The Great Tribunal, Fence Around the Torah, Onias, Antiochus’ Regret

I have four items for my write-up today on The Cambridge History of Judaism, Volume Two: The Hellenistic Age:

1.  My first items draws from two articles in this volume, both by Louis Finkelstein:  “The men of the Great Synagogue (circa 400-170 B.C.E.)”, and “The Pharisaic Leadership after the Great Synagogue (170 B.C.E.-135 C.E.)”.  According to Finkelstein, the Men of the Great Synagogue “were the intermediaries through whom the prophetic interpretation of the Mosaic Law, given to Moses by the Deity on Mount Sinai, reached the earliest identified Pharisaic teachers, Jose b. Joezer of Zerediah and Jose b. Johanan of Jerusalem” (pages 229-230).  Finkelstein is drawing this from Mishnah Avoth 1, which says that the law (presumably the oral law) was given to Moses, who gave it to Joshua, who gave it to the elders, who gave it to the prophets, who gave it to the men of the Great Synagogue, who gave it to the Pharisees Jose b. Joezer and Jose b. Johanan.  Finkelstein points to I Maccabees 14:28 as a non-rabbinic passage about the Great Synagogue.  There, Finkelstein says, “we are told that ‘a great synagogue of priests, and people and princes of the nation, and the elders of the country,’ formally ousted the Zadokite priests, who had presided over the Temple for seven centuries, ever since the time of King Solomon, and replaced them with the Hasmoneans” (page 230).

Finkelstein maintains that the Great Synagogue was created in the time of Nehemiah, in order to offset the authority of a court that “developed into the gerousia of Hellenistic times” (page 237).  This court, which consisted of “the heads of the priestly and lay clans”, allowed children to be enslaved for their parents’ debts (Nehemiah 5:7), gave Tobiah the Ammonite a Temple office where tithes and offerings were (Nehemiah 13:11), saw nothing wrong in Jewish intermarriage with pagans (Nehemiah 6:18), and permitted foreign merchants and Jews to engage in commerce on the Sabbath (Nehemiah 13:15ff.).  This court was “associated with the Temple” and “rendered decisions regarding the law”.  In response to this court, Finkelstein argues, Nehemiah formed the Great Tribunal, which “pledged its followers not to purchase goods from pagans on the Sabbath (Neh. 10:31)” and “forbade intermarriage with pagans (Neh. 10:30)” (page 238).

According to Finkelstein, the tension between the Temple and the successors of the Great Synagogue (the Pharisees, primarily the Hillelites) over who could interpret the law persisted.  Deuteronomy 17:8-13 says that Jews are to bring difficult cases to a judge or Levite at the place that the LORD will choose, and abide by the interpretation of that judge or Levite.  The Temple authorities held that the place of judgment was specifically the Temple (where they judged), whereas the early Pharisees said that it was the city of Jerusalem, for the Pharisees gave their judgments outside of the Temple.  Finkelstein states that the Temple authorities generally viewed the place the LORD chose as the Temple, while opponents understood it as Jerusalem.  An example that Finkelstein cites is the debate about where one could eat second tithe, according to Deuteronomy 16:7ff. Moreover, Finkelstein sees Jehosaphat’s court in II Chronicles 19:5ff. as a literary attempt to effect a compromise between the Temple and the Great Tribunal: priests are part of the court, along with other people, but they sit in the city of Jerusalem.

On page 233, Finkelstein presents the Great Tribunal as underdogs: “The durability of the Great Tribunal of the Pharisees had to be affirmed because of the opposition to it by the Gerousia, the leaders of the land, the high priests and their families, as well as their allies, the leaders of the lay clans—-all constituting the aristocracy of the commonwealth.  In contrast to these powerful men, the members of the Great Tribunal were socially obscure scholars, who earned their living by trade or as labourers.  They had made a virtue of their anonymity, seeking neither recognition nor fame for themselves as individuals.”

But Finkelstein acknowledges that the situation was not always cut-and-dry.  After all, according to Mishnah Avoth 1, Simeon the Just was part of the Great Synagogue, and he was the high priest.

2.  According to Mishnah Avoth 1, the Men of the Great Synagogue said that one should make a fence around the Torah.  I have long understood that to mean that Jews are to come up with rules that prevent them from getting to the point where they actually transgress the Torah.  I cannot think of an example, but it would be something like what Eve did in Genesis 2-3: whereas God told Adam not to eat fruit from the forbidden tree, Eve’s understanding was that she could not even touch the tree.  The rule of “Don’t touch” was supposed to protect Eve from disobeying the commandment not to eat.  “Don’t touch” was like a fence around the Torah.

Or so I thought.  According to Finkelstein, Avoth de-Rabbi Nathan has another interpretation of making a fence around the Torah: protecting the Torah from additional, non-Scriptural prohibitions.  Avoth de-Rabbi Nathan did not think too highly of Adam adding to God’s commandment, for “if Adam had not added to the Divine prohibition against eating the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, one of his own, namely not even to touch the Tree, Eve would not have committed the transgression” (page 250, Finkelstein’s words).  Finkelstein states that this is why the Pharisees were more lenient than the Sadduccees: they did not want to add more prohibitions to Scripture.  For example, while the Sadduccees banned the use of light on the Sabbath, the Pharisees allowed it if it was kindled before the Sabbath began.  At the same time, the Shammaites appeared to have understood making a fence around the Torah in terms of adding restrictions to protect Jews from sin, for that is what we see in Avoth de-Rabbi Nathan.  But the Hillelites rejected these prohibitions. 

