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          Not the Chanukah story your father told you

[The following is part of  ‘All the history I can remember', which is not scholarly or guaranteed accurate.  All of it is picked up, sometime, from a legitimate history or historical conjecture, somewhere over the years.  You may recall a humorous history of England called "1066 and all that"; treat it in that vein, as a guide to research and reading.  It has been a good source for presentations to Sunday School classes.]

      You have probably all heard the story of Chanukah and the Maccabees.  King Antiochus Epiphanes had erected a statue of himself in the Temple in Jerusalem.  A family called the Maccabees led a rebellion, captured the temple, and rededicated it.  A supply of oil that should have kept the lamp over the alter lit for one day miraculously lasted eight days, until more oil could be obtained.  Hence the eight days of Chanukah.  It is a very minor Jewish holiday - it isn't even important enough to make the Bible - and is noticed in America mainly due to its proximity to Christmas.
        Did you ever wonder why it didn't make the Bible?  I wondered once, and started to look into it.  It turns out to open a Pandora's Box of other questions, and I can't help but list a few of them.
        What happened between the Old Testament and the New Testament?
What were the Romans doing in Israel, during the New Testament period?
Or if you prefer in historical rather than biblical terms, What happened between the time of Alexander the Great and Julius Caesar? And while we are at it, when did people stop living like they did in the Old Testament, and start living more like we do? (and fighting wars the way we do instead of like in the Bible)?
       Well, a lot of the answers are in a book called First Maccabees. It didn't make the Bible.  When the committee sat down - yes, there really was a committee – and voted on which books went in the Bible (the Old Testament), this book was rejected.  It is now included in the Old Testament Apocrypha.  Many of you will have a Bible that has those books in the back, or can find one in the (synagogue, church, or town) library.  It's interesting to read.
        Egypt and the lands of the fertile crescent – Babylonia, Assyria, Persia – had fought back and forth through the Land of Israel for centuries.  Then Alexander the Great came through and conquered all of them. When Alexander died, he had no children.  His empire was divided into thirds, among his three main generals.  And once again Israel was caught in the middle, sometimes being ruled by the dynasty of Ptolemy, down in Egypt, and sometimes by the dynasty including Antiochus, up in Syria.  A couple of generations later, One of the Anitochuses -- Antiochus Epiphanes -- got fed up with the rebellions among the Jews in Israel and tried to change their religion.  He figured if he could get them to worship him, they'd be more loyal to his kingdom in the wars with the Ptolomies.  Of course, what he did was upset the Maccabees enough that they took to the hills and started a rebellion.
       It was an interesting rebellion.  It was, arguably, the first of the modern-style terrorist movements.  My own father (who was rather a nonconformist) once asked me if the Maccabees were more like the Palestine Liberation Front, or more like the Viet Cong in the Vietnamese war.    Even harder, he sometimes asked, why?  (It's a useful exercise, in trying to understand modern terrorists and independence movements.)
       In the early part of the war, the Maccabees lived in the hills, came down occasionally to attack, and refused to fight on the Sabbath.  But the King's army caught onto that pretty quickly, and started attacking on Saturday.  So after awhile the Maccabees found they had no choice but to fight on Saturday.
      The war dragged on.  It got bloody and nasty.  The Maccabees needed recruits and supplies, which they demanded from some of the villages.  If a village didn't pay up, it was likely to be attacked.  In some cases, the Maccabees would swoop down on a town and forcibly circumcise all the uncircumcised men they found there, which strikes me as a pretty frightening terrorist technique.
      But the world was already getting modern, in some ways.  Already, you couldn't run a good terrorist-style independence movement without foreign aid.  Now the Ptolomies didn't want Israel independent any more than the Antiochus dynasty did, so they couldn't turn there.  But the Maccabees heard that out west, across the great Sea (the Mediterranean), was a place that was actually independent of the three descendants of Alexander's generals who seemed to rule all of the world.  They appointed an ambassador, who traveled west by ship and found the place.  He looked for the King, but they claimed not to have one.  He had to ask who you had to talk with, and found it confusing, but eventually figured it out.  He negotiated a mutual defense treaty with the Senate of the Roman Republic; Israel and Rome agreed to mutual support and military aid in any war either had against the descendants  of Alexander's generals.
       The treaty, incidentally, is surprisingly modern in language, and the whole thing is in the First Book of Maccabees, in the Apocrypha.
       I don't know how much aid the Romans gave, early on.  But the Maccabees won, the Temple got rededicated, and the Maccabees founded a dynasty of Jewish Kings that stayed independent for several generations – a longer-lasting and larger Jewish kingdom than that of David.  And part of the reason it stayed independent was that the Romans actually did help – with supplies, and advisors, and armies – and then when the war between the Persians and Romans got bad enough, enough Romans were there that Rome decided it would be easier to just take over, and they did.
       Now, why didn't this book get into the Bible?  I've heard two reasons.  I'll call one the Biblical-style, or official reason.  Some people on the committee making the decision said that the Maccabees weren't acting like biblical heroes were supposed to act.  The bloodiness might have been tolerable, in semi-mythical characters, but fighting on the Sabbath was not.  But I prefer the second reason.  When the committee was meeting, descendants of the Maccabees were still around, active in politics, and still claiming one could get along with the Romans.  And some of those on the committee, who were no longer confident that being on the same side as the Romans was a good thing, were not about to let their political opponents be the direct descendants of biblical heroes.

(C) Edward Ordman 2000

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