Lee I. Levine. “The Age of Hellenism: Alexander the Great and the Rise and Fall of the Hasmonean Kingdom.” Part II
The Heavy Hand of Antiochus IV and the Rise of the Maccabees
Soon after Jason bought his way into the high priesthood and Jerusalem became a polis, the Seleucid overlord Antiochus IV visited Jerusalem (probably in 173 B.C.E.) and was greeted by the populace with a torchlight procession and overwhelming acclamation. At about the same time, the city sent a delegation to participate in the athletic games at Tyre, on the coast of Phoenicia. It is telling that the Jewish members of this delegation felt uncomfortable about offering the customary gift to the local deity at the opening of the games and instead gave their money to the host city’s fleet.
In 172 B.C.E., another Jerusalem priest, Menelaus, sought to follow Jason’s precedent by bribing the Seleucid king to appoint him high priest in place of Jason. To meet his financial commitment, however, Menelaus was forced to plunder the Temple treasury, an act that enraged the populace. Only with great difficulty was the ensuing violence quelled. Tension remained between the followers of Jason and Menelaus. Violence flared up again in 169–168 B.C.E., this time provoked by Antiochus IV. First he pillaged the Temple, causing some destruction. He then returned and, with unbridled fury, suppressed the unrest caused by Jason’s challenge to Menelaus’s authority. Massacre followed pillage, and fire destroyed parts of the city.
This time the Seleucid forces did not leave the city, and Antiochus appointed a military commander over Jerusalem, placed a garrison there and built a fortress called the Akra, which stood in the city for 27 years. 14
Jerusalem churned with discontent, as it was clear that the presence of pagan troops meant the introduction of foreign cults into the Holy City. The Akra was conquered only in 141, after Simon the Hasmonean rose to power. The precise location of the Akra remains unclear since no remains have been firmly identified. Written sources such as 1 Maccabees and Josephus contradict one another, and at times themselves, with regard to important details. Josephus, for example, claims that the Akra was located in the lower city, that is, the City of David, yet was higher than the Temple Mount—a situation that defies explanation in light of the area’s topography. 15
In contrast, 1 Maccabees (13-52) emphasizes the proximity of the Akra to the Temple, noting that after its conquest the Akra was transformed into Simon’s palace. But according to Josephus, the Akra and the mountain on which it stood were completely destroyed.
Some have suggested that the Akra was located in the City of David; some have claimed that it was located on the hill of the Temple Mount (in the area of today’s Jewish Quarter). Others have suggested that the Akra was northwest of the Temple Mount, where the Herodian fortress, the Antonia, was later built; still others have placed it south of the Temple Mount, either opposite the Huldah Gates or near the Temple Mount’s southeastern corner. Just as the question of its location is shrouded in mystery, so too are other important details regarding the Akra—the composition of its population, its size, its economic functions and its political standing, as well as its relations with the rest of Jerusalem.
About a year after Antiochus attacked the city, in the month of Kislev (December), 167 B.C.E., the king issued a decree that banned circumcision, religious study and religious observance (including the Sabbath and festivals), and that forced the Jews to commit what they considered the most unpardonable of sins—worshiping idols and eating forbidden foods. Antiochus proceeded to desecrate the Jews’ most holy site by introducing idolatrous worship into the sacred Temple precinct itself.
Why did Antiochus do this? The major sources (1 and 2 Maccabees) differ, as do modern historians. It is clear, however, that Antiochus’s decrees were entirely unprecedented. Religious persecution had been hitherto unheard of in the pagan world. A conqueror might impose his deities on a local population, but he would never prohibit the practice of local traditions.
