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Hasmonian Jesuralem: a Jewish city in a hellenistic orbit.

By the hasmonean period (CA. 160-63 B.C.E.), Jerusalem had been under Jewish hegemony for almost one thousand years. The city had come to be regarded, by Jew and non-Jew alike, as a quintessentially Jewish city. Its population was overwhelmingly Jewish, as were its leadership, calendar, and public institutions, first and foremost of which was the Temple.

In the course of the First and Second Temple periods, Jerusalem had evolved into the central, sacred site of the Jewish people. This status was not created overnight, but resulted from an ongoing process spanning many centuries. Beginning with David's decision to conquer the city and transform it into his political and religious capital, it culminated in Josiah's decision to centralize Jewish sacrificial cult in the city. Whereas beforehand it had been permissible to offer sacrifices to the God of Israel anywhere in the country, now only those sacrifices brought to the Jerusalem Temple were recognized as legitimate and sanctioned.

The centrality of the city became even more pronounced in the ensuing Second Temple period. Chronicles emphasizes God's choice of Jerusalem by relating that a fire descended from heaven onto the altar David built there (1 Chronicles 21:26; cf. 2 Samuel 24:25) and by explicitly identifying Moriah of the 'Aqedah story with the Temple Mount (2 Chronicles 3:1). Cyrus's recognition of the city by virtue of its holy Temple was to be repeated later on by Hellenistic and Roman conquerors. Antiochus III's edict on behalf of Jerusalem upon its capture ca. 200 B.C.E. is clear testimony to this status (Antiquities 12, 138-144). Moreover, the transformation of the city into the capital of a substantial political kingdom, first in the days of the Hasmoneans and later under Herod, further imbued Jerusalem with a status and importance heretofore unmatched.

Parallel to this enhanced political status, Jerusalem also enjoyed a heightened religious standing. Isaiah, as noted, had already envisioned the city as a spiritual focus for all nations (2:1-4), and in the aftermath of the destruction Ezekiel describes the city as the center of the world and its name as "the Lord is there" (5:5, 48:35), while 2 Chronicles refers to the Lord as "the God of Jerusalem" (32:19). Deutero-Isaiah (48:2, 52:1) and Nehemiah (11:1) extend the realm of holiness beyond the Temple (Isaiah 27:13; Jeremiah 31:22) to embrace all of Jerusalem, while Zechariah takes this one step further and includes all of Judaea as well (2:14-17). Centuries later, these ideas were elaborated in the Letter of Aristeas (83), Jubilees (8:17-19), as well as by Josephus (War 3, 52) and Philo (Embassy 37, 281). During the Second Temple period, the twin concept of eschatological and heavenly Jerusalem made its appearance (Enoch 85-90) and became even more prominent in the generation following the destruction of the Second Temple (4 Ezra; 2 Baruch; cf. also Revelations 21-22; Hebrews 12).

The Jewish Dimension of Second Temple Jerusalem

The Second Temple period witnessed continued efforts at defining Jerusalem as an essentially Jewish city by emphasizing its uniqueness and particularity. Ezra and Nehemiah's attempts to distinguish the city and its population from the surrounding world was a religious policy that reflected Judaea's geographic and political isolation; this policy would be continued by various leaders and groups down to the end of the Second Temple era. We have the testimonies of a number of Greek writers from the early Hellenistic period for the relative success of this policy. Hecataeus of Abdera, for instance, described the uniqueness of Jerusalem, its Temple, and people, as well as the success of Jewish society in preserving its ancestral traditions. Ben Sira advocates a similar posture, and the second-century Hasidim in the time of Judah Maccabee seem to have followed an agenda with an intensive Jewish focus.(1)

