Maccabees and Hasmonean Kings


Maccabees and Hasmonean Kings


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Jerusalem: In Search of the Maccabees

By Jacqueline Schaalje

As is well known, the Jewish holiday of Chanukah is based on historic events. From the year 180 BCE until 161 BCE the Maccabees rebelled against the Syrian king Antiochus IV who persecuted the Jews. At the end of the period, after the rebels had conquered Judah and Jerusalem, the Temple was re-inaugurated.

Generations-long struggles against the Syrian hegemony followed, at the end of which emerged the first Israeli kings, the Hasmonean dynasty (2nd to 1st Century BCE). They were the descendants of the Maccabees.

The Hasmoneans were special kings. They were unique not only because they are the first kings of Israel whose historicity is undoubted, but also because they combined three functions: that of secular, military and religious leadership. This made the Hasmoneans, in a way, holy kings. In no other period of Israeli history did this combination of the different spheres in one function recur.

It would be nice if the Maccabees and the Hasmonean kings would have left any archaeological remains. But they are mostly disappointing. Although throughout Israel traces are found of the Hasmonean kings, who built palaces and strongholds and extended Jerusalem, a great deal lie buried under later buildings. The winter palace of the Hasmonean kings has been dug up in Jericho. This had swimming pools and ritual baths (mikves). In Jerusalem and the area around the Temple, where the story of Chanukah takes place, only a few things have been laid bare.

The history of the Maccabean rebellion cannot be verified at all by archaeology, but is related in the Books Maccabees I and II. These books do not form part of the Bible, but they belong to a number of texts which are called apocryphal books.

As far as the archaeology of the Maccabeans goes, there are a few remains on the Eastern hill of Jerusalem (the city of David), where the shrunken population had retreated after the destruction of the city by the Babylonians. The Maccabeans seem to have built a new city wall. Antiochus IV destroyed Maccabean Jerusalem during the rebellion. The rest eroded. To keep the rebels in check Antiochus built the Acra, a huge citadel, in Jerusalem, which housed Greek troops (I Makk. 1:29-33, II Makk. 5:24-6). The Acra must have been near to the Temple, but its location has not been found. The Akra was in turn subdued again by the Maccabeans in 142 BCE.

wall from Maccabean period

Not a single feature remained of the Temple as it stood in the year 180 BCE when the five Maccabi brothers and their father Matthatias started their protest against the intolerant measures of Antiochus IV. The only description of this temple is of a 250 meter square structure in the Mishnah ("Middoth"), which was written at a much later date.

However, parts of an older wall are visible in the Eastern wall of the temple complex. Visitors taking a stroll on the road leading behind the Temple, will find a breach between older stones on the right and the Herodian stones on the left. In other words, the Herodian stones seem added to an older structure. It is thought that the older stones are from the Hasmonean Temple extension. Some scientists think that the Hasmoneans covered the Syrian Acra with this extension.

After the time of the Hasmoneans, king Herod erected a bigger and more magnificent Temple, of which the Western and Southern walls are still standing. He extended the Southern terrace of the Temple complex, and by doing this structures of the Hasmonean times disappeared under it. Today they must be lying under the El Aqsa Mosque, whose presence obstructs further research of this site.

The Herodian remains still give an indication of what the Temple must have looked like, also in the older periods before it. The digs around the South-West corner are open to visitors from the entrance just inside the Dung Gate to the Ancient city. During the weekend the place is an attraction for Jewish tour groups, armed with maps or Temple models.

Probably broad features of this side of the Temple also existed in the time of the Hasmoneans, for instance that the main entrance to the Temple must have lain on the South. The entrance is indicated by steps, double and triple gates (now closed), and the presence of ritual baths, or mikve, in which visitors to the Temple immersed in order to ritually clean themselves before entering the Temple complex.

The baths consist of a basin similar to modern baths, and an extra pool next to it, with stairs leading down; the mikve. Because the water of the mikve had to be streaming water, coming from a stream or river, often a smaller otzar was added which contained some fresh water. Between the reservoir and the mikve a hole in the wall could lead water from the fresh bath into the mikve. A small amount of fresh water could make the whole amount of water acceptable for ritual purposes.

Mikves are a typical phenomenon from Hasmonean times. They are found in several places in Israel, and also in the Jewish Quarter of the old city of Jerusalem, although the last ones are from a later period. In Hasmonean times the city's habitation moved again to the Western hill, where now lies the old city.

menorah from ancient times

Six houses were uncovered in the Jewish Quarter and accommodated in the Wohl Archaeological Museum (in Hurvah Square). The houses are Herodian, so from after the Hamonean times. However pottery from the Hasmonean period was found under the floor of the largest Herodian mansion. This shows that in the Hasmonean period the site was also inhabited, but these buildings cannot be recovered. Some scientists think that the Hasmonean palace was on the spot.

