Friday, December 15, 2006

ANTIOCHUS EPIPHANES -- not such a bad guy either?

This must be historical revisionism week. First Herod the Great, and now Antiochus:
Antiochus' decrees - a figment of Hasmonean propaganda
By Ofri Ilani (Haaretz)

Antiochus IV Epiphanes (215-163 BC), ruler of the Hellenistic Seleucid Empire, was known as an eccentric king. He spent his childhood as a hostage in Rome and ascended to the throne only due to the surprising death of his father and murder of his brother.

When he inherited the kingdom it was already in decline. However, this does not explain the moves that made him infamous to this day - the brutal edicts he issued against the Jews in 167 B.C., forbidding them to practice their religion.

"The reason for Antiochus' oppression of the Jewish faith, attack on the Temple and prohibition of the Torah precepts is not explained by the existing historic sources," says Dr. Steven Weitzman, a lecturer of Judaism in the University of Indiana and the author of Surviving Sacrilege: Cultural Persistence in Jewish Antiquity.

Weitzman analyzes the description of the edicts in the Hanukkah tale, and concludes that the story was concocted by the Hasmonean kings as propaganda intended to legitimize their precarious rule. The Hasmoneans used literary tales dating back to ancient Eastern kingdoms as the basis for their story of Antiochus, he says.


In a recent essay in the Journal of Biblical Literature Weitzman says these explanations are based an unfounded speculations. He suggests checking what purpose the story about Antiochus' edicts was meant to achieve, and how it served the interests of those who wrote it - the supporters of the Hasmonean kings.

"The Maccabees have been considered heroes for so long, that it is hard to imagine that in their time, their rule was extremely controversial. They and their descendants, the Hasmonean dynasty, presented themselves as high priests, but did not belong to a family that held that position for a long time. Neither did they belong to the House of David dynasty, which was supposed to produce kings. Therefore many Jews did not recognize the Hasmoneans as legitimate rulers."

"The story of Antiochus' edicts is part of the effort to justify the Maccabee's rule. This is why they described themselves as protectors of the Jewish tradition, a tactic which many rulers and conquerors in the ancient East used to justify usurping power," he says.

You can download the JBL article from this page. It's in JBL 123.2, Summer 2004. This is a large file that contains a PDF version of the whole issue.

I haven't read the article and don't have time to right now, so I won't comment, except to say that I'm skeptical. Here's one response noted in the Haaretz article:
Weitzman's position is far from acceptable to many researchers of the Second Temple era. Professor Joshua Efron, a senior historian of the Hasmonean period, believes the Maccabean revolt and ensuing rule were accepted by the majority of the nation.

"The Maccabees were undoubtedly widely supported," says Efron. "Otherwise they would not have been able to conduct guerilla wars as they did. A minority cannot rebel and wage such war without popular support."

Efron has no difficulty explaining Antiochus' edicts. "Indeed, this was not customary Hellenistic kings' behavior, but some believe the initiative to issue the edicts did not come from Antiochus but from the Hellenist Jews, who wished to amend the Jewish religion," he says.
It's interesting to note that the sixth century chronographer John Malalas has an account of the Maccabean revolt in his Chronicle (8.22-23) which is arguably based on Seleucid sources and gives a somewhat more positive picture of Antiochus. But it would not support Weitzman's theory that the persecution was just Hasmonean propaganda.

We plan to include Malalas' account in the More Old Testament Pseudepigrapha Project (as "8 Maccabees"), although we don't yet have an editor for it.

(Heads-up, Joseph I. Lauer.)

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