BIBLE HISTORY DAILY

Antiochus Epiphanes—The Bible’s Most Notoriously Forgotten Villain

Hanukah is the story of the Jewish revolt against Antiochus

Many names come to mind when someone mentions the great “villains” of the Bible. Some are foreign powers, like the Pharaoh of the Exodus or King Nebuchadnezzar, and some are even native Israelites, such as King Saul and King Ahab. The great villains in the era of the New Testament and the Early Church often took the form of great persecutors, including King Herod the Great and the Roman emperors Nero and Domitian. These names have gone on to become historically infamous, with many immortalized on stage and screen. There is, however, one name that has escaped the attention of biblical pop culture even though his actions, arguably, are worse than many of his villainous peers: Antiochus IV Epiphanes.

Antiochus IV--Epiphanes

A coin depicting Antiochus IV Epiphanes, minted ca. 173/2-164 B.C.E. On the obverse (front) side, he is shown wearing a diadem. On the reverse (back) side, we see an unnamed goddess seated on a throne while holding Nike (victory) in her right hand, and the words Basileus Antiochos–meaning emperor/king.
credit: Classical Numismatic Group, Inc. 

In the time between the return of Jewish exiles and the rise of the Roman emperors, the land of Judea was caught between two ruling powers: the Seleucid Kingdom of Syria in the north and Ptolemaic Egypt in the south. These kingdoms, both successors of Alexander the Great’s broken empire, warred with each other for more than a century while the Jewish nation sat at the crossroads. (An account of these relations, seen through the lens of prophetic visions, can be found in Daniel 11.)

Throughout most of this period, Judea remained in the periphery and was left alone. However, when Antiochus IV came to power c. 170 B.C.E., the Jewish people did not readily fit into the vision he had for his new empire. Embracing a form of imperial colonialism, Antiochus sought to bring about a sense of cultural uniformity in the hope of creating more socioeconomic stability. This included embracing the Hellenistic way of life and the worship of the Greek pantheon, especially Zeus. By taking the epitaph Epiphanes (“God Manifest”), Antiochus even claimed to be Zeus incarnate. Many of the pagan nations embraced and welcomed these policies, but in the land of Judea they caused a cultural civil war, notably among members of the high priestly families. In the midst of this turmoil, according to the books of Maccabees and the Jewish historian Josephus, Antiochus plundered the Jerusalem Temple and carried off the sacred vessels—to help finance his campaigns.

Following stories of intrigue, bribery, and military coups among the Jewish ruling class that could rival any on television these days, Antiochus arrived in Jerusalem to find the people in an open state of revolt against him and each other. The chaos he found in Judea immediately followed a humiliating defeat in Egypt, and the ruler took out his frustrations on the Jewish people. Antiochus took control of the situation by slaying many innocents and brutally enforcing his cultural and religious policies on the population. A time of great tribulation occurred as traditional practices such as circumcision were outlawed, sacred scriptures were burned, and violators were brutally punished even unto death. Having already laid siege to the Temple Mount and destroying many of its fortifications, Antiochus built a new fortress known as the Acra (literally, “the Citadel”) to consolidate his power over Jerusalem and strengthen his political agents. As a culmination, he proceeded to profane the Temple of Yahweh by erecting idols within it and even going so far as to sacrifice pigs upon the altar, presumably to Zeus.

By these actions, Antiochus Epiphanes effectively stepped into the role of the “Little Horn” of Daniel’s visions and became the Apocalyptic Supervillain Archtype that remains within the psyche of the Christian belief system to this day. One could argue that, if Antiochus hadn’t existed, neither would the popular conception of the Antichrist prevalent in certain circles of eschatology.

Following these atrocities and abominations, Antiochus left his generals in charge of Judea as he went to fight wars in the East against the Parthians. The Jews went on to revolt under the leadership of the Maccabees and throw off the yoke of the Seleucids, winning their political and religious freedom. The memory of this great event is celebrated by the Jewish people each year during Hanukkah. Meanwhile, the great villain Antiochus, Zeus-incarnate himself, suffered a military defeat in the East, contracted an illness, and subsequently died. Soon after, the Seleucid kingdom crumbled as well. Like many megalomaniacs throughout history, Antiochus’s legacy is one of a stain of memory rather than of great achievements.