The houses, more like villas actually, testify to the great wealth of the inhabitants. This is not only evident from the spacious and large number of rooms, but also from the ample amount of baths. Curiously they look exactly like the ritual baths as are seen at the South wall of the Temple: with reservoirs for rain water, next to mikves with running down steps. Because of the baths, many interpreters think that the houses were inhabited by Temple priests.

Other scientists dispute this and propose that richer secular citizens had mikves in their houses. Ritual cleanliness seems indeed to have been important; the households of this period used kitchen utensils from cut stone, because these were non-absorbent and easy to keep clean. In the Wohl museum these are also on display.

Interesting about the baths is further that they were a Greek invention. Hellenistic ideas entered the Near Eastern world since the conquest of Alexander the Great in 332 BCE. After Alexander's death Greek rulers controlled Syria, of which Israel was a province. Antiochus IV was one of the descendants of these Greek rulers.

The Greek influence was gradually absorbed throughout the country. Greek cities were established and inhabited by Greeks. All over the country Greek troops were stationed, and institutions like theatres, baths, gyms (gymnasia) appeared, and also temples dedicated to Greek gods.

Jerusalem was at first left to rule by herself. The Temple's High Priest stood at the head of the Jewish Council, and was entrusted with the task to collect taxes. These were extremely high, and contributed to the growth of an anti-Hellenistic attitude among the Jewish population, who had first been in favour of Hellenistic rule.

Conflicts arose when Jerusalem became prey to measures which made her lose her Jewish exclusiveness. This is also the point in the story of the Maccabean rebellion in which king Antiochus IV tried to rededicate the Temple to worship of Zeus (I Makk. 1:54), and tried to steal money from the Temple (I Macc. 1:20-24). The Temple not only housed money from the Temple but it also served as bank for private customers.

Further Antiochus issued an edict in which Jewish religious practices were forbidden (I Makk.1:41). Several stories about Syrian mismanagement in general are related in both Books of Maccabees. On the other hand they record that a part of the population in Judah was in favour of the new developments: Jewish athletes trained in the newly opened gymnasium in Jeru, naked; but this probably caused a scandal among conservative Jews (II Macc. 4:7-8).

Another scandal was that the function of High Priest, which had only been open to Zadokites, became available upon auction by the Syrian king: the highest bidder would gain the title. The money to pay the Syrian king would come from increased taxes. Members of the pro-Hellenistic families in Jerusalem reached to the office of High Priest several times, because they had the most wealth and power.

The Hellenistic faction in Judah became progressively more wealthy with time, while peasants, lower priests and small craftsmen did not share in the goodies. This meant that Judah had to get rid of the Syrian kings, and install their own rulers.

All these frictions in the society of Judah together formed the background of the Maccabean rebellion, which is often interpreted as being a protest of the Jews against the Hellenistic domination. Although Greek influences were on the one hand enthusiastically embraced in Judah, the population also sought to be independent from the Greeks and their favourites.

When the Hasmonean kings finally succeeded in ousting the Greek rulers in Israel, religious tolerance was re-installed. The territory of the country was extended, to the Mediterranean coast and in the South until the Red Sea, where the harbour enabled international trade.

Because of increasing trade and prosperity the population grew fast. It is estimated that the population of Jerusalem grew from around 5500 till 300.000 during the Hasmonean period. In Jerusalem the growth is evident from extensions of the city.

Parts of the new and wider Hasmonean wall can still be admired in the Jewish Quarter of the old city. Three parts of the wall are found in the Cardo. In the observation points it is seen that the Hasmonean wall interacted with the older Israelite walls and towers, and made use of the older structures.

A piece of the Hasmonean Northern wall lies a little bit more North of the Cardo (inside a small museum at the end of Halahot Street). Its position shows that by the end of the 1st Century BCE the size of Jerusalem was more modest than the current old city.

Next to nothing is known about how the common inhabitants lived in Hasmonean times, but a number of people were very rich. This shows from the villa-like residences in the Jewish Quarter but also from graves found in the surrounding hills.

In all of the remains a strong Greek influence is evident. A typical trait from the Hasmonean era is that the ample decorations do not make use of figurative images. It is not known for sure why this stricture existed: maybe it was caused by a literal interpretation of the second Mosaic law not to worship images. Or it could be a reaction against the Hellenistic love of nude statues, and statues of Greek gods, which were unacceptable for conservative Jews.

The decorations are of palm leaf, pomegranate or star, etc. Specific Jewish images, like menorah, were also avoided. These became in vogue again during and after the last Hasmonean king, Matthatias (40-37 BCE).

It looks as if the Hasmonean kings purposely reckoned with the Greek as well as the Jewish inhabitants of Israel. For instance, they issued two types of coins: one sort in Hebrew and the religious title of the king (as High Priest), the other bore the name of the king in Greek and his secular title.

From the archaeology of the time, it becomes clear that Greek as well as Jewish influences were important. This shows an interesting light on the Chanukah story, which is after all a story about the Jewish protest against Hellenistic power in Judah. The Maccabees and their descendants lived during the Greek culture, as was the rest of the antique world, but they did not become Greeks.


from the December 1999 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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