03.04.19 167 B.C., December. Antiochus IV Desecrates Temple
As previously stated, whenever a people group was captured, it was the cultural tradition that they would worship the god or gods of their new overlords. Ancient reasoning was simply: the people with the stronger army had the stronger god. However, the Greeks could not comprehend that not only did the Jews have an invisible god, but they were willing to die for that deity. Antiochus thought this was nonsense and was committed to putting an end to Judaism by whatever means possible.
In 167 B.C., he sent his masons into the temple where they constructed an enlarged altar over the existing Jewish altar. Them on the 25th day of Chislev (December 16), he sacrificed a pig to Zeus Olympus upon his new altar that was the great altar of burnt offerings. It was the supreme insult to both God and the Jews. Immediately all temple sacrifices were terminated. It was the pinnacle of desecration.
His anti-Semitic activities are significant in light of the words of Jesus found in Matthew 25:15, as the Seleucid dictator appears to have fulfilled Daniel’s prophecies (9:27; 11:31; 12:11). However, Jesus stated that these prophecies were yet to be fulfilled. Therefore, it is evident that those predicted terrible days still await humanity, and according to some scholars, will occur during the Tribulation Period when the true Antichrist briefly rules the earth. Daniel’s words were partially fulfilled but remain to be completely fulfilled in the future. Three historical witnesses preserved the details of Antiochus and this event. The first was written by Josephus, who said,
Now it came to pass after two years in the hundred and forty-fifth year (167 B.C.) on the twenty-fifth day of that month which is by us called Chasleu, and by the Macedonians Apelleus, in the hundred and fifty-third Olympiad, that the king (Antiochus) came up to Jerusalem and, pretending peace, he got possession of the city by treachery, at which time he did not spare even those who admitted him into it on account of the riches that lay in the temple. Led by his covetous inclination (for he saw there was a great deal of gold and many ornaments that had been dedicated to it of very great value), and in order to plunder its wealth, he ventured to break the agreement he made. So he left the temple bare and took away the golden candlesticks, and the golden altar (of incense), and table (of shewbread), and the altar (of burnt offering), and did not abstain from even the veils which were made from fine linen and scarlet. He also emptied it of its secret treasures and left nothing at all remaining, and by this means cast the Jews into great consternation, for he forbade them to offer those daily sacrifices, which they used to offer to God, according to the law. And when he pillaged the whole city, some of the inhabitants he killed and some he carried captive so that the multitude of those captives that were taken alive amounted to about ten thousand. He also burnt down the finest buildings, and when he had overthrown the city walls, he built a citadel in the lower part of the city, for the place was high and overlooked the temple on which account he fortified it with high walls and towers, and put into it a garrison of Macedonians. However, in that citadel dwelt the impious and wicked part of the (Jewish) multitude, from whom it proved that the citizens suffered many heavy calamities. And when the king had built an idol altar upon God’s altar, he slew swine upon it and so offered a sacrifice neither according to the law, nor the Jewish religious worship in that country. He also compelled them to forsake the worship, which they paid their own God, and to adore those whom he took to the gods and made them build temples and raise idol altars in every city and village, and offer swine upon them every day. He also commanded them not to circumcise their sons and threatened to punish any that should be found to have transgressed his injunction.
He also appointed overseers who should compel them to do what he commanded. And indeed there were many Jews who complied with the king’s commands either voluntarily or out of fear of the penalty that was announced: but the best men and those of the noblest souls did not regard him, but paid a greater respect to the customs of their country than concern as to the punishment which he threatened to the disobedient, on which account they every day underwent great miseries and bitter torments for they were whipped with rods and their bodies were torn to pieces and were crucified while they were still alive and breathed. They also strangled those women and their sons whom they had circumcised, as the king had appointed, hanging their sons about their necks as they were upon the crosses. And if there were any sacred book of the Law found, it was destroyed and those with whom they were found, miserably perished also.
