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 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.
For example, the Jews of Egypt had 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 even 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 isolated 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 half his students – those capable of learning the subject – Greek ideas.
And Maimonides, the greatest 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, 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.
Unlike the past open-minded Greek practice, Antiochus criminalized the fundamental rites of Judaism: circumcision, observance of the Sabbath and holidays, the 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 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 this one radical Syrian 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.
Thank you for this post. Will you be covering some more of this and other thought-provoking ideas in Mysteries of Judaism III and Mysteries of Judaism IV?
Yes, I hope to do so.
Dear Rabbi Drazin,
Thank you for another thought provoking article.
Thank you for your compliment Cris.