John Hyrcanus (Yohanan Girhan; Yohanan Hyrcanus – יוחנן הורקנוס, Ιωάννης Υρκανός) was a Hasmonean (Maccabeean) leader of the 2nd century BCE (born 164 BCE, reigned from 134 BCE until his death in 104 BCE).
Josephus explains in The Jewish War that John was also known as "Hyrcanus", but does not explain the reason behind this name. The only other primary source, the Books of the Maccabees, never used this name with respect to John, with the single reference to Hyrcanus in 2 Maccabees 3:11 referring to a man to whom some of the money in the Temple belonged during the c. 178 BCE visit of Heliodorus.
The reason for the name is disputed amongst biblical scholars, with a variety of reasons proposed:
- Familial origin in the region of Hyrcania on the Caspian Sea
- A Greek regnal name, which would have represented closer ties with the Hellenistic culture against which the Maccabees had revolted under Seleucid rule. However, the region of Hyrcania had been conquered by Mithridates I of Parthia in 141–139 BCE
- Given the name by the Seleucids after he fought in the region alongside Antiochus VII Sidetes against Phraates II of Parthia in 130–129 BCE, a campaign which resulted in the release of Antiochus' brother Demetrius II Nicator from captivity in Hyrcania
Life and work
He was the son of Simon Maccabaeus and hence the nephew of Judas Maccabaeus, Jonathan Maccabaeus and their siblings, whose story is told in the deuterocanonical books of 1 Maccabees and 2 Maccabees, in the Talmud, and in Josephus. John was not present at a banquet at which his father and his two brothers were murdered, purportedly by his brother-in-law, Ptolemy, son of Abubus. He attained to his father's former offices, that of high priest and national leader (but not king). Josephus said that John Hyrcanus had five sons but only named four in his histories--Judah Aristobulus I, Antigonus I, Alexander Jannai, and Absalom.
Siege of Jerusalem
During the first year of Hyrcanus’ reign, he faced the most serious challenge to independent Judean rule from the Seleucid Empire. Antiochus VII Sidetes marched into Judea, pillaged the countryside and laid a year long siege on Jerusalem. The prolonged siege caused Hyrcanus to remove any Judean from the city who could not assist with the defense effort (Antiquities 13.240). These refugees were not allowed to pass through Antiochus’ lines. Therefore, these Judeans were literally trapped in the middle of a chaotic siege. With a humanitarian crisis on his hands, Hyrcanus re-admitted his estranged Jerusalemites when the festival of Sukkot arrived. Afterwards, due to massive food shortages in Jerusalem, Hyrcanus negotiated a truce with Antiochus.
The terms of the truce consisted of three thousand talents of silver as payment for Antiochus, breaking down the walls of Jerusalem, Judean participation in the Seleucid war against the Parthians, and once again Judean recognition of Seleucid control (Antiquities 13.245). These terms were a harsh blow to a young ruler. Furthermore, Hyrcanus needed to loot the tomb of David to pay the 3000 talents (The Wars of the Jews I 2:5).
The repercussions of the Seleucid siege were initially a difficult setback for Hyrcanus. Judea faced tough economic times after the countryside was plundered and Jerusalem was under siege. Economic struggles were greatly magnified by taxes to the Seleucids enforced by Antiochus. Furthermore, Hyrcanus was forced to accompany Antiochus on his eastern campaign in 130 BCE. Hyrcanus probably would have functioned as the military commander of a Jewish company in the campaign. Instead of governing a devastated Judean state, Hyrcanus was in Parthia fighting with Antiochus.
Additionally, this probably caused a loss of support for the inexperienced Hyrcanus among the Judean population. Judeans in the countryside were especially disillusioned with Hyrcanus after Antiochus’ army plundered their land. The fact that Hyrcanus was fighting alongside Antiochus probably caused serious resentment. Furthermore, Hyrcanus driving out the non-military population of Jerusalem during the siege also probably caused resentment for his rule in the city. Finally, the action of looting the Tomb of David violated his obligations as High Priest. This would have offended the religious leadership.
