2012-12-21

The Empire Strikes Back...with Plato and Euclid.

Hanukkah, the eight-day festival of lights, began at sundown on December 8 this year and ended at sundown last Sunday, December 16. In the Jewish tradition, Hanukkah is a relatively minor holiday, but it does fall in December, usually, so it has become a sort of Jewish Christmas, even though it would not otherwise be a terribly significant celebration.

Yet the story has power to touch us. It’s a story that comes out of the Maccabean Revolt in the 160s before the Common Era. The First and Second Book of Maccabees painted the Maccabean Revolt as a nationalist uprising of the Jews against the political and cultural oppression of Emperor Antiochus IV of the Seleucid Empire. To some extent, it was. But historians now understand that the root of the conflict was a civil war between orthodox, traditionalist Jews and secularizing, assimilating, Greek-influenced Jews. Antiochus got involved in an attempt to quell the civil disturbance. He took the side of the Hellenizer Jews – and unfortunately escalated the conflict.

We can see ourselves in both the traditionalists fighting against assimilation and in the more educated and secular Jews advocating openness to new ideas. They both represented good. Moreover, the basic conflict between people seeking to retain a way of life and the values of learning and adapting continues to play out today.

To understand the Hanukkah story, we will need some background. Alexander the Great's Greek-Macedonian forces conquered Israel in 333 BCE. Ten years later, in 323 BCE, Alexander the Great died. On his death bed, Alexander carved up his empire and bequeathed various parts of it to his generals.

Within another twenty years, the general that got Judea had lost it to Egypt. Another of Alexander’s generals, Seleucus, was more successful. Seleucus expanded on the holdings Alexander left to him, and established his own empire. The Seleucid Empire lasted 250 years, and, at its height, encompassed an area that included:
  • about half of what is now Turkey,
  • all of Syria,
  • all of Lebanon,
  • most of Israel,
  • a sliver of Jordan,
  • most of Iraq,
  • all of Azerbajian,
  • all of Iran,
  • about half of Turkmenistan,
  • half of Uzbekistan,
  • small chunks of Kazakhstan, Kyrgystan, and Tajikistan,
  • almost the entirety of Afghanistan, and
  • about half of Pakistan.
Big empire!

The ruling class of the Seleucid Empire were basically Greek-Macedonian, like Alexander. In 198 BCE, the Seleucids took control of Judea, ending a century of Egyptian control, and returning the region to Hellenic (i.e., Greek-based culture) rule.

The conquest by Alexander, followed up by the Hellenic re-conquest by the Seleucid Empire, introduced challenges and enticements to the Hebrew people: Greek sports, Greek art and architecture, Greek philosophy. The Hebrew people had been beat up on for centuries by Assyrians, by Babylonians, by Egyptians, but these Greeks were something else. They had not only a powerful army, but had more sophisticated thought. The Greeks could subjugate you by force, and then examine your concepts with Plato and Aristotle, win your heart with the tragedies of Sophocles and the comedies of Aristophanes, and top it off by dazzling you with some Euclidean geometry. When I read the Apology of Socrates in high school, it won my heart – I went on to be a philosophy major in college. So I guess you could say I can relate. I'm a "Hellenizer" myself.

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This is part 1 of 4 of "Rededicating the Temple"
Next: Part 2: "Jew v. Jew; Bible v. Bible"