Monday, December 14, 2009

THE HELIODORUS INSCRIPTION - now confirmed as genuine by the excavated fragments published this year - leads Senior Albright Fellow Stephen Gabriel Rosenberg to take the narrative of 2 Maccabees more seriously:
Hanukka, another version


Last year we knew that the story of Heliodorus in the Second Book of Maccabees was built around a kernel of truth. The story goes that the Emperor Seleucus IV (187-175 BCE) sends his chief minister to the Temple in Jerusalem to rob its treasury. To the consternation of the priests and the people, Heliodorus marches into the Temple, but there he is confronted by a golden rider on a warlike horse and beaten to the ground by two golden boys (3:25). He is dragged out empty-handed and hardly conscious.

It's a good story and has been illustrated by such great artists as Raphael in the 16th century and Gustav Doré in the 19th, but was it true? That sounds most unlikely, but the Heliodorus stele (inscribed tablet) that was lent to the Israel Museum by the Steinhardt family and exhibited there last year tells a related story. It is written in pure Greek bureaucrat-speak and tells howthe Emperor Seleucus instructs Heliodorus in 178 BCE to check the temples of the empire to see that they are suited to the needs of the population and their gods, and in particular to inspect the temples of Coele-Syria, the land later to be called Palestine and Israel.

Heliodorus sends the letter on to "his brother" Dorymenes, and he in turn writes to one Diophanes telling him, "You will do well to take care that everything is carried out according to the instructions." In other words,the emperor 's orders are passed down the line, and probably it was Diophanes who tried to check the Temple and was prevented from raiding it, but the author ofSecond Maccabees just remembered the most important name, that of Heliodorus.


THE STELE and its fragments now give us the confidence to follow the Hanukka story in the Second Book of Maccabees, which is rather different from the one in the First.


Antiochus has no idea how to handle Jews; he has to consult his expert, the High Priest Menelaus. First of all, he is led into the Temple by Menelaus to demonstrate to the Jews that he is the overall master of their fate, and Menelaus allows him to rob the Temple further to pay his tribute to the Romans (5:21). Then Menelaus advises him to abrogate the ancestral laws of the Jews, like circumcision and keeping the Sabbath, to build an idol in the Temple and force the Jews to sacrifice to it and eat the entrails. All these indignities would keep them down.

For some Jews this was too much. The Maccabees fled into the countryside where Judah started their counterrebellion. After three years they managed to regain the Temple and cleanse it of pagan worship. They celebrated the festival of Hanukka for eight days, to make it like the Succot they had not been able to celebrate two months earlier, when they were "living like wild animals in the mountains and caves" (10:6).

They lit the menora for eight days like on Succot, not because they had found a small jar of pure oil with the seal of the high priest that lasted for eight days by miracle. If they had found such a jar, and it had on it the seal of the last High Priest Menelaus, would they have used it? This high priest who had usurped the position, who had robbed the Temple to pay his bribes, who had arranged the murder of the old priest Onias, who had led the emperor into the Temple, helped him to rob it and advised him how to forbid the Jewish laws and customs and to replace them with pagan ritual, would they have accepted the kashrut of such a man? Would you have bought a jar of oil from such a priest?
Incidentally, as I noted a few years ago (bottom of post), the sixth-century chronographer Malalas has a passage on the Maccabean revolt that appears to come from Seleucid sources and which gives yet another perspective on events. We hope to include this as "8 Maccabees" in the More Old Testament Pseudepigrapha Project.