Religious Persecution or High Taxes? The Causes of the Maccabean Revolt against Antiochus IV

Although Jason and Menelaus were Hellenized High Priests, we have no reason to believe that they ever harmed the Temple, as 2 Maccabees claimed, or that Menelaus took part in the religious persecution of fellow Jews, as some modern scholars contended.

See Also: Tales of High Priests and Taxes: The Books of the Maccabees and the Judean Rebellion against Antiochos IV (University of California Press, 2014).

By Sylvie Honigman
Department of History
University of Tel Aviv
October 2014

The revolt of the Jews against Antiochus IV is the story at the heart of the Jewish festival of Hanukkah. However, while the festival commemorates this story in accordance with its later, rabbinical version, modern scholarly reconstructions are based on 1 and 2 Maccabees. According to the accepted storyline, Onias III was the last High Priest in Jerusalem of the Oniad dynasty. In 175 BCE he was deposed by his brother, Jason, who promised to pay the provincial tribute at a substantially higher rate if Antiochus IV—who had just ascended to the Seleucid throne—appointed him High Priest. Jason also promised to pay an additional tax if the king granted him permission to establish a gymnasium in Jerusalem, and draw up a list of Antiochenes—that is, to found a polis, or city in the Greek tradition, in Jerusalem, to be named Antioch. The king agreed. Three years later (172), Jason was himself overthrown by Menelaus, and when Antiochus IV led a military campaign in Egypt in 168 BCE Jason tried to seize back power in Jerusalem, and a civil war broke out between his supporters and those of Menelaus. Mistakenly believing that the Judeans were revolting against his rule, Antiochus IV attacked Jerusalem on his return from Egypt. This was followed by military and political repression: the fortress of the Akra was built to oversee the Temple, and a colony of foreign mercenaries settled there who merged with the Judean citizens of Antioch-in-Jerusalem, headed by Menelaus. All other Judeans lost their political autonomy, and they and the Temple were made subjects of the polis. This administrative revamping had disastrous religious consequences: as subjects of a Greek polis, the Judeans were compelled to give up their traditional customs and take part in Greek religious rites that were jointly introduced by the foreign settlers and the Hellenized Judeans of Antioch-in-Jerusalem. The banning of Judean religious practices, which in the collective memory of the Judeans was thenceforth remembered as religious persecution, triggered a popular revolt against the Seleucids and their local supporters, the Hellenized Judeans, led successively by the Maccabean brothers—Judah, Jonathan and Simon. Judah Maccabee liberated the city of Jerusalem, and purified the Temple; Simon went on to found the Hasmonean dynasty.

While modern scholars closely—and uncritically—rely on 1 and 2 Maccabees to reconstruct the course of these events, they are wary of using them to establish the causes of the rebellion. As a dynastic history 1 Maccabees is considered a reliable source, but is elusive with regard to earlier events, and hence their causes. Conversely, 2 Maccabees, which focuses on Judah’s purification of the Temple and includes stories of martyrs, is classified as theological history, and as such, while it does provide a detailed account of the early phases of events, its historical value is considered suspect. The prevailing view is that, due to the author’s religious world view, his account allegedly places excessive emphasis on religious and cultural issues, misleadingly defining the revolt in terms of a struggle between Judaism and Hellenism, while downplaying its genuine causes, which must have been political and economic. In the absence of a reliable source, scholars are therefore obliged to make only informed guesses as to these causes.

The purpose of the present paper is to refute this assessment of 1 and 2 Maccabees. When read with sufficiently critical tools, they are both revealed to be dynastic histories written by pro-Hasmonean court historians. While their political bias may distort their accounts (particularly in the portrayal of characters), they do offer valuable and perfectly rational information about the causes of the revolt.


