Sunday, January 7, 2024

"Hanukkah": An Anti-Greek Blood Libel, by Eric Striker - The Unz Review

 Separating Fact From Fiction

British historicist Arnold Toynbee once described Judaism as a unique aberration within the human experience. Fossilized in their fanatical hatred of non-Jews, Jews throughout history have been ready to violently oppose every single culture and nation they encountered, even at the cost of their internal intellectual and civilizational development. For the Jewish people, the story of “Hanukkah” is a vital reference point central to their antagonistic and insular identity.

In the books of Maccabees, this race-feeling is explored in vivid detail. Here, Jews define themselves as irreconcilable with Greek civilization, gnawing at the Hellenic hand which at the time had touched the entire known world through the conquests of Alexander the Great. As a rule, the Hellenic empires of Ptolemaic Egypt and Seleucid Syria that followed Alexander’s passing treated the Jews and their customs with dignity and respect.

But a drastically different narrative is spun up for “Hanukkah.” According to Jewish sources, a Seleucid tyrant, Antiochus IV Epiphanes (215 BC – 164 BC), decided without warning to pass a decree that would forcibly Hellenize the religious customs of all the peoples in his vast empire. Antiochus was particularly fixated in his irrational hatred on the monotheistic Jews, who he indiscriminately mass murdered and robbed, and whose sacred Temple he profaned with his and his people’s “animal-like” Greek ways. Supporting Antiochus IV in this campaign were local Jewish traitors who had bought the position of high priests from the Seleucid throne, offering the treasures of the Temple as bribe. Eventually, the honorable Jews — Hasidim — could no longer stand the flagrant abuses and formed revolutionary bands that, with the help of angels, waged a seven year war beginning in 167 BC, where they won epic battles against the formidable Seleucid army, executed traitors, and eventually won the liberation of the Jews.

The problem with this legend is that many take this narrative, one of a one-dimensional, Greek Hitler waking up one day to persecute the Jews, at face value. Part of the problem is that unlike, for example, the Ptolemaic Egyptians who meticulously documented everything on papyrus, little is known about the Seleucids outside of coins and cuneiform. This presents a challenge in our understanding of human development and the broader importance of Seleucid civilization, which syncretically combined Hellenism with Syriac culture (which the Jews belong to) that was of paramount consequence in the later creation of important world religions such as Christianity and Islam.

More narrowly, the lack of Seleucid sources leads to an overreliance on highly prejudiced and downright dishonest Jewish writers. There are historians, often Jewish and some Gentiles, that treat the likes of the books of Maccabees, the book of Daniel, and serial slanderer Flavius Josephus (who relies on the book of Maccabees as the source of his history) to a positivist reading. Some go as far as to suspend established convention in historical investigation by inventing new, laughable categories such as “Theological History” in hopes that the broader public treat the “Hanukkah” legend — which evidence available elsewhere sharply refutes — as common knowledge. The outcome of all of this is that the unambiguously positive contributions of Greek civilization and the men who led it are stained with frivolous accusations of monstrous atrocities pulled out of thin air.

Let us examine the problem with the veracity of these source texts. The books of Maccabees assert that the five volumes were authored by a so-called Jason of Cyrene, a Greek-speaking Jew who nonetheless supported the anti-Greek rebellion, but there is no evidence this Jason of Cyrene ever existed. Modern scholars, including Israeli academics such as Sylvie Honigman, have concluded that these texts were instead authored by Hasmonean dynasty’s courtiers as a piece of self-aggrandizing propaganda and founding myth meant to legitimize themselves while uniting the Jewish people against outsiders in a time marked by ceaseless internal power struggles. As for the less important book of Daniel, which says it is the work of a 6th Century BC prophet foreseeing the Maccabean rebellion, the story was really written in 164 BC.

Maccabees is polluted by blood libel, where the Seleucids are charged with engaging in impossible acts of genocide against the Jews. In one instance ( 2 Maccabees 5:11–14), it is stated that Antiochus IV led his army through a rampage through Jerusalem, slaughtering 80,000 Jewish men, women and children and placing another 80,000 into slavery. According to the research of Israeli archaeologist Hillel Geva, physical evidence suggests that in reality, the total 2nd Century BC population of Jerusalem was well under 10,000.

Claims of Antiochus IV’s intolerance of Jewish customs, or that he passed a royal decree to force Hellenize the religions of peoples of his empire are also fiction. While it is true that both Romans and Greeks generally came to view Jews in a highly negative light, the Hellenistic empires followed the Achaemenidean structure of rule, where they provided religious and cultural toleration to prevent rebellions, preferring instead to leave cultural matters in the hands of local elites. When Coele-Syria (where historic Palestine was located) was under Ptolemaic rule, Jews enjoyed a great deal of self-determination and the freedom of religion. When the Seleucids defeated the Ptolemaic Egyptians in the 3rd Century BC and took over the region, Ptolemy IV attempted a counter-attack to reclaim Jerusalem, under the assumption that the Jews who he had treated benevolently would remain loyal to him. Instead, they betrayed him by taking up arms on behalf of the Seleucids, an opportunistic act King Antiochus III (the father of Antiochus IV) repaid by allowing Jerusalem to enjoy Mosaic law as their constitution.

