Hanukkah? It’s Greek To Me

This is a guest post by Bradley Machov, a self-proclaimed “huge history nerd.” Bradley recently graduated from New York University where he majored in History. He has since moved back home to Minneapolis and is excited to be a part of TC Jewfolk!

During my senior year of college I took a course on Ancient Greek history.  In one particular class, my professor said something that caused me to stop my Facebook browsing and look up from my computer: “Now, Antiochus IV’s reign was marked primarily by the Maccabee revolt in Judea.”Wait a second, I thought, the Maccabee revolt? As in Judah Maccabee?
Like every good Jewish boy, I grew up knowing the basics of the Hanukkah story: evil King Antiochus wanted to kill all the Jews, and it was left to Judah Maccabee and his ragtag group of brothers to stop him.  Stop him they did, retaking the holy temple in the process, and miraculously stretching one day’s worth of oil into eight.  So now, to commemorate that occasion, we light Hanukkah candles for eight straight nights and fry our latkes in eight days worth of oil.  (“Eight Days Worth” is an actual measurement on the latke recipe my mom uses; I think it equals about half a bottle.)
I love Hanukkah—I love latkes, I love fire, I love gelt, I even used to dress as Judah Maccabee for Purim (and once as his father Mattathias, but that’s another story)—so when my stodgy old history professor mentioned the great Judah Maccabee, I listened.  As it turns out, the Maccabean revolt is not given much consideration by Greek historians.  We did not spend eight classes discussing it like I thought we would, in fact my professor didn’t even spend eight sentences on it.  He summed it up in three before moving on, leaving me to uncover the details independently.
The revolt took place from 167-160 B.C.E., during what is known as the Hellenistic Era—a span of about 300 years that begins with the death of Alexander the Great and ends with the rise of Rome as the sole world superpower.  The history of this era reads like a Mafia crime drama; no deed was too outrageous for the ruling class of Hellenistic Greece.  Wives double-crossed their husbands, parents assassinated their children, and kings often married their own family members.  Evil Antiochus IV even went so far as to marry his sister, both of whom were the products of three generations of marriages between first cousins.  It all must have made for some really awkward family potlucks.
As for Antiochus IV, two major events happened during his reign, and neither went his way.  Before fighting the Maccabees he marched his army to Egypt, only to be stopped en route by a Roman General.  This General, Gaius Popillius Laenas, delivered a message to Antiochus from the Roman Senate recommending that he withdraw his troops or risk going to war with the burgeoning Roman Empire.  Antiochus told the Roman General he’d sleep on it, but Popillius drew a circle in the sand around Antiochus and said, “Before you cross this line I want an answer for the Roman Senate.”  (Giving rise to the expression, “line in the sand.”)
Having no other viable option, Antiochus elected to go home.  He didn’t quite make it all the way back though, before his wounded pride got the better of him.  And like many world leaders past and present, he decided to blame the Jews for his misfortune.  What the rabbis often fail to mention about the story of Hanukkah is that Antiochus IV was likely intervening in a civil war already occurring, between the Hellenist Jews—Jews who wanted to be more Greek than Jew—and observant Jews like the Maccabees.  Or in terms Antiochus understood, Jews that paid him, and Jews that didn’t.
Upon Antiochus IV’s ascension to power, the High Priest (Kohen Gadol) of Judea was a man named Onias III—a pious and respected leader.  Yet even the Jewish community could not escape the type of backstabbing and double-crossing that ran rampant in that era.  Onias’ younger brother Jason, a Hellenist Jew, desired his older brother’s position so he bribed Antiochus to be named the new High Priest.  When it came time for Jason to pay the king more tribute money, he sent his messenger Menelaus to deliver the payment.  Menelaus had ambitions of his own though, and he offered Antiochus an even larger payment in exchange for the lofty position—a deal Antiochus gladly accepted.  Menelaus furthered the Hellenizing initiatives started by Jason, even going so far as to use sacred temple artifacts as tribute money.  Observant Jews like Mattathias and his sons were outraged; they began to kill any Hellenist Jew who crossed their path.  Antiochus, rebuffed once already by the Romans, was not about to get pushed around again.  He banned all traditional practices of Judaism.  The Maccabees were furious; they took to the hills and turned the war into the more familiar story of the underdog Jewish people fighting for survival against their evil national oppressor.
Or put another way; imagine Jews for Jesus suddenly posing such a threat to the direction of American Judaism that Orthodox Jews grow restless and start to harass every Jew For Jesus they see. President Obama, fearing greater civil unrest, publicly emphasizes the need for cooperation and harmony.  Since Jews for Jesus is obviously the direction in which Judaism is headed, especially in such a predominately Christian nation like America, Obama outlaws any practice of “Judaism” that does not recognize Christ as the Messiah, thus marking the first time in American history that an entire religious group has been banned from practicing their religion.  Not only would Orthodox Jews be mad, but Jews of every denomination—as well as the ACLU, the Coexist Foundation, that one friend you have who isn’t actually Jewish but has all Jewish friends and probably knows more about Judaism than you anyway—and countless others, until resistance becomes so strong that Obama gets the escalated violence he was hoping to avoid.
All of this while the cell phones of the Orthodox Jews only had enough battery to last one day, but somehow manage to last for eight—long enough to find a working charger.
Now that’s a miracle!

(Image: “Maccabees” by Wojciech Stattler)