Moreover, during these three centuries, between Ezra and Nehemiah on the one hand and the Hasmoneans on the other, a number of practices and literary works evolved that clearly expressed this particularistic social and religious thrust. This proclivity was expressed early on in a variety of ways, from banning of foreign merchants from the city on the Sabbath, to emphasizing the use of Hebrew, to driving out foreign wives.(2) The division of the Jewish population into priestly mishmarot and lay ma'amadot, with semi-annual obligations in the Temple, also seems to have evolved at this time, as did a series of halakhic requirements, such as bringing new produce to Jerusalem or spending the "second tithe" in the city four times every seven years.(3) The emergence of apocalyptic literature in the third century is a further expression of Jewish particularism, as was the newly established centrality of the Torah in Jewish religious life, a centrality which found expression in a regular communal-reading framework which evolved at some point during this period.(4)

This introversive focus on the Jewish body polity was given a dramatic boost in the mid-second century, with the ascendance of the Hasmoneans and the establishment of a sovereign state boasting ambitious territorial designs. Among the changes effected, the following can be mentioned:

(1) The Hasmoneans radically altered the geographical concept of Eretz-Israel to include now almost all of the territory west of the Jordan River and large tracts to its east; for the 400-or-so years beforehand, the area included only the region around Jerusalem, which was more or less contiguous with the Persian administrative region, Yehud.

(2) With the successful conquests came the ideology that the Jews under Hasmonean hegemony were, in fact, reclaiming their ancestral homeland and were obliged to eliminate all pagan worship. This led to the destruction of pagan shrines and, at times, to the death or exile of native populations (e.g., 1 Maccabees 13:43-53). It was at this time that the institution of conversion first made its appearance in a Jewish context; the Hasmoneans forced conversion upon the Idumeans in the south and the Itureans in the north.(5)

(3) This period witnessed an enhanced prominence of the Temple in Jewish life. The Hasmoneans came to power as defenders of the Temple and its purity from foreign cults, and this achievement played a central role in their court propaganda, as indicated by 2 Maccabees and the letters prefacing that book. Brief references in 1 Maccabees and Josephus indicate that each and every Hasmonean ruler devoted energy and monies to improving and strengthening the Temple and its surroundings.

(4) With the campaigns to ban idolatry and reemphasize the Temple's prominence came a greater emphasis on matters of ritual purity within Jewish society. This new focus found expression in many of the halakhic decisions ascribed to the early Pharisees and the Qumran community. In the material culture, this emphasis is evident in the development and use of ritual baths (miqva'ot), along with the extensive use of stone utensils that were considered unsusceptible to impurity. This tendency is further emphasized by the almost exclusive use of local (as against imported) ware in this era, and by the much more frequent recourse to using the ashes of the red heifer from this time forward. According to the Mishnah, the ashes of the red heifer were intended for purification from corpse impurity; this rare sacrifice was reportedly offered only five times (another tradition states seven times) from the Hasmonean period onward, i.e., in the last two hundred years of the Second Temple period. In the previous millennium, it is noted that this sacrifice was made only twice (Mishnah Parah 3, 5).

(5) Jewish art underwent a radical change at this time and was now characterized by the studious avoidance of any figural representation, human or animal. Up to this point such depictions were well known in Jewish circles, from the cherubs over the holy ark and the lions of Solomon's throne to the figurines found in Israelite settlements and the human and animal images on Yehud coins from Persian and Hellenistic Jerusalem. However, commencing with the Hasmoneans and continuing for a period of some 300 years, no human or animal representations were to be found in Judaea. Exceptions to this rule exist, but they are few and far between.(6)

(6) Finally the emergence of Jewish sects - Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes (as well as the Qumran sect) - each with its own particular religious agenda, is a further indication of a more concerted. Jewish emphasis at this time, at least within certain circles.

