Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Rhapsody in Jew, Part II

Artist depiction of Judah Maccabee

I know this post is a day later than promised, but hurling took precedence over posting yesterday, much to my (and Annie’s) chagrin. Without further ado: the Revolt and it’s aftermath (with all credit, again, going to the brilliant Seth Schwartz).

The historicity of Antiochus’s decrees are a matter of scholarly debate. Ofri Ilani’s article in Ha’Aretz presents the “there’s no way these events transpired in this way” side of the argument. The argument boils down to the fact that religious persecution was extremely unusual at the time and Antiochus’s father was famous for enacting protections for the Israelite religion. Unfortunately, the paucity of primary sources that survived from that period force historians to speculate. For example, one possible explanation for this sudden shift rests on the scarce evidence that exists for a religious rebellion the previous year. Alternatively, high powered Jews may have gained politically from such decrees and influenced Antiochus, particularly if they intended to become a polis (which, we established yesterday, precludes monotheism).

Open Jewish resistance to these prohibitions did not begin until 167 BCE. At this point, the Hasmonean family had yet to take charge of the revolt. Slowly, the Hasmoneans gained a stronghold over the guerilla fighters, when Judah, leading his own small band against the Seleucid troops, won a serious of small victories. By 164 BCE, the persecution had ended and, with it, the fighting; yet the Torah was not restored as the constitution of Judea. Somehow (and the historical record, already murky, is opaque on this issue), Judah and the Hasmoneans gain control of the Temple, rededicating it to the God of Israel. Judah, apparently tiring of peace, takes his fighters and begins raiding some lands outside of Judea. The Seleucids begin to view him and his army as a real threat and, in 162 BCE, send out a real army led by Lysias (an important courtier, so you know they really mean it). Lysias is on the verge of crushing Judah, when a civil war breaks out in Antioch (upon Antiochus’s death), forcing Lysias to return. Before he can leave, he must establish favorable terms with the Judean government (so if they need Judean support during the civil war, it’ll be assured). In these interests, Antiochus concedes to restoring the Torah as the constitution of the Jews.

Even after the Seleucid Empire conceded, Judah continued to rebel (although the propaganda of I Maccabees insists that his rebellion was for the sake of restoring the Torah as law). Why would he keep the rebellion alive, even though, ostensibly, his demands have been met? Judah was interested in maintaining power and, although he had “won” the revolt, he still had no authority, as the power returned to the High Priest. The Book of Maccabees argues that he tried to regain independence, a weak argument considering that the Israelites/Judeans had not been independent since some mythical past, back in the 9th Century, and the concept of a right to national self-determination would not be developed for another 2,110 years. Otherwise, Judea has always been relatively autonomous, living under its own laws and aristocracy, except under the brief period of Jason and Menelaus’s reign, which had just been restored.

In response to Judah’s revolts, Antiochus sent out an enormous army under Nicanor to squelch Judah. Astoundingly (and this may be the true miracle of Hanukkah, so long as you are pro-Hasmonean), Judah defeated both that army and the one that followed. In 161 BCE, the Seleucid army crushed Judah completely (to death, in fact). His brother Jonathan took the few remaining troops and fled over the Jordan, devolving into a group of thieving brigands (yes, that was redundant). The following year, the High Priesthood and governmental infrastructure were destabilized when Yakim, the High Priest, was kicked out of the priesthood, without a secure successor. Combined with the Seleucid Civil War of Succession (which last for the next century), this destabilization created a power vacuum, especially in the countryside, where a powerful personality could gain a huge amount of power in a relatively short period of time. The infighting weakened the government enough so that they needed the Jonathan’s man power and were willing to trade concrete political power in return. The Hasmoneans used that power vacuum to their advantage and, over the next 8 years, Jonathan became the most influential man in Judea, re-establishing a power base in Judea, with an entourage of a thousand men (eat your heart out Vince Chase). Now, the Hasmoneans have power legitimately, from within the Seleucid system, not to be ousted when the fighting ends.

Back in the Seleucid Empire, Demetrius I, Antiochus IV’s nephew, and Antiochus’s bastard son (maybe), Alexander Balas are both vying for the throne. I Maccabees describes them also vying for Jonathan’s favor, attempting to outdo one another with promises. Jonathan backed Balas, who appoints him High Priest (NB: the King always appointed the High Priest of Judea, but usually chose the son of the previous priest); as well, he appoints him Governor of Judea (and gives his brother, Simon, the cushy position of General of the Palestinian Coast). Jonathan’s roles as High Priest and Governor combined created a ritual and religious problem for the priesthood. As a general, he constantly came into contact with corpses, rendering him ritually impure (as well, priests were prohibited from willfully coming into contact with corpses, except under strict conditions). For ten years, Jonathan simultaneously juggled the roles of countryside underdog and Seleucid favorite. In 142 BCE, the Seleucid pretender to the throne, Diodotos Tryphon, tricked him into a meeting (sans army) and killed him. Simon took over and threw his support behind Diodotos’s opposition, receiving a tax break and passing it onto the Jews as an indication that the Jews were now fully independent of the Seleucids. Simon engineered and assembly of the Jews (as in Ezra and Nehemiah) and they proclaimed him High Priest and ruler of the nation, establishing the Hasmoneans as the ruling family of Judea. Simon then spent the rest of his reign attempting to secure and solidify his status through control of Seleucid fortresses (Yaffo, on the coast; Gezer; Akra, in Jerusalem, ending the reformist movement). As far as the Seleucids were concerned, the destruction of their fortresses and Judean independence were an act of theft and they never ceased claiming Judea as their legal right. Regardless, the Seleucid Empire was crushed by Roman Empire, who conquered the “independent” Judean territory before the Seleucids could ever regain control.

The rest of the history is that of a dynasty maintaining power and eventually crumbling under the weight of its own excess, but not before greatly expanding the Judean Empire and bringing wealth and glory to Judea. For a time.

1 comment:

Dash said...

any post that mentions the great seth schwartz is a great blog post