Antiochus IV Epiphanes and the Beginning of the Rebellion


The conflict between the Hellenists and the Hasidim came to a climax during the reign of Antiochus IV Epiphanes (175-163 B.C.), leading to the Maccabean revolt. Antiochus IV had been in Rome as a hostage because of his father’s military defeats. Before his death Seleucus Philopater had sent his son to Rome in exchange for his brother Antiochus IV. This twelve years spent in Rome influenced the young Antiochus greatly.

After leaving Rome Antiochus went to Athens where he served as chief magistrate until Seleucus IV Philopater was murdered by Heliodorus. Heliodorus ruled as regent for Demetrius, the second son of Seleucus IV. When Antiochus IV heard of his brother’s death and that Heliodorus had seized the throne, he arranged financial support King Eumenes II of Pergamum. When he arrived in Syria, Antiochus began to flatter and bribe everyone involved in arbitrating the dispute over who should be king.

Although he was finally named king, Antiochus took over a troubled kingdom. The Seleucids were nearly out of money and continually harassed by Rome to the west and the Parthinians to the east. Antiochus dealt with the first problem by robbing temples and shrines throughout the kingdom, including Jerusalem. In order to develop some stability in the kingdom, he encouraged Hellenism throughout the kingdom, usually by adding Zeus to the local pantheon.

Antiochus angered the Jews by appointing high-priests who had bribed him for the office. He appointed Jason as high-priest in 175 in exchange for a bribe (which was larger than the bribe offered by Onias III, the high-priest appointed by Antiochus’ predecessor.) Three years later, Jason was replaced by Menelaus, an enemy of Onias III, who happened to offer an even larger bribe to Antiochus.  Both Jason and Menelaus were extremely lax with respect to Jewish law; Jason even petitioned Antiochus to re-found Jerusalem as a Greek city-state with the name Antioch and built a gymnasium at the foot of the temple mount.

Jason attacked Menelaus in Jerusalem, forcing Antiochus to put down the rebellion with a show of force. Antiochus responded to this Jewish in-fighting by outlawing distinctive Jewish religious practices and began a program of persecution of the Jews with the intent of insulting and offending the Jews in every way possible. This included sacrificing a pig to Zeus in the Temple, the “abomination that causes desolation” from Daniel 9.

Antiochus is often described as a “Hellenistic zealot” who sought to impose Hellenism on the “faithful” Jewish people. That is the impression one gets from reading 1 Maccabees, but the book is not necessarily “objective history.” There is really no evidence that indicates Antiochus was any more Hellenistic that any other Greek ruler, nor was his method of suppressing the Jewish nationalistic feelings particularly extreme by the standards of the day.

While these outrageous actions of Antiochus were the direct causes of the Maccabean revolt in 164 B.C.E., the tension between completely Hellenized Jews (Menelaus and Jason) and somewhat Hellenized Jews (Onias III, and the later Hasmoneans) was present in the period prior to Antiochus’ offensive actions.

There will be a range of responses from the Jews to the highly offensive policies of Antiochus and his political descendants, from the armed rebellion of the Maccabeans to passive martyrdom of the seven brothers in 4 Maccabees. Some groups withdrew from society to study their sacred Scripture (the Essenes, some Pharisees), others developed elaborate apocalyptic hopes for God’s immediate intervention. Others give up any resistance to the empire and ally themselves with the emperor who commits abominations.

What is remarkable is these are still the kinds of options available to modern Christians in a post-Christian America. What are the dangers of joining the empire, what are the risks of speaking out against the “abominations”? How can the various responses to Antiochus be a guide (or a warning) to Christian responses to present anti-Christian governments?