Josephus, Antiquities 12.5.4 (248-256)
Antiochus decided to eradicate all traces of the Jewish faith by whatever means possible including torture and death. He deliberately instituted laws that directly violated Mosaic laws. Josephus recorded the following:
He spoiled the temple and put a stop to the constant practice of offering a daily sacrifice of expiation for three years and six months…. Now Antiochus was not satisfied either with his unexpected taking of the city, or with its pillage, or with the great slaughter he had made there, but being overcome with his violent passions. He compelled the Jews to dissolve the laws of their country, and keep their infants uncircumcised, and to sacrifice swine’s flesh upon the altar; against which they all opposed themselves, and the most approved among them were put to death.
Josephus, Wars 1.1.1-2 (32b-35)
The second witness is by the unknown author of the first book of Maccabees, who recorded the event as follows,
In those days lawless men came forth from Israel, and misled many saying, “Let us go and make a covenant with Gentiles round about us, for since we separated from them many evils have come upon us.”
The proposal pleased them, and some of the people eagerly went to the king. He authorized them to observe the ordinances of the Gentiles, so they built a gymnasium in Jerusalem, and according to the Gentile custom, and removed the marks of circumcision and abandoned the holy covenant. They joined with the Gentiles and sold themselves to do evil.
When Antiochus saw that his kingdom was established, he determined to become the king of the land of Egypt that he might reign over both kingdoms. So he invaded Egypt with a strong force, with chariots and elephants and cavalry and with a large fleet. He engaged Ptolemy king of Egypt in battle and Ptolemy turned and fled before him and many were wounded and fell. And they captured the fortified cities in the land of Egypt and he plundered the land of Egypt.
After subduing Egypt, Antiochus returned in the one hundred and forty-third year. He went up against Israel and came to Jerusalem with a strong force. He arrogantly entered the sanctuary and took the golden altar, the lampstand for the light and all its utensils. He took also the table for the bread of the Presence, the cups for drink offerings, the bowls, the golden censers, the curtain, the crowns, and the gold decoration on the front of the temple; he stripped it all off. He took the silver and the gold and the costly vessels; he took also the hidden treasures which he found taking them all, he departed to his own land.
He committed deeds of murder,
and spoke with great arrogance.
Israel mourned deeply in every community,
rulers and elders groaned,
Maidens and young men became faint,
the beauty of women faded,
Every bridegroom took up the lament;
she who sat in the bridal chamber was mourning.
Even the land shook for its inhabitants,
and all the house of Jacob was clothed with shame.
Two years later the king sent to the cities of Judah a chief tax collector of tribute, and he came to Jerusalem with a large force. Deceitfully he spoke peaceable words to them, and they believed him; but he suddenly fell upon the city, dealt it a severe blow and destroyed many people of Israel. He plundered the city (and) burned it with fire and tore down its houses and its surrounding walls. And then he took captive the women and children and seized the cattle. Then he fortified the city of David with a great strong wall and strong towers and it became their citadel. And they stationed there a sinful people, lawless men. These strengthened their positions; they stored up arms and food and collecting the spoils of Jerusalem they stored them there and became a great snare.
It became an ambush against the sanctuary,
an evil adversary of Israel continually.
On every side of the sanctuary they shed innocent blood;
they even defiled the sanctuary.
Because of them the residents of Jerusalem fled;
she became a dwelling of strangers
She became strange to her offspring,
and her children forsook her.
Her sanctuary became desolate as a desert;
her feasts were turned into mourning,
Her Sabbaths into a reproach,
her honor into contempt.
Her dishonor now grew as great as her glory;
her exaltation was turned into mourning.
Then the king wrote to his whole kingdom that all should be one people, and that each should give up his custom. All the Gentiles accepted the command of the king. Many even from Israel gladly adopted his religion; they sacrificed to idols and profaned the Sabbath. And the king sent letters by messengers to Jerusalem and the cities of Judah; he directed them to follow customs strange to the land, to forbid burnt offerings and sacrifices and drink offerings in the sanctuary, to profane Sabbaths and feasts, to defile the sanctuary and the priests, to build altars and sacred precincts and shrines for idols, to sacrifice swine and unclean animals, and to leave their sons uncircumcised. They were to make themselves abominable by everything unclean and profane, so that they should forget the Law and change all ordinances.
