Initially Published at Millennial Star on February 23, 2015
I enjoy biblical history and have recently been studying the transitional period between the Maccabean Revolt and its resulting Hasmonean Dynasty and the Roman takeover of Judea. Over the course of this study, I encountered a quizzical group known as The Seekers of Smooth Things. The story of this obscure sect of Judaism, and their relevance to us today, begs to be told. But first, some background 1 . . .
The Transition from Persian to Greek Rule
Following the death of Alexander the Great 2, his vast kingdom was divided up among his generals, with Ptolemy 3 taking Egypt and Seleucus 4 taking Syria. Judea found itself in the middle of territorial battles between these two quarreling Greek armies. Ultimately Judah was conquered by the Seleucids, but the Jews continued to be unapologetically Jewish in their customs and religion. This proved to be very problematic for their new Greek masters.
In an attempt to control and more completely pacify the Jews in the Seleucid Kingdom, king Antiochus IV 5 made the worship of the God of the Jews punishable by death. He flooded Judea and Palestine with Greek culture and Greek religious practices. He even went so far as to dedicate the temple in Jerusalem to Olympian Zeus in 167 BC. Many of the Jews were perfectly willing to adopt Greek customs and religion in exchange for the favors offered by Antiochus. It seems that Greek religious observance was a whole lot more convenient to them than Jewish religious observance.
But not all Jews were so willing to adopt new ways and walk away from the worship of Jehovah. Mattathias was a country priest and the patriarch of the Hasmonean family. In an act of defiance, he killed a Jew that was about to make a sacrifice to a Greek god (1 Maccabees 2:15-25). Mattathias and his five sons then fled into the wilderness and started a popular uprising against the Seleucids. This movement, known as the Maccabean 6 Revolt, eventually displaced the Seleucids and put the Hasmonean family on the throne and in the office of High Priest at the temple.
Once securely in power, the Hasmoneans rapidly degenerated into the same kind of wickedness that prompted the Maccabean uprising in the first place. Predictably, a pious sect of Jews rose up in rebellion against Alexander Jannaeus 7, a particularly evil Hasmonean king. These rebellious Jews, who later came to be know as Pharisees, were so desperate to overthrow the Hasmoneans that they sought the assistance of Demetrius III Eucaerus 8, the Seleucid king. Ultimately, Alexander Jannaeus prevailed. The details of his cruel vengeance on the Pharisees were described by Flavius Josephus:
he [Alexander Jannaeus] brought them [the Pharisees] to Jerusalem, and did one of the most barbarous actions in the world to them; for as he was feasting with his concubines, in the sight of all the city, he ordered about eight hundred of them to be crucified; and while they were living, he ordered the throats of their children and wives to be cut before their eyes. (Antiquities of the Jews, Book 13:380)
There is a corroborating account of this incident found in one of the Dead Sea Scrolls called the Pesher Nahum scroll (4Q169). 4Q169 was written by a rival sect of Jews known as Essenes. This scroll describes how the Jews sought the assistance of Demetrius of Greece but were defeated by Alexander and then crucified. However 4Q169 uses code names for many of the key characters. Alexander Jannaeus is called the furious young lion; the rebellious Jews are referred to pejoratively as the Seekers of Smooth Things.
I don’t think its possible to hear a descriptor like the Seekers of Smooth Things and not have your curiosity roused. As already implied, it is generally (though not universally) felt that this refers to the Pharisees. The modern perspective portrays Pharisees as ultra-conservative adherents to the Law of Moses. However, in the first and second century BC they were viewed by some as being far too liberal. This was certainly the view of the Qumran Community where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found. Were we to speak Biblical Hebrew, we might recognize the nickname The Seekers of Smooth Things as a clever pun.
“Seekers of smooth things” is a pun in Hebrew: dorshei hachalakot instead of a title the Pharisees perhaps used for themselves: dorshei hahalachot, seekers of the way to keep Torah. (source)
The Essenes felt the Pharisees had perverted the true worship of Jehovah. Though they claimed to be in search for the right way to follow the Law, the Essenes felt The Seekers of Smooth Things had really taken the easy way. As a result, there were not many tears shed in Qumran when 800 Pharisees and their families were destroyed by Alexander. Rather, the atrocities of Alexander were viewed more as divine retribution for those that had corrupted the proper worship of Jehovah.
