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140 BC - 37 BC - Hasmonean Judah

The Kingdom of the Macabees

After a series of foreign rulers, Jews again experienced approximately a century of self-rule under the Maccabees between 166 B.C. and 63 B.C. Although the bounds of this kingdom extended into what is now western Jordan, they did not encompass parts of the Negev and Galilee that are now Israeli territory. The Roman conquest ended Jewish autonomy, and, after several Jewish revolts, Rome expelled many Jews from their homeland, which the Romans called Palestine. Most of the world's Jewish population remained outside Palestine for the next 18 centuries.
The violation of the Second Temple, which had been built about 520-515 BC, provoked a successful Jewish rebellion under the generalship of Judas (Judah) Maccabaeus. In 140 BC the Hasmonean Dynasty began under the leadership of Simon Maccabaeus, who served as ruler, high priest, and commander in chief. Simon, who was assassinated a few years later, formalized what Judas had begun, the establishment of a theocracy, something not found in any biblical text. The Hasmoneans were special kings. They were unique not only because they are the first kings of Israel whose historicity is undoubted, but also because they combined three functions: that of secular, military and religious leadership.

Despite priestly rule, Jewish society became Hellenized except in its generally staunch adherence to monotheism. Although rural life was relatively unchanged, cities such as Jerusalem rapidly adopted the Greek language, sponsored games and sports, and in more subtle ways adopted and absorbed the culture of the Hellenes. Even the high priests bore such names as Jason and Menelaus. Biblical scholars have identified extensive Greek influence in the drafting of commentaries and interpolations of ancient texts during and after the Greek period. The most obvious influence of the Hellenistic period can be discerned in the early literature of the new faith, Christianity. Under the Hasmonean Dynasty, Judah became comparable in extent and power to the ancient Davidic dominion. Internal political and religious discord ran high, however, especially between the Pharisees, who interpreted the written law by adding a wealth of oral law, and the Sadducees, an aristocratic priestly class who called for strict adherence to the written law.

Simon, second and last surviving son of Mattathias, secured from Demetrius II, one of the rival claimants to the Syrian throne, the recognition of the freedom of Judea from tribute to Syria. The Jews reckoned their political independence from this date (142). Later in the same year he recovered the stronghold of Zion, which had been held by the Syrians since the days of Antiochus Epiphanes. In 141 the Jews declared Simon high priest, general, and ethnarch (ecclesiastical, military, and civil head of the nation), and made these offices hereditary. In 139 an embassy sent to Rome by Simon obtained from the Roman senate a decree guaranteeing to the Jews unrestricted possession of their territory.

Judea came once again under the Syrian dominion, but only for a short time, and the independence of Syria then regained was not again lost. John Hyrcanus [r. 135-105], son of Simon, entered upon a career of conquest, conquering Samaria and Idumea. An important event in his reign was his break with the Pharisees and his alliance with the Sadducees. (This is the earliest point in the history at which these parties are mentioned under these names.)

The era of the Jewish captivity was one of the most mysterious and momentous periods in the history of humanity. What were the influences brought to bear upon the captives during that time, are not known. But from a reckless, lawless, godless populace, they returned transformed into a band of Puritans. One result of this revival of the Israelite faith, was the firm and organized stand henceforth made against the efforts of their successive heathen rulers to denationalize and paganize the nation. This disgraceful period was afterwards appropriately spoken of as the time of "the mingling". But the heart of the nation was true, and the noble struggles of the Maccabees against the tyrant are familiar to all readers of Jewish history.

In connection with the prolonged contest there arose a fraternity described as "mighty men of Israel", "voluntarily devoted to the Law" (see 1 Mace. ii. 42; vii. 13; 2 Mace. xiv. 6). Evidently this appellation stands for the Hebrew Chasidim, "Pious", or, to adopt a modern term, "Pietists". From this fraternity, whose common bond of union was a resolution to devote their lives to the upholding of the Law in its integrity, appear to have sprung, directly or indirectly, the three great "sects" of after time the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Essenes. Widely as these diverged from one another in after time, and bitter as were their mutual controversies, they all started from the Rame point a firm adherence to the national faith. But while the Pharisees, laying their chief stress upon exact obedience, were led to formalism and an exaggerated estimate of the authority of the Father, the Sadducees, taking morality as their watchword, lost all sense of the supernatural, while the Essenes, whose great principle was self-control, were led into a mystical and unprofitable asceticism. Only the two former sects are mentioned in the New Testament, although there are clear traces of the third: Josephus has much to say upon them all.

Contemporary historian Flavius Josephus divided Judeans into three main groups:

  1. The Sadducees were priestly and aristocratic families who interpreted the law more literally than the Pharisees. They dominated the Temple worship and its rites, including the sacrificial cult. The Sadducees only recognized precepts derived directly from the Torah as binding. They, therefore, denied the concept of the immortality of the soul, the resurrection of the body, and the existence of angels. The Sadducees were unpopular with the common people.
  2. The Pharisees, unlike the Sadducees, maintained the validity of the oral as well as the written law. They were flexible in their interpretations and willing to adapt the law to changing circumstances. They believed in an afterlife and in the resurrection of the dead. By the first century C.E., the Pharisees came to represent the beliefs and practices of the majority of Palestinian Jewry.
  3. The Essenes were a separatist group, some of whom formed an ascetic monastic community and retreated to the wilderness of Judea. They shared material possessions and occupied themselves with disciplined study, worship, and work. They practiced ritual immersion and ate their meals communally. One branch did not marry.

Hyrcanus left his throne to his wife, but Aristobulus I [r. 105-104], son of John Hyrcanus, starved his mother in prison, imprisoned his brothers, except Antigonus, whom later he caused to be slain, and usurped the authority. He was the first Maccabean to bear the title of king. He made some conquests in the north, Galilee or Ituraea.

On the death of Aristobulus, his widow, Salome Alexandra, released his brothers from prison, married the eldest, Alexander Jannaeus [r. 104-78], and made him high priest and king. His reign was marked by wars of defense and conquest as a result of which he greatly extended the boundaries of the Jewish state, bitter conflicts with the Pharisees, and acts of oppression and cruelty towards the people. It is said that 50,000 Jews perished in the internecine conflicts of Alexander's reign.

The throne which Alexander had received from his wife he left to her at his death. Alexandra's reign [r. 78-69] was in almost every respect the opposite of his. She allied herself with the Pharisees, and ruled in accordance with their counsel, though her son, Hyrcanus, whom she made high priest, sided with the Sadducees. Her reign was looked upon in after years as a golden age of peace and prosperity.

After the death of Alexandra, her younger son, Aristobulus II [69-63], having conquered Hyrcanus in battle, compelled the latter to surrender to him the office of high priest and of king. Antipater, the Idumean, son and successor of Antipater whom Alexander Jannaeus had appointed tetrarch of Idumea, perceiving an opportunity to gain advantage for himself, allied himself with Hyrcanus, and persuaded him to seek to regain his power. A struggle ensued which lasted till 63 BC. The last Hasmonean king, Matthatias Antigonos, who ruled from 40-37 BCE, was defeated and executed by order of Mark Anthony.

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Page last modified: 26-03-2012 18:43:10 ZULU