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HASMONEANS hăz’ mə ne’ ənz. The Hasmonean dynasty is the name applied to the descendants of Simon, the last surviving brother of Judas Maccabeus, leader of the revolt against the Hellenistically oriented Seleucid empire with its center in Syria. When Antiochus IV (Epiphanes) attempted to force Hellenism on the orthodox Jewish community, he was faced with revolt. The aged priest Mattathias and his sons refused to offer sacrifices at heathen altars, and engaged in guerilla warfare with the Seleucid rulers. (See Maccabees.)


The Jewish war of independence.

In the early days of the revolt, the Syrians underestimated the strength of the Maccabees. With major problems in the eastern part of their empire, the Syrians were content to send minor generals and small detachments to deal with the rebellious Jews. The revolt, however, had wide popular support, with the result that Judas and his brothers posed a serious challenge to Syrian rule. One after another of the Syrian armies sent against the Jews suffered defeat. Judas killed the general Apollonius, and another, named Seron, was routed at Beth-horon.

Antiochus realized that he had a full-scale revolt in Judea—but his attention was diverted by another rebellion in Parthia, the successor to the old Pers. empire. Antiochus personally moved eastward to Parthia, leaving his general Lysias to handle the rebellious Jews. Lysias gathered an army of Syrians, Hellenistically-minded Jews, and volunteers from neighboring countries to defeat the Jewish rebels. Nicanor, Gorgias, and Ptolemy, subordinates of Lysias, were in charge of the engagement. Judas, however, by a surprise night attack, annihilated the Syrian army and seized enormous stores of booty. This victory, at the town of Emmaus (166-165 b.c.), opened the road to Jerusalem for Judas and his followers.

As Judas and his army moved toward Jerusalem, Menelaus, the high priest who had collaborated with Antiochus, fled. Judas and his followers, subsequently known as the Maccabees, entered Jerusalem and took everything except the fort known as the Acra. They entered the Temple and removed the signs of paganism that had been installed there. The altar dedicated to Jupiter (Zeus) was destroyed, and a new altar was erected to the God of Israel. The statue of Zeus was ground to dust. Beginning with the twenty-fifth of Kislev (December), they celebrated an eightday Feast of Dedication, known as Hanukkah, or the Feast of Lights.

For about a year and a half, Judas was master of Judea. The Syrians were awaiting an opportunity to strike back, however, and Judea’s neighbors proved sympathetic to the Hellenists. The Syrian general, Lysias, marched against Judea and defeated a Maccabean army at Beth-Zechariah near Jerusalem. Lysias then besieged Jerusalem, hoping to starve the Maccabees into submission. During the siege, however, Lysias learned that Antioch, the capital of Syria, was being threatened by a rival, Philip. Anxious to head N, Lysias made an offer of peace to the Jews.

In the name of Syria, Lysias offered to refrain from interference in the internal affairs of Judea. Laws against the observance of Judaism would be repealed. Menelaus would be removed from office, and the high priesthood granted to a milder Hellenist named Eliakim, or Alcimus. Lysias promised that Judas and his followers would not be punished. The walls of Jerusalem would be razed, however.

The Council at Jerusalem, a provisional government, considered the peace terms. The council included Maccabean army officials, respected scribes and elders from the party of the Hasidim, and orthodox Jews who had supported Judas. The promise of religious freedom satisfied a majority of the council. Judas, however, was convinced that the promise was meaningless apart from full political liberty. The appeal of peace won the day, however, and Judas was outvoted. Alcimus was installed as priest. Menelaus was executed. Judas and a few of his followers left the city.

The fears of Judas proved correct, however. Alcimus had a number of the Hasidim, the orthodox party, seized and executed. Many loyal Jews turned to Judas again, and the war was renewed. Difficulties were greater than before, however. Alcimus appealed to Syria for aid, and a sizable army was sent. The Hellenizing Jews adopted a more moderate attitude, and won over large segments of the followers of Judas. Left with an ill-equipped army of eight hundred men, Judas bravely met a large Syrian army under Nicanor. Nicanor’s Day became the holiday commemorating Judas’ victory on that occasion. In 161 b.c., Judas fell in battle with another Syrian general, Bacchides. With the death of Judas, the first phase of the Maccabean struggle ended.

