Sunday, May 13, 2007

YES, BUT DID THE ANGELS SMITE HIM? Haaretz reports on an interesting inscription currently being displayed at the Israel Museum:
Ancient Greek inscription, dating to 178 B.C.E., goes on display at Israel Museum
By Amiram Barkat

A recently deciphered ancient Greek stele (inscribed stone slab) is currently on display at the Israel Museum. The stele was produced in 178 B.C.E. in Israel at a time when the region was ruled by the Hellenistic Seleucid empire.

The inscription depicts events that preceded the Hasmonean rebellion. It mentions King Seleucus IV, who occupied the throne before Antiochus IV, the target of the Maccabean revolt, and the king's chief minister Heliodorus, who sparked the first open conflict between Greeks and Jews by attempting to seize funds from the Second Temple.

Researchers are unsure where exactly the inscription was discovered, and examinations commissioned by the museum failed to uncover any signs the inscription was inauthentic. The stele was deciphered by two leading ancient inscription researchers: Hannah Cotton-Paltiel of Hebrew University in Jerusalem and Professor Michael Woerrle of the German Archaeological Institute in Munich. American-Jewish philanthropist Michael Steinhardt, who acquired the stele a few months ago, gave the stele to the museum on an extended loan.
Failing "to uncover any signs the inscription was inauthentic" is a less robust conclusion than I would like. I hope they are really more confident than that of its authenticity.
The inscription appears on the uppermost part of a stone column engraved with three letters. To date, this is the second stele from this period to be found in the region. The inscription describes King Seleucus IV's appointment of senior Greek clerk Olympiodorus to oversee sanctuaries in Israel and surrounding areas. In the first letter, King Seleucus IV informs his deputy Heliodorus of the appointment and the second and third announces more minor appointments.


King Seleucus IV was assassinated in 175 B.C.E., three years after the appointment described in the stele. He was replaced by Antiochus IV Epiphanes (the "Shining One" in Greek), who ruled during the Maccabean revolt. The first instance of open tension between both sides took place when Heliodorus entered the Temple and attempted to confiscate money. He was expelled in disgrace. The Maccabean rebellion actually began in 167 B.C.E. in response to grave, religious edicts imposed by Antiochus IV.

"Expelled in disgrace" doesn't really do justice to the story as it appears in 2 Maccabees 3 (RSV quoted here):
22: While they were calling upon the Almighty Lord that he would keep what had been entrusted safe and secure for those who had entrusted it,
23: Heliodorus went on with what had been decided.
24: But when he arrived at the treasury with his bodyguard, then and there the Sovereign of spirits and of all authority caused so great a manifestation that all who had been so bold as to accompany him were astounded by the power of God, and became faint with terror.
25: For there appeared to them a magnificently caparisoned horse, with a rider of frightening mien, and it rushed furiously at Heliodorus and struck at him with its front hoofs. Its rider was seen to have armor and weapons of gold.
26: Two young men also appeared to him, remarkably strong, gloriously beautiful and splendidly dressed, who stood on each side of him and scourged him continuously, inflicting many blows on him.
27: When he suddenly fell to the ground and deep darkness came over him, his men took him up and put him on a stretcher
28: and carried him away, this man who had just entered the aforesaid treasury with a great retinue and all his bodyguard but was now unable to help himself; and they recognized clearly the sovereign power of God.
29: While he lay prostrate, speechless because of the divine intervention and deprived of any hope of recovery,
30: they praised the Lord who had acted marvelously for his own place. And the temple, which a little while before was full of fear and disturbance, was filled with joy and gladness, now that the Almighty Lord had appeared.
31: Quickly some of Heliodorus' friends asked Onias to call upon the Most High and to grant life to one who was lying quite at his last breath.
32: And the high priest, fearing that the king might get the notion that some foul play had been perpetrated by the Jews with regard to Heliodorus, offered sacrifice for the man's recovery.
33: While the high priest was making the offering of atonement, the same young men appeared again to Heliodorus dressed in the same clothing, and they stood and said, "Be very grateful to Onias the high priest, since for his sake the Lord has granted you your life.
34: And see that you, who have been scourged by heaven, report to all men the majestic power of God." Having said this they vanished.
35: Then Heliodorus offered sacrifice to the Lord and made very great vows to the Savior of his life, and having bidden Onias farewell, he marched off with his forces to the king.
36: And he bore testimony to all men of the deeds of the supreme God, which he had seen with his own eyes.
Unfortunately it seems that the inscription does not mention this event. But, to be fair, it would have no particular reason to, and it's not clear whether it was produced before or after Heliodorus' visit to the Temple.

UPDATE: Nice photo at the Art Daily. (Via Rochelle Altman on Ioudaios-L.)

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