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Friday, October 27, 2017
Current Affairs ... History ...

Every now and then I get interested in an obscure historical question, something that is only important to a handful of scholars and die-hard history buffs. My most recent point of interest regards the Hasmonean dynasty, which flourished in Judea and Israel during the second and first centuries BCE. Actually, the Hasmoneans do get some attention from Jewish people and from Bible readers, given that it is the subject of the two Books of the Maccabees. Albeit, those books are not officially recognized as a part of Hebrew Scripture, nor are they contained within the Protestant Bible. Only the Catholic Church includes “the Macs” in its Bible, where it goes almost entirely ignored and unread by most Catholics. “Maccabee” is Jewish for “the hammer”, which became a popular nickname for the original Hasmonean family leaders, especially Judah Maccabee. Judah was the son of Mattathias, who was the instigator of a Jewish revolt against the Seleucid empire in Syria; the Seleucids had controlled the land of Israel for several centuries.

As such, many Jews have at least heard about the Maccabees / Hasmoneans, given that they are the main characters behind the story of Hanukkah, the miracle that occurred after the Hasmonean Jewish forces re-took the Jerusalem Temple from the Seleucid Empire. The Temple needed to be ritually purified and re-dedicated, as the Seleucids had previously outlawed the Jewish Temple rituals (focused around animal sacrifice) and dedicated it instead to the Greek god Zeus. This occurred during the forced Hellenization of the Jews by King Antiochus IV Epiphanes, which started around BCE 175.

During the Jewish re-dedication process, a candelabra was to be kept burning day and night, but a problem arose – the Jews were low on fuel (the candles burned olive oil). There was only enough oil to keep the lights on for one day, but somehow, the candelabra managed to keep shining for eight days, until the Jews could scrounge up enough new oil. Since this all happened in late November and early December (relative to our Western calendar), modern Jews have adopted this previously minor historical commemoration as their alternative to the once-Christian (and now largely secularized) season of Christmas. (Actually, the now-popular version of the Hanukah story came from the Talmud; the book of First Maccabees refers to an 8-day festival, but has it happening after the re-dedication was complete and does not refer to the miracle of the slow-burning oil).

So, modern Judaism has re-kindled some interest in the Hasmoneans, given the need to need to cheer modern people up during the short, dark days of December (the Christian celebration of Jesus’ birth itself was a co-option of a Roman pagan festival of the shortest days of the year; there is no historical evidence at all regarding the month and day that Jesus was born). But in fact, the whole story of the Hasmonean dynasty is a rather depressing one; that’s probably why the Jews of the First Century CE decided against adopting it in their official scripture. In some ways, the Hasmoneans were a radical, fundamentalist religious movement that used force and terror tactics to fulfill their retrogressive agenda.

I’m not going to go through a detailed outline of the rise and fall of the Hasmoneans; good old Wikipedia can get you started on that, and there are plenty of other resources on the web if you want to dig deeper. But in a very short and over-simplifed nutshell, a nutshell sweeping across almost a millennium . . . the united Jewish kingdom of David split into northern and southern kingdoms following Solomon’s death (circa 925 BCE), and divided they fell. The Northern Kingdom aka Samaria was conquered by the Assyrians in 722 BCE, and the southern Kingdom aka Judah held out until 586 BCE when it was conquered by the Babylonians. But in 165 BCE, the ancient Jews of the Middle East started pushing back against their latest foreign ruler (the Seleucids), and by 141 managed to declare an independent commonwealth.

For better than 75 years, Jewish forces had re-established a unified kingdom of their own in what we today loosely call “the land of Israel”, something that they had dreamed of ever since the days of David and Solomon in the 10th Century. And yet . . . it just couldn’t last. In a way, it was too late. The time for a unified Jewish Kingdom between the Mediterranean and the Dead Sea had passed. The world had changed. Alexander the Great had defeated the Persian Empire by 333 BCE, and the land of the Jews was soon under the control of Greeks. Even though Alexander died young in 323 BCE, Israel remained under the control of Alexander’s successors, first the Ptolemics (through 201 BCE) and then the Seleucids (until Hasmonean dominance was firmly in place by 141 BCE). During those years, the Jews were increasingly exposed to Greek culture and commercial opportunities, and a lot of them learned to like “Hellenization”, or at least to find ways to accommodate it and use it to improve their lot.

