In 332 BCE, Alexander the Great added Judea to his ever expanding empire. Compared to his earlier and later conquests, this was not a very significant addition. All that changed after Alexander’s death, however, when his general, Ptolemy established a kingdom for himself in Egypt. Egypt could only be reached by sea or through the desert, making it relatively easy to defend. Nevertheless, just to be a hundred percent sure, Ptolemy occupied the places from which potential enemies could launch attacks. This included the Cyrenaica, Cyprus, and Coele Syria, roughly present-day Israel and Lebanon. Suddenly Judea had become strategically very important.
As it happened, the defense of Egypt was a very real issue at that moment. Not only was there a potential attacker but that attacker was very powerful indeed and had a good motive for such an attack. Seleucus, another general from Alexander’s army, was seen as his legitimate successor in Asia. In the past, Ptolemy had helped Seleucus and for this reason, Seleucus now considered it dishonorable to start a war against Ptolemy for illegally occupying Coele Syria. However, that did not apply to the descendants of the two generals and they fought no less than five wars in the third century. Eventually, Antiochus III the Great, a great grandson of Seleucus, conquered Coele Syria in the Fifth Syrian War.
In this conflict, the Jewish High Priest Simon played an important role. At just the right moment he transferred his loyalties from the Ptolemaic to the Seleucid side. In exchange, the new king promised to sacrifice in Jerusalem, to recognize Jewish Law, and to reduce taxes from 300 to 200 talents annually.
In 190 BCE, however, Antiochus was defeated by the Romans, who imposed such a high tribute on him that his successor, Seleucus IV Philopator, was hard put to balance his budget. In his search for funds to pay this tribute, he seems to have re-imposed the old tax tariff in Judea and when the tax was not paid fast enough, General Heliodorus came in person to collect it. We do not know exactly how it ended, because, at the climax of the story, our only source, the Second Book of the Maccabees, does no more than offer us a legend about a supernatural intervention. With more certainty, however, we know what the consequences were: Heliodorus returned to the Seleucid capital Antioch, killed King Seleucus, and replaced him with his brother.
The new ruler was Antiochus IV Epiphanes, who inherited the financial problems. Consequently, he listened eagerly when Jason, brother of the High Priest Honi, told him that the Jews could well afford to pay him 360 talents. Even more interesting was Jason’s information that Antiochus could receive 80 talents from another funds and that Jerusalem was willing to pay an extra 150 talents for the privilege of being allowed to build a gymnasium. The king took the hint, replaced one brother by the other, and raised taxes.
Tax increases are never welcome but the Jews would receive something in return. From then on, Jewish boys – at least those who could afford to go to a gymnasium – could participate in competitions in the Seleucid Empire. In this way, they came into contact with the elite of the empire, enabling them to obtain prestigious official posts. It goes without saying that this did not apply to the majority of tax payers and it would seem that the unequal division of taxes and privileges led to tensions. Furthermore, the expert in Jewish law, Ezra, had forbidden assimilation. Anyone who considered the text named after Ezra as part of the Bible, could only conclude that the High Priest Jason was committing heresy when he strove to assimilate into the imperial elite. No doubt Jason will have seen that differently, because at that time the canon of the Bible was not fixed. Many felt that the sacred texts consisted only of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. These believers, who were later known as Sadducees, were not interested in Ezra.
Thus, there were three divisive issues running parallel: dissatisfaction with the increase in taxes, confusion about whether or not assimilation was a good idea, and disagreement on which texts exactly constituted the Bible. It would be interesting to know if Antiochus was aware of any of this when he visited Jerusalem in the winter of 173/172. What we do know, however, is that some months later he replaced Jason by a certain Menelaus, who had suggested to him that Judea could contribute a further 300 talents annually to the King’s treasury.
With the appointment of Menelaus, a fourth issue came into play. Traditionally, the high priests always came from the same priestly family. Menelaus did not belong to that family. He lacked authority, as was obvious when, on discovering that he had promised the king more than he could deliver, he tried to siphon off funds from the temple treasury. Perhaps his predecessors could have got away with this; however, in the case of Menelaus it led to disturbances. Antiochus may have wanted to take action by dismissing Menelaus, but he had just learnt that the Ptolemies were planning to re-conquer Judea, giving him more pressing things to think about than finding a replacement for a loyal ally in a strategically important area.
The Sixth Syrian War broke out in 169 BCE. The Seleucid troops fought their way through the Delta of the Nile Valley, plundering as they went. Accordingly, the king, who was the only one who could have prevented Judea descending into civil war, was in Egypt at the time.
[translated by Marie Smit-Ryan; to be continued]