Later on, Antiochus IV took power. He prayed to Zeus, but there is no evidence he held particular disdain for Judaism or monotheism. Seleucid coinage minted at the time of Antiochus IV’s alleged decree restricting religious liberty show the leader’s face alongside local non-Greek Gods and Goddesses portrayed in an honorific fashion, which is consistent with what we know about how Greeks interacted with the native peoples and their religions in the vast regions they governed. The cult of Yahweh would’ve also been unremarkable to Antiochus IV, as the king had spent much of his formative years in Greece, where he was exposed to the positive appraisal of ideas pointing to an eternal, supreme and universal God that existed solely in the realm of metaphysics. This conceptualization of God is embraced in the works of Xenophanes and Parmenides, as well as in Aristotle’s (Alexander the Great’s teacher) concept of the “Prime Mover” and Plato’s “The One .” Leading Greek intellectuals were transitioning Hellenic thought towards monotheism centuries before Antiochus was even born.

As for Antiochus IV’s temperament, there is not a shred of evidence that he was a bloodthirsty dictator outside of prejudiced Jewish texts. Reliable Greek sources, such as Polybius (from which Livy draws upon) describe him as a populist, kind, and easygoing figure. Antiochus IV was known for displays such as wearing toga and campaigning for votes, which suggests that he held political consent in high esteem. He was, contrary to how he is portrayed in Jewish sources, fixated on being popular, generally showing deference to the local customs of people in his multi-ethnic empire and having a propensity to giving unexpected gifts. He freely mingled with commoners, took to the stage to act in plays, loved to hang out in public spaces, and was known for handing money out to the poor on the street, all which earned him mockery among his snobby peers but won him the love of his people. His greatest flaw was not that he was particularly ruthless, but instead a poor administrator who bit off more than he could chew when dealing with external foes such as the Romans and Parthians.

It must be conceded that virtually all ancient historians relished in exaggeration, held political biases, and even traded in ironic contradiction, but special scrutiny must be applied when utilizing even “secular” Jewish sources, such as Flavius Josephus (the sole writer promoting the Maccabees story as fact), as primary texts. Josephus, a Jew who managed to enter Roman high society and influence its public opinion, was a Pharisee who, while predictably expressing opposition to the Jewish rebellion against his Roman benefactors in the first century AD, nevertheless used his new status to spread flagrant falsehoods against perceived enemies of Jews.

Josephus trafficked heavily in vindictive lies and laundered sources he likely knew were phony. For example, he is the sole source for the accusation that Cleopatra VII murdered her sister Arsinoe IV in Against Alpion, a claim that has no corroborating evidence and was never treated seriously by historians in the past or the present. He also asserts that Cleopatra was committing atrocities against the Jews, such as allowing them to die off in a famine she refused to relieve, once again there is no substantiating source to suggest this ever happened. In truth, Josephus appears to have targeted Cleopatra with smears to intensifying Roman antipathy towards her in vengeance for her attempt to fight back against the treacherous Jewish king Herod, who broke his agreement with the Ptolemaic Egyptians and sold them out to the Romans.

Josephus, along with fellow Jews Aristobulus and Philo, is also responsible for perpetuating the brazen 2nd Century BC forgery known as the “Letter of Aristeas.” This document, which these Jewish “historians” declare is an authentic account written by an advisor to Ptolemy II Philadelphus, features a Greek who is dismayed by the moral inferiority of his own race compared to the pious and perfect Jews. The letter goes on to detail claims of Greek sexual depravity and the mass enslavement of Jews (another fake atrocity, this time contradicted by countless Ptolemaic sources).

This letter is today universally understood by scholars to have actually been an appalling conspiracy of ancient Jewish deception. The Letter of Aristeas was fabricated by a group of malicious Jews with no connection to Ptolemy II whatsoever with the sole intent of reversing the ancient world’s unanimously negative opinion of Jews by slandering the reputation of the highly respected Greeks.

When examining all of this information, serious historians have no choice but to dismiss Jewish sources — from Maccabees to Josephus — as low-quality references at best and deceitful fiction at worst.

This then brings us to the question, what actually transpired between Antiochus IV and the Maccabees?