The Jews were slowly being transformed from a rural agricultural tribe into a more worldly, educated and urbanized people (one well-known example of an erudite Jew of antiquity was Philo of Alexandria, who was a contemporary of Jesus). Most of the Hellenist Jews tried to balance and respect their ancient heritage while expanding their horizons with Greek art, science, philosophy, and commerce (recall that early Christian apologists such as Origen also embraced Greek philosophy while rejecting its paganism). Until Antiochus Epiphanes came along, their continued embrace of a Jewish identity and spiritual heritage, while at the same time engaging in the secular benefits of Hellenism, was tolerated by their Greek masters.

However, Epiphanes forced them to make a choice between the two worlds – the Greek choice. And as to those Jews who still resisted the temptations of Hellenic engagement (generally the Jews in the more remote areas), Epiphanes ordered them too to get with the Greek program. The Hasmoneans rose up from the latter group. These were the “radical Jews”, the ones who sought inspiration from the scriptural visions of the past. They went to war against the Seleucids, but also used force against the many Hellenized Jews who wanted to continue a “best of both worlds” approach.

Again, I won’t outline in detail how this all played out, but in keeping with my summarization theme here, the Hasmoneans could not stand for long because there were too many Jews who didn’t fully support their visions. The Hasmonean rulers carried out a variety of internecine purges and campaigns, and used cruel force to bring Jews who wanted to accommodate the bigger world back in line with ancient biblical times. They wanted what they saw as a “pure” form of Jewish life, based on ancient ways, the ways that existed before the corruptions of European civilization encroached their land.

Hmmmm . . . does this sound a bit like what has been happening in Islam over the past 35 years or so??? The Hasmoneans never found solidarity with a majority of their people, even though they had commanded the fanatical allegiance of a small band of radical followers. As to the rest, they depended too much on rule by force. For example, they used military might to expand their reign into adjacent lands that were not traditionally Jewish, and forced inhabitants to convert (e.g., the campaigns of John Hyrcanus I).

Also, under Alexander Jannaeus, the members of an anti-Hasmonean rebellion faction were tortured and killed after that group first sought to collaborate with the Seleucids to jointly seize power, but later repented and returned their loyalty to Jannaeus in return for a false promise of clemency. That sounds to me a bit like ISIS, during its brief reign as a geopolitical restoration of the Islamic caliphate.

If so, then what clues might the eventual disposition of the Hasmoneans give us about what the final fate and historical verdict of modern Islamic radicalism will be? In the final years of Hasmonean rule, Jannaeus’ son Hyrcanus II also faced a rebellion led by his brother Aristobulus II. By this time, one of the Jewish factions that is familiar in the Christian Gospels – i.e., the Pharisees – was rising in power, offering something of a compromise with modernity while still emphasizing ritualistic purity. The Pharisees were quite political however, and generally supported Hyrcanus II. For several years, the two Hasmonean brothers fought, reached peaceful accords, and then went back to fighting. A key figure in the struggle was Antipater, who played-off both brothers with a variety of alliances and intrigues. Antipater was the father of Herod the Great, another figure familiar to Christian Bible readers (although the Herod of Jesus’ time was Herod Antipater, the son of Herod). Antipater was not a Hasmonean, just a crafty local power-broker.

The continuing internecine discord and the rise of factional groups such as the Pharisees, who at first allied with certain Hasmoneans but later gained independent stature, eventually weakened the Hasmonean dynasty. After 4 years of struggle between Hyrcanus II and Aristobulus II, the Romans under Pompey took advantage of the emerging power vacuum, and brought foreign rule back into Israel. Hasmonean power and influence did not suddenly die with the entry of the Legions, however. Hyrcanus II continued as Temple High Priest under the Romans for several years, while local ruling authority was granted by the Romans to Antipater and then his son, Herod the Great. Rome’s grip on the Holy Land slipped for a short period following the Parthian invasion of 40-37 BCE, when a Hasmonean client king (Antigonus, who was Aristobulus II’s son) was restored to nominal power. However, the Romans under Mark Anthony gave military support to Herod, who managed to push the Parthians out of Israel (the Romans by then called it the province of Judea) and overthrow Antigonus.