I wonder myself how rabbis interpreted the ban in Deuteronomy 12:32 on adding to God’s commands.  According to Finkelstein, there were rabbis who believed that adding prohibitions violated the command not to add to the Torah, and Finkelstein cites Mishnah Zevachim 8:10 and Mishnah Yadaim 4:3.  What does that do to the oral Torah, however?  I suppose that one could say that the oral Torah was an interpretation of the written Torah, not an addition, but, within the Mishnah itself, several rules are not tied to Scripture.  But there is support in Deuteronomy for some sort of oral Torah, for God in Deuteronomy 12:20-21 refers to laws on slaughter that he gave to Moses, but the written Torah does not explicitly tell us what those laws were (see here).

3.  In this item, I want to get some Oniases straight.  In Daniel 9:26, we read of an anointed one being cut off, and Pamela Milne in the HarperCollins Study Bible reflects much of biblical scholarship when she says that this anointed one was “Onias III, the deposed high priest murdered in 171 B.C.E. (2 Macc 32-34).”  Ben Sira 50:1-21, refers to a Simon the son of Onias who repaired and fortified the Temple, but the Onias there is not the one supposedly in Daniel, for Simon was High Priest from 219 to 196 B.C.E. (according to Burton Mack in the HarperCollins Study Bible, but see here). That’s Onias II.

The Cambridge History of Judaism, Volume Two: The Hellenistic Age mentions different Oniases.  There was the high priest Onias who, in the middle of the third century B.C.E., refused to support the Ptolemies because he was concerned that Hellenism from Egypt would “undermine loyalty to the Temple, and the Jewish tradition generally” (page 254).  He probably wanted to support Syria instead, thinking that “Syria would prove culturally and religiously less dangerous, as a source of assimilation” (page 255).  This is the Onias whom Ben Sira (in the Greek) mentions, Onias II.  His son, Simon, supported the Syrians, and that turned out well at first (in terms of Simon’s agenda) because Antiochus III recognized Jewish law in the Jews’ land.

Simon’s son was Onias III, the one many scholars believe is the anointed one in Daniel 9:26.  According to Finkelstein, Onias III “probably adhered to his father’s policies” (page 265), but he was ousted because his brother Jason bought the office of high priest from Antiochus IV, and Jason nullified Antiochus III’s proclamation, made Jerusalem a Hellenized polis, and supported the gerousia and its interpretations of the law rather than the Great Tribunal.  (So was the Jewish law still the law of the land, only Jason embraced a different interpretation of it?  If so, then how was Antiochus III’s recognition of the Jewish law nullified?)  II Maccabees 2-3 portrays Onias III as a righteous man, and it relates that he was killed at the instigation of Menelaus after Onias opposed Menelaus’ robbery of the Temple.  Menelaus was the corrupt and authoritarian high priest against whom the Maccabees revolted.  According to Otto Morkholm’s contribution to the volume, Josephus makes Menelaus the brother of Onias III and Jason and says that Menelaus, too, was called Onias (Antiquities 12.238), but Morkholm doubts that this is true, for he states that “this tradition was invented in order to cover the fact that the high-priestly office had been defiled by a person of low origin” (page 281).

Then there was Onias III’s son, Onias IV, who fled to Egypt when he was bypassed for the high priesthood in favor of Alcimus.  Onias IV fled to Egypt and established there his own Jewish temple.  According to the Catholic Encyclopedia: “The project was censured by the authorities in Jerusalem (Mishna, Menachoth xiii, 10) and it was blamed by Josephus (Bell. Jud., VII, x, 3). Nevertheless, the worship was maintained until after A.D. 70, when it was abolished by Lupus, prefect of Alexandria (Josephus, “Bell. Jud.”, VII, x, 4).”

Finally, there was Honi/Onias the saint, who in the first century B.C.E. was stoned because he would not take sides in a struggle for power.  This Onias was asked to curse the Hasmonean Aristobolus, but instead he “prayed to God to grant to neither side what it asked against the other” (page 347, Jonathan Goldstein’s words).

UPDATE: There is actually debate about the identity of Simon the Just.  According to the timetable in the The Cambridge History of Judaism, Volume Two: The Hellenistic Age, Onias I was high priest in the fourth century B.C.E.  His son was Simon I, who was high priest during the third century B.C.E.  Simon I’s son was Onias II, who was high priest during the third century B.C.E., and he was the one who was concerned about Egyptian Hellenism’s influence on Israel.  Onias II’s son was Simon II, and Simon II’s son was Onias III, the one in Daniel.  The debate concerns whether Simon I or Simon II was Simeon the Just.)

4.  Morkholm had some interesting tidbits on Antiochus IV Epiphanes.  He says that Antiochus offered the Jewish rebels amnesty, but the rebels did not agree to his offer because it entailed accepting Menelaus as high priest, plus they felt emboldened by their successes.  On page 291, Morkholm states that “in the spring of 164 B.C.E., unfortunately rather too late, the Seleucid king did make a serious effort to redeem his errors by rescinding the decree concerning the persecution of the Jewish faith and proclaiming an amnesty for the rebels.” I-II Maccabees likewise present Antiochus having regret over his treatment of the Jews (I Maccabees 6:1-17; II Maccabees 9; but see II Maccabees 1:13-17).  So we have a repentant type of the Antichrist!

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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