Tag Archives: Onias

When Jews and Greeks Were Brothers: The Untold Story of Chanukah

As we continue to celebrate the festive holiday of Chanukah this week, it is important to remember that not all of the Greeks were wicked and immoral. We have already written in the past about the influence of Greek philosophy and language on traditional Judaism, and that the enemies of the Chanukah narrative were the Seleucids, or Syrian-Greeks, not the mainland Greeks of Europe. In fact, the Book of Maccabees (I, 12:6-18) records an alliance between Jonathan Maccabee—the kohen gadol and righteous leader of Israel after the deaths of Matityahu and Judah Maccabee—and the famous Spartans of Greece:

Jonathan, the high priest, and the council of the nation and the priests and the rest of the Jewish people send greetings to their brothers, the Spartans. In former times, a letter was sent to the high priest Onias, from Areus who was then king among you, to say that you are our kinsman… And Onias showed honour to the man who was sent to him, and accepted the letter, which contained a declaration of alliance and friendliness.

So, although we are in no need of these, since we find our encouragement in the sacred books that are in our keeping, we have undertaken to send to renew relations of brotherhood and friendliness with you, so that we may not become entirely estranged from you…

Coin depicting King Areus I of Sparta (309-265 BCE)

Jonathan points out that Israel does not need the help of the Spartans to defeat the Seleucids, as God’s help is all they need. Nonetheless, Israel and Sparta were always good friends, and Israel wants to keep it that way. In his letter, Jonathan mentions an earlier letter sent by King Areus of Sparta to Onias the kohen gadol (Onias is the Hellenized name for Choniyahu or Chonio, the son of Yadua the high priest, mentioned in Nehemiah 12:11, and discussed last week). This letter is recorded in the Book of Maccabees (I, 12:20-23) as well, and also in the writings of Josephus:

Areus, king of the Spartans, sends greetings to Onias the high priest. It is found in writing that the Spartans and Jews are kinsman, and that they are both of the stock of Abraham…

Incredibly, the Spartan king suggests that the Spartans are descendants of Abraham, too! Where does this bizarre belief come from?

Greek Sons of Abraham

Sometime in the 2nd century BCE lived a Greek historian and sage named Cleodemus, sometimes referred to as Cleodemus the Prophet. He also went by the name Malchus which, because of its Semitic origins, makes some scholars believe he could have been Jewish. Cleodemus wrote an entire history of the Jewish people in Greek. While this text appears to have been lost, it is cited by others, including Josephus (Antiquities, i. 15).

Cleodemus commented on Abraham’s marriage to Keturah (typically identified with Hagar), and their children. This is recorded in Genesis 25, which begins:

And Abraham took another wife, and her name was Keturah. And she bore him Zimran, and Yokshan, and Medan, and Midian, and Ishbak, and Shuach. And Yokshan begot Sheva and Dedan. And the sons of Dedan were Ashurim, and Letushim, and Leumim. And the sons of Midian were Ephah, and Epher, and Chanokh, and Avidah, and Elda’ah. All these were the children of Keturah. And Abraham gave all that he had to Isaac, while to the sons of the concubines that Abraham had, Abraham gave gifts, and he sent them away from Isaac, while he was still alive, to the east country.

Abraham had six children with Keturah, from which came at least seven grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren which the Torah names explicitly. The Torah then makes it clear that Abraham gave everything that he had to Isaac—including the Covenant with God and the land of Israel—while the others received gifts and were sent away from the Holy Land.

Cleodemus suggests that Epher (or another child named Yaphran), the great-grandson of Abraham, migrated to Africa—which is where the term “Africa” comes from! (This is particularly interesting because Epher was the son of Midian, and Tziporah the wife of Moses was a Midianite, and is described as a Cushite, or African/Ethiopian.) Cleodemus states that Epher, Yaphran, and Ashurim assisted the Greek hero Hercules in one of his battles. Following this, Hercules married one of their daughters—a great granddaughter of Abraham—and had a son with her. This son was Diodorus, one of the legendary founders of Sparta!

