2017-10-26

Those Hellenistic and Hellenizing Maccabees and Pharisees

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by Neil Godfrey

We think of Hellenism as the enemy against which the Maccabees fought to the death. But consider the following . . . .

To celebrate the recapturing and re-dedication of the Jerusalem Temple in 164 BCE the Maccabees instituted the festival of Hannukah [=Dedication]:

Judah and his brethren and the whole congregation of Israel ordained, that the days of the dedication of the altar should be kept in their seasons year by year for eight days, from the twenty-fifth day of the month Kislev, with gladness and joy.

There is a deep irony here that Elias Bickerman identifies in his 1947 essay on the Maccabees when he writes

By instituting this festival Judah and his people declared themselves the true Israel. Their act was one of far-reaching significance, for all previous festivals were prescribed in Scripture. Never had a festival been instituted in Israel by human hand. Even the restoration of the Temple after the Babylonian Exile had not been solemnized by the establishment of a day of commemoration. Judah’s measure was therefore an innovation without precedent. On the other hand, it was in complete accord with the usage of the Gentiles. Among the Greeks it was usual for a generation, when it regarded an event in its own history as important, to believe it should be commemorated for all time. Thus Judah imitated the practice of his enemies, but at the same time incorporated it into Judaism. This was the first step along the path which was to constitute the historic mission of the Hasmoneans — the introduction of Hellenic usages into Judaism without making a sacrifice of Judaism. No one any longer celebrates the Greek festivals that served as Judah’s example. But the eight-branched candelabrum, a symbol, again, that imitates a pagan usage, is lighted on Kislev 25 the world over, in countries Judah never knew about, in Sidney as in New York, in Berlin as in Capetown. “And He saved them from the hand of him that hated them, and redeemed them from the hand of the enemy.” (The Maccabees, pp. 43f, my bolding in all quotations)

Celebrating the victory over Hellenism by following a Hellenistic practice!

More followed. In 161 BCE

Judah besieged Jerusalem and the Sanctuary a second time, and again had the day of his victory (Adar 13) entered in the calendar of festivals. This amounted to a demonstration that Judah and his followers represented the true Israel. For the first time in the history of Jacob a day in a war between brothers was declared a joyous festival. This example was later followed by the Pharisees, who upon occasion abused the function of festivals by instituting anti-Sadducee memorial days. All of these festivals, including the Day of Nicanor, have been forgotten. But the historian must point out that by instituting festivals of this nature Judah no less than the Pharisees was consciously or unconsciously imitating the example of the Greeks. (p. 54)

The ways of the world were further followed in defiance of the sacred writings when political and military alliances were made with pagan powers:

Christian theologians have often wondered at the fact that Judah, who was so zealous in the service of the Lord, made a treaty with and sought security through a pagan power, despite all the admonitions of the prophets. It must be said that there is ground for such wonder. The Maccabees had again taken a step that brought them nearer to the pagan world; they had again accommodated devout Judaism to the ways of the nations. (p. 56)

Israel quickly forgot Judah. In the Talmud he is nowhere mentioned. In Megillat Antiochus, a post-talmudic (and quite spiritless) account that was read at the Hanukkah festival in the Middle Ages, Mattathias and his grandson, John Hyrcanus — but not Judah — are the principal figures. It was only during the Middle Ages, thanks to the Hebrew compilation called Josippon, composed on the basis of the writings of Josephus, that Judah again became a hero for the Jews. (p. 57)

Judah Maccabee eventually passed away and was soon forgotten by Israel. Eight years later (152 BCE) his brother Jonathan became the High Priest even though he was not part of the priestly Zaddokite family:

For the priest to obtain his position from the secular power was a Greek custom. Once again those who fought for the Torah accommodated the law to Gentile practices, while the legitimate High Priest (by right of descent) performed the service in a rump temple in Egypt. (p. 64)

We are reminded of the Greek methods of appointing rulers (and of Russell Gmirkin’s related discussion) when we read the following section in Bickerman’s essay:

On Elul 18 (about September) of the preceding year (140 b.c.e.) “in a great congregation of priests and people and princes of the nation, and of the elders of the country,” it was determined that Simon should be “their leader and High Priest for ever.” Heretofore the legal basis for the power of the Maccabean princes had been royal appointment. Now the rule of Simon and of his successors rested upon the decision of the people itself; hence Simon assumed the new title, “Prince of the People” (Ethnarch). (p. 68)

Greek justification of conquest

[T]he opponents of the Maccabees in the Greek cities of Phoenicia and Palestine maintained at the time of the Maccabean conquest that the Jews could have no claim upon Palestine because they were immigrants who had destroyed the Canaanites: “Are ye not a people of robbers?”

It is of the highest significance for the Hellenization of Judaism under the Maccabees that the Jews engaged in this dispute without objection, that is to say, they recognized Greek opinion as arbiter in the case. Thus, it is important to note, they accepted the legal principle of their opponents. Whereas the Bible eschews any secular legal basis for the claim upon the land and derives the Jews’ right to Canaan from the divine promise, under the Maccabees the Jews sought a historical basis for their claim to the Holy Land. But, and this is characteristic of the manner of their Hellenization, they applied this new principle to the Bible. They declared, for example, that Palestine originally belonged to the heritage of Shem and had then been occupied by Canaan in robber-fashion; or they identified Shem with Melchizedek, the priest-king of Jerusalem, thus seeking to prove that Palestine was Shem’s heritage; or they employed some similar device. (pp. 90f)

Pharisees and Essenes

The Pharisees or perushim, as they are designated in Hebrew, are the “Separated” who stand apart from the pagans and also from other Jews in order to gain sanctity. For them parush becomes a synonym for kadosh, “holy.” They are not the only ones who separated themselves. The Essenes, another sect, who seem to have introduced something of the ideas and the forms of life of Greek Pythagoreanism into Judaism, desired to be “holy” no less than the Pharisees, and their striving in this direction was even more pronounced than the Pharisees’. But the Essenes sought to realize their goal for themselves alone, for the members of their own order; the Pharisees, on the other hand, wished to embrace the whole people, and in particular through education. It was their desire and intention that everyone in Israel achieve holiness through the study of the Torah, and their guiding principle was: “Raise up many disciples.”

All of this is alien to biblical Israel. The prophets looked forward to repentance as issuing from the pressure of events and as a result of prophetic admonitions and divine chastisement, not as the fruit of study. Even for Jesus Sirach, who wrote his Book of Wisdom on the eve of the persecutions of Epiphanes, the scholar is a distinguished man and a rich one. An artisan or peasant, in his view, could not attain learning. “He that hath little business,” he says, “can become wise. How can he become wise that holdeth the goad?” But the Pharisees wished to bring everyone to the Torah. “The crown of the Torah is set before every man.” For Sirach, as for biblical Judaism, as indeed for all the East, it is assumed that only the pious can be wise: “All wisdom cometh from the Lord.” The Pharisees adopted this principle entirely, adding to it, however, that piety was teachable and to be attained only through teaching. Consequently the entire people must study the Torah.

But this is a Hellenic, one might say, a Platonic notion, that education could so transform the individual and the entire people that the nation would be capable of fulfilling the divine task set it. (pp. 92-94)

The Sadducees, on the other hand, opposed the making of any rules that were not found in the Torah.

But the Pharisaic idea of education promoted the tendency to develop the Torah as time and circumstance demanded. As the source for such development, the Pharisees looked to tradition, or, as they later termed it, the “oral” law, which they set on a footing with the written Torah. This singular notion of setting traditional usage or halakhah alongside the written law is again Greek. It is the concept of the “unwritten law” (agraphos nomos), which is preserved not on stone or paper but lives and moves in the actions of the people. But whereas in the Greek world this notion often served to negate the written law, Pharisaism used the oral law to “make a fence for the Torah.” (pp. 95f)

