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The Oxford History of the Biblical World An in-depth chaptered work by leading scholars providing a chronological overview of the history of biblical times.

Hyrcanus, Aristobulus I, and Janneus

Simon, who had survived so much, was done in—along with his sons Judas and Matthias—by the treachery of one of his sons-in-law, named Ptolemy. Presumably Ptolemy, from whose perfidy only Simon's other son John escaped, was driven by a desire to find favor with Antiochus VII. But it was John, succeeding Simon as high priest, who would lead his people through the final decades of the second century BCE.

John, also known as Hyrcanus, probably took action against Ptolemy as soon as possible. Such action was bound to be popular with most of the Jews. But Ptolemy had two formidable assets of his own: support of Antiochus VII and possession of Simon's widow, John's mother. John wisely sought to shore up his position by renewing his people's alliance with the Romans. Antiochus VII, like Syrian monarchs since Antiochus III, was not overly impressed by Rome's guarantees, and he laid siege to Jerusalem, which John and his followers were defending. The compromise that averted further bloodshed left Jerusalem and its defenders intact, but required the Jews to pay substantial tribute and reduced them to Seleucid subjects once more.

When Antiochus VII died while fighting on his eastern borders, John took the military initiative. Among his first steps was to eliminate the threat posed by the murderous Ptolemy, who was in control of Jericho and its environs. John's success in this enterprise was bittersweet, since it came at the cost of his mother's life and since he failed to capture Ptolemy. But at least Ptolemy no longer had a base of power in Judea. The throne now reverted to Demetrius II, whose weakness John exploited through an impressive series of victories in Moab, Samaria, and Idumea, to name only the most prominent territories he conquered. With respect to the Idumeans, John reportedly allowed them to become Jews, in which case they would be able to retain their place in the land. Circumcision would have been required of all Idumean males and would signify their acceptance of the monotheistic faith of Israel. Herod the Great, installed by the Romans about a century later as king of the Jews, could trace his family's connections with Judaism to this event.

A rival claimant to the Seleucid throne, who took the name of Alexander, challenged Demetrius. Demetrius and Alexander each had the support of one of the feuding factions in Ptolemaic Egypt. But neither Alexander nor Demetrius could win the upper hand, and they both fell in rapid succession. Demetrius's son ruled as Antiochus VIII for about a decade (ca. 123–113). As during the years when Demetrius and Alexander fought it out, John was generally left alone to continue his conquest of neighboring territories and to reap the benefits of his and his people's labors. When a new king, Antiochus IX, arose to threaten this relative tranquility, John successfully appealed to the Romans, who issued a stern warning. As it was, Antiochus IX's energies were more than taken up in conflict with his brother, who still reigned as Antiochus VIII. Perfecting a technique that had been profitably used by himself and other Hasmoneans before, John Hyrcanus used this opportunity to further enlarge his already extensive territory.

The city of Samaria had thus far resisted conquest, although most of the surrounding land had earlier fallen into John's hands. John judged this prize so significant that he entrusted the campaign against it to two of his sons, Antigonus and Aristobulus. The siege of Samaria was long and difficult. In response to an appeal from Samaria's residents, Antiochus IX joined the battle, but to no avail. The Hasmonean capture of Samaria, near the end of John Hyrcanus's long tenure, resulted in the city's demolition. The thoroughness with which the Jewish forces carried out their task is reminiscent of the earlier Roman treatment of Carthage at the conclusion of the Third Punic War.

Much of the populace admired John and was grateful to him for the relative peace and prosperity he secured through his conquests and alliances. Although he may not have scrupulously observed Torah commands, he had established himself as leader of the Jewish religion, as well as of the Jewish people. His numerous building projects in and around Jerusalem are best understood in this light. Though he faced some internal opposition, we cannot be sure of its nature or of its seriousness. All and all, these were decades that could be remembered with nostalgia by later generations who had to endure notably deteriorated circumstances.

In common with the first generation of Hasmoneans, John bore an additional name, and he also bestowed such names on his sons. We know of three: Aristobulus, Antigonus, and Janneus. Unlike earlier appellations, these three are Greek. But since they appear to express sentiments completely at home in Israel's monotheistic faith, we should not make too much of this linguistic distinction.

