The Rise and Fall of the Hasmoneans. A Hanukkah Story

The villain of the Hannukah story, Antiochus IV, succeeded his brother Seleucus IV, at a particularly burdensome time for the Syrian-Greek dynasty. Some years earlier their father, Antiochus III had been defeated at the battle of Magnesia by a rampant Rome.  As the newly emergent masters of the world, the Romans demanded a considerable tribute from the Greeks. When Antiochus III died Seleucus inherited an economically straitened kingdom, and when he was murdered its financial woes were passed onto his brother, the new king.

Antiochus IV, who by all accounts was an avaricious megalomaniac, was desperately seeking a way to restore his kingdom’s wealth when his eye fell upon the Jerusalem Temple. It was well known that the Sanctuary contained inestimable treasures; for centuries its admirers, non-Jews as well as Jews, had been sending it donations. It was clear to Antiochus that the Temple was far more lavishly appointed than the tiny Israelite nation needed. He wasn’t the first to come to this realisation. His brother had already tried to plunder its treasures. Acting on information from a disgruntled enemy of the High Priest Onias, Seleucus had sent his vizier Heliodorus to seize the Temple’s booty. But, according to the Second Book of Maccabees[1], upon entering the Temple Heliodorus was frozen in his tracks by a fearful vision of a celestial horse and rider rearing up at him, whilst two angels rained blows upon his head.

Raphael’s fresco of the scene in the Vatican shows the pillaging vizier lying prone beneath the horse’s hooves, above him the gold-armoured horseman is poised to strike. Both winged angels are bearing down upon him, scourges in hand, whilst all about Temple spoils lay scattered on the ground. Everyone else in the Sanctuary is shrinking in fear, with the sole exception of the titanic figure of Pope Julius II, Raphael’s patron, who, catapulted back in time sits in frowning contemplation, staring at the open window beneath which the High Priest kneels at his altar. Beneath him, his chair-bearers, identical triplets by the look of them, studiously peer in the opposite direction, as far removed from Julius’s gaze as they can.

Julius and Heliodorus were two of a kind. The father of three daughters and known as the warrior Pope, Julius had built his reputation on warfare, marching at the head of his army to restore the Commune of Bologna to the Papal States. After bribing his way to the papacy, Julius’s first act had been to pass a decree disqualifying any future, aspiring pontiff who dared to attempt the same.  The glaze on his patron’s face is the closest Raphael dares get to articulating Julius’s relief at being spared Heliodorus’s fate.

The hapless Heliodorus, who, if the account is to be believed, was carried stunned and empty-handed from the sanctuary, only resurfaces once more in history. According to the historian Appian, it was at Heliodorus’s hand that Seleucus met his death. Perhaps Heliodorus saw this as vengeance for the trauma he had suffered. Or maybe he was trying to seize the throne. If the latter, he failed once again. For it was Seleucus’s brother Antiochus who succeeded him as Emperor. And he would not be as small minded as his dead brother. Antiochus the Illustrious had bigger ideas.

Looting the Temple was as attractive a proposition to Antiochus as it had been to Seleucus. But he would not go about it in the same ham-fisted way; stealing the Temple treasures was not the sort of job to entrust to a potentially treacherous vizier, particularly one prone to visions. Rather, Antiochus would take control of the Temple itself. And he would do so by leveraging the self-serving obsequiousness of someone like himself, a man consumed by sibling rivalry, frustrated at his brother’s power and confident he could do so much better. Antiochus turned his face towards the perfidious Jason, younger brother of the pious High Priest Onias.

Jason had begun to make a name for himself just as Onias was struggling to cope with the fallout from Heliodorus’s trauma in the Temple. Not everyone was willing to accept the account that the vizier had been miraculously struck down. Simon of Bilgah, Onias’s enemy who had originally encouraged Seleucus to send his vizier to loot the Temple, rounded on the High Priest, accusing him of attacking Heliodorus. Skirmishes broke out between Simon’s followers and the Temple faithful, roving gangs terrorised the city’s narrow thoroughfares. As the skirmishes escalated, one of Simon’s followers murdered a Temple priest. Reprisals were inevitable; the doomsters predicted a full scale civil war.

Onias, desperate to restore order to his tormented fiefdom, saw no alternative but to travel to Antioch to petition the king for assistance. It was the worst thing the aged hierophant could have done. As soon as he was out of the way, his younger brother Jason petitioned the king, offering a down payment of 360 silver talents, with a further 80 to follow from future tax revenues, in return for the high priesthood. It was an offer which the king saw no good reason to refuse. Onias, stranded in far off Antioch, was deposed. His brother Jason was installed in his place. The clear understanding was that Jason would continue to use his office to extract taxes from the nation. The usurper would of course keep a proportion of everything he raised.

