From a Failed Burglary to Hanukkah History

A man named Simon, captain of the Temple, had a disagreement with the high priest . . . , and when he could not prevail, he went to Apollonius, governor of [the region]. He reported to him that the treasury in Jerusalem was full of untold sums of money, so that the amount of the funds could not be reckoned, and that they did not belong to the account of the sacrifices, but that it was possible for them to fall under the control of the king.
When Apollonius met the king, he told him of the money [at the Temple]. The king chose Heliodorus, who was in charge of his affairs, and sent him with commands to effect the removal of the aforesaid money. Heliodorus at once set out on his journey . . . to carry out the king’s purpos

The Book of Maccabees II, Ch. 3

In early 2007, a large stele with sections missing at its base was provided on loan to the Israel Museum by Birthright Israel co-founder Michael Steinhardt and his wife.

This 178 BCE stele – cut 11 years before the Maccabean Revolt – contains 28 lines of Greek text with the instructions from Syrian-Greek King Seleucus IV, who ruled Judea from Antioch, to his chief minister Heliodorus appointing one Olympiodorus to begin collecting money from all of the temples in the region.

The king’s order marked a significant shift in the Seleucid policy on Jewish autonomy. Until that point, the Seleucid Empire had not taxed the Jews of the region. The Jews of Jerusalem had welcomed Seleucus’s father, Antiochus III, by opening the city gates to his army in 200 BCE, in return for which he had given them a charter that allowed them to live according to their ancestral ways, exempted the priests from taxes and even made royal contributions to the Temple upkeep and sacrifices. The Book of Maccabees concurs: “the kings themselves honored the place and glorified the temple with the finest presents” (Mac. 2, Ch. 3)

That policy change recorded on the stele culminated in a vicious Seleucid crackdown on the Jews of Judea and the looting of the Temple ten years later in 168-167 BCE, which prompted the Maccabean Revolt as memorialized in the Hanukkah story.

The Beit Guvrin Volunteer Digs

Southwest of Jerusalem, in Judean hills, lies Tel Maresha – the site of a once prosperous large town. In 2019, I visited this area, part of the Beit Guvrin National Park, dotted with caves and underground passages, as well as with the columbaria to raise pigeons and doves for, most likely, sacrifices at the Temple in Jerusalem.

The Israeli Antiquities Authority has been offering visitors participation in “Dig for a Day,” helping the archeologists excavating the caves. In December 2005, a lucky “Dig for a Day” participant found there a broken stone piece which bore a Greek inscription of 13 lines. “The find was distinctive because it was written not on local kirton stone, but on higher-quality Hebron limestone,” the “Dig for a Day” head, Dr. Ian Stern of Hebrew Union College, told The Jerusalem Post.

The following summer, two more stone fragments with Greek text were found at the same Maresha site, and excitement about the potential significance of the finds mounted.

Studying the three pieces found at Beit Guvrin digs, Dr. Dov Gera, a Ben-Gurion University researcher of Jewish history and Greek writing, recalled seeing a similar inscription on a stele exhibited at the Israel Museum.

When the stele was placed together for the first time with the three fragments found by volunteer diggers, they matched perfectly. Furthermore, based on its patina and the soil remnants still attached, the stele itself must have come from the same chalky cave area where the other three pieces were found.

The stele’s full text, presumably meant to be seen by the residents of Maresha – informs local citizens of the Olympiodorus’s appointment to oversee the collection of taxes from all of the major sanctuaries within the region, including – explicitly – the Temple in Jerusalem.

Heliodorus, the Mysterious Rider, and the “Gloriously Beautiful” Young Men

Seleucids were Hellenistic kings, who ultimately sought to Hellenize the Jews, to deprive them of their religious autonomy. Moreover, the royal treasure had essentially run out of money and was deep in debt, in particular, to Rome.

As stated above in the Book of Maccabees, King Seleucus IV received the information about “untold sums of money” stored in the Jerusalem Temple, and sent Heliodorus to raid the treasure. Meeting Heliodorus in Jerusalem, Maccabees II continues, High Priest tried to dissuade Heliodorus, but he wouldn’t listen.

He then headed to the Temple treasury, but couldn’t enter.