Several hundred soldiers loyal to the principles of Judas fled across the Jordan River. From the standpoint of Syria, they were a band of outlaws. To many Jews—even those who had made their peace with Alcimus—they were the true patriots. Judas’ brother Jonathan became the new leader, and young Jews were constantly being attracted to their ranks.

Syria was able to gain important military victories, and the Jews were on the defensive in the years following Judas’ death. Events, however, brought a significant change. In 160 b.c., Alcimus died, an event regarded by many as God’s judgment on him for his wickedness. From 160 to 153 the Maccabees slowly regained power. Jonathan’s victory came as a result of diplomacy rather than war. A pretender, Alexander Balas, claimed the Syrian throne of Demetrius II (153-152 b.c.), and both claimants sought Jewish support. Demetrius freed hostages held in Syria. Both Demetrius and Balas recognized Jonathan as the leader best able to rally the Jews. The Hel. Jews were bypassed, and in 153 b.c. Balas appointed Jonathan high priest. Jonathan had no interest in either the pretender or Demetrius, but he was astute enough to play a delaying action, which ultimately proved successful. He supported Balas and made treaties with Sparta and Rome. Rome had designs on the eastern Mediterranean, and therefore had a vested interest in weakening the Seleucid empire. In 150 b.c. Demetrius was killed, and Alexander Balas emerged as king. Jonathan continued as high priest and was further designated as governor of Judea and a member of the Syrian nobility. Jonathan’s brother Simon was named governor of the Philistine territory along the Mediterranean coast. The Rom. senate, with an eye to the future, declared itself the friend of Judah, but no efforts were made to implement the declaration.

Jonathan’s foreign policy promoted the internal prosperity of Judah. The coastal cities, ruled by Simon, were practically annexed. Trypho, a former general under Alexander Balas, set out to destroy Jonathan and force Judea back into the Syrian orbit. He was able to take Jonathan by trickery, after which Jonathan was murdered. Simon succeeded him as leader of the Maccabean forces.

Simon was advanced in years when he became ruling high priest. Syria was rent into factions, one acknowledging Demetrius II as king, the other recognizing the legitimacy of Antiochus VI, a boy under the guardianship of the ambitious Trypho. Trypho ultimately murdered Antiochus and took the throne for himself, reigning as the first Syrian king who did not trace his dynasty to Seleucus, Alexander’s general who had founded the dynasty. Simon ignored Trypho, recognizing Demetrius as rightful king of Syria.

Demetrius, in return for Jewish recognition, granted the Jews full immunity from taxation. This was interpreted as an acknowledgment of independence, and it occasioned great joy among the Jews. Simon was able to starve out the Syrian garrison at the citadel in Jerusalem known as the Acra. He also occupied the cities of Joppa, Beth-zur, and Gaza. Coins were issued bearing the words, “Holy Jerusalem,” “Shekel of Israel,” and the year numbers, 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5.

During the period of peace that marked the priesthood of Simon, the question of the legitimacy of the Maccabean priesthood was settled. The party of the Hasidim (the pious) had recognized the rights of the family of Onias, the priest first deposed by Antiochus Epiphanes, as legitimate heirs to the Aaronic priesthood. The family of Onias had gone to Egypt during the Maccabean conflict, a fact that was interpreted as a renouncing of claims to the priesthood. In recognition of his wise rule, a convocation of leaders in Israel named Simon, “leader and high priest for ever, until a trustworthy prophet” should arise (1 Macc 14:25-49). The priesthood would henceforth be hereditary in the family of Simon. Simon was the last of the sons of Mattathias. The dynasty that he founded is known as the Hasmonean dynasty, named for an ancestor of the Maccabees named Asmonaeus, or (in Heb.) Hashmon. Under Simon, a brother of Judas and the last of the sons of Mattathias, the concept of a hereditary ruling priesthood in the Hasmonean family was established and legitimized.

The Hasmonean dynasty

John Hyrcanus.

