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The Maccabees (Hasmoneans) 167-63, Teddy Kollek and Moshe Pearlman, Jerusalem: Sacred City of Mankind, Steimatzky Ltd., Jerusalem, 1991.

In the year 198 BC, the Seleucids under Antiochus III succeeded, where his predecessors had failed, in meeting and routing the Ptolemaic Egyptian army, driving them from Asian soil, and annexing the land between, Palestine. Jerusalem, having lived for more than a century under the “Greeks of Egypt,” the Ptolemies, now came under the “Greeks of Syria,” the Seleucids.

The first years were benevolent, the Jews of Judah being granted a large measure of autonomy and complete freedom of worship. With the accession of Antiochus IV, Epiphanes, in the year 175, however, this policy was drastically changed. With cultural unity as his aim, and idolizing Greek ways, he sought to impose a standard pattern of life upon his heterogeneous vassals and to advance the worship of Greek gods.

In Jerusalem, some Jews responded favorably to Hellenism. This caused sharp internal conflicts I which the emperor often intervened. In 169, he seized the opportunity of “restoring order” during one such clash to enter the Temple, plunder it, and carry off its holy and precious vessels and treasures. This touched off city-wide riots, and Antiochus sent in a stronger force who slaughtered many of the inhabitants and partially destroyed the walls and a number of buildings. He followed up the action by erecting a Hellenistic fortress, called the Akra, on the western hill, opposite the Temple Mount, garrisoned by Seleucid troops.

Then came the final phase of his attempts to Hellenize the Jews. The Temple, “that was to be called thenceforth after the name of Olympian Zeus,” was defiled. Within its sacred precincts, Greek troops practiced heathen rites, introduced the image of Zeus, sacrificed swine upon the altar, destroyed the Scrolls of the Law. The observance of customs special to the Jewish religion, such as the Sabbath, traditional feasts, circumcision, was punishable by death. So was failure to observe idolatrous Hellenistic practices. Jews were executed for refusing to eat pig’s flesh, or bow down to Greek images, or partake of the monthly sacrifice in honor of the king.

This brutality was met at first by passive resistance on the part of the orthodox Jews, known as the Hassidim, Hebrew for “pious.” They continued observance of the Jewish law in secret. When caught, they were slain. Ordered to “conform with Greek manners,” they preferred death to submission. Persecution mounted and resistance now became active. This in turn was met by more brutal repression which, in its turn, brought more intensive and widespread rebellion. Soon all Judah was in armed revolt.

In the year 167, the Jews struck back at their oppressors in a national war of resistance which was to constitute one of the heroic chapters in Jewish history. The liberation and “cleansing” of Jerusalem and freedom of worship—which now meant freedom from Seleucid rule—was the aim of the campaign. The strategy of the Jewish rebels was thus to isolate the Jerusalem garrison of occupying troops by seizing key positions commanding all the approaches to the city. It was, inevitably, a guerrilla campaign on the part of the poorly armed Jews against the regular forces of Antiochus’ regime.

The action which sparked the revolt occurred in the village of Modin (17 miles northwest of Jerusalem, and just east of today’s international airport of Lod).

There, a Jewish priest named Mattathias, of the House of Hasmon, had settled after leaving Jerusalem to escape the religious restrictions. He was a courageous and patriarchal figure, and his five sturdy sons, Johanan, Simon, Judah, Eleazar and Jonathan, were fashioned in his mould.

Into Modin one day rode the officers of Antiochus. They assembled the populace, announced that there would be public worship of the pagan god by the sacrifice of swine’s flesh, and called upon Mattathias to “come forward first, and carry out the order of the king…then you and your sons will be honored with silver and gold and many gifts.” Mattathias solemnly refused- “We will not listen to the decree of the king by going astray from our worship, either to the right or to the left.”

Another Jew then came forward to comply with the heathen order, whereupon Mattathias “brought courage to decision, and running up he slew him upon the altar. The king’s man who was enforcing the sacrifice he also killed at the same opportune time, and pulled down the altar… Then Mattathias shouted out in a loud voice in the town, saying, “Let everyone who is zealous for the Law, and would maintain the covenant, follow me.” He and his sons fled to the mountains, and left whatever they possessed in town” (Maccabees II, 15-28).

Soon joined by the Hassidim and other Jews who had resolved to resist the tyrant, Mattathias and his sons formed guerrilla bands and, operating from the hills, they began to harry the Seleucid troops, destroy pagan altars, and give heart to the small Jewish communities in the countryside. Many of these quickly followed the standard of revolt, swelling the guerilla ranks.

