History Crash Course #28: Greek Persecution

Terror reigned — women were killed with babies tied around their necks.

Alexander’s vast empire did not survive his death in 323 BCE, but fragmented into three large chunks centered in Greece, Egypt, and Syria and controlled by his former generals. These three smaller empires were known as:

  • Seleucid or Syrian Greece
  • Ptolemian or Egyptian Greece
  • Macedonian or Greece proper, including the independent city-states of Athens, Sparta, etc.

Initially, Israel falls under the Ptolemies of Egypt. They are generally liberal and open-minded in keeping with the spirit of their capital city of Alexandria which is the world’s cultural center.

But this changes in 198 BCE after the Battle of Panias (or Banyas-Tel Dan in northern Israel). After their victory at Panias the Seleucids of Assyria, led by the King, Antiochus III, take over control of Israel from the Ptolemies.

The picture is volatile, however. The next Seleucid king, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, finds himself under a lot of pressure, holding back the Ptolemies and worrying about the rising might of Rome.

He decides that the weak link in his defenses is Israel. Israel is bordered by [1]Lawrence H. Schiffman, Text and Tradition ― A Source Reader for the Study of the Second Temple and Rabbinic Judaism. New Jersey: Ktav Publishing House. 1998. 142. Hecateus is quoted by the great … Continue reading Egypt and the Mediterranean Sea (from whence the Romans could come), and worst of all, the majority of Jews are not into Greek culture. This situation he now moves to remedy.

When Worlds Collide

Some years before, when the Greeks who had conquered the entire known world first met the Jews, they were astonished. They’d never encountered people like this before. On the positive side the intellectual, spiritual and legal aspects of Judaism were totally unique and no doubt fascinating to the philosophical Greeks.

The Jews were just so different from anyone else they had ever encountered. They were the only monotheists in the world and they subscribed to a worldview that is totally different from anyone else’s ― namely, that everything that exists had been created and is sustained by one infinite, invisible and caring God. This idea ― particularly that this caring, perfect Being busies Himself with the lives of imperfect mortals ― the Greeks found just about incomprehensible. The Greek historian Hecateus (ca 360-290 BCE) describes the unique monotheism of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem.

There is no image, nor statue, nor votive offering therein; nothing at all is planted there, neither grove nor anything of the sort. The priests abide therein both nights and days, performing certain purification rites, and drinking not the least drop of wine while they are in the temple.

On top of that, the Greeks could not understand the Jewish view of the Torah. This was an ancient book, which the Jews claimed they got from God, and which contained odd teachings on how to lead a life of peace, brotherhood, social responsibility, and respect for life ― all values that were far removed from Greek ideals.

In short, the Greeks didn’t know what to make of the Jews.

The Jews were likewise confounded. The Greeks were people who valued education and intellectual pursuits ― something the Jews also valued and very much admired. The Greeks spoke a beautiful language, which the Jews appreciated very much. (The Talmud says that ancient Greek is the most beautiful language in the world, it’s the only language you can write a kosher Torah scroll besides Hebrew.) [2]See Talmud ― Megillah 9a ― Rebbi Shimon ben Gamliel said: “Even books of scripture the sages did not permit to be written in any foreign language other than Greek.” It is important to … Continue reading

Indeed, the Torah was promptly translated into Greek (in the 3rd century BCE) by Ptolemy III ― the first such translation in Jewish history. This translation was called the “Septuagint” after the 70 rabbis who did it.

It happened that King Ptolemy gathered seventy-two sages and placed them in seventy-two houses without telling them why he had brought them together. He went to each one of them and told him, “translate for me [into Greek] the Torah of your master Moses[3]Talmud ― Megillah 9b..

(This translation is considered a national disaster for the Jewish people. In the hands of the non-Jewish world, the now accessible Hebrew Bible has often been used against the Jews, and has been deliberately mistranslated. Most Christian Bibles in English today depend on the Greek translation which was then translated into Latin, the language of the Roman Empire, and from there into English. You can just imagine how many interpretations and mistakes and deliberate mistranslations were made along the way.[4]Deliberate mistranslations were usually done by Christians scholars in-order-to “bend” the text to prove Christian theology. The classic example is Isaiah 7:14 where the Hebrew word almah … Continue reading)

However, it was inevitable that the Hebrew Bible would be translated into Greek because Greek became the international intellectual language of the ancient Mediterranean world. It was as common everywhere as English is today! And the Jews who were mostly speaking Aramaic thanks to their foray in the Babylonian exile become conversant in Greek as well. (Hebrew was then a language primarily of prayer and of study but not the spoken language of the street, even in Israel.)

Despite this mutual appreciation ― which incidentally lured a lot of Jews ― the vast differences could not be tolerated by the dominant culture for long.

