Judah the Ayatollah

Judah the Maccabee, defender of religious freedom? Not so much.

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.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

30 thoughts on “Judah the Ayatollah”

  1. “The two Books of the Maccabees are Hasmonean court propaganda.”
    Didn’t the Hasmoneans themselves become thoroughly Hellenized/Romanized in due course? What’s the timing here?

    The propaganda has been stunningly successful. Here’s Raphael, recycling the original message “Don’t buck the Temple” for Pope Julius II as “Don’t buck the Vatican”. The first angel on horseback kicks the evil Seleucid official Heliodorus nearly to death for his blasphemous raid on the Temple treasury. Later the baddy repents and is cured!

    In the same room as this piece of topnotch hackwork, Raphael painted the profound and moving as well as technically audacious Deliverance of St Peter.

  2. This led me to a quick re-read of the relevant section of Peter Green’s _Alexander to Actium_ (highly recommended), which indicates that there was more than this: though Green admits that the evidence is murky, the tale he tells includes the attempt by Antiochus IV to suppress Judaism (not just put up a statue of Zeus), provoking the Maccabean revolt. Green points out that there is no other record of this kind of religious suppression anywhere else in the history of any of the Hellenistic kingdoms, and suggests that this basically came out of Antiochus trying to suppress local resistance to an initial revolt against his attempt to collect more money (by, among other things, seising the treasures of the Temple). All this would make the Maccabees fighters a religious/social resistance movement, no different from (say) the Taliban or the Protestant Dutch revolt in their motivation: fighters for Judaism, yes, but for religious freedom, not at all.

    I was interested to read, in an article a few years back about some particularly extreme examples of the settler movement in the West Bank, that their term of disparagement for those who did not agree with them was “Hellenizers”.

  3. DCA: “…no different from (say) the Taliban or the Protestant Dutch revolt in their motivation: fighters for Judaism, yes, but for religious freedom, not at all.”
    This goes too far for the Dutch. The revolt included Calvinist hardliners as intolerant as John Knox, but also Lutherans, and Catholics fighting for traditional local autonomy against Spanish centralisation and brutality. William the Silent was certainly tolerant, and this made sense to hold his coalition together. The Republic he founded stayed tolerant in practice for the same reason. As Simon Schama wrote, “The magistracy to whose charge the church itself had confided the tasks of government understood very well that any attempt to create a republic of the orthodox would not result in a unified country but would splinter it to pieces”. Sources.

  4. “They foolishly believed that Greeks worshiped the statues they erected to their gods:”

    It might not be correct to say that Greeks worshipped cult statues, but it would be going too far to say that they were mere statues. We have many accounts of statues moving, walking around, and otherwise acting as animated avatars of the gods they represented. Check out Lucian’s De Dea Syria.

  5. James, if I recall correctly I Maccabees is regarded as nearly contemporaneous, while II Maccabees is from a generation later. (Bonus fun fact: neither one has any mention of one day’s oil burning for eight days at the rededication.)

    Yes, the process of Hellenization continued, even at the Hasmonean court. But the faction that supported the revolt (who called themselves Hasidim [= “pious ones’]) morphed into the Pharisees, while the Hellenizing party became the Sadducees. The rabbis took over leadership of the Pharisees from the rural priesthood.

    Bonus irony: there’s a sort of Jewish Olympics called the Maccabi Games. But of course athletic competition was part of the Hellenizing trend the Maccabees fought to suppress. As natural as that activity seems to us, apparently ancient Israel simply didn’t have it in any formal way: at least, the Tanakh never mentions it.

  6. DCA reports: “though Green admits that the evidence is murky, the tale he tells includes the attempt by Antiochus IV to suppress Judaism (not just put up a statue of Zeus), provoking the Maccabean revolt.”

    So why, according to Green, did Antiochus IV care about suppressing Judaism?

  7. @JW:

    Sorry about the Dutch: I was grappling for a non-Talib parallel,
    and slipped. Given that the United Provinces were the most tolerant place
    in Europe, that wasn’t fair.