The Hellenistic Dimension of Hasmonean Jerusalem

Thus, understanding the Jewish component of Second Temple Jerusalem is necessary, but not sufficient, to an understanding of the city and its workings. Hellenistic culture was another force at work in the wake of, and even before, Alexander's conquests of the East, and it was to shape the city in no less profound ways than the Jewish dimension. The cultural message of the Hellenistic world was radically different from the Jerusalem of Ezra and Nehemiah. Alexander had married a Persian princess and compelled much of his army to wed Persian women. His message here was loud and clear: isolation, insulation, and estrangement were to be rejected; a meeting of cultures, symbiosis, synthesis, and even syncretism were the order of the day. This, of course, is a far cry from the coercive mass-divorce from non-Jewish spouses imposed by Ezra and Nehemiah on part of the Jerusalem population.

Moreover, what had been of peripheral significance before Alexander became much more central after his conquest; major changes in the Hellenistic period altered the face of the city dramatically. The impact of Hellenism on the Near East in general, and on Judaea and Jerusalem in particular, was considerable. From almost the very beginning of this era, we find signs of Jerusalem's participation in the life of the wider Hellenistic world, as in its diplomatic relations with Sparta that developed in the third and second centuries B.C.E., or in its use of imported Rhodian wine, as attested by the discovery of hundreds of stamped amphora handles dating from the mid-third to mid-second centuries B.C.E. Several books written or edited in the third century B.C.E., e.g., Ecclesiastes (Qohelet) and the Song of Songs, appear to reflect either Hellenistic genres (in the case of the latter) or the questioning of traditional Jewish values resulting from the impact of Hellenistic ideas (in the case of the former). In addition, a number of books appear to have been written in opposition to certain hellenizing tendencies, as, for example, Ben Sira and Jubilees, although even these exhibit a certain measure of outside influence.(7)

The piece de resistance of Judaean Hellenization, and the most dramatic development of all, occurred in 175 B.C.E., when the high priest Jason converted Jerusalem into a Greek polis replete with gymnasium and ephebium (2 Maccabees 4). Whether this step represents the culmination of a 150-year process of Hellenization within Jerusalem in general, or whether it was the initiative of only a small coterie of Jerusalem priests, with no wider ramifications, has been debated for decades.(8) The answer most probably lies somewhere between these two polar positions. In any event, Jason's move constituted a bold step in the city's adaptation to the wider world, a process that would be interrupted - albeit only temporarily - by the persecutions of Antiochus IV and the resultant Maccabean revolt.

A further stage in the Hellenization process took place in the ensuing period. The motivation of the Hasmonean revolt has often been misunderstood. It has been contended that this revolt came in protest to the process and progress of Hellenization in Judaea, but this is patently not the case. The Maccabees revolted in response to the persecutions imposed by the king; this was a most exceptional policy for an enlightened Hellenistic king. It seems to have been an extreme step that may have been motivated by the most unusual of circumstances. Both E. Bickerman and M. Hengel have claimed that this was indeed the case, and that extreme Jewish hellenizers were actually the ones who instigated the persecution.(9) Moreover, the Hasmoneans themselves quickly adopted Hellenistic mores; they instituted holidays celebrating military victories (Nicanor Day on the 13th of Adar), as did the Greeks; they signed treaties with Rome and forged close alliances with the upper strata of Jerusalem society, whose hellenized proclivities - as those of the Hasmoneans themselves (see below) - are attested by names such as Alexander, Diodorus, Apollonius, Eupolemus, Numenius, Antiochus, Jason, Antipater, and Aeneas.(10)

In the subsequent period of Hasmonean rule (141-63 B.C.E.), instances of Hellenization within Jerusalem became much more commonplace. The document in 1 Maccabees 14 recording the public appointment of Simon as ethnarch, high priest, and strategos is written in a style strikingly reminiscent of documents from the Hellenistic world. The structure of this declaration, the extensive arguments invoked to justify and explain such appointments, the use of purple robes and gold ornaments by the Hasmonean ruler, the dating of an era commencing with Simon's appointment, and, finally, recording the text of this document on bronze tablets and placing them in a prominent place in the Temple area and in the (Temple?) treasury are all elements borrowed directly from well-known Hellenistic practice.

