John HyrcanusThe relative independence the Jews enjoyed under the Persians would be shattered by the appearance of a man who would reshape the ancient world. Alexander’s the Great’s conquest of Judea in 332 B.C.E. was just a small part of his explosive expansion of the Macedonian empire into the lands that had been under the rule of Persia. The beginning of Greek rule had more than just political ramifications for the people of Judea. The Greeks were interested in more than just military conquest; they wanted to spread their political and cultural ideas, which they saw as the basis of civilized life.

Cities in Judea were reorganized along the lines of a Greek polis; this meant that Greek cultural institutions were established and, most significantly, Greek gods were added to a city’s pantheon.

Politically, Judea found itself in a position to which it was not accustomed; in earlier centuries, whether under the domination of Egypt or Assyria or Babylonia, Judea was at the edge of great empires. After Alexander the Great, Judea found itself in the middle of a disputed canvas that was fought over by Greece and Persia. Armies moved through frequently, battles raged within Judea’s lands, and foreign soldiers were stationed in Judea for long periods of time.

Scholars disagree over how welcome the newly arrived foreign influences were, but there is little doubt that the influences were pervasive. To cite just one archaeological example, more than 1,000 wine jugs, their jar handles stamped with the seal of Rhodes, have been uncovered in excavations. Judea must have been at the center of a flourishing trade with cities in the Mediterranean, and it also seems that the ban on drinking wine produced by pagans had not yet been promulgated.

The pervasiveness of Hellenistic culture can be seen from the Bible itself. The Book of Ecclesiastes reflects a Greek skepticism, while the Song of Songs contains themes found in Greek poetry. And there may be no better proof of the cultural shift taking place at this time than the fact that the Bible itself was translated into Greek. Called the Septuagint, the translation was done to meet the needs of the Jewish community of Alexandria, Egypt, a major center of Hellenistic culture.

By the early second century B.C.E., large segments of Judean society, especially the priesthood in Jerusalem, were thoroughly acculturated in Greek ways. This soon led to religious and political upheaval. First one and then another priest bribed Antiochus IV, the head of the Seleucid empire (which was based in Syria and had split rule over the lands of Alexander’s empire with the Ptolmies of Egypt), to have themselves appointed as High Priest. To raise the money for these bribes, the aspirants robbed the Temple treasury. To make matters worse, in 168 B.C.E. Antiochus ransacked the Tample and placed pagan troops in Jerusalem. Things reached a breaking point in 167 B.C.E. when Antiochus banned key Jewish religious practiced and introduced idols into the Temple.

The reaction to Antiochus’ outrages began in the obscure town of Modi’in, on the northwest periphery of Judea, and was led by a priest named Mattathias and his five sons—Judah (nicknamed Maccabee), Simon, Johanan, Eleazar and Jonathan. Collectively known as the Hasmoneans, after an ancestor, this family would lead the fight against the Seleucids and, after a quarter-century-long struggle, would assume power and reestablish a Jewish kingdom for the first time in more than 400 years.

At first the struggle was led by Judah Maccabbe. After three years of guerilla warfare against Seleucid forces, the Hasmoneans succeeded in capturing Jerusalem. They purified the Temple and reestablished the sacrifices as ordered in the Torah. This event is still celebrated annually as the holiday of Hanukkah.

The years that followed, however, were filled with setbacks for the Hasmoneans, including the death in battle of Judah Maccabbee. By 152 B.C.E. two claimants were attempting to seize the Seleucid throne. One of them, Demetrius, turned to Jonathan, then the brother in charge of the Hasmonean camp, for support. Jonathan agreed, but in return was acknowledged as the local ruler of Judea. By 141 B.C.E., Simon, by then the last surviving Hasmonena brother, succeeded in ejecting the remaining Syrian troops. He then declared Judea’s independence and reestablished the Jewish monarchy.

Simon (142-134 B.C.E.) and his successors expanded the borders of the Jewish state north and west to the Mediterranean, north to the Golan, south to Moab and even to east of the Jordan.

In the religious sphere, the Hasmoneans energetically sought to eliminate foreign religious practices from their state. They also did something that had never occurred before- They combined political rule with the religious leadership embodied in the High Priesthood. This caused internal dissension, and was responsible for the rise of political/religious factions. The two main factions were the Sadducees, from the priestly class, and the Pharisees, a faction of lay religious leaders. For decades, both groups were given some powers by the Hasmoneans. During the rule of Simon’s son John Hyrcanus (134-104 B.C.E.), however, the Hasmoneans and the Sadducees forced the Pharisees from power and the Saducees persecuted the Pharisees. Decades later, though, the Hasmonean queen Salome Alexandra (76-67 B.C.E.) brought the Pharisees back into the halls of power; the Pharisees immediately began to persecute their nemeses, the Sadducees. Such unseemly power plays drove another important sect at the time, the Essenes, into the Judean desert, where they would compile the many hundreds of manuscripts that we now know as the Dead Sea Scrolls.

Culture under the Hasmoneans reflected Hellenistic influences, but tempered by Jewish religious sensibilities. Hasmonean coins, for example, typically were written in either Greek or Hebrew and the images on these coins—anchor, cornucopia or palm branch—were common on the coins of both the Seleucid and Ptolemaic empires. Significantly, however, the coins did not bear the images of pagan gods or their symbols. This tempered assimilation can also be seen in architecture. The Hasmonean winter palace at Jericho bears all the features of Greek architecture, but it also contains numerous mikvaot, or Jewish ritual baths.

The sovereignty regained under the Hasmoneans would last little more than a century, however. In 37 B.C.E. Judea was conquered by the mightiest empire it yet faced—the Roman empire—and the centuries it would spend under Roman domination would see two failed revolts, the second and final destruction of the Temple and the birth of two great faiths- Judaism as we know it today and Christianity.