Chapter 15

1 Maccabees 15

1) Antiochus, son of King Demetrius, sent a letter from the islands of the sea to Simon, the priest and ethnarch of the Jews, and to all the nation,

COMMENTARY:  That would be Antiochus VII Sidetes, the twenty year old son of Darius I and younger brother of Darius II who currently pines in Parthian custody.  “Islands of the Sea” refer to the islands that belong to Greece.  Antiochus came most lately from Rhodes, one of the largest and most important islands, where he learned of his brother’s imprisonment, though he was brought up in Sides (hence the name “Sidetes”.)



2) which read as follows:

“King Antiochus sends greetings to Simon, the high priest and ethnarch, and to the Jewish nation.

COMMENTARY:  So the new administration confirms Simon’s titles, although in fact he’s claiming the title of “King” prematurely.  His brother is still quite alive.  Sort of king pro tem.



3) Whereas certain villains have gained control of the kingdom of our ancestors, I intend to reclaim it, that I may restore it to its former state. I have recruited a large number of mercenary troops and equipped warships.

COMMENTARY:  “There’s a new sheriff in town, and I’ve got the firepower to take back what’s ours.”  Warships might seem useless in desert combat, but he had to get the troops there somehow.



4)  I intend to make a landing in the country so that I may take revenge on those who have ruined our country and laid waste many cities in my kingdom.

COMMENTARY:  This phrase, seemingly referring to Trypho, turned out to be more loaded than it appeared.



5)  “Now, therefore, I confirm to you all the tax exemptions that the kings before me granted you and whatever other privileges they conceded to you. 6)  I authorize you to coin your own money, as legal tender in your country. 7)  Jerusalem and its sanctuary shall be free. All the weapons you have prepared and all the strongholds you have built and now occupy shall remain in your possession. 8)  All debts, present or future, due to the royal treasury shall be canceled for you, now and for all time. 9)  When we establish our kingdom, we will greatly honor you and your nation and the temple, so that your glory will be manifest in all the earth.”

COMMENTARY:  “So you don’t have to do anything messy while I’m occupied with fighting, such as trying your luck with some other king.”  But he needs to add something novel to the stakes in order to also get the Jews to side with him should his brother escape unexpectedly, so he adds the valuable touch of letting Simon mint his own coins.  Simon had been doing that already, anyway, as a sign of Judea’s independence, so Antiochus might also have been “making a virtue of necessity” as my Grandma would have said.


The coins count in “Years of Simon” and start in Year One.  Oddly enough, although Simon ruled for seven years, the dates on all Simon-era coins found so far go no further than five.  Why, at this point, is anybody’s guess.


Also interesting is that while these coins bore all inscriptions in Hebrew letters, later Hasmodian royals issued them stamped in Greek instead, and without their names on the coins.  This shows the erosion of Jewish independence.

In true Jewish fashion, no coin ever bore a portrait of anyone.  Simon’s bore a palm tree between baskets of dates.  Later coins bore such things as a cup, a branch of lilies, a pod of grapes, a palm, and similar symbols.  The Israelites believed that idolatry often began with commemorating a lost loved one with a portrait, and then idealizing that loved one into godhood.  In some cases they were probably correct.



10)  In the one hundred and seventy-fourth year Antiochus invaded the land of his ancestors, and all the troops rallied to him, so that few were left with Trypho.

COMMENTARY:  We’re at 138 BC.  Trypho has not exactly charmed those he’s ruled.



11) Pursued by Antiochus, Trypho fled to Dor, by the sea,

COMMENTARY:  Dor was a coastal fortress fifteen miles south of Carmel. (That’s around twenty-four kilometers, for those of you in practically every other country but the stubborn USA.)  Currently it’s known as Tanturah.



12)  realizing what troubles had come upon him now that his soldiers had deserted him.

COMMENTARY:  The most tyrannical monarch still needs the consent of somebody else to empower him—an army, financiers, voters, somebody.



13)  Antiochus encamped before Dor with a hundred and twenty thousand infantry and eight thousand cavalry.

