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Antiochus IV - Epiphanes and the Desolating Sacrilege

Julian Spriggs M.A.

Related articles

Greek Empire and Alexander the Great 400 Silent Years - Inter-testamental History
Ptolemies and Seleucids Antiochus IV Epiphanes

The 'Contemptible Person' predicted by Daniel (Dan 11:21)

Antiochus IV Epiphanes ruled in Antioch in Syria over the Seleucid kingdom. After the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC, there was civil war, until his empire was divided between four of his generals. Seleucus I established a dynasty, known as the Seleucids, which lasted about 250 years, ruling over a large empire stretching from Asia Minor, through Syria, and including much of Alexander’s eastern territories. To establish their power over such a large territory containing so many different nations and peoples, the Seleucids engaged in a policy of active Hellenisation, the promotion of Greek culture, religion and philosophy. During this time, the dynasty of the Ptolemies controlled Egypt. Israel lay on the frontier between these rival powers, and was frequently fought over, first being under Egyptian control, and later under Syrian control.

Sources of information

The events of the reign of Antiochus Epiphanes are described in several different historical documents. The main source is the apocryphal book of 1 Maccabees, which is recognised by most scholars as a historically reliable document. Antiochus is also described in 2 Maccabees, where the account is considered to be less reliable. Josephus describes his reign and the subsequent Jewish revolt in his Antiquities of the Jews (12:4-9).

Predictions of Antiochus Epiphanes

The prophet Daniel made a remarkable prediction of his reign (Dan 11:21-35), although many scholars who reject the possibility of predictive prophecy believe it must have been written after the events it describes. He is also predicted as the 'little horn' (Dan 8:9-15), who followed the male goat (Alexander the Great) who charged over the face of the whole earth, whose horn was broken and replaced by four horns (8:5,21-22).

Family background

Antiochus IV was the third son of Antiochus III the Great, and queen Laodice III. He was born in 215 BC. His older brother ruled as Seleucus IV. Antiochus ruled from Antioch from 175 to 163 BC.

Hostage in Rome

His father, Antiochus the Great, attempted to capture Greece, but was pushed back by the Romans. “Afterward he shall turn to the coastlands, and shall capture many. But a commander shall put an end to his insolence; indeed, he shall turn his insolence back upon him.” (Dan 11:18). He was decisively defeated in the Battle of Magnesia (189 BC). In the subsequent Treaty of Apamea, he lost all territory in Asia Minor north and west of the Taurus Mountains to the Romans. His son, Antiochus, was held as one of twenty hostages in Rome for fourteen years, to ensure that the huge reparations demanded by Rome were paid. These payments to Rome emptied the Seleucid treasury, causing them to seek alternative sources of income, either through punitive taxation, or by plundering treasures from the Jerusalem temple.

In 176 BC, he was eventually replaced as hostage by his nephew Demetrius, son of Seleucus IV. During his years in Rome he became an admirer of Roman power and institutions, in addition to his dedication to spreading the Greek way of life. Antiochus then moved to Athens, where he became popular because he built temples at his own expense. He was made an honorary citizen and was soon appointed as chief magistrate and Master of the Mint.

Accession to the throne

Following the death of Antiochus III in 187 BC, his son Seleucus IV Philopator, the older brother of Antiochus IV, ascended the throne. However in 175 BC, Seleucus was murdered by Heliodorus, his chief minister, who then proclaimed himself as king. When Antiochus heard about this, he came to Antioch from Athens, and with the help of the king of Pergamum, removed Heliodorus and proclaimed himself to be king. By this, he usurped the throne because he excluded two rightful heirs: Demetrius, the son of Seleucus IV, who was still a hostage in Rome, as well as the infant son of Seleucus, also called Antiochus. Daniel predicted that a contemptible person would arise, upon whom the royal majesty has not been conferred, and obtain the kingdom through intrigue. “In his place shall arise a contemptible person on whom royal majesty has not been conferred; he shall come in without warning and obtain the kingdom through intrigue.” (Dan 11:21). This appears to be a clear prediction of Antiochus usurping the throne.

