The Rise of Antiochus IV Epiphanes and His Assault Against Judea (page 1) (J. Paul Tanner)

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Author's Bias | Interpretation: conservative | Inclination: progressive dispensational | Seminary: Dallas Theological


This paper will focus on the Seleucid king known as Antiochus IV Epiphanes, who ruled over the Seleucid Empire from 175-164 BC. In addition to being well known for his atrocities against the Jews that led to the Maccabean revolt, he is also a key figure in the Book of Daniel where he is referred to in both chapter eight and chapter eleven. Furthermore, he serves as a type of the yet future Antichrist (who is also predicted in the Book of Daniel). Hence, a greater understanding about this king will be valuable for studies in the Book of Daniel.

During the rule of Antiochus IV, Judaea was under the rule of the Seleucids. The first section of this paper will trace the political developments following the conquest of Alexander the Great to explain how Antiochus IV came to have power over Judaea. Attention will then be given to the factor of Hellenization within Judaea, and how the High Priesthood became corrupted by this influence. This is somewhat necessary, since at the time of Antiochus' persecutions, the High Priest was in cooperation with him. The military campaigns of Antiochus IV against Egypt brought him in closer association with the territory of Judaea and eventually led to the persecutions. Hence, this will be examined in section III. Finally, focus will be put upon the atrocities that Antiochus carried out against the Jews. The question will also be addressed as to why he decided to enact religious persecutions against the Jews, rather than simply political measures.

I. Political Developments From Alexander To Antiochus IV

The meteoric rise of Alexander to world power was quickly diminished by his untimely death in 323 BC. The next twenty or more years became known as the period of the Diadochi, when the surviving generals of Alexander vied for shares of the colossal kingdom he had left behind. Antigonus had tried to extend his control beyond Asia Minor, and Seleucus (satrap of Babylon since 321) had to flee to Egypt for Ptolemy's help. Conflict continued until eventually four Macedonian generals declared themselves kings: Ptolemy claiming Egypt, Seleucus over Babylon, Cassander over Macedon, and Lysimachus over Thrace. Finally, on the battlefield of Ipsus in 301 they prevailed over Antigonus. "Lysimachus took the western part of Asia Minor; Ptolemy took Palestine; and Seleucus the remaining lands from Syria to Babylon." (1) In this arrangement, Ptolemy and Seleucus were the primary powers. Seleucus, however, gained the advantage:

Seleucus obtained the largest portion of Alexander's empire: all the countries of Asia from the frontiers of India to the Mediterranean littoral were under his rule. In 281 he defeated Lysimachus and annexed Asia Minor to his kingdom. Only Palestine and the islands of the Mediterranean remained subject to Ptolemy. (2)

The oriental lands under Seleucus were difficult to control because of the great diversity to them. India was lost very early, and the rise of Parthia about the middle of the 3rd century BC reduced the Seleucid empire to those lands west of the Euphrates. To the south, the Ptolemies managed to keep their empire intact, at least until about 221 BC. At that rime, Antiochus III attempted to invade Palestine and made a few minor gains. For a time, the Ptolemies prevailed although signs of weakening began to show:

In 219, Antiochus III of Syria attacked Egypt; Ptolemy IY Philopater went out to meet him at the head of his army of mercenaries; and in order to expand his forces he also recruited 20,000 men of the native population. Ptolemy defeated Antiochus at Raphia (217) and this victory, in which Egyptians also participated, served as the starting point for the reawakening of the Egyptian nationalist spirit. (3)

Despite the temporal victory, Egypt was weakening as evidenced by the internal uprisings which followed. After a brief lull, political developments in Egypt took a turn for the worse. Ptolemy IV Philopator died and Ptolemy V Epiphanes came to the throne. However, he was only five years of age, and thus power passed to his guardians. This did not prove successful, and internal turmoil among the Egyptians followed, particularly at Alexandria. In 201 BC Antiochus III exploited the opportunity and invaded Coele-Syria. This endeavor was successful, except for Gaza which maintained its alliance with the Ptolemies. (4) During the years 199-8 BC, Antiochus captured all the fortified cities of Coele-Syria, the Egyptians evacuated, and the territory was now firmly under the rule of the Seleucids.