COMMENTARY:  Commentators agree that this is not a likely number; the sparse populace of the region couldn’t sustain such an army.



14)  While he surrounded the city, his ships closed from the sea, so that he pressed it hard by land and sea and let no one go in or out.

COMMENTARY:  One of the most basic strategies, and most effective if you can pull it off: get your enemy between two jaws and close them.



15) Meanwhile, Numenius and his companions came from Rome with letters containing this message to various kings and countries:

COMMENTARY:  Numenius has finally made the trip back home, his mission a success.  He carries a copy of a circular letter to Rome’s allies, subjects, and satellites.



16) “Lucius, Consul of the Romans, sends greetings to King Ptolemy.

COMMENTARY:  Lucius might be Lucius Calpurnius Piso, Or Lucius Caecilius Metellus, who were consuls back to back; the timing fits within a few years that could have been during the consulate of either.  King Ptolemy, on the other hand, is always the Egyptian monarch, conveniently enough, when it’s not Cleopatra.



17) Ambassadors of the Jews, our friends and allies, have come to us to renew their earlier friendship and alliance. They had been sent by Simon the high priest and the Jewish people,

COMMENTARY:  An earlier translation says “renew their old friendship and confederacy”, but in fact this alliance was barely twenty-five years old.



18)  and they brought with them a gold shield of a thousand minas.

COMMENTARY:  As discussed before, an impressive gift, boasting wealth and offering mutual protection.



19)  Therefore we have decided to write to various kings and countries, that they are not to venture to harm them, or wage war against them or their cities or their country, and are not to assist those who fight against them.

COMMENTARY:  This might sound encouraging and protective, but it’s also patronizing in the oldest sense of the word.  Roman society structured itself on the supremacy of the Patriarch.  They based every level of rule on the family, each level nesting inside a larger family like a series of Russian dolls—households were families within the family of the city, within the family of the country, until you got to the Senate.  Eventually they, too, came under the patriarchy of the Emperor, but not quite yet.  Basically practically everybody in the Roman system belonged to somebody else.

The father of a family owned that family—even the word “familia” most often referred to the patriarch’s slaves, though it also included his wife, children, grandchildren, concubines and poor relations.  He cherished them more than American slavemasters ever did their slaves, took an interest in their well-being and displayed his magnanimity proudly, not to mention fulfilling his duty to defend them from aggressors, but they had to obey him explicitly no matter what he commanded, and he had the authority to have them beaten or killed if they displeased him.  He decided who married who, who took what career path, and even whether a woman in his familia could keep her baby or had to expose the child.

Even if he freed a slave, which was often the case, that freedman would still owe him fealty; freedom simply meant an increase in civic rights and the ability to own his own business. It often came in handy to free a slave, as the noble class could not engage in vulgar trade, drawing income only from their land and their tenants, but setting up an astute freedman with some business capital could pay back the investment handsomely, a percentage of all profits being owed back to the patriarch, and the freedman would have plenty left over to enrich himself quite well, and acquire slaves of his own.  So well, in fact, that sometimes a former slave could then become a power-broker to other nobles down on their financial luck, in return for legal favors that a freedman couldn’t obtain for himself.

Also, if his son by blood displeased him, a patriarch could disown him and adopt one of his slaves as the heir instead.  Slaves could and did maneuver to ingratiate themselves to their masters while casting aspersions on the heir, or maneuver to get sold or gifted into a more agreeable familia.

As the familia, so too the village, so too the city-state, so too the country, so too the empire.  The titles changed, but each leader functioned as a patriarch, and all beneath him were his children and his slaves.

So, in effect, what Rome is saying to other nations is, “Leave Judea alone.  She is mine.”  With all the pluses and minuses that this implied.



20) We have also decided to accept the shield from them.

COMMENTARY:  “Decided” implies that they’re doing Judea a favor.  No thank you, no least indication of gratitude, but instead the patriarch accepts the responsibility of one more child.  It’s a gracious put-down of the extravagance of the gift.