There was a continuing power struggle between Antiochus IV and the supporters of his nephew, the baby son of Seleucus IV, who claimed he was the rightful king, also called Antiochus IV! For several years both ruled as joint kings. The child was eventually murdered around 170 BC by Andronicus while Antiochus was absent.

Local popularity

Contemporary writings from Syria describe Antiochus in flattering ways. People appreciated his generous and democratic ways. He enjoyed practical jokes, and sometime would disguise himself and roam the streets of the city at night. He was a good soldier and administrator. After the loss of western territory in Asia Minor following the Treaty of Apamea with Rome, he sought to expand his empire to the east and into Egypt. In contrast, the Jews saw him as an evil enemy who attempted to wipe them out.

Zeus made manifest

As an attempt to bring unity to his divided empire, especially following the violent changes in ruler, he greatly increased the Hellenisation programme started by his predecessors. After 169 BC, he encouraged his people to worship him as the Greek god Zeus, taking the title 'Theos Epiphanes', meaning 'the manifest God', believing that he was an incarnation of Zeus. His enemies called him 'Epimanes', meaning 'mad-man', a change which only required altering a single letter in the Greek. Later in his reign, Antiochus IV became the first king to issue coins on which he proclaimed himself to be a god. He was portrayed as Zeus enthroned with the inscription, 'King Antiochus. God Manifest, Bearing Victory' .

Hellenising influences on the Jews

Until the reign of Antiochus III, Israel had been under the control of the Egyptian Ptolemies. They had been content to allow the Jews substantial freedom to maintain their religious practices, and had not enforced Hellenisation. In 198 BC, after Antiochus III gained victory over Scopas, the general of Ptolemy V, at Panion, Israel came under his control. Although the Seleucids initially promised not to enforce Greek practices, and were welcomed into Jerusalem, they failed to keep their word, which led to a terrible period of Jewish history. The pressure of Hellenisation caused intense conflict within the Jews and their division into two competing groups. The pro-Greek faction saw the need to modernise Judaism by embracing Greek thinking and lifestyle. This was seen as compromise by the conservative Hasidim ('pious ones'), who said they must maintain their distinctiveness and their faithfulness to Moses. Over the next centuries, the pro-Greek Jews developed into the Sadducees, and the Hasidim became the Pharisees.

This conflict extended even to the high-priesthood. There was a power struggle between the conservative Aaronic high priest Onias III, and his brother Yeshua (Joshua), better known by the Greek version of his name, Jason, who was supported by Menelaus of the house of Tobiah. Jason and Menelaus desired to introduce Hellenistic culture. Jason offered a large sum of money to Antiochus IV to be appointed high priest (2 Macc 4:7-10). This offer was attractive to Antiochus, partly because he urgently needed the finances, and especially because he would then have a supporter of his Hellenising policies ruling in Jerusalem. He therefore deposed Onias III in 174 BC, fulfilling the prediction of Daniel that the prince of the covenant will be swept away (Dan 11:22), and appointed Jason to be high priest.

Jason converted Jerusalem into a model Hellenistic city (polis), and possibly even renamed it 'Antioch'. As a deliberate offense to the Hasidim he constructed a gymnasium adjacent to the temple (1 Macc 1:14, 2 Macc 4:12), the greatest representation of the Greek way of life, where the athletes exercised naked. Some Jewish males attempted to remove their marks of circumcision through painful surgery in order to appear like Greeks (1 Macc 1:15, Jos. Ant. 12:5:1). Three years later, Menelaus offered a larger sum of money to Antiochus to buy the high-priesthood (2 Macc 4:23). Jason was deposed, and fled to the Trans-jordan. Onias was executed, after he objected to Menelaus plundering the temple treasury to pay for the bribe (2 Macc 4:34). His death ended the hereditary priestly line of Aaron, as Menelaus may have been of the tribe of Benjamin (2 Macc 4:23, 3:4). Other manuscripts suggest he may have been from a priestly family, but not from the house of Zadok. Subsequent high priests were political appointments made by the Seleucid rulers.

