The Second Temple period of Jewish history begins with the edict of Cyrus in 538 BCE marking the end of the Babylonian exile. The Persian Empire provided the means and opportunity for restoring Jewish autonomy and rebuilding the Jerusalem temple. This experience of support and recognition heralded almost three and half centuries of political cooperation with the various forces that dominated the Mediterranean basin.
A radical transformation of this relative political quiet took place in the latter part of the Second Temple period. Armed rebellions against ruling world powers mark the final two centuries of the period. On one hand, the Maccabean revolt (from the 160’s BCE) and bid for political independence resulted successfully in the establishment of a Judaean state between the years 140 and 63 BCE. On the other hand, the failed two revolts against Rome indicate a deep-seated hostility, which came at the expense of a realistic assessment of the political and military situation. This schism with the dominant world empire resulted in the destruction of the temple in 70 CE and in the cruel suppression of the Bar Kochba revolt in 135. It essentially marked the end of the Second Temple period.
An important internal division of the Second Temple period – which will be elaborated on presently – is the Macedonian-Hellenistic conquests of the late 4th century BCE, specifically the takeover of Eretz Israel in 332 BCE by Alexander the Great.
The political and cultural centrality of the temple in Jerusalem and the dominant role of the kohanim (priests) throughout the period, are the salient characteristics of the era. Three issues or tensions – albeit in varying degrees and expressions – dominate Judaean society and religion throughout this period.
Old vs. new: the “ideal” posited against actual reality. There was a need to legitimize and defend the existing (2nd) Temple and its leadership against claims of usurpation, inauthenticity, and illegitimacy. Romantic memories real or imagined, regarding the grandeur of the Solomonic Temple, and nostalgia for the ‘good old days’, only exacerbated this tension.
World Views: from extreme separatism to total universalism. Various approaches to the surrounding nations and cultures – from extreme separatism to total universalism – were espoused by the Judaean leadership of the time. Was Israelite-Jewish religion limited to a select group of insiders, or was its message intended for an ethnically broader audience? What was the proper measure of social and cultural integration with the surrounding nations and peoples? Was the God of Israel “just that” – in the most limited sense of the concept; or was there an ideal of “My house shall be called a house of prayer for all peoples” (Isaiah 56:7).
A Tenuous Priesthood vs. Other Leadership Models – The established priesthood was almost always contending with rivals or challengers of assorted kinds, whether from within priestly ranks or from other strata of society. This situation was exacerbated by the fact that there was indeed much upheaval and change in the priestly circles and other leadership groups throughout the period.
One cannot understand the events of the mid 2nd century BCE – those events we refer to as the story of Hannukah – without taking into account the three issues mentioned above.
The Hellenistic period is usually defined, from a political point of view, as lasting from the reign of Alexander the Great (334-323 BCE) to Octavian’s (later to be called Augustus) victory over Mark Anthony and Cleopatra queen of Egypt at Actium, 31 BCE.
These three centuries defined a social and cultural development that outlived their narrow chronological definition. Greek presence and influence in the ancient Near East started before Alexander, and held sway much after the Roman conquest and the establishment of its world empire. Hellenistic culture was a meeting ground for post-classical Greeks and Macedonians and the heirs of the ancient Near East. Although the dominant language was Koine Greek and many institutions and concepts were of Greek influence, it is a mistake to view the process as one way.
Hellenism is a fusion, an inclusive cultural being which indeed owes much to the heritage of 5th century Athens (and Greece in general), but is truly influenced by a variety of eastern cultures. Inclusiveness, social and cultural exchange, fusion, reciprocal influence; all are appropriate descriptions of the developments and processes of Hellenistic culture. This perspective is reflected in the persona and actions of Alexander the Great who saw himself as the heir of the Persian Empire, established the center of his kingdom in Mesopotamia, and married the princess Roxane, daughter of an eastern noble. The mark of Alexander the Great could symbolize a new world culture and order, endeavoring to define a new entity bridging East with West.
The Hannukah Story
The year 175 BCE saw an intensification of Hellenistic influence in Judaea. The high priest Onias III, whose family had occupied the office for many generations was deposed by the Seleucid king, Antiochus IV Epiphanies. Onias’ brother Jason plotted his downfall and was appointed to the high priesthood in his stead, only to be replaced three years later by Menelaus, descendant of an entirely different priestly family.
Jerusalem was granted permission to organize itself as a polis, (a Greek-Hellenistic city-state) and a gymnasium was founded for educational and cultural purposes. The Jerusalem authorities sent a delegation to be present (as observers) at the regional sporting events in Tyre. There is no indication that group(s) responsible for the Hellenistic changes wanted to abdicate their heritage or assimilate into the Syrian-Palestinian pagan culture. The temple routine continued as before, traditional life-style was not censored or even construed as threatened; Antiochus enjoyed a measure of popularity, no rebellion ensued.
