John Hyrcanus lived during one of the most tumultuous periods of Jewish history when Judea was under the rule of the Seleucid dynasty. According to the Biblical Timeline Chart with World History, this was around 105 BC. He was one of the various rebel leaders in his family, starting with his grandfather Mattathias Maccabeus, who led successful campaigns against Hellenistic Jews and their allies, the Seleucid Empire. The early Maccabees were masters of guerrilla warfare and won important campaigns even when they were vastly outnumbered by their enemies.
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Much of what we know about John Hyrcanus came from the works of Jewish historian Flavius Josephus. In his books Antiquities of the Jews and The Jewish War, Josephus tells us that John Hyrcanus was the son of Simon. Simon was a leader proclaimed as a high priest after his successful campaign against the tyrant Trypho and Seleucid ruler Antiochus. Hyrcanus was also the nephew of rebel leaders, Judas and Jonathan Maccabeus
His father, Simon, was killed by his own son-in-law Ptolemy* after he attended a banquet at the invitation of Ptolemy’s father, Abubus. Two of Hyrcanus’ brothers, Mattathias, and Judas came with their father to the feast and were also killed. After an unsuccessful attempt to kill John Hyrcanus, who promptly escaped, Ptolemy imprisoned his mother and brothers as hostages.
John Hyrcanus took refuge in the city where he was welcomed and sheltered by the people because of his father’s heroism and their hatred of Ptolemy. His enemy made another attempt to end Hyrcanus’ life, but it was unsuccessful. Hyrcanus would be appointed as high priest. After he had gathered enough supporters, they attacked Ptolemy in an attempt to free his mother and brothers from prison. Ptolemy brought out Hyrcanus’ family and had them tortured to stop him from besieging the city. Ptolemy’s ruse worked, and Hyrcanus ended the siege after he saw his family severely beaten with rods.
The conflict between Ptolemy and John Hyrcanus would last for many years, which culminated until the Sabbatical Year when the latter stopped all attacks against his enemy. In the same year, Ptolemy killed Hyrcanus’ mother and brothers and fled to Zeno, the tyrant of Philadelphia. John Hyrcanus became the ruler of Judea after Ptolemy fled the city.
Wars with Seleucid Ruler and Surrender
His first few years as ruler of Judea were not peaceful as Antiochus VII Sidetus, the Seleucid king of Syria, decided to attack Judea. After several years of sieges, Hyrcanus was defeated, and he was forced to submit to the conditions laid out by Antiochus. He demanded from Hyrcanus the surrender of all weapons, the imposition of taxes on cities outside of Judea, a tribute of 500 talents, and several hostages so he could keep a tight grip on the people. Hyrcanus was also forced to plunder the sepulchre of David as a tribute to Antiochus, which led to the resentment of the Judean people. His reputation also suffered when he was forced to serve Antiochus in his campaign against the Parthians. Antiochus died the next year, and Hyrcanus decided to attack the now-vulnerable Syria.
Hyrcanus took revenge on Syria with a successful invasion of Medab, Samega, and other surrounding cities. He also took Shechem, Gerizzim, and the territories of the Cutheans (Samaritans) where he destroyed their temple that resembled the one in Jerusalem. He also forced the Idumeans to convert to Judaism after he conquered the cities of Marissa and Dora.
Hyrcanus established a friendly relationship with Rome after he sent ambassadors to the city. He was now backed by Rome while Judea also had a peaceful relationship with Egypt, Athens, and Pergamum during his reign. He ruled Judea peacefully for another 31 years and had five sons—one of whom was Aristobulus, the first king of Judea.
* not related to the Ptolemies of Egypt
Picture By José Teófilo de Jesus – Scan, MAB/Safra catalogue., Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10935138
Josephus, Flavius, and William Whiston. The Antiquities of the Jews. London: Routledge
Josephus, Flavius, and William Whiston. The War of the Jews. London: J.M. Dent & Sons
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