People in the modern West are properly critical of the whole idea of imperialism, and suspicious of its rhetoric. That approach naturally influences religious thinkers, and there is no shortage of Bible scholars who apply strictly contemporary views to the New Testament world. We acknowledge the critique of Empire in the Gospels and in texts like Revelation, and sermons regularly imagine the people of Jesus’s age yearning to breathe free from Roman oppression.
Those approaches can offer useful insights into those texts. But they can distort the history, especially if they lead us to idealize conditions before Roman rule. The independent Jewish state that had existed in the 150 years or so before Jesus’s birth actually looks quite recognizable to modern eyes as a revolutionary dictatorship dissolving into a failed state.
As I’ve described, the Maccabean family led a successful revolution against the Greek Seleucid Empire in the 160s BC. Arguably, the revolt began as a Jewish civil war between domestic factions, orthodox/nativist and Hellenizers, and only later was it internationalized by an imperial invasion. That neatly foreshadowed the extremely divided nature of the whole period, and the tendency to resort to civil violence. Whatever its origins, though, the victors transformed the cause into a religious event and a nationalist rising.
In a pattern that again looks very recognizable today, the revolutionary leaders then established a hegemony that lasted into the 40s of the next century. These Hasmonean leaders annexed the high priesthood from the 150s, and in 104 BC they transformed their princely rule into overt royal power, as the new incumbent took the Greek title of basileus. The Hasmoneans never broke culturally from their Greek neighbors, the Ptolemaic and Seleucid empires, and the affairs of the various regimes often intersected, with frequent military interventions.
Josephus makes no secret of the tyrannical and violent character of the Hasmonean rulers. Even when they had secured themselves from foreign threats by the 140s BC, they presided over a deeply divided nation sharply split between political parties, best remembered as the Pharisees and Sadducees, who mixed theological beliefs with explicit class politics. Riot, sedition and assassination were commonplace, with each faction threatening to call in foreign invaders to support its cause. The 80s BC witnessed an exceedingly bloody civil war, followed by a traumatic repression. I have already described the pathological savagery of the king at the time, Alexander Jannaeus, who really did out-Herod Herod.
As violence and protest mounted, so did the explicitly religious nature of rhetoric, as writers denounced their opponents not merely as bad but as servants of Satan or the forces of Darkness. The Dead Sea Scrolls preserve the increasingly apocalyptic rants of one sect that was in total opposition to the religious and political regimes of its day. The Wicked Priest who is such a sinister figure in those texts is certainly a Hasmonean high priest, possibly Jonathan Apphus in the 140s, or even Alexander Jannaeus.
Like any small post-Hellenistic state, the Hasmonean realm was riddled with family feuds that made the country all but ungovernable. Families were large, and a king with four or five sons would likely face insurrection from at least one. When a king died, multiple brothers would contest the throne. Ideally, one would be strong enough to suppress the others, but if not, there was a real risk of recurring civil wars and foreign interventions. The lack of an obvious mechanism for royal succession was a fatal weakness.
To observe Hasmonean family values at work, we might look at what happened when John Hyrcanus died in 104 BC, leaving five sons. The immediate successor was Aristoboulos I, who imprisoned his mother and starved her to death. He also jailed all his other brothers except Antigonus, whom he loved dearly, until he decided to assassinate him. When Aristoboulos died shortly afterwards, he was succeeded by one of the surviving brothers, Alexander Jannaeus (Antiquities XIII. 11)
The last gasp of Hasmonean power came in 40 BC, with Antigonus II Mattathias, the son of Aristoboulos II. He made himself king, briefly, by agreeing to serve as a puppet of the Parthians who invaded the country. He actually bought the Parthian alliance for the price of a spectacular thousand talents, plus five hundred nobly born women as slaves. His ambitions were too much for Marc Antony and his Herodian allies, who not only deposed Antigonus but killed him, possibly by the humiliating means of crucifixion. As Josephus says, “And thus did the government of the Hasmoneans cease, a hundred twenty and six years after it was first set up.” Antigonus Mattathias was a reckless adventurer, a would-be warlord, and he showed himself willing to place Judea under any foreign rule if it would serve his own purposes. He was, in short, a perfect representative of his dynasty.
Reading Josephus’s account of this era, we must be struck by the seemingly endless round of wars, invasions, massacres and civil wars, compared to which the Roman era looks almost idyllic. I can’t resist quoting his obituary for Hyrcanus II, son of Alexander Jannaeus, who died in 30 BC. How is this for a life that cries out to be filmed?
For he was made high priest of the Jewish nation in the beginning of his mother Alexandra’s reign, who held the government nine years; and when, after his mother’s death, he took the kingdom himself, and held it three months, he lost it, by the means of his brother Aristobulus. He was then restored by Pompey, and received all sorts of honor from him, and enjoyed them forty years; but when he was again deprived by Antigonus, and was maimed in his body, he was made a captive by the Parthians, and thence returned home again after some time, on account of the hopes that Herod had given him; none of which came to pass according to his expectation, but he still conflicted with many misfortunes through the whole course of his life.
We might be tempted to assume that all these intricate family feuds were irrelevant to ordinary people, who had nothing to lose or gain from the victory of either side. These were, surely, elite squabbles. But the endemic wars and invasions were another matter altogether. Frequent violence and campaigning brought massacre, rape and pillage. They disrupted farming and brought the risk of famine. Peasant farmers lost their livelihoods, and became tenants or even slaves. That kind of crisis meant no rents for propertied people, while the collapse of trade echoed through the whole economy. Quite apart from the danger to life and limb, it was extremely difficult for society to function in any kind of prolonged war. If ordinary people wanted one human right above all, it was peace.
Although it is not exactly sober history, the Monty Python film Life of Brian has a memorable scene showing the members of the radical anti-Roman nationalist group, the People’s Front of Judea. Their fiery leader, Reg, asks, rhetorically, what the Romans have ever done for the country, only to receive a surprising number of answers. What about the aqueduct, asks one guerrilla? And medicine? And the roads? Exasperated, Reg answers, “All right, but apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh-water system, and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?” “Brought peace?” asks a follower. “Oh, peace?” says Reg, “Shut up!”
Emilio Gabba, “The social, economic and political history of Palestine 63 BCE – CE 70,” in William Horbury, W. D. Davies and John Sturdy eds., The Cambridge History of Judaism Volume 3: The Early Roman Period (Cambridge University Press, 1999), 94-167.