Thursday, August 6, 2015


Sylvie Honigman, Tales of High Priests and Taxes: The Books of the Maccabees and the Judean Rebellion against Antiochos IV. S. Mark Taper Foundation imprint in Jewish studies. Oakland: University of California Press, 2014. Pp. ix, 554. ISBN 9780520275584. $95.00.

Reviewed by Linda Zollschan (

Version at BMCR home site


Honigman presents a radical historical reconstruction of the causes of the Maccabaean revolt and a new reading of the First and Second Books of Maccabees. The book begins with a general introduction that provides an overview of the subject matter, the purpose of the authors of the First and Second Books of Maccabees and the problems with older research on the Maccabaean revolt, namely that of Bickerman and Tcherikover.1 She criticises their positivist reading of the sources, the framing of the relationship between the Jews in Judaea and the Seleucid empire in terms of a legalistic conception of institutions, and their views regarding the Hellenization of Jerusalem. She then outlines how she intends to proceed.

The work is divided into three parts, each of which has a methodological introduction. The first two parts contain a literary analysis of the two books of Maccabees and the third part sets out her own historical reconstruction of the events leading up to the rebellion from 200 to 164 BCE.

The first part (covering chapters 1-4) opens by discussing the use of religion in the two books of Maccabees to denote political values, and as a result piety and impiety do not convey degrees of religiosity but degrees of political approval. Honigman analyses the subject matter of the Second Book of Maccabees, noting the prominent role of Judas Maccabaeus and the refoundation of the Temple in Jerusalem. She reveals how the author manipulated the accounts from the sources he used by inserting authorial comments in the narrative. Three examples are provided: the arrival of Heliodorus in Jerusalem (2 Macc. 3), the High Priest praying for the recovery of Heliodorus (2 Macc. 3.31-32) and the second campaign in Egypt of Antiochus IV (2 Macc. 5.1-11). In each case the narrator turned causes into pretexts and presented his own causes. Honigman lays out the structure of 2 Maccabees as centred on cyclical not linear time, with four or five cycles each forming discrete units.

What gives the books meaning according to Honigman is the narrative pattern of temple building. She cites Babylonian and Biblical accounts of temple building and concludes that the Maccabees legitimized the beginning of their dynasty by linking their power with the benefaction of god. She finds in the accounts of the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem elements from ancient Near Eastern tradition. Honigman concludes that 1 and 2 Maccabees present many similarities as parallel and complementary works: they carry similar political messages; they are centred on the refoundation of the Temple; and both employ intertextuality from Biblical literature.

Part two examines the causes of the revolt as presented in the two books of Maccabees. Honigman approaches the problem through semiotics, finding codes where syndoche has one item stand for many causes. She isolates the temple as a code for widespread economic hardships involving increased taxes and land confiscations. Where modern readers see the author of 2 Maccabees as concerned with theological issues, Honigman maintains that this is a misreading and leads to a neglect of the embedded codes. Among the controversial aspects of the book are her definition of two much debated terms. She defines Ioudaismos as the legitimate social order in tune with the divine order that was established by Judas Maccabaeus when he refounded the Temple and Hellenismos as the illegitimate social order imposed by Jason when he established the Gymnasium in Jerusalem.

Chapters 6 and 7 extrapolate framing narratives that are called literary codes by the author. Most scholars consider them at face value as narratives of the religious persecution of the Jews, but Honigman argues that the historical core of the two books relates to the military suppression of a popular rebellion over economic issues.2 As an example, she analyses the establishment of the Gymnasium in Jerusalem as a synecdoche for the economic consequences of Jason's political reform. In a similar vein, complaints about altars in the countryside stand for the allotment of land to the foreign settlers.

Part 3 explores the causes of the Maccabaean revolt and begins with a discussion in chapter 8 of the beginning of Seleucid rule over Judaea under Antiochus III. Honigman is concerned to refute Bickerman's thesis that there existed in Judaea Ptolemaic and Seleucid parties and that the king gave a charter of rights to the Jews, and she denies that there were social and cultural differences between the Maccabees and the Hellenizers. Chapter 9 presents one of Honigman's main supports for her interpretation of the Maccabaean rebellion as a tax revolt, using the Heliodorus inscription from Marisha as evidence for tighter fiscal control and a major fiscal and administrative overhaul by Seleucus IV of the satrapy of Coele-Syria, which included Judaea. Yet the extant portion of the text does not support her claim: not only does the inscription not give the official position of Olympiodoros (a Seleucid official to whom the king's decree is addressed), but it does not give any details of his competencies (pp. 322 and 325) and certainly not of any reform.3