Resurrection and future rewards and punishments

[T]he Hellenistic world surrounding Judaism was caught up by a new revelation that solved the problem of evil on earth: retribution would come after death, when the wicked would be punished and the righteous rewarded and awakened to new life. Such notions are alien to the Bible, indeed in contradiction to it, for the Torah promises reward and punishment in this life. Hence the Sadducees rejected the new doctrine and ridiculed the Pharisaic teaching of resurrection. If they had been the only authoritative representatives of Judaism, Judaism would either have lagged behind the times and grown rigid, as was the case with the Samaritans, who also rejected the new belief, or the course of history would have submerged Judaism and undermined the Torah. The Pharisees, on the other hand, adopted the Hellenistic doctrine of resurrection, but subsumed it under the principles of the Torah. What to the pagans was an event dictated more or less by necessity, appears among the Jews as the working of the free will of God. According to the account of Flavius Josephus, the Pharisaic doctrine of the future life derives from the Greek teaching of the Pythagoreans. But among the Pythagoreans each soul must automatically return to new life after death, each according to its merit. For this fateful and continually operative necessity, the Pharisees substituted the single event of the Last Judgment, whose day and scope God would determine, and so dovetailed the new Hellenistic idea into the structure of biblical ideas. In its new form the adopted doctrine of resurrection developed into a characteristic element of Jewish belief; it became, with biblical monotheism, its central doctrine. (pp. 96f)

There is more, of course

I have tried here to focus mostly on the practices of the side that ostensibly most opposed Hellenism. More to follow in coming months.


Bickerman, Elias. 1947. The Maccabees: An account of their history from the beginnings to the fall of the House of the Hasmoneans, Schocken Books, New York.


 

 

 

 

15 Comments

  • Bob de Jong
    2017-10-26 20:32:23 UTC - 20:32 | Permalink

    Bickerman published his book in 1937, the English translation appeared in 1947.
    He is still highly regarded, but some of his hypotheses may not have aged well.
    Bickerman focusses on the hellenistic aspect throughout his book, perhaps more than is warranted. Some examlples:

    – yes, the Maacabeans instituted the jewish holiday of Chanuka. But it is not necessarily a hellenistic concept. For one, the celebration of the Jewish holiday is a religious ‘family affair’, celebrated mostly in the home, by reading bible texts, and rituals. A hellenistic festival is public affair, often including parades and/or public rituals on a large scale.
    Furthermore, one can hardly say that the Maccabeans started the tradition of instituting ‘festivals’ to commemorate historic events; the older Jewish holidays also commemorate events that are seen as historic!

    – yes, Maccabean rulers made alliances with Pagan kings. So what’s new? There are numerous instances where Juda’s and Israel’s kings forge alliances, e.g with Egypt, Babylonia and several others.

    – yes, the high priest was confirmed in a civic ceremony. But what other options did the Maccabeans have? They were not descended from a priestly or royal line….

    And so on, for the other examples it can be shown that the role of ‘hellenising’ may be overstated by Bickerman.

    • Neil Godfrey
      2017-10-28 09:30:32 UTC - 09:30 | Permalink

      Some people even think that suggesting a Hellenistic influence on Jewish culture is rank anti-Semitism anyway, don’t they, Bob.

      • Tige Gibson
        2017-10-29 00:23:19 UTC - 00:23 | Permalink

        The only reason Judaism persisted at all was because of other nations including the Greeks marching through their country on their way to fight real empires. Mythmaking is motivated by the fact that the truth ain’t that great.

        • Austendw
          2017-11-01 07:44:11 UTC - 07:44 | Permalink

          I don’t follow your reasoning. In fact, I can’t make sense of it at all. And the value judgement implicit in the apposition of “real empires” and “the truth ain’t that great” seems to express oddly imperialist values of a distinctly Euro-centric flavour. Or am I overinterpreting your gnomic assertion?