Wars with Egypt

During the reign of Antiochus III, he had made a peace treaty with Egypt, through which Cleopatra, the sister of Antiochus IV, had married Ptolemy V of Egypt (Jos. Ant. 12:4:1, predicted in Dan 11:17). After the death of Ptolemy V in 181 BC, Cleopatra I reigned in her own right as queen-regent, because her son Ptolemy VI was too young. When she died in 176 BC, the throne was seized by two courtiers. When Antiochus heard about Egyptian plots to regain control over Coele-Syria, Antiochus IV marched south, taking control of Coele-Syria, and was welcomed to Jerusalem by Jason in order to plan its defences against Egypt.

First Egyptian War (1 Macc 1:16-19)

In 170 BC, Antiochus heard about plots in Egypt to march north to recover Coele-Syria. He gathered a large army and invaded Egypt. This first invasion was largely successful (Dan 11:25-27). He conquered most of Egypt, including Memphis, where he took the young Ptolemy VI Philometor captive. His brother Ptolemy VIII Euergetes ('Benefactor') was appointed king in Alexandria. Antiochus then returned to Syria, hoping that Egypt would be left weak, having two rival kings.

While Antiochus was in Egypt, trouble broke out in Jerusalem. The people rioted after Menelaus plundered the temple treasury. Also, a rumour began to spread around Jerusalem that Antiochus had been killed in Egypt (2 Macc 5:5). When Jason, the deposed high-priest, heard about this, he returned and attacked Jerusalem, killed the supporters of Menelaus, and appointed himself once again as high priest. When Antiochus heard about the battles in Jerusalem, he stormed the city with the aim of restoring peace. He took the uprising against Menelaus and the Hellenisers as a rebellion against his own authority. He could not risk losing control of Jerusalem, as it formed an important part of his defences against Egypt. He massacred thousands of Jews, and Menelaus was restored as high-priest. Jason was driven out and again took refuge in the Trans-jordan. Antiochus stationed Syrian troops in the Acra Fortress to maintain peace. Some historians, such as Bruce, think the Acra was not built until after the second Egyptian war.

Antiochus profaned the temple by entering the Holy of Holies accompanied by Menelaus, with whose permission he took away a large quantity of gold and silver vessels as plunder to finance his planned second attack of Egypt (1 Macc 1:20-24, 2 Macc 5:21), and even stripped the gold leaf off the facade. Daniel predicted that Antiochus would return to his land with great wealth (Dan 11:28). Antiochus’ entry to the Holy of Holies and plundering of the temple horrified the conservative Jews, who now classed him as an enemy of Judaism.

Second Egyptian War (2 Macc 5:1)

In the spring of 168 BC, Antiochus marched for a second time on Egypt (11:29), because the two Ptolemies had joined forces against him, their uncle. This time he had even stronger military forces, but did not achieve the same success as before. Again, he captured Memphis, and then marched to Alexandria. Meanwhile, Roman forces had arrived in Egypt, “the ships of Kittim” predicted by Daniel (Dan 11:30). Before he could take Alexandria, he was met by the Roman representative, Popillus Laenas, who had been his friend during his years as a hostage in Rome. Refusing to shake his hand and greet him as a friend, Laenas instead handed him a written ultimatum from the Roman Senate, telling him to leave Egypt immediately. He asked for time to consider and to consult his advisers, but Laenas drew a circle in the sand around Antiochus with his sword, and demanded an answer before he stepped out of the circle. Being already familiar with the power of Rome, he did not dare to disobey, but he agreed to retreat. Only then would Laenas shake his hand on the basis of past friendship. Antiochus was angry and humiliated that his dream of dominating Egypt had been frustrated.

