Report from Jerusalem, #10, February 2009

The large, former car-park site in Jerusalem opposite the City of David visitors’ centre, continues to throw up interesting finds. The latest is a small red marble figurine of a male head and neck, only 5 cm high, that may have been a weight used by a merchant. It has a flat base and is not broken off from a larger statue. It is of a man with a curly beard and little, if no, hair, and is thought to be of an athlete or boxer, it certainly has a broken nose. It was found at the IAA dig directed by Doron Ben-Ami and dates from the Roman period, about 200 CE. The IAA claims nothing similar has yet been found in Israel

Two years ago the Israel Museum exhibited a large stone inscription, on loan from the Steinhardt family of New York, called the Heliodorus Stele. It was a Greek text announcing that the Emperor Seleucus IV (son of Antiochus III) had appointed his minister, Heliodorus, to oversee the temples of his empire, and it seemed to confirm the story in Second Maccabees 3 of chief minister Heliodorus being instructed by the Emperor to go and rob the Jerusalem Temple of its treasures. In that he was not successful, being attacked by a divine golden figure on a golden horse and the High Priest, Honia (Onias), had to pray for his recovery. These details are not recorded on the stele (!) but it does look as if the two Heliodoruses were the same man.
The stele was deciphered by Profs. Hannah Cotton-Paltiel and Michael Woerrle some time ago and dated to 178 BCE. H.Shanks wrote an article on it in BAR (Nov/Dec 2008).
The English text of the stele is available on the internet if you type in Heliodorus.

One problem is that the stele was damaged and the lower section is missing. Also, having been acquired on the market, in the present-day climate of suspicion, the provenance was suspect. Now, very recently, lo and behold, three missing sections of the stele have been found in a dig at Maresha, in the national park of Bet Guvrin.

The IAA have just announced that in a dig supervised by Dr Ian Stern of the IAA and Barny Alpert, three broken fragments were found in an underground storage vessel. Dr.Dov Gera (a specialist in the Hellenistic period) saw that they looked like the base of the Steinhardt piece and, indeed, they fitted it perfectly, though one further piece of the base is still missing. The new pieces have not yet been deciphered but they clearly continue the edict of Seleucus IV appointing Heliodorus, who, in his turn, appointed further officials to carry out the necessary inspections. The stele is written in truly diplomatic language, implying that it was in the locals’ interest to have their temples inspected whereas, if Maccabees is to be believed – and there is no reason to doubt it – its purpose was to provide the Emperor with the necessary plunder and cash to keep the empire going.

The fact that three missing pieces were found in the ‘Dig for a Day’ project indicates the authenticity of the stele and shows that this edict was erected in the Hellenistic city of Maresha. Presumably further copies were erected at other centres to indicate that the inspections being carried out by Heliodorus and his men were carried out on the orders of the Emperor himself.

We do not know the sequel of the story and exactly why Heliodorus was prevented from robbing the Jerusalem Temple. Perhaps he was not too diligent in his work for the Emperor, because it is known that three years later in 175 BCE he murdered the Emperor in the hope of putting himself on the throne. His plan was, however, frustrated by the ambitious Antiochus IV, brother of Seleucus IV, who rushed back from exile in Rome and seized the vacant throne. We can surmise that Heliodorus was not punished for the murder, which suited the new incumbent, Antiochus Epiphanes. And, though not exactly as the story of Hanukkah that they keep telling us, the rest is history.

Stephen Rosenberg,
W. F. Albright Institute, Jerusalem