Paper on IV Maccabees: Was Jerusalem a Polis?

II Maccabees 4:22 says that Antiochus IV “was welcomed magnificently by Jason and the city, and ushered in with a blaze of torches and with shouts” (NRSV). The Greek word for city is polis.

In Hellenistic Civilization and the Jews (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2004), Victor Tcherikover states about this passage: “It may well be that this mention of the ‘city’ (the Greek polis of Antioch) is not by chance, but possesses a deeper significance; possibly the visit of Antiochus and the festivities associated with it marked the actual juridicial foundation of the polis…” (165).

I have some thoughts/questions about this:

1. Just because I-II Maccabees call Jerusalem a polis, that doesn’t mean it was a formal Greek city. Fergus Millar points out in “The Problem of Hellenistic Syria,” Hellenism in the East, ed. Amelie Kuhrt and Susan Sherwin-White (University of California Press: Berkeley and Los Angeles, 1987): “In 1 Macc. 5.26-27 a whole string of places across the Jordan, all of which have retained analogous Arabic names until modern times–‘Bosora’, ‘Bosor’, ‘Alema’, ‘Chaspho’, ‘Maked’, ‘Karnaim’–are described as large fortified poleis. These too will have been fortified villages; it is worth noting that the author of 1 Macc. has no notion that polis ought to be restricted to self-governing cities formally recognized as such; he uses it for instance of Modein (2.15), the village from which the Maccabees came” (123).

R.J. van der Spek makes the same argument about Greek sources in his essay (58-59 of the same book): that they don’t limit the term polis to Greek city-states.

2. A city could have a gymnasium without being a polis. Babylon had a gymnasium, yet it was allowed to keep its own traditions and system of government (20-65). Similarly, van der Spek asserts that “the action by the high priest Jason to hellenise Jerusalem did not affect the government structure, even though a dynastic name was introduced (2 Macc. 4.9, 12, 14)” (59).

What’s my point? Maybe Jerusalem was a Greek polis, or maybe it wasn’t. II Maccabees 4:9, 19 says that Jason wanted to enroll the Jerusalemites as citizens of Antioch. That may mean that Jerusalem became a polis.

But the change in the government was minor. I have a hard time thinking that this offended Jews, especially when Jerusalem got to keep its high priest and gerousia. Since challenges to the politeia can encompass sins in general (see Paper on IV Maccabees: Other Challenges to Politeia), I think that the authors of II and IV Maccabees believe that the introduction of foreign customs into their country encouraged a violation of the politeia, the law.

What I may get into Sunday is the idea that a polis could exist alongside traditional Jerusalem. That could work, but what would happen when the authorities of traditional Jerusalem were the participants in the polis? Could that result in the polis undermining traditional Jerusalem?

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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