In 135 b.c., Simon and two of his sons, Mattathias and Judas, were murdered by an ambitious son-in-law. A third son, John Hyrcanus managed to escape and succeed Simon as hereditary head of the Jewish state. The older generation that had fought and died for religious liberty was dying out. A new generation, proud of past victories and anticipating greater successes, was in control.

Although Syria under Antiochus VII was powerful enough to have conquered Jerusalem, she offered conditional recognition to Hyrcanus. The Rom. senate may have helped write the terms of recognition. Hyrcanus was to consider himself subject to Syria and to help in Syrian military campaigns when requested. He was to forfeit the coastal cities that had been annexed under Jonathan and Simon, except for Jaffa, which would serve as the port city for Judea. The Syrians, for their part, pledged to leave Judah. As a result, the Hellenizing party disappeared from the Jewish political scene.

In 128 b.c., Antiochus was killed during a Parthian campaign. From this time on Judea enjoyed de facto independence. John Hyrcanus began a policy of territorial expansion, including the reconquest of the coastal cities ceded to Syria during the early years of his reign: Hyrcanus turned southward and conquered the province known as Idumea. The ancient Edomites had been pushed out of their territory S and E of the Dead Sea by the Nabatean Arabs, with the result that they moved into southern Pal., including the area S of Hebron. This area came to be known as Idumea, and it was forcibly annexed to the Jewish state of John Hyrcanus.

The coastal cities linked the commercial highway through Pal. From earliest times merchants and warriors passed N from Egypt along the coastal road leading to Syria and Mesopotamia. Without control of commercial routes, Hyrcanus could not hope to build a major state. As soon as Syrian internal affairs made interference from the N unlikely, Hyrcanus took the coastal cities as a guarantee of the future of his state’s freedom of movement.

Another ancient trade route passed S of Judea, through Idumea, to Egypt. As Hyrcanus captured this territory, he compelled the Idumeans to accept Judaism and become circumcised. This action met opposition from many of the pious Jews of his own generation, and has been condemned in succeeding ages. Ironically, the grandson of Mattathias forced religious conformity on a people conquered by Jewish arms. Although some men of wealth and the aristocracy favored Hyrcanus for making possible new commercial opportunities and annexing larger territories to be governed and some extreme nationalists supported Hyrcanus in the interests of enhanced national glory, the mass of the population, however, did not profit from territorial expansion. They were alarmed at the growing secularism of the age. The priesthood had little semblance of a sacred office. There were practical considerations, too. Wars cost lives as well as money.

The conquest of Samaria by John Hyrcanus ended the Samaritan challenge to the Jewish state. Samaritans had been enemies of the Jews since the return from Babylonian exile. They had built their temple on Mt. Gerizim, their sacred mountain. Samaria fell after a siege of one year, after which the city was razed. Old animosities continued, but the Hasmonean state proved itself militarily capable of dealing with the Samaritans.

During the reign of John Hyrcanus, political parties realigned. The old party of the Hasidim, “the pious,” became the party of the Pharisees, “the separatists”—a probable reference to separation from uncleanness and defilement. It may be that the Essenes date from the same period. Essenes were highly regarded by ancient writers such as Josephus, Philo, and Pliny. They were industrious, peace-loving, and pious. They ultimately separated themselves geographically from their countrymen, forming communal settlements such as that at Qumran where they attempted to cultivate their inner lives and live in total conformity to God’s law. Both Pharisees and Essenes continued the traditions of the Hasidim.

The old party of the Hellenists disappeared, to be replaced by the Sadducees, ostensibly the descendants of the priest Zadok. As the sect developed, however, it became the party of the Jerusalem aristocracy and of the Temple priesthood. John Hyrcanus began as a Pharisee, but during his reign he broke relations with the heirs of the Hasidim and espoused the cause of the Sadducees who had a more secular and pro-Hel. philosophy.

The reign of John Hyrcanus was a turning point in the history of the Jews. The unity of the Hasmonean state was guaranteed. The borders of the state had been extended on every side. Although breaking with his orthodox past, Hyrcanus’ life did not offend the most meticulous adherent of the law. His children, however, grew up in a palace and numbered themselves among the aristocrats. Their training was more in Gr. than in Heb. thought, and they had little sympathy for the older piety.