          • Tige Gibson
            2017-11-02 04:45:24 UTC - 04:45 | Permalink

            I’m not sure why you’re looking for something like that at all since my comment is from the historical context when the empires of Egyptians, Persians, Greeks, and Romans marched through the tiny, insignificant region where Israel was incidentally located to fight one another. Those nations did not see Israel on the same level as themselves. Only for Israel’s own ego they should portray themselves as grand as those empires. Outside of religious scripture, there is no indication that Israel belongs to a category of empires.

            My point is that somehow a tiny, self-absorbed nation produced writings which became the basis of two major religions which have been and are the official or “unofficial” state religions of many, many formerly imperial countries in the world, countries which are even until now allied together by those religions.

            Israel itself exists today solely for the sake of American Protestantism. Anyone who fancies himself a Zionist is in extreme denial that Israel’s place is behind the zipper in America’s pair of jeans in exactly the same way North Korea should be behind China’s zipper. If only there was some other way of explaining why the sexual predator occupying the White House insists on fighting with North Korea. He’s Israel’s biggest friend but doesn’t show it because America doesn’t need two dicks.

            • Austendw
              2017-11-04 07:10:09 UTC - 07:10 | Permalink

              I’m not looking for anything; I’m hearing it. But perhaps I’m having a problem interpreting your language – which is clearly more emotive than analytical. I sense a sort of lingering flavour of disdain.

              For example, when you discuss “writings which became the basis of two major religions which have been and are the official or “unofficial” state religions of many, many formerly imperial countries in the world” I experience a sort of vertigo. Judaism is not a “major” religion at all, certainly not numerically, and never has been. Nor has it been the state religion of any country apart from Israel from the mid-20th Century. I’m merely bemused by the gratuitous generalisation of “self-absorbed nation,” an emotive expression (with somewhat negative connotations, and a particular resonance in the present context) which has little meaning in terms of actual ancient history.

              I still don’t understand what you mean when you say “The only reason Judaism persisted at all was because of other nations including the Greeks marching through their country” (religious survival in the 2nd half of the 1st millenium BCE) which is a very different proposition to the observation that “Israel itself exists today solely for the sake of American Protestantism” (political support in the 2nd half of the 20th Century CE etc) even though they are analogous and, as it where, rhyming assertions. We can’t possibly know whether Judaism would or wouldn’t have survived if the Greeks and Romans hadn’t marched through, though its history would inevitably have been rather different.

              It is of course in the order of things that history is driven by the interests, impulses and trajectories of major empires and world powers, and if that’s all you are saying, then its an obvious and I would have thought almost unnecessary point to make. But I sense something more: a sort of lingering odour of disdain.

              • Tige Gibson
                2017-11-04 22:50:45 UTC - 22:50 | Permalink

                What I’m talking about specifically is really old news to me, so it’s not something that I would subject to new analysis. What we’re talking about now is an older layer of wallpaper hidden under an already old layer of wallpaper, and that which was already a subject of disdain has just had a new layer of stain exposed. Although this doesn’t really change how bad these religions are, it doesn’t make them any better either and no amount of analysis will find any redemption here. There’s nothing here that I would offer to any Christian I know, it would just go in one ear and out the other.

                When I said TWO major religions, I clearly wasn’t talking about Judaism. What world do you live in?

                What’s clear to me is that you need some comparative religious history. The dogmas of Judaism are mostly related to the formation and narrative of the ancient nation of Israel, not really about a philosophy of living or afterlife which Christianity pasted on to it later in the form of a cynical veneer. If Judaism had not survived having Persian, Greek, or Roman pantheons imposed on them as happened in every other conquered region, Christianity would not have been possible and consequently Islam would not have been possible. Why do you think that Israel was allowed to refuse to worship the gods of their conquerors, these major powers?

                Anyway if you keep saying disdain without identifying specifically what I have disdain for, I doubt that you understand what you are talking about.