During this power struggle, the country was often drawn in two opposite directions. (5) Tcherikover argues that Antiochus was backed by a pro-Seleucid faction in Jerusalem, and that even the High Priest Simon the Just stood at the head of this. (6) Certainly there was a breach in the Jewish community during the years 201-198 as Syrian Antioch replaced Egyptian Alexandria as the power center.

Complicating the political reorganization was the defeat of Antiochus III at Magnesia by the Romans, (7) a feat which left the Seleucid kingdom with recurring financial difficulties. (8) Gafni comments,

In 190 Antiochus suffered his greatest defeat near Magnesia and was forced into a degrading settlement by the victorious Romans. Sensing this, the eastern provinces of the Seleucid Empire revolted and Antiochus, determined to finance his recent setback at their expense, died while trying to sack one of the Temple treasuries of Elymais. (9)

The death of Antiochus III in 187 BC brought more confusion to the troubled Seleucid empire. Initially, his son Seleucus IV Philopater ruled from 187 to 175, but his assassination brought Antiochus IV to the throne (though he was not the legal heir of the throne). Waltke explains:

After the battle of Magnesia, Antiochus lived in Rome as a hostage in connection with the reparations Antiochus the Great had to pay. In 175 B.C. he was released by the intervention of his brother Seleucus IV Philopator, who substituted his own son Demetrius I as hostage. While Antiochus was at Athens, Seleucus IV was assassinated by his chief minister, Heliodorus. Antiochus IV, with the military sanction of the Pergamene monarch Eumenes II, expelled Heliodorus and usurped the throne to the exclusion of both Demetrius and the late king's younger son Antiochus, still a baby in Syria. (10)

Thus it was that Antiochus IV, a usurper to the throne, came to be king over the mighty Seleucid empire. His reign lasted from 175 until 164 BC. Regarding the early influences on Antiochus IV, Jagersma comments, "During his long stay in Rome and Athens (from 188-175 BC), Greek culture and religion in particular seem to have made a deep impression on him." (11) He was also innovative: "... he assumed the cult name theos epiphanes (the manifest god), and secondly he replaced the image of the traditional Seleucid Apollo with that of Zeus Olympius on the reverse of the Antiochene tetradrachm." (12)

The character of Antiochus IV has been dealt with by Greek historians as well as by Jewish. Polybius, in particular, devoted to him a detailed description (from which Livy and Diodorus derived their accounts). Tcherikover summarizes the report of Polybius:

He lacked political tact and did not understand how to behave as befitted a king. Sometimes he would leave his palace and wander through the streets of his capital with two or three of his courtiers, enter shops and the craftsmen's places of work and converse at length with these insignificant people. Once, during one of his habitual visits to the public baths he poured a jar full of perfumed ointment over the heads of the bathers and enjoyed the sight of the people rolling on the slippery floor, unable to rise or to keep their balance, himself among them. Once during a magnificent festival which he was holding at Antioch, he appeared on the stage before the audience as an actor, and began to dance with the other players.

... His behavior toward other people was full of contradictions and sudden surprises, for he was silent in the company of his best friends and talkative with strangers; to some he gave precious gifts such as silver and gold, and to others, without clear reason, worthless objects such as dates and dice. Irritable and nervous, full of profound inner contradictions, ever striving to do something extraordinary and to astound the world--this was the figure cut by King Antiochus in the eyes of his Greek contemporaries. Hence it is not to be wondered at that humorists mocked him and called him in jest Epimanes ("mad") instead of Epiphanes ("the god manifest"). (13)