    @CF:

    Green admits that Antiochus’ response is a mystery. His best guess
    is that this was a sequence of: (1) Antiochus’ raises taxes and ransacks the
    Temple; (2) unlike anybody else, the Jews take badly to this on religious
    grounds; (3) Antiochus does what any Hellenistic ruler would do, which is
    to crush the local rebels–but because the rebellion is itself so rooted in
    religion, he tries to crush the religion as well.
    A relevant quote from Green “The Jews of Samaria protested to the
    king that they really traced their origin from Sidon and — a nice touch of
    sardonic realism — that if they were left in peace they would find it easier
    to pay their taxes. They also offered to dedicate their temple to Zeus.
    Antiochus granted their petition: this was the kind of reaction he was used
    to…. All he aimed to achieve was the elimination of a rebellious local group
    by abolishing the ideological code that sustained it. This was why, even within
    the Seleucid domains, the Jews of Babylonia and northern Syria remained
    unaffected.”

    So, no “suppression of Judaism” intended, except in Judea. The Babylonian community was later (I think, the experts here can correct me) the main source for the Talmud, after all.

  8. The Jewish Bible is quite clear that idol-worship in the land of Israel is forbidden to anybody, not just Jews. And the Jewish meaning of idol-worship (avodah-zorah in Hebrew) extends beyond bowing to statues. For example, building the Golden Calf, even as a representation of the One God HaShem was also forbidden.

    The Canaanite people were wiped out, at explicit instruction from God, because of their abominations and idol-worship in the Land of Israel.

    So I would not expect Judah the Hammer to favor the sort of religious freedom Westerners are used to.

    The current crop of Ayatollahs go beyond what Judah the Hammer did, they want to conquer the outside world for their religion, and are apparently willing to commit nuclear genocide to do it.

    From an atheistic point of view, all sincere religions seem similar, especially all monotheisms. But up close and personal, one can see the differences.

    Judah the Hammer did fight for religious freedom. For Jews. The idolatrous Greeks were smothering us.

  9. Two comments:
    1. The Book of Joshua says that, for some cities, even the Canaanite women were to be wiped out, for fear that they would acculturate the Hebrews into local customs.
    2. Mark says: “As natural as that [athletic] activity seems to us, apparently ancient Israel simply didn’t have it in any formal way: at least, the Tanakh never mentions it.” I was brought up to think that athletics were for the goyim. And I’m well under 3000 years old. I think.

  10. Greek athletes competed naked – even, in Sparta, apparently girls. Would this have been enough to make athletics unclean to Jews?
    St. Paul, writing to the mixed Jewish/Gentile church at Corinth (I Cor. 9:24ff), uses the metaphor of athletic competition quite unselfconsciously and without reservations. So at least Diaspora Jews seem to have accepted Hellenistic sport.

  11. I think what happened has a lot more to do with intrigue between claimants to the High Priesthood. Jason bought the office, then Menelaus did, one of the claimants was killed, and so on. The part where Antiochus has the temple pillaged and then orders traditional Jewish practices suppressed comes a bit later.

    The Seleucid Empire then fell apart, but held on for a bit longer because Rome and Persia (the Parthian Empire) had to fight it out a bit before Rome would assert dominance over Syria. Which was made a Roman province, not a client kingdom as Judea was, due to its continued instability.

  12. You need to back up a little bit for context. Yes, Judea was unique in its response to religion. Antiochus was the inheritor of part of Alexander the Great’s empire, and the practice of that empire – and later that of the Romans – was that subject kingdoms were expected to accept the deities of the conqueror, or worship the emperor himself as a deity. Alexander erected statues of himself in the cities and kingdoms he conquered. The Greeks considered the Jews to be atheists, since they did not put up statues representing any deities, and in fact convinced Alexander to accept alternatives, including naming baby boys “Alexander” (various stories say it was all boys born that year, or all boys born to priestly families).

