Some remarks on the Hasmonean period

In the wake of the Maccabean revolt (167-164), a new hitherto unknown family of landed priests (known as Maccabeans for the by-name of Judah Maccabi, i.e., the "hammer-headed" and later known by the name of their ancestor, Hasmon),i.e., the Hasmoneans, rises to the office of High Priest and eventually take on the royal title. Under their rule, Judah is greatly expanded and regains some of her erstwhile independence. New movements arise, not all satisfied with the Hellenistic potentates the Hasmoneans had turned into. Pharisees are butchered and Essenes secede from the Temple. The internal rivalries are finally settled by the Romans, the new superpower who arrived on the scene with Pompeius, in 64BCE.

1. Our sources

Our knowledge of Second Temple Jerusalem is based on excellent literary sources which, while not completely disinterested, are a whole lot closer to what we recognize as historiography than any of the biblical texts we rely on for earlier periods. One of the bodies of literature we have are the Books of the Maccabees, especially the First and the Second Book of the Maccabees. The interest of these sources is to glorify the Hasmonean family and their deeds, i.e., their role in the revolt against Antiochos IV (Maccabean Revolt, 167-164BCE). 1. and 2. Maccabees are "court history" in the tradition of the Books of Samuel and Kings, albeit in an Hellenistic style. They were originally composed in Aramaic, the common language of theJews since Persian times, but only the Greek translations have been preserved and were eventually canonized in the Greek editions of the Bible, i.e., those adopted by the Christian traditions.

Another literary source consists of the works of Josephus Flavius, scion of a priestly family, i.e., member of the aristocracy, someone with intimate knowledge of the various sects and movements of the late Second Temple period, a general in the Jewish war against Rome (66-74CE), and a turncoat who delivered the fortress he was supposed to defend to the Roman general Vespasian. In a gesture reported by Josephus himself (in his autobiography) he surrendered and prophecied that Vespesian was to become emperor, a prediction which came true only three days later, whereupon Vespasion adopted Josephus who lived out his long life in Rome writing books about himself, Jewish history, and the war he had participated in. His goal is to explain to the educated Roman reader that the Jews were really a highly sophisticated and civilized people and not the barbarian foes of Rome they appeared to be. His works also mean to extol the virtue of the homo novus, Vespasian.

We also have literary sources of a different provenance, such as the biblical book of Daniel, the apocryphal Enoch apocalypse, or the Habakuk commentary from Qumran, and many passages of rabbinic literature (Mishnah, Tosephta, Talmud) that were either composed at the time and comment on current events from the perspective of a radically eschatological or otherwise sectarian movement or that look back on this period from the vantage point of hindsight, often containing authentic traditions about one or another aspect of life at the time.

In addition to these very instructive Jewish literary sources and their Greek, Roman, and Christian counterparts, most of which have been available to historians of the Second Temple period, including Armstrong, we have excavations and artefacts (inscriptions, manuscripts of letters and of scrolls of sectarian and mainstream religious literature, coins, etc.) that shed further light on the daily life and the meanings of some of the more obscure references in the literature.

In all, we are in a really good position when it comes to ascertaining some of the basic facts, such as the succession of rulers, the interaction between the Judahite elite and the various relevant imperial forces, internal conflicts of a political, cultural, or religious nature, and other such matters. Despite this embarrassment of riches, we are confronted with a variety of interests and perspectives, and we should not assume that major events, such as the infamous decrees of Antiochos IV., are reported from an unbiased perpective. Our authors are better informed about some periods than they are about others and they are not interested in writing history in the modern, non-partisan, sense of reporting "what actually happened."

For example, the gospels of the New Testament describe events that are purported to have taken place in the time of Jesus (c 4BCE - c 27CE) but they were not collected, edited, and made into history-like reports before the time of the first Jewish war against Rome (66-74CE). Aside from the purely legendary (as Herod's killing of the babes) and the piously exaggerated (such as the miracles), the situation described in the gospels (e.g., enmity between Pharisees and Jesus and his disciples and the conspiracy of Jewish dignitaries, including a king, a high priest, the scribes, the Pharisees, and many ordinary folk, to kill "Christ") may be much more representative of the period when the grandson of Herod, Aggripa I. (37-44CE) ruled and, with the blessing of Roman emperor Claudius, restored a measure of national independence to Judah. Josephus and other sources applaud Agrippa's reign as one favorable to the Pharisees. At the same time, Gentiles and Christians suffered from this consolidation and they were disadvantaged during his reign. Thus, for example, James (the brother of Jesus) is said to have been executed during Agrippa's reign and Peter is barely able to escape the same fate. The gospels, whose narratives took shape during these decades, may therefore retroject the mid-first century experience of the Christian community in Judaea and the Galilee onto the plane of the life of Jesus, their revered messianic leader. By the same token, Josephus and Maccabean literature are likewise written to appeal to specific audiences at specific times and for specific purposes, and they all use historical narratives and speeches in order to make their respective cases.