II. The Corruption of the Priesthood in the Context of Hellenization

In order to adequately understand and appreciate the developments which led to the persecutions of Antiochus IV, one must understand the context in which they transpired. One key contextual theme is that of Hellenization. Alexander the Great may have reigned supreme for only a short time, but he left a powerful legacy with the spread of Greek culture and thinking upon the oriental lands, and Judaea was no exception to this. The Greek influence was felt upon Judaea, of course, long before Antiochus IV came to the throne. Nevertheless, he was a devoted patriot of the Hellenistic philosophy, and sought to spread it throughout his empire. Devotion to Hellenistic philosophy was often centered in the matter of Greek education and the "gymnasia" in which it was cultivated. Tcherikover comments:

The citizen educated his son in the municipal educational institutions─the gymnasion and the ephebeion, which were the very embodiment of the spirit of Hellenism. Here the young citizens received their Hellenic education, developed their strength and agility by physical exercise, and learned poetry and music; and if such an education was not imposed on the citizens as an absolute duty, no one deliberately avoided it.

... the gymnasia became the symbols of Hellenism as a whole... The gymnasiarch, the citizen upon whom had been imposed the conduct of the gymnasium and the satisfaction of its monetary requirements, was regarded by the citizens as one of the most honored men in the city. (14)

At first, the Hellenistic tendencies did not appear too threatening to Judaism, and many citizens saw value in the Greek education. Nevertheless, in time the attachments to Hellenization came to be a severe problem and led to great conflict between the Hellenizers and the conservative figures within Judaism.

In the first third of the second century B.C.E., a group of Hellenizing Jews came to power in Jerusalem. They were led by wealthy Jewish aristocrats such as Joseph son of Tobiah, and his son Hyrcanus, who were apparently attracted to the externals of Hellenism; their Hellenization was, at first, primarily social rather than cultural and religious. Jason the high priest carried his Hellenizing to the extent of establishing Greek educational institutions, the gymnasium and ephebeion, and of founding Jerusalem as a Greek city, Antioch-at-Jerusalem. But Jason was only a moderate Hellenizer compared with Menelaus, whose succession as high priest occasioned a civil war between factions, with the Tobiads supporting Menelaus and the masses of the people standing behind Jason. As the scholars Bickermann, Tcherikover, and Hengel have shown, it was the Hellenizers, notably Menelaus and his followers, who influenced Antiochus Epiphanes to undertake his persecutions of Judaism so as to put down the rebellion of the Hassideans, who were supported by the masses of Jerusalem and who rebelled against the Hellenizers. (15)

Stronger leanings toward Hellenization quite naturally developed in the years 201-198 BC when Judaea was shifting from Ptolemaic rule to Seleucid, especially since the more authoritative figures in Jerusalem were pro-Seleucid (including representatives of the upper stratum of the priestly class [the High Priest himself], the Jerusalem aristocracy [members of the Gerousia], and the wealthy [the sons of Joseph ben Tobiah]. Nevertheless, there was no severe violation of the religious life of Judaea initially. Documents initiated by Antiochus III permitted the Jews to live according to their ancestral laws. (16) Tcherikover comments,

The documents of Antiochus evidence explicitly that the king had no intention of changing the traditional way of life of Judaea by imposing Greek tendencies. On the contrary, Antiochus by his orders strengthened the priests' power, exempted them from taxes and gave to the commandments of the Torah the validity of official law. (17)

Tcherikover even suggests that the inclination toward Hellenization was an aspiration of some of the Jews themselves (particularly among members of the ruling aristocracy), not something being imposed upon them forcefully. (18) Of course, Hellenization was open to criticism, especially since the young Jewish men who participated in the life of the gymnasium took part in sports while in the nude. Furthermore, Hellenization also meant the spread of Greek gods in Judaea (though this was probably not entertained too seriously by the Jews; there is no evidence of any cult to this effect).

