By 152 B.C.E. Jonathan the Hasmonean had firmly established himself as ruler over Judea. From then until the Roman conquest of Judea in 63 B.C.E., the descendants of Judah the Maccabee ruled over the Land of Israel. Jonathan took advantage of the instability in the Seleucid Empire to expand his territory beyond Judea proper to include southern Samaria and the southern coastal cities of Ekron and the environs, originally centers of Hellenistic culture. In 143 B.C.E. he was murdered by Tryphon, a pretender to the Seleucid throne.

Jonathan was succeeded by his brother Simon. In 142 B.C.E. Simon gained recognition from the Seleucid king Demetrius II Nicator (145–138 and again in 129–125 B.C.E.). Demetrius’s grant of tax exemption to the Hasmonean state, by which he intended to secure its support, was the final step in the process whereby Judea gained total independence. Like his brother Jonathan before him, Simon served as both temporal ruler and high priest. A public assembly in 140 B.C.E. gave formal legal standing to this arrangement and to the hereditary succession of his sons to the same offices. He continued the expansionist policy begun by Jonathan, taking the harbor at Jaffa in order to ensure Judea’s access to the sea. He also continued the extirpation of paganism from the land. His crowning achievement was the dislodging of the Seleucid garrison which had continued to occupy the Akra in Jerusalem. When Antiochus VII Sidetes (138–129 B.C.E.), the Seleucid king, attempted to force Simon to give up the territories he had conquered, Simon defeated him squarely. Simon’s reign came to an end in 134 B.C.E., when his son-in-law, apparently with the help of the Seleucids, murdered him and two of his sons.

Simon’s surviving son, John Hyrcanus (Yohanan in Hebrew), succeeded him. In the first two years of his reign, John was involved in a war with the Seleucids. Because they needed his help in their campaign against the Parthians, they offered to negotiate and the two sides came to terms, the Seleucids recognizing John’s rule and the Hasmoneans indemnifying them for territory they had conquered. After the death of Antiochus VII in 129 B.C.E. the ensuing collapse of the Seleucid Empire allowed John to regain complete independence and assert his authority over the entire Land of Israel. Expanding to the south, he conquered Idumea and forced its people to convert to Judaism. He also captured territory in Transjordan, defeated the Hellenistic cities, and conquered the Samaritans. He died in 104 B.C.E.

Simon’s son Aristobulus I succeeded him, but reigned only for one year, from 104 to 103 B.C.E. He continued his father’s conquests, subduing the Itureans in the north and converting them to Judaism, and gaining control over the Galilee. After treating his mother with the utmost cruelty, imprisoning three of his brothers, and having another brother, Antigonus, killed, he died of remorse and a painful disease. He was the first of the Hasmoneans to style himself “king.”

Alexander Janneus (Yannai), the brother of Aristobulus, came to power in 103 B.C.E. when he married Aristobulus’ widow, Salome Alexandra (Shelomzion). During his reign, which ended with his death in 76 B.C.E., the remaining non-Jewish cities in Palestine were conquered. He and John Hyrcanus, the rulers whose conquests truly exemplified the Hasmonean achievement, together expanded the borders of Judea to encompass the entire Land of Israel.

There was another side to the story, however. The Maccabees had not fought only to free the Jews from foreign domination, or for power and wealth. They had risen initially against elements in the Jewish population who sought to Hellenize themselves and their countrymen. Their struggle was transformed into a war of independence against the Seleucid Empire only when it sought to aid the Hellenizers by persecuting Jews and Judaism. Yet gradually, the Hasmonean descendants of the Maccabees themselves acquired the trappings of Hellenism. They began to conduct their courts in Hellenistic fashion and were estranged from Jewish observance. This transition went way beyond the
need of any monarch at that time to make use of Hellenistic-style coinage, diplomacy, and bureaucracy. The Hasmoneans employed foreign mercenaries to protect them from their own people.

Opposition to the Hasmonean house came from a variety of corners. First, they had never made peace with remnants of the old-line Hellenizers among the landed aristocracy. Second, the Pharisees (about whom more will be said later in this chapter) opposed the concentration in Hasmonean hands of both temporal and religious power, demanding that the Hasmoneans relinquish the high priesthood, since they were not of the proper high priestly lineage. Third, other groups, whose point of view is represented in some of the Dead Sea Scrolls, accepted the legitimacy of the Hasmoneans as high priests but condemned them for also holding political power.

All these factors had already led Alexander Janneus to prepare his wife, Salome Alexandra, for the succession and to recommend to her that she compromise with the dynasty’s opponents. This she did effectively for some nine years until her death in 67 B.C.E. Yet she failed effectively to designate her successor, and her sons, Hyrcanus II and Aristobulus II, fought one another for the crown. Both eventually appealed to the Romans. By this time Rome was already in Syria and positioned to swallow up Judea.

Aristobulus was remembered by later sources as a great hero, a man possessed of the spirit of the Maccabees, seeking nothing less than freedom from foreign rule. Hyrcanus was pictured as a weakling, desiring power for power’s sake, at any cost to himself and his nation. In 63 B.C.E., as the two fought with one another, each turned to the Roman general Pompey, in Syria. After a series of negotiations, Pompey decided to capitalize on the situation by satisfying the longstanding Roman desire to dominate Palestine, the strategic land bridge between Africa and Asia. He played the brothers off against each other for a time, then marched on Jerusalem and took it by storm.

Thus ended the Hasmonean dynasty. The Romans were now the country’s real rulers. They awarded the high priesthood to Hyrcanus II and imprisoned Aristobulus II. He and his sons would for years show themselves to be true Maccabean descendants, repeatedly escaping Roman imprisonment to seek against all odds to wrest Judea back from the Romans. But the Hasmonean star had set.

Excerpted from Lawrence H. Schiffman, From Text to Tradition, Ktav Publishing House, Hoboken, NJ, 1991.