The Hasmonean Calendar Begins with the Rule of Simon the High Priest, 142 B.C.E.
Chanukah, celebrated on the 25th of Kislev, commemorates the re-dedication of the Jerusalem temple by Judah Maccabee in 164 B.C.E. In the popular imagination this festival marks the Jewish victory over the Seleucid Empire (or “the Greeks”), the regaining of religious freedoms, and the rise of a new independent state in Judea—the Hasmonean kingdom.
However, the books of 1 and 2 Maccabees, our main historical sources for the Maccabean revolt and its aftermath, make it clear that the rededication of the temple did not end the conflicts between Seleucid forces and the Maccabean brothers, and was not the starting point of Hasmonean rule. Instead, the beginning of the Hasmonean era can be dated to 142 B.C.E.—twenty-two years after Chanukah—with the appointment by the Seleucid King Demetrius II of Simon, Judah Maccabee’s last surviving brother, as High Priest. This was not only a sociopolitical turning point but also a conceptual one—from that moment on, time was kept according to the Simon’s rise.
Politics and Calendars
Changes in political structures have always had a deep impact on how contemporaries perceived and accounted for the passing of time. One can just think of the Muslim Hijri year count that starts with Muhamad’s migration from Mecca to Medinah or the French revolutionary calendar.
Perhaps the earliest example is the consecutive Seleucid period which began its count from the time of Seleucus I’s entry into Babylon in 312 B.C.E. This was part of the dynasty’s effort to simultaneously distinguish itself from previous or competing kingdoms (e.g., Alexander’s and the Ptolemies) and at the same time embed itself in local cultures, who had their own, deeply entrenched practices of time keeping.
Before the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians, Judah apparently used the regnal years of its kings. Afterwards, we find Judeans dating events by foreign kings or following the destruction of the Temple, or other systems, such as counting Jubilees. As subjects of the Seleucid kings, the Judeans made use of the Seleucid dating system, which symbolized Judea’s integration into the Seleucid empire. Therefore, starting a dating system based on the tenure of a high priest carried with it heavy implications.
142 B.C.E: Year 1 of Simon’s Rule
1 Maccabees, the historical account of the rise of the Hasmoneans, probably written during the reign of Simon’s son, John (Yoḥanan) Hyrcanus (r. 134–104 B.C.E.), includes a letter sent by Demetrius II to Simon:
1 Macc 13:36 King Demetrius to Simon, high priest and friend of kings, and to the elders and the nation of the Judeans, greeting. 13:37 We received the golden crown and palm branch that you sent, and are ready to make great peace with you and to write to those over the properties to release to you the remission of tribute.
In other words, the Judean polity no longer needed to pay tribute as vassals to the Seleucid king. The letter is followed by the author’s statement that in the 170th Seleucid year the Judeans started their own count:
1 Macc 13:41 In the one hundred and seventieth year the yoke of the nations was lifted from Israel, 13:42 and the people started to write in their documents and contracts “In the first year of Simon, great high priest, general, and leader of the Judeans.”
While the people started to date their documents according to Simon’s tenure as “great high priest, general, and leader of the Judeans,” this does not replace the continuous Seleucid era, but runs as a local, parallel system to it. When the Simonide era appears in 1 Maccabees—the only place where we find a direct use of this kind of dating system—it is always coupled with the Seleucid era, which continued to be used. Even so, having Simon’s name appear on documents for dating purposes indicates that Simon, rather than the Seleucid king, is now the supreme authoritative figure in the land.
The use of this new dating system is underscored by a decree dated to “the 3rd year of Simon” by an assembly of Jewish authorities that confirms that Simon must “be obeyed by everyone, and that all the writings in the land would be written in his name, and that he would be clothed in purple and wear gold” (1 Macc 14:43). For the author of 1 Maccabees’, then, Demetrius’s recognition of Simon’s authority as high priest, and his concessions to the Jews, marked a new era. Starting from 142 B.C.E, the yoke of foreign rule was lifted, and the Jews were given their autonomy.
