Every year for the past little while, my conception of Chanukah has been completely overturned. First it was livredor, telling me the Hasmoneans weren't the good guys overthrowing the religious oppression of the Seleucids, but, really, a bunch of religious fundamentalists—the delivering the wicked into the hands of the good, etc, stuff in על הניסים is actually about the Hasmoneans slaughtering the Hellenised Jews—acculturated Jews like myself. (Undaunted, I did not let this put me off celebrating Chanukah, but took great pleasure in the knowledge we today subvert the fundamentalists' victory commemoration by turning it into a celebration of the overthrow of religious oppression.
Then came along Rachel Elior, with a radical new interpretation of what the Hasmoneans, Pharisees, Saducees and Essenes stood for.
At some point further along the way I then learned that the Talmud talks about the miracle of Chanukah being that of the jar of oil, which is not attested anywhere in the contemporary accounts, rather than the military victory of the Hasmoneans, because the rabbis of the Talmud disapproved of the Hasmoneans for taking on the High Priesthood, to which they were not entitled (see also my notes from Prof. Elior's talk), and the kingship, to which they were not entitled not only not being of the House of David, but being of the wrong tribe altogether; also, or so it was implied by the people who told me of this, because they did not altogether approve of religious fundamentalism.
I also learned that far from needing us moderns to subvert what the Hasmoneans stood for; their own descendants did it themselves: After the first generation of Hasmoneans had died, the next generation acknowledged that it was impossible to wall themselves off from the surrounding Greek world, and this realpolitik is reflected in their names, which combined Hebrew/Aramaic and Greek names, e.g. Alexander Yannai.
And then along came this talk, which... well, I'll let it speak for itsef.
Notes from Limmud 2007
Would You Buy A Cruse of Oil From This High Priest?
[Standard disclaimer: All views not in square brackets are those of the speaker, not myself. Accuracy of transription is not guaranteed.]
Shabbat 21b שבת כא ב What is [the reason of] Chanukah? For our rabbis taught: On the twenty-fifth of Kislev [commence] the days of Chanukah, which are eight, on which a lamentation for the dead and fasting are forbidden. For when the Greeks enterred the Temple, they defiled all the oils therein, and when the Hasmonean dynasty prevailed against and defeated them, they made search and found only one cruse of oil which lay with the seal of the High Priest, but which contained sufficient for one day's lighting only; yet a miracle was wrought therein and they lit [the lamp] therewith for eight days. The following year these [days] were appointed a Festival with [the recital of] Hallel and thanksgiving. מאי חנוכה דתנו רבנן בכ״ה בכסליו יומי דחנוכה תמניא אינון דלא למספד בהון ודלא להתענות בהון׃ שכשנכנסו יוונים להיכל טמאו כל השמנים שבהיכל וכשגברה מלכות בית חשמונאי ונצחום בדקו ולא מצאו אלא פך אחד של שמן שהיה מונח בחותמו של כהן גדול ולא היה בו אלא להדליק יום אחד נעשה בו נס והדליקו ממנו שמונה ימים׃ לשנה אחרת קבעום ועשאום ימים טובים בהלל והודאה׃
This is mnemo-history—history based on a folk memory rather than genuine facts, but is the basis for the custom of lighting Chanukah lights.
Shabbat 21b שבת כא ב Beth Shammai maintain: On the first day eight lights are lit and thereafter they are gradually reduced, but Beit Hillel say: On the first day one is lit and thereafter they are progressively increased.* בית שמאי אומרים יום ראשון מדליק שמנה מכאן ואילך פוחת והולך ובית הלל אומרים יום ראשון מדליק אחת מכאן ואילך מוסיף והולך׃
|*||The speaker thinks the custom of lighting a candelabrum for Chanukah lights didn't become prevalent until the fourth or fifth century—after the Temple was destroyed, and the last hope of having it rebuilt (in 362 CE, under the auspices of the Emperor Julian the Apostate) had been extinguished by the rise of power of the anti-Judaic Christianity. The first mention of it is made in the scholium—the appendix, added somewhere between the 2nd and 10th centuries—to tractateof the Talmud; which story was then elaborated further in Shabbat 21b as shown above. By this time all of the Temple, and all hope of it being speedily rebuilt had gone; the one thing left of it we could still use today was the menorah.|
What were the actual facts?
