The one hundred years following Ezra and Nehemiah can properly be described as a time of peace and prosperity for the Jews (Graetz, History of the Jews, vol., I, pp. 406-407). The Jews had established themselves firmly in Palestine in every section of the province of Judaea. They were observing the Law of Moses in its entirety. It was the constitutional law of the land.
The Great Assembly, established by Ezra and Nehemiah, was the head of Jewish state under the Persian governor. This great religious assembly of priests directed the people in observing the Law of Scriptures. The priests saw that the people had proper religious instruction every Sabbath in the local synagogues scattered throughout the land. The children were educated in the elementary schools that were attached to the synagogues.
As long as the Jews were under the authority of the Persian Empire, they were allowed to carry on their own religious customs without interference. The Persians seemed to care little how the Jews worshipped God us long as the tax was being paid and a respectable amount of loyalty was being shown to the governor and kin. The Jews were disposed to keep the good graces of the Persians by submitting to her benevolent rulership.
Beyond the western frontier of the Persian Empire, while the Jews were enjoying their peaceful existence in Palestine, a young general was preparing an army for the conquest of Persia and the East. In 332 B.C., at that time, Palestine a part of the Persian Empire was conquered by a rising young Empire in the West the Empire of the Greeks!
Moving with such rapidity, and with such remarkable successes, Alexander the Great in 10 short years conquered the Persian Empire and all of civilized Asia on the Indus River, as well as Egypt on the south. The Jews, because of this, came under the domination of the Greeks.
With the coming of the Greeks, a whole new manner of life was brought into Palestine and among the Jews. Under the Persians, the Jews had been allowed to observe the Law of Moses with the Great Assembly (the Sopherim) as their religious leaders. But this was all changed with the advent of the Greeks.
Alexander the Great was steeped in the belief that the Greek way of life was the only suitable one for mankind to follow. He was imbued with the enthusiasm of infusing the culture and society of the Greeks among all the nations he had conquered. And Palestine was no exception.
“Hellenism” is the term to describe the belief in practicing the manner of life of the Greeks, to imitate every phase of Greek society: in politics, domestic life, philosophies, religions, etc.
The basic philosophy behind Hellenism was this: Every man had the right to think for himself on any matter as long as there was not a real departure from the customs that were essentially Greek.
This philosophy freedom of thought or individualism which is seemingly altruistic in principle-- resulted in myriads of confusing and contradictory beliefs among the Greeks in every phase of life. Every man was allowed his own ideas about the sciences, the arts, laws and about religion. So varied were the opinions among the Greek scholars in the various fields of study that individuals took pride in commending with one another over what could present the greatest “wisdom” and “knowledge” on any particular subject.
The Greeks sought wisdom in order to understand the world they lived in and the reason for life. And their confusion of beliefs resulted from the fact that their ideas came from their own rationalizing their philosophies represented almost every human idea.
Here was the beginning of the philosophy of individualism a product of Hellenism. When the Greeks came to Palestine they brought all their conflicting secular teachings as well as their many religious doctrines, all of which were prompted by the individual philosophies of men.
It would be unfeasible to even attempt an adequate description of the manifold religious ideas among the Greeks, or of their heathenistic doctrines. Their various religions and religious beliefs were the man-made products of the philosophy of individualism. Practically every religious belief capable of being devised by the human mind was found in pagan Greece. In their religious beliefs “we find ghosts and spirits and nature-gods, tribal religions, anthropomorphism (gods in human form), the formation of a pantheon (a temple for the worship of many pagan gods), individual religion, magical rites, purifications, prayers, sacrifices (animal, vegetable and human) all arising from the common stock and the successive phases of religious humanity” (Harrison, Religion of Ancient Greece, pp. 12-13). Many of their doctrines and customs will be relevantly discussed in future articles.
Wherever Alexander or his successors went, they carried with them an intense desire to Hellenize all nations. They took with them Greek society and imposed it upon all their captive peoples. They spread Hellenism from one end of the new Empire to the other. Palestine was as much infused with the New Greek culture as any other nation.
The Greeks considered it their right to govern in the way they deemed most suitable. In consequence of this, the Greeks disbanded the official Sopherim, the religious guardians of the Law of Moses. They would not tolerate the Jews being taught a different way of life from their own. Hellenism was established throughout the whole of Palestine.