“And whoever does not obey the command of the king shall die.” In such words he wrote to his whole kingdom. And he appointed inspectors over all the people and commanded the cities of Judah to offer sacrifice, city by city. Many of the people, everyone who forsook the Law, joined them, and they did evil in the land; they drove Israel into hiding in every place of refuge they had erected a desolating sacrilege upon the altar of burnt offerings. They also built altars in the surrounding cities of Judah, and burned incense at the doors of the houses and in the streets. The books of the Law which they found they tore into pieces and burned with fire. Where the book of the covenant was found in the possession of any one, or if any one adhered to the law, the decree of the king condemned him to death. They kept using violence against Israel, against those found month after month in the cities, and on the twenty-fifth day of the month they offered sacrifice on the altar which was upon the altar of burnt offering. According to the decree, they put to death the women who had their children circumcised and their families and those who circumcised them; and they hung the infants from their mothers’ necks.
But many in Israel stood firm and were resolved in their hearts not to eat unclean food or to profane the holy covenant; and they did die. And very great wrath came upon Israel.
1 Maccabees 1:11-64
The third witness was also written by the unknown author and is found in the second book of Maccabees. He said that,
About this time, Antiochus made his second invasion of Egypt. And it happened that over all the city, for almost forty days there appeared golden-clad horsemen charging through the air, in companies fully armed with lances and drawn swords – troops of horsemen drawn up, attacks and counterattacks made on this side and on that, brandishing of shields, massing of spears, hurling of missiles, the flash of golden trappings, and armor of all sorts. Therefore, all men prayed that the apparition might prove to have been a good omen.
When a false rumor arose that Antiochus was dead, Jason took no less than a thousand men and suddenly made an assault upon the city. When the troops upon the wall had been forced back and at last the city had been taken, Menelaus took refuge in the citadel. But Jason kept relentlessly slaughtering his fellow citizens, not realizing that success at the cost of one’s kindred is the greatest misfortune, but imagining that he was setting up trophies of victory of enemies and not of fellow countrymen. He did not gain control of the government, however; and in the end got only disgrace from his conspiracy, and fled again into the country of the Ammonites. Finally he met a miserable end. Accused before Aretas the ruler of the Arabs, fleeing from city to city, pursued by all men, hated as a rebel against the laws, and abhorred as the executioner of his country and his fellow citizens, he was cast ashore in Egypt; and he who had driven many from his own country into exile died in exile, having embarked to go to the Lacedaemonians in hope of finding protection because of their kinship. He who had cast out many to lie unburied had no one to mourn for him; he had no funeral of any sort and no place in the tomb of his fathers.
When news of what had happened reached the king, he took it to mean that Judea was in revolt. So, raging inwardly, he left Egypt and took it by storm. And he commanded his soldiers to cut down relentlessly every one they met and to slay those who went into the houses. Then there was killing of young and old, destruction of boys, women, and children, and slaughter of virgins and infants. Within the total of three days eighty thousand were destroyed, forty thousand in hand-to-hand fighting; and as many were sold into slavery as were slain.
Not content with this, Antiochus dared to enter the most holy temple in all the world, guided by Menelaus, who became a traitor both to the laws and to his country. He took the holy vessels with his polluted hands, and swept away with profane the votive offerings, which other kings had made to enhance the glory and honor of the place. Antiochus was elated in spirit, and did not perceive that the Lord was angered for a little while because of the sins of those who dwelt in the city, and that therefore he was disregarding the holy place. But if it had not happened that they were involved in many sins, this man would have been scourged and turned back from his rash act as soon as he came forward, just as Heliodorus was, whom Seleucus the king sent to inspect the treasury. But the Lord did not choose the nation for the sake of the holy place, but the place for the sake of the nation. Therefore, the place itself shared in the misfortunes that befell the nation and afterward participated in its benefits; and what was forsaken in the wrath of the Almighty was restored again in all its glory when the Great Lord became reconciled.
So Antiochus carried off eighteen hundred talents from the temple, and hurried away to Antioch, thinking in his arrogance that he could sail on the land and walk on the sea, because his mind was elated. And he left governors to afflict the people at Jerusalem: Philip by birth a Phrygian and in character more barbarous than the man who appointed him; and at Gerizim – Andronicus, and besides these – Menelaus, who lorded it over his fellow citizens, was worse than the others. In his malice toward the Jewish citizens, Antiochus sent Apollonius, the captain of the Mysians with an army of twenty-two thousand and commanded him to slay all the grown men and to sell the women and boys as slaves. When this man arrived in Jerusalem, he pretended to be peaceably disposed and waited until the holy Sabbath day; then finding the Jews not at work, he ordered his men to parade under arms. He put to sword all those who came out to see him with his armed men and killed great numbers of people.