    Antiochus’s attempts to suppress Judaism included bans on public Torah readings (which led to the institution of reading from the Prophets instead, nowadays done as the haftarah). One of the hellenized high priests apparently attempted to sacrifice a pig in the Temple, which was the actual trigger for the revolt. The Hasmonean revolt was a revolt for freedom to worship Judaism, not generalized religious freedom. It was specifically a revolt against an occupying power which was attempting to suppress that worship. Comparing this to the Taliban is an obscene misreading of history. Islam was not forbidden in Afghanistan, and at the time they took over, there was no significant foreign presence.

    Calling it a war national liberation is only part of the truth, since the religious aspect was critical.

    And yes, the descendants of the rebels did eventually become Hellenized and eventually died out. Jewish tradition ties this to their assumption of the monarchy to which, as a priestly family, they were not entitled.

  13. Let’s not let all this erudite discussion distract us from the critical point, which is that Mel Gibson is a raging (perjorative) and his proposing to make a film about Jewish history really can’t be interpreted as being anything but a giant raised middle finger directed at the Jewish community. Although I suppose it’s likely that this time he’ll try to portray Jews as positive figures (by his lights) rather than as stereotypes taken straight out of Der Sturmer, as he did in his torture-porn film about Jesus.

  14. his proposing to make a film about Jewish history really can’t be interpreted as being anything but a giant raised middle finger directed at the Jewish community

    Really? It strikes me more as a desperate attempt to overcome his pariah status without having to actually apologize for his actions. Still pretty insulting in its own way, but not quite a middle finger.

  15. Anonymous37,
    I suspect you’re right – that he’s rationalizing it by telling himself and others the movie is going to be a love note to the Jews, and so will prove he’s not an antisemite. But he is a proven antisemite, and one of that sort offering to tell us our history is a pretty gross insult – at the very least, profoundly condescending – even if they think they’re being conspicuously respectful in their treatment of the subject matter. And there’s no conceivable way he can do this without crossing internal political boundaries that are extremely sensitive – most obviously in the same way that American Christian Millenialists ally with certain maximalist parts of the Israeli right wing, because they think that “being a friend to Israel” will hasten the second coming (and, incidentally, the annihilation of the Jewish people).

  16. Warren,
    Antisemitism is a very complex phenomenon. The movement conservative stereotype of the “liberal” consists of about every antisemitic trope known to humanity, except perhaps male concupiscence and hot wimmins. (The conservative’s liberal man can’t get it up, but approves of libertinism as a matter of principle. The conservative’s liberal woman may or may not have a libido, but looks like Andrea Dworkin on a bad hair day. What did Ann Coulter say–“fragrant hippie chick pie wagon”?) Of course, the movement conservatives fervently deny antisemitism, and I believe that they mean it. (It’s always hard to tell when they’re lying, but if they are here, they’re lying to themselves first.) In other words, they’ve somehow abstracted the Jew out of antisemitism, although I doubt this abstraction is permanent. And the antisemitism as as strong, or stronger than ever.

    Rightwing philosemitism is creepier than good old-fashioned antisemitism. They worship the Israelis as a model for America: kicking wog butt without regret, and using the state to advance Talibanic religion over Godless religion and irreligion. I think that Mr. Gibson will give us rightwing philosemitism in his movie. The funny thing is, the rightwing philosemitic take on the Maccabees is likely to be far more historically accurate than the stuff fed Jewish children in America. Mark is right.

  17. AreaMan: “The current crop of Ayatollahs go beyond what Judah the Hammer did, they want to conquer the outside world for their religion, and are apparently willing to commit nuclear genocide to do it.”

    There are three statements in your sentence here, and all three are false.

  18. Ebenezer: I guess I missed the part where discussion turned to what conservatives think liberals are, but… have you seriously been reading conservative writers? I admit that I don’t read Coulter, but I read a lot of conservatives (or people I presume to be conservative, anyway) and I’ve never heard anything like what you are describing. Got links?

  19. If you change “Maccabees” to “Tea Party” (and update the other proper nouns), it could understood as a tale for our times. If the Maccabees were heroic, Mel might be thinking, so is the Tea Party, because they share the same values. And by making a favorable movie about a Jewish insurrection, Mel can “prove” that he’s not anti-Semitic.