In chapter 10, Honigman draws a link between the fiscal policies of Seleucus IV and those of Antiochus IV. To sustain this view she draws parallels between political and cultural change in Jerusalem through Jason's reforms and the promotion of new priestly families to prominent positions in Ptolemaic Egypt under Ptolemy II, as well as the establishment of poleis in Asia Minor and Seleucid Babylon. In chapter 11, the author sets forth her thesis that the revolt first broke out in c.168 BCE as a popular uprising against the economic policies of Antiochus IV; it was put down with heavy loss of life and the installation of a garrison in the Akra. This rebellion was omitted from the two books of the Maccabees because it would have weakened the claim that the Maccabees were the leaders of the revolt, a claim that could not stand in these pro-Hasmonean works. In the course of the revolt sacrifices on the altar in the Temple of Jerusalem were suspended, and the altar was rebuilt by Menelaus not Antiochus IV (pp. 401-402). After the rebellion, Judaea was converted into royal lands and the Judaeans were made subjects of the polis and the king. As evidence for this the author cites parallels with the situation of dependent peasants farming royal land around the cities of Asia Minor (pp. 396-397).

There is much that one can agree with, for example Honigman's discussion of the Temple of Jerusalem as a temple bank and her new insights into structure of the two books of the Maccabees, but there are several problems that should be pointed out. While Honigman employs the research of Weitzman to draw a parallel between the standard elements in portraits of wicked kings found in Mesopotamian royal inscriptions and that of the wicked Antiochus IV in Jerusalem, she does not acknowledge his caveat that his work should not be interpreted to suggest no religious persecution of the Jews ever occurred.4 Also, the comparison of Seleucid methods of governance in Judaea with their handling of other parts of the Seleucid empire ignores the centrality of the Temple in Jerusalem for Jews in Judaea, as opposed to the many temples in the Seleucid empire for pagans to conduct their rites. Finally, taxation may not be the cause of a revolt but rather its first manifestation. For example in the revolts of Tyre under Esarhaddon in 671 BCE and in Iran in 522 BCE one of the first acts of rebels was to refuse to pay tribute.5 This may be true in the case of the Maccabaean revolt as well. 6

The volume is relatively free of errors. I noticed on p. 240 'devious' for 'deviate'. Nine items were listed in the bibliography without page numbers. Finally, a word on the structure of the book. The placement of the methodology at the beginning of the book led to frequent recounting of this material in Part 3, which resulted in unnecessary repetition and made the book overly long.

This work raises serious epistemological issues. If much of our source material can be dismissed as unreliable (p. 383) or is not to be accepted at face value (p. 293, 402), how much leeway as historians do we have to fill in the gaps? In searching for historical parallels how far outside the cultural milieu and outside the time period should we extend our reach? As one reads this book, these are the questions that continually arise. For answers I leave the readers to decide for themselves.


1.   E. Bickerman (1979), The God of the Maccabees: Studies on the Meaning and Origin of the Maccabean Revolt (trans. H.R. Moehring, Leiden) and V. Tcherikover (1959), Hellenistic Civilization and the Jews (Philadelphia-Jerusalem).
2.   She admits that the authors of 1 and 2 Maccabees were not unaware of political, social and economic issues.
3.   She does not quote the entire extant text of the inscription. For the full text in English see J. Ma (2013) "Re-examining Hanukkah", Marginalia: Los Angeles Review of Books online 2013, pp.1-7 at p. 2.
4.   S. Weitzman (2004), "Plotting Antiochus's Persecution, JBL 123, 219-234. at 222, 230.
5.   For the sources on the revolt of Tyre see "The Annals of Esarhaddon" in J.B. Pritchard (1969), Ancient Near Eastern Texts (3rd ed. Princeton), 290-291 and the Nahr el-Kalb Stele lines 31-35, in R. Borger (1956), Die Inschriften Asarhaddons, Koenigs von Syrien (Graz), 102. Also B. Oded "Israel's Neighbours", in J. Barton (ed.), The Biblical World2002 (London), vol. 1, 492-511 at 502-503. For the revolt of Bardiya in Iran from Cambyses see Herodotus 3.67; R.N. Frye (1984), Handbuch der Altertumswissenschaft: Alter Orient-Griechische Geschichte (Munich), vol. 3.7, p. 100.
6.   One also has to balance Honigman's thesis with the statement by Burg that evidence for tax revolts prior to the modern age simply does not exist: D.F. Burg (2004), A World History of Tax Rebellions (New York-London), p. xiii. See also D.J. Phillips (2010), "Tribute and Revolts in the Athenian Empire", who finds that factors other than tribute were the cause of revolts (available online through the School of Humanities, University of Western Australia, 31st Conference Australasian Society for Classical Studies papers).

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