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The Hasmoneans Usurped the High Priesthood from the Oniads

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The Hasmoneans Usurped the High Priesthood from the Oniads

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The Hasmoneans Usurped the High Priesthood from the Oniads

The family of Onias long controlled the high priesthood before the persecution of Antiochus IV and the Hasmoneans’ (“Maccabees’”) rebellion. When the dust settled, the Hasmoneans found themselves in charge of the priesthood and the Oniads had relocated to Egypt. 1 Maccabees, a pro-Hasmonean work, defends the legitimacy of the Hasmonean accession to the high priesthood, and the fact that it went to the family of Judah Maccabee’s brother, Simon.

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The Hasmoneans Usurped the High Priesthood from the Oniads

Vision of Judah Maccabee (adapted), Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld. Pitts Theology Library

On Chanukah, during the Amidah and the grace after meals, we recite the Al HaNissim (“for the miracles”) prayer, that begins:

בִּימֵי מַתִּתְיָהו בֶן יוֹחָנָן כֹּהֵן גָּדוֹל חַשְׁמוֹנָאִי וּבָנָיו...
In the days of Mattathias son of Yoḥanan the high priest…

Indeed, Mattathias’ father was named Yoḥanan, as we learn from his introduction in 1 Maccabees:

1 Macc 2:1 In those days there arose from Jerusalem Mattathias, son of John (Yoḥanan), son of Simeon, a priest of the sons of Jehoiarib, and took up residence in Modiʿin.[1]

And yet, Yoḥanan the father of Mattathias was not the high priest Yoḥanan known in Greek sources as Onias (Ηeb. Ḥonyo), a nickname for Yoḥanan.[2] Indeed, Mattathias was not a scion of a high priestly family, and justifying the fact that his sons and grandsons ended up with the high priesthood, which was then the equivalent of ruling Judea, is the focus and point of the Hasmoneans’ court history, 1 Maccabees.

1 Maccabees: Legitimizing Simon as High Priest

Telling the story of the transformation of Judea from a province of a Hellenistic kingdom into an independent state, 1 Maccabees begins in the 160s B.C.E. with Antiochus IV Epiphanes ruling Judea and persecuting Judaism (ch. 1) and ends with a Jewish high priest, John (Yoḥanan) Hyrcanus[3] succeeding his father as ruler of Judea in 134 B.C.E. (in Ch. 16). More specifically, 1 Maccabees tells the story of the transformation of Judea, clarifying to its readers that Mattathias and his sons began and successfully led that rebellion, and that, therefore, it was appropriate that his family rule Judea.

Most specifically, it explains why one particular branch of that family, that of John Hyrcanus’ father, Simon son of Mattathias, should be at the country’s helm:

1 Macc 14:25 When the citizenry heard these things, they said: “With what gratitude can we requite Simon and his sons? 14:26 For he was strong, he and his brothers and his father’s family, and they fought off Israel’s enemies.” So they established authority for him and inscribed it on bronze tablets and fixed them on pillars on Mount Zion. 14:27 This is a copy of what was written:

On the eighteenth of Elul in the 172nd year,[4] which is the third year of the high priesthood of Simon, in Asaramel,[5] 14:28 in a great assembly (knesset gedola?) of priests and people and rulers of the nation and the elders of the land, it was proclaimed to us that…”

The long document that follows (1 Macc 14:29–45) proclaims that Simon and his sons would rule Judea forever as high priests.[6] Indeed, two chapters later, the last verse of the work reports that after Simon was killed, his son John Hyrcanus succeeded him as high priest.

The Titles “Maccabees” and “Hasmoneans”

The title “Maccabee,” from Hebrew maqqevet, “hammer,” was the nickname of the most famous of Mattathias’ sons, Judah, the great warrior (1 Macc 2:4, 3:1). 1 and 2 Maccabees, the books that tell the story of Judah’s rebellion, do not refer to the wider family as “Maccabees”; only much later did the Christian scribes who preserved the books give them these titles.