For me, history is fascinating, but even more so when I find some parallel that can be relevant to the world I live in today. Jehovah did not make it easy for the Jews anciently to worship him. Similarly, in the modern LDS church we find ourselves surrounded by a world that is increasingly Greek in its customs and beliefs. It’s not getting any easier to be faithful. The appeal of compromise and taking an easier way is ever-present for Church members. As was seen with the Hellenized Jews of the 2nd century BC, many progressive Mormons seem all too ready to compromise on tenets of the faith that have been historically non-negotiable. It is troubling and schismatic.
I’m certainly not advocating a Maccabean approach to progressives, where we rise up like Mattathias and destroy them in righteous indignation. The isolationist tendencies of the Essenes at Qumran is probably not that productive either. I would propose that Mormons be unapologetically Mormon in the way they live. The Church should not be shamed into compromising on fundamental doctrines that are increasingly unpopular, just because our world is desperately seeking after smooth things.
We assert to the world that the Gospel of Jesus Christ has been restored in its fulness through the Prophet Joseph Smith; that Jesus Christ directs this church through living prophets. Furthermore, we individually experience the comfort, joy and peace that the gospel brings. Why then is it so tempting to apologize to the world when church leadership refuses to be Hellenized? Why are we so easily shamed by the scoffing of the world (1 Nephi 8:28), when we are not guilty–except of offending Satan and being unwilling to compromise when questions have been settled by living apostles and prophets?
Though Isaiah was prophesying about Israel’s impending destruction for rejecting God’s prophets, he might also have been warning the church today:
. . . this is a rebellious people, lying children, children that will not hear the law of the Lord:
Which say to the seers, See not; and to the prophets, Prophesy not unto us right things, speak unto us smooth things, prophesy deceits:
Isaiah foretold the destruction of Israel for rejecting the prophets and seers: they wanted to hear ‘smooth things’ more than they wanted to hear ‘right things’. As a result, Assyria was unleashed, and the Northern Kingdom was overthrown. I fear that many in the church today could meet a similar fate, figuratively speaking.
It is an article of our faith that:
We claim the privilege of worshiping Almighty God according to the dictates of our own conscience, and allow all men the same privilege, let them worship how, where, or what they may. (Articles of Faith 1:11)
We must not deprive others of their rights to worship as they see fit. Likewise we must not surrender our privileges to the voice of popular opinion. I am inspired by the defiant words of Mattathias when he was commanded by the king’s official to sacrifice to the gods of Greece:
Though all the nations that are under the king’s dominion obey him, and fall away every one from the religion of their fathers, and give consent to his commandments:
Yet will I and my sons and my brethren walk in the covenant of our fathers.
God forbid that we should forsake the law and the ordinances (1 Maccabees 2:19-21).
Though the Apocryphal writings in the Books of the Maccabees are not canonized scripture, the words of Mattathias ring true, and are certainly words to live by. If only I could be so resolute as Mattathias!
It has never been easy to be faithful to God in any age of history, and we should not expect an easy time of it today. Those that are faithful are inevitably noticed and are made to suffer for it. Part of the process that qualifies us to inherit eternal life is to endure the shame of the world (2 Nephi 9:18;Jacob 1:8). We must seek God’s approval, not man’s approval (John 12;43; Galatians 1:10; D&C 3:7). It requires that we seek right things, not smooth things.
- When possible, I have tried to use numismatics to provide faces to the names in this post. ↩
Alexander III of Macedon. This coin, minted by Lysimachos, is thought to be one of the most accurate likenesses of Alexander the Great. There was a tendency for the successors of Alexander the Great to portray themselves as looking like Alexander in an attempt to legitimize their rule. As a result, stylistically many of the obverse images on the coins of the Ptolemies and Seleucids are similar to the this coin in style and appearance. ↩
- Ptolemy I Soter (305 – 282 BC) ↩
- Seleucus 1 Nicator (306-281 BC) ↩
- Antiochus IV Epiphanes (175-164 BC) ↩
- This revolt is named after the third son of Mattathias, Judas Maccabeus. Judas was given the surname Maccabeus, which means hammer or sledgehammer because of his fierceness in battle. Mattathias appointed him as his successor in leading the revolt against the Seleucids. ↩
Alexander Jannaeus (103-76 BC) did not mint coins with his image on them due to the Torah’s ban on graven images. He is most famous for this coin, called a prutah, or ‘widow’s mite’. ↩
Demetrius III Eucaerus (95-88 BC) ↩
- If ever a passage in scripture needs some help with punctuation, this has to be it. ↩