              • Austendw
                2017-11-05 09:08:53 UTC - 09:08 | Permalink

                As regards disdain, it was a feeling: I wasn’t clear what it was directed against, merely that I could sense it. You have since solved that problem. When you say “…this doesn’t really change how bad these religions are, it doesn’t make them any better either and no amount of analysis will find any redemption here” I now see that that disdain is too weak a word. Passionate loathing for the Abrahamic religions is nearer the mark. I take it you are an ex-Christian. For me, your talk of Christianity’s “cynical veneer”, with its implied dishonourable motivation is the language of sectarian diatribe, not nuanced historical analysis. My engagement with the cultures, histories, cults and beliefs of the ancient world is, for better or worse, rather more dispassionate and as such it’s difficult to imagine common ground on which you and I can engage.

                As for my misundertanding of what you mean by “TWO major religions”, I apologise for the misunderstanding. You didn’t name Islam and it hadn’t come up before in this thread. I somehow misread your talk of alliances. Anyway, I realise now you meant alliances of Islamic countries and alliances of Christian countries.

                I am not at all sure that “every other conquered region” did have “Persian, Greek, or Roman pantheons imposed on them”. Ancient empires tended not to impose uniform hegemonic cults throughout their territories because this was impossible to enforce, and antagonised subjects – it was counter-productive. They were far more likely to encourage a loose syncretism, identifying their own gods with the gods of the region (eg Amun identified with Zeus). This played out in different ways, but created a sense that, in their own ways, everyone was worshipping the same gods. Jewish monotheism was a bit an anomaly but even so, some Romans and Greeks DID think that Yahweh was to all intents and purposes Jupiter (though Egyptians came to think he was donkey-headed Seth). However, because the Judean cult laid great importance on the actual name of Yahweh, the Jews were reluctant to explicitly confirm such syncretic associations. For most of the time, this didn’t bother the Greeks and Romans. Thus, for example, as long as sacrifices were offered to whoever the Judeans worshipped for the wellbeing of the Emperor, the Romans were happy. Suspension of the sacrifice was when the things went awry.

              • Tige Gibson
                2017-11-06 02:56:48 UTC - 02:56 | Permalink

                Yes, as an ex-Christian I hold a great disdain for religious people of all types. Such people are immune to any and all facts. The only way to deal with them is psychologically. I’m genuinely interested in the history, even though I see it as completely useless in my interactions with Christians. It is precisely as useless as discussing evolution or climate change with them.

                My field of expertise is engineering, not history. My school was preyed upon by a large city church immediately next door. Virtually anyone going to my school was exposed to that specific brand of Christianity, and so many like myself ended up believers. I wasn’t born into a religious family in a religious region. I was preyed upon and caught.

                The “cynical veneer” that I’m talking about was written into the scriptures. Christianity didn’t invent this at some later time like their anti-abortion rhetoric. It was built in from the beginning.

                I don’t recognize the religious people I’m used to dealing with or colonialism as you would understand it as a culture. The whole point of Christianity is to evacuate the spirituality from culture leaving just the veneer. The way Christians have always talked about culture and spirituality is as a sham.

                From what I’ve been seeing here, it’s clear to me that the Romans recognized that their own culture was too dependent upon the Greeks and they found Greek culture already present everywhere they went, and so they picked up these persistent elements of Judaism precisely because they were different, even though even the Jews had picked up elements of Greek culture into their own, up until now that hasn’t been very apparent to anyone.

                I would think that things were already very awry well before the Romans were compelled to destroy the temple.

  • Bob Jase
    2017-10-27 16:44:42 UTC - 16:44 | Permalink

    Biblical Israel and Hebraic religion contnue to shrink as archeology show how much was syncratic.

  • mbuckley3
    2017-10-27 18:35:16 UTC - 18:35 | Permalink

    Bickerman was exceptional in his knowledge of the cultural norms of the period, as these examples show. It is important to remind ourselves that, in his view, the Maccabaean revolt was not against ‘Hellenism’, but against a radical change in cult practice. His thesis was that the high priests Jason and Menelaus regarded the Law of Moses as man-,made, replacing it with a ‘golden age’ pseudo-Abrahamic cult ( all very Hellenistic! ); banning of sabbath observance and circumcision was a reform allowing integration with the wider world; Antiochus IV was simply enforcing the authority of his appointee in Judea ( he had no problem with the Mosaic cult of the Samaritans on Mount Gerizim ). The thesis has always been controversial (with its explicit reference to 19th century Reform Judaism), but, with its disciplined close-reading of the texts, never overturned.

