Hellenistic Jerusalem

In the years after the Jews returned from exile, their vision shrank. Preoccupied with their own problems they forgot that there were other people in the world. They isolated themselves and made God into their own image and likeness. God became a nationalistic God who, like themselves, was concerned mainly with his chosen people. The prophet Malachi emerged to challenge this attitude and described a day when all nations would worship God together:


My name will be great among the nations, from the rising to the setting of the sun. In every place incense and pure offerings will be brought to my name, because my name will be great among the nations," says the Lord Almighty. (Malachi 1:11)

Judah's years of isolation ended when, in 333 BC, the forces of Alexander of Macedon, known to history as Alexander the Great, conquered the Persian empire, which included Palestine. A student of the great Aristotle, Alexander saw himself as a disciple of Greek culture, and wanted to bring its benefits to all the world. He marched his armies as far as India before he stopped to consolidate his gains. At the age of 32, he headed the largest empire ever ruled by one man.

According to the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus , the Jewish high priest refused to submit to Alexander because he had vowed loyalty to the Persian king, Darius III. But, as a result of a dream, he capitulated when Alexander promised that the Jews would continue to be governed by their own Law. This era saw the spread of Greek culture throughout the Near East. Judea (as Judah was now called) became part of the Hellenistic world. Hellenisim (from Hellene meaning "Greek;" from this came the verb "Hellenize," to convert to Greek) included not only the culture of the Greeks, but the Greek forms of social organization, commercial activity and language. In this otherwise Semitic landscape, there arose a loose grouping of Hellenistic city-states called the Decapolis (Greek, "ten cities"), which included Philadelphia (modern Amman, the capital of Jordon), Gerasa (Jerash) and Schythopolis (Bet She'an). Some Jews found the Hellenistic lifestyle compatible with their own traditions; others recoiled from it. The struggle between these opposing factions dominated the history of Jerusalem for next three centuries.

Death closed the door on Alexander's brilliant career. In 323 BC, he died without an heir and his bickering generals divided his vast empire into three sections. One of them, Ptolemy, took Egypt and Jerusalem which then fell under the authority of his dynasty, the Ptolemys, for the next 120 years. The Ptolemys allowed the Jews almost complete autonomy.

In 198 BC Antiochus III of the Seleucids (named for Seleucus I Nicator, another of Alexander's generals) of Syria, conquered Israel and Jerusalem. He continued the policy of Jewish religious and political autonomy and even lowered taxes, and the high priest continued to govern the Jews. However, following a major defeat at the hands of Rome in 188 BC the Seleucids were compelled to deplete the royal treasury. Antiochus, who needed money desperately, was killed while plundering a Babylonian temple. His successor Selvecus IV (187-175) attempted to loot the Temple in Jerusalem.

In 175 BC serious trouble developed for the Jews when the Antiochus IV ascended to the Seleucid throne and set out to unite his kingdom under one culture, Greek.

Born in Athens and idealizing Greek ways, Antiochus fancied himself to be a manifestation of the Greek god Zeus, taking the title Epiphanes ("god-manifest"). He ordered the Jews to accept his divinity and to submit to the worship of Zeus. He forbade Jewish practices — circumcision, learning Hebrew, study of the Torah, observation of holidays and offering sacrifices in the Temple.

The images on the coins above illustrate the official metamorphosis of Antiochus IV into a deity. His face on a silver tetradrachma (left) bears the clean-shaven likeness of the king wearing a royal diadem. The inscription on the reverse side (not shown) reads: Basileos Antiochou Theou Epiphaniou Nikephorou ["of King Antiochus, God Manifest, Victory bearer'].

The face on the bronze coin at the right portrays a bearded Antiochus as Zeus himself, wearing a victor's wreath. The reverse side (not shown) identifies the image: "of King Antiochus, God Manifest." Both coins were minted in Antioch (modern Antakya, Turkey).

Antiochus also needed money badly and Jason, the high priest's brother, made him a proposal he couldn't refuse. He offered to pay to be appointed high priest, plus an additional sum "if he were given the authority to set up a gymnasium, which was not just for athletics. It housed a library and a place to indoctrinate youth in Greek culture. Antiochus granted the request, but he broke several time-honored practices: a new high priest took office only when his predecessor died, and no foreign power ever played a role in selecting the high priest. Moreover, Jerusalem's distinctive Jewish character was replaced with Hellenistic culture. Jason built the gymnasium at the northern edge of the Temple. The priests began to neglect the sacrifices, preferring to take part in the exercises at the wrestling school.

Jason held office for three years. In 171 BC sent Menelaus, a priest of the Balga family, to pay off Antiochus IV. Instead, Menelaus offered to pay an additional 300 talents if he were appointed high priest instead of Jason. Antiochus obliged. Menelaus, a radical Hellenist, intensified efforts to Hellenize Jerusalem, and Jason fled the city.

In 168 BC a false rumor spread that Antiochus IV had been killed in Egypt. Jason gathered a force of 1,000 soldiers and took Jerusalem, igniting a civil war. Menelaus took refuge in the HaBirah Fortress. Antiochus stormed Jerusalem, massacred many Jews, plundered the Temple and reinstated Menelaus. Within a year Antiochus' forces again massacred a large number of Jewish residents, plundering and destroying part of Jerusalem. Apparently all the Jews still alive fled the city. The Temple was ritually polluted and abandoned. The Hellenists built a stronghold called the Acra (Greek "fortress" or "high place") at the southern end of the Temple Mount. For the first time, foreign Hellenists, from Cyprus or Syria, were relocated to Jerusalem. They lived in the Acra together with the Hellenist Jews and the military garrison. any Jews refused to yield and died as martyrs, while others fled the city.

The apocalyptic book of Daniel was written during this time (165-164 BC). Although set earlier during the Babylonian Exile of 586 BC, its message would have been clear to the author's audience. It was a call to contemporary Jews to resist the Zeus-cult instituted by Antiochus Epiphanes and remain faithful to God:


"Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego replied to the king, "O Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to defend ourselves before you in this matter. If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to save us from it, and he will rescue us from your hand, O king. But even if he does not, we want you to know, O king, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up." (Daniel 3:16-18)

The book ends dramatically with Daniel being told in one last vision of the day of God's final judgment:


"At that time Michael, the great prince who protects your people, will arise. There will be a time of distress such as has not happened from the beginning of nations until then. But at that time your people — everyone whose name is found written in the book — will be delivered. Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to shame and everlasting contempt. Those who are wise will shine like the brightness of the heavens, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars for ever and ever." (Daniel 12:1-3)

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