Hasmonean Era burial cave uncovered near the city of Modiin in 1995. (Israel GPO)

Palestine Under Hasmonean Rule

The marriage of politics and religion contributed to both the expansion and destruction of this short-lived dynasty.

In 142 B.C.E. the Great Assembly in Jerusalem named Simeon, the last surviving Maccabee brother, to the posts of high priest, commander and leader and deemed these posts hereditary. When Simeon was assassinated in 134 BCE his son, John Hyrcanus, assumed leadership, establishing the Hasmonean dynasty. The Hasmonean era continued until the invasion of Rome in 63 BCE.

Hasmonean Expansion

With the establishment of Hasmonean rule (transformed in 104-103 BCE into a kingdom), Jerusalem entered a new stage of history as the capital of an independent state. While the city had already enjoyed this status for some four hundred years during the First Temple period (c. 1000-586 B.C.E.), it had been reduced to a modest temple-city for the first four hundred years of the Second Temple era (c. 540-140 B.C.E.), serving as the capital of a small and relatively isolated district.

All this changed, however, under the Hasmoneans; as Jerusalem assumed its role as the center of a sizable state, the city’s dimensions and fortunes were affected as well. Replacing the district of Yehud in the Persian and Hellenistic eras, the Hasmonean realm expanded greatly, encompassing an area roughly the size of David’s and Solomon’s kingdoms’ and becoming a significant regional power by the beginning of the first century B.C.E. Jerusalem under the Hasmoneans grew fivefold, from a relatively small area in the City of David with some five thousand inhabitants to a population of twenty-five to thirty thousand inhabitants…

Biblical Precedents

As a result of the many Hasmonean conquests, the biblical concept of Eretz Israel–the area of Jewish settlement and sovereignty in ancient Palestine–was significantly expanded. Although today we are aware of the many differences in the delineation of Israel’s borders according to various biblical traditions, it is generally agreed that the “Promised Land” included the territory between the Mediterranean Sea and east of the Jordan River, and between the Galilee and the northern Negev. While the boundaries of Yehud for the first four hundred years of the Second Temple period were severely restricted to the area around Jerusalem, a much more expansive understanding of Eretz Israel became a new reality under the Hasmoneans, with enormous ideological and social implications.

The Hasmoneans saw themselves as successors to Israel’s biblical leaders, particularly the judges and kings of the First Temple era. This self-perception is made very clear in

I Maccabees, a book written under their auspices and in they style of which is reminiscent of the biblical books of Judges and Kings.

The author of I Maccabees sought to forge a connection between those earlier rulers and the Hasmoneans. He uses ethnic and geographical terminology taken from the Bible (e.g. Edom and Moab), and regarding Jerusalem, he repeatedly invokes the names of biblical sites such as the City of David and Mount Zion (I Macc.1:33, 4:37, 14:36). The author’s paean of Simon’s [Simeon’s] achievements (I Macc.14) recalls a plethora of biblical blessings including a phrase reminiscent of Solomon’s reign of peace and security (“under his own vine and under his own fig tree”; I Kings 5:5) […]

Wedding Politics and Religion

Hasmonean coinage proclaims the dual identification of these rulers, who were both religious functionaries (high priests) and political leaders (ethnarchs and later, kings). More than any other type of evidence, these coins point to the two worlds in which the Hasmoneans’ functioned, while I Maccabees preserves accounts that fully substantiate these roles, which are embellished by the military dimension as well. For example, Jonathan was appointed high priest, strategos [commander] and meridarch [political leader](I Macc. 14:38-45) Never before in Jewish history had such extensive powers been concentrated in one leader.

In this sense, Hasmonean identification with biblical precedents entailed also the adoption and implementation of certain biblical views, especially those spelled out in Deuteronomy that emphasize the religious dimension of political power (and vice versa). Deuteronomy’s ban on idolatry and hostility toward the indigenous gentile nations is absolute. On repeated occasions, Deuteronomy (7:1-6, 16. 25-26, 20:15-20) commands the conquering Israelites to destroy all sanctuaries and idols and to annihilate all traces of the heathens.