It appears that the Spartan king Areus was aware of this possible historical connection, and accepted it as fact. This connection may explain why the Spartans were so similar to ancient Israelites. (Others have suggested that because the Israelite tribe of Shimon—known for being fierce warriors—did not receive a set portion in the Holy Land, many of them moved elsewhere and ended up in Sparta, or ended up in Sparta after being expelled from Israel by the Assyrians alongside the other lost tribes.) In his book Sparta, renowned historian Hugo Jones writes that the Spartans held in the highest regard a certain ancient law-giver, much like Moses the law-giver of Israel. The Spartans celebrated new moons (Rosh Chodesh), and unlike their Greek counterparts, even a seventh day of rest! Of course, the Spartans themselves were very different from other Greeks, particularly those in Athens, whom Sparta often battled. The Spartan form of government was different, too, not an Athenian-style democracy but a monarchy that governed alongside a “council of elders”, much like Israel’s king and Sanhedrin.

Perhaps most similarly, the Spartans were known for their “stoic” way of life. The later Greek school of stoicism was modeled on the ancient way of the Spartans. This meant living simply and modestly, being happy with what one has, and most importantly, putting mind above body, and logic above emotion. This almost sounds like something out of Pirkei Avot, and is a teaching echoed across Jewish texts both ancient and modern. In fact, when Josephus tried to explain who the rabbis were to his Roman audience, he said that they were Jewish stoic philosophers!

Bust of Zeno of Citium (c. 334-262 BCE), founder of the Athenian school of Stoicism. Zeno taught that God permeates the whole universe, and knowledge of God requires goodness, fortitude, logic, and living a life of Virtue.

Gideon and Leonidas

Undoubtedly, the most famous story of the Spartans is the Battle of Thermopylae. Around 480 BCE, the Persian emperor Xerxes invaded Greece with a massive force. Xerxes first sent messengers to the Greek city-states to offer peaceful surrender. According to the historian Herodotus, Sparta’s king Leonidas told the messenger: “A slave’s life is all you understand, you know nothing of freedom. For if you did, you would have encouraged us to fight on, not only with our spear, but with everything we have.” Spoken like a true Maccabee.

The messenger then told Leonidas and his men to bow down, to which Leonidas, like his historical contemporary Mordechai, said: “We bow down before no man.” Later, when the Persian boasted that his empire was the wealthiest in the world, with gold reserves the likes of which Leonidas could only dream of, Leonidas replied: “Ares is lord. Greece has no fear of gold.”

This statement almost makes Leonidas seem like a monotheist. Indeed, the Spartans worshiped Ares—the god of war—above all others. Interestingly, the Torah commonly describes Hashem in similar military terms, like a great warrior riding a merkavah or chariot, as a “God of Legions” (Hashem Tzva’ot), and even as a “Man of War” (Ish Milchamah, see Exodus 15:3). Of course, the Spartans had their abominable statues and idols, which is perhaps the greatest distinction (and a critical one) between them and ancient Israel.

‘Gideon choosing his men’ by Gustav Doré. God told Gideon to choose worthy soldiers based on the way they drank from a spring. Those that went on their knees and bent over to drink were disqualified. Those three hundred who modestly took cupfuls to their mouth were selected. (Judges 7:5-7)

King Leonidas went on to assemble just three hundred brave men to face off against the massive Persian invasion. Although they ultimately lost, the Spartans fought valiantly, inspired their fellow Greeks, and did enough damage to hamper Persian victory. This story of three hundred, too, has a Biblical parallel. The Book of Judges records a nearly-identical narrative, with the judge Gideon assembling three hundred brave men and miraculously defeating a massive foreign invasion.