One of the significant developments that paralleled the movement of Hellenization was the creation of the post of "prostasia" (head of the Jews). At the beginning of the Hellenistic era, this was in the hands of the High Priest, and included the responsibility for tax collection in Judaea. But a struggle developed whereby the post of prostates passed from the High Priest Onias to Joseph, the son of Tobiah. From this transition arose the family of the Tobiads and their power to influence political events of the country. Indeed, the Tobiad family seems to have been the main instigators of the Hellenistic reform in Jerusalem, mainly because of the wealth accumulated by Joseph the son of Tobiah in his prolonged activity as tax-collector. (19)

The official representation of the people to the king (the "prostasia") had reverted to the High Priest under Simon the Just, but the Tobiads still exerted tremendous social pressure, and sought to influence the management of the Temple. At this time, the Temple Treasury had accumulated great wealth, since in addition to the public moneys, the money of private individuals was also kept there on deposit. (20)

When Simon died, he was succeeded by his son, Onias III. But Onias had Egyptian sympathies and shifted policy to a pro-Ptolemaic stance. This was at odds with Seleucid rule, and with the Tobiads who backed them. Now, the Tobiads were anxious to get Onias out of power. Through the agency of another Simon (the overseer of the Temple), the Tobiads managed to stir up trouble for Onias with the Seleucid authorities. As conditions deteriorated in Jerusalem, Onias felt compelled to appear before Seleucus IV. This, however, was closely connected chronologically with the death of Seleucus and the seizing of the throne by Antiochus IV. During Onias' absence, the Tobiads took advantage of the occasion to secure another Nigh Priest with a man who was more sympathetic to their desires. Interestingly, they gained the cooperation of the brother of Onias, Joshua (who had changed his Hebrew name to the Greek name of Jason). Jason had the advantage of being in the legitimate family to qualify as a High Priest, but his sympathies lay more with the Tobiads and the Hellenizers. The next step was for him to journey to Antiochus and buy him off:

Jason promised the king, in addition to the 300 talents which were evidently the usual tribute ... another 60, and a further 80 'of another revenue' (II Macc. 4.8); by this payment he purchased the High Priesthood from Antiochus. (21)

As was brought out earlier, the Seleucid throne was ever in need of revenue and this exchange of High Priests became an easy matter for Antiochus IV. However, the new High Priest did more than promise money for the king. He also desired to convert Jerusalem into a Greek polis called Antioch. He even promised more money for permission to build a gymnasion and ephebeion in Jerusalem and to register the people of Jerusalem as Antiochenes (II Macc. 4.9). This launched Jerusalem into its high point of Hellenism and foreign customs. Nevertheless, there is no hard evidence that the Jewish religion itself was abolished or significantly altered, or that the Mosaic Law was abolished.

Thus, Jason acted as High Priest during the years 175/4–172/1, although details of this period are lacking. In time, however, the Tobiads sought to oust even him for a man more loyal to themselves. Their new candidate was Menelaus, brother of Simon the Overseer of the Temple. Significantly, Menelaus had no legitimate claim to the High Priesthood at all, and civil war broke out over the attempt to replace him for Jason (with the majority of the people siding with Jason). However, Menelaus was able to go to Antiochus and pay even more money for the priestly position than Jason had paid. Thus Menelaus returned as High Priest and Jason fled to the Land of Ammon (II Macc. 4.25-6).

Since Menelaus had attained power against the will of the Jerusalem population, he could only maintain himself by brute force. Furthermore, he had difficulty in keeping his financial obligations to the throne. and found it necessary to journey to Antioch. Two significant events came as a result of this trip. First, Menelaus arranged for the murder of the Onias, the legitimate High Priest at the hand of Andronicus, a high official of Antiochus. The king was infuriated at this, and had Andronicus put to death; Menelaus only escaped death himself by more bribery. Second, Menelaus had left his brother, Lysimachus, in charge as his deputy in Jerusalem. Lysimachus carried our the spoliation of the Temple treasury of the vessels which Menelaus needed. This deed was discovered, causing a great outcry from the people, such that a huge battle waged in the streets with Lysimachus being slain (II Macc. 4. 39-42). Tcherikover comments,

