A king’s command to raid the Holy Temple’s coffers incites a bloody revolt. Epigraphic fragments of this king’s correspondence with high officials prove his role in the Temple’s desecration.
Piecing Together the Maccabean Revolt, Indiana Jones-style
The Apocrypha2 of the Old Testament make reference to events in Jewish history and in many cases are the inspiration behind traditional prayers and celebrations. The apocryphal books of the Maccabees3 provide an account of the Maccabean Revolt (167 – 160 BCE), in which the Jewish warrior Judah Maccabee rose up in opposition to forced cultural assimilation. This story culminates in a Jewish victory marked by the inauguration of the festival of Hanukkah and ushers in a period of Jewish sovereignty.
Divide and Conquer
During the years 336–323 BCE, the young conqueror Alexander the Great spread Greek language and culture throughout the Mediterranean world, including Jerusalem. When he died, his empire became divided between his six generals, one of whom proclaimed himself king of a new Seleucid Empire, which would control Judea for the next 150 years.
Judea had been a center of multiculturalism long before the conquests of Alexander brought Greek into the region. At the beginning of Seleucid control, Jews were comfortable with Greek societal practices, but retained their cultural identity. Coexistence with other belief systems and ways of life did not cause consternation among the Jews. Tensions rose, however, when the Seleucid king began forcing Greek culture upon non-Greek populations. Judaism was under attack, and the foundations of Jewish culture in the region began to erode.
1 Maccabees describes some of the negative changes that took place under Seleucid control of Judea:
44 The king [Antiochus] also sent edicts by messenger to Jerusalem and the towns of Judah, directing them to adopt customs foreign to the country, 45 banning burnt offerings, sacrifices and libations from the sanctuary, profaning Sabbaths and feasts, 46 defiling the sanctuary and everything holy, 47 building altars, shrines and temples for idols, sacrificing pigs and unclean beasts, 48 leaving their sons uncircumcised, and prostituting themselves to all kinds of impurity and abomination, 49 so that they should forget the Law and revoke all observance of it. 50 Anyone not obeying the king’s command was to be put to death.1
Some Jews submitted to the king’s edict without reservations. These “traitorous” Jews advocated for full Jewish assimilation into Greek culture. “Let’s come to terms with the Gentiles,” they said; “Our refusal to associate with them has brought us nothing but trouble.”4 In time, many Jews abandoned their Jewish customs and adopted the practices of the Gentiles. They stopped observing the Sabbath and began sacrificing non-kosher animals to idols inside the Temple. Some Jews even had surgery performed to hide their circumcision.5 Jewish priests interpreted such a move as repudiating the Jewish faith. Many Jews, however, refused to submit to Hellenization. These Jews faced severe persecution. Women who circumcised their sons, those who refused unclean food, and those possessing a copy of sacred Jewish texts were all executed.6
“A Great Empire will be Destroyed…”
Despite their authoritarian posturing and persecutory behavior, the Seleucid rulers were experiencing an erosion of their power. In the 190s BCE, the Seleucid Empire attempted to become the greatest power in the Hellenic world by seizing control of the Mediterranean. Unfortunately for the Seleucids, the Roman Empire had the exact same idea in mind. The Seleucids and the Romans collided in a series of military conflicts, and the Seleucids suffered. By the early-170s BCE, the Seleucid rulers needed serious money to pay off the war-indemnities levied by Rome — 15,000 talents (approximately 870,000 pounds) of pure silver.7
In about 178 BCE, Jewish cultural anxiety and Seleucid economic problems culminated in violence. The Seleucid king learned that the treasury of the Temple in Jerusalem was full of untaxed riches.8 This king sent his chief administrator Heliodorus to Jerusalem in hopes of raiding the Temple’s coffers,9 causing the faithful Jews of Jerusalem to rise up in revolt. The Jews’ victory is celebrated during Hanukkah.
Rock Beats Paper
Until 2005, the stories about Heliodorus and his raid on the Temple recorded in the book of Maccabees were uncorroborated by archaeological or epigraphical evidence. The purchase of a mysterious limestone stele (stone tablet), however, gave credence to the literary accounts found in the Old Testament apocrypha. The 28-line stele preserves three letters written in Ancient Greek exchanged between the Seleucid king, Heliodorus, and a lesser official. The bottommost letter, addressed from the king to Heliodorus and dated 178 BCE, states that “the affairs in… Syria and Phoenicia stand in need of the appointment of someone to take care of these (i.e. sanctuaries).”10 Such an administrator would ostensibly have control over the sanctuaries’ finances and be able to divert funds to the king.11 The lower part of the stele containing the main text of the letter is missing, but presumably the addressee Heliodorus was the man the king had in mind for the job.
