The meaning of Asmoneans in the Bible
(From International Standard Bible Encyclopedia)
as-mo-ne'-ans: A remarkable priestly family of Modin, in Judea, also called Hasmoneans or Maccabees. They belonged to that portion of the Jewish nation which under all trials and temptations remained loyal to Yahweh, even when the national life and religion seemed at their lowest ebb, and they succeeded, for a while at least, in restoring the name and fame of Israel. All in all they were an extremely warlike family. But the entire Asmonean history affords abundant proof of the bitter partisanships which, even more than the persecutions of their enemies, sapped the national strength and divided the nation into bitterly hostile factions. The Asmoneans never, in all their history, or at any given period in it, had a united people behind their backs. They had to fight disloyalty at home, as well as deadly enmity abroad. A considerable portion of the people was unable to withstand the paganizing influence of the Macedonian and Syrian periods, and in this direction the thousands of Hebrew soldiers, who fought under the Greek banners, must have exerted an inestimable influence. The Asmonean struggle is therefore, in all its phases, a three-sided one, and it makes the ascendancy of the family all the more remarkable. The sources of our knowledge of this period are mainly found in the Books of the Macc, in the Josephus, Antiquities and Josephus, Jewish Wars of Josephus, and in occasional references of Strabo, Livy and other classic historians. The contents of Josephus, Antiquities plainly prove that Josephus used the Books of the Macc as far as possible, but that besides he was possessed of sources of information now wholly lost. The name "Asmonean" is derived from the Hebrew Chashman, "wealthy." Chashman was a priest of the family Joarib (Ant., XII, vi, 1; 1 Macc 2:1; I Chronicles 24:7). The name "Maccabee," from the surname of Judas, the son of Mattathias, may be derived from the Hebrew maqqdbhah, "a hammer"; makhbi, "an extinguisher"; or from the first letters of the Hebrew sentence, Mi Khamokhah Ba-'elim YHWH? "Who among the gods, O Lord, can be likened unto thee," inscribed on the Maccabean banner in the word Makhbiy.
1. The Asmonean Revolt:
Antiochus Epiphanes returned in 169 BC from the Egyptian wars, the fruits of which had been wrested from him by the Roman power, which a year later, in his fourth war, in the person of Pompilius Laenas, was to order him peremptorily to leave Egypt once and for all time. Thus his four campaigns against his hereditary foe were made utterly barren. Grave suspicions had been aroused in the king's heart against the Jews, and when their wrangling about the high-priesthood afforded him an opportunity, he resolved forever to crush the power of Judaism and to wipe out its detested religion. Thus Apollonius (Josephus tells us, the king himself, BJ, V, ix, 4) in 168 BC appeared before Jerusalem, devastated the city, defiled the temple by the sacrifice of swine on the altar of burnt offering, destroyed all the holy writings that could be obtained, sold numberless Jews and their families into slavery, forbade circumcision on pain of death and inaugurated the dark period spoken of by Dan. (Daniel 9:27; Daniel 11:31). Thus Antiochus marked his name in blood and tears on the pages of Jewish history. Against this cruel tyranny and this attempt to root out the religion of Israel and their ancient faith, the Maccabean family revolted and thus became the leaders in a desperate struggle for Jewish independence. How far they succeeded in these efforts the following sketch will show.
Mattathias was a priest of the house of Joarib, at the time of the breaking out of the revolt most likely a refugee from Jerusalem, living at Modin, West of the city, in the highlands of Judea, where he may have owned an estate. When compulsion was tried by the Syrians to make him sacrifice to idols, he not only refused to obey, but slew a Jew, who came forward to the altar, as well as Apelles, the Syrian commander and a portion of his guard (Ant., XII, vi, 2). Overthrowing heathen altars as he went, he was followed into the wilderness by large bands of loyal Jews. And when the refusal to fight on the Sabbath day had led to the slaughter of a thousand of his followers, he gave liberty to the Jews to give battle on that day. In 167 BC, soon after the beginning of the conflict, he sank under the unequal task, leaving the completion of the work to his five sons, John (Gaddis), Simon (Matthes), Judas (Maccabaeus), Eleazar (Auran) and Jonathan (Apphes). On his deathbed he appointed Simon as the counselor and Judas as the military leader of the movement (Ant., XII, vi, 1). These two with Jonathan were to carry the work to completion.