The Persian province of Yahud—the Jewish state after the return from the Babylonian exile—was an enclave around Jerusalem, one hundredth the size of Israel. The Jews had a High Priest to govern them. There was no lay leader, Zechariah's account notwitstanding: the lay leader was the Persian emperor. But the Jews needed their own political leader, too, and the High Priest came to fill that role. He was the political leader as well as the spiritual leader, and must have had a large bureaucracy beneath him, for collecting taxes and supervising the markets; in addition to which he would have acted as home secretary, foreign minister and so forth. This was therefore a position often sought by power-hungry priests.
The High Priests were a family deriving from. This was a good man; he was succeeded by the Onias (חוניה—probably short for יחונן) family and other s, who ran the country on beneficial lines.
One of the jobs of the High Priest was to collect taxes for the Persian, and later the Ptolemid (Egyptian Greek) government. Onias II (probably—Josephus doesn't use the numbers), who appears just before 220 BCE, decided not to pay taxes to Ptolemy. This was probably because he had realised the Ptolemys were about to be defeated by the Seleucids. This was a major mistake, though, because at the Battle of Rafiaḥ in 218/217 BCE, there was a completely unexpected total victory for the Ptolemys. Now Onias was in trouble.
A young man came to his rescue, his nephew Joseph b. Tubias, a young entrepreneur, who took over the tax collecting from the High Priest. He went to Alexandria to consolidate his position as a tax farmer. (Whilst there he fell in love with a dancing girl and nearly went to bed with her—a typical Josephus romantic tale.) This got Onias II off the hook. Josephus records (Ant. XII 221-4):
And then also died Hyrcanus' father Joseph, who had been an excellent and high-minded man and had brought the Jewish people from poverty and a state of weakness to more splendid opportunities of life during the twenty-two years when he controlled the taxes of Syria, Phoenicia and Samaria.
This was because of what he had learned in Alexandria. He was amongst the earliest promoters of Hellenisation amongst the people of Judaea. This was a good thing—it gave the people more scope, prosperity, all the advantages of a Greek education; without at all compromising their religious affiliation.
Twenty years later, however, the Seleucids came back and trounced the Ptolemys, in 200 or 198, at the Battle of Banias. Now, the Seleucids, governing a vast area, couldn't change local custom. Once again we had a lay governor under the emperor, and a Cohen Gadol in charge of the Jews.
Onias II died and was succeeded by his son, Onias III. In the family tradition he was a good leader, until he was deposed by his brother, known as Jason [which in itself shows how much of a Hellenist he was], in ca. 180(?). The Emperor before that was Antiochus III, who had defeated the Ptolemys. When he came to Jerusalem the people greeted him and opened their gates to him. (Presumably they were fed up with Ptolemid taxes—not just money, oil, cedar trees, but also boys and girls.)
Antiochus III gave Jerusalem a kind of constitution, according to Josephus; stating that the Temple is reserved for the Jews, and that the Jews going in must be in a state of purity. He remitted taxes for three years; he provided material for repairing the Temple.
But when Onias III was supplanted by his brother—one of the power-hungry cohanim referred to above—Jason bought the High Priesthood from the Emperor by bribery (360 talents of silver); he also promised him 180 talents of silver if he let him build a gymnasium and a theatre in Jerusalem (one of the earliest [known] examples of bribery for planning permission!), and promised to rename the city Antioch in Jerusalem. This offered a great advantage to the people of Jerusalem—for it to become a Greek polis—because the Jerusalemites now were paying taxes mostly to their own local government rather than the state. The people became citizens; they could become ephebes—graduates of the gymnasium, both in knowledge and physical education. They became privileged citizens rather than a ruled underclass.
Much less advantage probably accrued to the people outside of Jerusalem. Like Joseph b. Tuvia, Jason had introduced Hellenisation, and it had worked.
This all took place in 175 BCE. For a number of years following that things went well. But Onias III had had a problem with one Simon of Bilgah, a bureaucrat in charge of the markets. Onias tried to get rid of him, without success. Simon took revenge by telling the Seleucids there was a lot of treasure inside the Temple. Heliodorus, a servant of the Emperor, tried to get this treasure, without success, stopped by a heavenly figure on horseback.
Jason has no problems (recorded) with this Simon of Bilgah. For two or three years things are okay. Jason has an associate Menelaus (מנשה) of Bilgah, probably not a priest. Jason sends him to Antioch on a message. Menelaus tells the Emperor he is one of the chief men in Jerusalem, and he will give him 300 talents more than Jason a years to be High Priest.
