One of my most important goals in studying ancient Epicureanism is to gain a better understanding of the present.
Thus it comes to mind now that this is the season when people of Jewish persuasion say “Happy Hanukkah.” To those not of Jewish heritage, the history behind the holiday may be obscure. I know it has in the past been obscure to me, but a little reading indicates that Hanukkah has a rather jarring Epicurean connection. I have not begun to analyze this information enough to evaluate who was right and who was wrong in the ancient story, but I do think it is important to know as much history as possible so we can better understand how we got to where we are today.
A little basic Wikipedia research indicates that the historical event giving rise to the celebration was the recovery of the Temple in Jerusalem from Greek-oriented (Hellenistic) enemies of orthodox Judaism aligned with Antiochus IV. The significance to Epicureans is that Antiochus IV was disliked by the orthodox Jews at least in part because he favored Epicureanism. This information comes from the Jewish Virtual Library, which contains the following:
“The transformation of Epicureanism into a competitive sect celebrating Epicurus as “savior” increased the already existing opposition to it. Rhetorical literature falsely accused Epicurus of materialistic hedonism. Complaints of Epicurean dogmatism, “beguiling speech” (Col. 2:4), and compelling argumentation (of Avot 2:14 “…[know] what to answer the Epicurean”) are frequently heard. Rabbinic condemnation reflects knowledge of Greco-Roman rhetoric, experiences with individuals and centers (Gadara, Gaza, Caesarea), and, possibly, the favoritism shown to Epicureanism by *Antiochus Epiphanes and *Hadrian. “Epicurean” became thus a byword for “deviance” – ranging from disrespect to atheism – in Philo, Josephus, and rabbinism alike (see *Apikoros). An early unexpanded version of the “four who entered ‘Paradise'” (Ḥag. 14b) may once have signified Epicurus’ school (“the garden”), since it fits Akiva’s past, Ben Azzai’s celibacy and many Epicurean sayings, Elisha b. Avuyah’s heterodoxy, and Ben Zoma’s gnosticism (Epicureanism and Gnosticism were equated also by the Church Fathers). Akiva’s “mystical” admonition (Ḥag. 14b) could easily have been a parody on the “apocalyptic”-enthusiastic style of the Epicureans (parallel parody H. Usener, Epicurea, fragm. 364; Gen. R. 1:5, Theodor-Albeck, p. 2 mentions “nothing from nothing”; Mid. Ps. to 1:22 the “automatic” universe; cf. Jos., Ant., 10:280).
Even more interesting is a section of Epicurus.net on Epicureanism’s relations with Judaism which explains the relationship as follows:
“In the Talmudic Mishnah, one of the authoritative documents of Rabbinical Judaism, there is a remarkable statement in the tractate Sanhedrin that defines the Jewish religion in relation to Epicureanism:
“All Israel has a share in the world to come, as Isaiah said: And all of your people who are righteous will merit eternity and inherit the land. And these are the people who do not merit the world to come: The ones who say that there is no resurrection of the dead, and those who deny the Torah is from the heavens, and Epicureans (‘Apikorsim’).”
Modern Jews use “apikoros” as a generic term for an unbeliever, but the authors of the Talmud were clearly singling out followers of Epicurus. In effect, this statement is saying that all of Israel will enjoy eternal life except those who get corrupted by Epicurus or certain characteristic Epicurean beliefs (namely, Epicurean denials of an after-life and of divine providence). This peculiar hostility towards Epicureanism is all the more remarkable for the fact that this particular statement was later taken to be the basis for speculation about the meaning of Jewishness among Rabbis of the Middle Ages, the most famous of whom, Moses Maimonides, explicitly continued the Jewish tradition of denouncing Epicureanism late in the 12th century A.D.
The origins of this anti-Epicurean element of Jewish thought can be traced to the 2nd century B.C., when the Seleucid monarch Antiochus IV Epiphanes embarked on a military campaign against Egypt in an attempt to conquer his Ptolemaic rival. Judea had the misfortune to be located between the Seleucid heartland of Syria and Ptolemaic Egypt, and the Judeans were divided into pro-Seleucid and pro-Ptolemaic factions. At this time, the hereditary Zadokite priesthood had been deeply influenced by Greek culture, adopting doctrines that tended to discount the conservative oral tradition and deny some of the more superstitious beliefs then current, notably the belief in bodily resurrection. At the time of Antiochus’s campaign, the Zadokite high priest was a pro-Ptolemaic partisan.
