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)
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.
Latest posts by Neil Godfrey (see all)
- The Secret of the Power Behind the Gospel Narrative (Charbonnel Continued) - 2021-09-11 12:54:01 GMT+0000
- The Gospels as Figurative Narratives (Charbonnel continued) - 2021-09-07 11:26:50 GMT+0000
- How to Read Historical Evidence (and any other information) Critically - 2021-09-05 14:00:06 GMT+0000
If you enjoyed this post, please consider donating to Vridar. Thanks!