These are rough notes for a paper I’m writing on 4 Maccabees (for a class).
IV Maccabees 4:19-21 states: “Jason changed the nation’s way of life and altered its form of government in complete violation of the law, so that not only was a gymnasium constructed at the very citadel of our native land, but also the temple service was abolished. The divine justice was angered by these acts and caused Antiochus himself to make war on them” (NRSV).
This passage is saying that Antiochus’ persecution of the Jews was God’s punishment on Israel for changing its form of government.
We see a similar claim in an earlier book, II Maccabees:
“When Seleucus died and Antiochus, who was called Epiphanes, succeeded to the kingdom, Jason the brother of Onias obtained the high priesthood by corruption, promising the king at an interview three hundred sixty talents of silver, and from another source of revenue eighty talents. In addition to this he promised to pay one hundred fifty more if permission were given to establish by his authority a gymnasium and a body of youth for it, and to enroll the people of Jerusalem as citizens of Antioch. When the king assented and Jason came to office, he at once shifted his compatriots over to the Greek way of life. He set aside the existing royal concessions to the Jews, secured through John the father of Eupolemus, who went on the mission to establish friendship and alliance with the Romans; and he destroyed the lawful ways of living and introduced new customs contrary to the law. He took delight in establishing a gymnasium right under the citadel, and he induced the noblest of the young men to wear the Greek hat. There was such an extreme of Hellenization and increase in the adoption of foreign ways because of the surpassing wickedness of Jason, who was ungodly and no true high priest, that the priests were no longer intent upon their service at the altar. Despising the sanctuary and neglecting the sacrifices, they hurried to take part in the unlawful proceedings in the wrestling arena after the signal for the discus-throwing, disdaining the honors prized by their ancestors and putting the highest value upon Greek forms of prestige. For this reason heavy disaster overtook them, and those whose ways of living they admired and wished to imitate completely became their enemies and punished them. It is no light thing to show irreverence to the divine laws– a fact that later events will make clear” (4:7-17).
Here, God punishes Israel for Hellenization and changing Jerusalem’s system of government into a Greek polis.
What exactly was the sin for which God punished Israel? In Hellenistic Civilization and the Jews (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2004), Victor Tcherikover denies that Hellenization challenged Jewish religious life:
“Yet another question requires clarification. In what measure did the reform of Jason infringe traditional religious customs? Did the conversion of the theocracy to a polis entail the abolition of the Jewish religion, or at least far-reaching modifications of the cult? The sources give a negative answer to this query. The very fact that the author of II Maccabees, who found such sharp words of denunciation to utter of Jason as initiator of the reform and the man who introduced Gentile customs into Jerusalem, found not the smallest accusation to make against him of offenses against the Jewish faith, shows definitely that such offenses did not exist. The abolition of the former constitution based on the Mosaic Law did not mean the automatic abolition of the Law itself. The reform said only one thing, that from now on the polis, the citizen body organized as an urban demos, was the supreme arbiter and maker of decisions in religious matters, just as it was the arbiter in every other matter. The demos had the authority to abolish the Mosaic Law, but no clause of the constitution obliged it to do so. The introduction of foreign customs such as athletic games and physical exercises, though alien to the national spirit, was not a religious offense in the exact sense of the term: the Law of Moses had never forbidden them explicitly. The petasos was, indeed, the hat of the god Hermes, but it is questionable whether his statue or that of any other Greek god stood in the gymnasium building, as was customary in Greece, and even if they did, this offense against the commandment ‘Thou shalt not make unto thee any graven image of any likeness…’ was not yet real paganism, for the statues standing in the gymnasion (that is, not in a place consecrated by the local religious tradition) had no special cult significance.
“As to the sacred place itself, it is not to be conceived that any changes took place there. Even the Greeks reverenced the local deities at every place and honored them with sacrifices and offerings, and the Hellenized Orientals all the more so. The Hellenization of the gods of the East nowhere caused a change in the local cultic customs. The God of Israel was neither identified with any other divinity nor did He receive a Greek name, and the fact that His identification with Zeus Olympius is reported only in connection with the persecution of Antiochus–and the account emphasizes that this was a great and terrible change–is sufficient guarantee of the fact that under Jason nothing of the sort occurred.
“One hint preserved in our sources confirms the assumption that Jason’s reform did not affect traditional religious life. Being now a Greek city, Antioch-at-Jerusalem sent envoys to the athletic games which were held at Tyre every fifth year in the presence of the king himself. The delegates brought with them 200 silver drachmae and should, according to custom, have handed over the money for sacrifices to the city-god (Melkart-Heracles); but instead they requested that money be donated toward ship-building (II Macc. 4:18-20). Scholars see in this ‘strange’ behavior of the Antiochenes a contradiction to their new status as citizens of a Greek city; but there was no such contradiction, for Jason’s reform was not a religious one, and no law bound the citizens of Antioch-at-Jerusalem to make sacrifices to the gods. The Law of Moses which had ceased to apply as the law of the state approved by the government, had not been abolished by the Jews themselves, although their political organization had taken on a different form. Religious reforms were still a matter of the future” (165-167).
So we see within II Maccabees itself that Hellenization did not entail idolatry, at least not in Jason’s eyes. But would everyone have agreed that the petasos was not a violation of the second commandment? We know from Josephus that many Jews did not like Roman standards with the image of the emperor in Jerusalem (JW 2.169-174; AJ 18.55-59). Philo in Legatio ad Caium 38 says that there were Jews who got upset when there were gilt shields on the palace of Herod in honor of the emperor, and they petitioned that they might be removed to Caesaria. If there were a statue in a Jerusalem gymnasium in the second century B.C.E., I think that alone could have offended a lot of pious Jews.
I wonder how exactly the Jewish form of government changed under Jason. According to Josephus, the Jewish politeia was instituted by God through Moses, and it included a high priest, a senate, and judges (AJ 4). I doubt that the high priest lost his power when Jerusalem became a polis, otherwise why would Jason try to become one? A demos had a council, or boule, and, as Tcherikover points out, Jerusalem already had this through a gerousia–a council of elders (82, 162). According to Tcherikover, II Maccabees 4:44’s reference to the gerousia under Menelaus indicates that it existed during the time of Jason as well. So, under Jason’s high priesthood, what exactly changed about the Jewish system of government?
I have a few questions swimming around here. Obviously, the law was broken when Jerusalem became a polis. How?