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The Hasmonaeans and Their Legacy

The Hasmonaeans and Their Legacy

The Hasmonaeans and Their Legacy

WHEN Jesus was on earth, Judaism was divided into factions, all competing for influence over the people. That is the picture presented in the Gospel accounts as well as in the writings of first-century Jewish historian Josephus.

The Pharisees and the Sadducees appear on this scene as important voices, capable of swaying public opinion even to the point of rejecting Jesus as the Messiah. (Matthew 15:1, 2; 16:1; John 11:47, 48; 12:42, 43) However, there is no mention of these two influential groups anywhere in the Hebrew Scriptures.

Josephus first mentions the Sadducees and the Pharisees in the context of the second century B.C.E. During this period many Jews were succumbing to the appeal of Hellenism, that is, Greek culture and philosophy. The tension between Hellenism and Judaism peaked when the Seleucid rulers defiled the temple in Jerusalem, dedicating it to Zeus. A dynamic Jewish leader, Judah Maccabee, of a family known as the Hasmonaeans, led a rebel army that freed the temple from Greek hands. *

The years immediately following the Maccabean revolt and victory were distinguished by a tendency to form sects based on competing ideologies, each vying with the others to win over the wider Jewish community. But why did this tendency develop? Why did Judaism become so divided? To answer, let us examine the history of the Hasmonaeans.

Increasing Independence and Disunity

After achieving his religious goal of restoring worship at Jehovah’s temple, Judah Maccabee turned political. Consequently, many Jews left off following him. Still, he continued his fight against the Seleucid rulers, formed a treaty with Rome, and sought to establish an independent Jewish State. Following Judah’s death in battle, his brothers Jonathan and Simon continued the struggle. The Seleucid rulers at first opposed the Maccabees vigorously. But in time, the rulers agreed to political compromises, allowing the Hasmonaean brothers a degree of autonomy.

Although of priestly descent, no Hasmonaean had ever served in the position of high priest. Many Jews felt that this position should be filled by priests of the line of Zadok, whom Solomon had appointed as high priest. (1 Kings 2:35; Ezekiel 43:19) Jonathan used warfare and diplomacy to persuade the Seleucids to appoint him as high priest. But after Jonathan’s death, his brother Simon achieved even more. In September 140 B.C.E., an important decree was issued in Jerusalem, enshrined on bronze tablets in Greek style: “King Demetrius [the Greek Seleucid ruler] confirmed him [Simon] in the high priesthood, made him one of his Friends, and paid him high honors. . . . The Jews and their priests have resolved that Simon should be their leader and high priest forever, until a trustworthy prophet should arise.”​—1 Maccabees 14:38-41 (a historical book found in the Apocrypha).

Simon’s position as ruler as well as high priest​—for him and his descendants—​was thus agreed upon not only by foreign Seleucid authority but also by “the Great Assembly” of his own people. This marked an important turning point. As historian Emil Schürer put it, once a political dynasty was established by the Hasmonaeans, “their central concern was no longer with the fulfilment of the Torah [Jewish Law] but with the preservation and extension of their political power.” However, careful not to offend Jewish sensibilities, Simon used the title “ethnarch,” or “leader of the people,” rather than “king.”

Not all were pleased with the Hasmonaean usurpation of both religious and political control. According to many scholars, it was during this period that the Qumran community was formed. A priest of the line of Zadok, believed to be the one referred to in Qumran writings as “the Teacher of Righteousness,” left Jerusalem and led an opposition group into the Judean Desert by the Dead Sea. One of the Dead Sea Scrolls, a commentary on the book of Habakkuk, condemns “the Wicked Priest who was called by the name of truth at the beginning, but when he ruled over Israel his heart became haughty.” Many scholars believe that either Jonathan or Simon could fit the sect’s description of the ruling “Wicked Priest.”

Simon continued military campaigns to expand the territory under his control. However, his rule came to an abrupt end when his son-in-law, Ptolemy, assassinated him along with two of his sons while they were banqueting near Jericho. This attempt to gain control failed. John Hyrcanus, Simon’s remaining son, was warned of the attempt on his life. He captured his potential assassins and took over the leadership and high priesthood in place of his father.

Further Expansion and Oppression

At first, John Hyrcanus faced serious threats from Syrian forces, but then in 129 B.C.E., the Seleucid dynasty lost a crucial battle with the Parthians. Regarding the effect of this war on the Seleucids, Jewish scholar Menahem Stern wrote: “The entire structure of the kingdom virtually collapsed.” Hyrcanus was thus “able to recover in full Judea’s political independence and to begin expanding in various directions.” And expand he did.

Now unhindered by any Syrian threat, Hyrcanus began to invade territories outside of Judea, bringing them into subjugation. The inhabitants had to convert to Judaism or else their cities would be razed. One such campaign was against the Idumaeans (Edomites). On this, Stern remarked: “The conversion of the Idumeans was the first of its kind, as it was of an entire race rather than a few individuals.” Among other areas conquered was Samaria, where Hyrcanus razed the Samaritan temple situated on Mount Gerazim. Expressing the irony of this policy of forced conversion by the Hasmonaean dynasty, historian Solomon Grayzel wrote: “Here was a grandson of Mattathias [Judah Maccabee’s father] violating the very principle​—religious freedom—​which the previous generation had so nobly defended.”

