loyalty to the Emperor and Hellenism was also an enthusiastic embrace of secularity.”  We shall never know.  The Maccabees were the winners of the confrontation and only their version survives.

Mattathias, his sons and other supporters, including the Hasidim, fled to the mountains and began a guerilla war.  Mattathias died in 166 BCE, and his son, Judas Maccabeus, called The Hammer, became the leader.  He managed to defeat an expedition sent against the rebels from Syria. Then Judas assembled his troops and marched on Jerusalem.  His zealots overran the city and proceeded to punish and kill those people they considered sinners- the Hellenized Jews.  Judas’ people also circumcised grown boys and adult men.  How many died from those forced and brutal circumcisions was not recorded.

Miriam, the apostate, may have been punished. Women were probably forced to return to their traditional role after the conservative onslaught.  In about 164 BCE, the Temple was reconsecrated, and the holiday of Hanukkah established.  The secular Jews were eventually starved out of their strongholds and exiled. In an ironic twist to the story, Hecht states that in 162 BCE, Judas Maccabeus found pagan amulets on many of the bodies of his slain soldiers after a battle.  He was outraged, of course.

Despite the attempts of Antiochus IV to defeat them, the Maccabees won battles time and time again.  With Rome’s help, they were able to establish their own Hasmonean Dynasty. Rome became their new master, but Rome traditionally was not interested in the internal problems of her satellite countries.  For a time, Rome did not interfere with Jewish political difficulties. At a later day, when there were Jewish revolts against them, the Romans would respond with violence and brutality.  They destroyed the Jewish Temple in 70 ACE.

There is historical irony in the story of the Maccabean Revolt. According to Josephus, the later Hasmonean dynasty did not take part in the Jewish war against Rome that ended with the Temple’s destruction. At the time of the Jewish revolt against Rome, Agrippa II, the great grandson of the infamous King Herod, and Mariamne, the last Hasmonean princess, cooperated with Rome and not with the Jewish people. The Hasmoneans had long before become corrupt rulers who were puppets of Rome.

The first Hanukkah was established around 164 BCE to celebrate the rededication of the Temple altar.  Scholars speculate that Josephus called it “The Festival of Lights,” as Hanukkah is known today, for a reason.  He might not have wanted the festival and its lighting of lamps to be interpreted as a rebellious act against Rome.  The original holiday had been celebrated for eight days and the candelabrum in the present day marks that length of time.  One more candle is lit each night of the holiday, and on the last night, all the candles are lit and create a blaze of light. Josephus claimed that light symbolized the freedom to worship which had been placed in darkness. He seemed unaware of the custom of the nine candles or unwilling to mention them.

Hecht comments in her volume, Doubt, that the secular Jews from the Hellenistic Diaspora went successfully on their own way to other areas of the world.  She states that Philo, the renowned Jewish philosopher, denounced “those who express their displeasure with the statutes made by their forefathers and incessantly censure the law.”  Hecht adds that Philo, who lived from 25 BCE to 50 ACE, took for granted that the sons of wealthy Jewish merchants would attend the Greek gymnasiums.

Bickermann argues that: “The fear of death… was the impelling force behind the Greek mystical current in the early Hellenistic world.  The achievement of the Pharisees was to channel this current into the mainstream of Jewish tradition.” Hecht adds to this speculation. She states that two ideas- that of a single, ethical and caring god and that of a life after death- were joined together in Christianity.  I am unable to agree that the fictitious god of Israel and Christianity could be viewed as either ethical or caring.  The Old Testament provides a very different picture of god, one that depicts him as an irrationally angry, jealous and violent deity.

Furthermore it is a personal source of chagrin that mankind’s fear of death helped the spread of Christianity.  Christianity’s regrettable and wicked hegemony was a source of misery, violence and repression for many centuries. The eternal life people were offered was supposed to bring them bliss if they had been faithful to the Church, or misery and torment if they had failed to follow Christian doctrine. People traded, or were forced to trade, their freedom and happiness in exchange for a fictive afterlife. This life, the only one we possess, was denigrated in favor of a mirage.

I do not think it inaccurate to make some comparisons between the Hellenistic world and the Western culture of the present day.  We, too, on a vaster technological scale, have achieved international travel, commerce and communication. We have attained an open-minded tolerance toward different customs and beliefs which resembles the Hellenistic embrace of cosmopolitanism. The secular and liberal spirit was quenched in Judaea by Jewish zealots and then, after 325 BCE, with the hegemony of Christian intolerance over much of the known world.  This lecture is not only a history of a secular era, but is meant as a cautionary tale.

Secularity, tolerance, and scientific advances are not as secure as many modern people assume them to be.  They are fragile luxuries which must be supported and defended.  The secular community, in the name of political correctness, must not allow religious zealots to achieve any hegemony over our Western nations.  We are faced with threats from Islam, from Christian fundamentalists, and from other religions and sects that embrace violence and repression. If those people should prevail, let me assure you that they will not treat the secular community with the political correctness that we have extended to them, but like the Jewish zealots, will stamp out tolerance, secularity, science, human rights and freedom. 

The secular community needs to extend rights to all people, but at the same time, zealously guard our own precious and fragile rights and attainments. Religious and political fundamentalists wish to take them from us and force us to live under their dispensation. Such people do not value our hard won achievements.  They do not honor them.   They do not want them to prevail.  Let us assure them that we value and honor our accomplishments.  Let us inform them that we shall defend our values with the force of the law, with the force of public opinion, and with the force of our united voices against the dark armies of obscurantism, hate and violence. We shall prevail and raise those united voices in celebration of rationalism, of freedom and of humanity.


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