Hanukkah uncensored, part 1: The Festival of Lights’ darker truth

The following is the first in a three-part special, giving you the real and complete story of Hanukkah, from the deep socio-political background to the fruition of the dream of an independent Jewish kingdom under the heroic Maccabees – 19 years after the death of the famous Yehudah, or Judah.

These chapters are excerpted from “Jewcy Story: How the Jews blew redemption the last time around” by regular +972 contributor Rechavia (Rick) Berman.

Chapter 1: Hanukkah

The darker truth behind the Festival of Lights

“Hanukkah, Hanukkah, such a lovely feast…” goes the popular holiday song. Well, the feast does indeed rock, but the story behind it is rather harsh. When they tell you about Hanukkah at Hebrew school, they tend to emphasize the whole “fighting the foreign oppressor” aspect and soften the intrinsic civil-war aspect of the tale.

In the century and a bit following the death of the Pella Prettyboy, aka Alexander the Great, the land of Israel was a pitched battleground between two of the successor states to Alexander’s empire – the Seleucid empire based in what is now Syria, and the Ptolemaic empire, based in Egypt, which controlled the land of Israel after the death of Alexander. The two empires fought five wars over a bit more than a hundred years, and in the fifth one, which took place between 201-198 BCE, the Seleucids conquered the land and opened a new chapter in its history.

The man who did the conquering was Antiochus III, known to history as “The Great”. He was a very capable and talented ruler, who understood well that after pushing his border south, what he needed more than anything is peace and quiet, and therefore he promised to leave his new subjects and their unique religion alone. He even gave them an exemption from taxes, so that they could repair the damage caused by five wars in a hundred years.

His son did not share this wisdom. Antiochus the Fourth, who took the title “Epiphanes”, was a zealous enthusiast of Greek culture and the Olympian Gods. He was also unique among Hellenist kings of that era in taking a religious title like “Epiphanes” as his royal name. However, the common belief that he attempted to force the Greek religion upon his Jewish subjects due to sheer religious intolerance is inaccurate. The correct explanation to what happened is that the rejection of Hellenic culture, as expressed in Judea and elsewhere, was seen as a political threat, and this is why the Seleucid king decided to forcibly eradicate the source of this rejection.

Hellenism was not a new phenomenon in Israel and did not begin with the Seleucid conquest. Hellenism began immediately upon the conquest of the land by Alexander and affected all walks of life to one degree or another, but the upper classes in particular. Many of the priests were bitten hard by the Hellenism bug and did all they could to integrate in the global culture. The Hellenistic movement caused a growing rift among the people, most of whom rejected the new culture and remained true to their original religion, although most people leaned towards the more modern approach of the faction that would come to be known as Pharisees.

The hundred or so years of Ptolemaic rule in the land of Israel saw not only five wars against the Seleucids to the north, bringing massive devastation to the land of Israel that lay in the middle. It also saw a growing rift among the people, between adherents of families that supported the Egyptian-based dynasty, and those who hoped to improve their fortunes should the Seleucids gain control. In time the leading families themselves – the House of Tobias, which controlled the tax collection business, and the House of Honio, which controlled the High Priesthood – also split along these lines.

Son, Unlike Father

In the early days of Seleucid rule these divisions did not surface sharply, because Antiochus the Third left Jewish self-rule intact and gave the Jews the right to live “according to the laws of their fathers”. This right remained intact during the short reign of his older son Seleucus the Fourth as well. But in 175 BCE the throne was ascended by his younger son, who was named Mithridates at birth but changed his name to Antiochus Epiphanes.

According to practically all sources, this king was an odd man, with a tendency for tantrums on one hand and lavish displays of affection on the other, who liked to act as a simple man and amuse himself by pouring slick myrrh on the floor so that his guests would slip and fall. He spent over a decade as a hostage of goodwill in Rome and came to admire the ways of this nation, and was as mentioned above also a great admirer of Greek culture (which after all was the basis for Roman culture in many ways).

Upon his ascension to the throne, Epiphanes made efforts to increase the power of the Seleucid Empire. He tried to suppress the anti-Hellenist movements in the eastern part of his empire, and tried to continue his father’s momentum of conquest and capture Egypt itself.

The rise of Epiphanes gave the pro-Seleucid factions in Jerusalem the opening they had been waiting for. The new king rescinded the bill of rights his father had given the Jews, and also the tax exemption, which was vital to allow the devastated country to recover from a century of warfare.

The way it went down is quite soap-opera-ish and involves family intrigue: The House of Tobias managed to incite a member of the rival family, House of Honio, against his own blood. Jason, brother of the High Priest Honio, went to the king in Antioch and told him that his brother the High Priest was disloyal. Jason timed this to coincide with his brother’s visit to Antioch on business, so as to make it easier for the Greek king to simply arrest him. He then persuaded the king to sell him the now-vacant High Priesthood – marking the first time in the nation’s history that this revered position was bought for money.

Jason (whose Hebrew name, incidentally, was Yeshua), was among the most radically Hellenized Jews, who sought to turn Jerusalem into a Greek-style polis, in which only a small minority of nobles would enjoy full civil rights. The new High Priest also purchased the right to establish Hellenistic-style educational facilities in Jerusalem and change its official name to “Antioch” in obeisance to the ruling family of the empire. Jason cleared the Jerusalem Gerousia (Elders Council) of anyone who opposed his new policies, but at this early point still did not impede the free exercise of religion.