 21) If, then, any troublemakers from their country take refuge with you, hand them over to Simon the high priest, so that he may punish them according to their law.”

COMMENTARY:  Here the patriarch establishes the right for Simon to be patriarch of his own familia, as a Roman father might support his son’s authority over his grandchildren.  In this case he’s giving Simon permission to hunt down lax Jews who fled the country, in order to impose his version of Mosaic law upon them. 

This suits Rome’s purposes, because these communities, Pagans all, are unlikely to cooperate much with turning Jews over for punishment for the crime of acting Pagan.  Which means that any time Rome wants to pick a quarrel with any of these nations, say to make a land grab or secure greater power, they can always accuse them of not abiding by a legal requirement and therefore being in rebellion.  All hands rise against the bully who takes whatever he wants just because he wants it, but a figleaf of legality makes people hesitate until too late to resist.



22) The consul sent identical letters to Kings Demetrius, Attalus, Ariarthes and Arsaces;

COMMENTARY:  That would be Attalus II of Pergamum, Ariarthes V of Cappadocia, And Arsaces VI AKA Mithridates I of Parthia, who would no doubt be kind enough to convey Demetrius’s letter to him while holding him in custody.



23) to all the countries—Sampsames, the Spartans, Delos, Myndos, Sicyon, Caria, Samos, Pamphylia, Lycia, Halicarnassus, Rhodes, Phaselis, Cos, Side, Aradus, Gortyna, Cnidus, Cyprus, and Cyrene.

COMMENTARY:  Sampsames probably referred to the citizens of Samsoun, a seaport in Pontus. 


Sparta, as you’ll recall, was an ally of Simon’s. 


Tiny Delos was included more for its spiritual authority than its temporal power, being sacred to Apollo, as it never had many people, and occasionally stood deserted altogether.  Currently fourteen people live on this island (as of 2018.)


Myndos, now Mentesche, was a seaport in Caria, near Halicarnassus.


Sicyon was the strong, ancient and influential capitol city of Sicyonia on the north Peloponnesian coast, west of Corinth. 


Caria was a whole country, on the southwest coast of what is now Turkey, as are many of these places.


Samos was a Greek island separated from Asia by just a narrow strait. 


Pamphylia was an Asian nation on the coast between Lycia and Cilicia. 


Lycia has the Mediterranean to the south, Pamphylia to the east, Caria to the west, and Phrygia to the north.  They had a reputation for skilled archers, which would make it doubly important to warn them off.


Halicarnassus, the fortress-capitol of Caria, had a pugnacious reputation as having put up an unusually good fight against Alexander the Great.  So they got their own letter, in addition to the one for Caria in general.  I guess they needed warned off twice.


Rhodes, an important island south of the Carian coast, lately hosted Antiochus, mentioned at the start of this chapter.  She also hosted one of the Seven Wonders of the World in the form of a giant statue of Apollo, AKA the Colossus of Rhodes, straddling the entrance to their harbor.  (And to answer the question that some might not wish to admit to, as to the view from ships sailing in, no, the Greeks were not shy about anatomically correct statues of their deities.  Artists of a more modest era, however, have depicted the Colossus with a loincloth.)


Phaselis, though technically a major seaport of Lycia, required its own separate letter due to it being, at this time, a pirate haven not actually following Lycian law.  It helps to be able to sail out of archery range.

Cos, now called Zia, is one of the Cyclades, about 15 miles or 24 kilometers off from Halicarnassus.

Side is a seaport of Pamphylia, here especially honored with its own letter as the childhood home of the current semiofficial king of the Seleucids.


Aradus, a significant island city, held a strategic position opposite the mouth of the Eleutherus River.


Gortyna was a major city of Crete, so a letter there effectively addressed the entire island nation and whatever bits remained of its erstwhile empire.


Cnidus, a town on a promontory of Caria, merited its own letter on account of being sacred to Venus, and hosting a marble statue of the same by the famous sculptor, Praxiteles.