It is not known how the Greeks dismissed the Sopherim from their official capacity as teachers of the Law. But within a score of years after the coming of the Greeks, the Sopherim disappeared from history as an organized body having religious control over the Jews. It is obvious that the Greeks took away the authority of the Sopherim and forbade them to teach. Whether this was done forcibly or by peaceful methods remains a mystery. But it is definitely known that their authority was very soon taken away.
Without the religious guidance of the Sopherim, many of the Jews began to imbibe the customs and ideas of the Greeks which were inundating the land. The Greeks were establishing their whole society firmly in Palestine and all the Empire.
“With the change from Persian to Greek rule, Hellenism made its influence felt, and came pouring like a flood into a country which had known nothing of it. There was no escape from its influence. It was present everywhere, in the streets and the market, in the everyday life and all the phases of social intercourse” (Herford, Talmud and Apocrypha, p. 77).
When the Sopherim were removed from the scene, along with the teaching of the Law of Moses, and this new culture substituted for the Law, we can comprehend why the Jews began to absorb many elements of Hellenism. The Jews had no one to guide them in understanding the Law of Moses, except a few isolated teachers here and there who had no authority as the Sopherim.
It will soon be shown that after a few years of this influence, the people literally came to a state of religious confusion. Some were endeavoring to keep a form of the Scripture teachings, but with Hellenism everywhere, it became almost impossible to keep the true form of the Law of Moses. The Greek way of life was entirely different from that promulgated by the Scriptures, and the two were not compatible!
The human opinion of the Greek poets and philosophers, as well as the doctrines of the various heathen sects of the Greeks, were propagated among the Jews. Almost everything the Greeks brought to the Jews was antagonistic to the Laws of God and, without the religious guidance of the Sopherim, many of them began to tolerate these innovations and even, as time progressed, to take up many of the Greek ideas and customs themselves.
Josephus, the Jewish historian, records an interesting incident concerning Alexander the Great when he had conquered the Palestine area and was about to enter the city of Jerusalem. He was met on the outskirts of the city by Jaddua, the High Priest, with many inhabitants of Jerusalem. The High Priest was bedecked in his priestly robes and leading the procession of people who met Alexander.
Upon seeing the High Priest and the procession following him, Josephus says that Alexander recalled a dream he had had previously in which such a procession was seen with a person dressed in exactly the same attire of the High Priest leading it. Alexander reckoned that his dream was a sign to leave the inhabitants of Jerusalem alone. He entered the city peaceably with the High Priest and offered a sacrifice to God. Afterward, he was shown the prophecy of Daniel 11:2-3, which revealed that a mighty king from Greece would conquer the Persian Empire. Josephus says that Alexander recognized that Daniel was writing of him. After reading this prophecy, Alexander became very glad and gave favors and gifts to many of the Jews. (See Antiquities of the Jews, xi, 8, 5 &6.)
The prophecy of Daniel had more to say of Alexander and his Empire. In Daniel 11:4 we read: “And when he (Alexander) shall stand up (be in his power), his kingdom shall be broken, and shall be divided toward the four winds of heaven.” This is exactly what happened! Upon the death of Alexander, his Empire was divided into four sections. Each section was headed by one of Alexander’s former generals: Cassander, Lysimachus, Seleucus and Ptolemy.
The Palestine area fell to the Grecian Ptolemy of Egypt. However, the Seleucid kingdom on the north also laid claim to Palestine and had loyal troops stationed within the area. Neither kingdom was willing to concede that the other had the sole rule of this territory.
In order to firmly secure Palestine to himself Ptolemy of Egypt in 320 B.C. attacked the Seleucid garrisons stationed in it and conquered the country. However, the Seleucids took it back in 315 B.C. But again, the Battle of Gaza in 312 B.C. gave Palestine back to Ptolemy. There were many more skirmishes between these two kingdoms until the years 301 B.C. At that time, the Greek government of Egypt took final control of Palestine and maintained control for a little over one hundred years until 198 B.C.
This one hundred year period of Greek-Egyptian domination is very important as a period in the religious history of the Jews. This is the period that great and significant changes took place in the religious life of the Jews.
