Many people are mistakenly convinced that the Jewish holiday of Chanukah 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 diaspora countries 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.

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. Half a millennium later, the rabbis of the Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmuds related that completing these tasks was greeted with enthusiastic joy by the sages, rabbis, and lay community.

The Talmuds and Midrashim tell imaginary tales of how the nation’s high priest welcomed Alexander the Great to Jerusalem 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. Several later rabbis also adopted Greek names, such as Tarphon and Antigonus. Rabbi Judah the Prince, redactor of the Mishnah, taught Greek ideas to half his students – those capable of learning the subject.

Maimonides, the most significant Jewish philosopher, drew the ideas of his philosophy of Judaism from Aristotle, the fourth-century BCE Greek teacher of Alexander the Great.

 

The True Story of Chanukah

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, and 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, dietary laws, and other practices such as sacrifices. He also placed an idol in the Jewish Temple. The king did so that the Jews might forget the Law and change all their religious ordinances. These acts were contrary to the general open-mindedness of Hellenistic thought. 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 the Syrian Greek, King Antiochus IV, in 175 BCE.

 

Greek Philosophy Enters Jewish Thought

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 or hint at the subject. It teaches about God’s creations 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.

Philo was the very first Jewish philosopher of note, whose writings still exist today. At 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.