Nor do 1–2 Maccabees use the term “Hasmonean.[7] Later, Josephus (e.g. Antiquities 20.238) and the rabbis (e.g. m. Middot 1:6) refer to “the Hasmonean dynasty” (“the sons of Asamonaios/Ḥashmonai”), apparently a reference to some more ancient, if unknown ancestor.

The Hasmoneans were Aaronide priests (kohanim). In the second century B.C.E., multiple families could claim this lineage and, until the rebellion, the Aaronide Hasmoneans were not even in the running for control of the high priesthood. The family of Simon son of Yoḥanan, known from rabbinic literature as Shimon HaTzaddik (Simon the righteous), held this distinction. That family was known as the Oniad family.

To understand this, we must turn to Ben Sira, a Jerusalem priest and scholar who wrote a book of “wisdom” early in the second century B.C.E.[8] This book, which is part of the Catholic Bible and the Protestant Apocrypha but has no canonical status in Judaism, offers a look into life in Jerusalem after more than a century of Hellenistic rule before the days of Antiochus Epiphanes.

Simon ben Yoḥanan: An Oniad High Priest

The book of Ben Sira emphasizes the importance of the priesthood, especially the high priesthood. Its review of biblical heroes gives Aaron more space than anyone else (45:6–22), and notes:

Ben Sira 45:25 Just as a covenant was established with David son of Jesse of the tribe of Judah, that the king’s heritage passes only from son to son, so the heritage of Aaron is for his descendants alone.

Ben Sira’s account of Jerusalem in his own day glorifies at length the contemporary high priest, “Simon b. (son of) Yoḥanan” (ch. 50). In the LXX text of Sirach, he is called or Simon son of Onias, the Greek version of Ḥonyo.[9]

Onias and Bet Ḥonyo in Egypt

Josephus also lists several generations of high-priests named Onias, from the third century B.C.E. and down until the Maccabean Revolt. Around then, one of them, numbered by scholars as Onias III or Onias IV, left Judea, settled in Egypt with a number of followers, and, with permission from the Ptolemaic crown, founded a temple there.[10] That temple is also mentioned by the rabbis, who call it Bet Ḥonyo (“the House of Ḥonyo”).[11]

We do not know precisely when or why the Oniads established a temple in Egypt. Was it founded as a surrogate for the Temple of Jerusalem while the latter was defiled and out of commission in the days of Antiochus IV Epiphanes (167–164 B.C.E.)?[12] Or did the Oniads establish it in protest against the Hasmoneans’ usurpation of their ancestral office?

Even if the former explanation is true, however, the fact that the Oniads and their supporters continued to maintain their temple during the Hasmonean period[13] suggests that they did not accept the Hasmoneans’ high priesthood (and vice versa), and through the temple at which they officiated wanted to call attention to their own distinguished credentials as high priests over generations, in contrast to the Hasmoneans’ lack of same.[14] Thus, when the Hasmoneans came on the scene, they found themselves in inevitable competition with the Oniad priestly line which had, until the Antiochian persecution, dominated the Temple and the high priesthood.[15]

Zadokite Priests

Criticism of the Hasmoneans for supplanting the Oniads was not limited to the circle around the Temple of Onias in Egypt. It was also expressed in the scrolls of the Dead Sea community.

Although throughout the Bible and later Jewish literature priests are characterized as “sons of Aaron,” a poem appended to Ben-Sira states:

בן סירה נא:יבh (B XXI Recto) הודו למצמיח קרן לבית דוד כי לעולם חסדו. נא:יבi הודו לבוחר בבני צדוק לכהן כי לעולם חסדו.[16]
Ben Sira 51:12h (B XXI Recto) Give thanks to Him who makes a horn to sprout for the house of David, for his kindness endures forever. 51:12i Give thanks to Him who has chosen the sons of Zadok to be priests, for his kindness endures forever.