2. Hasmonean rule as realpolitik (i.e., pragmatism vs. idealism/utopianism/messianism)

The general condition of Second Temple Jewish history is one of a dependence of Judah on the surrounding empires. Judah becomes a pawn, and sometimes a player, in the ups and downs of Persia, Ptolemaic Egypt, the Seleucid empire, and finally the Roman empire. These imperial powers are interested in Judah for two reasons, namely, money (taxation) and military support. The empires' ambivalence toward greater or lesser measures of Judahite independence rests on the fact that taxation and military support rested on contradicting conditions. In order to provide a viable source of taxation, land owners had to have conditions of peace, stability of property rights, administration, and commerce. Such conditions, in turn, rested on a relatively free and independent Jewish commonwealth which could, however, easily turn into a military threat to one or the other imperial interest. Particularly sensitive periods are the times of transition from one imperial ruler to another, when smaller provinces like Judah could see a chance by siding with one or the other competitor to the imperial throne. The ascent of the Hasmoneans to high priesthood and kingship is due to Jonathan's (one of Judah Maccabi's brothers) shrewd exploitation of the struggle of succession caused by the sudden death of Antiochos IV, a strategy utilized also by others.

Like the founders of the first Jewish commonwealth, King David and his dynasty, the Hasmoneans utilize a period of decline in the power of their neighboring empires to establish themselves as the dominant political force. While the Books of the Maccabees attempt to describe the piety of the family of Mattathias and his sons, the founders of this lineage, the actual course of history shows that the Hasmoneans were interested in what we call realpolitik more than in piety or utopian projects of restoring the ancient glory of biblical times. This, in turn, led to conflicts between Hasmonean high priests and kings and a) the Zadokite establishment (the ancient family of high priests) and their party and/or b) the Pharisees as the representatives of a Torah-based piety that wished to transfer the priestly standard of ritual purity to the entire people of Israel and/or c) the Essenes who seceded from the Jerusalem temple when Jonathan (brother of Judah Maccabee) made himself high priest. The Hasmoneans were client-kings of the empire they both served and fought and they expanded their power by means of conquest, forced Judaization or expulsion of the conquered people, and through political assassination or mass executions of their opponents.

3. The Role of Jerusalem

a) political

There is a political side to the shape, role, and development of the city, as well as to who inhabits it. This side is distinct from, and sometimes in conflict with, the religious meanings attached to the city by one group or another. These religious meanings, however, are never unrelated to the question of whom one regards as the legitimate sovereign of this city. In other words, religious views are often veiled or not so veiled expressions of opposition to the political realities of the day.

b) cultural

With Hellenistic culture, we have a clash of visions, and of the basic pursuits related to these visions, as to what constitutes the proper culture of a civilized community (as opposed to a barbarous community). To the Greeks and those who emulate them (Jewish hellenists), circumcision is a mutilation of the body, whereas to those who maintain the Torah which ruled Jewish life in exile and return under Persian sovereignty circumcision is the sign of the covenant with Abraham. Hellenism leads to a transformation of the city, e.g., the introduction of gymnasia (places of exercise for the body and the mind). When Jewish Hellenizers try to force a Greek character upon the entire city and state (e.g., high priest Menelaos supports and perhaps even scripts the decrees issued by Antiochos IV), their goal is to eradicate the difference between Jews and Gentiles which they believe can only be done if the Torah is radically abrogated and worship at the sanctuary in Jerusalem paganized.

c) religious

New doctrines, such as belief in the resurrection of the body, and differences in cultic symbolism (solar vs. lunar calendar) introduce fundamental tensions into the community of those committed to Torah and Temple. As a rule, conflicts between the religiously committed are far more violent and fundamental than between one or another religious faction and the secular rulers who are merely interested in religion to the degree that it is related to maintaining power and public order.

[Chronology of Hasmonean Rulers]