Antiochus, anxious to secure Judea in connection with his Egyptian expedition and to create a more culturally-unified empire, had the Zadokite high priest removed and founded a Greek-style Gymnasium in Jerusalem. Antiochus was sympathetic to Epicureanism (albeit not acting in accord with Epicurus’s injunctions to avoid politics), so his attempt at a forced hellenization of Judea was closely linked to Epicureanism in the minds of the Judean patriots. Another factor was that Epicureans were prominent in the hellenized cities of Galilee, creating a rivalry between Epicureanism and the traditional religion among the northern Judeans. Antiochus’s provocations brought about a strong nationalistic reaction, which exploded into violence when a rumor of Antiochus’s death reached Judea. While the rumor was false, nonetheless the Hasmonean leader Judas Maccabeus was ultimately successful in his revolt against the Seleucids.
After the Hasmoneans consolidated their power, a rather delicate situation developed with respect to the priesthood. The hereditary successors to the priesthood had had their legitimacy fatally undermined by their hellenizing tendencies and their close association with the foreign Ptolemaic monarchy. The party of the “separatists” (the Pharisees), prevented the Zadokite legitimists (the Sadducees) from reassuming control of the temple in Jerusalem, while some of the Sadducees set up a rival temple in the Egyptian city of Leontopolis.
To further complicate matters, Judea later became a client state of Rome, and the Romans installed their own Jewish rulers and Sadducee priests. Not only were they opposed by the Pharisees, other anti-foreign religious factions arose during the late Hasmonean period (early 1rst century B.C.) to challenge the Pharisees and the Sadducees and the Samaritans (a regional offshoot of Judaism whose followers had established their own center of worship on Mount Gezzerim), their adherents questioning the necessity for temple ritual and priestly authority altogether. One of these dissident groups called themselves the “keepers” (Nazarim) of divine wisdom. These Nazarim, or Nazarenes, taught that righteousness towards others along with frequent rituals of baptism and anointment and a ritual eucharist for the dead was sufficient to place oneself in accord with God without the traditional temple ceremonies. After the Roman conquest of Judea, the Nazarene cults became one of the focal points of resistance to Roman and Herodian rule, as both the Pharisees and Sadducees were co-opted by the Herodian monarchy that had been installed by the Romans.
The historical significance of these intricacies of ancient Judean politics is that the Pharisees are the direct ancestors of modern Rabbinical Judaism, while the Nazarene movement spawned two religions that have survived to modern times, the Mandaean and the Christian. The founding of these two Nazarene religions was attributed to John the Baptist and Jesus, respectively.
The Talmud is derived from the Pharisaic oral tradition, so the Talmud passage quoted above can be explained as a Pharisaic attack on the Sadducees by comparing some of the distinctive Sadducee beliefs to those of the hated Seleucid defiler of the Temple. It seems that the Sadducees could never quite live down the charge of having sold out to the Seleucids and the Romans, as they disappeared shortly after the Romans destroyed the Jerusalem Temple in 70 A.D. and the genealogical records for proving their Zadokite ancestry (the last remaining basis for Sadducee legitimacy) along with it. Today, the memory of the Maccabean revolt against Antiochus survives in the Jewish celebration of Hanukkah, and the legacy of the factional conflicts of the Hasmonean period lives on in the separate religions of the Jews, Mandaeans, and Christians and in the Talmudic denunciation of Epicureanism.
It is also worthy to note how strikingly close several critical beliefs of the ancient Sadduccees mirrored those of Epicurus. Also from Wikipedia:
According to Josephus, the Sadducees believed that:
- There is no fate
- God does not commit evil
- man has free will; “man has the free choice of good or evil”
- the soul is not immortal; there is no afterlife, and
- there are no rewards or penalties after death
The Sadducees rejected the belief in the Resurrection of the Dead, which was a central tenet believe by Pharisees and by Early Christians.
I am sure there is much more to this subject than meets the eye, and I look forward to studying more about it in the future. For the time being, I think the ancient Epicureans might have at least considered saying “Happy Hannukah” to the Sadducees!”