Pharisees and Sadducees Appear

It is when writing about Hyrcanus’ reign that Josephus first deals with the increasing influence of the Pharisees and the Sadducees. (Josephus had mentioned the Pharisees who lived during the reign of Jonathan.) He does not relate their origins. Some scholars view them as a group that came out of the Hasidim, a pious sect who supported Judah Maccabee in his religious goals but left him when his ambitions turned political.

The name Pharisees is generally connected to the Hebrew root meaning “separate ones,” although some view it as related to the word “interpreters.” Pharisees were scholars from among the common people, of no special descent. They separated themselves from ritual impurity by a philosophy of special piety, applying temple laws of priestly holiness to the ordinary situations of daily life. The Pharisees developed a new form of interpreting the Scriptures and a concept later known as the oral law. During Simon’s reign they gained greater influence when some were appointed to the Gerousia (council of older men), which later became known as the Sanhedrin.

Josephus relates that John Hyrcanus was at first a pupil and supporter of the Pharisees. However, at a certain point, the Pharisees reproved him for not giving up the high priesthood. This led to a dramatic break. Hyrcanus outlawed the Pharisees’ religious ordinances. As an additional punishment, he sided with the Pharisees’ religious opponents, the Sadducees.

The name Sadducees is likely connected with the High Priest Zadok, whose descendants had held the priestly office since Solomon’s time. However, not all Sadducees were of this line. According to Josephus, the Sadducees were the aristocrats and wealthy men of the nation, and they did not have the support of the masses. Professor Schiffman comments: “Most of them . . . were apparently priests or those who had intermarried with the high priestly families.” They had thus long been closely connected with those in power. Therefore, the increasing role of the Pharisees in public life and the Pharisaic concept of extending priestlike sanctity to all the people was perceived as a threat that could undermine Sadducean natural authority. Now, in the final years of Hyrcanus’ reign, the Sadducees regained control.

More Politics, Less Piety

Hyrcanus’ eldest son, Aristobulus, reigned only one year before dying. He continued the policy of forced conversion with the Itureans and brought upper Galilee under Hasmonaean control. But it was under the reign of his brother Alexander Jannaeus, who ruled from 103-76 B.C.E., that the Hasmonaean dynasty reached the zenith of its power.

Alexander Jannaeus broke with previous policy and freely declared himself both high priest and king. The conflicts between the Hasmonaeans and the Pharisees intensified, even leading to a civil war in which 50,000 Jews perished. After the rebellion was quelled, in an act reminiscent of pagan kings, Jannaeus had 800 of the rebels impaled. In their dying moments, their wives and children were slaughtered before their eyes, while Jannaeus feasted openly with his concubines. *

Despite his enmity toward the Pharisees, Jannaeus was a pragmatic politician. He saw that the Pharisees had increasing popular support. His deathbed instruction to his wife, Salome Alexandra, was to share power with them. Jannaeus had chosen her over his sons as successor to his kingdom. She proved herself a capable ruler, providing the nation with one of the more peaceful periods under Hasmonaean rule (76-67 B.C.E.). The Pharisees were restored to positions of authority, and the laws against their religious ordinances were revoked.

At Salome’s death, her sons Hyrcanus II, who had served as high priest, and Aristobulus II entered a power struggle. Both lacked the political and military insight of their forefathers, and it seems that neither understood the full significance of the increasing Roman presence in the area after the total collapse of the Seleucid kingdom. In 63 B.C.E., both brothers turned to the Roman ruler Pompey while he was in Damascus and requested his mediation in their dispute. That same year, Pompey and his troops marched into Jerusalem and took control. It was the beginning of the end for the Hasmonaean kingdom. In 37 B.C.E., Jerusalem was taken over by the Idumaean King Herod the Great, whom the Roman Senate had approved as “King of Judea,” “ally and friend of the Roman people.” The Hasmonaean kingdom was no more.

The Hasmonaean Legacy

The period of the Hasmonaeans, from Judah Maccabee to Aristobulus II, laid the foundation for the divided religious scene that existed when Jesus was on earth. The Hasmonaeans began with zeal for worship of God, but that deteriorated into abusive self-interest. Their priests, who had the opportunity to unite the people in following God’s Law, led the nation into the abyss of political infighting. In this environment, divisive religious viewpoints flourished. The Hasmonaeans were no more, but the struggle for religious control between the Sadducees, the Pharisees, and others would characterize the nation now under Herod and Rome.


^ par. 4 See the article “Who Were the Maccabees?” in The Watchtower of November 15, 1998.

^ par. 22 The Dead Sea Scroll “Commentary on Nahum” mentions “the Lion of Wrath” who “hanged men alive,” which may refer to the above-mentioned incident.

[Chart on page 30]

(For fully formatted text, see publication)

The Hasmonaean Dynasty

Judah Maccabee

Jonathan Maccabee

Simon Maccabee

John Hyrcanus

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Salome Alexandra — married — Alexander Jannaeus

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Hyrcanus II

Aristobulus II

[Picture on page 27]

Judah Maccabee sought Jewish independence

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The Doré Bible Illustrations/​Dover Publications, Inc.

[Picture on page 29]

The Hasmonaeans fought to expand control over non-Jewish cities

[Credit Line]

The Doré Bible Illustrations/​Dover Publications, Inc.