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Seleucid Jerusalem

Seleucid king Antiochus the Great took Jerusalem in BCE. Antiochus the Great (Antiochus III) had been defeated at Raphia in BCE, and continued to keep winning and losing the Levant. In BCE, the Ptolemies ejected Antiochus' troops from Jerusalem. But in BCE at the Battle of Banias/Panium, the victor Antiochus won the Levant, the prize his ancestors had sought for a century. Seleucid hegemony now stretched to Egypt's borders. The Jews seem to have been mostly pro-Seleucid and opened the Jerusalem gates to Antiochus, but there must have been some fighting because Ben Sira (50:1) mentions damage to the city.

  • King Antiochus III, BCE - BCE

  • King Seleucus IV, BCE - BCE

    • Expulsion of Heliodorus, ~ BCE

  • King Antiochus IV, BCE - BCE

    • Jason Usurps Onias, ~ BCE - BCE

    • Hellenistic Reforms

    • Menelaus usurps Jason, BCE

    • Jerusalem Unrest

    • Military crackdown

      • Antiochus' Blasphemy

Seleucid king Antiochus III

With the Charter of BCE, Antiochus III rewarded his supporters in Jerusalem, the priestly conservatives, and appointed the priest Simon II as head of the ethnos. Their unctuous followers, mainly the poor, must have been delighted at the chance to purge profanity. The Torah remained law. Ezra and Nehemiah's exclusivity returned. It was decreed that only male Jews could enter the Temple, and only after the same ablutions as priests.

Unlike the Greek temples open to anybody, the Jews' Temple was not open to foreigners, women and uncleaned males. They were beyond the pale of holiness. Further, unclean animals were not even allowed to enter the city.

Antiochus rewarded the Jerusalem establishment by granting the traditional right to practice their religion and by remitting taxes for a short period of time Antiquities 12.3.3-4 §138-46; quoted in section 2.5. The change to Seleucid rule looked as if it would be good for the Jews. Grabbe, p 5

Seleucid struggles after the Battle of Magnesia ( BCE or BCE)

In BCE or BCE, Antiochus III was humiliatingly defeated at Megnesia by the advancing Roman army, which had annexed Greece and much of Anatolia. Antiochus kept his throne only by paying a heavy tribute, sending some of his sons to Rome as hostages, hamstringing his war elephants, and paying an annual tribute thereafter.

Antiochus III died a few years later. His defeat left his successors fiscally weak.

Seleucid king Seleucus IV

Seleucus IV assumed the throne in BCE upon his father's death.

Seleucus IV reigned until his death in BCE. His son Antiochus was still a minor, so Seleucus' brother (also named Antiochus) took the throne instead.

Occurring circa BCE, the Expulsion of Heliodorus is a famous (likely legendary) story where the king's vizier was stopped from entering and profaning the Temple 2 maccabees. Seleucid king Seleucus IV was informed that the Jews' high priest Onias II, the son of Simon II, was allegedly hoarding money in the Temple treasury at the expense of paying proper tribute to the Seleucid hegemon. Further, a deposit from Hyrcanus Tobiad (likely pro-Ptolemy, and thus an enemy of Seleucus) was kept in the treasury 2 maccabees. King Seleucus IV sent his vizier Heliodorus from Antioch to Jerusalem to recover the dues. It is unclear why Seleucus did not have his officials in Jerusalem do it. Heliodorus would have noticed that enthusiasm for the Seleucids had waned, but when he tried to confiscate the Temple he was in for a surprise.

The Temple had attained growing sanctity to the Jews. Violating its holiness was viewed as a collective rape of the Jews. Yet Heliodorus approached the Temple, the core of the nation, the direction of prayer for the diaspora, the symbol of God himself. "Onias became deathly pale and trembled convulsiively; women ran through the streets clad in sackcloth, and young girls leaned out of their windows calling on heaven for aid" (Armstrong, p 110). Miraculously, Heliodorus was stopped by a paralytic fit. He later testified that during his fit he had seen the Jewish god.

Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes

Seleucus died in BCE, and his brother Antiochus IV took the throne. Antiochus IV had just returned from Rome (where he had been kept hostage) when he assumed the throne. Historically, he is seen as an aggressive Hellenist who sought to override Judaism and impose Greek culture. This is unlikely. However, his father Antiochus III had appointed the conservative priest Simon as high priest and de facto head of Jerusalem.

