The Hasmonean Dynasty
Growth & Decay (135 - 63 BC)

by Al Maxey

(John Hyrcanus) (Aristobulus I) (Alexander Jannaeus) (Alexandra)
(Period of Struggle)

JOHN HYRCANUS (135 - 104 BC)

For the first several years of his rule, John Hyrcanus was little more than a pawn in the hands of Antiochus VII. With the death of Antiochus VII in 128 BC, however, the people of Judea again proclaimed -- and managed to achieve -- their independence. Thus began the famous Hasmonean Dynasty (although some scholars insist it actually began with John's father Simon).

During the years of his reign, John Hyrcanus concentrated on extending the borders of the new Jewish nation. He also believed in compelling the peoples he conquered to become proselytes to the Jewish religion. He would forcibly circumcise all non-Jews, and demand that the people of entire cities and regions comply with Mosaic Law. In each location where foreign peoples were subdued, he would leave scribes to oversee the religious affairs of the people. these scribes were descended from the Hasidim (the "pious ones" among the Jews who had inspired the Maccabean Revolt). The scribes were not really interested in political or military power, they simply sought to impose religious purity and strict observance of the Law. They were strict, uncompromising legalists. In time they would come to be known as the Pharisees.

Another group, also descended from the Hasidim, but who chose to live a somewhat monastic existence, were known as the Essenes. They lived a quiet, withdrawn life near the Dead Sea. It was this group of pious, committed Jews who would become responsible for producing the now famous Dead Sea Scrolls.

Those Jews who were more interested in political power, and who favored a more Hellenistic form of Judaism, came to be known as the Sadducees. They believed one could successfully compromise with the Greek teachings and way of life and still remain loyal to God. They objected to the strictness and legalistic mindset of the Pharisees, did not believe in the Oral Law, and believed that the control of the religious affairs of the people should reside only in the hands of the priests. It was this group which controlled the priesthood. Antagonism between these two factions of Judaism, the Pharisees and the Sadducees, would later become so great that it would result in the destruction of the Hasmonean Dynasty, and it would bring an end to Jewish freedom.

John Hyrcanus was a great lover of God's Law, and also a devout Pharisee. Although he did seek to force his religious beliefs on others, he was nevertheless a good man and a competent ruler. He did what he did because he honestly believed it would be to the benefit of the people he conquered and ruled. He truly felt that by forcing his religious beliefs upon them he was improving their prospects in life.

His children, however, were an entirely different matter! Being raised in a luxurious palace, they regarded themselves as aristocrats; as superior to other people. Their schooling was more in the Greek than the Hebrew areas of study, and they came to regard the Pharisees with outright loathing. Although their father was a devout Pharisee, they sided more with the Hellenistic Sadducees.

ARISTOBULUS I (104 - 103 BC)

Upon the death of John Hyrcanus, his wife became Queen, and one of his sons, Judah, became High Priest. But Judah, who preferred to use his Greek name, Aristobulus, soon decided being High Priest was not enough. He decided to take control of the nation. He cast his mother, the Queen, and all of his brothers into prison, and starved them to death. Only one of his brothers, Jonathan, managed to survive. Aristobulus, who was afflicted with mental illness, and who was also an alcoholic, died after reigning for only a year -- a fact which caused no grief among the Jewish people.


When Aristobulus died, his 37 year old widow, Alexandra, released from prison the only one of his brothers left alive -- Jonathan, who at this time was 22 years old. Alexandra and Jonathan were then married. Jonathan took the throne and gave himself the name Alexander Jannaeus. No less cruel than his brother Aristobulus, his first official act as king was to have the remainder of his family, which had been overlooked by Aristobulus, slaughtered without mercy.

Alexander was a Sadducee and a lover of the Greek way of life. History describes him as uncouth, a drunk, and guilty of all manner of scandalous behavior. The Jews who were still faithful to their God and to the Law absolutely hated this man. For the next 27 years the people of Israel lived without peace, for Alexander was constantly leading the people into war so as to extend the borders of his kingdom. In this he was quite successful, and the area of his kingdom extended to the largest point since the time of King David.