3. Judas Maccabeus, 166-160 BC:
Judas proved himself full worthy of his father's foresight and trust. His military talent was marvelous, his cunning baffling, his courage leonine, his swiftness that of the eagle. He reminds one strongly of Joshua, the ancient military genius of Israel. Nearly all his battles were fought against impossible odds and his victories inspired the Syrians with awe. In sudden night attacks he surprised the Syrian generals, Apollonius and Seron (1 Macc 3:10,13), and scattered their armies. Antiochus, ready to chastise the countries eastward, who appeared on the point of rebellion, entrusted the conduct of the Judean war to Lysias, his kinsman and favorite, who was charged to wipe Israel and its hated religion off the face of the earth. The latter entrusted the actual conduct of hostilities to a great and well-equipped army, under Ptolemeus, Nicanor and Gorgias. This army was encamped at Emmaus, South of Modin, while Judas lay with his small force a little to the Southeast. When Gorgias attempted to surprise him by night, Judas himself fell like an avalanche on the rest of the Syrian army and crushed it, then met and defeated the returning Gorgias and gained an immense booty. Equally successful in the campaign of 165 BC Judas captured Jerusalem and purified and rededicated the temple, just five years after its defilement. Thus the Jewish "Festival of Lights" came into existence. The next year was spent in the reduction of Idumaea, the Jordan territory, the Ammonites, and several important strongholds of the enemy, whilst Simon marched northward and brought back the Jewish captives from Galilee and the sources of the Jordan.
Meanwhile Antiochus had died in the eastern campaign and his death inaugurated the collapse of the Syrian empire. Philip was appointed guardian of the infant king, while his uncle Demetrius sought to dethrone him by the aid of the Romans. The siege of the stronghold of Jerusalem, still in the hands of the Syrians, by the Maccabees, led Philip to make a heroic effort to crush Judas and his growing power, and he swiftly marched upon Judea with a large and well-equipped army. The odds were too strong for Judas, his band was frightened by the Syrian war-elephants and in the battle of Bethzacharias the Maccabees were defeated and Eleazar, the youngest brother, was killed. Jerusalem was taken by the Syrians, the temple wall broken down and only the threatening danger of an attack from the king's southern foes saved the Maccabean cause. Lysias retreated but left a strong garrison in Jerusalem. All seemed lost. Alcimus, leader of the disloyal Jews and a mortal enemy of Judas, was made high priest and he prayed Demetrius, who had captured the Syrian throne, to come to his aid against the Maccabees in 162 BC. Bacchides was sent with a strong force and sought in vain to obtain possession of the person of Judas by treachery. He made havoc of the Jews, by killing friend and foe alike, and returned to the East to be succeeded by Nicanor, who also failed to dispose of Judas by treachery. In the ensuing battle at Capharsalama he was defeated and compelled to fall back on Jerusalem and thence on Beth-horon, where Judas attacked, again defeated and killed him. In this hour of hope and fear Judas was led to seek a Roman alliance whose consummation he never saw. From that day his fortune changed. A new Syrian army under Bacchides and the false priest Alcimus approached Jerusalem. Judas gave them battle at Elasa, in April, 161 BC. With only 3,000 men he engaged the Syrian forces. He succeeded in defeating the left wing of the Syrians under Bacchides, but was in turn surrounded and defeated by the right wing. All hope of escape being cut off, Judas surrounded himself with his best warriors and fell at last surrounded by heaps of slain foes. Strange to say the Syrians surrendered his body to Simon and Jonathan his brother, who buried him by his father's side at Modin.