While in this period of Egyptian control, the effects of Hellenism upon the Jews were extremely great. What had been started by Alexander the Great was brought to its greatest degree of perfection among the Jews during this one hundred-year period. The customs and traditions that had been handed down by the Sopherim were completely overshadowed by the Hellenistic culture of the Greeks as promulgated by the Egyptians. In plain language, the Jews during this period of Egyptian control, by the sheer force of environment and circumstance, surrendered themselves to Hellenistic ideas and ways of life.
“During the comparatively quite rule of the Ptolemies (the Egyptians), Greek ideas, customs, and morality had been making peaceful conquests in Palestine. Their own inherent attractiveness, and the fact that they were supported by the authority of the dominant race, cast a glamour about them (the Jews) which made the severe religion of Jehovah (to the Hellenistic minds), the simple customs and the strict morality of the Jews, seen barren and provincial. All the other peoples of Palestine had set the example by imitating their conquerors. Hellenistic Greek was the language of commerce and polite society. Greek literature was wisely studied. Greek manners were the standard throughout southeastern Palestine” (Kent, History of the Jewish People, pp. 320-321).
Everyone in Palestine was affected by the new Hellenistic culture. The Ptolemies of Egypt were anxious, following the example of Alexander the Great, to see that manners of the Greeks were implanted throughout their Empire. All phases of life connected with Hellenism were being practiced in Palestine during this period.
“It is safe to say that no one, high or low, who was living in Judea in the period which includes the whole of the third and the beginning of the second century B.C., wholly escaped the influence of Hellenism” (Herford, Talmud and Apocrypha, p. 77).
In 198 B.C., the Seleucid Kingdom on the north again came into Palestine and drove out the Egyptians.
The rulers of this kingdom were equally Hellenistic in their beliefs as were the Egyptians. However, the new rulers expected the Jews to follow their ways and only their ways of interpreting Hellenism. Only the Hellenism that supported the aims and customs of the Seleucids was allowed to exist.
Many of the Jews, after a century of Hellenistic influence, accepted this new enforcement of Seleucid Hellenism. About the only difference between the Egyptian Hellenism and that of the Seleucids was in the national aspect. The Seleucids demanded loyalty to their rule and their customs. The whole Hellenistic system was as much in effect among the Seleucids as with the Egyptians. In fact, if anything, the Seleucids were stronger in their Hellenistic convictions.
“A passion for Greek costumes, Greek customs, and Greek names seized the people. Large numbers were enrolled as citizens of Antioch (the capital of the Seleucid Kingdom). Many even endeavored to conceal the fact that they had been circumcised. To the horror of the faithful, Hellenism seemed to be carrying all before it. To demonstrate that he had left all the traditions of his race behind, Jason (the High Priest himself) sent a rich present for sacrifices in connection with the great festival at Tyre in honor of the god Hercules” (Kent, History of the Jewish People, pp. 324-325).
It is remarkable the extent of the paganism that the Jews were observing at this time. So strong did Hellenistic beliefs become, that the High Priest himself was offering sacrifices to pagan gods. Because of this a reaction began to take place among some of the Jews. Some of them could not bring themselves to go as far as the High Priest. However, the vast majority had fallen under the sway of the Hellenism of the Seleucids as they had under the Egyptians.
The 11th chapter of Daniel is the longest single prophecy in the whole Bible. It deals with events from the time of Daniel right up to the end of this age. The Prophet Daniel in this long prophecy foretold that the Persian Empire was to fall. It was to be conquered by a mighty king from Greece (v. 3). That king was Alexander the Great. In the height of his glory he was to die (which Alexander died in the 33rd year of his life) and his kingdom was to be divided into four divisions (v. 4). This happened exactly as foretold.
The prophecy continues the foretelling of Palestinian history by revealing in verse 5 that two of these four kingdoms would be fighting over Palestine for many years. Daniel calls the respective kingdoms, “the king of the south” and “the king of the north.” These two kingdoms were specifically the Egyptian kingdom (Ptolemies) on the south, and the Seleucid kingdom, on the north. This prophecy shows over 300 years in advance, the exact political conditions in Palestine during our period of discussion. History proves that this prophecy gave the precise state of affairs that did exist.
