Home > Antiochus IV, Book of Daniel > E. R. Bevan on Antiochus IV and the Jews

E. R. Bevan on Antiochus IV and the Jews

December 26, 2014

The following is part of E. R. Bevan’s account of the history of Antiochus IV, and of his influence upon the Jews in the second century BC.

Bevan, Edwyn Robert, 1902.
The House of Seleucus, Vol II

Edward Arnold, London

Antiochus and the Jews
Chapter XXV
Pages 162-177


We have followed the career of the fourth Antiochus apart from that special appearance which he makes in the history of Israel, and with which his name is pre-eminently associated in the ordinary thought of Christendom.  It seemed that we should in this way best gain an independent point of view from which to consider that episode-an insignificant one in his life, it must have appeared to himself, incomparably the most momentous we see it to be, in its effect on the destinies of man.

There are few gaps in history which we can so ill put up with as that which comes in the history of Israel between the time of Ezra and Nehemiah and the time of Judas Maccabaeus.  It is an almost unrelieved blank. To fill it in, Jewish writers, after the Maccabaean epoch, had nothing but the fables they spun out of their imagination.  They knew no more about it than we do today.  And yet it was a period of great importance in the history of Israel, if not rich in political events, yet a period in which much germinated and much took shape, institutions, beliefs, characteristics, which made the later Jew what he was, and thereby are of eternal interest for those peoples who owe it to the Jew that they are what they are.  It is a period which, although dark for us, is not altogether dumb, for in the Old Testament there are perhaps many voices which come to us from it, psalms  familiar to our lips, cries out of unknown hearts in unknown troubles and conditions, voices out of the darkness.

Nehemiah left a little community gathered about the Temple of Jehovah in the restored Jerusalem, and there we still find the community about the Temple, with the High-priest for its chief ruler, 260 years later, under a Seleucid king.  The country round Jerusalem was inhabited and tilled by Jews to a radius of some ten to fifteen miles. The Jewish state had been involved in the struggle of Seleucid and Ptolemy for Coele-Syria.  Jerusalem had been taken by Ptolemy I on the Sabbath day and dismantled.  After Ipsus the High-priest had paid tribute regularly to the house of Ptolemy. It was no doubt because the Jews hated the yoke which they were actually bearing that they inclined to the Seleucid cause in the war between Antiochus III and Ptolemy Epiphanes.  They were subjugated by Scopas for King Ptolemy in 199-198, and a Ptolemaic garrison lodged in Jerusalem. After the battle of the Panion they declared for Antiochus, just when Gaza, found naturally on the opposite side to Jerusalem, held out to the last for Ptolemy.  Antiochus, relieving them of the garrison, appeared in the light of a deliverer.

The administrative system which had obtained in Coele­-Syria under the Ptolemies seems to have continued under the Seleucids. The province was still under a single strategos; it included (whether regularly or only occasionally is not clear) Phoenicia as well. In an inscription the strategos of Coele-Syria and Phoenicia is also high-priest – that is, he presides over the provincial worship of the King.

Under the eye of Greek and Macedonian officers the old cities of the land, Canaanite, Phoenician, Philistine, had taken on the aspect and the ways of Greek cities, and had in many cases actually received large bodies of European settlers. Samaria, for instance, in the middle of the land, was Greek and pagan, having been already colonized with Macedonians by Alexander in 331.  Only the country villages were inhabited by “Samaritans,” with their religious centre on Mount Gerizim.

And while the world was changing all round the little Jewish state, what action and reaction went on between the Jews and the other peoples under Macedonian government? There are few questions in history it would be more important to have answered, and there are few to which there is less chance of getting any answer, except a very doubtful one. The question practically resolves itself into two, (1) to what extent had the Diaspora come to exist before Maccabaean times-that is, was there any general dispersion of the Jews among the nations? (2) to what extent had the Jews, in Judaea or out of it, been affected by contact with Hellenism.

