Classic EssaysRevilo P. Oliver

Reflections on the Christ Myth, part 3: Heroic Failure

Antiochus IV Epiphanes and the Seleucid Empire

by Revilo P. Oliver

IT IS THE great virtue of Mr. Carter’s book that he forces us to consider critically a Jewish and Christian generalization about the history of Judaea in the second century B.C He makes us aware that it is highly probable that, besides the Letzim mentioned above, who tried to salvage Judaism by forgery, hoaxes, and sciolistic distortions of evidence, there were educated and enlightened Jews who faced the problem candidly and saw that the only solution was to abandon Jewish claims to immeasurable racial superiority, to jettison the barbaric cult, and to adopt civilization wholeheartedly.

The detailed history of this period is a Gordian knot, depending principally on Josephus (Antiquitates) and the second book of Maccabees (which is found in some Christian Bibles); both were bitter enemies of the Hellenizing faction, but contradict each other and are also at variance with the few indications to be derived from trustworthy historical sources. (20) What is clear, however, is that, as a result of some one of the continual upheavals in Judaea, a Jew named Jesus, who had adopted a civilized name, Jason, became the high priest in Jerusalem, probably in 173 B.C. although possibly several years earlier. He represented Letzim who wanted to introduce Greek culture into Jerusalem, and he evidently cleared an area in the city and founded what seems to have been a kind of Greek-style gymnasium, serving both for athletics (which orthodox Jews abominated) and as a kind of open club in which educated men could meet for intelligent and often philosophical discussion (which the orthodox also abominated).

In 171 and for reasons which are not quite clear but may be related to family feuds, Jesus-Jason was succeeded by a man who may have been a relative and who changed his name to Menelaus. (21) He is the focus of Mr. Carter’s cogent revision of the Jewish and Christian story which had never been effectually challenged.

According to that story, Menelaus was a Jew so wicked that he became the instrument of the awful pagan king, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, who wanted to persecute God’s sweet little lambs and suppress worship of the One True God (beastly old Yahweh). That is patently absurd. Although it is true that the Seleucids, descendants of one of Alexander’s generals, were not only cultivated men themselves, but doubtless perceived the value of a dominant civilization in promoting some sort of unity among their multi-racial subjects, Antiochus, as a prudent ruler, was primarily interested in finding a way to end the perpetual turmoil in Judaea, where normal communications along the major trade routes were often made almost impossible because the sweet little lambs were perpetually rioting and killing one another, using religious pretexts to justify a perpetual succession of petty but destructive civil wars. And the attribution of wicked “pagan” purposes to Antiochus becomes absurd when the enemies of Menelaus charge that he was so corrupt that he bought the support of Antiochus with an enormous bribe. That sufficiently shows who took the initiative and vindicates Menelaus’s sincerity.

Mr. Carter’s work reminds us that we have no reason to doubt that Menelaus was a cultivated and highly intelligent Jew who saw that the only remedy for barbarism is civilization, and that the only way to civilize the Jews was to abolish their disgusting superstition. That attitude won him the sympathy of Antiochus and a measure of support that was soon greatly increased.

Antiochus was at war with Ptolemaic Egypt and invaded that country. In 168 a rumour reached Palestine that Antiochus had been defeated and killed. Menelaus was expelled by Jesus-Jason and his faction, who had been engaged in treasonable intrigues with the Egyptians, in preparation for an Egyptian occupation of Jerusalem.

What had really happened, however, was that Antiochus had won what should have been a decisive victory, but had been prevented from following it up by the intervention of an envoy from the Roman Senate, Popillius Laenas, who, in effect, made Egypt a Roman protectorate. (22)

As soon as the truth was known, Jason fled and Menelaus was restored to his priestly dignity. We should note, however, that both Hellenizers had large popular followings.

The net effect of this was to make Antiochus, who had been humiliated by the Romans and prevented from ending the menace to his kingdom from Egypt, willing to use his army to support Menelaus, who, officially the high priest of the Jews, proceeded to abolish all the innumerable and vulgar regulations of “the Law, ” the superstition about the Sabbath, and, above all, the savage sexual mutilation by which the Jews differentiated themselves physically from civilized mankind. Menelaus was undoubtedly supported by a sizeable minority of educated Jews, many or most of whom engaged surgeons to uncircumcize them.

He is a man whom we should honor and whose failure we must regret.

It is hard to say in what proportion piety and political ambition dominated the wealthy Jewish clan who were descended from a man whose name, passing through Greek, was Hasmonaeus (Asamonaeus in some sources). A member of this clan murdered a priest who was about to perform a sacrifice in accordance with the new rule, and fled to the wilderness, where he organized gangs of bandits who flourished by raiding towns, slaying educated Jews, and grabbing their property.

They won the support of the lower classes, already jealous of their betters, and, as you know, it is almost impossible to suppress such banditry without helicopters.

Antiochus’ governor, Lysias, underestimated the difficulty and made ineffectual attempts to suppress them, which the Jewish writers have naturally magnified into great victories for Yahweh’s people. These Hasmonaeans, now more commonly known as Maccabees from the epithet given them, derived from an Aramaic word meaning ‘hammer, mace,’ were for a considerable time merely outlaws and pests.