Zealotry and Conversion

The Hasmoneans, for their part, exhibited an outright hostility toward the local pagan population, proceeded to destroy all traces of idolatry (shrines and temples), removed the idolaters themselves in one way or another (by conversion, murder, or exile), and instituted a rigorous policy of purification, thereby, in effect, Judaizing their realm. On several occasions, they introduced a religiously observant Jewish population into a conquered city (I Macc. 13:47-48); both the Jerusalem Akra and the city of Gezer were subjected to such a process ( I Macc. 13:49-53).

At times a more moderate policy was adopted. For instance, although John Hyrcanus destroyed the Samaritan temple on Mount Gerizim, he appears to have done little else to interfere with the Samaritan way of life, perhaps because it was so similar to that of the Jews. In this case, Deuteronomy’s emphasis on the centralization of the cult may have mandated and justified the elimination of the Gezerian sanctuary.

At other times, however, whole populations were converted to Judaism, as was the case with the Idumeans under John Hyrcanus, and the Ituraeans under Aristobulus. [Idumea was an area south of Judea, while the Ituraeans lived in the Galilee. Aristobulus I was Hyrcanus’ son, who ruled from 104-103 B.C.E.]

This combination of religious fervor and political policy undoubtedly provided a powerful impetus for conquest and expansion. God’s will as conveyed in Deuteronomy and elsewhere was now being fulfilled. A literature echoing this triumphalism was also being created at this time (e.g. Jubilees, Judith).

A Double-Edge Sword

Nevertheless, political power coupled with religious tenets proved to be a double-edged sword, for such a policy was bound to evoke a great deal of animosity. The Hasmonean policy of conquests, conversions and purification might be construed by some as an attack on the pagan world per se. Thus it is not surprising that one of the earliest statements of hostility against the Jews and Judaism is ascribed to the advisors of Antiochus VII during his siege of Jerusalem (134-132 B.C.E.).

Moreover, some of the views of Posidonius ( a Syrian philosopher who flourished in the first part of the first century B.C.E) may also have been in reaction to these policies. In his writings, the Jews are accused of being evil, arrogant, and corrupt; moreover, they are atheists (i.e. they do not recognize the gods) and preserve barbaric customs, particularly in regard to their Temple.

Of no less importance is the fact that a combined religious and political agenda also had deleterious domestic effects. Thus, while creating a political framework that aimed at emphasizing the common and shared, Hasmonean policy often presented a political and religious challenge and a threat to others. The synthesis of politics and religion came to characterize contemporary Jewish sects as well. Such a milieu could only exacerbate relations between various groups in Hasmonean Jerusalem.

Hellenism and the Hasmoneans

Coins also provide a valuable clue regarding the goals of Hasmonean rule in the cultural realm and reflect, for example, their desire to embrace both the Jewish and Hellenistic worlds. While the coins of John Hyrcanus refer to him only by his Hebrew name (Yehohanan) and Jewish title (high priest), those of Alexander Jannaeus reflect a broader horizon, referring to him as high priest and king (basileios), using both Hebrew (even some Aramaic) and Greek, and calling him by both his Hebrew and Greek names (Yehonatan, Alexander). [Alexander succeeded Aristobulus I, ruling from 103-76 B.C.E.] The last Hasmonean ruler, Mattathias Antigonus, minted coins with only Greek inscriptions. In general, Jewish and Hellenistic features were incorporated into many facets of Hasmonean life and viewed as complimenting one another [… ]

In 63 B.C.E, the Roman general Pompey conquered Jerusalem and, once again–as had been the case before the Hasmoneans–the city [and the province] became subservient to a foreign power.

Reprinted with permission from Jerusalem: Portrait of the City in the Second Temple Period (Jewish Publication Society).

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