Categories: Men in the Apocrypha
- John Hyrcanus was the son of Simon Maccabeus.
- Though a member of the Maccabean (Hasmonean) family, he took the regal name of Hyrcanus when he took the throne.
- Hyrcanus was a Greek name and seems to indicate that he embraced Hellenization at some level.
- Perhaps he realized that in order for Judea to survive, it had to maintain a presence among the various smaller states in a world that shared the Hellenistic culture.
- After John Hyrcanus, all the Hasmonean leaders adopted a Greek name.
- He came into power after one of his brothers-in-law (Ptolemy) killed Simon Maccabeus.
- John managed to escape, although two of his brothers were killed along with Simon.
- John went to Jerusalem where he was hailed as Simon’s successor by acclimation.
- Legend has it that he was not able to avenge his father’s death because Ptolemy held his mother captive. Any attacks upon Ptolemy resulted in tortures against John’s mother. Apparently, she encouraged him to attack anyway and to inflict the punishment Ptolemy deserved, but John backed off. After she died, Ptolemy fled the country.
- John reigned from 134-104 BCE. He was the fourth Hasmonean to rule.
- He was born in 175 BCE.
- His story is told in 1 and 2 Maccabees.
- When he ascended to the throne, he became both High Priest and king.
- Many Jews did not accept this because he was not of the line of David.
- Nonetheless, John Hyrcanus maintained a very energetic leadership style.
- Most scholars think he was a wise and just leader.
- He was also known to be a brave military commander.
- However, he had a rocky start.
- Shortly after he had assumed the throne, King Antiochus marched against him and besieged him in Jerusalem.
- John was sorely outnumbered and had few provisions.
- He sent all civilians out of the city.
- After the siege had dragged on for months, Antiochus got tired of waiting and was nervous about potential problems developing in the east, so he offered to negotiate with John.
- John put him off for seven days in order to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles. Then he had to basically agree to Antiochus’ terms. (There wasn’t much negotiating going on.)
- The Jews had to surrender their weapons and pay tribute for several towns that they had taken.
- John gave the Syrians hostages (including his own brother) in order to keep them out of Jerusalem.
- The Syrians imposed a heavy tax on John, some of which was paid out of the treasure in David’s sepulcher. (Some scholars say he “borrowed” 300 talents, others say it was 10 times that amount. [What’s most surprising is that such an amount of money would have remained untouched in David’s tomb!] ).
- When Antiochus was killed in battle in 130 BCE, his brother, Demetrius III, took the throne (for the second time), but this was not without controversy. Antiochus’ son wrested it away after a few months.
- John took advantage of the Syrian weaknesses to enlarge his territory – almost to the extent of David’s kingdom. He was also able to reclaim Jerusalem’s independence.
- In order to maintain this, he endeavored to form an alliance with the Romans by sending an envoy to Rome.
- Rome, then, confirmed his possession of various Syrian towns.
- With those towns firmly under his control, he marched against a few others. After successfully adding these territories, he turned his attention to the north, to the Samaritans (who had always been hostile to Judah).
- He took the city of Samaria and destroyed the Samaritan temple at Mount Gerizim. (The ancient city of Samaria would not be rebuilt until the time of Herod the Great in the first century BCE.)
- Unfortunately, this only served to deepen the resentments between the Jews and the Samaritans.
- After winning the war with the Samaritans, he moved south towards the Edomites.
- Flush with additional monies from David’s sepulcher, he hired mercenaries and handily won several more cities.
- Then he compelled the Edomites to convert to Judaism, which included the rite of circumcision. (This is the only known record of forcible conversions.)
- This would come back to haunt the Hasmoneans later on because Herod was an Edomite and was pivotal in destroying the Hasmonean family.
- Riding on the successes in the south, John tried to inflict more damage against the Samaritans, but couldn’t complete the task since he was needed in Jerusalem.
- He left his two sons (Aristobulus and Antigonus) in charge, but the war dragged on.
- Five months later, they would manage to take a major Samaritan fort.
- In some ways, his reign marked the high point of the Hasmonean Dynasty.
- His successes engendered Messianic rumors among his countrymen.
- But his fondness for Greek culture and Roman acclaim made others wary of him.
- He was the first Hasmonean to issue a coin in his own name. It was made of bronze and had the value of a mite (or lepton). On one side were various pictures; on the other was an inscription that read “Johanan the High Priest and Leader of the Community of Jews.”
- Most scholars think the Sadducees, Pharisees, and Essenes became distinct religious parties during his reign (though others think they had already developed long before John came into power).
- Scholars think John was a member of the Pharisaic party, though he had friends in the other parties.
- Some of his decisions angered the Pharisees: he eliminated Psalm 44 from the liturgy for being too anthropomorphic; he ordered that animals destined for sacrifice could not be previously wounded.
- The final blow came, however, when he removed all religious authority from the Sanhedrin.
- During a festival celebration, he invited leaders of both parties to attend and asked if they had any grievance against him.
- One Pharisee suggested he lay aside the office of High Priest and concentrate on being king.
- Several thought he had no right to the office since his mother had been held captive. (John checked out that last accusation and found it to be untrue.)
- He, then, ordered the Sanhedrin to punish those who had brought accusations against him.
- Soon thereafter, he joined the ranks of the Sadducees. (Documents from the Dead Sea Scrolls, however, suggest that they did not accept his leadership either. Many simply left Jerusalem while he was in power, referring to him as the “wicked priest.”)
- He punished the Pharisees by suspending their rules and making Sadducean interpretations of the law the new standard.
- The Sadducees were noted for promoting temple worship and for being aristocrats.
- They were members of the priestly class.
- When John died, his son Aristobulus I succeeded him as High Priest.
- His wife was the Queen regent.
- The son soon wanted it all and ordered his mother and remaining brothers to be imprisoned.
- This began the decline of the Hasmonean Dynasty. Within forty years, they would be deposed by the Roman Republic. No one would ever again approach the level of power or prestige that John had.