Antiochus IV, a practical man interested in power, allowed Menelaus to bribe him for the high priesthood. However, Menelaus took Hellenization too far and allegedly profaned the Temple. The Jews grew to resent Menelaus, Antiochus and Hellenization.

Antiochus did not immediately begin to 'Hellenize" all the peoples under his rule or to force the Jewish people to conform to some sort of mad scheme he had cooked up. ... On the contrary, Antiochus was like most rulers in being interested in two things: money and power. ... He hoped to expand his territory and influence as his father had done but -- also like his father -- he had to reckon with the power of Rome. Grabbe, p 6

Jason usurped Onias as high priest

After the Expulsion of Heliodorus, the high priest Onias was viewed with suspicion by the Seleucid government, and the end of his career soon followed 2 maccabees. Onias went to Antioch to clear his name, but his brother Joshua (whose Greek name was Jason) had curried favor with Antiochus with a hefty bribe -- 440 talents of silver (which may have been annual, not just a one time fee). Antiochus had no reason to reject the bribe: it brought him cash, and it was mostly irrelevant to him who was the Jewish high priest.

Onias had to flee the court and was murdered. Seleucus granted Jason the high priesthood. Jason also had something else in mind: he paid an additional 150 talents (annually?) to make Jerusalem into a polis (Greek city) with all the necessary institutions.

Hellenistic Reforms

Jason drew up lists of citizens and ephebates (youth who were potential citizens), and built a gymnasium. Jerusalem had an opportunity to open to the world. The gymnasium was the foundation for Greek life in Jerusalem. It was there that young men learned military skills, physical sports, language and literature -- everything needed to be Greek citizens. It was also more than that, it was a social center for Jerusalem where people met and could watch athletic contests.

Citizenship meant opportunities or government involvement, and was not available just to anybody. Jason had considerable power, with the authority to determine who was a citizen (and perhaps charge a fee for the privilege).

To be Hellenistic was not to be Greek; Hellenization was sui generis -- it was a true synthesis of Greek and Near Eastern into something new. ... Hellenization was a centuries-long process of synthesis and diversification. ... Greek forms did not replace native culture ... Greek forms and Near Eastern forms flourished side by side, and only gradually did they begin to intermix in a syncretistic sort of way. ... It was not the simple imposition of Greek culture on the natives; indeed, the Greeks on the whole did not impose their culture but rather jealously preserved their 'superior' political and cultural position in Near Eastern society. ... The lower section of the administration was mainly composed of native peoples, and much of the work of the bureaucracy was carried on in bilingual mode -- Greek by no means ousted cuneiform in Babylonia or Demotic in Egypt ... It was mainly the natives who sought to gain status and advantage by learning Greek and adopting Greek customs ... with the upper class taking on more of the Greek and the masses of the people borrowing much less. ... Those who could gain a Greek education -- and this was mainly the upper class of the indigenous peoples -- usually found that it conferred benefits. ... In time Greek identity became more a matter of language and education than of ethnic origin, but this took many decades. ... Greek influence percolated through the entire culture as time progressed so that much which came from the Greeks was no longer recognized as being borrowed but was thoroughly assimilated. The Jews were no exception to this process but a full part of it.Grabbe, p 6-7

Jason's reforms attempted to undo the sober, pious, priestly tone that had been set since the Charter of BCE rewarded the orthodoxy for its allegiance. Jason is portrayed as wicked in 2 maccabees, but no specific transgressions against Jewish law are mentioned. He did usurp his brother as high priest, but the highly emotional writing in 2 maccabees masks that Jason is not accused of any specific misdeeds. The pious were outraged says 2 maccabees, but Jason would have needed support from the general public for his reforms to be as effective as they were. Further, he did not interfere with the Temple. He initially received popular support. Ezra and Nehemiah's extreme ethnic separation and Mosaic adherence had not been entirely popular.

Seleucid king Antiochus Epiphanes was welcome during his BCE visit to Jerusalem. Though 2 maccabees is not explicit, Jerusalem may have even formally been elevated to a polis. However, there was trouble brewing and not just Greek rule but Hellenization too would soon be resented and rejected by the Jews.

Menelaus Usurps Jason ( BCE)

Jason still needed to pay the bribe to Antioch for his promotion to the priesthood. He sent the priest Menelaus to Antioch to deliver the money, but Menelaus offered another bribe (300 talents more than Jason's offer) to the king and returned to Jerusalem as high priest. Antiochus had no reason to refuse such a generous offer. After just a few years as high priest, Jason had to flee to the Tobiad estate near Amman.

