Chanukka in Antiquity: 2 Maccabees and the Heliodorus Stele


Last year we knew that the story of Heliodorus in the Second Book of Maccabees was built around a kernel of truth. The story goes that the Emperor Seleucus IV (187-175 BCE) sends his chief minister to the Temple in Jerusalem to rob its treasury. To the consternation of the priests and the people, Heliodorus marches into the Temple, but there he is confronted by a golden rider on a warlike horse and beaten to the ground by two golden boys (3:25). He is dragged out empty-handed and hardly conscious.

t’s a good story and has been illustrated by such great artists as Raphael in the 16th century and Gustav Doré in the 19th, but was it true? That sounds most unlikely, but the Heliodorus stele (inscribed tablet) that was lent to theIsrael Museum by the Steinhardt family and exhibited there last year tells a related story. It is written in pure Greek bureaucrat-speak and tells how the Emperor Seleucus instructs Heliodorus in 178 BCE to check the temples of the empire to see that they are suited to the needs of the population and their gods, and in particular to inspect the temples of Coele-Syria, the land later to be called Palestine and Israel.

Heliodorus sends the letter on to “his brother” Dorymenes, and he in turn writes to one Diophanes telling him, “You will do well to take care that everything is carried out according to the instructions.” In other words, the emperor’s orders are passed down the line, and probably it was Diophanes who tried to check the Temple and was prevented from raiding it, but the author of Second Maccabees just remembered the most important name, that of Heliodorus.

And from the stele – found with its base broken off – that was on display in the Israel Museum, we see that there is a contemporary record of the emperor’s orders and how Heliodorus passed them on to his subordinates. But is the stele genuine? Today, anything that is not found in a controlled archeological excavation is suspected of being a fake. The stele was acquired by Michael and Judy Steinhardt from a collector and is of unknown provenance, so it is under suspicion, and although the Israel Museumexhibited it, it would not be the first time that its experts might have been mistaken.

However, a most interesting publication was printed this February. In an instruction dig in Beit Guvrin, three pieces of stone, inscribed in Greek, were found by young volunteers in 2005 and 2006. The pieces were small and of little interest until they were shown in 2008 to Prof. Dov Gera of Ben-Gurion University, who saw that they were part of the missing base of the Heliodorus stele. It is therefore clear that the stele is genuine, seeing that fragments of it have been retrieved from a controlled excavation supervised by experts. That makes us confident that the story recorded in Second Maccabees is based on a historical event.

Read the rest here: Hanukka, Another Version by Stephen Gabriel Rosenberg (JPost)

See Raphael’s masterful rendition of Heliodorus’ Expulsion from the Temple

Thanks to J Lauer.

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