Paper on IV Maccabees: Antiochus’ Decree

Antiochus III (not to be confused with the evil Antiochus IV Epiphanes) allowed the Jews to live according to their ancestral constitution, or politeia. Josephus records the following about his decree:

“‘King Antiochus to Ptolemy, sends greetings:–Since the Jews, upon our first entrance on their country, demonstrated their friendship toward us; and when we came to their city of [Jerusalem], received us in a splendid manner, and came to meet us with their elders, and gave abundance of provisions to our soldiers, and to the elephants, and joined with us in ejecting the garrison of the Egyptians that were in the citadel, we have thought fit to reward them, and to retrieve the condition of their city, which has been greatly depopulated by such accidents as have befallen its inhabitants, and to bring those who have been scattered abroad back to the city; and, in the first place, we have determined, on account of their piety toward God, to bestow on them, as a pension, for their sacrifices of animals that are fit for sacrifice, for wine and oil, and frankincense, the value of twenty thousand pieces of silver, and [six] sacred artabrae (about 240 litres) of fine flour, with one thousand four hundred and sixty medimni (1 medimni = 50 litres) of wheat, and three hundred and seventy-five medimni of salt; and these payments I would have fully paid them, as I have sent orders to you. I would also have the work about the temple finished, and the cloisters, and if there be anything else that ought to be rebuilt; and for the materials of wood, let it be brought to them out of Judea itself and out of the other countries, and out of Libanus tax free; and the same I would have observed as to those other materials which will be necessary, in order to render the temple more glorious; and let all of that nation live according to the laws of their own country; and let the elders, and the priests, and the scribes of the temple, and the sacred singers, be discharged from poll money and the crown tax and other taxes also; and that the city may the sooner recover its inhabitants, I grant a discharge from taxes for three years to its present inhabitants, and to such as shall come to it, until the month of Hyperberetaios. We also discharge them for the future from a third part of their taxes, that the losses they have sustained may be repaired; and all those citizens that have been carried away, and have become slaves, we grant them and their children their freedom; and order that their substance be restored to them.’ And these were the contents of this letter. He also published a decree, through all his kingdom in honour of the temple, which contained what follows: ‘It shall be lawful for no foreigner to come within the limits of the temple around about; which thing is forbidden also to the Jews, unless to those who, according to their own custom, have purified themselves. Nor let any flesh of horses, or of mules, or of asses be brought into the city, whether they be wild or tame; nor that of leopards, or foxes, or hares; and, in general, that of any animal which is forbidden for the Jews to eat. Nor let their skins be brought into it; nor let any such animal be bred up in the city. Let them only be permitted to use the sacrifices derived from their forefathers, with which they have been obliged to make acceptable atonements to God. And he that transgresses any of these orders, let him pay to the priests three thousand drachmas of silver”’ (AJ 12:138-146 BibleWorks).

See Victor Tcherikover, Hellenistic Civilization and the Jews (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2004) 82-86, 438 for discussion on the decree’s authenticity. I may not get into this in detail in my paper, since I’m more interested in what the Jews believed about their politeia–as in, how did they define it? Or I may discuss the debates on historicity, since the interaction between history and Jewish literature may be important. I’ll have to see.

The decree doesn’t exactly specify what it means for the Jews to live according to their politeia. But the issues it touches on include tax exemption for the Jews’ structure of authority (priests, elders, and scribes), Antiochus‘ material support for the sacrificial system, and the preservation of the temple and Jerusalem from impurity.

When we see the Hellenistic reforms in I, II, and IV Maccabees, what do we find? Let’s take a look!

I Maccabees 1:11-15: “In those days certain renegades came out from Israel and misled many, saying, ‘Let us go and make a covenant with the Gentiles around us, for since we separated from them many disasters have come upon us.’ This proposal pleased them, and some of the people eagerly went to the king, who authorized them to observe the ordinances of the Gentiles. So they built a gymnasium in Jerusalem, according to Gentile custom, and removed the marks of circumcision, and abandoned the holy covenant. They joined with the Gentiles and sold themselves to do evil” (NRSV).

II Maccabees 4:10-15: “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.”

IV Maccabees 4:19-21: “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.”

The problems we see in these passages include a neglect of the sacrifices, putting a gymnasium under the citadel (in Jerusalem, I think), and a removal of the marks of circumcision. The part in I Maccabees 1 about not being separate from the Gentiles may relate to rules that distinguished the Jews from the Gentiles, such as Sabbath observance and circumcision. These overlap with certain contents of Antiochus‘ decree, namely, sacrifices and the sanctity of Jerusalem. See Elias J. Bickerman, The Jews in the Greek Age (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988) 295.

There doesn’t seem to be much about government in these passages. Does politeia only mean a system of government? Or can it mean a system of laws, which would include sacrifices and circumcision? That’s something for me to check out! The two could have overlapped, since converting Jerusalem into a Greek polis may have undermined the Jewish authorities’ power to enforce the Torah. We now have a council serving as the nexus of authority, not God’s law (Tcherikover 163-166). I don’t know. Couldn’t a polis decide to enforce God’s law? Maybe the problem was that it didn’t always do so (Tcherikover 162).

Another thorny issue is that the books of Maccabees may exaggerate. IV Maccabees 4’s statement that the temple service was abolished may be such an example. I’m basing this on what I’ve heard, but I may need to document that claim with a source.

Moreover, Bickerman says that Ben Sira, Enoch, and Jubilees also criticize the Hellenizers (299). Perhaps I should check out how they present the Hellenistic reform.

Stay tuned!

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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