Hanukka: Did The Maccabees Make It All Up?

Is the entire story used by the Maccabees as the basis for their rebillion nothing more than PR? Ha’aretz* reports:

…"The reason for Antiochus’ oppression of the Jewish faith, attack on the Temple and prohibition of the Torah precepts is not explained by the existing historic sources," says Dr. Steven Weitzman, a lecturer of Judaism in the University of Indiana and the author of Surviving Sacrilege: Cultural Persistence in Jewish Antiquity.

Weitzman analyzes the description of the edicts in the Hanukkah tale, and concludes that the story was concocted by the Hasmonean kings as propaganda intended to legitimize their precarious rule. The Hasmoneans used literary tales dating back to ancient Eastern kingdoms as the basis for their story of Antiochus, he says.

Historians of ancient times agree that religious persecution was not customary among Hellenistic monarchs. Therefore the acts attributed to Antiochus, which every Jewish child learns about in the Hanukkah story, are historical anomalies. "His behavior is completely inexplicable," argues Weitzman.…

"The Maccabees have been considered heroes for so long, that it is hard to imagine that in their time, their rule was extremely controversial. They and their descendants, the Hasmonean dynasty, presented themselves as high priests, but did not belong to a family that held that position for a long time. Neither did they belong to the House of David dynasty, which was supposed to produce kings. Therefore many Jews did not recognize the Hasmoneans as legitimate rulers."

"The story of Antiochus’ edicts is part of the effort to justify the Maccabee’s rule. This is why they described themselves as protectors of the Jewish tradition, a tactic which many rulers and conquerors in the ancient East used to justify usurping power," he says.…

Weitzman is aware that his statements may anger Jews who see the Maccabees as righteous rulers and models of heroic resistance to oppression. "My thesis indicates that the Maccabees may have been very different from their present image," he says.

However, there is also a positive aspect to Weitzman’s study, he says. "I say that the description of Antiochus’ persecution, more than the story of Jewish survival, reflects Jewish imagination and its role in bringing about political change. Hanukkah is a reminder that the stories we tell can create a real change in our life," he says.

And that, I’m afraid, explains much of Jewish history.

[Hat Tip: Danya on Jewschool.]

* Ha’aretz has a stub up instead of the story, even though it was published Saturday. The link above is to the cached version on Google.

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7 Comments

Filed under Hanukka, History

7 responses to “Hanukka: Did The Maccabees Make It All Up?

  1. check out PaleoJudaica’s take on the story, though.

  2. Garnel Ironheart

    I once recall hearing an Israeli archeologist say: “If archeologists find a tablet in the middle of the desert that says ‘I, Nebuzaradan, killed 50 000 rebels on this spots and burned their homes’ it’s unquestionably accepted and entered into the history books. If the Bible says the same thing, it won’t be believed until the bones of every one of those 50 000 slain and the remnants of their homes can be produced.” Archeologists and historians often base their theories and conclusions on one fallacy, that people in official positions only learned to lie about their failures and acheivements during the 20th century. What, historical revisionism and gloriying non-achievements began with Stalin? Hiding your failures is an invention Mao came up with? Yes, most ancient kings around the time of the Hashmonaim were “culturally sensitive”. The Bible reflects this in its descriptions of Persia’s rule which was remarkable multi-cultural. Before them, the Babylonians and Assyrians showed that they had no problem, for example, with Jews practising Judaism, only not in Israel because they kept exiling them. But don’t forget that one of the central parts of the Chanukah story is that Antiochus is thought by many to have been an insane demagogue. Is it so hard to believe that he would rise to the throne and then reverse a relatively benign policy based on his egotistical whims? The real reason Israeli historians would love to debunk the story of Chanukah is because it claims that the religious Jews of the time were capable of fighting for what they believed in and winning over the demoralized secular Jews of the day. To that end, no theory, however implausible, is not advanced.

  3. zach

    Corollary: “If 50000 archeologists find 50000 tablets in the middle of the desert that says something like ‘I, Paroh Dudimose, freed 10000 Jewish slaves’ it’s unquestionably DENIED by mainstream Orthodoxy if the Torah or Gemara says otherwise.”

  4. Yos

    Good point, Zach.

  5. Yochanan Lavie

    True Antiochus acted atypically of a Hellenistic king. Hellenistic civilization was pretty tolerant. But then again, Germany truly was enlightened, and Hitler acted atypically of a German prime minister (before or since WWII). One would have expected the Holocaust to have occurred in Russia, for example. Maybe Haaretz is right, but just because someone acts in a bizzare fashion doesn’t mean it didn’t happen.

  6. anonymous

    “The Hasmoneans used literary tales dating back to ancient Eastern kingdoms as the basis for their story of Antiochus, [Wietzman] says.”

    The fact that something similar happened in the past doesn’t mean that what is claimed to happen now isn’t independently true. Truman has a very similar biography to Lincoln–both grew up poor, were self-educated, had lots of business failures before being elected to Senate…etc. Would an archeologist say that Truman didn’t exist?

  7. Garnel Ironheart

    Zach’s comment is irrelevant. First of all, historical records are rarely that extant. And secondly, one can find literally hundreds of books denying the Holocaust and thousands of books claiming that Israel destroyed the independent state of Palestine in 1948. Do numbers make a claim legitimate?

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