The Jewish GrecoRoman Conflict

In their long history, the Jews were alternately ruled by the Assyrian, Babylonian, Persian, Greek, Seleucid, Ptolemaic, and Roman empires; they were internally diverse, fractious, and imperturbably defiant. Beginning in 40 B.C.E., Roman rulers appointed the dynasty of the Herods—Herod the Great, Antipas, Agrippa I, and Agrippa II—as client kings in Palestine. These titular Jewish rulers were forced to straddle the multicultural demands of wide territories plagued by centuries-old conflicts between the Jewish people and their rulers regarding accommodation, collaboration, and resistance. In the second century B.C.E., these conflicts had reached a climax that resulted in the establishment of an earlier dynasty of Jewish rulers—the Hasmoneans. These priest-kings had united a powerful group of "traditionalists" who were opposed to Hellenization. It would be an oversimplification, however, to view the "traditionalists" as a homogeneous group since there was a wide range of levels of cooperation—from complete Hellenization to complete resistance—that characterized them. In fact, it was the Hasmoneans' ability to mediate between a political and social Hellenization and a native religious traditionalism that won them a following.

The Hasmonean line of high priests and ethnarchs established their rule in Judea and the larger area of Palestine after the revolutionary Judas Maccabeus, which means "the Hammer," led a revolt in 166 B.C.E. against the Seleucid ruler Antiochus IV Epiphanes (175-164 B.C.E.). Antiochus had attempted to forcibly Hellenize the Jewish state. He banned Temple rites, circumcision, the sanctity of the Sabbath, and the possession of the Torah and Jewish scriptures; everything that identified the religious, ethnic, or political separation of the Jews was restricted. The biblical account of the Maccabean revolt states that in some places mothers were thrown from the city wall with their circumcised babies tied around their necks. To the Jews, Antiochus' final abomination was during the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem to Zeus Olympios, the Syrian god Baal Shamem: at the ceremony, he sacrificed swine on the altar and spattered blood and grease on the walls. After three years of guerilla warfare, Judas Maccabee forced Antiochus IV Epiphanes to restore to the Jews their right to worship in the Temple in Jerusalem (now rededicated to the God of Israel) and to enforce their food laws as previously. Just before his death in 161 B.C.E., Judas also secured an amicitia, "treaty of alliance," with Rome, and this alliance was renewed by his successors.

Judas Maccabee's brothers and their sons continued to rule Judea until 63 B.C.E. The high point of Maccabean power was under John Hyrcanus (135-104 B.C.E.), who established a Jewish state loyal to the Temple in Jerusalem and annexed wide territories, including Samaria and Galilee to the north and, to the south, Idumea, the territory of Herod. Semitic descendants of the biblical Edomites, the Idumeans were hereditary enemies of the Jews. In 109 B.C.E., when their territory was annexed, they were forced against their will to convert to Judaism and to accept circumcision; however, they soon zealously embraced their new faith and considered themselves Jews. When the Romans placed the Idumean Herod on the throne of Judea in 40 B.C.E., it was this conversion that allowed him to justify his role as the religious and civil head of state, yet his Judaism was always a matter of controversy among the Jews of more ancient Jewish ancestry. Herod was Idumean by ethnicity and a Jew because of the conquest of Idumea by Hyrcanus; culturally, however, he was a Hellenist.

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