Here, we can consult with Book V of Tacitus’ Histories, one of the few non-Jews to comment on this incident and generally seen as reliable by classical scholars:

There stood a temple of immense wealth. First came the city with its fortifications, then the royal palace, then, within the innermost defenses, the temple itself. Only the Jew might approach the gates; all but priests were forbidden to pass the threshold. While the East was under the sway of the Assyrians, the Medes, and the Persians, Jews were the most contemptible of the subject tribes. When the Macedonians became supreme, King Antiochus strove to destroy the national superstition, and to introduce Greek civilization, but was prevented by his war with the Parthians from at all improving this vilest of nations; for at this time the revolt of Arsaces [modern day Iran] had taken place. The Macedonian power was now weak, while the Parthian had not yet reached its full strength, and, as the Romans were still far off, the Jews chose kings for themselves. Expelled by the fickle populace, and regaining their throne by force of arms, these princes, while they ventured on the wholesale banishment of their subjects, on the destruction of cities, on the murder of brothers, wives, and parents, and the other usual atrocities of despots, fostered the national superstition by appropriating the dignity of the priesthood as the support of their political power.

From here, we can begin to piece together a more accurate story.

According to the work of Jewish historian Elias Bickerman, tension between Jews and the Seleucid state began when local Jewish leaders petitioned Antiochus IV to transform Jerusalem into a polis. While the Seleucids were usually reluctant to incorporate parts of their empire without a strong presence of Greek settlers, Jewish elites saw advantages in the reduced taxation rate and prestige they would enjoy under these circumstances.

King Antiochus IV, in other words, was largely a passive actor in what was effectively an internal Jewish fight between those who sought to voluntarily Hellenize and those who rejected the concept entirely. He did seem to back the Hellenizing faction, but there is no evidence that this was particularly aimed at stamping out the Jewish religion, only to increase the local power of the pro-Greek Jews. Jewish scripture presents this as the battle between the pro-Greek Jason and his brother, Onias III, who opposed all semblances of Greek culture. Jason eventually won the conflict and became high priest, then was himself overtaken by a rival Hellenized Jew Menelaus, which then led to a coup attempt by Jason, and so on.

At first, one might be tempted to conflate Hellenization with religious systematization, but parallel cases would prove this to be a false assumption. The Samaritans, a non-Jewish people who adhered to the Torah and most Jewish rituals, enthusiastically embraced Hellenism in the 4th Century BC and lived under Seleucid rule, but their religious customs were never repressed or disrespected by the Greeks (this changed under the Byzantine Empire due to Samaritan refusal to convert to Christianity).

In fairness to the Jews and possibly substantiated by Tacitus, there is a possibility that Antiochus IV considered backing the local Hellenizing faction in ways that could be perceived as attacks on the Jewish religion, such as laws forbidding practices Greeks and Romans remarked upon as acts of barbaric superstition, specifically circumcision, which would’ve provoked the ire of puritanical Jews.

But is nonetheless abundantly clear that the Hellenization process of Jerusalem was not a conscious policy of the Seleucid bureaucracy, nor was it important to Antiochus IV. For Jerusalem to have been transformed into a polis, the prerequisite would’ve been the construction of an agora, the existence of a theater, an archeion, and most notably, the establishment of a gymnasion the book of Maccabees indignantly claims was built across from the Temple as an affront to Judaism. There is no archaeological evidence that any of these structures ever existed.

Antiochus’ decree to crush non-Greek religion? Sylvie Honigman and others concur that it never happened.

We can only speculate what, if any, kinetic military engagement the Seleucids even had with the Jews. The Olympiodoros inscription suggests that a Jewish tax rebellion may have occurred, but the chronology of this artifact is disputed. There is a possibility that the civil war that broke out between the various factions of Jews vying for high priesthood described in Jewish texts could have spurred Seleucid intervention, or that political and legal measures were taken by Seleucids to punish the Jews for their insolence. None of this is clear.

What is self-evident is that Antiochus IV would not have been away waging war in Parthia if the gravity of the supposed Maccabee rebellion situation in the heart of the Coele-Syria satrapy was as Jewish sources describe. The man accused of being a single-minded anti-Semite appears to have had much more pressing concerns than how Jews prayed or mutilated one another’s genitals.

Antiochus IV perished while campaigning in Parthia in 164 BC. The subsequent and rapid collapse of the Seleucid empire, brought down by elite infighting and devastating defeats at the hands of the Persians and Romans created a power vacuum that the Hasmoneans (who claimed to be the heirs of the anti-Greek rebels) later filled in 141 BC with no resistance. 100 years later, the Hasmoneans fought again amongst themselves to take control of the throne, a civil conflict that only ended with Roman intervention.

What we can concur with confidence is that the most notorious episode of religious persecution in the ancient world, that of Greeks orchestrating a genocide of Jews, never happened. The Maccabees revolt itself either never occurred, or if it did, was far more reduced in scope and far less noble (driven by economic incentives) than is commonly believed.

And in spite of increasing interest in the historical and archaeological evidence vindicating Antiochus IV and the Seleucid empire, the blood libel of “Hanukkah” — a self-aggrandizing and hateful piece of fake news — continues to be celebrated as a sacred triumph of Judaism over Western civilization.