The significance of this act was momentous, and it was not lost on the masses. It wasn’t just that Jason’s acquisition of the High Priesthood was likely to make him extremely wealthy, at their expense. Since biblical times the High Priesthood had been handed down from father to first born son. Even a brother had no right to it, unless there was no other heir. Like blessings from heaven, the High Priesthood was not for sale, nor was it in the gift of any earthly power.

Yet even the high priesthood was not enough for Jason. He wanted more than that, more too than personal enrichment. Jason had what we might call today a modernising agenda; he wanted nothing more than to replace the unfashionable, superannuated beliefs and customs of the Hebrew nation with the progressive originality of Ancient Greece. He knew it could be done; the Greeks had already perfected a method for imposing Hellenist thought and behaviour upon their colonies. All Jason had to do was adopt the method.

Since the time of Alexander the Great, the Greeks had disseminated their ideas and values by creating municipalities in their territories which replicated the city-states of Greece itself. Jason mimicked this strategy, transforming Jerusalem into a Greek polis. He selected and registered the polis’s citizens from amongst Jerusalem’s aristocracy and began promoting a Hellenistic way of life. Abandoning the Temple rituals, he sent money for sacrifices to the Temple of Heracles and built a gymnasium beneath Jerusalem’s citadel; not a gym as we know it today but a “school for naked exercise”, according to its literal meaning. The perfection of the human body was central to the Greek way of life and, although the gymnasia were also places of cultural and philosophical education, it was this focus on the body rather than the spirit that set Greek and Jewish civilisations poles apart.

Jason’s cultural revolution seems to have been quite a success amongst those who were granted citizenship of the polis. The Second Book of Maccabees records, wistfully, that the priests lost all enthusiasm for their temple rituals and “would hurry to the wrestling ring and discus-throwing”[2]. But his tax farming didn’t go down well with the mass of the population, the artisans and agricultural workers who bore the brunt of the burden. It didn’t take long before another opportunist, Menelaus, was knocking on Antiochus’s door, offering even greater tax revenues if the king would only depose Jason from the High Priesthood and give him the job instead.

Menelaus got his way, but he turned out to be an even more villainous High Priest than Jason. He murdered Onias, the old High Priest whom Antiochus had evicted, plundered whatever he could from the Temple and, when the people in desperation turned back to Jason, urging him to lead a revolt, Menelaus called upon Antiochus for support. The king needed no second bidding. He was at that moment completing the most magnificent victory of his career; the subjugation of Ptolemy, his great enemy in Egypt. The idea of a short detour on his way home, to put down the incipient Israelite rebellion in Jerusalem, would be a perfect way to round off his glorious expedition. He made his way to Jerusalem, seized the city, slaughtered its inhabitants, emptied the Temple of its treasures and artefacts, stripped the gold plate from its walls, sacrificed pigs on its altar and forbade the practice of the Jewish religion.

Hanukkah commemorates the success of the rebellion that followed in the wake of Antiochus’s excesses. The heroes of the victory, in the year 167 BCE, were a family of guerrilla-priests from the village of Modi’in, about twenty miles from Jerusalem. As priests they should have taken their turn in serving for a week, twice a year, in the Jerusalem Temple. But Antiochus’s offensive had left the Temple silent, its rituals abandoned, artefacts demolished and destroyed, pagan idols set up in its courts.

Distraught at the desolation of the sacred site, and despondent at the alacrity of his fellow-countrymen in adopting foreign ways and rites, Mattathias, the family patriarch, finally lost patience when he witnessed a fellow Israelite sacrificing to a Greek god. Bursting forward, according to the story in the First Book of the Maccabees[3], Mattathias slaughtered the apostate Israelite, pulled down his altar and fled to the hills, together with his five sons.

Under Jason’s leadership much of the nation had succumbed to the attractions of a Greek lifestyle, and had complained not at all at the outlawing of Jewish religious practices. But some regretted the change and longed for the restoration of the old ways. Now, Mattathias’s public act of resistance galvanised them. Not for the first time in their history an exodus of Israelites began; whole families abandoning their homes and villages, flocking into the uplands to join Mattathias and his sons, taking their possessions and animals with them. Ever since biblical times the Judean caves had served as a refuge, as essential to prophets fleeing a vengeful king as they were to bandits on the run or, as now, to zealots anxious to preserve their faith at all costs. But this time, far from offering a sanctuary, the caves turned out to be a death trap.

Mattathias’s defiant cutting down of the idol worshipper was more than just a display of religious zeal. As far as the Greeks were concerned it was an act of treason. Reviling their gods was the equivalent of attacking the Empire itself. And when the news came through that an unknowable number of dissenters were hiding out in the hills with Mattathias, the Greek authorities could only assume that a rebellion was brewing. They decided to pre-empt trouble, and they did so in as brutal a way as they could imagine.

