I say this with some nervousness, but I think I have a minor discovery to report, involving one of the most puzzling passages of the Bible. I’ll wait for experts to look at the idea and tell me if I actually have anything worthwhile.
Let me first state the problem, about which I have posted recently. The last six chapters of Zechariah are commonly taken as being a separate text called Deutero-Zechariah. They describe an era of crisis, with Palestine enmeshed in multiple foreign invasions and internal conflicts. There are also very specific coded references to particular events that are probably completely beyond recovery, such as the puzzling “three shepherds cut off in one month.”
Presumably these reflect actual events in progress at the time of writing, but that scarcely helps us as the text has variously been dated to points from the early-fifth century BC through the mid-second BC. Some scholars favor a date in the Hellenistic period, partly because of Greece is cited as a formidable presence or enemy, and also because of what looks like a reference to a siege of Tyre. (“Tyre has built herself a stronghold; she has heaped up silver like dust, and gold like the dirt of the streets”: Zech. 9.3). The famous siege of that city occurred under Alexander the Great.
I suggest, though, that if we are looking for a tumultuous period of intense crisis that fits the general description, we might turn to the late third and early second centuries. This was the period in which the Seleucids took Palestine over from the Ptolemaic empire, and there was apparently a period of fraternal civil war within the Tobiad family. This really does appear to have drawn popular politics into the world of family factions and dynastic feuds. And if I might be cryptic here, this era did produce another, quite separate Tyre.
The foreign context is quickly told. Josephus describes the war between the Seleucid emperor Antiochus III and Ptolemy Philopator (221-203 BC), and his successors. Antiochus invaded Palestine in 219, and won repeated victories until he was defeated at Raphia, in Palestine, in 217 (one of the great battles of the Hellenistic era). In 198, Antiochus defeated the Egyptians at Panias, decisively winning the country for the Seleucid Empire. The struggle ended when the new king Ptolemy Epiphanes (203-181 BC) married Antiochus’s daughter Cleopatra. Incidentally, Josephus incudes a much quoted (and much debated) letter of Antiochus granting special privileges and tax exemptions to the Temple and its priests.
Much of Josephus’s story, though, concerns the Tobiad family, one of the two great clans that dominated Palestine in this era. The family’s fortunes were made by Joseph, who became the chief tax-collector for the Ptolemies, and his son was Hyrcanus, who had extensive dealings with the royal family. The story here deserves quoting at some length because it offers a brief illumination of such a totally dark era. Josephus writes (using Whiston’s translation for convenience):
But, upon the death of Joseph, the people grew seditious, on account of his sons. For whereas the elders made war against Hyrcanus, who was the youngest of Joseph’s sons, the multitude was divided, but the greater part joined with the elders in this war; as did Simon the high priest, by reason he was of kin to them. However, Hyrcanus determined not to return to Jerusalem any more, but seated himself beyond Jordan, and was at perpetual war with the Arabians, and slew many of them, and took many of them captives. He also erected a strong castle, and built it entirely of white stone to the very roof, and had animals of a prodigious magnitude engraven upon it. He also drew round it a great and deep canal of water. He also made caves of many furlongs in length, by hollowing a rock that was over against him; and then he made large rooms in it, some for feasting, and some for sleeping and living in. He introduced also a vast quantity of waters which ran along it, and which were very delightful and ornamental in the court. But still he made the entrances at the mouth of the caves so narrow, that no more than one person could enter by them at once. And the reason why he built them after that manner was a good one; it was for his own preservation, lest he should be besieged by his brethren, and run the hazard of being caught by them. Moreover, he built courts of greater magnitude than ordinary, which he adorned with vastly large gardens. … This place is between Arabia and Judea, beyond Jordan, not far from the country of Heshbon. And he ruled over those parts for seven years, even all the time that Seleucus was king of Syria.
Apart from these bitter struggles, we also know of other splits affecting the High Priesthood around 180. Seleucus IV attempted to seize Temple treasures, leading to a violent conflict between priestly factions, and an open battle for the high priesthood between Oniads and Tobiads. Both parties appealed to the Seleucid court to vindicate their claim.
Several points emerge here, but most important is the series of wars, occupations and transitions occurring at the start of the second century, and the combination of foreign invasion with fratricidal civil war, in which the high priesthood was deeply involved. Making them all the more dangerous was that internal schisms became aligned with dynastic loyalties: Hyrcanus was pro-Ptolemaic, but the high priests and most of his family were pro-Seleucid. That posed deadly dangerous when, for instance, Ptolemaic forces reoccupied the country after a period of absence. These divisions were doubly important because they prefigured the ideological splits that ultimately provoked the Maccabean revolt of the 160s.
Although we know little more about Hyrcanus beyond what we are told here, he was clearly a very significant figure, who sounds like a builder as prodigious as the later Transjordanian, Herod the Great. The fortress he built may coincide with the well-known site of Qasr al ‘Abd, in modern Jordan.
Based on analogies from other eras, like the Maccabean wars, it would not be surprising if he attracted fervent enmity, expressed in coded and prophetic denunciations. That such texts ever existed is a speculation, but I do make one comment. Josephus says that when Hyrcanus had everything in order in his great fortress, ton topon Tyron onomasen: he called the place Tyre.
Hyrcanus ruled from a new Tyre.
That was an interesting name, considering the long tradition of prophecies against the actual city of Tyre, notably from Isaiah and Ezekiel. But how natural for an enemy of Hyrcanus’s family, or his faction, to allude to that literature in denouncing him. Like the prophets of old, the new “Zechariah” mocked the fortress that claimed the proud name of Tyre, and warned that in this era too, God would strike it down and ruin its wealth.
I suggest that the Tyre reference in Deutero-Zechariah reads very well as a reference to conditions in the early second century BC, far better than to the time of Alexander the Great.
In this context, we read the final chapter of Zechariah, in which God establishes his earthly rule, and all the nations acknowledge the supremacy of Jerusalem and Israel. All nations will have to com up and pay tribute, but only one is specifically named:
And if the family of Egypt do not go up and present themselves, then upon them shall come the plague with which the Lord afflicts the nations that do not go up to keep the feast of booths. This shall be the punishment to Egypt and the punishment to all the nations that do not go up to keep the feast of booths. (14.18-19)
Hyrcanus, I mention once more, was a supporter of Egypt’s Ptolemies.
Do I say this with any confidence? Of course not. But I wonder if anyone has ever picked up the “Tyre” reference in that context?
Martin Hengel, “The Political and Social History of Palestine from Alexander to Antiochus III,” in W. D. Davies and Louis Finkelstein, eds., The Cambridge History of Judaism Volume 2: The Hellenistic Age (Cambridge University Press, 1990), 63-78. For the lands beyond Jordan as the “Wild East” of the ancient Jewish world, see Rachel Havrelock, River Jordan: The Mythology of a Dividing Line (University of Chicago Press, 2011).