In Search of Jason
Friday, 22 December 2017 | 4 Tevet, 5778
On my last day in Jerusalem last week I sought out some of the lesser-known sites of this compelling city. I discovered two jewels nestled in the heart of the modern city. The first was an ancient burial tomb in the genteel Rechavia neighbourhood, the second an Italian shule in the bustling central city on Rechov Hilel. Let me tell you about the first:
The burial site called Jason’s tomb was discovered in 1956 when a charge was detonated to clear away rocks for a new apartment building. Out of the debris emerged this structure comprising a courtyard and pyramid shaped burial chamber framed by a Doric column. The walls have charcoal drawings, inscriptions carved in Aramaic and Greek including a lament to Jason: “Elder rest in peace”. During the excavations coins from the Hasmonean and Roman periods were unearthed.
Jason or Yasen (from Yehoshua or Joshua) was not just an elder or wealthy statesman who built a special tomb for himself (unlike the plebs who were buried in regular graves in the ground). He was apparently the Kohen Gadol or High Priest in the Second Temple period: He was installed in 175 BCE by Antiochus Epiphanes after the latter ascended the throne of the Seleucid Empire. Jason paid for the appointment and had to flee three years later when he was outbid by his rival Menelaus. Wikipedia surmises that he was a naval commander based on the charcoal drawings of two warships but this seems like mere conjecture – on the other hand, he could have been a Kohen with commander aspirations!
I was fascinated by the tomb and its sparse detail, because it speaks of the layers of undiscovered stories and buried tales of the city. Just who were you Jason; what moved and inspired you? Were you just another corrupt Kohen who bought your status? Perhaps you were a man of integrity and vision trying to take a stand against the repressive and controlling Antiochus?
Antiochus IV Epipahnes was the Hellenistic Greek King was not only known for his ruthlessness but also for his grandiosity: He took upon himself the title “Epiphanes” which means illustrious one or “god manifest” but his bizarre behaviour earned him the nickname (among Jews) of “Epimanes” which means “mad one”. He was a passionate proponent of Greek culture and institutions, founded several Greek cities and built the temple of Zeus in Athens.
He is of special interest to us because he installed an altar to Zeus in the Temple and erected an idol in his own image to which sacrifices were made. This sparked the revolution of Judah the Maccabee, the defeat of the Greeks and the independent Judean state for the next century. This is, of course, the Chanukah story and discovering this tomb among the fine old apartments of Rechavia on the eve of Chanukah 2017 was especially thrilling.
Reading up on Jason, I found he was a Hellenistic high priest who promoted Greek culture, education and religion at the cost of Judaism. He is portrayed as taking the easy way of conformity with new universal trends. In 169 BCE while Antiochus was campaigning in Egypt, Jason conquered Jerusalem and murdered many adherents of Menelaus, his rival. On his return (in 167) Antiochus re-conquered the city which remained in Greek hands until Judah the Maccabee took it back in 164.
So Jason doesn’t emerge as a flawless character but then it’s hard to sort fact from fiction and the history was written by his detractors… What is obvious and relevant is not only the external struggle against the Greeks but the internal struggle for soul of Judaism. There was corruption and bribery for political favour, there was malaise in the religious institutions and there was a battle for the direction of Judaism, a tension between the universalists and the particularists. Sound familiar? With corruption endemic in the Israeli political and religious establishments today, with the tension between those seeking to insulate Judaism against change and the internet revolution and those seeking to engage with the world, this is all eerily contemporary. But whatever position you take, one thing is crystal clear. This little tomb is just one more indication of a Jewish presence in the city of Jerusalem for thousands of years. Before Christianity and Islam, Jews lived, fought, argued and ruled in Jerusalem. It’s always been our capital, at the heart and soul of our lives and of our country. We can and should respect the many other cultures and communities who have lived and still live there. But they also need to respect and recognise our long and unique relationship with this edgy, compelling city of our dreams.
This is our last newsletter for 2017. We will resume the newsletters at the end of January 2018. For those taking a summer break, stay safe and enjoy your time out!