Cyrene was the capitol of Libya in Northern Africa, important to Judea because many Jews fled the Greek conquests to live there.  At this point Jews made up a fourth of their population.

None of these were, strictly speaking, subjects of Rome at this time.  All of them harbored Jews who had fled the Maccabees.



24)  A copy of the letter was also sent to Simon the high priest.

COMMENTARY:  Logically enough.



25) When King Antiochus encamped before Dor, he assaulted it continuously both with troops and with the siege engines he had made. He blockaded Trypho by preventing anyone from going in or out.

COMMENTARY:  Now, back to the Seleucids and their wars to patch their fading glory back together.



26) Simon sent to Antiochus’ support two thousand elite troops, together with silver and gold and much equipment.

COMMENTARY:  As agreed.



27)  But he refused to accept the aid; in fact, he broke all the agreements he had previously made with Simon and became hostile toward him.

COMMENTARY:  Very odd.  If he merely intended duplicity, he would have broken off relations after receiving the silver, gold and equipment.   Josephus says that Antiochus himself had requested the aid, and accepted it.  Some have suggested that there were two sieges, and Antiochus fell out with Simon sometime between the first and the second.



28)  He sent Athenobius, one of his Friends, to confer with Simon and say: “You are occupying Joppa and Gazara and the citadel of Jerusalem; these are cities of my kingdom.

COMMENTARY:  This twenty year old might not have realized, from Rhodes, the strategic importance of Joppa and Gazara, only realizing what Simon had taken from the Seleucids during the war.  The citadel, of course, mattered as a vantage point to keep an eye on Simon.



29)  You have laid waste their territories, done great harm to the land, and taken possession of many districts in my kingdom.

COMMENTARY:  One cannot conduct war without laying waste and doing great harm, even in a revolution to free one’s own homeland.  But it always makes a great accusation, as if the victor just wantonly ran around trashing places for the fun of it.



30) Now, therefore, give up the cities you have seized and the tribute money of the districts you control outside the territory of Judea; 31) or instead, pay me five hundred talents of silver for the devastation you have caused and five hundred talents more for the tribute money of the cities. If you do not do this, we will come and make war on you.”

COMMENTARY:  From Antiochus’s perspective, he’s not reneging on his bargain.  He just didn’t consider Joppa, Gazara, and the Citadel of Jerusalem part of the deal, since Seleucid Greeks built the original fortresses there. 


From Simon’s perspective, the vague wording of the agreement sent to him could be read as giving Simon permission to hold any territory that he had seized so far.  Antiochus said that he could keep any fortress that he’d built, and Simon’s counting repairing and improving fortresses that he and his brothers had torn apart as “building”.



32)  So Athenobius, the king’s Friend, came to Jerusalem and on seeing the splendor of Simon’s court, the gold and silver plate on the sideboard, and his rich display, he was amazed. When he gave him the king’s message,

COMMENTARY:  Not necessarily amazed in a good way.  Vassal nations shouldn’t outshine their masters.



33)  Simon said to him in reply: “It is not foreign land we have taken nor have we seized the property of others, but only our ancestral heritage which for a time had been unjustly held by our enemies.

COMMENTARY:  “Enemies” being the Seleucid Empire—an awkward thing to say to the Seleucid Emperor.  Simon may act as diplomatically as he can within limits, but his just sense of entitlement to his own heritage sets those limits.  However he might play the part, he does not see his people as a Vassal nation.



34)  Now that we have the opportunity, we are holding on to the heritage of our ancestors.

COMMENTARY:  “Heritage” in this sense means the partitions of Israel/Judea as defined by prophets speaking for God.  Temporal kings can’t really compete with a claim like that.

I can relate to this.  Centuries ago, the priests of Spain, frustrated with the impossibility of trying to get the Yaqui people in Mexico to submit to Spanish authority (especially since we had defeated them in battle.)  They figured that if we settled down and stayed put they could control us (poor naifs!) so they told us to build seven missions and live permanently around them in seven villages.

“Says who?” quoth the Yaquis.


“Says God!” quoth the priests.

