Josephus, 1 Maccabees, and Hanukkah

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Josephus, 1 Maccabees, and Hanukkah

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Étienne Nodet, Josephus, 1 Maccabees, and Hanukkah, JSIJ - Jewish Studies, an Internet Journal, vol 19, 2021

Josephus begins his Jewish War with the Maccabean crisis: while kings Antiochus IVth Epiphanes of Syria and Ptolemy VIth of Egypt were disputing the suzerainty of Coele-Syria, dissention arose among ranking Judeans. The high priest Onias expelled the sons of Tobias from Jerusalem who took refuge with Antiochus and subsequently urged him to invade Judea. The king consented, took Jerusalem by storm, plundered the Temple and interrupted the sacrifices.

Then a persecution of the Jews developed until reprisals began with Matthias (Mattathias), a priest of Modin, whose son Judas was able to attack the occupied city and cleanse the Temple, after an interruption of three years and six months.1 He eventually “built another altar and started the sacrifices again”. After the death of Antiochus (War 1:31-40), Judas seems to have acted as a high priest,2 though no commemoration of his deeds is extant.
  1. This duration is given at Dan 9:27 “in the half of the week (of years)” (see 12:7, as well). After Dan 11 sketches the Hellenistic history, probably after Polybius, from Alexander through the ravages of Antiochus IV, and eventually his death after the end of the persecutions, but no Hasmonean is alluded to. At some point, that king had been prevented from invading Egypt by the Kittim, that is, the Romans. Polybius provides us with further details, but such a disparaging nickname traditionally referred to the Greeks (see 1 Macc 1:1). Indeed, using it for the Romans can hardly be imagined before Pompey’s invasion in -63, since Rome was supporting the Jewish High priest. On this issue, see Étienne Nodet, “Les Kittim, les Romains et Daniel”, RB 118 (2011), pp. 260-268. In other words, the Hasmonean government was not accepted by all the Jews.
  2. According to Ant. 12:286 & 414 (and § 10 of the summary), Judas was appointed high priest by the people, which is obviously an impossible, since during the Hellenistic period, the high priest was an officer of the king of Egypt or Syria, appointed by him. In Josephus’s list of all the high priests since Aaron, there is a seven-year gap between Alkimus and Jonathan, and Judas is not mentioned (Ant. 20:237).
The parallel account Josephus gives in the Antiquities is much longer but broadly similar in most respects. Among the distinctive aspects of the account is the foregrounding of the problem of Hellenization with Judas’s inauguration of the new altar. In fact, the new story is very close to 1 Maccabees, despite some differences; among them, the most significant for our purpose concerns that inauguration ...

... the Josephan and Rabbinic traditions cannot be reconciled without stretching the evidence. It is generally understood that Josephus in his Antiquities paraphrased the Greek book of 1 Maccabees, and even that for the first shorter account in the Jewish War he summarized the same source.3 Though accepted, this remains unproven, and a reassessment must first be undertaken. Following this, we will consider Josephus’s issues involving the calendar that emerge because of the conflicts between Jewish and Roman systems. The historical questions connected with the origins of the Hasmonean dynasty, however, are beyond the scope of this study.
  • 3 This usual view is well documented by Bezalel Bar-Kochva, Judas Maccabaeus: The Jewish Struggle Against the Seleucids, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002, pp. 151-93.
Some preliminary remarks about Josephus’s handling of his sources are appropriate. Broadly speaking, he is never afraid of contradictions when he rewrites in the Antiquities, with additional details, what he had already described in the War. The Maccabean commemoration is omitted in the first account, as if Josephus knew only of the dedication of Herod’s temple in summer (see Ant. 15:423), while it appears in War as an ancient custom, reflecting Josephus’s revised understanding from additional sources. This kind of contradiction is not too serious, for it is just a by-product of the recollection of tradition without written evidence.

As for Josephus’s own views, a distinction should be made between his works. His War received an official approval by Titus in 79 (Life § 363). Josephus states that it was arguably the greatest of all wars (War 1:1). His narrative was in fact a piece of Flavian propaganda, which served the interests of the new dynasty. Indeed, successful Roman generals were nicknamed after the nations they subdued (Germanicus, Gallus, Africanus), but neither Vespasian nor Titus were ever called Iudaicus.