Daniel did not stop in verse 20, however, concerning the political situations in Palestine. In verse 21 Daniel speaks about a “vile person” who was to arise in the kingdom of the north the Seleucid kingdom. This person was to be most wicked and was to cause many terrible indignities to the Jews. Verses 21-39 describe the activities of this man. And, the prophecies concerning him were fulfilled to the letter. This king of the north the vile person was Antiochus Epiphanes.
In the year 175 B.C. Antiochus Epiphanes obtained the throne of the Seleucid kingdom, and thereby assumed control of Palestine.
When Antiochus took over the Seleucid kingdom there was a reaction between several of the priests in Jerusalem who were contending for the position of High Priest among the Jews. Jason, the brother of the reigning High Priest, persuaded Antiochus to permit him to become the High Priest in his brother’s stead. Because of the large sum of money he offered for the honor, Antiochus transferred the priesthood to Jason. The position of High Priest had dwindled to more of aristocratic political honor. There was little regard paid to the Law of God by these High Priests. Most of them were outright Hellenists.
About three years later, however, a Jew, Menelaus, of the tribe of Benjamin (not of Aaron), offered Antiochus a larger bribe than Jason, and he was named High Priest instead. Because of this, Jason fled beyond Jordan to the Ammonites for refuge.
Many of the Jews thought that Jason had been unjustly deprived of his priesthood. A good number of the Jews in Palestine began to take side between these two men. Some were for Jason and others for Menelaus. So hot did tempers become between these factions that a good deal of violence broke out between them. Actually, those on the side of Jason were fighting in rebellion against the recognized authority that Antiochus Epiphanes had set up. The High Priest, Menelaus, had been given his position by the Seleucid government even though Menelaus had bribed Antiochus into giving it to him and fighting against this authority constituted fighting against the dictates of the Seleucid Kingdom. (See Antiquities of the Jews, xii, 5, 1-5).
The Jewish war for independence from the Seleucid Kingdom has often been called the Maccabean Revolt. Some people have hastily assumed that this revolt was begun because the religious Jews wanted to rid Palestine of the pagan influences that had been in the land for 150 years or more. However, such was not the case. The Jews, on the whole, had accepted Hellenism on a major degree, as had all the countries of the Eastern Mediterranean region. It was not the desire to eradicate Hellenism from Palestine that prompted the Maccabean Revolt, surprisingly as that may seem.
“The one rebellion which had been recorded in history as directed against Hellenism, that of the Maccabees in Judaea was not, in its origin, a reaction against Hellenism. From the contemporary or almost contemporary accounts in I and II Maccabees it is clear that Hellenism had proceeded far indeed, and apparently without protest, before the insurrection began. Violence started in consequence of rivalry between equally Hellenized contenders for the high priesthood, and religion was not an issue” (Hadas, Hellenistic Culture, p. 43).
The revolt began when fighting broke out between the Jews on the side of Jason, the deposed High Priest, and those of the side of Menelaus, the High Priest appointed by Antiochus. It infuriated Antiochus that many of the Jews began to take sides against his appointed official in fact, against the government! When a good number of the Jews gathered to the side of Jason, the real reason for the revolt, the desire for independence from the Seleucid yoke began to be voiced. Religion did not enter in the controversy at first, for Jason was as Hellenistic in his beliefs as Menelaus. The insurrection began as a political revolt for independence from the Seleucid kingdom
“The Maccabean uprising, at least in its initial stages, was not against Hellenism but for national independence” (Goodspeed, The Apocrypha, p. xiv).
However, religion was later brought into the matter. In order to get the whole of the Jews in a revolt against the Seleucids, the dissenters began to point to the heathenistic beliefs of the Seleucids and of Menelaus the High Priest, claiming that such things were anti-Jewish. Thus, the rebels brought religion into the issue, which they reasoned would serve as a mark of distinction between the Jews and the Seleucids. So, in various quarters the cries went up that the government was proclaiming policies that were fundamentally anti-Jewish especially to the religious customs of their forefathers.