The dispersion of the Jews, whenever it came to pass, was a circumstance of immense moment to Judaism, because through these scattered members, influences from every quarter reached the main body.  The Jews, for instance, who absorbed Hellenism abroad, would be the most potent conductors of it to their brethren in Judaea.  But it would also be a circum­stance of great moment to the world at large. The existence of a community everywhere, diffused yet never losing contact between its several parts, would be an important factor in the problem which vexed the Macedonian kings – how to bind together a heterogeneous empire.  The influence, again, of a Jewish Dispersion in the sphere of religion would be a not negligible force in the inner life of the times; its power later on was enormous till it was transmitted to the Christians and all the nations flowed to Zion.  A figure of capital significance in the history of antiquity, Mr. Hogarth is fond of telling us, is the Hellenized Jew.  That we should confess ourselves unable to say how far he existed at all before the Maccabaean age is to confess how very ignorant we really are of the life of those times, of anything outside the dynastic game of kings.

The admitted evidence bearing on a Jewish Dispersion is, I think, as follows:

1. Communities of other Orientals-Phoenicians and Egyptians-are proved in the great Greek trading centres, Athens and Delos, before the time of the Maccabees; in Athens as early as the fourth century B.C.

2. Clearchus of Soli, a disciple of Aristotle, introduced in one of his dialogues a “Jew from Coele-Syria, Hellenic not in speech only, but in mind,” representing him as having come in his travels to Asia Minor, and there conversed with Aristotle. There is, of course, no reason to suppose any greater foundation of fact to the dialogue than underlies the dialogues of Plato.  But that Clearchus should introduce, even as an imaginary character, a Hellenized Jew in Asia is noteworthy.

3. There were large numbers of Jews who did not take part in the Return, and whose descendants continued to form a Jewish population in Babylonia.

4. In Syria, in the days of Judas Maccabaeus, there were bodies of Jews settled in Galilee (then, of course, pagan) and east of the Jordan, but small enough to be capable of being transported en masse to Judaea.

5. In Egypt the papyri prove the presence of Jews and Samaritans under the earlier Ptolemies in sufficient numbers for villages predominantly Jewish or Samaritan to exist.

It will be seen that the evidence of admitted genuineness does not take us very far.  And accordingly it is the view of some scholars that there was practically no Dispersion before the Maccabaean age. On the other hand, if we accept the state­ments of later Jewish writers, we must form a very different picture of the condition of things.  Masses of Jews, including the High-priest himself, were transported to Egypt by Ptolemy I.  In Alexandria the Jews were given full citizen-rights by Alexander. In the new cities which sprang up in Syria and Asia Minor under Seleucus I a colony of Jews was regularly found who were given equal rights with the other citizens. At Antioch in particular Seleucus is said to have given them the full citizenship, and in Asia Minor, “Ephesus and the rest of Ionia” is mentioned as a region where the Jews had been put on a level with the native Greeks by “the Successors.” Antiochus III ordered 2000 Jewish families to be transported from Mesopotamia and Babylonia into Lydia and Phrygia.

It will be seen how much turns upon the view taken of these statements of Josephus and the documents he adduces to support them.  As it appears to me the state of the case is this.  On the one hand there is nothing impossible in the statements themselves; in fact, supposing the Diaspora existed, we can very well see how policy might lead Alexander and his successors to make a great point of securing the loyalty of the Jews.  On the other hand, the statements are made in an age of prolific forgery among the Jews, of reckless mendacity as to their past.  And not only so, but the romances put forth as history and the forged documents have largely for their object this very thing, to persuade the heathen how specially favoured the Jews had been by the great kings of former days. In a word, the evidence for the Diaspora is very bad, but there is no real evidence against it. Under such circumstances what is left us but to admit our ignorance?

To the first part of our question, that concerning a pre-Maccabaean Diaspora, we have not got a very satisfactory answer; in coming to the second part, how far the Jews had admitted Hellenic influence, we again stumble into controversies.