Although Judea was only a tiny portion of the Roman world, the Jews were a very significant minority scattered throughout the Empire, before, as well as after the 70 war, and their special identity could not and did not collapse. Vespasian built a “Temple of Peace” for the spoils of the war, but he never ventured to create a Jewish shrine in Rome even though the custom was to attract to Rome the gods of the nations it subdued.

The Antiquities, published in 93/94, was the outcome of a very different story. Josephus, who was proud of both his brilliant genealogy and his outstanding skills in Jewish matters, saw himself as a leader of his people and wanted to provide his Greek-speaking fellow Jews with a kind of handbook covering both history and law (see § I.3 below).

It is interesting to observe that the historian Tacitus, who wrote more than ten years after Josephus, shows no familiarity with the works of the Jewish historian. Before relating the Judean war, Tacitus wanted to give an account of the origins of the Jews. He searched the sources available to him, as he was wont to do, and found six explanations (Hist. 5.2-4), but only one of them has a remote similarity to the Biblical stories. About the Jews, Tacitus only knew what could be seen from the outside.

Eusebius of Caesarea (Hist. eccl. 3.9) claims that Josephus’s works were put into the public libraries and his statue was erected in a square of Rome. This may well have been the case for the War, but it is doubtful that the Antiquities was available in these libraries.

I – Josephus and 1 Maccabees
.. < . . paragraph omitted . . >
Before the crisis, Josephus gives details that appear only in 2 Maccabees, a very different story of the crisis, which ends with Judas’ victory over Nikanor, the Syrian general, that is, well before the emergence of the Hasmonean dynasty, as the comparison chart below shows:

Antiquities 12
2 Maccabees
237-47 rivalry between high priests,
sons of Simon the Righteous: Onias, Jesus-Jason and Onias-Menelaus
Antiochus IV: expelled from Egypt, plundered Jerusalem
3-5: rivalry and struggles between the high priests
Antiochus IV’s two campaigns in Egypt and his plundering Jerusalem;
his leaving behind hostile governors at Jerusalem and Gerizim

From 2 Macc 5:22-23 & 6:1-2, we learn that there had been in the ancient past two Israelite temples, Jerusalem and Gerizim. Josephus gives several details on Samaritan affairs (see table, § 257), though 1 Maccabees is mute about them, and ignores any pre-Hasmonean dynasty.

As for the crisis itself, we can focus on the beginning and end of their accounts, since the parallelism is less close and entails a difficult chronology ...

... the most significant lacuna in Josephus’s account is the Roman document extensively quoted at 1 Macc 15:15-24, dated -142, by which the consul Lucius recognized Simon as the high priest of the Jews. Seen from the perspective of Rome, this entailed the recognition of a nation much larger than the Judeans dwelling in Judea. Normally, Josephus is careful to quote as many Roman edicts involving Jewish affairs as possible, and we can be sure that he would not have omitted the one of most ancient provenance. Thus, we may justifiably conclude that for this passage his source was not 1 Maccabees ...

II – The Calendars and Hanukkah
.. < . . paragraph omitted . . >
For various datings, Josephus uses both the Macedonian and Hebrew month names. After Alexander, with the beginning of the Seleucid era in 312 BCE, that nomenclature was identified with the Aramaic one of the Babylonian luni-solar calendar, and Josephus uses it even for the Persian period. For instance, for the affair of the foreign wives, Ezra summons the culprits and they appear in “the 9th month, on the 20th day of the month” (1 Esd 9:5), which Josephus renders somewhat automatically “the 20th day of the 9th month, which is called Kislev by the Hebrews and Apellaios by the Macedonians.” This, however, is an anachronism ...

However, Josephus displays some inconsistencies ...