  20. But he is a proven antisemite, and one of that sort offering to tell us our history is a pretty gross insult – at the very least, profoundly condescending – even if they think they’re being conspicuously respectful in their treatment of the subject matter.

    I absolutely agree.

  21. Fuzzy,
    I, too, pack a beard–some basis for solidarity. I won’t give you any quotes, but I’ll give you a partial list of tropes. You can tell me whether they’re popular among movement conservatives. They are all classics of antisemitism:

    Liberals are weak, physically and morally.
    Liberals are not patriots.
    Liberals are elites, who sneer at the autochthonous folk they do not understand.
    Liberals are good with words; less so with facts and physical reality.
    Liberals are communists (or socialists).
    Liberals are rich, and they did not make their money honestly.
    Liberals are in positions of great power.

    That will do, for starters. I don’t think I’m quite violating Godwin’s law–most of these classics of antisemitism belong just as much to, say, Henry Ford.

  22. Sempringham–

    “If you change “Maccabees” to “Tea Party” (and update the other proper nouns), it could understood as a tale for our times.”

    I can see it now– the Tea Party riding up the Capitol steps on their Hoverounds, charging into the Senate chamber to rescue their Medicare from its clutches. How disappointed they will be when they don’t find a relic that will vaporize their enemies.

  23. What’s Mel going to do about the angelic horse? This could become one of the great bad films of all time, like “300”.

    How will Mel demonize the Seleucids, whom few have heard of? Naked athletics, philosophy, and hot baths would prima facie appeal more to a modern audience than the strange rites of archaic Temple-based Judaism, especially as the Temple also functioned as a national bank. The animal sacrifices of both sides make no sense to a modern audience. On the Braveheart model, he can pretend it was an anticolonial war of national liberation. I suspect he will have to dress up the Seleucids as cruel Persians in scented beards who sacrifice babies to Moloch.

  24. Ebenezer’s point about hatred of liberals following an anti-semitic form is very interesting. You could add: pointy-headed elites, cosmopolitans, secret plotters, leeches, outsiders, not “real Americans”, relativists. I think much of the cognitive framework arises from cynical populism and the right-wing nationalist aesthetic. Yet this tradition has for so long been targetted towards Jews, it is difficult to separate it all out.

  25. If the Maccabean revolt had been crushed and Jerusalem became more cosmopolitan, do we get the Jewish revolt in A.D. 66, the consequent sack of Jerusalem, and then the city’s eradication under Hadrian in the next century?

  26. What a flood of revisionism! Next you’ll be telling us that the Puritans didn’t really come to North America seeking religious freedom, and those guys at the Alamo were really fighting for the right to bring slaves into Texas.

    From what I’ve read over the years Mark is basically correct, that the Maccabean revolt was a (rare) successful backlash against the Hellenization of the eastern Mediterranean world, a temporary success for the Jewish nation that soon gave way to the cosmopolitan Hasmoneans who were far more careful about overt Hellenization. As for Anderson’s question, I believe there would have been a Jewish resurgence against the Romans regardless of what had happened a couple of centuries earlier.

  27. Ebeneezer Scrooge if you want to see a musical comic take on the Jewish/liberal trope, look up Neil Patrick Harris’s 2011 Tony Awards Ceremony opening number “It’s Not Just for Gays Anymore.”

  28. Mel will screw up the history and the socio-economic background, just like he did with Apocalypto. Whatever images serve his conservative Catholic world-view are the ones that will be presented. The maccabean revolt was a backlash by a fundamentalist people against a foreign-influenced and therefore contaminated citified upper class, in this case Hellenic in origin and mindset. The two later revolts against the Roman Empire stemmed from similar bases, that is both religious and economic. Wealth extraction by the upper class, and constant affronts to a particular religious worldview, piled up until the dam broke. Naked men running around in a gym and learning Socratic logic wouldn’t fly with the TeaBaggers either.

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