Whatever can be said of Antiochus IV, his personality and quirks, he was educated in the best of Hellenistic traditions. Religious persecution was not part of his cultural or political heritage. Aware of the sui generis nature of this policy, historians have sought alternative explanations- The extreme Hellenizers under Menelaus were the real instigators of this upheaval (Bickerman, Hengel); 16 Antiochus was following a policy of religious persecution learned while in Rome (Goldstein); 17 Antiochus’s religious persecution was part of an attempt to suppress a revolt that had already broken out in Jerusalem and that had a clear-cut religious character (Tcherikover). 18 Whatever the causes, these persecutions had enormous consequence for subsequent Jewish history. The immediate reaction was one of confusion. Some Jews saw no way to respond other than to acquiesce passively. A number of Jews fled to the nearby Judean wilderness and perhaps beyond, outside the borders of Judea. Others despaired of worldly measures and took refuge in mystical-messianic aspirations of divine intervention and salvation (see, for example, Daniel 7–12).
In the year following the imposition of these decrees, armed conflict broke out in the remote town of Modi‘in in northwestern Judea. It was this response, however, that eventually led to a radical reshaping of Jewish society. The Modi‘in uprising was organized and led by a priest named Mattathias and his five sons, Judah Maccabee, d Simon, Johanan, Eleazar and Jonathan. Eventually these sons would reestablish, for the first time in 450 years, a sovereign state and a new dynasty of Jewish kings, the Hasmoneans. e
The Struggle for an Independent Jewish State
The Hasmonean rise to power, however, was a long and arduous process that succeeded only after a 25-year struggle. This quarter-century may be divided into four distinct periods-
1. 166–164 B.C.E. These were years of continual guerrilla warfare. Under the command of Judah Maccabee, the Jews attacked the Seleucid armies as they attempted to reach Jerusalem and reinforce their garrison there. Seleucid forces approached the city from almost every direction—north, northwest, west and south—but each time they were defeated and their weapons appropriated to arm the ever-growing Hasmonean forces. The heroic and almost always victorious Hasmonean military efforts are vividly recorded in both 1 and 2 Maccabees. 19
The only inconclusive battle was fought at Beth Zur (south of Jerusalem), in the spring of 164 B.C.E., and a temporary armistice was declared as a result of the joint intervention of Jewish Hellenists and Roman envoys. 20
Six months later, however, Judah Maccabee and his troops surprised the Syrian garrison in Jerusalem, captured the city, purified the Temple and reinstituted the Jewish sacrificial rites. This occurred in the month of Kislev, 164 B.C.E., exactly three years after the persecution of the Jews had commenced. The recapture of Jerusalem, cleansing of the Temple and reinstitution of sacrificial rites are celebrated by Jews to this day with the festival of Hanukkah. 21
2. 164–160 B.C.E. These years were marked by a number of dramatic changes in the fortunes of the hitherto victorious Maccabees. Having purified the Temple, the Hasmoneans proceeded to avenge Jews who had been attacked by gentile neighbors. Troops were dispatched to Transjordan, to the Galilee and to the Mediterranean coastal region. Many Jews were brought back to Jerusalem for resettlement. The success of these campaigns won the Hasmoneans unprecedented popularity.
But in 162 B.C.E. the Hasmoneans’ fortunes plummeted. Antiochus V sent his Seleucid army to crush the rebels, and at a battle near Beth-Zechariah, south of Jerusalem, the Seleucids were victorious. 22
They were denied the full fruits of their victory, however, when word came of a major crisis in Antioch that required the immediate presence of the commander, Lysias, and his troops. A hasty but, from the Jewish viewpoint, favorable peace treaty was arranged, in which the decrees banning the practice of Judaism were officially revoked. The Jews, for their part, accepted as high priest one Alcimus, a moderate Jewish Hellenist. Most of the population appears to have been satisfied with this compromise, including the Hasidim, a pietist group that had joined the rebellion at its inception. 23
Only the Hasmoneans rejected this arrangement, and they were thus effectively isolated and forced to withdraw from Jerusalem.