Herod thus oversaw the permanent ending of Hasmonean political authority. Herod himself was considered something of a second-rate Jew, given that his father Antipater was from one of the non-Jewish lands (Idumea) conquered and forced into Jewish conversion by the Hasmonean John Hyrcanus I. (Recall that Jesus was from Galilee, which was also a non-Jewish land conquered by Hyrcanus I; the great effort made in the Christian Gospels to trace Jesus’ lineage to David might be a device to overcome the notion that Jesus’ family were “on the fringe” / forced-conversion Jews like the Herodian family).

Herod certainly did not have the stature amongst Jews that the Hasmoneans did; but, smart political operator that Herod was, he managed to gain some of that stature by taking a Hasmonean princess, Mariamne, as one of his wives. Mariamne’s mother, Alexandra, decided to go down fighting for the Hasmoneans; she tried her best to plant the seeds for a Hasmonean revival, potentially through Herod’s two sons from Mariamne. But Herod was one nasty dude, and eventually he killed Alexandra, Mariamne, and her two sons (who had been gaining popularity amidst the Jews in Jerusalem and vicinity, with Alexandra’s help). For good measure, Herod had also previously killed Hyracanus II, the last survivor of the ruling Hasmonean family.

One Herodian grandson of Mariamne, Herod Agrippa I, did managed to gain from power from the Romans as a local ruler; he appears in the Bible as the Herod who imprisoned Peter. However, Agrippa I’s stature stemmed more from his ability to befriend Caligula and Claudius, and not from any sort of Hasmonean appeal to Jewish identity.

In an over-simplified nutshell, once again: the Hasmonean movement became diluted over the years through politics. Over many decades, it slowly lost its original radical appeal, as Hasmonean leaders made the usual compromises necessitated by political power. It had its own internal squabbles which further weakened it. It was never broadly popular, and eventually was overshadowed by less radical Jewish factions such as the Pharisees and Sadducees who made their own accommodations with the still-growing power of the Greco-Roman world. Perhaps today’s Islamic radical movements will eventually dilute themselves and blend into other less violent movements.

But, as the Hasmonean movement came to an end, the Jews of antiquity still had another appointment or two with radical violence aimed at the re-establishment of Jewish geopolitical power. In 66 CE, the Judean revolt against the Romans began, triggering a four year war with the Romans. The vanguards of this revolt were the Zealots, a group that had its origins in terrorism during the reign of Herod and which organized politically and gained strength as increasingly cruel Roman governors ruled Judea and Galilee following the death of Jesus. In the year 66, Roman procurator Florus forcibly appropriated stores of silver from the Temple, as to pay back taxes claimed by the Romans. This move helped to trigger the start of the revolt. The Romans finally crushed this rebellion after Vespasian, a future Emperor, was sent by Nero with four full legions and troops from two others, which together destroyed the Jerusalem Temple and inflicted massive damage to the rest of the city.

About 60 years later, under a mysterious leader know as Bar Kokhba or Son of the Star, the Jews took up arms once again against the Romans. One of the major contributing factors was the ongoing Roman attempt to rebuild Jerusalem as a Roman city following Vespasian’s victory in 70 CE, complete with a temple dedicated to the Roman god Jupiter. The Romans responded strongly once again (this time with six full legions), although guerilla tactics by the Jewish rebels helped them to hold out for almost four years. Following their defeat, the Emperor Hadrian had most of the Jews in Jerusalem and surrounding Judea put into exile. The Jewish transformation from a national identity based around the Temple and its cult and rituals, to a more spiritually-inclined modern religion under the rabbis, began in earnest following the First Revolt and became the mainstream of Judaism following the Second. (I’m not going to get into the history and establishment of the modern state of Israel, which in some way is tied to radicalism given its Zionist roots, but in many important ways is an entirely different situation.)

In sum, the history of the ancient Jewish Hasmoneans gives us both good news and bad news regarding the eventual fate of modern-day Islamic radicalism. The good news: any radical movement that is supported by a small band of fanatics, and that enforces its will on the majority through force, is subject to the entropic forces of human politics. These forces eventually dilute and weaken its founding inspirations. So, when a reactionary movement requires inspired violence to enforce itself amidst an otherwise generally unwilling population, the inspirations behind that violence tend to dissipate over the long run, and whatever power that the group manages to gain eventually crumbles.