Jew vs. Jew

The Chanukah story is often portrayed as a struggle for national liberation ― the Jewish revolt against the Greek occupation of Israel. In reality it is much complicated that that. The real conflict was not physical but intellectual. Chanukah was ultimately an ideological-spiritual war between paganism and Judaism. It was also not a struggle purely between Greeks and Jews. It was first a foremost a civil war of Jew against Jew. The initial impetus for the Greek attack against Judaism came from a certain splinter group of the Jewish people ― the Hellenized Jews.

These were Jews who were sucked into Greek culture. And it is no wonder why; Greek culture was the major culture milieu of the ancient world.

We see this as a pattern in Jewish history. A world culture comes along which is enlightened and progressive and is changing the world, and some of the upper class Jews always get into it. Why? Because they are rich, sophisticated, and have lot of spare time. Then they say to the rest of the Jewish people: “Let’s get modern. Forget this ancient Jewish stuff.” (We will see this pattern repeated in Spain, and in Germany, and even today in America and Israel.)

At this time, we have a small but very vocal and powerful group of Jews, who align with the Greek authorities and who become Hellenized. They do everything the Greeks do.

They send their children to the gymnasium, and they reverse their circumcisions ― a very painful operation ― since so much of Greek stuff is done naked and the Greeks would consider them mutilated otherwise.

To make matters worse, the schism between the Hellenized Jews and mainstream Jews is paralleled by another schism ― between two factions of religious Jews.

It begins in the third century BCE when two students named ― Zadok and Bysos ― begin preaching a new form of Judaism, devoid of belief in the Divinity of the Oral Torah. There is little doubt that Greek thought played a significant role in creating this early break with mainstream Judaism. Their followers are called the Sadducees and Bysosim, though it is the Sadducees that go down in history. The mainstream observant Jews, who follow the Rabbis and keep Jewish law as it has always been practiced, are called ironically “Pharisees,” meaning “separatists,” to distinguish them from the others.

Since the Sadducees do not believe that the Oral Torah comes from God, they maintain that they are only obligated to keep the laws of the Written Torah, which they read literally. (This denial of the Oral Law will occur later in Jewish history with the Karaite schism in Babylon.) But so many of the laws of the Written Torah are incomprehensible without the Oral Torah. Their answer? Each man for himself; anyone can decide what it means and act accordingly.

The Sadducees find natural allies among the Hellenized Jews, as Rabbi Berel Wein explains:

The Sadducees were always more acceptable in the eyes of the Hellenist Jews than their rabbinic foes. The alliance of the Hellenists and the Sadducees against traditional Judaism guaranteed constant turmoil in Jewish life throughout the time of the Second Temple and even thereafter. (Echoes of Glory, p. 38)

(We shall discuss the Sadducees in greater detail in future segments when we come to the Roman Empire and its domination of the Jews.)

This is how the ancient historian Josephus explains the beliefs of the Jews at this time:

The Pharisees [who are considered most skillful in the exact explication of their laws and are the leading school] ascribe all to fate and to God and yet allow that to do what is right or to the contrary is principally the power of men, although fate does cooperate in every action. They say that all souls are imperishable but that the souls of good men only pass into other bodies while the souls of evil men are subject to eternal punishment. 

But the Sadducees are those that compose the second order and exclude fate entirely and suppose that God is not concerned with our doing or not doing what is evil. They say that to do what is good or what is evil is man’s own choice and that the choice of one or the other belongs to each person who may act as he pleases. They also exclude the belief in immortality of the soul and the punishment and rewards of the afterworld.

Moreover, the Pharisees are friendly to one another and cultivate harmonious relations with the community, but the behavior of the Sadducees towards one another is to some degree boorish, and their conversation with those that of their own party is barbarous as if they were strangers to them.[5]Josephus, Jewish War II 119-166

You can see how the Sadducees were influenced by Greek thought. They are part of the reason that the High Priesthood and the Temple service became so corrupt (as many of the priestly class, an upper class at that time, became Sadducees). And this is why the Talmud says that so many High Priests died during the service of Yom Kippur.

Forced Hellenization

It isn’t long before the Hellenized Jews draw the Greeks into the conflict by enlisting the support of the Selucid king. Antiochus IV Epiphanes takes deliberate steps between 169 BCE and 167 BCE to Hellenize the Jews of Israel by attempting to destroy Judaism. The Book of Maccabees calls this period a “reign of terror” and describes its beginnings as:

Not long after this, the king sent an Athenian senator to compel the Jews to forsake the laws of their fathers and cease to live by the laws of God, and also to pollute the temple in Jerusalem and call it the temple of Olympian Zeus…[6]II Maccabees 6:1.

One of the first things that Antiochus does take control of the Temple through influencing the office of the High Priest. He removes the High Priest from his position and replaces him with a Jew that he has in his back pocket. From this point on the High Priesthood becomes, to a large extent, a corrupt institution.