Throughout Israelite history, as far as anyone knew, the Jews had refrained from making war on the Sabbath. The weekly day of rest was just too holy for any sort of violent activity. Israelites were not supposed to even lift a weapon, let alone use it. So which better day for Antiochus to put down the putative rebellion than the Sabbath itself? Confident that the Jews would not fight back, the Greeks sent their troops into the hills, where they lit fires at the entrances to the renegades’ caves. Up to one thousand people, men women and children, forbidden by religious law to either to fight back or to extinguish the flames, were immolated or suffocated in the conflagration.

Of course, once news of the massacre got out, matters became far worse. What had started off as an act of resistance now escalated into a full scale revolt. The Jewish historian Josephus, a master of rhetoric, places a speech into Mattathias’s mouth, in which he proclaimed that the days of Sabbath non-resistance were over. There was no point, Josephus has Mattathias saying, in their fighting for their customs and traditions if they were to lose their lives doing so. Never again, he insisted, would the Jews be caught defenceless on the Sabbath; if attacked they would fight back. Whether Mattathias really delivered such a speech, or whether Josephus, writing two hundred years after the event was simply conjecturing, the reality was the same. From that moment on, the supremacy of protecting human life overrode the presumed tranquillity of the Sabbath day. It was a common sense principle, one which has survived until present times.

The Sabbath massacre changed more than just the rules of the holy day. It transformed the mood in Mattathias’s encampment. No longer did they consider themselves a band of refugees, seeking a life away from Greek hegemony. Now they were resistance fighters. If Antiochus feared a revolution, that is exactly what they would give him.

From their hideouts, the new band of resistance fighters started a campaign of guerrilla warfare, against both the Greek occupiers and those turncoats amongst their own people who had gone over to Hellenistic ways. Stealing into the surrounding villages at night, the rebels attacked Greek outposts and recruited young men to join their cause. Many aspiring fighters didn’t wait to be asked, ever since the Sabbath massacre the popular mood had swung in Mattathias’s favour. It wasn’t long until the full scale revolt the Greeks had feared was rampant.  Greek altars were overthrown, enemy forces overwhelmed, and even parents who, in deference to Greek practice had not circumcised their sons, found themselves strong-armed by the rebels into performing the operation.

Mattathias didn’t live long enough to witness the unfolding of events. Josephus has him dead within a year of the revolt’s outbreak, although the First Book of the Maccabees suggests he lived a little longer. Upon his deathbed he handed over the reins to the third of his five sons, Judah.

Judah proved to be an even more successful commander than his father. He was so successful that he acquired a by-name, an honour usually reserved in those days for kings. He became known as Judah Maccabee. The name is generally assumed to translate as ‘Judah the Hammer’ and although there are other less graphic suggestions as to the meaning of the word Maccabee, it is not at all surprising that the appellation Hammer is the one which has come to define him.

The Maccabean revolt, as it came to be known, lasted from 167 to 160 BCE.  Its high point came in 165 BCE, when Judah’s fighters wrested control of the Jerusalem Temple from the priests of Zeus. Their joy at regaining the sanctuary quickly turned to horror once they got inside; weeds were growing knee high through the courtyard stones, hogs were sniffing around the passageways, idols leered from recesses and, atop the altar dedicated to the ineffable deity of the Jews was scattered the detritus of partially consumed, porcine sacrifice. Looters had ransacked the place, everything of value had been stolen, even the towering wooden gates had been incinerated, but only once they had been stripped clean of their golden overlay. The seven branched menorah, the golden lampstand, which for three centuries had cherished an unceasing, perpetual flame, had not only been extinguished; it had been spirited away.

It must have taken months to clean and reconstruct the building; everything had to be remade, even the massive altar had to be built anew. A new lampstand was constructed and it was this detail that spawned the legend which is the best known feature of the festival of Hanukkah. According to the Hanukkah legend, which appears to have been composed much later than the events it recounts, when the Temple was fully cleansed and purified the priests wanted to light the menorah. But only the purest oil was permitted to be used for such a sacred purpose, just the very first drops to emerge from the olive press. Only one vial of this oil could be found in the depleted temple, containing just enough fuel to last for one day. New supplies were needed but it would take eight days to send for, and obtain, more oil of a suitable quality. Not wishing to delay the rededication ceremony, the priests lit the lampstand with the small quantity of oil they had, even though they realised the flame would soon burn out. But miraculously, the small cruse of oil lasted for a full eight days, until fresh supplies arrived. The miracle of the oil is just about the only legendary feature of the whole Hannukah story.