But, there is also bad news: those dissipated inspirations might still metastasize and reinvigorate themselves into new and more virulent forms for a time, before the radical inspirations are entirely forgotten. This is especially true when the radicals are able to broaden their appeal as a response to perceived oppression by foreign powers. So even when a group like ISIS is nominally defeated, there may yet be further iterations of its form and character in the future (just as ISIS arguably rose from the ashes of Al Qaeda’s alleged defeat). It may take a while (i.e., decades and generations versus months and years) before the inspirations of violent radical Islam are mostly resolved and forgotten.

Final thought: the western nations plagued by modern Islamic terrorism does not have the option of clearing out Moslems from their homelands, as Hadrian had with the Jews after the Second Revolt. However, a whole lot of those Moslems want to leave those homelands and live in the west. That would appear to me to be the best opportunity for the western world to slowly “de-fang” radical Islam. Yes, I know that many Moslem immigrant families today are not anxious to be “Hellenized” upon arrival in Germany or France or the US, and I agree that some of them could potentially be or become agents for homeland terror. But the vast majority just want a better life, and if the west makes some effort to reach out to them and help them become a part of our modern economy, their inspiration to sympathize with radical notions will dissipate over time. And to the degree that they maintain contacts within the lands from which they come, their eventual westernization will have a “multiplier” effect in reducing interest in radicalism back home.

This would seem to me to be a much better option than building walls against potential enemies, which historically never do what they are supposed to. I have mentioned the Roman Emperor Hadrian – recall that he built a wall in Britain to protect the Romanized south from the wild Picts of the north. And also recall that this wall ultimately failed to keep the Picts out.

So, perhaps obscure historical facts and stories shouldn’t be so obscure after all!

◊   posted by Jim G @ 11:55 pm      

  1. Jim, Once again, some random tho’ts (emphasis on “random”) on your post on the Hasmoneans. I think your comparison and/or analogy between the militant present-day ISIS and the Hasmoneans is valid and very well done.

    I wonder, however, where the Shiits and Sunnis come in; did they not precede Al Quaeda? It seems to me the Shiites and Sunnis were more political/power groups. It is said the difference between the two is based on who accepts the successor of Mohammed. With a bit of reading I discovered that Mohammed (I’m not sure I spelled his name correctly, but I hope I’m close) had only two females (daughters, of course) to inherit from him. Since females could not possibly at the time (and maybe even now for all I know) inherit anything, the inheritance fell to their husbands, both of whom disagreed on whether the other should inherit. Wouldn’t you know that such a split would boil down to money and power (between men)!

    It seems to me the two groups had been around for a good long time, having their fights and disagreements which went back to the death of Mohammed. I think these two groups came before Al Quaeda. In fact, lately I’ve wondered where those two groups have “disappeared” to. Not long ago everything was Sunni/Shiite; now the names of those groups are never mentioned.

    It seems to me that at some point every country has a kind of regression backwards to the “good old days”. Here the U.S. is in the grip of conservative Republicans.

    Yet it sometimes seems that groups want to return to the “good old days”; but then they actually get a serious attempt at such a return, and find they do not really care that much for it. This seems to be not only a Jewish thing or a Muslim thing but a general human thing.

    It would seem to me that a general global change is currently going on, and it scares a lot of people who then want to return to previous times. In America the questions seems to be, “What will become of White people if they are no long in the majority?”. In various Islamic countries the question might be: What will become of Muslims if they are not Shiites or Sunnis; but since we are not there, we may not be aware of the question.

    Perhaps the adjustment that needs to be made at this time is more of a global adjustment rather than a single religion or single country adjustment. How are Muslims going to be in Western countries? How will Westerners accept Muslims? How long will such acceptance take? When it comes to racism (as in Black/White racism in America), how many “generations” is enough to develop a complete acceptance of Blacks among Whites? And in some ways another question can’t help but jump into my mind: When will there actually begin to be an acceptance of females as equal to males? That one seems to have a “not ever” answer sometimes.

    In general it seems there is a lot of “bedrock” change (as in “global” change) going on in the world today; but it is not easily being accepted or adapted to. At least there is, one can hope, a beginning of a change; yet who knows? Can the “interior walls” of non-acceptance have a start at change? I guess we will have to wait and see what happens in the long run. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — October 29, 2017 @ 10:25 am

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