All this changed in the year 168. After succumbing to a Roman ultimatum halting his conquest of Ptolemaic Egypt, Antiochus IV dealt harshly with repeated insurgencies in Judaea. Several generals were involved in the military occupation of Jerusalem. The climax of this process was in December of 167. The Jerusalem temple was converted to the cult of Zeus Olympus and traditional Jewish practice was outlawed. Religious persecution of this magnitude is unparalleled in Hellenistic culture and apparently unprecedented in ancient polytheism. The motivation for this policy of censuring the religion of a people defies simple explanation.
The Macabbean (=Hasmonean) rebellion was set against this persecution and paganization of the temple cult. The rebels succeeded in restoring the traditional cult and suspending the legal persecution three years later. The 25th of Kislev in 164 was the celebration of a purified temple, liberated from foreign cult. From an historical perspective this was the first and founding celebration of the Hannukah festival.
The Maccabean struggle did not end here. In an historical and social process still not entirely understood by modern day historians, Judah Maccabee’s brothers, Jonathan and Simon, succeeded in winning political independence from the Seleucid kingdom. International recognition, new territories, strengthened borders, stable internal leadership; all contributed to cementing the Hasmonean dynasty as the Jewish state’s national leaders. This position was made official in a public event in Elul/September of 140. The Hasmomean state would dominate for the better part of a century, and its repercussions would be felt even afterwards.
Why Eight Days?
The most popular explanation for the eight-day duration of the Hannukah holiday appears in later literature. The famous miracle story relates that upon the repossession of the temple, the Jews could not find any pure oil for lighting the temple menorah (a seven pronged candelabrum). Only a small container with a one-day supply was located. Miraculously, the supply lasted for eight days until new, ritually pure oil could be prepared. This well-known story first appears in the Babylonian Talmud many centuries after the events (Bavli Shabbat 21b; Meggilat Taanit ad Kislev 25, ed. Lichtenstien, HUCA 8-9 [1931/32], p. 341).
An earlier explanation construes the initial rededication celebration of eight days as a postponed observance of the Sukkot holiday. Because the Temple was under gentile control two months earlier, the Jewish people could not observe Sukkot properly. Upon victory and recapture of the temple, they celebrated the previous holiday which they had missed (2 Maccabees 1:9, 10:6-9).
Precedent for a temple rededication ceremony lasting eight days can be found in the Bible. When Hezekiah purified the temple from idolatrous worship, he is recorded as holding an eight-day rededication ceremony (2 Chronicles 29:15-17). This is a particularly apt precedent because it deals with the cessation of an idolatrous period in the temple and celebrates the restoration of traditional worship. (For an interesting perspective, see Bavli Avodah Zara 8a, where a mid-winter eight-day pagan celebration is implicitly compared to Hannukah.)
The Legacy of Hannukah
We should not view the relationship between Judaism and Hellenism as one of irreconcilable conflict. Religious persecution is not a natural outgrowth of Hellenistic culture. On the contrary, religious persecution is a perversion of the ideals of that world which witnessed fusion and inclusion of eastern cultures within Greek heritage.
While the reasons and motives for the persecution remain obscure, the Hasmoneans were open to various forms of Hellenistic influence. This can be traced from the days of Judah Maccabee onwards. Several coins minted by Hasmonean rulers illustrate the complex relationship that existed between the Hasmoneans and their Hellenistic surroundings.
Ancient coinage is a unique opportunity to gain insight into the self-image and public relations agenda of the coin-minting authority. Coins were minted and disseminated for practical purposes, but they provided the opportunity for getting across different social and political messages. The Hasmonean coins provide an excellent example of this phenomenon.
On one side of such a coin would be the Hebrew name of the ruler with his title as high priest, and the other side would have his Greek name with the Hellenistic title of king. There was no human representation on any of these coins. The combination of languages, titles, names, together with the abstention from figurative art, illuminate a multi-tiered cultural stance.
Participation in surrounding culture is not construed as an abdication of Jewish tradition. The minting of coins, fashioning of titles, bilingual names, all show the extent of Hellenistic influence. However, there were limits. Representation of a ruler’s face or head – prevalent in the Hellenistic world – is conspicuously absent from Hasmonean coins. This is a result of strict interpretation of the biblical prohibition of figurative art.
The endeavor here is to straddle two worlds. What is the compatibility of different products of the surrounding cultures with the basic tenets and norms of Jewish tradition? The Hasmonean story provides one model of integration. What are the appropriate models for our day and age, when Jewish culture seeks participation and dialogue within Western Civilization as well as contributing to its achievements? The challenge is one of living and actively participating in the civilizations around us, while maintaining allegiance to Jewish custom and tradition in daily life. בימים ההם בזמן הזה – bayamim hahem bazman hazeh, in days of old as in our own time.
David Levine is Lecturer of Talmud and Jewish History at Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, Jerusalem
Photo By 39james – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=37527783.