But Judas Maccabeus with about nine others got away to the wilderness, and kept himself and his companions alive in the mountains as wild animals do; they continued to live on what grew wild, so that they might not share in the defilement.
2 Maccabees 5:1-27
It must be emphasized that previously, when Heliodorus attempted to enter the temple treasury, he was struck with near death. He responded to Antiochus by saying that the anyone who entered the sacred place would be subject to the power of God. He continued to say that God watches over the Jewish temple personally, brings it aid, and strikes those who profane it. Therefore, when Antiochus later raided the treasury of 1,800 talents, the monarch was absolutely delighted. However, divine judgement would find him later.
In the meantime, the persecution the Jewish people suffered was one of the worst in their long history of torment, exile, and pogroms. From this era two witnesses recorded the traumatic events Antiochus inflicted upon the Jewish people. Thousands died heroic deaths as they were loyal to their faith during his three and a half year reign of terror. The wealthy citizens of Jerusalem fled to families and friends throughout the land and overseas to escape persecution. But most endured the horrors described in the second book of Maccabees:
Not long after this, the king sent an Athenian senator to compel the Jews to forsake the laws of their fathers and cease to live by the laws of God, and also to pollute the temple in Jerusalem and call it the temple of Olympian Zeus, and to call the one in Gerizim the temple of Zeus the Friend of Strangers, as did the people who dwelt in that place.
Harsh and utterly grievous was the onslaught of evil. For the temple was filled with debauchery and reveling by the Gentiles, who dallied with harlots and had intercourse with women within the sacred precincts, and besides brought in things for sacrifice that were unfit. The altar was covered with abominable offerings, which were forbidden by the laws. A man could neither keep the Sabbath, nor observe the feasts of his fathers, nor as much as confess himself to be a Jew.
On the monthly celebration of the king’s birthday the Jews were taken, under bitter constraint, to partake of the sacrifices; and when the feast of Dionysus came, they were compelled to walk in the procession in honor of Dionysus, wearing wreaths of ivy. At the suggestion of Ptolemy, a decree was issued to neighboring Greek cities, that they should adopt the same policy toward the Jews and make them partake of the sacrifices, and should slay those who did not choose to change over to Greek customs. One could see, therefore, the misery that had come upon them. For example: two women were brought in for having circumcised their children. These women they publicly paraded about the city, with their babies hung at their breasts, then hurled them down headlong from the wall. Others had assembled in the caves nearby to observe the seventh day secretly were betrayed to Philip and were all burned together, because their piety kept them from defending themselves, in view of their regard for that most holy day.
Now I urge those who read this book not to be depressed by such calamities, but to recognize that these punishments were designed not to destroy but to discipline our people. In fact, not to let the impious alone for long, but to punish them immediately is a sign of great kindness. For in the case of the other nations the Lord waits patiently to punish them until they have reached the full measure of their sins; but he does not deal in this way with us, in order that he may not take vengeance on us afterward when our sins have reached their height. Therefore, he never withdraws his mercy from us. Though he disciplines us with calamities; he does not forsake his own people. Let what we have said serve as a reminder; we must go on briefly with the story.
Eleazar, one of the scribes in high position, a man now advanced in age and of noble presence, was being forced to open his mouth to eat swine’s flesh. But he, welcoming death with honor rather than life with pollution, went up to the rack of his own accord, spitting out the flesh, as men ought to go who have the courage to refuse things that it is not right to taste, even for the natural love of life.
Those who were in charge of that unlawful sacrifice took the man aside, because of their long acquaintance with him, privately urged him to bring meat of his own providing, proper for him to use, and pretend that he was eating the flesh of the sacrificial meal which had been commanded by the king, so that by doing this he might be saved from death and be treated kindly on account of his old friendship with them. But making a high resolve, worthy of his years and dignity of his old age and the gray hairs which he had reached with distinction and his excellent life even from childhood, and moreover according to the holy God-given law, he declared himself quickly telling them to send him to Hades.