4. Jonathan, 160-143 BC:
The death of Judas for the moment paralyzed the revolutionary movement, while it increased the determination of the Syrians. All previous privileges were revoked, and the Maccabean sympathizers were rigorously persecuted. But all this served only to bind the party closer together, and the chief command was conferred on Jonathan, the youngest brother, as daring as, and perhaps more crafty than, Judas. He plunged into the wilderness, relieved himself of the burden of the women and children, and when the latter under the care of John, his brother, were exterminated by the Amri, he took bloody vengeance on them. Surprised by Bacchides, the Syrian general, he inflicted great losses on the latter and escaped across the Jordan. The death of the traitor Alcimus, in 160 BC, for a while relieved the situation and the strength of the Maccabeans rapidly grew. A second campaign of Bacchides proved fruitless against the daring and cunning of Jonathan and Simon, and they succeeded in making peace with the Syrians (Ant., XIII, i, 5, 6), but the citadel of Jerusalem and other strongholds remained in the hands of the enemy. The events of the year 153 BC however changed the entire aspect of affairs. Demetrius saw his throne menaced by Alexander Balas, a Roman favorite. Trying to secure the aid of the Maccabees, he greatly extended the former concessions, and when Balas outstripped him in generosity and appointed Jonathan high priest with practically royal powers, the Maccabees craftily played out the one against the other. Since the death of Alcimus the high-priesthood had now been vacant for seven years (Ant., XIII, ii, 3); for which reason the appointment was exceedingly gratifying to the Jews. In his extremity, Demetrius offered the practical equivalent of independence, but the Maccabees had learned the value of these promises by bitter experience. The shrewdness of Jonathan led him to turn a cold shoulder to all the fine promises of Demetrius and to entrust his fortunes to Balas, and not in vain, for the former died in battle with the latter (Ant., XIII, ii, 4). Jonathan excelled all his brothers in craft and ever embraced the most promising side, as is evident from his relations with Ptolemy Philometer, Balas and Demetrius. When the latter's cause was embraced in 148 BC by Apollonius, governor of Syria, Jonathan revealed the true Maccabean military genius, by gaining a signal victory over him. Balas now gave the long-coveted permission to break down the old Syrian tower at Jerusalem, which for so long had been a thorn in the sides of the Maccabeans. Alas, during the siege both Balas and Philometer died and Demetrius breathed vengeance against Jonathan. But the latter dexterously won over the king by large presents (Ant., XIII, iv, 9) and accepted the restricted liberties offered. Profiting however by the endless cabals of the Syrian court, he soon sided with Tryphon, the new claimant, and with the aid of his brother Simon extended the Maccabean power over nearly all Palestine. In the next Syrian war he gained an almost miraculous victory over the enemy (Ant., XIII, v, 7; 1 Macc 11:67 ff.). Tired of the endless struggle and longing for a strong arm to lean on, like Judas, he sought a renewal of the Roman alliance, but never saw its realization. Tryphon, who feared him, treacherously made him prisoner at Ptolemais; all his followers were immediately killed and he himself subsequently executed at Basca in Coele-Syria (Ant., XIII, vi, 2, 6).
