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The Oxford History of the Biblical World An in-depth chaptered work by leading scholars providing a chronological overview of the history of biblical times.

Under the First Two Seleucid Kings

The historical sources, such as the Zenon papyri and the narrative of Josephus, present a micro view of the situation in Judea and the rest of Syria-Palestine during the third century BCE. From other records we derive a larger picture of struggle between the two great Hellenistic powers that divided up the Near East after Alexander's death, the Ptolemies and the Seleucids. Although the Ptolemies maintained their control over the area, which could be conceived as either their northernmost territory or the Selucuids' southern border, there were no fewer than a half dozen separate military campaigns in this period. Slowly but noticeably the advantage began to shift in favor of the Seleucids. Aggressive, if prolonged, actions by Antiochus III resulted ultimately in their gaining decisive control of the area by century's end.

Jews, under the leadership of the high priest Simon (widely known as Simon the Just) and members of the Tobiad family, played an active role in favor of Antiochus III, and they were appropriately rewarded for their support. (Those Jews who had fought alongside the Ptolemies left Judea, finding refuge in Egypt.) Among the specific benefits the Jews received were Seleucid aid in efforts to rebuild Jerusalem's Temple and to maintain its ritual of daily offerings, official support for the special status of Jerusalem and its Temple (for example, foreigners were forbidden to enter the sanctuary), reduction or elimination of some taxes, and recognition of the right to live according to their ancestral laws. These actions were intended to establish an era of peaceful relations between Seleucid overlords and Jewish subjects. On the whole such mutually desirable results were achieved and sustained during the remainder of Antiochus III's reign, down to 187 BCE, and the rule of his son Seleucus IV, who governed until 175.

Antiochus III was far less astute in dealing with a rising western European power that was making its initial forays into the Hellenistic East. The Romans, who until now had been content to flex their muscles on the Italian peninsula and elsewhere in the western Mediterranean, were drawn to the East at about the same time Antiochus had succeeded in capturing Syria-Palestine from the Ptolemies. Although their immediate goal, successfully pursued, was to stop a Macedonian king from enlarging his holdings, the Romans were quick to view aggressive Seleucid activities as equally alarming. A Roman victory over Seleucid forces in Asia Minor resulted in the imposition of harsh, if deserved, penalties, including the requirement that Antiochus and his successors pay Rome a huge sum of money over a decade or so. When the usual sources of revenue proved inadequate for this purpose, Seleucid leaders resorted to the forcible extraction of funds from religious sanctuaries in their territories. In antiquity, temples and similar institutions regularly served as banks, where people felt it safe to leave large sums of money, and they were also the recipients of often lavish gifts from grateful worshipers. We are told that Antiochus III died in an attempt to take wealth by force from such a sanctuary. Throughout his reign the Temple in Jerusalem was spared this ultimate indignity, but its lucrative coffers were to attract the attention of his successors.

During the first part of his reign, Seleucus IV, Antiochus's son and successor, found it expedient to follow his father's policies toward the Jews. They had worked in achieving their twin goals of producing peace and revenue. If they also pleased Jewish religious sensibilities, all the better. But just below the surface lay pent-up rivalries and antagonisms among influential families in Jerusalem's leadership, all of which rose to the surface during the final year or so of Seleucus's rule and grew in severity during the kingship of his brother and successor, the infamous Antiochus IV Epiphanes. By this time Onias III had succeeded to the office of high priest after the highly regarded tenure of Simon the Just. One of his officials, also named Simon, was stung by the high priest's refusal to allow him to expand the scope of his responsibilities, and he appealed to the Seleucid governor of the region. While such an appeal was not yet normal procedure for their Jewish subjects, Seleucid officials did regularly intervene in the internal affairs of subject peoples and in extraordinary circumstances. Since the very appointment of the high priest of Jerusalem was subject to their approval, the Seleucids would not have hesitated to intervene here if they thought it sufficiently important and to their benefit. With this in mind, Simon sweetened the deal by pointing out that substantial funds were kept at the Temple, funds that would be very useful for the perpetually cash-strapped Seleucid monarch. When Seleucus's prime minister, Heliodorus by name, attempted to force his way into the Temple treasury, he was thwarted by the miraculous appearance of two angels—at least that is the story told in Jewish sources. Whatever happened, this much is clear: Heliodorus returned empty-handed to the Seleucid capital of Antioch, but at the same time the Seleucids benefited from learning of splits among Jewish leaders that they could exploit and of treasures they could confiscate when a more propitious occasion arose.

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