A scholar of Jewish studies airs a few inconvenient lessons of Hanukkah

Prominent Middle East archaeologist Eric Meyers offers a view of Jewish uprisings, including those that followed the Maccabees, and their actual consequences.

Judah Maccabee, center, before the army of Nicanor during the Maccabean Revolt. Image by Gustave Doré/Wikipedia/Creative Commons

(RNS) — Hanukkah, which began Sunday, commemorates the heroic resistance of a group of Jewish rebels called the Maccabees to the Syrian Greek Emperor Antiochus IV in 167 B.C.E. We sing songs lauding them and celebrating their victory. But behind Hanukkah lies an inconvenient truth, according to Duke University biblical archaeologist Eric Meyers: They won the battle but lost the culture war that ignited the conflict.

Most scholars agree that the Hanukkah struggle began as a virtual Jewish civil war between assimilationist Jews, who embraced aspects of Hellenism, and religious conservatives, who wanted the freedom to practice traditional Judaism. Later, research suggests, the two Jewish factions united in a national liberation struggle to oppose the heavy-handed Greco-Syrians who had conquered Judea. Ultimately, the invaders’ side won.

“The Maccabees won many of the battles, but in the end, they lost the war against Hellenism,” said Meyers, a retired professor of religion at Duke University and founding director of its Center for Jewish Studies.

But there is more that makes Hanukkah problematic. The fact that this war pitted two factions of the faith against each other has long made the Jewish Festival of Lights controversial. Though standard in Catholic Bibles, the Book of Maccabees is not included in the Hebrew Bible for several reasons.

RELATED: In time for Hanukkah, archaeologists reveal battle-scarred stronghold against Maccabees

Rabbis in the centuries that followed the battle were uncomfortable with the fact that the Hasmonean dynasty that emerged from the Maccabees’ uprising was not Davidic. The dynasty ended by inviting the Romans in to help Judea stave off its other invaders. Gradually, the Romans took over and made Judea and Galilee part of their empire, leading to two subsequent, disastrous Jewish rebellions.

“While the Maccabees chose resistance to Hellenism, it was Hellenism that allowed Judaism, as a cosmopolitan culture, to move to the four corners of the world,” said Meyers.

Importantly, Meyers added, Jews gained influence while remaining true to their tradition.

“This was not assimilation but acculturation,” said the archaeologist. “The Jews did not become Hellenes. Rather they adopted what they could of Greco-Roman culture while staying faithful to Jewish values.” The Torah was translated into Greek and became available all over the civilized world, and the second temple in Jerusalem was built in Greek classical style, as were synagogues.

The strength of Jewish culture, Meyers continued, enabled the Jews to survive the wars with Rome, including the Great Revolt of 66-74 C.E. and the Bar Kochba uprising of 132-135 C.E.

Meyers does not want to undermine Hanukkah, which he and his family celebrate. He believes we should honor those who died fighting to defend traditional Judaism and their national identity. However, he prefers a clear-eyed view of uprisings against foreign invaders and occupiers, including those that followed the Maccabees, and their actual consequences.

Viewed through that lens, he believes that blending Jewish thought with cultural Hellenism — without accepting its pagan religious belief — was the mix that allowed Judaism to continue.

The lessons of Hanukkah countered these developments in the two centuries that followed the Maccabees’ victory. The battle led to the belief that a small group of committed Jews could overcome much larger foreign forces. While the Jews could boast of victories in the asymmetrical armed struggle against Rome, the empire eventually destroyed their nation.

“While we correctly associate Hanukkah with heroic acts of resistance and war, sometimes the opposite works more effectively,” said Meyers, whose autobiography, “An Accidental Archaeologist: A Personal Memoir,” has just been published. 

“There is no doubt about the victory of the Maccabees over Antiochus IV,” said Meyers. “It was stunning and memorable. But what happened in the two revolts against Rome? Jews were soundly defeated.”

Still, even that military miscalculation had an upside.

Eric Meyers. Video screen grab

Eric Meyers. Video screen grab

“Defeat on the battlefield by Rome led to enormous creativity and literary output,” said Meyers.

Meyers is no counter-intuitive gadfly. He is a prominent — if not towering — figure in the biblical archaeology establishment, the author of numerous books and papers on biblical archaeology and former president of the American Society of Overseas Research.

Together with his wife and fellow Duke archaeologist, Carol Meyers, his lengthy academic career was largely built on this Greek and later Greco-Roman cultural triumphs and the numerous ruins they left behind. Over the years, the Meyerses have led more than 1,000 students on digs in the Middle East, focused on four rural sites in Upper Galilee and the urban site of Sepphoris in Lower Galilee.

Eric Meyers’ Hanukkah views are not his first challenge to the conventional archaeological wisdom. 

The Meyerses began their archaeological careers as graduate students on Yigal Yadin’s famed first excavations at Masada in 1964. Yadin was an Israeli army general who fought in the Jewish state’s 1948 War of Independence before turning to archaeology. Meyers has come to question the cherished tale of the mass suicide by doomed Jewish revolutionaries at Masada in 73 C.E. as portrayed by Flavius Josephus’ contemporaneous account in “The Jewish War.” 

Meyers said there is no convincing physical evidence of such a suicide at the Masada site and speculates that Yadin had modern Israeli nation-building in mind when advancing Josephus’ account.

There is support for Meyers’ views.

“Eric is, as always, quite correct — on the Maccabees in the lull before Rome arrived, and on Masada as propaganda by Josephus,” said John Dominic Crossan, author of several definitive books about first-century Judea, including “Render Unto Caesar: The Struggle Over Christ and Culture in the New Testament.” “It was idealistic propaganda then and still was for Yadin.”

Nonviolent resistance to Rome did not fare much better. Crossan and others believe that Jesus conveyed his opposition to the Romans through sometimes coded metaphor. The Romans, who recognized rebellion when they heard it, executed Jesus, though they didn’t bother to round up his followers.

To support his view on Jewish resistance, Meyers points out that the city of Sepphoris, in Galilee, where he and his wife led the pioneering dig decades after their days at Masada, took a neutral position during the Great Revolt against Rome.

Meyers doesn’t endorse a strategy of submission in the face of oppression. Yet he notes that Sepphoris survived the desolation of the Roman legions’ war machine, which crushed the rebellion and devastated the land, destroying Jerusalem and the temple, and sending most Jews into exile. Sepphoris, meanwhile, emerged largely unscathed. 

“Sepphoris offers a comparison with the Maccabees and later the zealots of Masada,” he said.

“Sometimes the opposite of armed struggle and resistance works more effectively. Sepphoris chose not to battle or oppose Rome in the Great Revolt. As a result, the city prospered and was rewarded with a coin naming it City of Peace. History is complicated, and the work at Sepphoris made it more so and for good.”

RELATED: The Hanukkah dreidel and America’s gambling problem

For a time, he said, Sepphoris was the greatest Jewish city to survive both revolts. It was here that Rabbi Judah “the Prince” completed the Mishnah, the influential commentary on the Bible in the year 200 C.E.  

“While the Hanukkah revolt story is inspirational for rejecting foreign ways and bans against Jewish practice, the aftermath was very complicated,” he said. “Ultimately Hellenism triumphs in the sense that it led to accommodation to some ideas and customs of Greco-Roman culture.

“That was the key to Jewish survival and creativity,” he said, “leading to the canonization of the Hebrew Bible, the Mishnah, the Talmud and Midrash.”

Donate to Support Independent Journalism!

Donate Now!