Monday, December 18, 2006

Rhapsody in Jew

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 Judea, but had yet to take profound hold. Judean elites superficially adopted elements of Greek culture, but had yet to Hellenize in the formal sense. II Maccabees portrays Jason, Judea’s High Priest in the late 3rd C BCE, attempt to turn Jerusalem into a Greek city by adopting their gymnasium and ephebate system. II Maccabees recounts how the young priests neglect their duties to spend their time in the gym, reflecting shift in values. Ancient sources are silent on Judean reaction to Jason’s reforms, but the silence also speaks to the absence of violent Jewish response. Had there been an uprising, Josephus of the Maccabean texts would have recorded it. Jason’s reforms did destabilize Judea by attempting to formalize the superficial hellenization of the elite classes (of which the priestly class was a part). Unlike other Hellenizing cities, traditional Judaism precludes all other gods, the jealous Israelite God enforced religious particularism, meaning that adopting Greek culture (i.e. Greek religion) undermined the basic precepts of Israelite religion, which also composed the hierarchy of Israelite governance.

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 Temple: although God allowed the Temple to fall into foreign hands, it’s still culture.

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!


Benjamin J. Cooper said...

I love how every year we celebrate the Judean Pat Robertsons of the Hellenic period starting a big ol' holy war.

Anonymous said...

But where is the part about the oil lasting for eight days and nights? I hope that is in todays post!

Anonymous said...

It is truly a shame that monotheism in its forms of Judaeism and Christianity have borrowed almost everything from pre-hellenistic monotheistic religious groups, such as the movement of Orphism. It is also upsetting to heat that there was no freedom of religion, while all slaves and free persons were free to practice whatever religion they wanted including Israelites, Persians and many eastern sects under Hellenistic rule. While all persons were educated and in Greek, there was no forbidding of other languages. It just so happens that most of the known world at the time was illiterate! It is no surprise that the chrisitan bible and many Hebrew scriptures contain so many grammatical errors as they were mass reproduced with repeated words, lines and other phrases. I also find it perculiar that one of the most celebrated holidays of Judaeism has to do with the defeat of Greek forces and the defense of a temple for the number of days that your holiday is celebrated. How can that be the most important event in the Israelite's history? I love all persons, from all walks of life including both Israel and Greece, but seem to find much opposition from the Israelites towards the Hellenes and vice versa. Maybe the ultimate confrontation and mystic rivalry is not just coincidence between these two entities after all.