So here we begin to see a pattern which is going to evolve through later Jewish history of all the basic institutions being corrupted: the monarchy, the priesthood, the Temple service. What is going to be left relatively intact is the Sanhedrin, the Jewish Supreme Court, and its rabbis who will eventually write the Talmud, as we shall see.

After he installs his own High Priest, Antiochus tries to dissolve the Jewish calendar.

Antiochus, by this time, understands the Jews very well. To him these people are time obsessed ― they try to make time holy. Destroy time and you destroy the Jews’ ability to practice Judaism. Therefore, Antiochus forbids the observance of Shabbat, the observance of the New Moon (Rosh Chodesh), and the observance of the holidays ― Passover, Shavuot, Rosh Hashana, Yom Kippur, Sukkot.

Next, Antiochus forbids keeping kosher and studying Torah. Torah scrolls are publicly burned, and swine are sacrificed over sacred Jewish books to defile them. Indeed, Antiochus seems obsessed by swine, knowing that this animal is particularly repugnant to the Jews; he even forces the High Priest to institute swine sacrifices in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem, and also to permit worship there of a whole array of Greek gods. (See 1 Maccabees 1:41-64.)

Lastly, Antiochus forbids circumcision. To the Jews, this is the physical, tangible sign of their covenant with God. And it’s the one thing the Greeks ― who worship the perfection of the human body ― find most abhorrent. To them, circumcision is a mutilation.

Jews resist, so Antiochus and his henchmen go about driving the point home in a crude and cruel fashion. The Jewish historian, Rabbi Berel Wein relates this graphically in his Echoes of Glory:

Women who allowed their sons to be circumcised were killed with their sons tied around their necks. The scholars of Israel were hounded, hunted down and killed. Jews who refused to eat pork or sacrifice hogs were tortured to death … Even the smallest hamlet in Judah was not safe from the oppression of the Hellenists. The altars to Zeus and other pagan deities were erected in every village, and Jews of every area were forced to participate in the sacrificial services. (p. 63)

This type of religious persecution was, until then, unknown in human history. Up to that time, no one in the ancient world declared war on other people’s religions, because the attitude of polytheism was “I’ll worship your god, you worship mine. The more gods the merrier.”

(Later we will see Greek and Roman mythologies blending with Zeus becoming Jupiter, etc. The ultimate in pluralism ― everyone’s religion is as good as the next.)

In the polytheistic world no one died for their religion. No one, except the Jews.

The Jews maintain that there are things in this life that are worth dying for ― things that are more meaningful than life itself. Jews are willing to give up their lives for Judaism. Not because God needs people to die for Him but because the ideology of Torah is something without which humanity is doomed. The Jews, who are supposed to be “the light unto the nations,” cannot abandon their mission, even when their lives are threatened.

In the early stages of the conflict many Jews chose the path of “passive resistance” by choosing to ignore the Greek restrictions and continue to learn Torah and circumcise their infant sons. This form of resistance often proved fatal as many Jews were martyred for their continued loyalty to Judaism. Resistance to Greek persecutions could also take a more active form ― they could also fight against this type of tyranny and they do. What is most terrible in this fight, however, is that the Jews who are defending Judaism must fight the Greeks as well as some of their own fellow Jews who have converted to Hellenism.

The corruption of the Temple and the forced Hellenization and persecution finally becomes too much to bear for mainstream observant Jews. When they finally revolt against the Greeks, they take on their collaborators among the Jews as well.

The revolt of the Maccabees ― which we celebrate today as Chanukah ― is as much a story of a civil war between Jews as against Greece. It’s not a war for national liberation, nor is it a struggle for physical freedom ― it is a struggle of ideas.


1 Lawrence H. Schiffman, Text and Tradition ― A Source Reader for the Study of the Second Temple and Rabbinic Judaism. New Jersey: Ktav Publishing House. 1998. 142. Hecateus is quoted by the great first century CE Jewish historian, Josephus, in his book Contra Apion. What was most astounding to Hacateus was the complete lack of the images and idols so ubiquitous in every pagan temple of antiquity.
2 See Talmud ― Megillah 9a ― Rebbi Shimon ben Gamliel said: “Even books of scripture the sages did not permit to be written in any foreign language other than Greek.” It is important to mention that the Talmud here refers to the original, pure ancient Greek, not the common ancient Greek dialect, koine, of the Hellanstic world nor the modern Greek of today.
3 Talmud ― Megillah 9b.
4 Deliberate mistranslations were usually done by Christians scholars in-order-to “bend” the text to prove Christian theology. The classic example is Isaiah 7:14 where the Hebrew word almah meaning “young woman/maiden” is deliberately mistranslated into “virgin” (in Hebrew the word is b’tulah) to support the Christian concept of virgin birth.
5 Josephus, Jewish War II 119-166
6 II Maccabees 6:1.
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