Without losing ourselves in their mazes we may, I think, arrive at some more or less shadowy facts.  The Jews before the Exile, as we know from the prophets, had shown no want of readiness to assimilate themselves to the nations round about them.  Under the Exile the work of the prophets bore fruit in the formation of a stricter and more disciplined Judaism, which saved the people of Jehovah from being merged in the heathen among whom they dwelt.  But even so there were lapses from the ideal of complete separation.  In the com­munity at Jerusalem at the end of the fifth century B.C. Ezra and Nehemiah had once more to repel the encroachments of the heathen environment and make the fence of the Law yet more strong.  And their labour was not lost.  The little people dwelt separate in their hill country and, while wars rolled past them and kingdoms clashed and changed, nursed the sacred fire and meditated on the Law of the Lord.  Strange among the nations, a people apart, bound in all their practice by a mysterious rule, they were taken by Greek writers of the fourth century not so much for a nation or a political organism as a sect of “philosophers,” who stood to the other Syrians as the Brahmins did to the other Indians-in fact, they were no doubt an offshoot of the Brahmins. Then in 332 the Jews came under the political supremacy of the Greeks.

Hellenic rule, as we have seen, penetrated far deeper than the old superficial Babylonian and Persian Empires.  Hellenism was a force which partly by a deliberate policy, partly by its inherent power, changed the East as nothing had changed it before.  The fourth kingdom “shall be diverse from all the kingdoms, and shall devour the whole earth, and shall thresh it and break it in pieces.” If the Jews had hardened them­selves in a more rigid exclusiveness than in their early days, they had on the other hand never been exposed to so over-powering an ordeal.

That the temptation to conform with the fashion of the world should not have been felt in Judaea is impossible. The new stateliness of the Hellenized cities, the magnificence of Alexandria and Antioch would beset the peculiar people with the lust of the eyes and the pride of life.

The temptation would, of course, appeal to the rich, to the dwellers in Jerusalem, rather than to the poor an(l the countryside. And if we can say anything of the history of the Jews in the days when Antiochus IV came to reign in Syria, it is that a part of the Jerusalem aristocracy were ready enough to make friends with the rulers of the world.  One family above all was marked out by its riches and its worldly propensities-the house of Tobiah.

It is a cardinal fact to he grasped in estimating the policy of Antiochus Epiphanes that the initiative in the Hellenizing of Jerusalem was not on the side of the King, but of the Jews themselves.  Soon after the accession of Antiochus a deputation of principal men of the Jews came to the court begging for leave to convert Jerusalem into an Antioch and erect that essential mark of a Hellenic city, the gymnasium. There was of course a party among the Jews vehemently opposed to the innovations, and the conflict of principles was complicated, as usually happens, with a conflict of persons.  Onias, who had been High-priest in the reign of Seleucus IV, seems to have been looked to as their leader by the party faithful to the old way.  He was no longer in Jerusalem when Antiochus took the diadem.  The broils which had distracted the Holy City during the preceding reign had driven him to withdraw to the Seleucid court to represent his cause personally to the King. Antiochus on his accession replaced Onias by his brother Jesus.  The reason is alleged to have been that Jesus undertook to pay a larger tribute.  This is likely enough. The Seleucid court would concern itself little with the internal affairs of Judaea, and consider mainly who would rule there on the terms most favourable to the royal coffers.  It is the ordinary principle of the Oriental court.

The new High-priest threw himself into the Hellenizing movement.  He had transformed his Hebrew name Jesus (Yeshua’) into the Greek Jason.  It was he who obtained the King’s leave to make Jerusalem an Hellenic city.  The conservative party were overborne by the torrent.  The gymnasium was built and soon thronged with young priests, pursuing the Hellenic ideal of bodily strength and beauty. The Greek hat, the petasos, was seen about the streets of Jerusalem. Everything must have seemed to Antiochus happily arranged. He himself visited the new Antioch-Hierosolyma, and was “magnificently received by Jason and the city, brought in with torches and shoutings.”

But there were some who looked with grief and horror at the transformation.  Those who were zealous for the tradition of the fathers, who regarded all yielding to foreign influence as apostasy from the Lord, had drawn together as a band resolutely set against the prevailing current.  They were known as the Hasidim, the Pious or Godly Ones, who refused to stand in the way of sinners, and meditated day and night in the Law.  But now the ground seemed giving way under their feet. Wealth, influence, political power, perhaps numbers, were against them.  “Help, Lord, for the godly man (hasid) ceaseth; the faithful fail from among the children of men.”