The death of John Hyrcanus (104 b.c.) precipitated a dynastic struggle among his five children. His eldest son, who preferred his Gr. name Aristobulus to his Heb. name Judah, emerged as victor. He cast his mother and three of his brothers into prison, where two of his brothers are thought to have starved to death, along with his mother. Another brother, Antigonus, was murdered in the palace.

Aristobulus continued the policy of territorial expansion begun by Hyrcanus. In his short reign of one year he pushed N, conquered and Judaized Galilee, and annexed area near the Lebanon mountains. Not content with the title of high priest, Aristobulus took to himself the title king. The Hasmoneans used that title until Pompey took Judea and made it part of the Rom. empire. Aristobulus was called the phil-Hellene—the lover of Greece and things Greek. Whereas it is true that the records are prejudiced in favor of the Pharisees, and against Aristobulus, it is still difficult to find anything of a positive nature in his record. Drink, disease, and the haunting fear of rebellion brought death, ending his one-year reign.

Alexander Jannaeus.

After Aristobulus’ death, his widow, Salome Alexandra, released his younger brother, Alexander, from prison, married him and raised him to the throne.

Any who hoped for a change in policy with the accession of Jannaeus were bitterly disappointed. Alexander Jannaeus had to defend Judea against Egypt, but in the aftermath he was able to extend his territory to the Egyp. frontier, and into the Trans-Jordan area. The size of the state he ruled compared to that of the days of David and Solomon. It incorporated the whole of Pal. with adjacent areas from the Egyp. border to Lake Huleh. Perea in Trans-Jordan was included, as were the Philistine cities except Ascalon. The Hasmoneans aspired to become a maritime power. Ships are depicted on coins of the period, and they are sculptured on the family tomb near Modein.

Territories incorporated into the Hasmonean kingdom were quickly Judaized. Edomites came to exercise an important place in Jewish life. Although the orthodox of Judea considered “Galilee of the Gentiles” less than wholly trustworthy (a view that appeared a cent. later in the NT), Galilee became thoroughly Jewish in its life and piety. Only Samaria resisted assimilation successfully. Individual cities such as Apollonia and Scythopolis, with only a small Jewish element in their population, likewise retained their non-Jewish character.

The rift between Pharisees and the Hasmonean leaders, first noted during the reign of John Hyrcanus, reached its climax during the reign of Jannaeus. Alexander Jannaeus used foreign mercenaries to keep the Pharisees in subjection.

Open rebellion broke out at a memorable Feast of Tabernacles. Jannaeus, while officiating in the Temple as Priest-King, showed his contempt for the Pharisees by pouring out a libation at his own feet, instead of on the altar as prescribed in the Pharisaic ritual. Enraged, the people in the Temple pelted Jannaeus with the citrons that they were carrying in honor of the feast. Jannaeus called upon his soldiers to restore order, and in the process six thousand people were killed (Jos. Antiq. XIII. xiii. 5).

The result was six years of civil war. The Pharisees invited Demetrius III, the king of Syria to aid them. In this turn of events, the descendants of the Hasidim asked the descendants of Antiochus Epiphanes to aid them against the descendants of the Maccabees. The Syrians came and, aided by the Pharisees, forced Jannaeus into hiding in the Judean hills. The Pharisees did some serious thinking, however. Fearing that the Syrians would claim Judea as the fruit of victory, and hoping that Alexander Jannaeus and his sympathizers had learned their lesson, six thousand Pharisees deserted the Syrian army and went over to Jannaeus. With this realignment of forces, Demetrius withdrew his Syrian armies and Alexander Jannaeus emerged as victor.

Jannaeus did not learn from his near-defeat, however. He instituted a hunt for the leaders of the rebellion and made a horrible example of those he caught. He celebrated his victory with a banquet to which the leaders of the Sadducees were invited. Josephus wrote that eight hundred Pharisees were crucified in the presence of the celebrating guests. While one must allow for exaggeration, Alexander Jannaeus must be considered a tyrant of the worst kind. Some feel that he was the “Wicked Priest” who persecuted the “Teacher of Righteousness” according to the DSS. The bloody deeds of Jannaeus made compromise between Pharisees and Saduccees impossible.