Beginning with the second generation, the Hasmoneans began adopting Greek names in addition to their Hebrew ones: John Hyrcanus I (134-104 B.C.E.), Aristobulus I (104-103 B.C.E.), Alexander Jannaeus (103-76 B.C.E.), Salome Alexandra (76-67 B.C.E.), Aristobulus II (67-63 B.C.E.), Hyrcanus II (63-40 B.E.E.), and, finally, Antigonus (40-37 B.C.E.). Hellenization in the Hasmonean court is likewise reflected by the hiring of foreign mercenaries and, more poignantly, by the assumption of royalty by Aristobulus and Alexander Jannaeus. Even more telling in this regard is the sole rule of a queen, as was the case with Salome Alexandra. This smooth and unchallenged succession was very likely facilitated by contemporary Ptolemaic practice.

Several burial monuments and graves discovered in Hasmonean Jerusalem similarly reflect a significant appropriation of Hellenistic forms. The two principal remains of such funerary monuments, the priestly B'nei Hezir tomb from the Qidron Valley in the eastern part of the city, and Jason's tomb (also probably belonging to a priestly family) in the west, in what is known today as the Rehavia neighborhood, were both built in typical Hellenistic fashion - the former with its facade in classic Doric style (columns, pilasters, and frieze), the latter with its single Doric column and pyramid-type monument. Both tombs feature kukhim (or loculi - rectangular niches cut perpendicularly in the wall for primary burials), a burial arrangement that reached Judaea from Alexandria and Palestine's southern coastal region (i.e., Marisa). The tomb of Jason features scenes of merchant and war ships, a gazelle, as well as a series of menorah graffiti (the latter depiction appearing in Jewish art for the first time). Both of these tombs feature a variety of inscriptions, one in Hebrew in the B'nei Hezir tomb, and Greek and Aramaic ones in Jason's tomb.(11)

The coins minted by the Hasmoneans are a fascinating example of cultural synthesis. Hellenistic and Jewish traditions meet on these tiny bronze coins. As with the earlier mintage, the issuance of coins for economic and political purposes reflects the contemporary practice of both established kingdoms, as well as of newly established political entities seeking recognition and legitimacy. While only inscriptions in ancient Hebrew script (the First Temple precursor of the Aramaic square script introduced into Jewish society in the Persian period) appear on the coinage of Hyrcanus I and Aristobulus I, Greek inscriptions appear regularly in the time of Alexander Jannaeus. These inscriptions bear the Greek name of the ruler as well as his Greek title, i.e., [Greek Text Omitted] (= king); the Hebrew inscriptions, by contrast, bear the ruler's Hebrew name (Yohanan, Judah, Jonathan, Mattathias) as well as the title "high priest" or "king." On occasion, these bilingual inscriptions appear on either side of the same coin.(12)

The Hasmonean rulers thus appear to have lived comfortably within the Hellenistic and Jewish worlds, and this is the message they wished to convey to their people via one of the most public vehicles at their disposal. In a similar vein, the Phoenician coins from this period also exhibited native symbols together with Phoenician and Greek legends. Thus, the Hasmonean numismatic evidence is singularly significant on two counts: it reflects the vision and policy of those who ruled, while the message contained therein was aimed at the population at large for whom these coins were made.

Moreover, the symbols appearing on these coins were, with rare exception, borrowed from the surrounding Hellenistic world: anchors, cornucopiae, a wheel or star design, and floral representations. However, in this regard the Hasmonean rulers introduced one very unusual dimension: no images whatsoever of living beings - either animal or human - appear on any of their coins. Thus, the artistic and epigraphical components of the coins minted in Jerusalem under Hasmonean auspices reveal a fascinating symbiosis of Jewish and Hellenistic elements, reflecting the desire of the Hasmoneans to straddle both worlds and integrate them. This thrust is reflected in the archeological finds from the Hasmonean palaces at Jericho as well. There we find, side by side with the large swimming pool and pavilion, the latter in Doric style and following the most sophisticated of Hellenistic aristocratic tastes, a series of ritual baths (miqva'ot), reflecting the Hasmoneans' priestly commitment to maintaining their ritual purity with regularity.