A Festival for the New Dating System?
One indication of how significant this event was is found in Megillat Taanit, “The Scroll of Fasting,” a, early first millennium C.E. list of joyous days when fasting was forbidden. This list notes:
בתלתא בתשרי אתנטלת אדכרתא מן שטרא.
On the 3rd of Tishri the mention was removed from the deeds.
The scroll’s commentaries (the scholion), one version of which is quoted in the Babylonian Talmud, explains:
בבלי ראש השנה יח: שגזרו מלכות יוון הרשעה שמד על ישר' שלא להזכיר שם שמים על פיהם
b. Rosh Hashanah 18b When the wicked Greek government declared destruction upon Israel, forbidding them to even mention the name of God.
This attempt to force the Judeans to ignore their God was solved with the success of the Hasmoneans who, according to this gloss, pushed in the polar opposite direction, requiring God to be mentioned as part of the dating of documents:
וכשגברה מלכות בית חשמונאי ונצחום התקינו שיהו מזכירין שם שמים ואפילו בשטרות וכך היו כותבין בשנת כך וכך ליוחנן כהן גדול שהוא כהן לאל עליון
When the Hasmonean kingdom rose up and defeated them, they established a decree that the name of God was to be mentioned, even on official documents. Thus they would write: “In the year such-and-such of Yoḥanan Hyrcanus the high priest, and he was priest to the Most High God.”
And yet, the scholion (as quoted in the Talmud) notes, this solution was itself a problem, since it led to disrespecting the divine name:
וכששמעו חכמ' בדבר אמרו למחר פורע זה את חובו ונמצא שטר מוטל באישפה וביטלו ואותו היום עשאוהו יום טוב.
When the sages heard this, they said: “tomorrow, someone will pay back their debt and this document [with God’s name on it] will be thrown in the trash. So they cancelled [this policy]. That day was made into a celebration.
This interpretation contains a suspicious double solution. First the Hasmoneans cancel the decree of the wicked Greeks not to mention God’s name, only to have their own decree canceled by the sages, who removed the reference to the “Most High God” from the documents.
Thus, many scholars suggest that the description of the holiday as celebrating the removal of the reference to God from Jewish documents is a later reworking of the original celebration, which marked the removal of the name of foreign authorities from local documents. It thus seems that the Third of Tishrei once celebrated the beginning of the Hasmonean period, alongside other celebrations of Maccabean triumphs such as Chanukah and Yom Nicanor.
The idea of using a dating system based on the “regnal years” of a given ruler—Simon in this case—or even based on the tenure of a local but subservient power, was not new. Dating documents and calculating time based on rulers/officials—called eponymous dating—was common in the ancient Mediterranean and Near East, including in the Bible. For example:
מלכים ב יח:ט וַיְהִי בַּשָּׁנָה הָרְבִיעִית לַמֶּלֶךְ חִזְקִיָּהוּ הִיא הַשָּׁנָה הַשְּׁבִיעִית לְהוֹשֵׁעַ בֶּן אֵלָה מֶלֶךְ יִשְׂרָאֵל...
2 Kgs 18:9 In the sixth year of Hezekiah, which was the ninth year of king Hoshea of Israel…
ירמיה נב:כט בִּשְׁנַת שְׁמוֹנֶה עֶשְׂרֵה לִנְבוּכַדְרֶאצַּר...
Jer 52:29 In the eighteenth year of Nebuchadnezzar…
The Jewish community in Elephantine, Egypt also used this type of dating. For example, in a document of manumission (freeing a slave), the date, corresponding to June 12, 427 B.C.E., is given as (TAD B 3.6):
ב20 סיון הו יום 7 לפמנחתף שנת 38 ארתחשסש מלכא...
