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       Modi’in was the hometown of the Maccabees, the heroes of the Maccabean revolt against the Seleucid king who ruled over Judea. Have excavations conducted within the modern Israeli city of Modi’in finally exposed the Jewish village that the Maccabees called home?

Ancient Antioch: Mapping Political and Trade Networks with Google Earth      Researcher Kristina Neumann created an interactive map illustrating ancient Antioch’s changing political and economic relationships over time using Google Earth software.

Hanukkah, 1 and 2 Maccabees, and the Apocrypha by Jonathan Klawans      The fullest accounts of Hanukkah are not found in the Hebrew Bible at all. The Talmud has a bit more to say—including the famous story of the small, miraculous cruse of oil that lasted a full eight days. But even the Talmud stops short of telling the full story: Who was Syrian Greek Antiochus? Why did he crack down on Jerusalem’s Temple? Who were the Maccabees, and how were they successful in their rebellion against their enemies? For answers to these questions, we must look beyond traditional Jewish sources, to the books 1 and 2 Maccabees, most conveniently found in editions of the Apocrypha.

Hasmonean Jerusalem Exposed in Time for Hanukkah      Hasmonean era no longer absent from Jerusalem’s archaeological record as archaeologists uncover a large structure in the City of David.

1,600-Year-Old Bracelet Stamped with Menorah Motifs Uncovered in Dig      The Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) announced this week, during the final days of Hanukkah, that a piece of a glass bracelet engraved with symbols of the seven-branched menorah from the Second Temple was recently discovered during archaeological work in Mount Carmel National Park in Israel.

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