I’ll See Your Bribe and Raise

Jason’s innovations into the succession procedures of the High Priesthood backfired on him, though. His rich backers, the House of Tobias, weren’t content with having a paid traitor as High Priest and were determined to overthrow the hold of their enemy, the House of Honio, once and for all. To this end they employed three brothers from an unconnected priestly family. One of these, Menelaus, repeated Jason’s game plan to perfection, exploiting a trip by the High Priest to the royal court, and simply adding on the price paid by Jason in order to get the job for himself.

For the first time since the days of King David, nearly nine hundred years before, the biblical House of Zadok, from which the House of Honio was descended, was removed from the High Priesthood. Menelaus accelerated the Hellenization and the discrimination against those who refused to adopt Hellenic ways. What was worse, Menelaus used money from the temple treasury to purchase the favor of the Greek/Syrian king, and as a result riots broke out in Jerusalem. The (not terribly reliable) book of 2nd Maccabees states that Lysimachus, brother of Menelaus left in his absence to maintain order, armed a force of three thousand men, but that these failed to crush the popular uprising, in which Lysimachus himself was killed.

The rebels sent three members of the Gerousia to the royal court to argue against Menelaus’ continued control of the city, but by spending more and more bribes Menelaus managed to keep his job.

Meanwhile King Antiochus was getting into trouble of his own. The king embarked on a second attempt to conquer Egypt. This time got to within four miles of taking a defenseless Alexandria, but at this point Rome intervened. The new superpower had no interest whatsoever in seeing the entire east united, and forced Epiphanes to retreat.

The tale of the king’s setbacks got back to Jerusalem in an exaggerated form, and rumors spread that the king had actually been killed. Jason, who had fled across the river Jordan after he was deposed as High Priest, invaded Jerusalem at the head of a thousand warriors and forced Menelaus to barricade inside a single fortress. But Jason, who thought the people would embrace him now as the lesser of two evils, was sorely disappointed. By now most of the people in Jerusalem and around it were radicalized by the mistreatment they had suffered from the Hellenizers. Jason was forced to establish a reign of terror, and after a short while was chased away as well.

King Epiphanes, who although forced to retreat from Egypt was still very much alive, became very frightened at this point, seeing danger of an avalanche that would dismantle his entire kingdom. He decided to react forcefully against the popular movement threatening his representatives in Jerusalem. The king conquered the city and conducted a pretty serious massacre of its people. 2nd Maccabees claims that eighty thousand were killed, and even if this number seems wildly exaggerated to modern scholars, it indicates the scope of the horror. As soon as Epiphanes and most of his army left, the Jews rose up again, and the king’s chief commander, Apollonius, was forced to retake it. In order to prevent another rebellion he built a fortress, called the Khakra, which became the new nerve center of the aggressively Hellenized polis (city-state). He also brought in massive numbers of foreign soldiers and stationed them there permanently. These soldiers completely changed the character of the city, instituting foreign religious practices that were extremely objectionable to the local population.

The new regime in Jerusalem disenfranchised anyone who didn’t adopt their lifestyle. Many of the city’s residents (including one Yehudah, son of the priest Mattityahu the Hasmonean) fled the city, but the resistance to the new regime only grew. This was at 168 BCE.

This laid the background to the familiar story of Hanukkah, but it is important to notice two things: The first is that a rebellion movement against the foreign culture and interference in internal Jewish practices existed for many months before the appearance of Mattityahu the Hasmonean and his five brave sons. Both the biblical book of Daniel (which was actually composed at this time) and the book of 1st Maccabees (despite its obvious desire to glorify the Hasmonean dynasty) mention the existence of an organized “faithful sect”. The book of Maccabees notes that this group hid in the Judean desert and joined the Hasmoneans as an organized military force immediately upon the outbreak of open rebellion.

The second point is that this was much more a civil war than an uprising against foreign rule.


Point in Time (200-150 BCE):

In modern-day Afghanistan: the Kingdom of Bactria flourishes, combining Greek and Hindu culture and controlling the Silk Road.

In China: under the new Han dynasty, Confucianism becomes the ruling ideology and Chinese law enters a golden age.

In Central America: the Maya culture builds the great Temple of the Sun in the city of Teotihuacan (near modern-day Mexico City).

In Western Africa: The city of Jan-Janu is built in the delta of the river Niger, where it would endure until the year 1400 CE. In Nubia the Marroa culture thrives, trade developes between the Arabs and East Africa.

In Modern-day Turkey: Rome defeats Antiochus III at the battle of Magnesia, conquers Macedonia and becomes the dominant force in southern Europe. Greek astronomer Hipparchos formulates the most accurate calendar of ancient times. He calculates the length of the year to within 6.5 minutes of modern scientific reckoning, explains the earth’s rotation on its axis and catalogues the stars.


Coming soon, Part 2 of the Hanukkah special: The Action Part, in which Yehudah wins till he loses, and the elephants kill and get killed