On the 2oth of Sivan, that is day 7 of Phamenoth, year 38 of Artaxerxes the King…
Periods of time were thus embedded in the figures that represented them—“the time of Solomon” in 1 Kings is a good example of a time embedded in a leading figure—and followed each other in succession. Most often kings or local officials were the basis of the dating system, but sometimes priests served this function, as was the case for the Hasmoneans.
The High Priest’s Tenure in Numbers
The dated coins of Alexander Janneus suggest that the Hasmonean dating system was not continuous like the Seleucid system, which, as noted above, counted years consecutively from 312 B.C.E., but began again with the accession of each new high priest.
This system may have been inspired by the biblical description of the high priest’s tenure. In the Torah, the term הכהן הגדול “the High Priest” appears only in the laws of unintentional manslaughter, in the context of determining how long the killer must remain in the city of refuge:
במדבר לה:כה ...וְיָשַׁב בָּהּ עַד מוֹת הַכֹּהֵן הַגָּדֹל אֲשֶׁר מָשַׁח אֹתוֹ בְּשֶׁמֶן הַקֹּדֶשׁ... לה:כח כִּי בְעִיר מִקְלָטוֹ יֵשֵׁב עַד מוֹת הַכֹּהֵן הַגָּדֹל וְאַחֲרֵי מוֹת הַכֹּהֵן הַגָּדֹל יָשׁוּב הָרֹצֵחַ אֶל אֶרֶץ אֲחֻזָּתוֹ.
Num 35:25 …and there he shall remain until the death of the high priest who was anointed with the sacred oil…. 35:28 For he must remain inside his city of refuge until the death of the high priest; after the death of the high priest, the slayer may return to his land holding.
This description suggests that the high priesthood has been institutionalized, and that it is continuous and successional, with one high priest “ruling” after the other, like kings. If so, then in a world without (Davidic) kings, the names of the high priests could function as the eponyms. Indeed, for this law, the tenure of high priests serves as apt cyclical time markers, as each high priest is quite literally associated with the crimes committed during his term and his death inaugurates a new era.
In other words, Simon’s institution of dating based on the reign of the high priest is not simply an invention or a way of hijacking kingship, but perhaps takes Numbers 35 as precedent, extending the concept of “the time of a given high priest” to all contracts.
Phinehas: A Precedent For Mattathias
Indeed, what was important for the early Hasmonean rulers was not to establish themselves as kings—this does happen later—but to legitimize their claim to the role of high priest. This is clear from the story of Simon’s father, the Hasmonean patriarch, Mattathias.
According to 1 Maccabees 2, the Maccabean revolt begins when Mattathias sees a fellow Judean participate in a pagan sacrifice after Mattathias himself refused to do so. In his zealous anger, Mattathias slaughters the man:
1 Macc 2:26 And he became zealous for the law as Phinehas had done against Zambri (=Zimri) son of Salom (=Salu).
The reference here is to the story in Numbers, in which a Simeonite named Zimri has sex with a Midianite woman outside the Tabernacle, and Phinehas, son of Elazar son of Aaron, witnesses the act and kills him (Num 25:7–8).
Thus, Mattathias follows in his priestly predecessor Phinehas’ footsteps. This modeling of Mattathias after Phinehas is especially important given that Phinehas is awarded the priesthood by YHWH as a result of his action:
במדבר כה:יג וְהָיְתָה לּוֹ וּלְזַרְעוֹ אַחֲרָיו בְּרִית כְּהֻנַּת עוֹלָם תַּחַת אֲשֶׁר קִנֵּא לֵאלֹהָיו וַיְכַפֵּר עַל בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל.
Num 25:13 “It shall be for him and his descendants after him a pact of priesthood for all time, because he took impassioned action for his God, thus making expiation for the Israelites.”