Aristobulus, more fully Judas Aristobulus I, succeeded his father, only to be followed shortly by his brother Alexander Janneus. Either Aristobulus or Janneus was the first Hasmonean to take for himself the title king. In either case, such a move was significant not only for its political implications, but also for its theological overtones. The restoration of a king on the throne in Jerusalem would evoke memories, fond and otherwise, of the distinctive relationship that God established with the house of David. Aristobulus was known to have initiated a new round of conquests that might have been aimed at further enlarging the boundaries of his kingdom to “biblical” proportions. But the historical sources also report that he was guilty of immense cruelty to members of his own family, his mother and brothers included. After only a year in power, death brought an end to this Hasmonean's rule.

Aristobulus's widow, Alexandra, bestowed the kingship on her brother-in-law Janneus, who in turn took her as his wife. Such a union accorded with the biblical practice of levirate marriage, whereby a brother married his childless sister-in-law in order to keep their line alive. Both documentary and numismatic evidence confirms that for at least part of his reign Janneus actively assumed the role of king with its attendant regalia such as the diadem. If he was not the first Hasmonean to mint his own coins, he was among the most prolific and astute producers of such numismatic materials.

But Janneus aimed too high when he sought to capture the major Phoenician city of Ptolemais. This attempt embroiled him in an intra-Egyptian family feud that threatened to undermine Janneus's stature and credibility among his subjects. Only the intervention of Egypt's queen Cleopatra III saved the Jewish king from an inglorious and total defeat. In determining her course of action, Cleopatra is said to have followed the advice of Onias IV's two sons. Onias had founded a Jewish temple at Leontopolis, and his family had established itself within the highest circles of Egyptian political life and had on this occasion chosen to aid the Hasmoneans, whom they might otherwise have regarded as rivals for the religious leadership of the Jewish people. Thwarted at Ptolemais, Janneus turned his attention elsewhere.

Although from Janneus's perspective the ensuing record of military engagements was largely positive, these victories cost his nation many lives and cost him personally much of the goodwill he had built up. Accusations spread that Janneus was unfit to be high priest, and these ill feelings spilled over into hostile acts on more than one occasion. In response, Janneus brought in mercenaries to first bully and then kill thousands of those Jews who protested. The sense that God had abandoned this Jewish king grew all the more intense when Janneus's army suffered a major reversal in Transjordan. So repugnant had Janneus become in the eyes of some Jews that they invited the Seleucid monarch Demetrius III to deliver a crushing blow against their own ruler. Although without precedent, this request did conform in general to the biblical teaching, supported by narrative accounts, that God could use foreign rulers to punish Israel—or in this case its king. In the struggle that followed Demetrius succeeded in striking the first blow, and it was heavy. But Janneus managed to rally his troops. Faced with the prospect of a protracted Judean campaign and the reality of further losses, Demetrius withdrew his forces. From his perspective, this was only a sideshow; the main event was the threat posed by rival claimants to his throne.

Janneus ordered the crucifixion of almost a thousand Jewish men who had fought against him alongside Demetrius. We are told that the king compelled these men, even as they were suffering a long and painful death, to endure further anguish: to witness the massacre of their own wives and children. Not surprisingly, a considerable number of Jews went into exile, and Janneus was the recipient of hateful epithets that rivaled those given to Antiochus IV. These events occurred midway through the quarter century of Janneus's rule (103–76 BCE). He faced no further internal threats for the remainder of his reign, but it is doubtful that things were so tranquil below the surface.

Janneus did continue to pursue his policy of territorial conquest and expansion, with mixed results. Faced with an increasingly aggressive challenge from the Nabatean Arab king Aretas III, Janneus constructed and fortified several sites, probably including Masada of later fame. To Janneus's reign can also be dated several important literary works, including 1 Maccabees (discussed below) and the expanded Greek version of Esther that is canonical for Roman Catholic and Orthodox Christians.

We will shortly discuss in detail the origins and early history of the Sadducees, Pharisees, and Essenes. Josephus is our chief source for these “sects,” and he wrote many years after the events we are now narrating. Rabbinic materials in their written forms also date from a much later period. And it must be admitted that the Dead Sea Scrolls are often difficult to interpret. Nonetheless, judicious use of these several sources leads to one conclusion: at one time or another members of all of these groups opposed, often with great vehemence, Alexander Janneus and his policies. Presumably such hostility mirrored in general the stance of the vast majority of Jews who identified with no specific group. Especially dramatic is a scene set by Josephus. Bedridden, chronically ill, and near death, the king summoned his wife Alexandra and pleaded with her to listen to the Pharisees. He had not treated them with respect, but now repented of his actions against them. Whether or not this story is historically reliable, the incident points to the reality of Hasmonean-Pharisaic opposition during Janneus's reign.

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