In 161 B.C.E. Maccabean political and military fortunes changed once again, this time for the better. Judah Maccabee mustered a sizable army at Adasa, north of Jerusalem, and defeated the Greek general Nicanor in a major battle. His victory, though impressive, was short-lived. A year later a new Syrian army appeared in Judea, this time under the leadership of Bacchides. In a pitched battle, in which the Jews were badly outnumbered, Judah Maccabee was killed. Any Hasmonean hope of regaining political power was dashed. 24
3. 160–152 B.C.E. These were years of ebbing Hasmonean fortune. Few Hasmonean partisans remained in Jerusalem. At first members of the family fled to the region of Teqoa in the Judean wilderness, southeast of Bethlehem. Driven from there, they resettled at Michmash, near Bethel in northeastern Judea, where they lived in semi-isolation, removed from the arena of power and bereft of any titles or privileges.
4. 152–141 B.C.E. This was a period of Hasmonean ascendancy that culminated in the establishment of an independent sovereign Jewish state. The change came about fortuitously.
In 152 B.C.E. Alexander Balas and Demetrius, both pretenders to the Seleucid throne, sought to win the support of Jonathan, Judah Maccabee’s brother and leader of the Hasmoneans, by outbidding one another in the offering of privileges and honors. Finally, Jonathan threw his weight behind Demetrius, an act for which Jonathan was richly rewarded. He was made high priest, permitted to maintain troops and given extensive tax benefits. Thus, despite their quasi-exile during the previous eight years, the Hasmoneans remained the only Jewish element in the country capable of mustering a sizable force. This was ultimately the decisive factor. With the benefits received from Demetrius, Jonathan was soon in firm control of Jewish society and was recognized as the undisputed representative of the Seleucids in Judea.
It is ironic that, less than a quarter of a century earlier, the Hellenizers Jason and Menelaus had acquired the high priesthood by bribing a gentile king. Now the Hasmoneans followed suit; instead of bribes, the Hasmoneans paid with services to be rendered. As Seleucid officials, Jonathan and his brother Simon served the kingdom loyally, at one time even dispatching 3,000 troops at the Seleucid king’s request in order to quell an uprising in Antioch. During this decade the Hasmoneans were awarded more territories in northern and northwestern Judea.
However, Jonathan soon fell victim to the same intrigues and political machinations between royal pretenders that he had previously exploited to his own advantage. He was killed in 143 B.C.E. by forces opposed to his patron king.
Simon, the last of the Maccabean brothers, then assumed the high priesthood and political leadership. He immediately drove out the remnants of the Syrian garrison and the Jewish Hellenizers from the Jerusalem Akra. Then, in an impressive public ceremony in 141 B.C.E., he declared his independence from Seleucid rule.
Accounting for the Maccabees’ Success
Looking back over these 25 years, we must ask ourselves why the Hasmoneans succeeded as they did. Much of their success was undoubtedly due to the charisma of members of the family itself. Their achievements in battle, their purification of the Temple and their willingness to give their lives in defending the Holy Temple and the Holy City accorded them a strong claim to leadership. They were able to consolidate large sectors of the Jewish population. Elders, rural and urban leaders, priests, Levites and others all participated in Simon’s coronation ceremony, so vividly described in 1 Maccabees 14
In addition, the Hasmoneans’ tenacity in pursuing their political goal, despite all obstacles, put them in a position to take advantage of any opportunities that might—and indeed did—present themselves.
Finally, the Hasmoneans were blessed with good fortune on the international front. The mid-second century B.C.E. saw the decline of the two major Hellenistic powers, the Ptolemies and the Seleucids. The political vacuum in the region was quickly filled by petty ethnic kingdoms (e.g., Itureans, Nabateans) and independent city-states (e.g., Tyre, Sidon, Ascalon). Precisely at this time the Hasmoneans, too, strove for political independence; they took full advantage of these circumstances to reach their end. Only once before in the history of Israel had a similar situation occurred, in the tenth century B.C.E., when David and Solomon carved out their far-flung and powerful kingdom.