Antiochus IV Epiphanes (215-163 BC), ruler of the Hellenistic Seleucid Empire, was known as an eccentric king. He spent his childhood as a hostage in Rome and ascended to the throne only due to the surprising death of his father and murder of his brother.
When he inherited the kingdom it was already in decline. However, this does not explain the moves that made him infamous to this day - the brutal edicts he issued against the Jews in 167 B.C., forbidding them to practice their religion.
"The reason for Antiochus' oppression of the Jewish faith, attack on the Temple and prohibition of the Torah precepts is not explained by the existing historic sources," says Dr. Steven Weitzman, a lecturer of Judaism in the University of Indiana and the author of Surviving Sacrilege: Cultural Persistence in Jewish Antiquity.
Weitzman analyzes the description of the edicts in the Hanukkah tale, and concludes that the story was concocted by the Hasmonean kings as propaganda intended to legitimize their precarious rule. The Hasmoneans used literary tales dating back to ancient Eastern kingdoms as the basis for their story of Antiochus, he says.
Historians of ancient times agree that religious persecution was not customary among Hellenistic monarchs. Therefore the acts attributed to Antiochus, which every Jewish child learns about in the Hanukkah story, are historical anomalies. "His behavior is completely inexplicable," argues Weitzman.
He says all the Hellenistic rulers before Antiochus were tolerant toward Jewish religion and ritual. "When Antiochus IV's father first conquered Palestine, he displayed much respect toward the Temple and used his authority to protect the Jews' traditions," says Weitzman. "Most of the sources relating these events were written a very long time after they took place. They do not provide sufficient information and are occasionally contradictory."
In the past few decades many attempts have been made to explain Antiochus' unusual demeanor. Some Historians claimed that he simply went mad, while others believed he plundered the Temple to solve his economic problems.
In a recent essay in the Journal of Biblical Literature Weitzman says these explanations are based an unfounded speculations. He suggests checking what purpose the story about Antiochus' edicts was meant to achieve, and how it served the interests of those who wrote it - the supporters of the Hasmonean kings.
"The Maccabees have been considered heroes for so long, that it is hard to imagine that in their time, their rule was extremely controversial. They and their descendants, the Hasmonean dynasty, presented themselves as high priests, but did not belong to a family that held that position for a long time. Neither did they belong to the House of David dynasty, which was supposed to produce kings. Therefore many Jews did not recognize the Hasmoneans as legitimate rulers."
"The story of Antiochus' edicts is part of the effort to justify the Maccabee's rule. This is why they described themselves as protectors of the Jewish tradition, a tactic which many rulers and conquerors in the ancient East used to justify usurping power," he says.
Weitzman's position is far from acceptable to many researchers of the Second Temple era. Professor Joshua Efron, a senior historian of the Hasmonean period, believes the Maccabean revolt and ensuing rule were accepted by the majority of the nation.
"The Maccabees were undoubtedly widely supported," says Efron. "Otherwise they would not have been able to conduct guerilla wars as they did. A minority cannot rebel and wage such war without popular support."
Efron has no difficulty explaining Antiochus' edicts. "Indeed, this was not customary Hellenistic kings' behavior, but some believe the initiative to issue the edicts did not come from Antiochus but from the Hellenist Jews, who wished to amend the Jewish religion," he says.
Weitzman asserts that Hanukkah, too, was initially formed to create an affiliation between the Maccabees and saving the Temple. He also brings examples of Mesopotamian stories, which reveal suspicious similarity to the Antiochus story. The Maccabees used existing literature from the ancient East to describe Antiochus' crimes against Judaism, after which they rose to power.
Weitzman cites the story of King Nabu-Suma-Iskun, who ruled Babylon in the eighth century B.C. He is described as a ruler who desecrated temples, disrupted rituals and deliberately violated religious precepts.
"The story of Nabu-Suma-Iskun intrigued me because it includes a description of desecration that reminded me of the Antiochus story," he says.
"This is an example of literary conventions of the ancient East that influenced the story of Antiochus' religious persecution of the Jews. I believe the Maccabees adopted this plot to strengthen the legitimacy of their rule," he says.
Weitzman is aware that his statements may anger Jews who see the Maccabees as righteous rulers and models of heroic resistance to oppression. "My thesis indicates that the Maccabees may have been very different from their present image," he says.
However, there is also a positive aspect to Weitzman's study, he says. "I say that the description of Antiochus' persecution, more than the story of Jewish survival, reflects Jewish imagination and its role in bringing about political change. Hanukkah is a reminder that the stories we tell can create a real change in our life," he says.