Menelaus was rejected by the Jerusalemites.

First of all, Menelaus was not a descendant of Zadok and thus inelegible for office. Further, he buckled under the bribe and tried to bribe some of Antiochus' ministers by allegedly looting the Temple treasury. While Menelaus was on an errand in Antioch, the people heard of his breach and protested in the streets. His brother Lysimachus was in charge while Menelaus was away and sent his officers to disperse the protests. However, his men were overwhelmed and he was killed.

Jerusalem's city council sent a delegation to protest to Antiochus about Menelaus' religious violation; however, remember that this council would have been founded under Jason and likely consisted of his supporters. Menelaus remained high priest by means of further bribes.

The Jerusalemites were now beginning to reject Hellenism, and the remaining Antiochenes were those directly in touch with the Seleucid king. Despite what may have been honest intentions to make Jerusalem a popular hub, Seleucid king Antiochus, Jerusalem priest Menelaus and the Hellenistic reforms were now resented the Jerusalemites. The Hellenization went too far. Jerusalem was even renamed Antioch in Judea.

Jerusalem unrest

A series of events would soon precipitate the Maccabean revolt. The accounts in both 1 maccabees and 2 maccabees are confused about the following sequence of events, but some of the pivotal events can be extracted. In late BCE or early BCE, Antiochus invaded Egypt and succeeded in winning booty and defeating Ptolemy VI, who agreed to marry Antiochus' daughter. On the way back from Egypt, Antiochus visited Jerusalem and Menelaus not only let him into the temple but let him raid 1800 talents of silver (huge violations of Jewish law).

As events in Egypt turned against him, Antiochus returned to Egypt just a year later. However, the Romans wanted to check his advances. Rome sent a delegation to Egypt, and upon news that they had won at Pydna (defeating the Macedonian kingdom) they met with Antiochus and ordered him to withdraw from Egypt. Knowing he was not equipped to confront Rome, in July 168 he made his way back.

Jason tried to overthrow Menelaus.

Jason heard a false rumor that Antiochus had been killed battling the Romans. Since Antiochus sustained Menelaus, Jason saw this as his opportunity to become high priest again. Jason entered Jerusalem with his followers and forced Menelaus and other Antiochenes into the citadel.

Military crackdown

Antiochus interpreted the unrest in Jerusalem as a revolt. To crush what he interpreted as a rebellion, he attacked the city.

When Antiochus heard this, he interpreted it [Jason's resurgence] as a revolt and sent an army to Jerusalem to sort things out (it is not clear whether he led it himself). Events from then on become somewhat uncertain because the data given in 1 maccabees and 2 maccabees do not always make sense. It is clear that Jerusalem was taken and the followers of Jason were driven away. Allegedly 40,000 inhabitants of Jerusalem were killed and another 40,000 enslaved -- though there were hardly so many Jerusalemites at that time! A series of measures followed, some of them inexplicable. Governors were put in charge of Judah, a logical enactment for a rebellious province. But then Apollonius the captain of the Mysian soldiers was sent to take the city (why?), which he did even though the city was itself peaceful (so why take it by force?), and killed many Jews (how, when they had all been killed or enslaved months earlier?). Finally, an Athenian was sent to suppress Jewish worship. The daily sacrifice was stopped, and the temple was polluted with an alien cult. Grabbe, p 10 - 11

Antiochus' blasphemy

Antiochus' blasphemy refers to his attempts to suppress Judaism in order to gut out the heart of the rebellion. Antiochus stomped through the Temple and plundered its treasury and belongings. The Jews rebelled again, and Antiochus responded mercilessly. He tore down part of the city walls and outlawed Jewish circumcision, purity laws, Sabbath rest and other practices. Any observance of Judaism was punished with death. The woman with seven sons was martyred along with her seven children for Jewish piety 2 maccabees. Antiochus planted trees in the Temple like a Hellenistic sacred grove, and dedicated the Temple to Zeus Olympios (however, at this point that term could refer to any high god, so it did not necessarily exclude Adonai).

Antiochus' Syrian mercenaries set up a fortress in Jerusalem, the Akra, from which to monitor the city and keep safe the Hellenists. Jerusalem was no longer transitioning into a polis. It was now a clamped military colony. Thus, the groundwork was created for the Maccabean Revolt.


Grabbe, Lester. An Introduction to First Century Judaism