There can be no doubt but that Antiochus was now prepared to give Menelaus full support, and there is no doubt but that no amount of barbarous fanaticism could have prevailed against an army that was still organized with Macedonian tactics and discipline. The Jewish problem would have been solved forever if Antiochus had not been distracted by the need to protect his eastern borders against the Parthians, and not even then, if he had not died, evidently from poison or a contagious fever, at Gabae, in or near what is now Afghanistan.

Lysias, Antiochus’s governor of Syria, was evidently a mediocre man. When he failed to suppress the bandits, he had the foolish idea that he could end his troubles by forcing on Menelaus a compromise. The bandits were given amnesty; the Hasmonaeans were admitted to the city; the traditional rites of Yahweh were largely restored with only an addition to content the Hellenizers; and, of course, the situation became more intolerable than ever, since the Hasmonaeans used their new position for aggression on the civilized minority everywhere.

When Lysias finally saw the consequences of his folly, he took the requisite action. He mobilized his army, occupied Jerusalem and other cities, and restored order. (23) He would probably have solved the Jewish problem permanently, if the barbarian rabble had not again been saved by a perverse fate. Antiochus’s heir was a boy of ten (24) who had been left in the care of Lysias, but Antiochus, shortly before his death, discontented with Lysias’s blundering, named one of his friends, Philip, the regent for the boy and governor of Syria. The news of Philip’s advent reached Lysias in Jerusalem and, in a panic, he negotiated another shameful compromise with the Hasmonaeans and their rabble, sacrificing even Menelaus to their hatred, and hastened home in a vain attempt to retain his governorship and take the regency for himself.

Thus ended one of the great tragedies of history with a catastrophe from which we still suffer today. (25)

We need not linger over the intricate history of what followed. The Hasmonaeans ruled Judaea, profited from the weakening of the Seleucid Empire to make their country independent, and occupied themselves with wars of aggression against their neighbours to increase the territory under their rule. (26) It is noteworthy that they soon assumed Greek names, from Hyrcanus and Aristobulus to the last of the line, Antiochus. (27)

The surviving Hellenizers either escaped from Judaea or became Sadducees, who observed the Jews’ “Law,” at least outwardly, but intelligently refused to believe in immortal spooks or the other superstitions dear to the Pharisees, who eventually attained complete dominion over the Jews.

We have now sketched, as summarily as I could, the antecedents requisite for an understanding of our problem.


20. I limit myself here to the bare essentials, wasting no time on problematic details. If you have nothing to do for the next few years, I suggest that you collect all available information about the history of the Seleucid Empire in the second century B.C. and then sit down to winnow the stories in Josephus and Maccabees in hope of extracting a fairly plausible resolution of all the conflicts in untrustworthy narratives — if you think that worth having.

21. Josephus says that he was Onias, the brother of Onias. Such duplication of personal names within a family seems unlikely and suggests confusion in either Josephus’s mind or the extant text. The man’s Jewish name may have been Matthew.

22. It would be vain to speculate to what extent the Senate had been covertly influenced by the large colony of Jews who had planted themselves in Rome, many of whom had become very wealthy. When Cn. Cornelius Scipio Hispallus was the Praetor Peregrinus in 179, he tried to run all the offensive aliens out of town, but was, of course, powerless against Jews who had taken the precaution of buying themselves Roman citizenship by having a fellow Jew who was a slave dealer “sell” them to some venal and well-paid Roman, who then emancipated them, making them legally members of his own polluted family. The other Jews, we may be sure, crawled back into Rome as soon as Hispallus’s term of office was ended.

23. The Jews never miss an opportunity for Holohoaxing, so they produced lurid accounts of the thousands and thousands of Yahweh’s darlings who were martyrs to the True Faith and slain by the awful “pagans.” See especially the later part of Book IV of Maccabees. Book III, incidentally, is a gospel about a wicked Egyptian king who wanted to oppress God’s Own and mobilized his army for that purpose, but Yahweh sent a couple of angels who made the war elephants trample the soldiers to death. The author of the gospel does not explain why Yahweh never despatches a bevy of angels to protect his darlings in historical situations. For True Believers, that is still a problem; see Dr. Charles E. Weber’s review of Why Did the Heavens Not Darken? in Liberty Bell, March 1989, pp. 36-41.

24. The minority of Antiochus V also gave an opportunity to his uncle, Demetrius, to claim the throne with Roman support, thus initiating a series of civil wars that fatally weakened the Seleucid Empire and led to its downfall.

25. The world had another chance during the short reign (138-129) of Antiochus VII (son of Demetrius), but the Jews’ were saved, first, by the naïf young king’s refusal to heed the advice of his wise councillors and his older wife (Cleopatra Thea, who, in her previous marriages, had acquired political experience), and then by a Parthian invasion of his diminished realm.

26. Cf. Christianity Today (reprinted from Liberty Bell, November 1987), pp. 3-7.

27. Incidentally, the author of Book II of Maccabees was another Jesus who had changed his name to Jason!

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