by Gerald A. Honigman
The year was 1887.
An Egyptian woman discovered a treasure-trove of over three hundred clay cuneiform tablets that would shake the world of religion and the study of ancient history.
Named for a local Bedouin tribe, the Tel el-Amarna tablets (which can now be found mostly in the Berlin and British Museums) were mostly the official correspondence between Pharaoh Amenhotep IV--Akhenaten--and his governors and vassals from places such as Canaan, Syria, Babylonia, etc. They date mostly from around 1380 B.C.E. and were written in Akkadian, the language of diplomacy of the era.
So, what does all of this have to do with Chanukah ?
Now, guess what repeatedly comes out in this official correspondence between Pharoah and his vassals in Canaan and the surrounding areas?
Complaints about invasions of the Habiru…the Hebrews.
While some scholars debate the details, most agree that the time--with even newer confirmations by excavations in Jericho--fits into the period of Joshua’s conquests of Canaan.
Like many other accounts in the Hebrew Bible, we indeed have good supporting evidence from elsewhere to support the Jews’ own version of these events. And what makes it even better is that this often comes from those viewing the events from the “other side” of the picture.
This is no small point.
Corroboration is very important to any serious scholar. Not many religious texts can match the corroboration found in those of the Jews.
Jumping ahead about eight centuries, Babylon became a powerhouse, and the Jews’ remaining southern kingdom, Judah, fell captive to Nebochadnezzar. The northern kingdom, Israel, fell to the Assyrians a few centuries earlier.
The Jews would next find a hero in…hold onto your seats…an Iranian ruler, Cyrus the Great, who allowed their return to Judah in 539 B.C.E.
Not exactly current Iranian President Ahmadinejad’s type…if you know what I mean.
Again, while the Hebrew Bible gives the Jews’ account of this episode, we also have it from the “other side” as well.
Take a look at this ancient quote from an Iranian source, The Kurash Prism, courtesy of the Iran Chamber Society and other historical sites...
“I am Kurash [ "Cyrus" ], King of the World, Great King, Legitimate King, King of Babilani, King of Kiengir and Akkade, King of the four rims of the earth, Son of Kanbujiya...I returned to these sacred cities on the other side of the Tigris the sanctuaries of which have been ruins for a long time, the images which used to live therein and established for them permanent sanctuaries. I also gathered all their former inhabitants and returned them to their habitations.
Furthermore, I resettled upon the command of Marduk, the great lord, all the gods of Kiengir and Akkade whom Nabonidus had brought into Babilani to the anger of the lord of the gods, unharmed, in their former temples, the places which make them happy.
Now, check out the Jews' own version of this in Ezra 1: 1-8 in the Hebrew Bible...
“In the first year of Cyrus, king of Persia, in order to fulfill the word of the Lord spoken by Jeremiah, the Lord inspired King Cyrus of Persia to issue this proclamation throughout his kingdom, both by word of mouth and in writing: "Thus says Cyrus, king of Persia: "All the kingdoms of the earth the Lord, the God of heaven, has given to me, and he has also charged me to build him a house in Jerusalem, which is in Judah. Whoever, therefore, among you belongs to any part of his people, let him go up, and may his God be with him! Let everyone who has survived, in whatever place he may have dwelt, be assisted by the people of that place with silver, gold, and goods, together with free will offerings for the house of God in Jerusalem.”
The names of Israel, Judah/Judaea, Hebrew kings, etc. and so forth are also found in the records of the Jews’ ancient neighbors.
There are indeed many examples of this, but the last one I’d like to review for now before tying all of this together is one of my favorites. It involves the Arab claim that they were the original “Palestinians.”
There was no country or nation known as "Palestine" during the time of Jesus. The land was known as Judaea and its inhabitants were Judaeans... Jews.
Tacitus and Dio Cassius were famous Roman historians who wrote extensively about Judaea's attempt to remain free from the Soviet Union of its day, the conquering Roman Empire. They lived and wrote during, or not long after, the two major revolts of the Jews in 66-73 C.E. and 133-135 C.E. They make no mention of this land being called "Palestine" or its people "Palestinians." And they knew the differences between Jews and Arabs as well.