Attack on the Jews

In his frustration he expressed his anger by attacking Jerusalem. He needed a secure frontier in the south against the new threat of Roman power in Egypt. He could no longer allow Jerusalem to follow a religion different from the rest of his kingdom. In 167 BC, he sent a force of 22,000 soldiers, led by Apollonius to Jerusalem. Pretending to come in peace, they attacked the city on the Sabbath, in full knowledge that orthodox Jews would not fight on their holy day, and slaughtered many of its inhabitants (1 Macc 1:31-35, 2 Macc 5:24-26, and predicted in Dan 11:31a). They took many women and children captive as slaves, then plundered and burned the city, and pulled down its walls.

He then began a violent policy of Hellenisation. He made a decree forbidding Jews from following the laws of their ancestors, thus cancelling the concessions to the Jews made by his father. Observance of the Sabbath, sacrifices, yearly festivals and circumcision of male infants was made illegal. He ordered that copies of the Torah should be destroyed. Under penalty of death, Jews were “to depart from the laws of their fathers, and to cease living by the laws of God”. Pagan altars were set up all over the land. Jews were forced to eat the unclean meat of pigs (2 Macc 6:18-31). The temple was to be polluted and renamed as a temple to Olympian Zeus. The Samaritan temple on Mt. Gerizim was also renamed at the “Temple of Zeus-the-friend of Strangers” (2 Macc 6:2). The Jews saw this decree as a deliberate attempt to destroy their faith. Disobedience to his decree was punished by death. For example, two women who had circumcised their children were paraded around the city with the babies hanging from their breasts, then hurled down the city wall (2 Macc 6:10). Jews were forced to participate in pagan sacrifices, and were compelled to wear ivy wreaths in honour of the Greek god Dionysus (2 Macc 6:7).

The climax of the desecrations came on Chislev 25 (16th December 167 BC), when he erected a statue of Zeus (himself!) in the temple. Then, on an altar erected on the top of the altar of burnt offering, pigs were offered to Zeus (1 Macc 1:54-61, predicted in Dan 11:31b). This was the ultimate blasphemy for Jews, to see the unclean blood of a pig sacrificed on the altar, thus desecrating the temple. Antiochus ordered that these sacrifices should be repeated on the 25th of each month, in celebration of his birthday, implying that the sacrifices were being made to himself.

In Syria, Olympian Zeus was identified with the god they called 'Ba’al Shamen', meaning 'the lord of heaven'. So in Jerusalem, Zeus was worshipped with the equivalent Hebrew name 'Ba’al Shamayim'. Some extreme Hellenising Jews probably considered Zeus or Ba’al shamayim as the same as Yahweh, the 'Lord of heaven'. Pious Jews refused to say the word 'Ba’al', so said 'shiqqus', meaning abomination, in its place. So amongst Jews, Ba’al Shamayim became 'shiqqus shomem', translated into English as 'the Abomination of Desolation', or 'the Desolating Sacrilege'.

Instead of achieving his aim of uniting his empire around Hellenistic religion and culture, his plan backfired and sparked off the Jewish rebellion, which ultimately led to him losing control of Israel. He severely underestimated the intense devotion to the Jewish religion by the people of Israel. As Greek-thinking polytheists, the Seleucid rulers, including Antiochus, could probably not understand the exclusiveness of the Jews, and their reaction in such hostility. He probably also thought that the pro-Greek parties within Judaism represented the majority view of the people. A small group of Jews escaped from Jerusalem, led by Mattathias and his five sons including Judas, to avoid the defilement of the city. In the village of Modein, this family of the Maccabees started a violent uprising against the rule of Antiochus, which became the Jewish revolt.