Other evidence from Hasmonean society, though limited, likewise points in the direction of Jewish and Hellenistic symbiosis. Even a book as hostile to the Jewish Hellenizers and their reforms as 2 Maccabees - written towards the end of the second century B.C.E. - unconsciously reflects a certain ambivalence. 2 Maccabees was the first to use the terms "Judaism" (2:21; 8:1; 14:38) and "Hellenism" (4:13) as contrasting values and countercultural forces. Yet, the book itself was written in Greek, patterned in the tradition of Greek "pathetic" historiography, and borrowed Greek literary motifs in its narratives. This was not the only such case in the literary sphere. At about the same time, the Greek translation of the book of Esther utilized the finest of Greek linguistic and stylistic techniques, especially in the additions to the Hebrew text which focused on particularistic values, emphasizing the chasm between Greek and Jew (i.e., between Haman and Mordecai). It is explicitly stated that this translation was carried out in Jerusalem.

Thus, far from stifling Hellenistic influence, Hasmonean rule was actually catalytic. To maintain diplomatic relations, support a bureaucracy, and develop a military force, Greek language and ways had to be learned. As Bickerman has aptly remarked with regard to Hellenistic native rulers who took over in the wake of the Seleucid collapse: "Cosmopolitanism was the price of independence."(13)


1. Hecataeus. M. Stern, Greek and Latin Authors on Jews and Judaism (3 vols.; Jerusalem: Israel Academy, 1974-84), I, pp. 20-44; Ben-Sira 1:1 and throughout; Hasidim: 1 Maccabees 2:42; 7:12-17.

2. Ezra 9-10; Nehemiah 13.

3. Mishnah Ta'anit 4, 2-3; S. Safrai, "Religion in Everyday Life," in The Jewish People in the First Century, edited by S. Safrai and M. Stern, 2 vols. (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1974-76), II, pp. 817-828.

4. Apocalyptic literature: M. Stone, Scriptures, Sects and Visions (Cleveland: Collins, 1980), pp. 27-35; Torah-reading: L. Levine, "The Nature and Origin of the Palestinian Synagogue Reconsidered," Journal of Biblical Literature 115 (1996): 438-441.

5. Josephus, Antiquities 13, 257-258, 318.

6. N. Avigad, Beth She'arim, III (New Brunswick: Rutgers, 1976), pp. 277-278.

7. M. Hengel, Judaism and Hellenism, 2 vols. (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1974), I, pp. 107ff.

8. For different views on this question, see E. Bickerman, From Ezra to the Last of the Maccabees (New York: Schocken, 1962), pp. 93-111; V. Tcherikover, Hellenistic Civilization and the Jews (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1961), pp. 117-203.

9. In addition to Bickerman, From Ezra to the Last of the Maccabees, see Hengel, Judaism and Hellenism, pp. 255-309.

10. See, for example, 1 Maccabees 8:17; 12:16, 14:22, 24; Josephus, Antiquities 13, 260; 14, 146.

11. E. Goodenough, Jewish Symbols in the Greco-Roman Period, 13 vols. (New York: Pantheon, 195368), I, pp. 79-84.

12. Y. Meshorer, Ancient Jewish Coinage, 2 vols. (Dix Hills, NY: Amphora, 1982), I, pp. 35-98.

13. E. Bickerman, Jews in the Greek Age (Cambridge: Harvard, 1988), p. 302.

LEE I. LEVINE is Professor of Jewish History and Archeology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
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Author:Levine, Lee I.
Publication:Judaism: A Quarterly Journal of Jewish Life and Thought
Date:Mar 22, 1997
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