“Such pretense is not worthy of our time of life,” he said, “lest many of the young should suppose that Eleazar in his ninetieth year has gone over to an alien religion, and through my pretense for the sake of living a brief moment longer, they should be led astray because of me, while I defile and disgrace my old age. For even if for the present I should avoid the punishment of men, yet whether I live or die I shall not escape the hands of the Almighty. Therefore, by manfully giving up my life now, I will show myself worthy of my old age and leave to the young a noble example of how to die a good death willingly and nobly for the revered and holy laws,” when he had said this, he went at once to that rack. And those who a little before had acted toward him with good, now changed to ill will because the words he had uttered were in their opinion sheer madness. When he was about to die under the blows, he groaned aloud and said, “It is clear to the Lord in his holy knowledge that I have been saved from death, I am enduring terrible sufferings in my body under this beating, but in my soul I am glad to suffer these things because I fear him.”
So in this way he died leaving in his death an example of nobility and a memorial to courage, not only to the young but to the great body of his nation.
2 Maccabees 6:1-31
The second witness was recorded by Josephus.
When the Samaritans saw the Jews under these sufferings, they no longer confessed that they were of their kindred, or that the temple on Mount Gerizim belonged to Almighty God. This was according to their nature … and now they said they were a colony of Medes and Persians: and indeed, they were a colony of theirs. So they sent ambassadors to Antiochus, and an epistle whose contents are these: “To King Antiochus the god, Epiphanes, a memorial from the Sidonians who live at Shechem. Our forefathers, upon certain frequent plagues and as following a certain ancient superstition, had a custom of observing that day which the Jews called the Sabbath. And when they had erected a temple at the mountain called Gerizim though without name, they had offered upon it the proper sacrifices. Now, upon the just treatment of these wicked Jews those that manage their affairs supposing that we were of kin to them, and practiced as they do, make us liable to the same accusation although we are originally Sidonians as is evident from the public records. We therefore beseech you, our benefactor and savior, to give order to Apollonius, the governor of this part of the country, and to Nicanor, the procurator of thy affairs, to give us no disturbance nor to lay to our charge what the Jews are accused for, since we are aliens from their nation and from their customs; but let our temple which at present hath no name at all, be named the temple of Jupiter Hellenius. If this were once done we should be no longer disturbed, but should be more intent on our own occupation with quietness and so bring in a greater revenue to thee.”
When the Samaritans had petitioned for this, the king sent them back the following answer in an epistle:
“King Antiochus to Nicanor. The Sidonians, who live at Shechem, have sent me the memorial enclosed. When, therefore, we were advising with our friends about it, the messengers sent by them represented to us that they were no way concerned with customs, which belong to the Jews, but choose to live after the customs of the Greeks. Accordingly, we declare them free from such accusations, and order that, agreeable to their petition, their temple be named the temple of Jupiter Hellenius.”
He also sent the like epistle to Apollonius, the governor of that part of the country in the forty-sixth year, and the eighteenth day of the month of Hecatombeon.
Josephus, Antiquities 12.5.5 (257-264)
The Samaritans suffered little because they laid their faith aside and sided with the Syrian-Greeks. Consequently, the Jews hated them passionately. Furthermore, the Jews had enough problems with their own brethren who betrayed the faith to escape persecution. Soon there was Jewish anti-Semitism as orthodox Jews argued and fought against their Hellenized brothers. Clearly, the second century B.C. was one of immense social strife and bitterness. This simply underscored the need for the messiah to come quickly and defeat the pagan enemies, establish peace and national freedom, and restore their pride.
. Metzger, New Testament. 20-21.
. Italics mine for emphasis.
. First and 2nd Maccabees belong to a classification of extra-biblical books known as the Apocrypha. These two literary works are deemed highly reliable historically. See 02.02.03 “Apocrypha” for more information.
. Hellerman, “Purity and Nationalism in Second Temple Literature: 1-2 Maccabees and Jubilees.” 408.
. 2 Macc. 3:38-39.
. 2 Macc. 5:17-18.
. Local Syrians who adopted the Greek culture.
. Josephus, Antiquities 12.5.2-4.