In 168 B.C., Antiochus Epiphanes, while endeavoring by war to take over the Egyptian government, was forced by the Romans, after a humiliating experience, to withdraw from Egypt and to forget his plans of conquering that country. On his way back to Antioch, his capital to the north of Palestine, he determined to put an end to the rebellion that was beginning in Judaea.
Because the issue of religion had been brought up in the insurrection, and because many of the rebels were proclaiming that their struggle was for religious freedom, Antiochus in a maddened frenzy, determined to obliterate any vestiges of the religious customs of the Jews! He boldly repudiated God and entered the Temple in Jerusalem and dedicated it to the pagan god Jupiter. He set up an idol which he called “the lord of heaven” but which is referred to in the Bible as the “abomination of desolation” (Dan. 11:31). He also offered swine’s flesh on the Holy Altar and polluted the Temple with all the indecencies he could perpetrate. He even turned the Temple into a center of prostitution.
Notice some of the things commanded by Antiochus Epiphanes in his desire to exterminate any semblance of the commands of God. We find that many innocent Jews who had no thoughts of rebellion suffered many indignities as well as the guilty.
“By royal decree, the observance of the Sabbath or of the sacred feasts, and practicing the rite of circumcision, were absolutely forbidden under penalty of death. All copies of the law were destroyed. Heathen altars and temples were erected throughout Judaea, and every Jew was compelled in public to sacrifice to idols, swine’s flesh or that of some other unclean beast, and to present conclusive evidence that he had ceased to observe the laws of his fathers” (Kent, History of the Jewish People, pp. 328-329).
All women who had their sons circumcised were publicly marched around the city of Jerusalem and then thrown from the high walls to their death. One group of people who fled to a cave near Jerusalem in order to keep the Sabbath service were surprised and committed to the flames. Such things were everyday occurrences against the Jews who failed to abide by the decrees of Antiochus Epiphanes (Margolis, History of the Jewish People, pp. 137-138).
Because of the outrages of Antiochus Epiphanes many of the Jews became more than ever desirous of independence from the rule of the tyrant. Among them was Judas Maccabeus and his four brothers. They abhorred the actions of this crazed ruler from the north, and not desiring to put up with the abuses that were being done to the Jews, they fled for refuge to the mountains of Judaea. While there, they gathered together many more of the dissenting Jews and formed an army. Their vow was to exterminate the foreigners from Judaea.
After a series of successful skirmishes, these men gathered more and more Jews to their cause. Surprisingly, in three short years (by 165 B.C.) they had defeated the Seleucids to such an extent that, for all practical purposes, their desire for an independent autonomous Jewish state was realized. The Maccabees became the leaders of this new state.
It should be remembered that this revolt of the Jews was not at first a matter of religion. This main reason for the insurrection was to establish an independent Jewish state.
“The Maccabean uprising, at least in its initial stages, was not against Hellenism but rather for national independence. And when independence, real or nominal, was secured, the object of the Maccabean principality was to hold its head up among other principalities that had arisen out of the ruins of the Seleucid Empire; there was nothing like an anti-Greek program” (Goodspeed, The Apocrypha, pp. xiv, xv)
The majority of Jews had not been anxious to depart from their Hellenism. What they wanted primarily was their freedom from the foreign yoke. The matter of religion was really invoked to get the people united in one common cause to drive the foreigner from Judaea. There was no real desire among the multitudes to get back to the Law of God. And religion only became a major issue when Antiochus Epiphanes voiced his anti-religious decrees.
The Jewish historian, Moses Hadas, adequately describes the situation during the Maccabean Revolt.
“The standard of religion was raised in the countryside, and then served to rally the people to the cause. It was only after religion had become the battle cry of the rebels that Antiochus IV (Epiphanes) issued his decrees against the observance of central religious rites, and it is highly significant that as soon as the anti-religious decrees were rescinded the pietest group (the religious people) withdrew from the fighting. The object of the Hasmonean (Maccabean) rulers was not to protect religion but to maintain a sovereignty among others which were being carved out of the weakened Seleucids Empire” (Hellenistic Culture, p. 43).
After independence was realized, the Hellenistic element still remained among the Jews. They had been so wedded to its influence for so long that it was an impossibility to remove that influence from them.
Be watching for the next installment of “Is Judaism the Religion of Moses?”