Therefore, at a very early point in his thirty-one year reign of Judea, Hyrcanus had lost the support of Judeans in various cultural sectors. The Jerusalemites, countryside Judeans and the religious leadership probably doubted the future of Judea under Hyrcanus. However, Hyrcanus was met with fortune in 128 BCE when Antiochus VII was killed in battle against Parthia. What followed was an era of conquest led by Hyrcanus that marked the high point of Judea as the most significant power in Syria.
Conquests of John Hyrcanus
John Hyrcanus was able to take advantage of unrest in Seleucia to assert Judean independence and conquer new territories. In 130 BCE Demetrius II returned from exile in Hyrcania to take control of Seleucia. However, transition of power made it difficult for Demetrius to assert control over Judea. Furthermore, the Seleucid Empire itself fell apart into smaller principalities. The Ituraeans of Lebanon, the Ammonites of the Transjordan, and the Arabian Nabateans represented independent principalities that broke away from Seleucid control. Hyrcanus was determined to take advantage of the dissipating Seleucid Empire to increase the Judean State.
Hyrcanus also raised a new mercenary army that strongly contrasted with the Judean forces that were defeated by Antiochus VII (Ant.13.249). The Judean population was probably still recovering from the attack of Antiochus, and therefore could not provide enough able men for a Hyrcanus-led army. Hyrcanus’ army was supported by the Judean State once again by funds that Hyrcanus removed from the Tomb of David.
Beginning in 113 BCE, Hyrcanus began an extensive military campaign against Samaria. Hyrcanus placed his sons Antigonus and Aristobulus in charge of the siege of Samaria. The Samaritans called for help and eventually received 6000 troops from Antiochus IX Cyzicenus. Although the siege lasted for a long, difficult year, Hyrcanus was unwilling to give up. Ultimately, Samaria was overrun and totally destroyed. Cyzicenus’ mercenary army was defeated and the city of Scythopolis seems to have been occupied by Hyrcanus as well. The inhabitants of Samaria were then put into slavery.
Hyrcanus’ first conquest was an invasion of the Transjordan in 110 BCE. Hyrcanus’ mercenary army laid siege to the city of Medeba and took it after a six-month siege. After these victories, Hyrcanus went north towards Schechem and Mount Gerizim. The city of Schechem was reduced to a village and the Samaritan Temple on Mount Gerizim was destroyed. This military action against Schechem has been dated archaeologically around 111–110 BCE. Destroying the Samaritan Temple on Mount Gerizim helped ameliorate Hyrcanus’ status among religious elite and common Jews who detested any temple to Yahweh outside of Jerusalem.
Hyrcanus also initiated a military campaign against the Idumeans in the Negev near Eilat. During this campaign Hyrcanus conquered Adora, Maresha and other Idumean towns (Ant.13.257). Hyrcanus then instituted forced conversions on the Idumeans. This was an unprecedented move for a Judean ruler.
Economy, foreign relations, and religion
After the siege of Jerusalem, Hyrcanus faced a serious economic crisis in Judea. We can assume that the economic difficulties subsided after the death of Antiochus VII. Hyrcanus no longer had to pay taxes or tributes to a weaker Seleucia. The economic situation eventually improved enough for Hyrcanus to issue his own coinage (see below). On top of that, Hyrcanus initiated vital building projects in Judea. Hyrcanus re-built the walls destroyed by Antiochus. He also built a fortress north of the Temple called the Baris and possibly also the fortress Hyrcania.
Moreover, Hyrcanus sought for good relations with the surrounding Gentile powers, especially the growing Roman Empire. Two decrees were passed in the Roman Senate that established a treaty of friendship with Judea. Although it is difficult to specifically date these resolutions, they represent efforts made between Hyrcanus and Rome to maintain stable relations. Also, an embassy sent by Hyrcanus received Roman confirmation of Hasmonean independence. Hyrcanus was an excellent case of a ruler backed by Roman support.
In addition to Rome, Hyrcanus was able to maintain steady relations with Ptolemaic Egypt. This was probably made possible due to various Jews living in Egypt who had connections with the Ptolemaic Court (Ant. 13.284–287). Finally, the cities of Athens and Pergamum even showed honor to Hyrcanus in an effort to appease Rome.