It is a moment of profound significance for all future time – this first trial of strength between the religion of Israel and Hellenic culture.  The principles engaged are so vast that our sympathies to-day, when we consider that first moment of conflict, cannot be determined by mere historical criticism. The conflict is still with us, in modern society, in our own minds.  Our estimate of the conduct of the Hellenizers, of the Hasidim, must be determined by our belief as to the value of that for which either party stood; and there belief depends upon our attitude to the world and to life, as a whole. But the historian may raise at any rate this inquiry-whether that part of Jewish belief and practice which, as being of absolute value, is maintained in combination with Hellenism by Christian Europe was assailed by the innovations of Jason. Did the Hellenizers, for instance, forsake Monotheism or introduce the immoralities of the heathen?  The question, of course, with our very imperfect records can only be very doubtfully answered.  Jason himself was evidently a man of low ambition, and the moral tone of the new epheboi may, for all we know, have justified the evil names fixed upon them by the Hasidim.  It is, however, remarkable that in a work which holds the Hellenizers up to abhorrence it should be specially stated that the envoys of Jason to the games at Tyre were unwilling to contribute to the sacrifice to Heracles, and obtained leave to divert the money they carried to a secular purpose. And if any overt immoralities were connected with the new institutions, it is surprising that the writer should omit to let us know them.  The chief charges brought against the Hellenizers are that they conceived a zeal for athletic exercises and that they wore Greek hats. But even if we were able to acquit the Hellenizers of formal transgressions, we should not necessarily condemn the Hasidim.  The temper of the new society might still be incompatible with the Spirit who moved in Israel as that people’s distinctive heritage.

New rivalries were not slow to break out in the dominant Hellenistic party.  Menelaus, a Benjamite, supported by the house of Tobiab, intrigued at court against Jason, and induced Antiochus to make him High-priest in Jason’s stead.  He did not even belong to the priestly tribe.  He was instated by a royal garrison, now lodged in Jerusalem, and Jason tied over Jordan into the Ammonite country.

This provoked a more violent agitation than the appointment  of Jason had done.  Menelaus may have feared that it would end in the return of Onias.  On the occasion of a journey he made to Antioch he bribed Andronicus, whom Antiochus had left at the head of affairs during his absence in Cilicia, to make away with the old High-priest, in spite of his having taken sanctuary in the precinct of Apollo at Daphne.

It is curious that our account does not represent Antiochus himself as hostile at this time to any section of the Jews.  So far from being the inhuman monster we expect in a book written to glorify the Maccabaean revolt, he is depicted as weeping at the death of the inoffensive Onias, and when later on at Tyre Menelaus is accused before him by the Jewish gerusia, he is only talked over to the side of Menelaus at the last moment by one of his councillors, Ptolemy the son of Dorymenes, with whom Menelaus had tampered.  But not only was Menelaus acquitted; the Jews who had appeared against him were put to death.  Perhaps Ptolemy had already brought Antiochus to construe enmity to Menelaus as disloyalty to the house of Seleucus.

The definite quarrel of Antiochus with the Jews – or, as he perhaps regarded it, with the faction among the Jews opposed to the High-priest and to the great Jewish families who supported the High-priest  – began when the intelligence reached him during one of his campaigns in that Jerusalem had risen for the house of Ptolemy in his rear. Jason had suddenly (on a false report that Antiochus was dead) come back from the Ammonite country with a band he had got together and possessed himself of Jerusalem, except the citadel, where Menelaus had taken refuge.  Those whom Jason found of the party of Menelaus – from the Seleucid point of view, the loyal party – were put to the sword.  It was not Antiochus who drew the first blood in Jerusalem.