“Oh, so God has given us this land?  And you have come all this way to tell us?  Thank you!  You can leave now—we’ll take it from here.”  And so the Yaquis have fought unyieldingly ever since to stay in control of the land God gave us.  And He has certainly taken our side, one way or another, despite the harshest persecutions, to make the Yoeme, the Yaqui people, the Undefeated Tribe.


Much in the Bible has an especial resonance for Yaquis. Tales of exile and return, struggles and victories, deliverance and promised lands.



35) As for Joppa and Gazara, which you demand, those cities were doing great harm to our people and our country. For these we will give you a hundred talents.” Athenobius made no reply,

COMMENTARY:  From Simon’s point of view, he’s being fair.  He concedes that Joppa and Gazara weren’t part of the original heritage given to the Jewish people.  However, they’re much too strategic to let go of now; where they made strong bases for enemies before, they could again.

Still, he’s underpricing them.  A hundred talents is an extravagant amount for an individual, who could retire on that sum, but not for two entire cities of major importance.  Would you sell Los Angeles and San Diego combined for a million dollars?

On the other hand, a thousand talents is also unreasonable.  Judea would have struggled to pay that off for generations.  Simon might have assumed that Antiochus intended to bargain; a good bargainer always starts with an unreasonable sum, so that whatever follows after feels like a good deal.  But Asians bargained more than Europeans; something might have gotten lost in the translation.


Why would Antiochus have asked such a ghastly amount, if he wasn’t bargaining?  Because his country was still paying off the ghastly amount demanded of them by Rome!  But he didn’t have Rome’s legions to make it stick.



36) but returned to the king in anger. When he told him of Simon’s words, of his splendor, and of all he had seen, the king fell into a violent rage.

COMMENTARY:  As in violently breaking things.  Athenobius, in contrast, didn’t “fall into” anger, he was just angry.  When someone in the Bible “falls into” a rage it implies loss of control, the helplessness of someone no longer having his footing.  (Or, as one translation has it, he was “exceeding wroth”, as in exceeding the limits of good sense.)



37)  Trypho had boarded a ship and escaped to Orthosia.

COMMENTARY:  Oh yeah, Trypho.  Remember him?  He might not be much of leader, but he’s always been a slippery rascal.  Leave it to him to take advantage of any distraction that presents itself! 

A different account says that Trypho first fled to Ptolemais and only then made his way from there to Orthosia, a port between Tripoli and the Eleutherus River.  Bottom line, he wasn’t where Antiochus wanted him to be.



38)  Then the king appointed Cendebeus commander-in-chief of the seacoast, and gave him infantry and cavalry forces. 39) He ordered him to encamp against Judea and to fortify Kedron* and strengthen its gates, so that he could wage war on the people. Meanwhile the king went in pursuit of Trypho.

COMMENTARY:  Once again, the fractured Seleucid Empire faces two fronts at the same time.  And once again it works to Judea’s advantage.  Simon might not have been as saucy if he hadn’t known that Antiochus also had to deal with Trypho.  Young King Antiochus strikes me as a little bit naive.  Younger brothers don’t get quite the same training in kingship as the eldest does—they’re Plan B heirs, after all.



40) When Cendebeus came to Jamnia, he began to harass the people and to make incursions into Judea, where he took people captive and massacred them.

COMMENTARY:  This translation makes it sound as if the people were taken captive expressly for massacre—an act that would have outraged all nations against the Seleucids.  Actually, the text is talking about two distinct groups, the captives and the massacred.  Cendebeus’s forces attempted to take civilians as slaves, and in many cases succeeded.  However, the Jews were too riled up after generations of fighting for their freedom to take enslavement passively, even those among them who were not warriors.  A significant number resisted and went down fighting.



41)  As the king ordered, he fortified Kedron and stationed cavalry and infantry there, so that they could go out and patrol the roads of Judea.


COMMENTARY:  Kedron was a few miles south of Jamnia.  It matters because it faces the Gazara—the fortress held by Simon’s son, John Hyrcanus.

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