Friday, March 6, 2009

The Maccabean Connection

We have come to the conclusion that, despite the greater size of the Jewish community in Alexandria, there seemed to be a greater affinity between the Diaspora in Antioch and that in Jerusalem than existed with the Diaspora in the Egyptian capital. Maybe we are wrong.

We shall deal elsewhere with the nature of the Jewish community at Antioch as there are several good texts on the subject. The object of this commentary is the Maccabean connection to Antioch. This is linked over the centuries to the worship/commemoration of the martyrs of the Maccabean Uprising most specifically the woman, supposedly Ashmûnît, and her seven sons.

As William Stinespring relates in his excellent (and as yet unpublished) translation from 1932 of the "Arab Description of Antioch":

"In this city there is a fine building , which the people, after their (conversion to) faith in Christ, changed into a church bearing the name of the Lady Saint Ashmûnît. This place had been called a house of prayer of the Jews. It is near the summit of the mountain, on the western side. It is built on arcades, and beneath it there are tombs , among which is a hidden treasure-chamber to which one descends by means of a stairway. Herein is the tomb of Ezra the priest; and the tomb of Ashmûnît, and her seven sons whom King Aghâbiyûs put to death on account of their faith in God – He is great and mighty! And they are buried in this treasure-chamber. It also contains the mantle of Moses the prophet, and the staff of Joshua, the son of Nun, with which he divided the River Jordan; also the fragments of the Tables (of the Law). And still lower beneath this building there is another treasure-chamber in which is the knife with which Jephthah killed (his daughter) in sacrifice to God; also the keys to the Ark of the Covenant, with the purified and sanctified implements, hidden away, known to nobody."

In the great Byzantine tradition, the structure was a veritable trove of religious bric a brac.

The topic of this tomb/synagogue/church/shrine is dealt with in a handful of articles over the years (most recently by Lothar Triebel in his article "Die angebliche Synagoge der makkabäischen Märtyrer in Antiochia am Orontes". and more distantly by Cardinal Rampolla del Tindaro in his work "Del luogo del matirio e del sepulcro dei Maccabei"). I have also recently surveyed the Julian Obermann article (Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol 50, No 4 - 1931 - pp 250-265) . It should be noted that this was written in 1931 without access to the Stinespring translation (which ironically was being produced at almost the same time).

Obermann makes some excellent observations and brings into play an Arabic version (by Ibn Schahin) of the Rabbinical texts. He notes that the Maccabean martyrs were the only example of Jewish "saints" being drafted into the Christian hagiosphere. And in Antioch it was not merely the concept but the physical "site" that was transformed from a tomb to a synagogue and eventually to a church.

There has also been some discussion as to where exactly the martyrdom and burials took place with Jerusalem also potentially staking a claim to the event. In any case, Antioch had its "Maccabean" shrine and claimed great antiquity to its relics. Interestingly he notes that Rabbinical sources downplay the siting of the synagogue in Antioch
on the site of the tomb as this circumstance would fly in the face of prohibitions against corpses or graves at the site of worship, a scruple that Christians did not indulge.

In the way of explanation, Obermann goes on to elucidate the issue of the name of the mother of the martyrs. She is referred to in the Vatican text as Ashmûnît. This he contends is really "Hasmonith" and this is a manifestation of the much more used term Hasmonean in reference to the period of the uprising. Other versions of her name include Shamuni, Salomona, Salomonis or Samona.

Utilising the text of Ibn Schahin he reveals that:

"And there was built upon them (viz. upon the martyred brothers and their mother) an eightfold synagogue." He relates that 1. Maccabees records that Simon Maccabaeus erected a memorial on the sepulchre of his family setting up seven pyramids one against another, for his father and his mother and four brethren. Over time this morphed into a shrine/synagogue eventually being coopted into a church function (and later, by some reports, the "relics of the saints" were transferred to Constantinople where holy body parts were a favorite of the hoi polloi and the great and good.


It seems this shrine was in the Kerataion or Rhodion districts near to the southern wall. This prompts us to wonder about why any tombs would be allowed inside the city walls, this not being standard practice. Then again the wall may not have extended that far up the slopes and these barrios may have been ex urbs at that time. The fact that it was built on arcades probably relates to it being on one of the steeper urbanised parts of Mt Silpius.


1 comment:

Kevin P. Edgecomb said...

Very interesting! I'd been meaning to ask you about that synagogue/church.

There is a peculiarity in Obermann's reading, or perhaps in Ibn Schahin. Simon's monuments to his brothers (Judas Maccabeeus proper, and his siblings and parents) was in Judea, in Modin, not Antioch. See Josephus, Antiquities, 13.210-211. The account in 2Maccabees doesn't relate the old man, mother, and seven sons to the Hasmonean dynasty. The name of the mother is indeed Salome/Shalomit in Orthodox Christian tradition.

Also, an alternative explanation of the vaulting would be the position of the synagogue over tombs. Rabbinic purity regulations require a separation of space by vaulting for any building being constructed over tombs or suspected gravesites. This way, direct contact with the impurity of the graves is negated by the airspace. The construction of the Maccabean Martyrs synagogue would surely have taken this into consideration, as the period of its construction (late or post-Seleucid? Herodian?) is precisely the time during which these regulations were being formulated.