Some months later, Mattathias died, and leadership passed to his son Judah, nicknamed the Maccabee—Hebrew for “hammer.” He, his brothers and their followers are therefore known as the “Maccabees;” but the dynasty they founded is called “Hasmonean,” after Hasmon, who, according to Josephus, was the great-grandfather of Mattathias.

Judah was clearly a born military leader, courageous, resourceful, inspiring, and it was he who transformed his guerrilla bands into a national liberation army with independence as his objective. The Book of Macccabees mentions four major battles, and these show the Seleucid aim of crashing through to Jerusalem and Judah’s strategy of blocking their entry. Jewish reconnaissance patrols first bring news that General Apollonius is mustering “a large force from Samaria, to wage war against Israel.” Judah goes out to meet him while he is still getting organized “and struck him down and killed him. Many were killed, and the rest fled.”

Then came General Seron “with a strong expedition” and tried to break through from the northwest. He was met and routed by the Maccabees at the pass of Beth-Hoon, just southeast of Modin, and some twelve miles northwest of Jerusalem. A third expedition was routed at Emmaus, some fifteen miles west of Jerusalem, and a fourth at Beth Zur, the same distance south of the city.

The approaches to Jerusalem were now free, and there was little immediate fear of another expeditionary force. The Maccabees thereupon “gathered together and went up to Mount Zion.” They beheld a sorry sight on the Temple Mount, the sanctuary desolated, the altar profaned, the gates burned, the priests’ chambers torn down, weeds growing in the courts “as in a forest or as on one of the mountains.” Seleucid troops were still behind their fortified walls in the Akra citadel, so “Judah appointed certain men to fight against the garrison…until he could cleanse the sanctuary.”

All traces of the cult of Zeus were removed, a new altar was installed, and new sacred vessels were brought in. The Temple was then re-dedicated. The date was “the twenty-fifth day of the ninth [Jewish] month,” corresponding to the month of December. It was three years to the day after it had been desecrated.

“Judah and his brothers and the entire congregation of Israel decreed that the days of the dedication of the altar should be kept with gladness and joy at their due season, year after year, for eight days from the twenty-fifth of the month of Kislev” (I Maccabees IV, 59). To this very day, Jews throughout the world celebrate the Feast of Channukah (Channukah is Hebrew for “dedication”) by the kindling of lights, lighting a candle on the first night and an additional one on each successive evening, and by reading from the Book of the Maccabees. Most modern celebrants are familiar with the Talmudic story of the “miracle of the oil” as the reason for the eight day feast- that when the Hasmoneans came to re-dedicate the Temple, there was only enoguht pure (undefiled) oil in the cruse to burn for one day, yet, through the blessing of God, it lasted for eight days, when a fresh supply became available.

It is evident from the Maccabean story that Judah and his men reoccupied not the whole city of Jerusalem but only the Temple Mount. (From the state in which he found it, its courts overgrown with shrubs, it seems that the Greeks must have tired of abusing the sanctuary.) The town seems to have remained in the possession of the Greeks and the apostates, guarded by the garrison in the Akra citadel. The rest of the original population, loyalist Jews who had escaped massacre, had long joined the faithful villagers of Judah who had flocked to the Maccabean banner in the hills and wastes of the surrounding countryside.

The city itself thus continued to serve as a Seleucid base. The Temple Mount continued to serve as a Jewish outpost. For the next twenty-three years, the Greeks and the Jews were to face each other from the walls of their fortresses, the Akra and the Temple Mount, only a few score yards apart. They could harass each other, but neither could breach the other’s fortifications. Numerous and fierce were the engagements in the years that followed, with intervals of truce when pressure on the Maccabees was lightened by power struggles for the Seleucid throne after the death of Antiochus Epiphanes in 163.

Judah the Maccabee was killed in battle at Elasa (some twelve miles northwest of Jerusalem) in the year 160. Maccabean leadership now passed to his brother Jonathan who carried on the struggle for liberation. This, plus sharpened internal conflict among the Seleucid hierarchy, together with their realization that trying to suppress the Jewish religion was futile and a moderate policy might prove more fruitful, prompted the imperial rulers to yield. Jonathan entered Jerusalem in the year 152, not only as military leader but also as High Priest, and virtual Governor of Judea. To this post he was appointed by King Demetrius, who had seized the Seleucid throne in 162, and was now being challenged by a rival. Each sought the help of the rebel Judean leader, and Jonathan enjoyed far-reaching concessions.