Which came first? The earliest complete Greek mythological texts date back only to the 3rd century BCE. By then, the Tanakh had long been completed, and in that same century was first translated into the Greek Septuagint. It isn’t hard to imagine Greek scholars and historians of the 3rd century getting their hands on the first Greek copies of Tanakh and incorporating those narratives into their own. In fact, the Greek-Jewish philosopher Aristobulus of Alexandria (181-124 BCE) admitted that all of Greek wisdom comes from earlier Jewish sources. The later Greek philosopher Numenius of Apamea said it best: “What is Plato but Moses speaking Greek?”

Yafet and Iapetus

The similarities between Greek myth and more ancient Jewish texts are uncanny. Hercules was a mighty warrior whose first task (of twelve) was to slay a lion, like the mighty Shimshon who first slays a lion in Judges. Deucalion survives a great flood that engulfs the whole world as punishment from an angry Zeus. Like Noah before him, Deucalion has a wife and three sons, and like Noah, Deucalion is associated with wine-making (the root of his name, deukos). Pandora’s curiosity brings about evil just like Eve’s, while Asclepius carries a healing serpent-staff like Moses. Aristophanes even taught that Zeus first made man as male and female in one body, and later split them in half, just as the Torah and Talmud do.

Roman mosaic of Hercules and the Nemean Lion, and a Roman fresco of Samson and the lion, from the same time period.

In Jewish tradition, the Greeks come from the Biblical Yavan, son of Yafet (or Yefet or Japheth), son of Noah (Genesis 10:2). Yavan is the same as the Greek Ion (or Iawones), one of the Greek gods, and Ionia, referring to one of its most important regions, and the dialect of the great Greek poets Homer and Hesiod, as well as the scholars Herodotus and Hippocrates. Meanwhile, the Greeks worshipped Iapetus (same as Yafet) as a major god. Iapetus was the father of Prometheus, the god who supposedly fashioned man from the mud of the earth. So, not surprisingly, the Biblical Yavan and Yafet are firmly in the Greek tradition as well.

In the past, we wrote how Greece had a huge influence on Judaism. Now, we see how tremendous an influence Judaism had on Greece. The two civilizations go hand-in-hand, and between them gave rise to the world we live in. Indeed, this was prophesied by Noah, who blessed his sons: “May God make Yefet great, and he will dwell in the tents of Shem” (Genesis 9:27). Shem is the earliest forefather of Israel, and Yefet of Greece. The two dwell in one tent. Winston Churchill said it best:

No two cities have counted more with mankind than Athens and Jerusalem. Their messages in religion, philosophy and art have been the main guiding light in modern faith and culture. Personally, I have always been on the side of both…

On Chanukah, we celebrate the Jewish victory over the Seleucids. Not of the Greeks as a whole, but of a relatively small faction of Syrian Greeks, far from the Greek heartland which always enjoyed a good relationship with Israel, starting with Alexander the Great and through to the Spartans and Maccabees.

Chag sameach!


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The Secret History of the Holy Temple

This week’s parasha is Pinchas and begins with God’s blessing to Pinchas for putting an end to the immorality conducted by the Israelite men with the Midianite women. Following this, the Torah describes another census, then the incident with the five daughters of Tzelafchad, the appointment of Joshua to succeed Moses, and ends with a long list of holidays and the sacrificial offerings to be brought on those days. Elsewhere in the Torah, we read that these sacrifices must be brought only in the one specific place God chooses (Deuteronomy 12:11).

A Modern Mishkan Replica in Timna, Israel

A Modern Mishkan Replica in Timna, Israel

In the Wilderness, and several centuries after, this place was the Mishkan, the “mobile sanctuary”, or tabernacle. Around the first millennium BCE, King Solomon built a permanent sanctuary in Jerusalem which would be known as the First Temple. After the Babylonians destroyed it, a Second Temple was built on the same spot, and was itself destroyed by the Romans around 70 CE. According to tradition, both destructions occurred following the 17th of Tammuz and culminated on the 9th of Av, hence the period of mourning known as the “Three Weeks” which we find ourselves in now. This is the basic history of the Holy Temple that most are familiar with. In reality, the Temple’s history has many more hidden secrets and intriguing ups and downs.