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Non-Jewish sources do not paint a very flattering picture of the ruler, either. The historian Polybius, who was a contemporary of Antiochus, referred to the king as Epimanes (“the Insane One”), a play on his epitaph. He told many tales of Antiochus’s drunken eccentric behavior, including sneaking out of the palace to feast at parties with commoners and play his flute. Apparently he was such a bad musician, or just such an annoying buffoon, that most people fled the parties (Histories XXVI.10).

Today Antiochus isn’t a household name for two main reasons. First, the biblical books that mention him by name (1 and 2 Maccabees) are no longer present within the canons of the Jewish and Protestant Bibles. And second, in the canonical book where he is mentioned, the Book of Daniel, it is not by name. His infamous legacy is present, however, within the yearly celebration of Hanukkah and within the archaeological record. Though the imposing Acra fortress was systematically demolished by the Hasmoneon rulers who soon followed Antiochus, its remains were reportedly discovered in 2015 during excavations by the Israel Antiquities Authority (The Seleucid Akra). Among the remains were discovered several artifacts of interest, including sling shots, ballista stones, and arrowheads stamped with a trident—a royal symbol of Antiochus’s reign.

Like many of his peers, bad memories and a few artifacts are all that remain of one of the Bible’s most notorious villains.


Related reading in Bible History Daily:

Modi’in: Where the Maccabees Lived

Ancient Antioch: Mapping Political and Trade Networks with Google Earth

Hasmonean Jerusalem Exposed in Time for Hanukkah

1,600-Year-Old Bracelet Stamped with Menorah Motifs Uncovered in Dig


All-Access members, read more in the BAS Library:

Not a BAS Library or All-Access Member yet? Join today.

This article was originally published in Bible History Daily on May 9, 2021.


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8 Responses

  1. Ray Pritz says:

    I think instead of “epitaph” the intention was “epithet.”

  2. Dennis B. Swaney says:

    There have been several historical persons who have been considered the mythical “anti-Christ” In the early 19th Century it was Napoleon Bonaparte; in the 20th Century, Adolf Hitler of course (best candidate), but also Lenin, Stalin and other leaders of Soviet Russia, for the 21st Century, the obvious contenders are Bin Laden, the Ayatollahs of Iran, and of course Putin of Soviet Russia.

    1. bruno says:

      Don’t forget Haman. He is in the ” Book of Esther.” He was going to kill all the jews in 24 provences. worse then all….

  3. anonymous says:

    Antiochus IV Epiphanes was of and from the Greek Empire aka the belly of bronze or the 4 winged leopard or the 4 horned goat. The little horn was from the next beast Rome and rose among 10 horns uprooting 3. From the above, if Daniel says that Antiochus IV Epiphanes is not the little horn or the antichrist, which is very clear in the prophecy. Why has everyone insisted on making Antiochus Roman and then the antichrist. I guess it is a case of poor reading comprehension skills

  4. Charles Chi Halevi says:

    Although Antiochus called himself Epiphanes (“God Manifest”), his Jewish detractors punned his name into “Epimanes,” meaning “madman.”