A critical reading of 1 and 2 Maccabees presupposes that we are aware of the cultural differences existing between our perception of the world and method of translating experience into words, as modern Westerners, and those of the ancient authors. The revised interpretation I am proposing is predicated on three methodological premises. First, by defining 2 Maccabees as theological history simply because it focuses on the Temple’s fate, we risk overlooking the fact that in ancient Judea, the Temple was as much a political as a religious institution: in Hellenistic times, the Jerusalem High Priest was the actual ruler of Judea. To put it in more precise terms, our misconception is due to the modern Western way of classifying social reality, whereby “politics” and “religion”—and indeed “culture”—are discrete semantic categories. This was not the case in ancient times. Consequently, in 2 Maccabees the Greek words Ioudaismos and Hellenismos cannot have the meanings that “Judaism” and “Hellenism” have in the modern lexicon, because the latter refer to semantic categories—religion and culture—that did not exist when this text was written. Thus, the modern view that the author of 2 Maccabees viewed the revolt as a religious and cultural struggle must be a misrepresentation.

My contention that 2 Maccabees is a dynastic, rather than theological, history is also based on a second premise: in ancient times there was no scientific discourse separate and distinct from what we now call “religion.” Consequently, there was no alternative to the view that God created the cosmos, that social order reflected divine order, or that human history was ruled by divine will. This was not a matter of belief, but of common sense: no one in Judea doubted that it was God’s will for the Temple to be desecrated, because of His wrath against His people who had departed from His ways—and conversely that, when the Temple was purified, it was because God had now been appeased. Contrary to what modern scholars claim, therefore, it is doubtful that the author of 2 Maccabees, as a so-called theologian, wrote his account to demonstrate that God Himself saved His Temple. For the ancient Judeans, such a conclusion was merely stating the obvious. What did require clarification were two other issues: first, what was the sin that had prompted God’s wrath, and who was the perpetrator?; and second, whom did God appoint as His human agent to restore His Temple? In 2 Maccabees, Jason and Menelaus, along with Antiochus IV, are designated as the culprits who had incurred God’s wrath for their impiety, and Judah Maccabee is depicted as God’s chosen one. Based on this reading, therefore, 2 Maccabees is all about which leaders were pious, and which were not. Jason and Menelaus are made responsible for all the misfortunes that befell the people—in particular its author claimed that Antiochus IV’s attack on Jerusalem and subsequent religious persecution were caused by the civil strife between them, which the king mistook for a popular revolt. In truth, there are good reasons to believe that the king was not mistaken: there was indeed a popular revolt taking place—which means that what we have here is an account that is doubly deceptive, due to its political bias.

To properly understand the implication of this revised reading, we must add a third methodological premise: the accounts of 1 and 2 Maccabees are informed by culturally-conditioned narrative codes. According to the ancient Near-Eastern royal ideology (and echoed in the Hebrew Bible), kings were chosen by patron-deities (YHWH, in the case of Israel). This deity chose a man for his outstanding piety and ordered him to build His (or Her) temple—and in return, He (or She) pledged to give that man a dynasty. All such stories about this contractual alliance between king and deity followed a six-part fixed narrative pattern: 1) the circumstances leading up to the foundation (or refoundation) of the temple, including an account of how it was destroyed, how its enemies were defeated, and how the deity was appeased; 2) the preparations for the construction; 3) the construction process itself; 4) the dedication rites and festivities; 5) the king’s prayer for the deity’s blessing; and 6) the blessings upon those faithful to the temple, and the establishment of norms. This pattern—with appropriate cosmetic changes to adapt it to the replacement of Israelite kingship with a High Priest as ruler—is what underpins the main narrative sections of both 1 and 2 Maccabees. The obvious conclusion is that both these works recount the founding myth of the Hasmonean dynasty: Judah’s purification of the Temple was equated with a temple foundation (Hanukkah in Hebrew means “dedication”), and—in accordance with the traditional contractual transaction of temple in return for dynasty—piety qualified him, and his brothers, to be king. Consequently, the fact that 2 Maccabees emphasizes Judah’s piety is evidence not that its author was religiously minded, but that he was a supporter of the Hasmonean dynasty! Likewise, his characterization of Jason and Menelaus as impious men should be read in the same way: it is a politically-biased claim aimed to delegitimize the Maccabees’ rivals in their contest for power, and not an objective description. Although Jason and Menelaus were Hellenized High Priests, we have no reason to believe that they ever harmed the Temple, as 2 Maccabees claimed, or that Menelaus took part in the religious persecution of fellow Jews, as some modern scholars contended.