However, more than 20 years after the fall of Jerusalem, Josephus was optimistic about the expansion of Judaism everywhere in the Roman empire. In AgAp 2:168-188, he explains that the Greek philosophers are indebted to Moses, an apologetic view introduced by Aristobulus of Alexandria in the 2nd cent. BCE. Moreover, Josephus follows Philo’s statements that many Gentiles are attracted by Jewish customs, especially the Sabbath rest and the ways of learning, but neither encourage a full conversion of Gentiles, which would entail

Beyond minor commemorations of good tidings, there are two Jewish festivals that were instituted after Moses – the first was Purim in the middle of Adar, with the book of Esther as its foundation story. According to Ant. 11:295, “the Jews celebrate it”, and not “we celebrate it”, which suggests that Josephus keeps his distance from it, perhaps because the story mentions neither Judea nor the Promised Land. In any case, it is unknown to the Qumran documents, but the Mishna has a tractate about it, Megillah.

The second of the rabbinic festivals is the Dedication or “Lights”, about which Josephus affirms “we observe this festival” (Ant. 12:325), suggesting that it was important for him. For Josephus, political freedom matters: Judas Maccabee fought for it (Ant. 12:312) and in 67 Josephus himself did the same, but he was captured by the Romans.26 As for the connection to the festival with lights, the easiest hypothesis is to follow Josephus’ method of moving the date of Passover into the Roman system. More precisely, Kislev can easily become December, in order that Kislev 25th coincides with the winter solstice on Dec. 25th, after which the days grow longer. The sun does not, as it were, die, so that it is possible to celebrate sol invictus. For an unknown reason, the Julian reform did not put the consular New Year’s day upon the solstice, and as a consequence there was an 8-day period between it and Jan. 1st. In many cultures – not too close to the Equator – there are rites of fire or light to accompany the renewal of the sun’s heating and illumination.27 It seems, therefore, that there was such a non-Jewish rite in Rome, which was somehow Judaized, and Josephus knew it.
  • 26 He never connects Passover with political freedom: the first one in Egypt was the starting point of a difficult journey in the wilderness, and the Gilgal Passover was just a first step into Canaan (Ant. 5:21).
    27 See the broad synthesis of Julian Morgenstern, “The Chanukka Festival and the Calendar of Ancient Israel”, HUCA 20 (1947), pp.1-136; & 21 (1948), pp.365-496. ... /nodet.pdf

III – Conclusions – Questions
  1. When he wrote the Jewish War, Josephus knew of the Maccabean crisis, which was mainly on account of the rivalry between ranking Jews. His source was somewhat similar to Daniel’s descriptions, though he mentions neither the Hellenization problem nor any commemoration. However, he was aware of Herod’s dedication of his Temple, in summer (War 1:401).
  2. When he wrote the Antiquities, he had a Jewish post-Biblical documentation in Hebrew, which was broadly unknown to the Greek historians that he consulted to retrieve additional details. We can distinguish two main parts: first, scattered pieces about Alexander’s arrival, and after him about the Egyptian domination of Coele-Syria in the 3rd cent. BCE; second, from the 2nd cent. BCE until Pompey’s arrival (63), facts of Jewish history within the Syrian domination.
  3. That second part included the Maccabean crisis, with many disjointed episodes. Two new commemorations were reported. On Kislev 25th, Judas’ symbolic victory over the Hellenization of the Temple; and on Adar 13th, his major victory in a battle against the Syrian general Nicanor, who had posed a threat to the Temple.
  4. The book 1 Maccabees in Hebrew was constructed from that very part, but with major changes, including the addition of Biblical allusions (mainly 2:49-60 & 7:13-17) and Roman documentation (8:1-16 & 15:15-24). In addition, the Kislev 25th feast became the “Dedication of the Altar,” mentioned with another commemoration, the liberation of the Citadel (13:52, 2nd month, 23rd day).
  5. The book looks much more like a foundation story of the Hasmonean dynasty, since it ends when Simon, the second high priest, has a son John Hyrcanus who succeeds him. The summary of the latter’s deeds is similar to the final notices of the ancient kings of Israel and Judah in the books of Kings. Since the general outlook of the story is favorable to the Romans, it is difficult to date though likely when Roman domination over Judea became significant, that is, after Pompey’s arrival in 63 BCE. However, it could be, too, a kind of manifesto against Herod (40-4 BCE), who was careful to eliminate everything Hasmonean. In any case, Josephus did not know it as it now stands.
  6. As for Josephus’s guess about the feast of Lights, it is a product of the Julian calendar, in which the eight days of the festival run from the winter solstice (Dec. 25th) through the beginning of the consular year (Jan. 1st). The days have stopped getting shorter, and the light of the sun begins to extend every day, hence a kind of rite to accompany it, as we can find in various cultures.
  7. The Rabbinic tradition was not very fond of the Hasmoneans, and it went as far as performing a damnatio memoriae: the names of Mattathias and his sons never appear, and a Hebrew version of 1 Maccabees was given a very scornful subtitle. The reason may have been that Judas’s fighting to recover Jerusalem, and especially the holy war at Emmaus, with a kind of Messianic scent (1 Macc 4), could have been a model for Bar Kokhba’s Messianic endeavor, which failed and was utterly rejected by the Rabbis. But the Hanukkah days were a significant eight-day fact of the calendar, as Josephus witnessed, and it was necessary to say something of God’s providence without involving any military prowess.
In all these observations, the intricacies of the Maccabean crisis were not dealt with, nor were the problem of Hellenization. But about the 8-day Dedication, a short comparison with the parallel account of 2 Maccabees is appropriate. According to 2 Macc 10:1-7, Judas Maccabee and his followers, having purified the Temple, “celebrated the purification of the sanctuary in the manner of the feast of Booths, remembering how not long before, during the feast of Booths, they have been wandering in the mountains; therefore, bearing ivy-wreathed wands and beautiful branches, etc.”

