Early in his reign, Antiochus IV Epiphanes was involved in a dispute over the high priesthood in Jerusalem. Onias III was the legitimate High Priest. His pro-Hellenism brother Jason traveled to the newly established Antiochus and bribed the king to be appointed as High Priest (1 Mac 1:13-15, 2 Mac 4:7-15). In order to please Antiochus, Jason pledge to build a gymnasium near the temple and encourage the Jews to become more “Greek.” The gymnasium was popular, even among some of the priests who left their duties to play in the games, which were dedicated to Hermes.
As offensive as these things were to the orthodox Jews, for some the Hellenization did not go far enough. For this reason, Menelaus (with the support of the Tobiad party) went to Antiochus and offered the king a larger bribe (300 more talents than Jason) for the office. Antiochus immediately declared Menelaus High Priest and sent Syrian troops with him in order to oust Jason from Jerusalem. Menelaus was not even of a priestly family and was only interested in the priesthood for political power and wealth. “Apparently, religion was to Antiochus nothing but a tool, a convenient means to an end” (Seow, Daniel, 183).
Menelaus had some serious problems as well. Since most of the Jews did not support him as high priest, he had trouble raising the money to pay Antiochus his bribe. As a result he was forced to sell temple items to pay bribes to the king’s agent Andronicus.
Onias III protested: Menelaus was not the real high priest and had no authority to sell anything from the temple, let alone to pay bribes to a Gentile king! Andronicus was not impressed with his protest and had the true high priest killed (2 Mac 4:33-38, many would include Dan 9:26-27 here as well; For those who assume a second century date for Daniel, this is the “cutting off of the anointed one” in Daniel 9).
2 Maccabees 4:33-35 When Onias became fully aware of these acts, he publicly exposed them, having first withdrawn to a place of sanctuary at Daphne near Antioch. 34 Therefore Menelaus, taking Andronicus aside, urged him to kill Onias. Andronicus came to Onias, and resorting to treachery, offered him sworn pledges and gave him his right hand; he persuaded him, though still suspicious, to come out from the place of sanctuary; then, with no regard for justice, he immediately put him out of the way. 35 For this reason not only Jews, but many also of other nations, were grieved and displeased at the unjust murder of the man.
Menelaus’s robbing of the temple caused riots against his priesthood. Lysimachus, Menelaus brother, led troops against the rioters and killed 3000 people, but was himself killed in the battle. Menelaus was called into account by Antiochus, but managed to bribe his way out of trouble.
2 Maccabees 4:43-50 Charges were brought against Menelaus about this incident. 44 When the king came to Tyre, three men sent by the senate presented the case before him. 45 But Menelaus, already as good as beaten, promised a substantial bribe to Ptolemy son of Dorymenes to win over the king. 46 Therefore Ptolemy, taking the king aside into a colonnade as if for refreshment, induced the king to change his mind. 47 Menelaus, the cause of all the trouble, he acquitted of the charges against him, while he sentenced to death those unfortunate men, who would have been freed uncondemned if they had pleaded even before Scythians. 48 And so those who had spoken for the city and the villages and the holy vessels quickly suffered the unjust penalty. 49 Therefore even the Tyrians, showing their hatred of the crime, provided magnificently for their funeral. 50 But Menelaus, because of the greed of those in power, remained in office, growing in wickedness, having become the chief plotter against his compatriots.
The situation in Judea is one of political chaos as two men vie for the office of High Priest. Their motivation is not to lead Judea in worship, but to obtain wealth and power. Menelaus in particular is portrayed in 2 Maccabees as violent and greedy, willing to do whatever was necessary to maintain his power.