Later, on his deathbed, when giving his final testament, Mattathias calls Phinehas “our father” and reminds his sons of their forefather’s zeal for which he was rewarded:
1 Macc 2:54 Phinehas, our father, by becoming zealous with zeal, received a treaty of priesthood for all time.
The claim is clear: Aaron is the first to inherit the priesthood, but his grandson Phinehas inherits the exclusive mantel of priesthood because of his zeal. Similarly, before the Maccabean revolt, the Hasmoneans were one of several priestly families, and the high priest was from a different branch. Now that Mattathias reenacted the pious zealotry of Phinehas, the Hasmonean line has a natural claim to the high priesthood. Simon, as the only living son of Mattathias at the end of the war, is the natural person to continue the line of this new high priestly family.
These appeals to past priestly figures do not mean the Hasmoneans necessarily used “biblical models” of behavior. The presentation in 1 Maccabees was a literary and discursive means in which the court author of the book sought to legitimize his patrons. Priestly descent was necessary, but insufficient to defend Hasmonean hegemony. Therefore, it had to be combined with other priestly leadership roles in the Torah, such as Phinehas’s reward for his zealotry. Simon’s decision to reckon time based on the rule of the high priest, possibly employing the precedent found in Numbers 35, further solidified the Hasmonean claim to be the legitimate high priestly family.
Old Models for New Times
Whether any form of time reckoning system based on high priests was ever employed in pre-Hasmonean Judea is hard to determine. Nevertheless, it seems to be a local literary (and perhaps utopian) response to imperial practices, replacing the imperial ruler with the Jerusalem high priest, reflecting that office’s essential cosmic role.
Demetrius’ decree appointing Simon as high priest (1 Macc 14:27–45)—which the Judeans write down upon bronze tablets, and then place upon Mount Zion in Simon’s honor—speaks of the high priesthood’s everlasting character, calling it “great,” i.e., superior to other priestly offices, and gives it authority vis-à-vis the assembly. After quoting the decree, 1 Maccabees continues:
1 Macc 14:46 And the entire people approved that Simon be appointed to act according to these words. 14:47 And Simon took it upon himself and approved of serving as high priest and of being a general and ethnarch of the Judeans and the priests and to be in charge over all of them.
Like Numbers 35, Simon’s appointment in 1 Maccabees 14 assumes an institutional high priesthood. Simon’s authority, then, like that of the high priest in the laws of asylum, exceeds the cultic sphere with the assembly’s consent. Establishing Simon and his line as (permanent) high priests served as a middle ground for the Judeans’ establishing their political relations with the Seleucid imperial rulers as well as restoring proper social order to Judea by marking time based on the tenure of Hasmonean high priests.
The author of 1 Maccabees sought to construct the Hasmonean period as being simultaneously a new beginning with Simon and a return to older traditions. It is imperial and local at the same time. Contemporaries could interpret (and perhaps celebrate) the inauguration of a new era, with the dating of deeds to the “regnal” year of a high priest, as both an innovation and the resurrection of local tradition, thus cementing the role of the Hasmonean dynasty, headed by Simon, and followed by his son Yoḥanan Hyrcanus, as a leading force in Jewish history.
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Rotem Avneri Meir is a Visiting Fellow in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations and the Classics at Harvard University, and a Doctoral Researcher at the Academy of Finland’s Centre of Excellence in Ancient Near Eastern Empires (ANEE) at the University of Helsinki, where he is writing his dissertation “The Rise of the Hasmonean Dynasty on the Margins of the Seleucid Empire.” Avneri Meir’s research centers on the social history of Hellenistic Judea and and his dissertation examines the establishment of Hasmonean dynastic rule through its brokerage with the Seleucid empire in Judea and the responses to these processes within contemporary Jewish society more broadly. He holds a B.A. in History and Philosophy and an M.A. in Ancient History, both from Tel Aviv University. In 2019 he was awarded the European Association of Biblical Studies’ student prize for excellence in Biblical Studies. His article “Plotting Antiochus’s Death: The Book of Daniel on the End of Seleucid Rule” recently appeared in Vetus Testamentum. He has forthcoming publications in the Journal of Ancient Judaism, and several collective volumes.
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