Now, one thing emperors need is cash, and when they are offered a large bribe, and don't know what's happening 500 miles away, and don't really care either, they take it! But now Menelaus has to raise the money somehow. So when he gets back to Jerusalem, he steals the gold vessels from the Temple and sells them.
Onias III hears about this, and, like everyone else, is absolutely infuriated. Onias goes to the emperor in Antioch, via a synagogue at Daphne, near Antioch, because he feels safe there—seeking sanctuary. But Menelaus had sent a colleague to Daphne, Andronicus, who now befriended Onias, enticed him out of the synagogue, and murdered him. So the evidence never reached the emperor. But the emperor, Antiochus IV, heard of the murder and had the hitman killed, which suited him because this man had also killed Seleucus IV, the emperor's younger brother, and Antiochus wanted the evidence destroyed that he had hired him to do so.
Jason at this point (169) has fled to the House of Tuvia in Transjordan. Menelaus is in charge. Antiochus IV now goes off to try and conquer Egypt, but is stopped by the Romans, who are beginning to assert themselves in the area: they don't want the Seleucids to enlarge their empire. The Romans draw a circle around him in the sand and demand a considerable ransom every year, and say "you will give me your answer before you leave this circle"—a fantastical humiliation!
A rumour arises in Jerusalem that Antiochus has been killed in Egypt. The people are happy about this. They get rid of Menelaus; Jason comes back from Transjordan, and there is civil war between the two. At this point, Antiochus comes back from Egypt, and is furious to see civil war on the doorstep to Egypt (which he still hopes to conquer). He has 8000 Jews killed and many more thrown into slavery. Jason is forced to flee to Egypt; Menelaus is back in power.
Now Antiochus has two problems. First, he doesn't have enough money to pay the Roman tax. So he robs the Temple. (Antiochus robbed temples all over his world, and in fact died later in Mesopotamia robbing a temple.) Not only that, but he wanted to go into the Temple in Jerusalem, and Menelaus allows him in, into the Holy of Holies.
Now, the emperor doesn't quite know how to keep the Jews in order; he doesn't know how the Jews live. The only person who can advise him is the High Priest. Menelaus says he's got to keep the Jews down, by forbidding the observance of the Sabbath, banning circumcision, and making them eat the entrails of pigs—like all good Greeks would do in other parts of the world. Under Jason, the Jews had been able to live by their own laws according to the constitution of Antiochus III; but here is Antiochus IV outlawing all of that on the advice of their own High Priest!
But the people weren't going to take this. They left into the countryside, and this is how the Hasmonean revolt started.
Now, we know all the foregoing from Josephus Flavius, and also from 2 Maccabees. These facts are not in 1 Maccabees: 1 Maccabees tells the story of the books of Maccabees.) Which is correct? The answer is probably both, telling the story inside and outside of Jerusalem.in Modi'in; 2 Maccabees tells the story of the corrupt High Priest in Jerusalem. (See my notes from Lindsay Taylor-Guthartz's session on
1 Maccabees 4:56 says "They celebrated the rededication of the altar for eight days." Josephus calls it the Festival of Lights; John calls it the Festival of Dedication. 2 Maccabees 10:6 says it lasted for eight days; the introduction tells the Jews of Egypt to celebrate it like the Feast of Tabernacles. There's no tale of any miracle of the oil. How did this story come about?
We don't know, but if the rabbis had known 2 Maccabees, they would never have concocted this story, because the whole story relies on the seal of the Cohen Gadol. According to the tradition, the Cohen Gadol might have beenhimself. But that was out of the question historically; he was not a High Priest, but a local priest in Modi'in. He was involved with the revolt from the beginning, but died during the revolt, two or three years later. There was no question he was ever High Priest. So who was High Priest? Menelaus—the very one who had tried to overthrow Jewish Law himself!
Why did the rabbis follow 1 Maccabees and not 2 Maccabees? Well, 1 Maccabees was pretty definitely written in Hebrew. 2 Maccabees was written definitely in Greek—the Jews of Alexandria had virtually lost their knowledge of Hebrew, and did not know Aramaic. One possibility was that the rabbis ignored 2 Maccabees because it was in Greek. A second possibility was that they didn't have the book: Josephus did not seem to know it either, though he quotes chunks of 1 Maccabees.