The restoration of the Temple has gone down in history as the Maccabees’ greatest achievement. And although they eventually succeeded in driving the Seleucid Greeks from their land, as far as their dynasty is concerned it was all downhill from the moment they restored the Temple.

In addition to the accounts in the Books of the Maccabees, Judah’s exploits in the name of national liberation have been immortalised in art, literature and music. Perhaps the most well-known cultural tribute is Handel’s oratorio, Judas Maccabeus, written in 1747 to celebrate the English triumph over the Scots at Culloden, ironically the very antithesis of a liberation victory. But Judah died on the battlefield and leadership passed to his brothers, first Jonathan and finally Jonathan was appointed High Priest in 152 BCE, when he died Simon succeeded him in office.

It was probably around this time that people began to refer to the family as the Hasmoneans. It’s not at all clear what the name signifies; it may refer to a long deceased ancestor, or to the location where the family originated.  Josephus suggests that Asmoneus was the name of Mattathias’s father; but there is no evidence anywhere else to corroborate this. As far as history is concerned however, the descendants of Judah Maccabee’s younger brother Simon became known as the Hasmonean dynasty.

With the nation liberated and, for the first time for many years free from any foreign domination, the Hasmonean family made no pretence of their expansionary ambitions. In 140 BCE, Simon, by popular acclaim added the position of ethnarch, or national ruler, to his office of High Priest. Transforming themselves from priests to rulers, from freedom fighters to military adventurers, the Hasmoneans acquired a reputation as a bellicose minor power, constantly on the lookout for more territory to sweep up. Amongst the most aggressive was Yohanan, or John, Hyrcanus, the son of Simon, who came to power after his father was murdered by his son-in-law. Hyrcanus’s conquests included the neighbouring territory of Idumea, a feat proclaimed even by his enemies as a great military triumph. But what looked like a triumph at the time turned out to be an event that would haunt future generations. Hyrcanus annexed the Idumean lands, warning its inhabitants that if they wished to retain their ancestral homes they would have to adopt the Jewish faith. In the case of men, this included circumcision. Amongst the families that Hyrcanus coerced were the ancestors of the duplicitous Herod, villain of both the New Testament and the Talmud, who in time would engineer a position for himself as Rome’s proxy king of Israel. The accusation in the Gospel of Matthew that Herod slaughtered all the babies in Bethlehem[4], exemplifies his long and murderous reign. His victims included two of his sons, one of his ten wives, several in-laws and any member of the Hasmonean dynasty whom he perceived as a threat.

The Hasmonean annexation of Idumea was a mistake, but it was not the dynasty’s worst. As a family of priests, the Hasmoneans’ inescapable, hereditary role was to act as a spiritual conduit for the nation, by taking their turn to officiate in the Temple. In those days the Temple rituals were the only significant public expression of the Jewish religion; people visited there on festivals and at moments of profound personal significance, but on a day to day basis it was the activities of the priests in the Temple that were deemed to protect the welfare of the Jews. But as priests the Hasmoneans were deeply flawed.

Throughout Israelite history, secular and temporal power had existed side by side. Each domain was equally powerful but their boundaries were distinct, they could not be blurred or amalgamated. Political and spiritual authority was always entrusted to different hands. This was a paradigm so ancient that it was even attested in the Bible. Moses, hero of the biblical Exodus, was the nation’s law maker and civil leader; his brother Aaron was the High Priest. Throughout Israel’s pre-history the same model had prevailed, priests and kings each exerting authority in their own sphere; the king exercising supreme power on earth, the High Priest as advocate in heaven. But the Hasmoneans, priests by birth but rulers by dint of military victory, put an end to such clear-cut, constitutional niceties.

And so it was that, despite their military prowess, the enduring legacy of the Hasmonean regime was neither their shaking off of the Seleucid yoke, nor dominion over the territories they subjugated. The Hasmoneans did their most lasting damage by first appropriating the High Priesthood for themselves and then, in the generation after Yohanan Hyrcanus, appointing themselves as kings. They undermined the sanctity of both offices.

The Hasmonean High Priests held power for well over a century, even managing to hang on for some years after the Roman invasion in 61 BCE. By that time the population had turned against them and Rome saw no purpose in propping up their regime. Out of favour with Rome the Hasmonean dynasty disintegrated. Herod was appointed king in their place and the High Preisthood became a commodity, for sale to the highest bidder.

The Hasmoneans may be the heroes of the Hanukkah story. But Jewish tradition does not look kindly upon them.



[1] II Maccabees 3,7 ff

[2] II Maccabees 4,14.

[3] 1 Maccabees 2, 23ff.

[4] Matthew 2, 16-18

© 2020 Harry Freedman Books