Here are some additional references relevant to this topic:
A great part of Judæa consists of scattered villages. They have also towns. Jerusalemis the capital. There stood a temple of immense wealth. First came the city with its fortifications, then the royal palace, then, within the innermost defences, the temple itself. Only the Jew might approach the gates; all but priests were forbidden to pass the threshold. While the East was under the sway of the Assyrians, the Medes, and the Persians, Jews were the most contemptible of the subject tribes. When the Macedonians became supreme, King Antiochus strove to destroy the national superstition, and to introduce Greek civilization, but was prevented by his war with the Parthians from at all improving this vilest of nations; for at this time the revolt of Arsaces had taken place. The Macedonian power was now weak, while the Parthian had not yet reached its full strength, and, as the Romans were still far off, the Jews chose kings for themselves. Expelled by the fickle populace, and regaining their throne by force of arms, these princes, while they ventured on the wholesale banishment of their subjects, on the destruction of cities, on the murder of brothers, wives, and parents, and the other usual atrocities of despots, fostered the national superstition by appropriating the dignity of the priesthood as the support of their political power.
Hence we came to Rabi, fatigued: because we made a long journey, and it was rendered still more troublesome by the rains. Next day the weather was better, the road worse, even to the very walls of Barium that abounds in fish. In the next place Egnatia, which [seems to have] been built on troubled waters, gave us occasion for jests and laughter; for they wanted to persuade us, that at this sacred portal the incense melted without fire. The Jew Apella may believe this, not I. For I have learned [from Epicurus], that the gods dwell in a state of tranquillity; nor, if nature effect any wonder, that the anxious gods send it from the high canopy of the heavens.
The next thing is that charge about the Jewish gold. And this, forsooth, is the reason why this cause is pleaded near the steps of Aurelius. It is on account of this charge, O Laelius, that this place and that mob has been selected by you. You know how numerous that crowd is, how great is its unanimity, and of what weight it is in the popular assemblies. I will speak in a low voice, just so as to let the judges hear me. For men are not wanting who would be glad to excite that people against me and against every eminent man; and I will not assist them and enable them to do so more easily.  As gold, under pretence of being given to the Jews, was accustomed every year to be exported out of Italy and all the provinces to Jerusalem, Flaccus issued an edict establishing a law that it should not be lawful for gold to be exported out of Asia. And who is there, O judges, who cannot honestly praise this measure? The senate had often decided, and when I was consul it came to a most solemn resolution that gold ought not to be exported. But to resist this barbarous superstition were an act of dignity, to despise the multitude of Jews, which at times was most unruly in the assemblies in defence of the interests of the republic, was an act of the greatest wisdom. “But Cnaeus Pompeius, after he had taken Jerusalem, though he was a conqueror, touched nothing which was in that temple.”  In the first place, he acted wisely, as he did in many other instances, in leaving no room for his detractors to say anything against him, in a city so prone to suspicion and to evil speaking. For I do not suppose that the religion of the Jews, our enemies, was any obstacle to that most illustrious general, but that he was hindered by his own modesty. Where then is the guilt? Since you nowhere impute any theft to us, since you approve of the edict, and confess that it was passed in due form, and did not deny that the gold was openly sought for and produced the facts of the case themselves show that the business was executed by the instrumentality of men of the highest character. There was a hundredweight of gold, more or less openly seized at Apamea, and weighed out in the forum at the feet of the praetor, by Sextus Caesius, a Roman knight, a most excellent and upright man; twenty pounds weight or a little more were seized at Laodicea, by Lucius Peducaeus, who is here in court, one of our judges; some was seized also at Adramyttium, by Cnaeus Domitius, the lieutenant, and a small quantity at Pergamus.  The amount of the gold is known; the gold is in the treasury; no theft is imputed to him; but it is attempted to render him unpopular. The speaker turns away from the judges, and addresses himself to the surrounding multitude. Each city, O Laelius, has its own peculiar religion we have ours. While Jerusalem was flourishing, and while the Jews were in a peaceful state, still the religious ceremonies and observances of that people were very much at variance with the splendour of this empire and the dignity of our name and the institutions of our ancestors. And they are the more odious to us now because that nation has shown by arms what were its feelings towards our supremacy. How dear it was to the immortal gods is proved by its having been defeated, by its revenues having been farmed out to our contractors, by its being reduced to a state of subjection.