Mishkan, First Temple, and “High Places”

The Talmud (Zevachim 118b) recounts the history of the Mishkan. It was constructed under the leadership of Moses, Betzalel and Aholiab and erected a year after the Exodus. Once in Israel, the Mishkan was in the city of Gilgal for 14 years, during which time the Holy Land was conquered from the Caananites and divided up among the tribes of Israel. Once the conquest was complete, the Mishkan was moved to Shiloh, where it stood for 371 years. Finally, it spent 57 years in the towns of Nov and Gibeon until the Temple was built (480 years after the Exodus, based on I Kings 6:1).

Common Depiction of the Ark of the Covenant

Common Depiction of the Ark of the Covenant

The epicentre of the Mishkan was the Holy of Holies, which contained the Ark of the Covenant. However, towards the end of the period of Judges, the Ark was removed from the Mishkan and taken into battle against the Philistines in the hopes of bringing about a miraculous victory. No victory was had; the Israelites were defeated, suffered the deaths of the sons of Eli the Kohen Gadol, Hofni and Pinchas (not to be confused with the Pinchas of this week’s parasha), and lost the Ark of the Covenant to the Philistines. The Ark and the Mishkan would never reunite again.

King David later brought the Ark back to Jerusalem and placed it in a special tent, while the Mishkan remained in Gibeon. We see that at this point sacrifices were actually brought in both locations – David brought offerings before the Ark in Jerusalem (II Samuel 6:17), while offerings were also brought on the actual altar in Gibeon (I Kings 3:4). In fact, the Tanakh tells us that before the Temple, people brought offerings and sacrifices in various “high places” across the country (I Kings 3:2), and not just the one place “that God chooses”.

It was King Solomon who first attempted to centralize the sacrificial rituals in Jerusalem. Not surprisingly, people continued to offer sacrifices across the country instead of trekking all the way to the Holy City. Following Solomon’s death and the split of the kingdom in two, Jeroboam (king of the northern, “Israelite” kingdom) built two more temples – in the cities of Dan and Beit-El. These two temples quickly turned idolatrous, with Golden Calves being the centre of worship. The Temple in Jerusalem also turned idolatrous shortly after, with worship of Asherah trees being particularly common (I Kings 14:23, II Kings 21:7). The Talmud (Yoma 9b) tells us that it was primarily because of this idolatry that the Temple was destroyed.

While everyone knows how the Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians, it was actually sacked and emptied out long before that. Just five years after Solomon’s death, the people of Judah descended into so much idolatry that God sent the Pharaoh Shishak (or Sheshonq) against them. Shishak took away all of the gold and treasure from the Temple, and King Rehoboam (Solomon’s son) replaced what he could with essentially brass replicas (I Kings 14:25-28). So, the First Temple only lasted with all of its original holy vessels for about 35 years, since it was completed in the 11th year of Solomon’s 40-year reign (I Kings 6:38). For its remaining three and a half centuries, it was only a hollow shell of Solomon’s Temple, with counterfeit vessels, and lengthy periods of rampant idolatry.

Meanwhile, the Ark of the Covenant appears to have been taken by Shishak as well, since it is no longer mentioned in the Tanakh, except for one reference in II Chronicles 35:3, which describes how Josiah purified and rebuilt Solomon’s Temple. The corresponding passage in II Kings 23 does not mention the Ark. Some suggest that Solomon hid the original Ark somewhere in the Temple Mount, knowing that the kingdom would fall apart after his death. Josiah brought the Ark back from this secret location temporarily, before hiding it again so that the Babylonians could not carry it away (Keritot 5b). Some believe the original Ark is still hidden away deep below the Temple Mount.