Similarly, several Qumran texts refer to “the priests who are sons of Zadok” as those with legitimate authority. This sobriquet derives from Ezekiel, where the prophet is looking forward to a properly restored temple in the future:

יחזקאל מד:טו וְהַכֹּהֲנִים הַלְוִיִּם בְּנֵי צָדוֹק אֲשֶׁר שָׁמְרוּ אֶת מִשְׁמֶרֶת מִקְדָּשִׁי בִּתְעוֹת בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל מֵעָלַי הֵמָּה יִקְרְבוּ אֵלַי לְשָׁרְתֵנִי וְעָמְדוּ לְפָנַי לְהַקְרִיב לִי חֵלֶב וָדָם נְאֻם אֲדֹנָי יְ־הוִה.
Ezek 44:15 But the levitical priests descended from Zadok, who maintained the service of My Sanctuary when the people of Israel went astray from Me—they shall approach Me to minister to Me; they shall stand before Me to offer Me fat and blood—declares the Lord YHWH.[17]

According to the Bible, Zadok replaced Abiathar as high priest in the days of Solomon, in fulfillment of a prophecy that, since Eli’s sons were wicked priests, they would be replaced by a faithful priest (see 1 Kings 2:26–27, referring back to 1 Samuel 2:12–36). The use of the phrase, whether in Ezekiel, Ben Sira, or Qumran, has a polemical aim: “Zadokites” are legitimate; their competitors are not. Thus we find zedek and/or Zadok highlighted in the discourse of several non-Hasmonean groups:

Oniads—Supporters of the Oniad temple pointed (according to Josephus, Ant. 13.68) to the prophecy at Isaiah 19:18–19 that there would be an altar in Egypt in a place called “city of zedek” (so the Septuagint; MT reads הַהֶרֶס).

Dead Sea Scrolls—The Qumran sect remembered its founding teacher, known as the Teacher of Righteousness (moreh ha-zedeq), and his struggle against the Hasmonean “Wicked Priest.”[18]   

צדוקים Sadducees—The name means that they are a party of those loyal to Zadok. They were one of the three main Judean groups that appeared in the second century B.C.E. (alongside the Pharisees and Essenes).

In sum, the problem of pedigree was acute for the Hasmoneans, because other candidates held better credentials for the high priesthood. The Zadokites were ready to emphasize how ineligible the Hasmoneans were.

Although we do not know how successful this anti-Hasmonean front was, that is, how much support was garnered by the Sadducees or the die-hards in Qumran and in Egypt, we can see that 1 Maccabees, the early Hasmoneans’ court history, engages the issue in a few ways.

Omitting the Previous High Priests

First, 1 Maccabees simply ignores the high priests who preceded the Hasmoneans, thus avoiding the question of the Hasmoneans’ right to supplant the Oniads. In contrast, 2 Maccabees, which had no pro-Hasmonean agenda,[19] goes into great detail about the high priests that came before Judah Maccabee’s rebellion. It tells how Onias, the legitimate high priest, was displaced by his brother Jason.[20] Soon after, Menelaus, the brother of Onias’ long-time rival Simon, outbribed Jason and took the high priesthood himself.[21]

Not only does 1 Maccabees not mention Jason or Menelaus; it even skips over Onias. Correspondingly, although 2 Maccabees 14:3 reports that one Alcimus had previously been high priest and now wanted to regain that position, the parallel account at 1 Macc 7:5 states merely that Alcimus wanted to be high priest.

The result is that the way 1 Maccabees tells the story, the Hasmoneans replaced the Seleucids as rulers of Judea. It hides the fact that when the Seleucids ruled the state, the Temple cult still functioned regularly, run by legitimate Oniad priests, and in fact enjoyed privileges and funding supplied by the Seleucids.[22]

The Spiritual Heirs of Phinehas

Another strategy used by 1 Maccabees to emphasize the legitimacy of the Hasmoneans, despite their lack of pedigree, was to compare their high priesthood both explicitly and implicitly to that of Phinehas.[23]

This comparison is found twice explicitly, both in Ch. 2, which is devoted to the story of Mattathias, who began the revolt in Modiʿin by killing a Jew who was willing to submit to the Seleucid demand that Jews offer idolatrous sacrifice. That scene is modeled after the story of Numbers 25, in which Phinehas kills Zimri son of Salu when he publicly and demonstratively associated himself with the idolatrous cult of Baal Peor. Indeed, 1 Maccabees (2:26) reports that Mattathias did what he did because “he was zealous for the law, doing as Phinehas did to Zimri the son of Salu.”