5. Simon, 143-135 BC:
Thus again the Maccabees faced a great crisis. But Simon, the sole survivor of the sons of Mattathias, now stepped in the breach, foiled all the treacherous plans of Tryphon, met strategy with strategy, renewed the alliance with Demetrius and obtained from him the high-priesthood. All the old privileges were renewed, the alliance with Tryphon was condoned by the king, and the Maccabees resolved to count this era as the beginning of their true freedom (1 Macc 13:41). The hated stronghold of Gazara fell and last of all the citadel of Jerusalem was reduced, and even the hill, on which it had stood, was completely leveled in the following three years (Ant., XIII, vi, 7). Simon, favored by the decadence of the Syrian power, brought the rule of the Maccabeans to the zenith of its glory. The only considerable architectural work undertaken in the whole period was the magnificent tomb of the Asmoneans at Modin, built by Simon, which was visible even from the Mediterranean. He was the first of the Maccabees to strike his own coinage, maintained himself, with the aid of his sons, John and Judas, against the new Syrian pretender, Antiochus Sidetes, 139 BC, but fell at last a victim to the treachery of his own son-in-law, Ptolemeus (Ptolemy, 1 Macc 16:11) at a banquet prepared for him (135 BC). His wife and sons, Mattathias and Judas, were made captives at the same time (Ant., XIII, vii, 4; BJ, I, ii, 3).
6. John Hyrcanus, 135-105 BC:
John succeeded his father both as prince and high priest, and his long reign displayed all the characteristics of the true Maccabees. The older sources here are lost sight of, and nearly all we know is derived from Josephus. The reign of John Hyrcanus started amid great difficulties. Hardly was Ptolemeus disposed of before Antiochus appeared before Jerusalem with a strong army and closely invested it. In a truce with the king, Hyrcanus obtained as favorable conditions as possible, paid a ransom and had to permit the razing of the city wall. To obtain money he opened and spoiled the tomb of David (Ant., XIII, viii, 4) and thus obtained a standing army for the defense of the country. With this army he accompanied the king to the Parthian war, in which Antiochus was killed. Hyrcanus now threw off the Syrian yoke and began a war of conquest. In a quick campaign he conquered the trans-Jordanic territory, destroyed Samaria and its temple and devastated the land of Idumaea, whose people were now embodied in the Jewish commonwealth by an enforced circumcision (Ant., XIII, ix, 1). By an embassy, the third in the Asmonean history, he made an alliance with Rome. Meanwhile a strong partisan spirit had been aroused against him at home, on account of his leaving the party of the Pharisees, to affiliate himself with that of the Sadducees, their bitter enemies. Thus the men who had been the very core of the Maccabean revolt from the beginning now raised a sedition against him. The hagiocratic view of Jewish life, from the start, had been the essence of the Asmonean movement and, as the years rolled on, the chasm between the two great parties in Israel grew ever wider. The break with the Pharisees seemed like a break with all Asmonean antecedents. The core of the trouble lay in the double power of Hyrcanus, who, against the Pharisaic doctrine, combined in one person both the royal and priestly dignities. And as the Pharisees grew in strength they also grew in reverence for the traditions of the fathers, whilst the Sadducees paid attention only to the written testimony, and besides were very liberal in their views in general. Only the immense popularity of Hyrcanus enabled him to weather this storm. After a reign of nearly three decades he died in peace, envied for three things—the possession of the supreme power in Israel, the possession of the high-priesthood and the gift of prophecy (Ant., XIII, x, 7).