    In short, contested cult practice could lead to a crisis. Otherwise, deliberately and/ or unconsciously, the Hasmoneans were enthusiastic adepts of the protocols common to the Hellenistic world, as Bickerman’s essays elegantly demonstrated.

    • Austendw
      2017-10-31 07:37:05 UTC - 07:37 | Permalink

      I agree wholeheartedly and you really took the words out of my mouth with regard to the notion that the Maccabeans were fighting “Hellenism” – that it was some sort of fundamentalist jihad against Hellenism. It wasn’t. For that reason I don’t see any “deep irony” in the Maccabeans “celebrating the victory over Hellenism by following a Hellenistic practice”

      As Bickerman put it, but with different emphasis to the one Neil places on it – “the historic mission of the Hasmoneans [was] the introduction of Hellenic usages into Judaism without making a sacrifice of Judaism.” That was entirely doable, as far as they were concerned. They believe that their opponents, the so-called “Hellenizers” did sacrifice core Judean cultic and cultural practices – they simply went too far – but it was a matter of degree only.

      The notion that the Maccabean revolt was hostile to “Hellenism” as such is founded on a mistaken “orientalist” notion that the eastern Judaean/Jewish cult & culture was so utterly different from the western Hellenistic world that adoption of any Hellenistic ideas or practices must always have been some sort of betrayal or, at best, dilution of Judaism. But this was not how most, or even any, Jews viewed things at that time.

  • Tige Gibson
    2017-10-27 23:08:30 UTC - 23:08 | Permalink

    For me, and I’m sure my position is common among Christian students of the Bible, I knew that lots of people spoke Greek during that time, but the time between the end of the Old Testament and the beginning of the New Testament is otherwise a black hole, as if for good reason, that there are things during that time which Christians have no use for, which is how it should be understood that we had the dark ages that followed. And it is as if all this was just dug up yesterday, simply because it was irrelevant to the connivings of a great many generations of Christian jackasses.

    As interesting as this is to me, it doesn’t open the eyes of any Christians. More likely to stir up anti-Jewish sentiments in fact.

  • John
    2017-11-02 03:00:19 UTC - 03:00 | Permalink

    Regarding Bickerman’s statement:

    “… all previous festivals were prescribed in Scripture. Never had a festival been instituted in Israel by human hand. Even the restoration of the Temple after the Babylonian Exile had not been solemnized by the establishment of a day of commemoration. Judah’s measure was therefore an innovation without precedent.”

    My understanding is that Hanukkah is modeled on Sukkot, as noted here:

    https://templemount.wordpress.com/tag/sukkot/

    “The Temple Mount was the heart of the celebrations of Sukkot. The best example of this is described in Maccabees 10 6-8. It describes how after the Maccabees cleaned the Temple, they celebrated what would be Channukkah in the manner of Sukkot because they had not been able to celebrate Sukkot properly in the Temple due to the restrictions of the oppressive Hellenistic regime. The 8 days of Channukkah were based on the 8 days of Sukkot, and Channukkah was celebrated with the four species of Sukkot.

    6And they kept eight days with joy, after the manner of the feast of the tabernacles, remembering that not long before they had kept the feast of the tabernacles when they were in the mountains, and in dens like wild beasts.

    7 Therefore they now, carried boughs, and green branches, and palms for Him that had given them good success in cleansing his place.

    8 And they ordained by a common statute, and decree, that all the nation of the Jews should keep those days every year.”

    • Neil Godfrey
      2017-11-02 04:27:49 UTC - 04:27 | Permalink

      There is no doubt that Hanukkah is “modelled on Sukkot” but that is the point: it is not Sukkot or a divinely ordained festival authorized by Scripture. It was established the same way and with the same kind of authority that Greek festivals were established.

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