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The Institution of the Hasmonean High Priesthood

(Mod.: Prof. Joseph SIEVERS)

The scholarly interest in the Jewish high priesthood made itself apparent in biblical studies only since the year 2000.  Even yet there is no published work dedicated specifically to the study of the institution of the Hasmonean high priesthood. The present thesis studies this complex process down to the year 140 bce, with the intent of understanding the reason(s) behind its realization. This thesis is guided by a question that touches the very nature of the Hasmonean high priesthood. Was it conceived as a Jewish/biblical or as a Seleucid/Hellenistic institution? Some scholars have argued that the Hasmoneans instituted a “priestly monarchy”, while others spoke of a “sacral monarchy”. 

The method adopted here is mainly historical. But, this study is interdisciplinary in that it employs such disciplines as exegesis, archaeology, geography, epigraphy, socio-demographic studies and others.

What are the main problems this thesis had to cope with, and what answers or solutions does it offer?

First of all, this study does not support the view according to which Judas Maccabeus was the first Hasmonean high priest, as stated by Flavius Josephus (Ant. 12.414, 419, 434), and claimed by some modern scholars. Josephus’s affirmations seem to derive from his own reading of 1 Macc 8, which tells of an embassy sent to Rome by Judas, which was normally in the competence of a high priest. Such deduction caused Josephus several problems both on the narrative and chronological levels, while paraphrasing 1 Macc 7–10. Besides, Judas is not mentioned in the (later) list of high priests at Ant. 20.224-251.

Nor does this thesis support the theory which assumes the presence of a high priest in Jerusalem at the time Jonathan was appointed as high priest in 152 by the rival King Alexander Balas. To the contrary, the vacancy in the high priestly office opened for Jonathan the way to negotiate the high priesthood in exchange of his political and military support. While the present study supports the identification of Jonathan with the “Wicked Priest” known from several pesharim, there are no solid arguments for seeing in Jonathan’s appointment as high priest the reason behind the split of the “Community” (yahad), which produced part of the DSS.

But the question is, did the Seleucid King appoint Jonathan as a Jewish high priest or as a Hellenistic/Seleucid high priest? This thesis argues that Jonathan was appointed and continued to behave as a Hellenistic high priest. This conclusion was reached as a result of: 1) the analysis of the activity of Jonathan both internal and external between 152 and 143, as well as of his various Hellenistic titles; 2) the comparison with the pre-Hasmonean Jewish high priests of the Seleucid period by analyzing their religious and civil powers; 3) comparison with certain Hellenistic (Seleucid and Ptolemaic) high priests.

The analysis of the high priesthood of Simon between 142 and 140 reinforces this conclusion. In 140, “in the third year of Simon, the great high priest” (1 Macc 14,27) there gathered an assembly of priests and other prominent Jewish groups, which consented that Simon be high priest “in eternity” and be their strategos (14,41). The need of and the lateness of the assembly of priests and other prominent groups described in 1 Macc 14 was connected with the Hellenistic type of the Hasmonean high priesthood. The Hellenized priests, in fact, continued to have significant control of the temple since the time of Alcimus and even after Jonathan had become high priest. They seemed to co-operate with the royal Akra, which continued to control the City of David from 167 and existed down to 141.

This thesis, therefore, questions the extent to which both Jonathan and Simon would have had access to the temple and especially to its cult. Such difficulty was connected with the concentration of powers in the Hasmonean family as well as with issues connected with the halakhah regarding the Jewish high priest. Notwithstanding, the Hasmoneans found in Phinehas, grandson of Aaron, a convenient precedent for and a ‘valid’ priestly model on which to legitimize their Hellenistic type of high priesthood. Finally, this thesis recommends that one consider the institution of the Hasmonean high priesthood in the context of the 2d c. BCE Seleucid Judea.