Jewish Journal

What if the Maccabees lost?

by Jared Sichel

Posted on Nov. 27, 2013 at 10:39 am

Photo courtesy Shutterstock

Photo courtesy Shutterstock

What if Chanukah wasn’t Chanukah? 

What if, instead of recalling the Maccabean victory over the Seleucid rulers of Judea in the second century B.C.E., the conflict was remembered as a tragic failure? How would a Jewish loss have impacted Judaism? How would it have impacted the political and religious development of the Middle East?

Two historians — David Myers of UCLA and Elaine Goodfriend of California State University, Northridge (CSUN) — along with Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky of the Modern Orthodox B’nai David-Judea Congregation and Rabbi Adam Kligfeld of the Conservative synagogue Temple Beth Am, shared with the Journal their theories on how a Maccabean defeat could have changed history.

Sandwiched between the destruction of the First Temple in 586 B.C.E. by the Babylonians and that of the Second Temple in 70 C.E. by the Romans, Jewish tradition holds that the Maccabean rebellion in 167 B.C.E. sought to maintain Jewish religious integrity. It arose after the king of the Hellenistic Seleucid Empire, Antiochus IV, imposed harsh anti-religious laws targeting central Jewish practices, such as circumcision and the observance of Shabbat.

It was a “battle for the soul of Judaism,” one in which Judaism would either have its own “internal meaning” or would be “window dressing for the political and social order of the day,” Kanefsky said.

The Chanukah story is also understood as an internal battle between traditional Jews and Hellenized ones who increasingly integrated Hellenistic customs into their lives.

“The upper classes in Jerusalem wanted to fit in with this international [Hellenistic] culture,” said Goodfriend, a lecturer in CSUN’s Jewish studies and religious studies departments. “They felt that there were opportunities being lost if Judaism didn’t somehow change or become up to date.”

Much was at stake, but even if the forces of Antiochus managed to suppress the seven-year Maccabee uprising, religious Judaism may have survived. After all, Goodfriend said, if the Maccabees were willing to become martyrs, “there would have been a very fierce Jewish underground” for years to come.

That said, she added, perhaps the Maccabees can be credited with the “continuation of the Jewish people’s existence.” After all, a loss to the dominant Hellenistic culture of the time may have so weakened Jewish morale that the Roman destruction of the Second Temple may have been too devastating to recover from.

Myers, chairman of UCLA’s history department, takes a different view. The survival of religious Judaism, Myers argues, was likely not on the table in this conflict. 

“I don’t think that that is what was at stake in the Hasmonean revolt,” Myers wrote in an e-mail to the Journal, pointing out that Hellenistic culture made significant inroads into Judaism even after the Maccabean victory. (The Hasmoneans were a Jewish dynasty that included the Maccabees.)

“Think of the names of Hasmonean rulers: John Hyrcanus, Aristobulus, Alexander Jannaeus, Salome Alexandra,” Myers wrote. “Hellenism was an irresistible force.” 

Perhaps a Maccabean defeat would have increased the degree to which Hellenistic culture impacted Judaism, but Myers thinks religious Judaism would have found a way to survive a loss.

Temple Beth Am’s Kligfeld agrees. 

“Had they [the Jews] not won, my sense of the sweep of Jewish history is that something else would’ve happened that would redirect Jewish energy,” he said. “Maybe that generation would have found the creativity and wherewithal to rebuild Jewish life, just as they had to do 200 years later when the temple was actually destroyed.”

Would a failed rebellion have affected future domination by the Romans? According to both Goodfriend and Myers, it may very well have affected the timing, but since the Romans were strengthening and the Seleucids were weakening, a battle over the area was likely — Maccabean victory or no Maccabean victory.

So, if religious Judaism could have survived a Maccabean loss, and if the Romans presumably were eventually going to rule Judea anyway, how would a Jewish defeat have changed history?

According to Myers, a Maccabean loss had the potential — but not the likelihood — to change the entire trajectory of Judaism, and even Christianity.

Absent a Maccabean victory, he said, the “radical sectarianism that borrowed in part from the model of the Hasmonean rebellion” may never have arisen. Without those internal divisions, Myers hypothesized, Christianity may not have been born.

“It’s possible,” he continued, “that, absent the precedent of the Hasmoneans, The Great Revolt of 66-70 C.E. might not have occurred.” 

That could have changed the timing, or even the occurrence, of the exile that Jewish tradition holds will last until the creation of the next Temple.

“The Second Temple might still be with us,” Myers wrote. “That’s a pretty dramatic counter-factual.” 

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