Furthermore, the minting of coins by Hyrcanus demonstrates Hyrcanus’ willingness to delegate power. Sixty-three coins found near Bethlehem bear the inscription, “Yohanan the High Priest.” The reserve side of the coins contains the phrase, “The Assembly of the Jews.” This seems to suggest that during his reign, Hyrcanus was not an absolute ruler. Instead, Hyrcanus had to submit at times to an assembly of Jews that had a certain amount of minority power. The coins lack any depictions of animals or humans. This suggests that Hyrcanus strictly followed the Jewish prohibition against graven images. The coins also seem to suggest that Hyrcanus considered himself to be primarily the High Priest of Judea, and his rule of Judea was shared with the Assembly.
In Judea, religious issues were a core aspect of domestic policy. Josephus only reports one specific conflict between the Pharisees and Hyrcanus (Ant. 13.288–296). Essentially, criticism of Hyrcanus’ roles as High Priest and ethnarch by the Pharisees led to a falling out. Thus, this conflict between Hyrcanus and the Pharisees elevated the status of the Sadducees.
There is, however, good reason to doubt this account by Josephus. First of all, Josephus reports elsewhere that the Pharisees did not grow to power until the reign of Queen Salome Alexandra (JW.1.110) The coins minted under Hyrcanus suggest that Hyrcanus did not have complete secular authority. Furthermore, this account may represent a piece of Pharisaic apologetics due to Josephus’ Pharisaic background. Therefore, this account might represent a historical creation meant to elevate the status of the Pharisees during the height of the Hasmonean Dynasty.
There were probably tensions because of the religious and secular leadership roles held by Hyrcanus. However, it is difficult to assume that this account by Josephus is an accurate re-telling of the relationship between Hyrcanus, the Pharisees and the Sadducees at that time.
Ultimately, one of the final acts of Hyrcanus’ life was an act that solved any kind of dispute over his role as High Priest and ethnarch. In the will of Hyrcanus, he provisioned for the division of the high priesthood from secular authority. Hyrcanus’ wife was given control of civil authority after his death, and his son Judas Aristobulus was given the role of High Priest. This action represented Hyrcanus’ willingness to compromise over the issue of secular and religious authority. (However, Aristobulus was not satisfied with this arrangement, so he cast his mother into prison and let her starve.)
- "2 Macc 3:11". Sacred-texts.com. Retrieved 2013-01-06.
- A History of the Jews in Babylonia, Volume 1 By Jacob Neusner. Books.google.co.uk. Retrieved 2011-12-06.
- Josephus clearly states in both Antiquities and Jewish Wars that Judah Aristobulus I (the son of John Hyrcanus) was "the first of all to put a diadem on his head [changing] the government to a kingdom". See Antiquities XIII 11:1 and Jewish Wars I 3:1.
- H. Jagersma. A History of Israel from Alexander the Great to Bar Kochba. (Minneapolis.: Fortress Press, 1986), 83.
- Joseph Sievers , and Jacob Neusner, ed. The Hasmoneans and Their Supporters: From Matthias to the Death of John Hyrcanus I. (Atlanta.: Scholars Press, 1990), 140.
- Sievers, 139
- Jagersma, 89
- Elias Bickerman. The Maccabees. (New York.: Schocken Books, 1947), 150
- Sievers, 141
- Gaalyahu Cornfled. Daniel to Paul: Jews In Conflict with Graeco-Roman Civilization. (New York: The Macmillan Company, 1962), 50
- Bickerman, 149–150
- Jagersma, 83
- Encyclopaedic dictionary of the Bible, Volume 5, William George Smith. Books.google.com. 2010-12-07. Retrieved 2011-12-06.
- Sievers, 142
- George W. E. Nickelsburg. Jewish Literature Between The Bible And The Mishnah, with CD-ROM, Second Edition. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2005), 93
- Sievers, 157
- W. D. Davies. The Cambridge History of Judaism, Vol. 2: The Hellenistic Age. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 331–332
- Jagersma, 84
- David Noel Freedman. The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, H–J: Volume 3. (New Haven: Yale University Press), 1992
- Davies, 332
- Cornfeld, 52
- Sievers, 153–154
- Nickelsburg, 93
- Sievers, 155
- Gaalyahu, 55
This article incorporates text from a publication now in the public domain: Jewish Encyclopedia. 1901–1906.
John HyrcanusDied: 104 BCE
|Prince of Judaea
134 – 104 BCE
|High Priest of Judaea
134 – 104 BCE