One of the pious leaders of the Pharisees during the days of Alexander Jannaeus was Simon ben Shetach, the brother of his wife Salome. Tradition suggests that Jannaeus repented on his deathbed, instructing his wife to get rid of the Sadducean advisers and reign with the aid of the Pharisees.


Salome Alexandra had been successively the widow of Aristobulus and of Alexander Jannaeus. She was nearly seventy years of age when she began to reign in her own right, and she reigned alone for seven more years.

As a woman, Salome could not officiate as high priest. She appointed her elder son, Hyrcanus II, as high priest, and assigned the military command to his brother Aristobulus II. Simon ben Shetach, Alexandra’s brother, was an important spiritual force from the party of the Pharisees.

The influence of the Pharisees in the area of education was a positive one. The Sanhedrin, the Jewish Council of State decreed that every young man should be educated. This education was primarily in the Torah—the Biblical law. A comprehensive system of elementary education was developed so that the larger villages, towns, and cities of Judea could produce a literate, informed people.

The reign of Alexandra was peaceful in comparison with its predecessors. Aristobulus led an expedition against Damascus that proved futile. A threatened invasion from Armenia was averted by diplomacy and bribes.

Internal wounds were not healed, however. The Pharisees were happy in their recent recognition, but the Sadducees were resentful of the fact that they had lost power. To make matters worse, the Pharisees used their power to seek revenge for the massacre of their leaders by Alexander Jannaeus. Sadducean blood was spilt, and the makings of another civil war were developing. The Sadducees found in Aristobulus II, the younger son of Jannaeus and Alexandra, the man they would support as Alexandra’s successor. He was a soldier, and appealed to those who dreamed of imperial expansion and power. Hyrcanus II, the older brother and rightful heir, was congenial to the Pharisees. With the death of Alexandra, the partisans of the two sons faced a showown.

Hyrcanus II.

At the death of Salome Alexandra, her older son, already serving as high priest, succeeded to the throne, unmindful of the challenge he was soon to face. Aristobulus promptly rallied the Sadducees, gained a victory near Jericho, and marched his army to Jerusalem. Hyrcanus and the Pharisees had neither enthusiasm for war nor military ability. Declaring that he never really desired the throne, Hyrcanus surrendered all his honors to Aristobulus.

Aristobulus II.

By right of conquest, Aristobulus, backed by the Sadducees, took the throne from his brother. Hyrcanus and Aristobulus vowed eternal friendship. Aristobulus’ eldest son, Alexander, married Hyrcanus’ only daughter, Alexandra.

Peace between the brothers was short-lived. Hyrcanus found it advisable (or necessary) to flee to Aretas, king of the Nabatean Arabs. Antipater, an Idumean by birth, saw in Hyrcanus’ position an opportunity to gain political power in Judea. Hyrcanus was persuaded that he had been defrauded of his rights to the throne by his younger brother. According to Antipater’s plan, the Nabatean Arabs would come to Jerusalem, drive out the usurper, and restore Hyrcanus to his rightful position. Hyrcanus agreed to the plan and the Nabateans marched against Jerusalem. Aristobulus, caught by surprise, shut himself up in Jerusalem and both sides prepared for a long siege.

The intervention of the Romans.

The battles between Aristobulus II and Hyrcanus II provided Rome with the opportunity to intervene. In 63 b.c., Pompey took Pal. Rome prob. would not have invaded Pal. if the best of rulers had been there. As it was, Rome had a ready-made excuse to intervene in Palestinian affairs. Although the heirs of the Hasmoneans continued to serve under the Romans for a few decades, Pompey’s invasion brought the Hasmonean Dynasty to a close.


V. Tcherikover, Hellenistic Civilization and the Jews (1959); E. Schürer, A History of the Jewish People in the Time of Jesus (1961), (reprint of 1886-1890 original); W. Foerster, From the Exile to Christ (1964); N. H. Snaith, The Jews from Cyrus to Herod (n.d.); D. S. Russell, The Jews from Alexander to Herod (1967).

See also

  • [[Asmoneans

  • Maccabees