7. A Dying House, 105-37 BC:
With John Hyrcanus the glory of the Maccabean house passed away. What remains is only the sad tale of outward and inward decay. The period covered is only six or seven decades. Knowing his family, Hyrcanus had nominated his wife to the supreme power, while Aristobulus, his oldest son, was to take the high-priesthood. But the latter was no sooner installed in this office than he threw off the mask, assumed the royal title, imprisoned and starved to death his mother and incarcerated his three youngest brothers, leaving at liberty only Antigonus, whom he soon after caused to be murdered in a frenzy of jealousy of power (Ant., XIII, xi, 1,2,3). Shortly after this he died of an intestinal disease, little lamented by his people. His childless widow elevated the oldest of the surviving sons of Hyrcanus, Janneus Alexander, to the throne and married him. This man began his reign with the murder of one of his remaining brothers and, following the example of his father, affiliated himself with the party of the Sadducees. Involved in bitter wars, which arose on every hand, he proved that the old military genius of the Maccabees had not wholly perished. When the Pharisees aroused a widespread sedition against him, he crushed the movement in a torrent of blood (Ant., XIII, xiv, 2). In the internecine war that followed, he killed some 50,000 of his own people and was practically an exile from his own city and government. Ruling only by brute force, he made the last years of his reign dark and gloomy. Josephus touches but lightly on the bitter events of this sedition, on both sides marked with great barbarity (Ant., XIII, xiv, 2). Though suffering from an incurable form of quartan fever, he waged war to the last and died during the siege of Ragaba. On his deathbed he advised his queen to cast herself upon the mercy of the Pharisees: a wise counsel as the event proved, for she was permitted to retain the crown and to place her son Hyrcanus in the high-priestly office. Thus she ruled for nine years (78-69 BC). On her death, her son Aristobulus, whom she had kept from public affairs and who espoused the cause of the Sadducees, aspired to the crown. Another internecine war resulted, in which Aristobulus was victorious. Hyrcanus agreed, for a large financial consideration, to leave public affairs entirely alone. The Herodian family, which owed everything to the Maccabees (Ant., XIV, i, 3), now appears on the scene. Antipater, a friend of Hyrcanus, induced him to escape to Aretas, king of Arabia, at Petra, with whom he made an alliance. In the ensuing war, Aristobulus was conquered, shut up in Jerusalem and compelled to invoke the aid of the Romans, with whose assistance the Arabs were repelled (Ant., XIV, ii, 3). In this same year Pompey came to Damascus, where he found himself between three fires, for not only the two brothers, but a large hagiocratic party of Pharisees as well clamored for a hearing. This last party refused both Aristobulus and Hyrcanus as rulers. Through the machinations of Antipater, Pompey sided with Hyrcanus, upon which Aristobulus prepared for war. Pompey promptly marched on Jerusalem and the irresolute Aristobulus met him with promises of subjection and presents. When his followers however refused to carry out these promises, Aristobulus was imprisoned and Pompey at once invested Jerusalem, which was taken by assault on the passover of 63 BC, after a siege of three months. Pompey entered the holiest place of the temple, thus forever estranging the Pharisaic party from Rome. But he did not spoil the temple, and appointed Hyrcanus high priest. This event marks the collapse of the Maccabean power. What follows are only the throes of death. Aristobulus, and his two sons, Alexander and Antigonus, were taken to Rome as prisoners. On the way Alexander escaped and renewed the fruitless struggle in Judea, only to be at once crushed by the Roman general Gabinius. A little later both Aristobulus and Antigonus also escaped. Returning to the homeland, the former, like his son, fought a brief and valiant but fruitless campaign and was returned captive to Rome, where he died by poison, on the eve of beginning service under the Roman standards, 49 BC. Alexander was executed at Antioch by Pompey. Of all the Maccabean princes thus only Antigonus and Hyrcanus remained. The Idumean power was now about to supplant the Maccabean. Herod the son of Antipater sided, as his father had done, with Hyrcanus against Antigonus. The factional disturbances at Rome and throughout the empire permitted of the enactment of the last stage of the Asmonean drama, in the final contest of Hyrcanus and Antigonus. Herod was in Judea with Hyrcanus, when Antigonus with the Parthian hordes overran the country, caused Herod precipitately to evacuate Palestine, and after capturing Jerusalem in 40 BC, sent his uncle Hyrcanus as a captive to the East, after having cropped off his ears, to incapacitate him forever for the high-priestly office (Ant., XIV, xiii, 10). Herod now obtained the aid of the Romans and permission to reconquer Judea. In a furious campaign, marked by the most shocking barbarities, he occupied the greater part of the country, and finally in 37 BC succeeded in taking Jerusalem. Antigonus surrendered but was executed at Antioch by Antony, at the instigation of Herod (Ant., XIV, xvi, 4). The fate of the remnants of the Maccabean stem, at the hands of Herod, may be found by consulting the article under MACCABEES.
Henry E. Dosker
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