Antiochus the Madman

An in depth view of the king in the story of Hanukkah.


Reprinted with permission from Celebrating the Jewish Year: The Winter Holidays, published by Jewish Publication Society.

In 175 BCE, amid this social-political unrest, a new ruler, Antiochus IV, ascended to the throne of Greco-Syria. As did many rulers, he appended the title Epiphanes (“God Manifest”) to his name; but many people referred to him instead as Antiochus Epimames (“The Madman”).
Immediately upon assuming power, he decided to pursue the conquest of Egypt, which no other Seleucid king had been able to accomplish. The Romans were advancing eastward and expanding their empire. If Antiochus could conquer and annex Egypt, his kingdom’s size and power would be greatly increased and the Romans might be resisted.

But before doing so, he would have to stabilize his own country and consolidate political support by uniting the disparate cultural, social, and religious elements. Under Alexander the Great, hellenization had been a movement that still allowed room for cultural variation; under Antiochus, hellenization was intended to take a big step further and become the agent of cultural totalitarianism.

Antiochus’ Relationship with Jews

The Jews were clearly targets of Antiochus’s strategy of hellenization. He understood that to ultimately succeed in Egypt, he would need to disrupt the influence of the Jews within his own territories. He decided to tackle the priesthood in Jerusalem by replacing Onias the Third, the latest Kohen Gadol, with Onias’s brother Joshua, who was loyal to the Greeks. Joshua became High Priest and immediately changed his name to Jason.

To a certain extent, Antiochus’s plan worked. Jason submitted to the king’s will and helped implement the new totalitarian doctrine. Jerusalem became a little version of Antioch, replete with a gymnasium where the Jewish Kohanim often played Greek sports in the nude. Meanwhile, King Antiochus had access to the Temple treasury to help fund his military campaign to conquer Egypt.

All these activities fueled the restless anger of the pious Jewish peasants, who became even more enraged when Antiochus allowed Menelaus, a Tobiad, to purchase the position of Kohen Gadol. They were incensed that this sacred position, for which Menelaus had outbid Jason, was for sale at all. But to make matters worse, Tobiads were not even descendants of Aaron, who was the brother of Moses and the traditional ancestor of all Kohanim.

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Paul Steinberg is a rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, California and is the Head of the Etz Chaim Hebrew School. He previously served as the Rabbi and Director of Jewish Studies and Hebrew at Levine Academy: A Solomon Schechter School in Dallas, Texas.

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