The defection of Jerusalem at a critical moment determined the King to visit it with signal chastisement.  A city so near the Egyptian frontier must be made sure beyond question.  We can well believe that the passionate and wilful nature of Antiochus took a direction of strong vindictiveness towards the treacherous city.  On his return from Egypt he turned aside) and came to Jerusalem with a fierce countenance to wreak vengeance.  That the people generally, whose religion had been outraged by the high-priesthood of the Benjamite Menelaus, and still more by his manner of exercising the office, had given a welcome to Jason we can hardly doubt. Jason, before the arrival of Antiochus, had already played the part of the hireling shepherd; he was safe once more across the Jordan, and upon the people the punishment fell.  It shows, of course, not that Antiochus was a fiend, but that he was of that order of statesmen who would repress disaffection by unscrupulous violence without ascertaining whence it springs.  Once more blood ran in the streets of Jerusalem, and the Syrian soldiery told off for the work of massacre were probably no more merciful than those whom the Ottoman Sultan sets upon the Armenian Christians.

It was not in blood only that Antiochus made the Jews pay.  Their rebellion had given him the excuse to take into the royal treasury the precious things of the Temple of the Lord, as, on one pretext or another, he appropriated the riches of the other Syrian temples. With unspeakable horror the Jews saw him enter within the holy doors which might be passed by the priests alone.  And the Lord withheld His hand!

Antiochus had not yet declared war on the Jewish religion. He had but chastised Jerusalem as another rebellious city might have been chastised.  The further development of his policy did not manifest itself till after an interval. Since Antioch us could no longer after 168 protect the Coele-Syrian province by holding any Egyptian territory, its internal con­solidation became imperative in the first degree.  The weak spot was Jerusalem.  What the Seleucid court believed it saw there was a loyal party, readily accepting the genial culture which was to harmonize the kingdom, on the one hand, and on the other a people perversely and dangerously solitary, resisting all efforts to amalgamate them with the general system, and only waiting the appearance of a foreign invader to rebel, And on what ground did this people maintain its obstinate isolation?  On the ground of an unlovely barbarian superstition.  Very well: the religion of Jehovah must be abolished.  The Hellenization of Jerusalem must be made perfect.  If part of the population took up an attitude of irreconcilable obstruction, they must be exterminated and their place filled by Greek colonists.

Apollonius, the commander of the Mysian mercenaries, was charged with the first step of effecting a strong military occupation of Jerusalem.  His errand was concealed; he went with a considerable force, ostensibly in connexion with the tribute from southern Syria, and seized Jerusalem by a coup de main. A fresh massacre, directed probably by Menelaus and his adherents, cleared Jerusalem of the obnoxious elements. A new fortress of great strength was built on Mount Zion, and a body of royal troops, “Macedonians,” established in it to dominate the city.

But now came the second part of the process, the ex­tinguishing of the Jewish religion.  It was simple enough in Jerusalem itself. Jehovah was identified with Zeus Olympius, and Zeus Olympius, it would appear, with Antiochus.  The ritual was altered in such a way as to make the breach with Judaism most absolute.  A Greek altar – the “Abomina­tion of Desolation ” – was erected upon the old Jewish altar in the Temple court, and swine sacrificed upon it.  The High-priest partook of the new sacrificial feasts, of the “broth of abominable things.”  To partake was made the test of loyalty to the King.  The day of the King’s birth was monthly celebrated with Greek rites.  A Dionysiac festival was introduced, when the population of Jerusalem went in procession, crowned with ivy.  That everything might conform to the purest Hellenic type, the framing of the new institutions was entrusted to one of the King’s friends from Athens.

At the same time that the transformation was accomplished in Jerusalem, the other temple built to Jehovah in Shechem, the religious centre of the Sarnaritans, was constituted a temple of Zeus Xenios.

To purge Jerusalem of all trace of Judaism was comparatively easy; it was another matter to master the country. In the country villages and smaller town, of Judaea the royal officers met with instances of extreme resistance.  Their instructions were to compel the population to break with the old religion by taking part in the ceremonies of Hellenic worship, especially in eating the flesh of sacrificed swine, and to punish even with death mothers who circumcised their children. The books of which the Jews made so much were destroyed, if found, or disfigured by mocking scribbles, or defiled with unholy broth.