Supersleuthing the Seleucid Stele
Here enters Indiana Jones, stage right. The stele containing the letter addressed from King Seleucus to Heliodorus came to light from out of nowhere — literally (mare0227). The stele had been sold in early 2007 through an antiquities collector based in Jerusalem to a collector in New York City. The stele was without provenance. How did the antiquities dealer obtain the stele? Was it looted from an archaeological site and sold illegally? How did Steinhardt find out about the stele, and why has the stele been published and displayed in the Israel Museum in Jerusalem without greater inquiry into its origins?12
Two years prior to the stele’s publication in 2007, an excavation team operating a “Dig for a Day” site in Maresha (approximately thirty kilometers southeast of modern Ashkelon) discovered that an unexcavated side room of Subterranean Complex 57 had been opened by looters.13 During the 2005 and 2006 excavation seasons, the “Dig for a Day” site revealed three fragmented limestone slabs inscribed with Greek lettering. Following the publication of the stele in 2007, the “Dig for a Day” excavators and Dov Gera of Ben-Gurion University determined that these three fragments belonged to the stele inscribed with King Seleucus’ letter to Heliodorus. The “mystery” stele and the three fragments from Maresha are now displayed in the Israel Museum as a single inscription. The “mystery” stele can now be traced back to Subterranean Complex 57 at the “Dig for a Day” excavation in Maresha, but the circumstances of the stele’s discovery remain unknown.
Elliott, M., and P.V.M. Flesher. “Questions about the Heliodorus Stele.” The Bible and Interpretation, December 2009. http://www.bibleinterp.com/articles/stele357928.shtml.
Gollaher, David. Circumcision: A History Of The World’s Most Controversial Surgery. Basic Books, 2001.
Hall, Robert. “Epispasm: Circumcision in Reverse.” Biblical Archaeological Society Bible Review 8, no. 4 (August 1992): 52–57.
H.M. Cotton and K. Wörrle, “Seleukos IV to Heliodoros: A new dossier of royal correspondence from Israel,” Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik (ZPE), 159 (2007), 191-205.
“Heliodorus Stele, 178 BCE.” Center for Online Judaic Studies, September 26, 2016. http://cojs.org/heliodorus-stele-178-bce/.
Sicker, Martin. Between Rome and Jerusalem: 300 Years of Roman-Judaean Relations. Greenwood Publishing Group, 2001.
Stern, Ian. “Maresha Inscriptions Provide Context for a Royal Stele in the Israel Museum.” Near Eastern Archaeology 72, no. 1 (2009): 60–61.
- 1 Maccabees 1:44-50; Greek text here. ↩
- The word “apocrypha” comes from the Greek apokruptein, “to hide away.” The books of the Old and New Testament came together over the centuries to form the Hebrew and Christian bibles we know today. Many related pieces of writing, however, did not make it into the Old and New Testaments. These omitted accounts are called Old or New Testament apocrypha. ↩
- The story of the Maccabean Revolt is subdivided into four books. ↩
- 1 Maccabees 1:11. ↩
- 1 Maccabees 1:15. Men in the Hellenic world attended the gymnasium as an essential part of their education, socialization, and civic participation. Although athletic training in the gymnasium occurred in the nude, standards of modesty dictated that the glans of the penis should never be visible. When the Seleucids established a gymnasium in Jerusalem, such standards of modesty posed a challenge for Hellenized Jews who had undergone circumcision. See Gollaher, 14, and Hall. ↩
- Maccabees 1:63-67. ↩
- “Antiochus must pay to the Romans for the expenses of the war 15,000 Euboean talents, 500 at once, 2500 upon the peace being ratified by the People, and the remainder in twelve yearly instalments of 1000 talents each” (Polybius, The Histories, 21.17.4-5). A Roman pound was 0.725 Imperial pounds (328.9 grams), so a talent weighing 80 Roman pounds would be equivalent to 58 Imperial pounds (127.6 kilograms). The 15,000 talents of silver would weigh 870,000 Imperial pounds and be worth $174,000,000 on today’s market. (The value of silver was $200 per pound in June 2017.) See also Sicker, 10. ↩
- The Temple functioned as a bank and community center as well as a place of religious study. Priests were the bankers of their time. ↩
- Compare to the prophecy in Daniel 11:20: “He will send out a tax collector to maintain the royal splendor.” ↩
- H.M. Cotton and K. Wörrle, 193. ↩
- “Heliodorus Stele, 178 BCE.” Center for Online Judaic Studies. ↩
- Elliott, M., and P.V.M. Flesher, n.p. ↩
- Stern, 60. ↩