    1. Gregory says:

      Very excellent comment regarding Antiochus Epiphanes, regarding his origins and his Grecian line. But a mistake is made regarding the “little horn” arising out of the 10 on the fourth beast, dreadful and terrible, and strong exceedingly; and it had great Iron teeth (so an aspect of Roman again) but of many years later to arise, AND Definately “anti God and Anti Christ” as this was the foretelling of the rise of the Papacy who asked of the warring power of the day to assist in hindering the Lombards, and two other menacing powers, that were “plucked up” and the “horn” has the eyes of man, a mouth speaking great things, (even eventually professing to speak ex cathedra and be God on earth) History shows that the three tiered Tiara worn by the pope, was the recognition of the three hors plucked up, and inscribed upon the mitre, Vicari Filli Dei = vicar of Christ. Which power incidentally is to be extant when The Lord Jesus Christ returns to the Earth, taking vengeance in His Fathers name. Some continuing history of the same power is resumed again in the Apocalypse (Rev 13: the 10 horns related to Dan’s Beast chap 7) And at 7:19 more info given, and vs 21 shows it’s bitter persecution of “the saints” for a period, Until the Papcy lost its temporal power! Dan 8 is Romepagan, and is the “little horn” that arose out of the “four notable horns” two of which became ensconced, Ptolemy in Egypt, and Seleucus in Syria and they warred as King of the North and King of the South, and God’s land and people the buffer, suffering because of their own behaviour towards their God. This is the power that the Son of God was to bring the son of God to weeping, as he viewed Jerusalem, and uttered those sentiments, “O Jerusalem… how of would I have gathered thee….” Behold your house is left unto you DESOLATE.” The very fulfilling of the curses in Deut 28:. See Luke 19 :41–48. The little horn, vs 9 Dan 7, is The Iron Roman, now soon to become the deliverer of God,s chastening hand upon his people, foretold of in Deut 28 : 49 — 68 whose armies marched under the Eagles banner, and was to place a yoke of Iron upon their neck (vss48,49) they seized Jerusalem after subduing the Seleucid power in Syria. Now, when we view the Image of chapter 2 of Daniel, we read of “the belly and thighs of brass (bronze), this is because Only two of the rival kingdoms arising out of Alexanders realm being divided between four of his generals, two only are dealt with because of their relationship to God’s People and Nation theJews, and God’s Land upon which His eye is continually upon. (Deut 11 : 10-12 Clare Lev 25 : 23) Daniel 11 deals with the Wars between the king of the South and the king of the North. The final battle which comes upon God’s Land and People again, is seen in the last verses of Dan. 11:::40 to end. This is played out and detailed at Ezekiel 38, & 39, where Gog, the prince of Rosh, Meschech & Tubal come into God’s Land for the last time, and crushed upon the mountains of Israel. Sincerely Gregory.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Antiochus isn’t mentioned by name in Daniel or Revelation, yet it is the scriptures that refer to him that are used to argue for an antichrist in popular culture. In Revelation the same verses are reapplied to Nero or Domitian. This was a common mode of interpreting prophecies non-literally by finding parallels in present or soon-to-happen events and then reapplying them to the similarities. Keep in mind I’m not saying that any of this undermines the accuracy of the Bible though I do believe people have misinterpreted a lot of the verses. Both things can be true:

    1. Antiochus escaped attention *by name* in bible popular culture because they argue those verses actually refer to a later antichrist.
    2. If Antiochus hadn’t existed, we wouldn’t have that concept because said verses wouldn’t exist.

  6. “One could argue that, if Antiochus hadn’t existed, neither would the popular conception of the Antichrist prevalent in certain circles of eschatology.” Undone by the author’s own: “There is, however, one name that has escaped the attention of biblical pop culture even though his actions, arguably, are worse than many of his villainous peers: Antiochus IV Epiphanes.” I suppose then that the “the popular conception of the Antichrist prevalent in certain circles of eschatology” is rather based on a host of scriptures…

Write a Reply or Comment

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8 Responses

  1. Ray Pritz says:

    I think instead of “epitaph” the intention was “epithet.”

  2. Dennis B. Swaney says:

    There have been several historical persons who have been considered the mythical “anti-Christ” In the early 19th Century it was Napoleon Bonaparte; in the 20th Century, Adolf Hitler of course (best candidate), but also Lenin, Stalin and other leaders of Soviet Russia, for the 21st Century, the obvious contenders are Bin Laden, the Ayatollahs of Iran, and of course Putin of Soviet Russia.

    1. bruno says:

      Don’t forget Haman. He is in the ” Book of Esther.” He was going to kill all the jews in 24 provences. worse then all….

  3. anonymous says:

    Antiochus IV Epiphanes was of and from the Greek Empire aka the belly of bronze or the 4 winged leopard or the 4 horned goat. The little horn was from the next beast Rome and rose among 10 horns uprooting 3. From the above, if Daniel says that Antiochus IV Epiphanes is not the little horn or the antichrist, which is very clear in the prophecy. Why has everyone insisted on making Antiochus Roman and then the antichrist. I guess it is a case of poor reading comprehension skills

  4. Charles Chi Halevi says:

    Although Antiochus called himself Epiphanes (“God Manifest”), his Jewish detractors punned his name into “Epimanes,” meaning “madman.”