The Second (Third, Fourth, and Fifth) Temple

Soon after the destruction of the First Temple, the Persians conquered the Babylonians, and Cyrus the Great permitted the Jews to return to Israel and rebuild their temple. When they came (about 50,000 altogether), the Jews met resistance by the Samaritans. These people claimed to be the original Jews that remained behind while the majority of Jews were taken to Babylon (and Assyria before that). The Babylonian Jews claimed that the Samaritans were imposters, foreigners from another land that were settled in Israel by the Assyrians. The Talmud calls them Kutim, from the place in Iraq where they are said to have originated.

The Samaritans had their own temple erected on Mt. Gerizim, which they consider the original holy mountain (as opposed to Mt. Moriah, where the temples stood). The Samaritans resisted the new Jewish arrival, and prevented them from rebuilding the Jerusalem temple for a while. Ultimately, the Second Temple was built, and the Samaritans would slowly be forgotten. A small number still exist today, and hold on to their traditional beliefs. They still claim to be the original Israelites and “Guardians of the Ark”, and insist that Mt. Gerizim is the holy mountain. Archaeological evidence shows that an elaborate temple dedicated to Hashem did exist on Mt. Gerizim as far back as the 5th century BCE. The temple was destroyed around 128 BCE by the Maccabee warrior-king and high priest John Hyrcanus (Yochanan Hurkanus), the son of Simon the Maccabee, and grandson of Matityahu, the original leader of the wars with the Syrian-Greeks, as commemorated during Chanukah.

Elephantine Papyrus asking the governor of Judea for help in rebuilding the Elephantine temple

Elephantine papyrus asking the governor of Judea for help in rebuilding the Elephantine temple

At the same time, two more temples were erected by Jews outside of Israel. In 1967, archaeologists discovered a Jewish temple in Egypt, on the island of Elephantine (modern-day Aswan). In the middle of the first millennium BCE, Elephantine had a large Jewish population. Various papyri have been found there, among them a letter to the governor of Judea to help rebuild the Elephantine temple. It is not certain when this temple was first constructed. After the Kingdom of Judah was destroyed, many Jews fled to Egypt (with the prophet Jeremiah reluctantly joining them) to avoid the Babylonians. It is possible that they built this temple instead of the Jerusalem temple. It is also possible that this temple was built alongside the Second Temple during the early Persian period. The Elephantine temple was gone by the middle of the 4th century.

Some time later, another Jewish temple was built in Egypt, in Leontopolis. We know far more about this temple, since it is mentioned by historical sources like Josephus, and is even mentioned in the Talmud. It was built in the 2nd century BCE by a kohen named Onias (Chonio), the son of Simon the High Priest. The Talmud (Menachot 109b) says this was Shimon HaTzadik, and gives two accounts as to what happened. In one account, Shimon appointed his son Onias to take his place before his death, but his older brother Shimi wrested the high priesthood from him, so Onias fled to Alexandria and built his own temple. This was in fulfilment of Isaiah’s prophecy: “In that day shall there be an altar to the Lord in the midst of the land of Egypt” (Isaiah 19:19).

Josephus suggests the Leontopolis temple stood for as long as 343 years, and was a centre of sacrifices and offerings. The great Jewish philosopher Philo offered sacrifices there, in addition to the Jerusalem Temple. It appears that in those days it was common to worship God at both temples! Indeed, the Romans were aware of this, and when the Second Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, Vespasian gave the order to destroy the temple in Leontopolis as well. The order was carried out in 73 CE, putting an end to Jewish sacrificial services.

Since then, Jews have been waiting for a Third (Jerusalem) Temple. However, as we’ve written before, it is highly unlikely that this Temple will offer any sacrifices. Instead, it will be a holy gathering place of unity, peace and prayer; a place for deeper contemplation, meditation, inspiration, and elevation. It will be, as many sources suggest, an eternal edifice that will not have to be built by man at all, but will descend miraculously from Heaven. May we merit to see it soon.