Checking Up and Digging Into Our Past
Any Jew who grew up attending their local Hebrew School or JCC has heard the story of Hanukkah many times over. During the rule of the Greeks in Judea there arose a legendary fighter named Judah the Maccabee who fought Hellenization and restored the country to her former glory under a Judean king. Of course then comes the miracle of hanukkah with the oil and the eight days and that whole spiel. However does the legend match up to the timeline of Judean history? Who were the real Maccabees? What archaeological evidence do we have from this period? The story of hanukkah and the Maccabees is constantly developing with new discoveries being made every year. What’s even better is that there are ways of experiencing this historic world first hand.
Let’s start with the basic historical facts. After Alexander the Great conquered the Persian Empire in 331 BCE he inherited all of their respective territories including Judea. These territories he divided amongst his generals with each given the power to rule. The Judeans were fairly complacent with their new colonizers at first. The cultural presence of Hellenism wasn’t an issue until the rule of Seleucid in 168 BCE. Seleucid desecrated the Holy Temple by placing statues of Zeus inside the sanctuary and according to the Hebrew School version a few pigs as well. He persecuted Judaism as a whole throughout the nation provoking the wrath of the people.
Against this tyranny arose a family of heroes from the line of Mattathias the Hasmonean and his son Judah the Maccabee (translated as Judah the hammer). They were the most fervent leaders in the Jewish rebellion against Seleucid. The Maccabees gained more and more power with the help of a foreign ally, the great Roman Empire. In one generation this house of simple country priests and farmers evolved into one of the most successful ruling dynasties in Judean history gaining more territory than the kingdoms of David and Solomon combined. It was a glorious and prosperous time in Jewish history.
The fall of the Hasmonean dynasty came after only a century of ruling. The Maccabees favor with the people had been fading for some time. They were thought to be to autocratic and out of touch with the people. True that their family did occupy every single position of power and influence from high priests to kings. However, Rome is considered to be the true mastermind behind the fall of the Maccabees. Although it was often a tactic of Rome to let the provinces be governed by local rulers, they couldn’t ignore that the Maccabees were a major national symbol that competed with their own absolute authority. Thus came the end of the Hasmoneans and a new dynasty under King Herod would now lead Ju56 | JLiving | Hanukkah 2021 Olam CHECKING UP AND DIGGING INTO OUR PAST dea on Rome’s behalf. If you would like more information on the history of this time grab a copy of Shaye Cohen’s From the Maccabees to the Mishnah. This amazing work compares the Biblical and Archaeological timelines of ancient Judea, unveiling more than was ever thought possible.
Ancient archaeological sites hidden beneath the surface of modern day Israel reveal the physical remnants of this story and provide the everyday historian real world context for Biblical tales. Tel Maresha is one such site within Israel’s Beit Guvrin National Park. This archaeological treasure trove contains items dating from the Hasmonean period that shine a light on the daily lives and concerns of its citizens. The population of Tel Maresha is thought to have been mainly Idumean but clearly there is evidence of a highly multi-cultural society. The material wealth found at this site paints a picture of a very prosperous Hellenistic city with major trade contacts that extended as far as the Black Sea.
One of the most fascinating aspects of Tel Maresha is the great labyrinth of underground cellars. These ancient basements were originally the result of quarrying efforts when initially constructing the city above. These spaces were used for just about anything and everything the community needed. They housed pigeons, were used as stables, cisterns, mikvehs (ritual baths), cult spaces, and even extensive document archives. This complex underground system was were the people of Tel Maresha spent most of their time and even had the occasional family barbeque. It definitely beat sweltering in the extreme heat on the surface above. Naturally these rooms are also were most of the site evidence is uncovered.
Archaeological remains from these rooms show the influence of Greek culture on Judea during this period. Small figurines of Greek mythological figures like Hercules and seals stamped with the face of the 57 Olam Greek god Apollo have all be dug up from the underground rooms. The complexes continue to reveal more of the 2200-year old story of Tel Maresha and every year more underground rooms are unearthed and more discoveries are made. Recently, in 2018 the story of Tel Maresha’s end was discovered in room 68. There archaeologists found signs of destruction and vandalism as well as a few Roman artifacts giving testament to the sinister end of the Hasmonean kingdom as the hands of the Roman empire.
What is even more amazing than the sheer amount of artifacts collected from Tel Maresha is the fact that ordinary people made many of these discoveries. Since 1981 Archaeoligcal Seminars has dedicated themselves to the mission of connecting the public to archaeology in a firsthand setting. You can get up close and personal to history and become a part of the story at Tel Maresha with their Dig-for-a-Day Program. Under the supervision of Dr. Ian Stern and his wonderful team of top archaeologists you’ll learn how to excavate properly, sift for artifacts, preservation methods and more.
Some of the most treasured discoveries made at Tel Maresha have been unearthed by the most unexpected participants like a small golden earring that was discovered by a small child on a family dig. After this discovery the professional team got right to work and in no time they located the other earring. The pair now on display at the Israel Museum. You can read all of Dr. Stern’s official reports on the Hasmonean era city of Tel Maresha at haifa.academia. edu/IanStern.
Tel Maresha Dig-for-a-Day offers many options for on-site digging experiences, perfect for your Israel trip. You can book a three-hour public dig or a private dig for up to twenty people in either Hebrew or English. Visit their website at www.digforaday.com for more information.
The course of the biblical narrative is being challenged and supported constantly through these essential discoveries. Don’t miss a chance to immerse yourself in the legends you grew up hearing and contribute to the amazing ancient Jewish history being discovered.