In the year 94 BC, at the Feast of Tabernacles, Alexander (who was also the High Priest, and thus was officiating in the Temple during this feast) decided to perform an act which would display his contempt for the Pharisees and their strict, legalistic observance of the letter of the Law. In front of all the people, during this holy occasion, he poured out a water offering at his own feet rather than upon the altar of God as prescribed by Law. The people in the Temple were outraged, and began throwing fruit at Alexander. Alexander, in turn, ordered his troops to attack the worshippers, and hundreds were slaughtered in the Temple. As a result of this atrocity against God and the people, civil war broke out in the land. The Pharisees raised an army of rebels, and for the next six years fought against Alexander and his Sadducean forces. At the end of the six years the Pharisees and the rebels managed to defeat Alexander and the Sadducees. It was at this point, however, that the Pharisees made a serious error in judgment. Believing that the defeated Alexander and his followers had been punished enough, and that they had probably "learned their lesson," they allowed him to retake the throne as King.

Alexander immediately ordered a lavish banquet to be held, and invited all the Pharisees to attend. It was to be in their honor! Over 800 leading Pharisees and their families assembled to enjoy the feast. Alexander then ordered his soldiers to take them all captive, and while he and his concubines reclined on couches and got drunk he had all 800 Pharisees crucified in front of him. The wives and children of these men were then slaughtered in their presence as they hung dying on their crosses. When news of this horrid event reached the ears of the faithful Jews in the land, many fled to the wilderness and lived in caves, or joined the monastic Essene communities.

In 76 BC Alexander Jannaeus died, some accounts say as the result of his heavy drinking. According to tradition, he is said to have repented of his sins on his deathbed, and supposedly instructed his wife, Alexandra, to dismiss all of his Sadducean advisors and to reign as Queen with the aid of the Pharisees.

ALEXANDRA (76 - 67 BC)

At the death of her husband, Salome Alexandra, who was 64 years old, ascended to the throne as Queen of the people of Israel. Since she was a woman, and could not serve as High Priest, she appointed her son, Hyrcanus II (who was slightly mentally retarded), to serve as High Priest. Her other son, Aristobulus II, was appointed to be Commander-in-Chief of the military.

The reign of Alexandra is characterized by historians as being extremely pro-Pharisee, possibly as a result of the fact that her brother, Simeon ben Shetah, was a leader of the Pharisees. Under her rule the Pharisees severely persecuted the Sadducees.

Alexandra's two sons did not get along well with one another. John Hyrcanus II was a Pharisee, and Aristobulus II sided more with the Sadducean point of view. Thus, with the death of Queen Alexandra, in 67 BC, a struggle for control of the land broke out between the two brothers --- and between the two Jewish parties which backed them.


At the death of Queen Alexandra, Hyrcanus II, who had been serving as High Priest, ascended the throne as King. His brother, Aristobulus II, immediately led an army of Sadducees against the city of Jerusalem in an effort to take the throne by force. Hyrcanus II and the Pharisees were caught by surprise and gave up without a fight. Aristobulus II then became both King and High Priest over the people of Israel.

The two brothers decided to make a vow of "eternal friendship" with one another, and this vow was then sealed with the marriage of Alexander (the eldest son of Aristobulus II) to his cousin Alexandra (the only daughter of Hyrcanus II). This "eternal friendship" was short-lived, however, and hostilities soon broke out between the two brothers. Hyrcanus was eventually forced to flee for his life to the land of the Arabs. While there, he encountered a man by the name of Antipater, who had been made Governor of Edom by Alexander Jannaeus.

Antipater saw in this situation an opportunity to perhaps fulfill his own dream of gaining power in Judea. He convinced Hyrcanus II that he needed to return to Judea and reclaim his throne. He also convinced the Arabs to send a large army with Hyrcanus II in order to help him achieve this goal. When Hyrcanus II and his army of Arabs invaded Palestine and laid siege to Jerusalem, Aristobulus II was completely caught by surprise. He barricaded himself inside the walls of the city of Jerusalem, and both sides prepared for a long, drawn out siege of the city.

News of the struggle between these two brothers eventually reached the ears of the Romans, who were intrigued by the situation. General Pompey was sent by the Romans to the area to try and straighten out the problem. When he arrived in Jerusalem, both sides presented their case to him, each hoping the general and his vast Roman army would come to their aid.

Pompey ruled in favor of Hyrcanus II, and declared him the rightful heir to the throne. Aristobulus II, however, refused to submit to this decision. Therefore, Pompey and Hyrcanus II, and their combined armies of Arabs and Romans, attacked the city of Jerusalem. The battle lasted three months before the city finally fell. The year was 63 BC. Hyrcanus II was reinstated as High Priest, and the ambitious Antipater was made Minister of the land of Judea. The Romans declared the Hasmonean Dynasty to be terminated, and Palestine at this point became the newest addition to the ever expanding and increasingly powerful Roman Empire.

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