The city of Jerusalem was now in the possession of the Maccabees. Jonathan began to rebuild and refortify it, and also to extend independent Jewish rule over an increasingly wide area of Judah. Among the cities that fell to him were Jaffa, Ashkelon and Ashdod. Jerusalem once again had its outlet to the Mediterranean. The Akra citadel, however, remained a Greek stronghold, some scholars suggesting that its disbandment was one concession the king was not prepared to make.

Jonathan was treacherously killed by a Seleucid general in 143, and was succeeded by his last surviving brother, Simon. (Johanan had been killed earlier, and so had Eleazar, dying a spectacular death on the battlefield.) In the year 141, the Akra citadel capitulated. “The yoke of the heathen” was lifted, and a formal Jewish assembly in Jerusalem confirmed Simon in the titles of “High Priest and General and Ruler of the Jews.” These titles were to be hereditary, and under his successors they developed into the rank of kingship. Issue of a Jewish coinage under Simon marked the completeness of his sovereignty. (The coins did not bear his head.)

With Simon there begins the Hasmonean dynasty, which lasted until the Roman conquest in 63 BC—and a further brief spell from 40 to 37 BC. The early Hasmoneans added a golden chapter to the history of Jerusalem and to the history of the Jews, but later it was gravely tarnished by bitter factional conflict. Their dynasty at first provided strong and comparatively stable administration, and, taking advantage of Seleucid decline and the consequent imperial rivalries in the Middle East, they succeeded eventually in encompassing within independent Jewish rule almost the entire area which had constituted the undivided kingdom of Israel under David and Solomon. As a consequence, Jerusalem, the religious and political capital, also prospered physically, growing in population and acquiring more buildings. Life in the city became busier than ever, with more and more pilgrims from the country and from the Diaspora visiting the Temple, and merchants using trade routes now within control of the Jewish State arriving to arrange their affairs.

Simon was murdered in 135 and was succeeded by his son John Hyrcanus, who, with Seleucid decline, was free to develop his independent state. Under him, territories regained included part of Transjordan in the east, Samaria in the north, and the land of Edom (Idumea) in the south. (The Idumeans, who were converted to the Jewish religion, were later to produce the celebrated king, Herod the Great.)

Internally, there was trouble between two rival Jewish factions, the Sadducees and the Pharisees, which was to become more bitter as time went on, and was to have its impact on the fate of Jerusalem on the eve of its fall in 63 BC, and of its destruction in AD 70. Volumes have been written on the detailed differences between these two groups, religious, political and economic. Two generalizations will suffice us here. The Sadducees were firm adherents of the written commandments of the Torah, saw the Temple as the center of religious life, were supporters of the priestly class, and approved of the combined political and religious leadership of the High Priest. The Pharisees wanted the separation of religion and politics, gave importance to the oral Law as well as to the written, respected nonpreistly expounders of the Torah more than they did the rigid Temple priests (as did the generations which followed Ezra the Scribe)—and with all this were more concerned with religious values than with political independence.

The conflict became more pronounced when Hyrcanus died in 104 and was succeeded by his son Jush Aristobulus, who promptly proclaimed himself king—the first Hasmonean to use this title. He reigned only one year (though in that year he managed to regain the rest of Galilee) and was followed by his brother, Alexander Jannai. Under him, the rift between his people widened, erupting eventually into civil war, and he dealt with his opponents, the Pharisees, most cruelly. A number had joined the Seleucid king, Demetrius III, to fight against Jannai, and when some were captured, Jannai had them publicly executed in the center of Jerusalem and massacred their families. For such treatment, and for his general harsh and intemperate behavior, the reign of King Alexander Jannai, who was also known as Jonathan the High Priest, is a blot on the Hasmonean record, even though he widely extended the frontiers of the state. By the time he died, in 76 BC, Jewish sovereignty covered—in the terminology of today—the whole of the Mediterranean coastal plain (with the exception of Ashkelon) from Mount Carmel in the north to the southern end of the Gaza Strip in the south; the entire country west of the Jordan and of the Dead Sea, from the northern Negev in the south to Galilee in the north (thus including the “West Bank”); and a considerable belt of territory east of the Jordan, from western Syria in the north to just beyond the southern end of the Dead Sea.