Another explicit reference to Phinehas a few verses later underlines the comparison: Mattathias’ deathbed speech, which adduces a long list of biblical heroes who were rewarded for their faith, singles out Phinehas alone as “our father” (1 Macc 2:54).

The implicit comparison of the Hasmoneans to Phinehas comes very early in the book (1 Macc 1:15), where Jewish Hellenists, who are portrayed as villains against whom the Hasmoneans fought, are characterized by a rare verb that means they “yoked themselves together” with the Gentiles. The same image is used at Num 25:3, 5 for the wicked Israelites who “yoked themselves together” (צ.מ.ד) with Baal Peor.

The comparison to Phinehas and the Hasmoneans’ emphasis upon being his descendant are significant, because God rewarded Phinehas for his zealotry by bestowing upon him “the covenant of eternal priesthood”:

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 zealous action for his God, thus making expiation for the Israelites.[24]

1 Maccabees, a Hasmonean mouthpiece, is claiming, in so many words, that just as Phinehas’s zealous action entitled him to the high priesthood, so too the Hasmoneans’ zealotry made them worthy of assuming the high priesthood. Merit and achievements, not lineage, are what counts.

Merit, not Lineage

The same approach is taken in the proclamation in 1 Maccabees 14 mentioned above, which begins with a long “whereas” clause that lists the Hasmoneans’ achievements (emphasizing Simon’s role in particular).[25] After listing multiple achievements, the text moves on to the “therefore” part of the document, that announces that the numerous and distinguished participants in the “great assembly” decided to endow Simon and his sons with eternal high priesthood and rule:

1 Macc 14:41(Therefore) the Judeans and the priests agreed that Simon shall be their leader and high priest forever, until the arising of a trustworthy prophet, 14:42 and that he shall be their general, and that he shall be responsible for the holy things—to appoint on his own authority those who take care of the cult and of the country, the weapons, and the fortresses…

Thus, just as the Hasmoneans sidestepped criticism of their assuming the high priesthood by pointing to the popular support that they enjoyed, they made the positive argument that they were entitled to their new position because of their accomplishments.

Even this official document, however, which endows Simon and his son with the high priesthood “forever,” stipulates that that is only “until the appearance of a trustworthy prophet” (1 Macc 14:41; cf. Ezra 2:63). That should be understood as a bone thrown to the opposition. In the next generation, however, with the powerful decades-long rule of John Hyrcanus, the Hasmoneans’ position became stronger.

From High Priesthood to Monarchy

Beginning in the late second century B.C.E., everything changed when John Hyrcanus’ sons, Aristobulus and Alexander Jannai, proclaimed themselves kings. The growth of the state sidelined the issue of the high priesthood and its incumbents’ pedigree. At that point, the Sadducees would come around and join the Hasmonean coalition, while the Pharisees would move to the opposition; attitudes toward Jewish law would become more important than details of lineage.

The first step in this transformative process was when the Hasmoneans, finding themselves at the head of a successful war for Judea’s independence from the Seleucid kingdom, decided that instead of returning the high priesthood to the Oniads, they would take the mantle themselves.

Published

December 6, 2023

|

Last Updated

February 26, 2024

Footnotes

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Prof. Daniel R. Schwartz is the Herbst Family Professor emeritus of Judaic Studies at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he did his Ph.D.  He specializes in the history, and especially the historiography, of the Second Temple period. His books include Agrippa I: The Last King of Judaea and Studies in the Jewish Background of Christianity (Mohr Siebeck, 1990 and 1992); 2 Maccabees (De Gruyter 2008); Judeans and Jews: Four Faces of Dichotomy in Ancient Jewish History (Univ. of Toronto Press 2014), and 1 Maccabees (Anchor Yale Bible, vol. 41B; New Haven: Yale University Press, 2022).