Listen to this quote from Vol. II, Book V, The Works of Tacitus:
“ Titus was appointed by his father to complete the subjugation of Judaea... he commanded three legions in Judaea itself... To these he added the twelfth from Syria and the third and twenty-second from Alexandria... amongst his allies were a band of Arabs, formidable in themselves and harboring towards the Jews the bitter animosity usually subsisting between neighboring nations…”
After the 1st Revolt, Rome issued thousands of Judaea Capta coins which can be seen today in museums all over the world. Notice, please... Judaea Capta... not "Palaestina Capta." Additionally, to celebrate this victory, the Arch of Titus was erected and stands tall in Rome to this very day.
When, some sixty years later, Hadrian decided to further desecrate the site of the destroyed Temple of the Jews by erecting a pagan structure there, it was the grandchildren's turn to take on their mighty conquerors.
The result of the struggle of this tiny nation for its freedom and independence was, perhaps, as predictable as that which would have occurred had Latvia taken on the Soviet Union during its heyday of power. Unfortunately, two thousand years later, the Jews are still in that same struggle.
Listen next to this quote from Dio Cassius:
“580,000 men were slain, nearly the whole of Judaea made desolate. Many Romans, moreover, perished in this war (the Bar Kochba Revolt). Therefore Hadrian in writing to the senate did not employ the opening phrase commonly affected by the emperors, ' I and the legions are in health.'“
The Emperor was so enraged at the Jews' struggle for freedom in their own land that, in the words of the esteemed modern historian, Bernard Lewis…..
"Hadrian made a determined attempt to stamp out the embers not only of the revolt but also of Jewish nationhood and statehood... obliterating its Jewish identity."
Wishing to end, once and for all, Jewish hopes, Hadrian renamed the land itself from Judaea to "Syria Palaestina"-- Palestine--after the Jews' historic enemies, the Philistines, a non-Semitic sea people from the eastern Mediterranean or Aegean area..
So sorry Arabs...trying to hijack the latter's identity as you’ve tried with that of the Jews won't work either.
And now (drum roll please), let’s see what all of this has to do with Chanukah…
In the ‘70s, while a grad student at the Kevorkian Center For Near Eastern Studies (a consortium of Princeton, Columbia, and New York Universities based at N.Y.U’s Washington Square campus), I had the privilege of having Dr. F.E. Peters as one of my professors.
A leading expert of the ancient Near East (along with other related subjects as well), one of his specialties was ancient Greece.
Fluent in the language and immersed in the primary sources, Peters's The Harvest Of Hellenism largely supports the Jews' own accounts of their struggle for independence against their latest conqueror, the Seleucid successors to Alexander the Great. After the latter’s death, his generals fought for the pieces of the pie. Ptolemy wound up with one of the main prizes, Egypt.
Listen to these scattered quotes from Peters, who devoted a good portion of this over 800-page book to the same subject found in the Jews‘ own writings in the First and Second Books of Maccabees.
“ The Seleucids, like all other Hellenistic monarchs, with the exception of the Macedonian Antigonids, were worshipped as gods…Jew and Hellene clashed on the issue of conduct…Hellenism could allow almost any eccentricity in private behavior…however…the polis found it difficult to accept a large-scale and public refusal to share in its life and rites.”
Whatever else may or may not have happened in Judaea during the time of Antiochus IV Epiphanies (“the god made manifest”), and while the good professor takes issue with some aspects of the Jews’ own accounts, both he and Jewish tradition agree that the clash he himself wrote about above inevitably led to the first war ever fought--at least partially--over religious freedom.
Proclaiming yourself a god among pagans was one thing. They could just add Antiochus to a long list.
But to do this with Jews, whose religion teaches that no man--regardless of how great--could be divine was explosive. Add to this his attempt at squashing their attempt to retain their own way of life and religious practices, and the revolt of the Maccabees became inevitable.
Here’s the Roman historian, Tacitus (Volume II, Book V), again, a few centuries later on the same subject, writing after the Jews next took on the Romans:
“The Jews acknowledge one God only, and conceive of him by the mind alone, condemning, as impious, all who, with perishable materials, wrought into the human shape, form representations of the Deity. That Being, they say, is above all, and everlasting, neither susceptible of likeness nor subject to decay. In consequence, they allow no resemblance of Him in their city, much less in their temples. In this way they do not flatter their kings, nor show their respect for their Caesars.”
That above passage, by the way, explains the main schism between Judaism and Christianity as well.
At a time when the Jew of the Nations--who was making history and causing a revolution in religion, ethics, and morality millennia before most peoples made their historical debuts--still has to fight for its right to take its place among those newcomers on the world scene, the story of Chanukah and its message of rededication is as important today as it was when Judah the Hammer took on his mighty pagan rulers over two thousand years ago.