In honor of Hanukkah, I feel compelled to write on the history of the Maccabean Revolt and it’s effects. Today, I offer a rhapsody on Hellenization and its relationship to the Revolt, according to master of Ancient Israel, the brilliant Seth Schwartz (as paraphrased from all the information I absorbed during his lectures):
Historiographically, several sources for this period of history survived, all fraught with their own agendas: I Maccabees, II Maccabees, and Josephus. In the secondary literature, two schools of thought reign regarding the Maccabean Revolt. The first, elucidated in Ben Sasson’s A History of the Jewish People, portrays the revolt as a massive Jewish uprising against a foreign oppressor. The other tendency views the revolt as primarily a war between two different Jewish groups. I Maccabees, which provides a partial account, emphasizes foreigners as the main enemy, but also includes “sinful” Israelites in their ranks. II Maccabees focuses on the Greeks as the great enemy. Both texts unabashedly decry assimilation (whether explicitly labeled Hellenization or not) as the true great enemy of this period.
Hellenization had serious religious consequences. Before discussing the effects of Hellenization on Judea and its role as the impetus for revolt (or not) , we must first have a full appreciation of its meaning and implications. In general, Hellenization refers to the process by which people from a non-Greek background become Greek. Over the course of 1000 years of Greek history, the implications of hellenization shift along with the changing Greek culture and context. Under Alexander (the Hellenistic Period), Greek culture was a privilege to be earned by the elite (a result, in part, of Alexander’s Macedonian heritage). By the time of the High Roman Empire, Roman culture consciously manipulates Greek culture to integrate its Empire, forcing the culture on its constituents to create a common cultural currency. The effect of this process was that, by the time of the Christian Roman Empire, Greek culture differentiated the pagans, who were educated in Greek culture, from the Christians, who denounced that system and culture. Because Greek was a religious, not secular, culture and entirely polytheistic, non-polytheists (such as the Israelites) had to take the religious aspect into account when considering hellenization. To become Greek would mean to embrace Greek polytheisms, as well as the other cultural trappings. Cultural reorientation, without a comprehensive cultural change, was extremely common in this period; cultural reorientation indicates that the next generation is educated as Greeks and raised Greek, but your generation does not have to abandon non-Greek cultural practices.
Yet, hellenization did not necessarily mean “becoming Greek.” Historians distinguish between these two types of hellenization. On the one hand, non-Greeks were allowed to become Greek. Although it didn’t lose its connections with genetics/ancestry, people could become Greek by reshaping their city as a Greek polis* or obtaining citizenship in an extant Greek city. Becoming Greek meant giving up all other identity markers. The other type of hellenization refers to the process of “acting Greek” without literally “becoming Greek.” Over the course of a thousand years of Greek cultural dominance, no one dwelling in the Empire could entirely avoid elements of hellenization, which ranged from using Greek pottery and material goods to serious engagement in Greek language and literature. This second type of hellenization did not preclude a distinct cultural identity, simply adopting the trappings of Greek culture. In most cities of the Empire, the upper classes were already Hellenized in this fashion, before they “became” Greek.
Most cultures of this period were polytheists, like the Greeks, so they continue to worship their gods, but with Greek names, adding on Greek rituals and maybe some Greek gods, for good measure. By the 3rd Century BCE, Greek culture made inroads in
The II Maccabean account of the Revolt describes a war against Jason’s reforms, but it was truly in reaction to Antiochus IV’s decrees. Although Jason abrogated the constitutional and legal authority of the Torah, the King explicitly supplanted the legal authority of the Torah and established his own law. The two books of the Maccabees record markedly different accounts of the wars. In I Maccabees, the word Greek never appears in negative light; rather, the book depicts the Jews fighting the Gentiles and their sinful Jewish supporters. In contrast, II Maccabees explicitly illustrates the revolt as a war between the Jews and the Greeks, between Judaism and Hellenism. The political motivations of these two works reveal the motivation for their conflicting narratives. Whereas I Maccabees was concerned with legitimizing the Hasmonean family through a neo-Biblical narrative. For II Maccabees, the Hasmonean family was beside the point; its focus is on asserting the legitimacy (kashrut) of the second
Soon after the revolt, the Hasmoneans became proponents of adopting elements of Greek culture, without becoming Greek. In their dealings with the Greek royal court, they discovered that Greek was the language and culture of power. The Hasmoneans stood for continuing the constitutional status of the Torah, but not with combating hellenization (as has been portrayed in the re-imagining of the Maccabean myth since that time period). In the aftermath of the revolt, to refuse superficial hellenization would undermine the Hasmonean’s perilous grasp on power.
Tomorrow: the Revolt and its aftermath!