For there appeared to [him] a magnificently caparisoned horse, with a rider of frightening mien, and it rushed furiously at Heliodorus and struck at him with its front hoofs. Its rider was seen to have armor and weapons of gold. Two young men also appeared to him, remarkably strong, gloriously beautiful and splendidly dressed, who stood on each side of him and scourged him continuously, inflicting many blows on him. When he suddenly fell to the ground and deep darkness came over him, his men took him up and put him on a stretcher and carried him away.
(Maccabees II, Ch. 3: 25-28)

It is much more likely that it wasn’t Heliodorus, but Olympiodorus, who attempted to enter the Temple and was rebuffed, but most people never heard of a minor figure like Olympiodorus, while Heliodorus was the widely known and hated ruler of the area. Thus, when the word got out about an aborted attempt by the Seleucids to raid the temple treasure, the population assumed it was Heliodorus himself who went in.

From the Failed Burglary to the Lights of Hanukkah

The temple was not raided this time, and Heliodorus’s quest failed. Three years later, in 175 BCE, Heliodorus murdered Seleucus IV and took power, only to be quickly overthrown by the king’s brother Antiochus IV. In 169/168 BCE, Antiochus turned the Temple into a shrine to the Greek god Zeus, the Temple treasury was robbed, the Holy of Holies was desecrated, and all Jewish religious customs were outlawed.

Around 167 BCE, revolt broke out in Judea. Hearing of the uprising, the king marched his army into Judea in an attempt to suppress it. As described in Maccabees II, “raging like a wild animal, [Antiochus] took Jerusalem by storm. He ordered his soldiers to cut down without mercy those whom they met and to slay those who took refuge in their houses. There was a massacre of young and old, a killing of women and children, a slaughter of virgins and infants. In the space of three days, 80,000 were lost, 40,000 meeting a violent death, and the same number being sold into slavery.”

Ongoing violence culminated in the Maccabean Revolt against the empire, led by Mattathias and his five sons, Judah, Eleazar, Simeon, Yohanan and Jonathon. By 164 BCE, the revolt had ended in success, and the desecrated Temple was liberated and cleansed on the 25th of Kislev – the first day of Hanukkah to this day.

You can now view the reconstituted Heliodorus stele, including the three new pieces, at the Israel Museum. With these new additions, the stele places of the beginning of the Hanukkah story in its historical context.

Based in part on the excerpts from:

Book of Maccabees II. Bible: Revised Standard Version.

Blondy, Brian. “Pieces of Hanukkah brought together.” The Jerusalem Post, Dec. 11, 2009.

Rosenberg, Steven. “The robbery & murder behind the story of Hanukkah.” The Jerusalem Post, Dec. 28, 2008.

Bird Sacrifices in Ancient Israel

In July 2019, touring the caves of Tel Maresha in Beit Guvrin National Park (Israel), we came upon a columbarium.

What is commonly known as a columbarium is a cemetery structure for the storage of funerary urns, holding cremated remains of the deceased, usually rows upon rows of mailbox-like openings in the wall. So it was here, except, the mailbox openings were strangely small.

This was an example of the columbarium’s second meaning – from the Latin ‘columba‘ (‘pigeon’) – nesting boxes or perches for pigeons and doves. Thousands of them were neatly carved in the soft, chalky limestone of the Maresha caves.

So far more than 60 columbaria have been found in the Maresha region. Why so many?

As the article in The Jerusalem Post explains:

Pigeons and doves often appear in the Bible as animals fit to be offered to God. For example, as described in Leviticus, they were one of the options for an atoning sacrifice for those who committed several types of sin or who had become impure. Moreover, a mother was required to bring a turtledove after completing her purification period following childbirth.

The article focuses on the research in the bird remains around the Temple Mount from the pre-Babylonian exile period.

Pigeons could also be used for food as well as for communication, carrying messages, even as recently as during the 1948 War for Independence.

In 2,000+ years, these birds never actually left the caves of Tel Maresha. Walking the site, I saw some of the perches full of these cooing creatures, nesting peacefully on their eggs.

PS. The caves of Tel Maresha recently yielded some stunning archaeological discoveries related to Hanukkah history.

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is 20190621_1214563-1.jpg
The author standing up to the light in a Maresha cave.

All photos on this page are © Lane Igoudin, 2019.