This lawless deed aroused the ire of the population of Jerusalem; the Temple treasure, accumulated over generations, was the property of all Israel, and it was hard to tolerate the fact of a small group of people disposing of it as if it were their own. The Temple, moreover, this national and religious center, was now in the hands of men who had cast off the restraints of religion and followed strange customs belonging to other peoples. (22)

All of this served to hamper the position of Menelaus. Although he was able to retain his role as High Priest, he was now even more at odds with the populace. He had also incurred the displeasure of the king (he had been brought up for trial before Antiochus, escaping only by bribery and deceit). Clearly the situation in Jerusalem was deteriorating, and resistance was steadily building toward those associated with Hellenization and having pro-Seleucid sympathies (especially Menelaus). Also, the burden of taxation under the Seleucid government (especially since the peace of Apamea in 188 BC) was probably greater than it had ever been under the Ptolemies. Hence, some began to have pro-Ptolemaic opinions, a matter of grave concern since Antiochus IV came into armed conflict about this time.

Article Continues: III. Judaea's Relationship to Antiochus

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For the first thirty-five verses of Daniel 11 there is general agreement that the details pertain to various historical events that transpired between the time of the Persian empire and the reign of Antiochus IV Epiphanes. The prophecy of Daniel 11:21-35 refers to the "despicable person" and king of the North who appears to be fulfilled in the person of Antiochus IV Epiphanes.


1. V. Tcherikover, Hellenistic Civilization and the Jews, 10.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid., 14.

4. Polybius, XVI, 40, 1ff.; XVIII, 2.

5. Jerome, Hieron., in Daniel 11:14.

6. Tcherikover, 80.

7. Conflict with Rome came as a result of the substantial power that the Romans gained with the defeat of Hannibal after the Second Punic War (202 BC). Rome turned attention to Greece and other cities of the Aegean Sea, and eventually Antiochus III was drawn into the conflict. Jagersma elaborates,

"Antiochus succeeded in landing in Greece with troops and occupying some of it, but he was driven our again in the following year (192 BC). The Romans then in turn landed in Asia Minor, where in 190 BC they inflicted a major defeat on the troops of Antiochus III at Magnesia (cf. Dan. 11:18). After that Antiochus had no other choice than to make peace with Rome. The peace concluded at Apamea in 188 BC was very damaging to him. Among other things he had to give up all the territory west of the Taurus, let his second son, later to become Antiochus IV Epiphanes, go to Rome as a hostage, and pay an indemnity of 15,000 talents. This tribute, unprecedented in ancient history, had to be paid in twelve annual installments" (A History of Israel from Alexander the Great to Bar Kockba, 36-7.

8. This, coupled with the financial demands of the Egyptian campaigns of Antiochus IV, would eventually have serious repercussions for Judaea. Temple treasuries became politically important within the empire!

9. lsaiah Gafni, "Antiochus," in Encyclopedia Judaica, vol. 3, p. 73.

10. Bruce K. Waltke, "Antiochus IV Epiphanes," in The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia, 1:145. Jagersma, however, asserts that it was in 177 BC when Antiochus IV was set free in exchange for Demetrius, and that he settled for a time in Athens.

11. Jagersma, 45.

12. Ibid.

13. Tcherikover, 176-7. Based on Polybius XXVI, 10; XXXI, 3-4; Livy XLI, 19-20; Died. XXIX, 32; XXXI, 16, 1-2.

14. Ibid., 27.

15. "Hellenism," in Encyclopedia Judaica, vol. 8, p. 295.

16. Josephus, Antiquities, XII, 138ff., 145ff .

17. Tcherikover, 88.

18. Ibid.

19. Cf. Josephus, Antiquities, XII, 237ff.; War, 1, 31ff.

20. Josephus, War, VI, 282; II Macc. 3.10-12.

21. Tcherikover, 160.

22. Ibid., 173.

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