    1. Gregory says:

      Very excellent comment regarding Antiochus Epiphanes, regarding his origins and his Grecian line. But a mistake is made regarding the “little horn” arising out of the 10 on the fourth beast, dreadful and terrible, and strong exceedingly; and it had great Iron teeth (so an aspect of Roman again) but of many years later to arise, AND Definately “anti God and Anti Christ” as this was the foretelling of the rise of the Papacy who asked of the warring power of the day to assist in hindering the Lombards, and two other menacing powers, that were “plucked up” and the “horn” has the eyes of man, a mouth speaking great things, (even eventually professing to speak ex cathedra and be God on earth) History shows that the three tiered Tiara worn by the pope, was the recognition of the three hors plucked up, and inscribed upon the mitre, Vicari Filli Dei = vicar of Christ. Which power incidentally is to be extant when The Lord Jesus Christ returns to the Earth, taking vengeance in His Fathers name. Some continuing history of the same power is resumed again in the Apocalypse (Rev 13: the 10 horns related to Dan’s Beast chap 7) And at 7:19 more info given, and vs 21 shows it’s bitter persecution of “the saints” for a period, Until the Papcy lost its temporal power! Dan 8 is Romepagan, and is the “little horn” that arose out of the “four notable horns” two of which became ensconced, Ptolemy in Egypt, and Seleucus in Syria and they warred as King of the North and King of the South, and God’s land and people the buffer, suffering because of their own behaviour towards their God. This is the power that the Son of God was to bring the son of God to weeping, as he viewed Jerusalem, and uttered those sentiments, “O Jerusalem… how of would I have gathered thee….” Behold your house is left unto you DESOLATE.” The very fulfilling of the curses in Deut 28:. See Luke 19 :41–48. The little horn, vs 9 Dan 7, is The Iron Roman, now soon to become the deliverer of God,s chastening hand upon his people, foretold of in Deut 28 : 49 — 68 whose armies marched under the Eagles banner, and was to place a yoke of Iron upon their neck (vss48,49) they seized Jerusalem after subduing the Seleucid power in Syria. Now, when we view the Image of chapter 2 of Daniel, we read of “the belly and thighs of brass (bronze), this is because Only two of the rival kingdoms arising out of Alexanders realm being divided between four of his generals, two only are dealt with because of their relationship to God’s People and Nation theJews, and God’s Land upon which His eye is continually upon. (Deut 11 : 10-12 Clare Lev 25 : 23) Daniel 11 deals with the Wars between the king of the South and the king of the North. The final battle which comes upon God’s Land and People again, is seen in the last verses of Dan. 11:::40 to end. This is played out and detailed at Ezekiel 38, & 39, where Gog, the prince of Rosh, Meschech & Tubal come into God’s Land for the last time, and crushed upon the mountains of Israel. Sincerely Gregory.

  5. Anonymous says:

    Antiochus isn’t mentioned by name in Daniel or Revelation, yet it is the scriptures that refer to him that are used to argue for an antichrist in popular culture. In Revelation the same verses are reapplied to Nero or Domitian. This was a common mode of interpreting prophecies non-literally by finding parallels in present or soon-to-happen events and then reapplying them to the similarities. Keep in mind I’m not saying that any of this undermines the accuracy of the Bible though I do believe people have misinterpreted a lot of the verses. Both things can be true:

    1. Antiochus escaped attention *by name* in bible popular culture because they argue those verses actually refer to a later antichrist.
    2. If Antiochus hadn’t existed, we wouldn’t have that concept because said verses wouldn’t exist.

  6. “One could argue that, if Antiochus hadn’t existed, neither would the popular conception of the Antichrist prevalent in certain circles of eschatology.” Undone by the author’s own: “There is, however, one name that has escaped the attention of biblical pop culture even though his actions, arguably, are worse than many of his villainous peers: Antiochus IV Epiphanes.” I suppose then that the “the popular conception of the Antichrist prevalent in certain circles of eschatology” is rather based on a host of scriptures…

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