There can be no question that these measures threw the bulk of the Jewish people, who had perhaps wavered when there seemed a possibility of combining Judaism with Hellenism, into definite antagonism.  But immense force was brought to bear upon them.  Antiochus did not omit to have the reasonableness of Hellenism put in a friendly way to those who would hear, and he punished without mercy those who would not.  And under the stress of those days numbers of the Jews conformed; those who held fast generally forsook their homes and gathered in wandering companies in desolate places.  But there also shone out in that intense moment the sterner and sublimer qualities which later Hellenism, and above all the Hellenism of Syria, knew nothing of – uncom­promising fidelity to an ideal, endurance raised to the pitch of utter self-devotion, a passionate clinging to purity.  They were qualities for the lack of which all the riches of Hellenic culture could not compensate.  It was an epoch in history. The agony created new human types and new forms of litera­ture, which became permanent, were inherited by Christendom.

The figure of the martyr, as the Church knows it, dates from the persecution of Antiochus; all subsequent martyrologies derive from the Jewish books which recorded the sufferings of those who in that day “were strong and did exploits.”

The resistance was at first passive.  The people of the country villages, if they did not flee and join the roving bands, either conformed, which was probably the most common, or underwent martyrdom.  The roving bands were without any general leader or clear principles of action.  When one band had been overtaken on the Sabbath by a party from the akra in Jerusalem, they allowed themselves to be butchered with­out resistance, that they might not profane the holy day but rather “die in their simplicity.”

It was when the Hasmonaean family came forward that all this was changed.  The passive resistance passed into a revolt.  But the beginnings of the Maccabaean revolt are wrapped in a certain degree of uncertainty.  The origin of the name Hasmonaean is a question.
The personality and the role of Mattathiah, which the First Book of Maccabees presents to us, have been recently pro­nounced a fiction.  Our two accounts of the first conflicts with the Seleucid power do not easily admit of reconcilement. But this much may be taken for history.  Before the persecution had continued long, a certain family among the refugee bands marked itself out by its gifts of leadership, the children of Hashmunai, of the priestly tribe, with their home in the little town of Modin (mod. al-Madya).  They made a nucleus round which the scattered bands drew together, and they were strengthened by the adhesion of the Hasidim.  It was resolved to fight, even on the Sabbath day, and thereafter the towns and villages which had settled down comfortably to a Hellenic regime found themselves suddenly visited by bands of fierce zealots, who repaid massacre for massacre, circumcised the children by force and destroyed the emblems of Hellenic religion.

Naturally the Seleucid government was concerned to protect the new order of things from such disturbance.  But it had not sufficient force on the spot to cope with the mobile irregular bands.  Some collisions between the local forces and the Jewish insurgents took place, with the result that tile royal troops were swept away by the furious onset, or found the enemy upon them in dark nights before they were aware.

In these encounters the people of Israel learnt that the Lord had raised up a man to lead and deliver them as of old. Of the five Hasmonaean brethren it was Judas, surnamed Maccabaeus, who bore the military command and became surrounded with the halo of a popular hero. The effect of his successes was to rally to the cause all those who had only unwillingly and from fear accepted Hellenism, and these, together with the refugees, made the mass of the population of Judaea.  The country towns and villages resumed their Jewish complexion; those who loved Hellenism, or were too deeply compromised, fled to the Greek cities.  Jerusalem was still held by the Macedonian garrison in the akra, but the rest of Judaea was won back for Judaism.  So long as Jerusalem continued a heathen city, Mizpeh, where there had been “a place of prayer aforetime for Israel,” was the national centre. What had been scattered bands were now organized under Judas as a national army.

Things had perhaps not reached this stage when Antiochus left Syria for his expedition in the North and East.  It was thenceforth upon Lysias, the guardian of the young Antiochus, that the responsibility for restoring order in southern Syria fell.  How Antiochus himself construed the revolt we do not know, or if he divined its gravity, but the letter given in the Second Book of Maccabees, if genuine, throws light on his attitude. The letter is addressed, not as Jason of Cyrene would have us think, to the insurgent Jews, but to the Hellenizing Jews of Jerusalem, whom Antiochus regards, or affects to regard, as the Jewish people.  He addresses them, in well-understood contrast to the other part of the nation, as the loyal Jews. He describes himself as their fellow-citizen and strategos. He writes from the East, mentioning his illness and stating his hope of recovery, but requesting the Jews, in the event of his decease, to remain loyal to the young Antiochus. The bands of Judas are ignored.