I’m not surprised that the anti-Semite Mel Gibson wants to make a movie about Judah the Maccabee. I’m a little disappointed that Jeffrey Goldberg thinks that Judah “led the first revolt for religious freedom in recorded history.” That, it turns out, is just about precisely the opposite of the historical truth.
In the Hellenistic Period, Jerusalem was a wealthy and important city, its ruling priestly and mercantile elite courted by the (Greek-speaking) rulers both of the Seleucid Empire centered on Antioch and of Ptolemaic Egypt. While the back-country remained observantly Jewish, Jerusalem became more and more Hellenized: at one point there were two rival claimants to the title of Kohan Gadol (High Priest), one named “Jason” and the other “Menelaus.” Not only did the elite speak Greek in preference to Aramaic, they sent their sons to be educated at the gymnasium, which required that the sons not be circumcised.
Antiochus IV decided to pay honor to Jerusalem by giving it the status of a polis: a self-governing city. Naturally, that meant the erection of a statue of Zeus in the largest temple in the new polis: where else could the municipal oaths be sworn? The Jerusalemites were pleased. And of course it never would have occurred to the polytheistic Greeks to interfere with the worship of the local god; if you’d asked one of the Seleucid administrators about HaShem, he’d probably have told you that the Jews worshipped Zeus under that name.
As the Seleucids would have known had their officials bothered to learn Aramaic and talk to people outside Jerusalem, this was an intolerable horor to the ignorant backwoodsmen in hick-towns like Modin. They foolishly believed that Greeks worshiped the statues they erected to their gods: to them, the statue of Zeus was an “idol,” and the notion of having an idol in the Temple put them in a rage.
So Mattathias, one of the the local priests, and his seven sons, including Judah (known as ha-makabi– “The Hammer”) started a revolt. This was as much a social as a religious struggle, and much more a struggle within the country than with the Seleucids: think of it as the first “war of national liberation.”
Like the Khmers Rouges, the Maccabees hated the city-dwellers as bearers of foreign culture. Once they had gathered their strength in the rural areas, they were able to besiege, and eventually to take, Jerusalem: which they promptly and thoroughly sacked, before clearing thee statue of Zeus out of the temple and rededicating it to HaShem. (Hannukkah means roughly “re-dedication.”)
So Mattathias and his sons are the spiritual ancestors, not of Locke and Jefferson, but of the Ayatollahs who seized power from the modernizing and secularizing Shah. No doubt the Maccabee supporters, like those of the Ayatollah Khomeini, had genuine economic and social grievances, and, no doubt, the regime against which they rose was deeply corrupt. But in each case the revolt was basically against modernization and “the West.” Religious freedom? Not so much.
Now, was it a Good Thing, in some deep sense, to prevent the Hellenization of second-century B.C.E. Israel? That doesn’t seem to me like a question with a computable answer. But I know which side someone like me would have been on; I would probably have died in the sack of Jerusalem by Mel Gibson’s hero, and Jeffrey Goldberg’s. So would Goldberg.
Footnote No, this isn’t some wild-eyed revisionist theory. See, for example, the relevant volume of Salo Baron’s Social and Religious History of the Jews. The two Books of the Maccabees are Hasmonean court propaganda.