While we must be mindful of their politically-motivated distortions, 1 and 2 Maccabees do offer useful information about the political and economic causes of the revolt, if we read their narrative and cultural codes correctly.

First, let us dispose of the modern myth that the author of 2 Maccabees’ saw the revolt as a clash between Judaism and Hellenism. The meaning of words is subject to change over time. Since the author himself had coined the Greek term Ioudaismos, and was using the term Hellenismos in an innovative way, we must first understand that he was giving these words meanings that were rooted in his own cultural and linguistic experience—not ours. I submit that he used the term Ioudaismos to encapsulate, in a single, abstract word (in the Greek fashion), the notion of dynastic legitimacy that was traditionally articulated through the narrative pattern of temple foundation described above. In other words, in 2 Maccabees Ioudaismos means “the pious social order established by Judah Maccabee upon refounding the Temple, and by which the Hasmoneans rule.” Conversely, its antithesis, Hellenismos, means “the wicked social order established by Jason in founding the gymnasium (i.e., the Greek polis), by which he and Menelaus ruled”—in 2 Maccabees, Jason’s gymnasium is cast as the “anti-Temple.”

Strikingly, the passage in 2 Maccabees that is the most telling about what its author identified as the major causes of the revolt is the one describing Jason’s establishment of the gymnasium—and of Hellenismos. In 2 Maccabees 4:7–15, we are told that Jason overthrew Onias III; arranged to be appointed High Priest by Antiochus IV by offering to increase the local tribute rate; upset the social order by founding the gymnasium; and promised to pay additional taxes for this right. Several issues are lumped together here. To use modern terms, we may first identify three interrelated political issues: the fact that a dynastically legitimate High Priest was deposed, with Jason appointed in his stead by the Seleucid king, and Jason’s manifest unworthiness as a ruler—because he founded a gymnasium that allegedly diverted the priests from the Temple service. Next, the increase of the tribute rate was an economic issue. Finally, the establishment of the polis was detrimental both socially and economically, as it entailed, among other things, an uneven distribution of the fiscal burden between citizens and non-citizens. In all likelihood, these were the true main reasons for the revolt, which are presented here as misfortunes brought upon the Judeans by Jason, in support of the denunciation of his rule as illegitimate. However, unlike modern ones, ancient Judean historians could not denounce someone purely on fiscal grounds—according to their cultural and narrative codes, only threats to the divine order were noteworthy. Hence, 2 Maccabees insisted that the establishment of the gymnasium meant that the Temple service was adversely affected.

The issues of tax increases and royal appointments to the High Priesthood arise repeatedly throughout 2 Maccabees—always in conjunction with one another, and always decried by equating royal appointments with unworthy candidates. Because of the account’s emphasis on piety, these denunciations have been discounted by modern commentators, but if we read through 2 Maccabees’ culturally-conditioned narrative codes, the argument presented is perfectly rational—and plausible. The Seleucids’ attempt to control the appointment of the Jerusalem High Priests was indeed an innovation introduced by Antiochus IV, who exploited his appointees’ weakness—their lack of dynastic legitimacy—to extort sharp tax rises from them. Moreover, to judge by the quick turnover of incumbents—five High Priests in a decade—this reform resulted in the political destabilization of Judea.

What about the religious persecution—or, as modern historians nowadays have it, the prohibition of Jewish customs? The answer is that this persecution only ever existed as a narrative. It is how certain events were subsequently reshaped in the Judeans’ collective memory, to suit the very same cultural and narrative codes that shape 1 and 2 Maccabees throughout, and whose primary function was to attribute culturally acceptable meaning to events that lacked it.