Though he had two eligible sons, Alexander Jannai designated his wife, Salome Alexandra, as his successor, and she reigned from 76 to 67 BC.

Of the two sons she had borne Jannai, she appointed the elder, Hyrcanus, High Priest. He was, says Josephus, “but little qualified for the management of state affairs…and of a more tractable disposition than Aristobulus, who was of an active and enterprising temper.”

The power of the Pharisees rose during her nine year reign, to the point where some Sadducees were put to death on the charge of having abetted Jannai in his massacre of Pharisee captives. In the year 67, during the final days of Salome’s life—she was nearly eighty—Aristobulus, with Sadducee backing, proclaimed himself king. War ensued between the brothers, and the younger emerged the victor, starting a four-year reign as Aristobulus II which was to end with the loss of Jewish independence.

There was a brief reconciliation between the two rivals. But then Antipater (father of the future Herod the Great), the leading Idumean and counselor at the Jewish court, advised Hyrcanus to seek the aid of Aretas, king of the Nabateans (whose capital was Petra in Transjordan), in winning back his kingdom. Hyrcanus did so, fleeing to Petra, and joined Aretas in the invasion of the Jewish State in 64 BC.

The force was too strong for Aristobulus, and he was pressed back inside Jerusalem, finally fortifying himself within he walls of the Temple Mount. It was in imminent danger of falling when the power of Rome intervened.

Rome’s conquering hero, Pompey, was leading a successful campaign in Armenia at the time, and had despatched a force southwards to take Damascus. When that city fell, he sent his commander Marcus Scaurus to take over. Scaurus, when he reached Damascus, heard of the trouble further south, in the land of Judah, and promptly went to investigate, losing no time in seizing this golden—in the literal sense—opportunity where two rivals would be bidding for his aid. Aristobulus won—“400 talents” was the price—and Scaurus immediately threatened Aretas “with Pompey and the Romans” unless he raised the siege on Jerusalem. Aretas quickly retired, and back to Damscus went Scaurus, heavily laden with bribes.
But the respite enjoyed by Aristobulus—and Jerusalem—was brief indeed. Pompey came on into Syria, conferred in Damascus, and resolved to continue marching southwards. He entered Judah, took Jericho, and advanced on Jerusalem. Josephus writes that Aristobulus, shaken by the impossible odds, went out to present his submission; but his supporters were bent on resistance, and when Pompey’s officer came to receive the surrender, they refused to allow him even to enter the city. Pompey accordingly put Aristobulus in custody and appeared in force before Jerusalem.

Strife then broke out in the city between the supporters of Aristobulus, who called for war and the rescue of the king, and the partisans of Hyrcanus, who thought the chances hopeless and submission the most prudent course. The former, outnumbered, retire into their Temple stronghold, destroyed the bridge linking the Temple to the Upper City, “and prepared to fight to the death.” The supporters of Hyrcanus, on the other hand, concentrated in the Upper City, opened their gates to Pompey.

What Pompey saw, in reconnoitering the possible lines of attack, were the strong outer walls of the Temple compound with steep natural slopes on all except the north side, and access from the western, or city, side now denied by the destruction of the bridge. He accordingly resolved to attack from the north, though even here there was a broad and peed ditch, dug by the defenders, and protected by huge towers. (The well-traveled first-century BC Greek geographer and historian, Stabo, says the ditch was 60 feet deep and 250 fee broad.)

Pompey set his troops to filling this ditch, a formidable task, says Josephus in his book, The Antiquities of the Jews, because of its size and also because the Jews harassed them from the towers above. When the ditch was filled, Pompey rolled across it the siege engines and battering rams which he had brought up from Tyre, and began attacking the wall, his stone-throwers tying to prevent interference from the besieged. Nevertheless, for weeks he could make no headway. Only when the siege was in its third month did the Romans succeed in effecting a breach and swarming through. “The Temple was taken on a fast day…On entering the place the enemy made a general massacre; but even this cruelty did not deter those at the altar from proceeding in their devotions, as they deemed it preferable to fall into the hands of an inveterate foe than to abandon the rights of their religion.”

Pompey put Jerusalem under tribute to Rome; placed the administration of the conquered territories in the hands of his commander Scaurus; reinstated Hyrcanus as High Priest—which made him the puppet ruler in Jerusalem; executed the surviving leaders of the Jewish resistance; and then left in triumph for Rome, carrying captive Aristobulus and his sons Alexander and Mattathias Antigonus. The year was 63 BC.

Posted in: Maccabean Period

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