Many people are mistakenly convinced that the Jewish holiday of Hanukah celebrates the victory of the Jewish religion over Hellenism and that the enemy was Greece. Neither supposed fact is true. The Jews in Judea, Egypt and other countries of the diaspora had a longstanding favorable relationship with the Greeks and Hellenism well before and long after the incidents that prompted the rebellion of Judah Maccabee, his father and brothers in 168 BCE.
The Septuagint, philosophy, and more
For example, the Jews of Egypt translated the Bible into Greek around 250 BCE, in a work called the Septuagint, and Aquilas did so again for the Jews in Judea in the first third of the second century CE. A half a millennium later, the rabbis of the Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmuds related that the completion of these tasks was greeted with enthusiastic joy by the sages, rabbis and lay community.
The Talmuds and Midrashim tell imaginary tales of how Alexander the Great was welcomed to Jerusalem by the nation’s high priest when he marched with his army to conquer Egypt in 332 BCE. Alexander was extolled in Jewish tradition. Even today, many Jewish families name their sons and daughters after him.
Hellenistic paganism was open-minded toward all religious beliefs and practices. There was no religious conflict between Judaism and the various Greek nations, except for the events of Chanukah. Even after 164 BCE, when the Judeans were victorious against their enemies, the family of Judah Maccabee continued unbroken relations with Greek nations, including faraway Sparta. Many members of his family adopted Greek names, including the king, John Hyrcanus, a member of Judah Maccabee’s family. Several later rabbis also adopted Greek names, such as Tarphon and Antigonus. Rabbi Judah the Prince, redactor of the Mishnah, taught half his students – those capable of learning the subject – Greek ideas.
Notwithstanding the decrees of one radical Greek leader, the Jews lived in peace with the Greeks and turned to their writings for enlightenment. The Bible was not written to teach philosophy and does not even hint at the subject. It teaches about God and proper behavior. Philosophy was
introduced to the world through Greek teachers and many Jews adopted elements of the thinking of one Greek philosopher or another.
The very first Jewish philosopher of note, whose writings still exist today was Philo. In the beginning of the Common Era, Philo accepted the mostly mystical otherworldly notions of Plato, while Maimonides preferred the realistic, rational and scientific views of Plato’s disciple Aristotle, the fourth-century BCE Greek teacher of Alexander the Great.
The True Story of Hanukah
When Alexander died in 332 BCE, his virtually worldwide kingdom was divided among his generals. His cavalry commander Seleucus seized the area of Syria, to the north of Israel, as well as other northern territories. In 175 BCE, the Seleucid dynasty was ruled by Antiochus IV, a vile, hateful and self-centered man who ran his kingdom arbitrarily and impulsively.
He arrogantly called himself Antiochus Epiphanes (Antiochus the Manifestation of God). The Jews mockingly renamed him Antiochus Epimanes (Antiochus the Madman) behind his back.
Antiochus criminalized the fundamental rites of Judaism: circumcision, observance of the Sabbath and holidays, the dietary laws, and other practices such as sacrifices to the God recognized by Jews. He also placed an idol in the Jewish Temple. The king’s goal was that the Jews would forget the Torah Law and change all their religious practices. These acts were contrary to the general open mindedness of Hellenism. And these were the acts that prompted the Jewish rebellion.
Thus, the Hasmonean battle was not against the Hellenistic culture of the Greeks but against the religious innovations or, more precisely, prohibitions introduced by one Syrian Greek, King Antiochus IV, in 175 BCE.
Great article about Hanukah. I agree that the Judeans were not against the Greeks but a Syrian Greek king who was very intolerant of other views. As the article suggests, many Jews still think it was a war against Greek culture. I once heard a rabbi say that Jews should not watch sports because the Greeks enjoyed playing sports. But as the article shows, the war was not over Hellenism but about religious freedom.
Dear Rabbi Drazen,
There was also a civil war going on at the time amongst the Israelite’s. As you are aware, I am sure, the Hellinized against the Traditionalist. I believe this should also be mentioned as the post is somewhat over simplified.
A Freilichen Chanukah and Chodesh Tov
You are right of course there were Judeans who were pro-Syrians and willing to worship the idols, but there was no civil war. Unfortunately, there have always been Jews on both sides of issues or even in many sides. The rabbis correctly said that this internal strife led to the destruction of the temple, meaning that it may not have occurred if the Judeans were unified. I left all this out of my essay because I just wanted to make the point that even most of the religiously-minded Judeans were not adverse to Greek culture.