There was undoubtedly a factual core to the persecution alleged in 1 and 2 Maccabees, namely the ruthless military and political repression following Antiochus’ storming of Jerusalem: people were massacred, the Temple was plundered, and presumably the altar was desecrated, as well. As we saw above, 2 Maccabees claims that Antiochus IV's attack was triggered by a factional conflict between Jason and Menelaus. Judging by its scale, however, the king’s assault was no doubt in reaction to a wide-scale, popular rebellion which, according to 2 Maccabees, erupted when a false rumor circulated that Antiochus had died during his campaign in Egypt. Like all popular revolts in ancient times, its principal cause was the newly-imposed high taxes.

However, as traumatic as these events may have been, they could not be recounted in a straightforward way. Dying in a fight against high taxes struck no symbolic and no emotional chords in Judean culture—conversely, dying for the Law did. The account of the suppression was reshaped using a narrative pattern that is well documented in Babylonian literate culture: righteous kings enforced divine law, and wicked kings violated it. In 1 and 2 Maccabees, Antiochus IV is portrayed as a wicked king who compelled the Judeans to do everything forbidden by divine Law, such as eating pork—much as, in a Babylonian story, the servants of the Ezidu temple were allegedly forced to eat leek, which was equally forbidden for them. By casting these events in this manner, the Judeans were able to incorporate them into their collective memory, resulting in the Hanukkah festival as we know it today.

Further Reading:

John Ma, “Re-examining Hanukkah.” In The Marginalia Review of Books (9 July 2013)

Comments (4)

Great article! I wonder if these cultural codes were universal among Judeans or simply among the elites who wrote the texts. After all, I doubt the Hasmoneans were necessarily any more just (fiscally speaking) than the rulers who preceded them. I also recall that popular revolts in both Mesopotamia and Greece were quite often very openly about high taxes, debt, etc., and that Babylonian kings often issued (usually ineffective) debt cancellation decrees under the pretext of "establishing justice (i.e. divine order) in the land." My hunch is that if we were to go back in time and ask a Judean peasant, the tax issues would figure far more prominently in their narrative of the revolt than the cultic issues (although the latter would certainly not be absent from the narrative or conceptually separate from the tax issues).

I'm reminded of the rise Islamist movements in the contemporary Middle East. In these movements, issues of proper Islamic practice and economic justice are often rhetorically inseparable. Also in the US Civil Rights movement and its contemporary religious-left heirs in the United States, issues of Christian piety and economic justice are inseparable as well.

For most people in the modern West (and the Middle East, and probably elsewhere), standards of social and economic justice are still not completely separate from the notion of "What (the) God(s) want(s)."

#1 - Robert M. Jennings - 10/18/2014 - 19:07

If we are to think of the record in the Maccabean literature with as much scepticism as suggested, might we not go further and question whether there was a popular revolt at all rather than merely a factional struggle - later legitimated by claims of both popular and divine support? The idea of popular solidarity behind the divine decrees would make a powerful counterpart to the account of the fall of the former Kingdom precisely because the people had not been faithful and the kings had not made them see the error of their ways.

#2 - Martin Hughes - 10/21/2014 - 16:49

Thank you for these comments. Here are some comments back.
The methodological assumption of numerous scholars, to which I subscribe, is that stories reshape events and do not make them up altogether. People need to remember that "something" happened for the reshaped version to be credible. Of course, this does not perforce mean that "what happened" was a popular rebellion. However this in my view is the most plausible solution, based both on historical parallels, and on my literary analysis of the text. Admittedly, however, the text is open to alternative, more radical reinterpretations, as that suggested in comment 2.

The cultural codes that I describe were indeed elaborated in, and used by, learned circles of scribes, and we may surmise that the way lay people remembered events used distinct narrative codes - no society, and no social group within a society, can do without narrative codes altogether.
However we should take for granted that even the popular version would have talked of both the fiscal issue and of the damage done to the temple, and probably would have mixed the two in one way or another - isn't this precisely the lesson we can learn from most contemporary popular narratives, as noted in comment 1?

#3 - Sylvie Honigman - 10/28/2014 - 10:19

Menelaus was the Greek King of
Sparta,his brother Agemennon &
he plundered Troy & Menelaus went on to Egpyt in search of his wife "Helen of Troy-Sparta"where she exiled during

#4 - Robert Fields - 10/30/2014 - 18:46

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