21 December 2009

Ancient Politics; Modern Celebration

I’ve fallen behind in this “Month of Christmas” project, so I’m talking about events I missed during this holiday season now; please bear with me. Or not. I’ve got my own troubles to deal with.

Hanukkah began at sundown on 11 December this year; as the date is determined according to the Jewish lunisolar calendar, it moves about on any purely solar calendar, such as the civil calendar derived from the Romans that we use here in the good old USA. What it amounts to is that Hanukkah can occur anywhere from early in the Yule season to right around Christmas itself. It’s tied to the phases of the moon, see, much like Easter and some of the other annoyingly shifty celebrations in our current repertoire.

I’m pretty sure everybody is familiar with the candle-lighting and dreidel-spinning business that constitute the praxis of the holiday, and I could comment on how the festival seems to be taking on more and more the color of the Yuletide season, with gift-giving and even decorated Hanukkah bushes being the order of the day. Well, in the United States, at least. I don’t know what’s going on in the rest of the world, really; hell, I’m barely qualified to comment on what’s going on here, crouching in my makeshifty office in the basement of the house I once had to myself. I used to know people who, you know, celebrated Hanukkah, but not any more.

No, what interests me is the history of the thing, particularly as reflected in the three books of the Christian canon, Daniel, 1 Maccabees, and 2 Maccabees. Each of them comes from a somewhat different perspective; each of them has its strengths and its weaknesses, and none of them tell us what we’d really like to know about events. It’s okay; that’s what you expect from documents rattling down the corridors of time; a partial, incomplete, highly-biased description of events that presents an insoluble puzzle for a modern historian—with just enough information to allow him to trick himself into thinking he’s got it down.

The documents come from the last period in which there was an independent Jewish state in antiquity, loosely speaking. Not until modern times would such a state emerge again. As with most things in antiquity it’s difficult to write any short summary of matters that does the slightest justice to the complex and downright messy reality, so the following paragraphs should be taken with a large allowance of salt.

The ancient kingdom of Israel is a slippery entity to get a grip on. In its earliest stages is very existence is in doubt, and it’s very hard to see exactly what sort of thing we have under our historical microscopes. The first of its incarnations, the legendary kingdom of David and Solomon, has left us virtually nothing to go on but legends and reconstructed documents best explained as creations of that kingdom. This entity, whatever its exact nature, seems to have been short-lived; by the tenth century BCE it had split into two states, Israel and Judah, with the latter ruled by descendents of David.

Both states came to ends after a few centuries, Israel in 721 BCE (or 9208 HE) and Judah in 586 BCE (9415 HE). The former was destroyed by the Assyrians and the latter by the Chaldeans (or neo-Babylonians). A remnant (the Samaritans) claiming descent from Israel persisted (and persists to this day, though now under a thousand people), and a more substantial group (the Jews) claiming descent from Judah likewise continued.

Now the critical thing in all this for our purposes is that Solomon supposedly had a temple to Yahweh constructed to Jerusalem on his watch. This temple remained a center for the worship of Yahweh (at least for the state of Judah) for centuries to come. (Israel had its own shrines, and the Judean writers who are responsible for much of material incorporated into the Biblical corpus wrote eloquently and bitterly about them.) When the Chaldeans destroyed Judah they also demolished the temple—which, however, as things turned out was not the end of that particular story.

The Chaldeans deported the ruling classes from Judah, but they didn’t disappear. Instead they formed an enclave in Babylon, where they wrote various psalms and the P narrative of the Pentateuch. Some of its members were eventually allowed to return to Jerusalem under Persian rule, and they had the temple rebuilt, rededicating it in 515 BCE (9486 HE). Not that much is known about the history of the Judean province under Persian rule, though quite a bit of Hebrew writing is more or less plausibly assigned to that period.

This era ended about 332 BCE (9669 HE) with the Macedonian conquests under Alexander the Great; the consequent breakup of his empire ultimately left Judea in Seleucid hands. Again we have little narrative history for the period, though the translation of the Pentateuch into Greek can plausibly be assigned to it.

It’s during this time that the events immediately relevant to our narrative occurred. This was during the reign of Antiochus IV Epiphanes (9826-9837 HE [175-164 BCE]). Throughout the history of the ancient world international forces (trade, imperialism) warred with parochial interests; in this period Greek influence was paramount in the process called Hellenization in the textbooks. In Judea traditionalists and Hellenists duked it out with the High Priesthood as the ultimate prize; each party tried to get its own candidate in, with bribery and assassination among the political arsenal employed. As the High Priest was appointed by the emperor, Antiochus was inevitably involved. Seeing the traditionalists as troublemakers, Antiochus ultimately decided that the correct solution was the elimination of the religion they practiced, and the replacement of their cult by one that was more accommodating. Had this plan worked out it is quite likely that history as we know it would have been very different.

It didn’t. The actual result was an uprising that led to a short period of independence for Judea under a dynasty known as the Hasmoneans. One of the products of this struggle is the biblical book of Daniel, a curious production designed to look superficially like a traditional religious tome, but actually something quite different. Written in Aramaic, the language in use since the Persian conquest, the beginning and end were translated into bad Hebrew, presumably so that the casual observer would see a classic religious text no matter whether the scroll was rolled tails out or tails in. The author’s take on history was disguised as prophecy to carry on the pretext of antiquity, but his original readers can have had no doubt what they were reading. The disguise is superficial; the bulk of the book is in Aramaic and the figures mentioned are clearly identified, even if not by name. Empires were identified as beasts by their astrological signs; this is similar to modern political cartoons depicting the United States as an eagle or Russia as a bear.

Whoever exactly was responsible for this book, he was not a Hasmonean supporter. In fact, nothing obviously emanating from the winning faction in the struggles made it into the Hebrew scriptures that have come down to us. This canon seems to have been framed to exclude the Judean leaders of the era. This is in striking contrast to the larger collection found in Greek Christian bibles; the books of 1 Maccabees and 2 Maccabees tell of their struggles and triumphs at length. Presumably some sort of ancient factionalism is involved; the details hardly matter at this distance.

Now had Antiochus succeeded in stamping out the traditionalist party it is unlikely that Yahweh-worship would have survived as an expression of piety distinct from the general religion of the ancient world. Picture a Judaism absorbed in polytheism; we’d have (presumably) no Bible, no Jesus, no Christianity—or at the very least, we’d have different writings and a different savior. The concepts were out there, after all, but the particular historical crystallization would have been different. No doubt that’s true of many ancient events that don’t resonate as loudly down time’s hallways. Still, this one we know about, and something of it is still celebrated.

Hanukkah supposedly celebrates the rededication of the temple, after it was retaken from the Hellenizing party and returned to the form of worship the traditionalists thought was important. At this distance it’s hard to care that much over which outfit controlled a long-destroyed piece of physical and social real estate. But the consequences live on. And while that may not be the traditional meaning of Hanukkah, that’s the part that interests me.

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