Antiochus had left Jerusalem in order to deal with troubles in Armenia and Persia in 165 BC, where they were refusing to pay their taxes. From here, he heard about the Jewish revolt and sent Lysias to put down the rebellion, exterminate the Jewish people, and redistribute their land (1 Macc 3:32-36). Lysias was in charge of the king’s affairs in the area of his kingdom west of the Euphrates, as well as being guardian of his son Antiochus. Lysias left part of the army led by Ptolemy and Gorgias at Emmaus where they were decisively defeated by Judas Maccabeus and his freedom fighters (1 Macc 4:1-22). A year later, Lysias himself led another army to attack Jerusalem from the south, but they also were soundly defeated at Beth-zur (1 Macc 4:28ff).

Thus, after three years of fighting for their freedom, the Maccabees were able to recapture Jerusalem and regain control of the temple. Exactly three years to the day after the initial desecration, on Chislev 25 (16th December 164 BC), they cleaned and rededicated the temple to Yahweh (1 Macc 4:52-58). This event is remembered annually in the Jewish Feast of Dedication (John 10:22, 1 Macc 4:59), which in Hebrew is called 'Hanukkah'.

Final campaign in Persia

Antiochus was now desperately short of finances. He had heard of the riches of the temple to Artemis in Elymais in Persia, where gold shields and weapons had been left by Alexander the Great (1 Macc 6:1-2). He decided to plunder it, but the citizens knew of his approach, and were able to defend their city. In disappointment, he retreated to Babylon. News came to him there of the successes of the Maccabean revolt, and their tearing down of the abomination in the temple. This badly shook Antiochus, who took to his bed sick or even insane with disappointment. In his dying days he regretted the wrong he did in Jerusalem, realising that his death had been caused by the miseries he had brought on the people of Jerusalem (1 Macc 6:12, Jos Ant 12:9:1).

After his death in 163 BC, in a strange land, his young nine year old son Antiochus V Eupator (meaning, 'having a noble father') was proclaimed king by Lysias who Antiochus had left in charge in Antioch. However, on his deathbed, Antiochus Epiphanes had appointed Philip to ruling as regent and guardian (1 Macc 6:14-15). This appointment caused a division and civil war within the kingdom.

The legacy of Antiochus Epiphanes

Antiochus was remembered by the Jews as the insane king who inflicted terrible persecution on them. Over the next few centuries, Jews were inspired by the successful Maccabean fight for freedom, as they continued to suffer under foreign domination from the Romans. Jews today still remember this victory in the annual festival of Hanukkah. It is probable that the Syrians remember him more positively as a generally popular king, who popularised Greek culture, but made a great mistake in trying to extinguish Judaism.

In Matthew’s account of the Olivet Discourse, when Jesus predicted the destruction of the temple and his second coming, he warned his listeners to flee from Judea to the mountains when they saw the desolating sacrilege standing in the holy place that was spoken about by Daniel the prophet (Mt 24:15). By this, he was predicting that desecration of the temple performed under Antiochus Epiphanes would be repeated again in the future. This probably happened by the hands of the Zealots during the Jewish revolt and Fall of Jerusalem in AD 70, although many people expect a similar desecration of a rebuilt temple in Jerusalem by the eschatological antichrist.

J. Bright. A History of Israel. SCM Press 1980. Pages 418-427.
F.F. Bruce. Israel and the Nations. Paternoster 1963. Pages 134-153.
H.W. Hoehner. Antiochus in Zondervan Pictorial Encyclopaedia of the Bible. ed. MC Tenney. Zondervan 1975.
R.L. Niswonger. New Testament History. Zondervan 1988. Pages 24-28.
C.J. Roetzel. The World that Shaped the New Testament. John Knox Press 1985. Pages 11-13.
B.K. Waltke. Antiochus IV Epiphanes in International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia (ISBE) ed. GW Bromiley. Eerdmans 1986.
L.J. Wood. A Survey of Israel’s History. Zondervan 1986. Pages 355-357.

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