Scripture and Sedition

The Hasmonean rulers of the independent Jewish kingdom (165 BC – 63 BC) were the subject of many writings, usually in the form of veiled pseudo-prophecies. Taken together, they provide us with a strictly contemporary commentary on a critical period.

The ruling Hasmonean dynasty had many enemies, and from various perspectives. Originally aligned with the Pharisees, the dynasty later shifted its support to the Sadducees, and severely persecuted the Pharisees. Acts of bloodshed and repression were frequent, but critics had many grounds for their attacks. The challenged the dynasty on their lack of authentic Davidic credentials, required for true kings. They also challenged its high priestly authority, and their displacement of the Aaronic succession. In the mid-second century, it was a struggle against the Hasmonean high priesthood that led to the secession of the group that formed the settlement at Qumran, and which ultimately produced the Dead Sea Scrolls.

We see these diverse attacks in the so-called Psalms of Solomon, which were credited to that ancient king, but written at some point following the Roman conquest of Jerusalem in 63 BC. In Psalm 17, “Solomon” laments the dreadful things that will befall his people:

Thou, O Lord, didst choose David (to be) king over Israel,

And swore to him touching his seed that never should his kingdom fail before Thee.

But, for our sins, sinners rose up against us;

They assailed us and thrust us out;         

What Thou hadst not promised to them, they took away [from us] with violence.

They in no wise glorified Thy honorable name;

They set a [worldly] monarchy in place of [that which was] their excellency; They laid waste the throne of David in tumultuous arrogance.

The “sinners” are, of course, the Hasmoneans.

Here is a more recent translation of that last verse, from R. B. Wright:

With pomp they set up a monarchy because of their arrogance; they despoiled the throne of David with arrogant shouting.

We also turn to the Testaments of the Twelve Patriarchs, supposedly the last words of the sons of Jacob, from around 1500 BC. They were actually written around the turn of the Christian Era, and some at least were heavily Christianized. The Testament of Levi attacks evil priests, in words that R. H. Charles thought applied perfectly to Alexander Jannaeus, c.90 BC:

The offerings of the Lord ye shall rob, and from His portion shall ye steal choice portions, eating (them) contemptuously with harlots. And out of covetousness ye shall teach the commandments of the Lord, wedded women shall ye pollute, and the virgins of Jerusalem shall ye defile: and with harlots and adulteresses shall ye be joined, and the daughters of the Gentiles shall ye take to wife, purifying them with an unlawful purification; and your union shall be like unto Sodom and Gomorrah. And ye shall be puffed up because of your priesthood, lifting yourselves up against men, and not only so, but also against the commands of God. For ye shall contemn the holy things with jests and laughter.

Those references are clear enough, but others are more debatable. The Testament of Moses includes a similar attack on evil priests, which includes a suggestive reference to the priests being sons of slaves. That seems to recall a common slander directed against the Hasmoneans:

And when the times of chastisement draw nigh and vengeance arises through the kings who share in their guilt and punish them, they themselves also shall be divided as to the truth. …  For they shall not follow the truth of God, but some shall pollute the altar with the (very) gifts that they offer to the Lord, who are not priests but slaves, sons of slaves. And many in those times shall have respect unto desirable persons and receive gifts, and pervert judgment [on receiving presents]. And on this account the colony and the borders of their habitation shall be filled with lawless deeds and iniquities: those who wickedly depart from the Lord shall be judges: they shall be ready to judge for money as each may wish.

Other scholars, though, relate these attacks to priests of a much earlier period.

By no means all the references are critical, and the dynasty had its friends and sympathizers. Probably in the late second century, an unknown priest, probably a Pharisee, used and expanded the Book of Genesis to create the tract we call Jubilees. In passing, we read that “he abode that night at Bethel, and Levi dreamed that they had ordained and made him the priest of the Most High God, him and his sons for ever; and he awoke from his sleep and blessed the Lord” (32.1-2). By using the phrase “priest of the Most High God”, the author was giving ancient sanction to the official title used by the Hasmonean priest-kings.

The same rhetorical tactics continued under the still more tyrannical Herodian dynasty. The Testament of Moses includes a later insertion in which “Moses” foretells the far future, and gives a painfully accurate account of Herod the Great (74-4 BC)

Then there shall be raised up unto them kings bearing rule, and they shall call themselves priests of the Most High God: they shall assuredly work iniquity in the holyof holies. And an insolent king shall succeed them, who will not be of the race of the priests, a man bold and shameless, and he shall judge them as they shall deserve. And he shall cut off their chief men with the sword, and shall destroy them in secret places, so that no one may know where their bodies are. He shall slay the old and the young, and he shall not spare. Then the fear of him shall be bitter unto them in their land. And he shall execute judgments on them as the Egyptians executed upon them, during thirty and four years, and he shall punish them. And he shall beget children, who succeeding him shall rule for shorter periods.

Obviously I am just scratching the surface here, but we see that pseudo-scripture and pseudo-prophecy were primary means of writing polemic, and that Jewish device was wholly inherited by later Christians.

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  • John Kirk Williams

    Fascinating stuff. It seems fairly safe to say that most scripture tends to concern itself with the issues of the time period in which it is produced. Anyway, thanks for this. It’s a nice break from all the Mormon stuff, though I doubt you’ll get as many comments.

  • stefanstackhouse

    Even those who hold to biblical inerrancy only do so with respect to the original autographs. We don’t have those any more, and that’s a big problem. In the case of the NT we have plenty of very old manuscripts, and after centuries of scholarship we can be pretty confident that our modern critical text is close enough to the original to be reliable. But what of the OT? Our earliest manuscripts are all many centuries removed from when the earliest books were created. Some Christians seem to have the notion that the OT text has been somehow preserved intact with no change whatsoever over all these years. They can believe that if they wish, but that goes far beyond anything that the standard statements of inerrancy claim – and I would say far beyond the bounds of any reasonableness.

    We must consider this: If there were all these people creating all of these pseudo-scriptural texts in the Hasmonean period, can we really be so very sure that there never was anyone that was thinking that it would be a good idea to insert some additional material into the canonical books? Especially considering that by Josiah’s day, apparently even the priests and Levites were so negligent of the scriptures that a book of the law had to be “discovered”?

    Once you open up the possibility that there might be some added material in some of the older OT books, at least, then a lot of so-called problems go away. For example, it has been noted that there is no evidence of domesticated camels in the middle east at the time that Abraham and his family lived. The mention of camels in the Genesis text is taken by some as evidence of an “error”. However, might the mentions of camels simply be a later insertion, added by someone who was well-meaning and thought that adding a mention of the camels (that by their time were well-known and ubiquitous) would add a certain verisimilitude to the story? And might there possibly be many more examples like this?

    I believe that we do have something to go by that prevents the entire OT from being torn totally to shreds. We do have quite a bit of the OT brought into the NT, either by direct quote or indirect allusion. IF one holds to anything even close to inerrancy with the NT, and IF one accepts that the modern critical text is close enough to the original to be reliable, then one must also accept that at least those OT quotes and allusions must also themselves be inerrant. That leaves a lot of the OT (and most of the theologically significant parts) for critics to attack and inerrancy advocates to defend. It does remove from the battlefield, however, quite a lot of trivial stuff that didn’t belong there in the first place and isn’t worth the fight.