Tuesday, December 27, 2011

How Did the Jewish Revolt Against the Greeks Begin?

In a previous post, I mentioned that there are only two sources for the story of Chanuka that have any real "canonical" authority in Judaism: the Talmud and the Siddur (Jewish prayer book). Unfortunately, these sources give only a very brief and general description of the events. Many additional details are found scattered in other authoritative sources (including elsewhere in the Talmud, Megillas Taanis, and the major midrashim), but none are given in the context of a complete and detailed narrative.

There are, of course, many additional sources for the history of the period, the most important being the books I and II Maccabees, but these sources have no authoritative position in Jewish tradition. There are also a number of minor midrashim (including the famous Megillas Antiochus) that attempt to present a more complete narrative, but these sources are often contradictory, even on major issues, and frequently do not conform to what we know of the period.

Nevertheless, these minor midrashim appear to preserve a number of important traditions about the period that are probably basically true, even when they contradict the version told in the books of the Maccabees.

One example of this is the story of how the Jewish revolt began. The version that most of us are familiar with comes from I Maccabees, chapter 2 (and is repeated, with minor variations, by Josephus and Yossipon):
And they that were sent from Antiochus, answering, said to Mathathias: Thou art a ruler, and an honourable, and great man in this city, and adorned with sons, and brethren. Therefore, come thou first, and obey the king's commandment, as all nations have done, and the men of Juda, and they that remain in Jerusalem: and thou, and thy sons shall be in the number of the king's friends, and enriched with gold, and silver, and many presents.

Then Mathathias answered, and said with a loud voice: Although all nations obey king Antiochus, so as to depart every man from the service of the law of his fathers, and consent to his commandments: I and my sons, and my brethren will obey the law of our fathers. God be merciful unto us: it is not profitable for us to forsake the law, and the justices of God: We will not hearken to the words of king Antiochus, neither will we sacrifice and transgress the commandments of our law, to go another way.

Now as he left off speaking these words, there came a certain Jew in the sight of all to sacrifice to the idols upon the altar in the city of Modin, according to the king's commandment.

And Mathathias saw, and was grieved, and his reins trembled, and his wrath was kindled according to the judgment of the law, and running upon him he slew him upon the altar:

Moreover the man whom king Antiochus had sent, who compelled them to sacrifice, he slew at the same time, and pulled down the altar, And shewed zeal for the law, as Phinees did by Zamri, the son of Salomi.

And Mathathias cried out in the city with a loud voice, saying: Every one that hath zeal for the law, and maintaineth the testament, let him follow me. So he and his sons fled into the mountains, and left all that they had in the city.
This is the version of the story that most of us were told as children by our teachers. It is a nice, inspiring story, with no moral ambiguity, perfectly suited for young ears. By contrast, however, the accounts of the beginning of the revolt found in the minor midrashim (collected in works such as Otzar Midrashim by Rabbi J. D. Eisenstein) are of a more adult nature, and focus on the Greek desecration of Jewish women (a topic that is completely ignored in the books of the Maccabees).

There are two basic narratives found in these midrashim. The simplest one describes how a Greek violently raped the betrothed daughter of Mattisyahu (or, in the version of this story found in She'iltos d'Rav Achai Gaon, Yochanan Kohen Gadol) upon an open Torah scroll in the presence of her husband-to-be. This horrendous act motivated her family to rise up in revolt against the Greeks.

The other narrative states that, among the various Greek decrees against the Jews, was a "bitter and filthy decree" that every virgin Jewish bride, on the night of her wedding, would be forced to have relations with the local Greek governor (the hegemon) before she could go home to her husband. This decree had been in effect for three years and eight months - during which time the Jews had refrained from marriage - when the daughter of Mattisyahu (or Yochanan Kohen Gadol) got married (despite the decree!). The wedding feast was attended by all the great men of Israel, at which, as one account tells us, the following transpired:
And when they sat for the feast, Hanna, the daughter of Mattisyahu, arose from her bridal palanquin, clapped her hands together, tore off her robe, and stood exposed before all of Israel, and before her father, mother, and father-in-law. When her brothers saw this, they were ashamed, they turned their faces to the ground, tore their clothes, and they got up to kill her
She said to them, "Hear me, my brothers and uncles! You are moved to zealotry against me because I stand naked before righteous men without any sinful act, yet handing me over to that uncircumcised one to make sport with me does not arouse your zealotry?!"
"Shouldn't you learn from Simeon and Levi, the brothers of Dinah, who were only two men, yet they were zealous for their sister and killed the entire city of Shechem? They risked their lives for God and He helped them, and they were not shamed. So you, five brothers - Yehuda, Yochanan, Yonasan, Shimon, and Elazar - and over two hundred young men from the youth of the priesthood - place your trust in God and He will help you, as it says (Samuel I 14:6), 'for there is no restraint to God to save by many or by few.'"
She then began to cry, and said, "Master of the World! If You will not have mercy upon us, have mercy upon the sanctity of Your Name which is called upon us! Avenge for us today our vengeance!"
The brothers recognized the truth in their sister's speech and immediately began a plot to assassinate the  governor that night under the guise of delivering their sister to him, thus setting off the rebellion.

This story deserves a great deal of discussion, but it is largely unknown, despite the fact that abbreviated versions of the story are mentioned in numerous halachic works. (The well-known story of Judith is, almost certainly, derived from this incident.) There are a number of possible reasons why this is so, not the least being that the Hasmonean kings probably didn't want the story repeated. The fact that the story isn't really appropriate for young children is also a major factor.


Anonymous said...

Isn't Yossipon (Yossiphun) just Hebrew for Josephus?

LazerA said...

The relationship between Yossipon (or Yossifon) and Josephus is complex. However, there is no dispute that they are very distinct works.

The standard academic opinion is that Yossipon is a medieval work (from around the 10th century) based heavily on Josephus. However, in the work, the author of Yossipon claims to be Josephus himself (although the name he gives himself, Yosef ben Gurion, is nevr used by Josephus, who identifies himself as Yosef ben Mattisyahu).

Nevertheless, it may well be possible that Yossipon actually was written, originally, by Josephus (who does mention that he wrote a Hebrew language history for a Jewish audience). At the same time, the likelihood is that the work underwent extensive modification over the generations, so it is difficult to know how much of the material is from the original work and how much is not.