This celebration entails two problems. First, the rationale for a rehearsal of the feast of Booths, which by itself has nothing to do with the purification of the sanctuary, is not apparent, even more so that it is described as a joyful procession without booths. Second, according to 2 Macc 8:30-33, Judas and his followers had already come to Jerusalem after some victories over the Greeks; and after dividing the spoils, they had held a feast. The two Jerusalem celebrations are separated by the story of Antiochus IV’s death (2 Macc 9). We may add that, according to the documents quoted at 2 Macc 11:27 & 38, the Syrian persecution had already ceased in Nisan of that year (164 BCE), some eight months before Kislev 25th.

Now, it can be shown that this would-be feast of Booths is a literary fiction. At 2 Macc 1:1-9, there is prefixed a letter dated 124 BCE, quoting a previous letter dated 143, by which the Judeans urged the Jews in Egypt “to keep the days of the feast of Booths (τὰς ἡμέρας τῆς σκηνοπηγίας) in the month of Kislev”. In the LXX, σκηνοπηγία “tent-pitching” is the normal rendering of “feast of Booths” (סוכות ,(but here it is misleading. The point at issue in the letter is that, some 40 years after the Maccabean crisis, the Egyptian Jews did not recognize the new Hasmonean dynasty, which indeed had nothing to do with the traditional Oniads. That Kislev feast should obviously be the Dedication, viewed as the starting point of the legitimate dynasty as ruling the legitimate Temple.

But outside the LXX, σκηνοπηγία can mean “shrine-pitching”, too, or even “temple-building”, depending on circumstances. In the present context, the meaning is a plain “temple-restoring”, and we are home. The story of the “purification of the sanctuary” at 2 Macc 10:1-7 is just a literary device, prompted by the prefixed letter, to give the whole book a pro-Hasmonean color. However, this is artificial, because the content of the book is mainly a foundation story of the “day of Nicanor” (Adar 13th).

The conclusion of the book offers simply: “from that time the city has been in the possession of the Hebrews” (2 Macc 15:37). This inflates the parallel of 1 Macc 7:50: “And the land of Judah had rest for some time.” Moreover, Alkimus had been appointed high priest one year before Nicanor’s death, in 161 BCE (1 Macc 7:21), so that the conclusion of 2 Maccabees is actually a remarkable statement. There is no authority in Jerusalem, Jewish or other, and a kind of free access to the Temple is suggested.36 In other words, a gate is open for pilgrims. We may wonder what circumstances this could have possibly reflected, since according to 1 Macc 13:52, the reconquest of the city by the high priest Simon was performed much later, in 142 BCE. ... /nodet.pdf

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