John Hyrcanus I Hasmonean, Ethnarch & High Priest

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John Hyrcanus I Hasmonean, Ethnarch & High Priest

Hebrew: יוחנן הורקנוס הראשון החשמונאי, מלך וכהן גדול
Also Known As: "/John/"
Birthplace: Judea
Death: Died in Jerusalem, Israel
Immediate Family:

Son of Simon the Thassi Maccabeus, Prince and High Priest of Judea_2 and Wife of Simon the Thassi
Husband of Arisone of Egypt
Father of Judas Aristobulus I Hasmonean, King & High Priest of Judea; Antigonos I Hasmonean; Alexander Jannaeus Maccabaeus, King and High Priest; Absalom of Judea Hasmonéan, Prince; son #5 of John Hyrcanus I #5 Maccabeus and 1 other
Brother of Prince Mattathias Hasmonean and Prince Judah Hasmonean

Occupation: Ethnarch (Prince) & High Priest of Judea, Prince de Judée, ethnarque
Managed by: Private User
Last Updated:

About John Hyrcanus I Hasmonean, Ethnarch & High Priest

יוחנן הורקנוס הראשון

John Hyrcanus (Yohanan Girhan; Yohanan Hyrcanus - יוחנן הורקנוס, Ιωάννης Υρκανός) (reigned 134 - 104 BCE, died 104 BCE) was a Hasmonean (Maccabeean) leader of the 2nd century BCE. Apparently the name "Hyrcanus" was taken by him as a regnal name upon his accession to power.

Life and work

He was the son of Simon Maccabaeus and hence the nephew of Judas Maccabaeus, Jonathan Maccabaeus and their siblings, whose story is told in the deuterocanonical books of 1 Maccabees and 2 Maccabees, in the Talmud, and in Josephus. John was not present at a banquet at which his father and his two brothers were murdered, purportedly by his brother-in-law, Ptolemy, son of Abubus. He attained to his father's former offices, that of high priest and king (although some Jews never accepted any of the Hasmoneans as being legitimate kings, as they were not lineal descendants of David).

His taking a Greek regnal name - "Hyrcanus" (see Hyrcania) - was a significant political and cultural step away from the intransigent opposition to and rejection of Hellenistic culture which had characterised the Maccabean revolt against Seleucid rule. It reflected a more pragmatic recognition that Judea, once having attained independence, had to maintain its position among a milieu of small and large states which all shared the Hellenistic culture. All subsequent Hasmonean rulers followed suit and adopted Greek names in their turn.

Hasmonean Kingdom under John Hyrcanus

Siege of Jerusalem

During the first year of Hyrcanus’ reign, he faced the most serious challenge to independent Judean rule from the Seleucid Empire. Antiochus VII Sidetes marched into Judea, pillaged the countryside and laid a year long siege on Jerusalem. The prolonged siege caused Hyrcanus to remove any Judean from the city who could not assist with the defense effort (Antiquities 13.240). These refugees were not allowed to pass through Antiochus’ lines. Therefore, these Judeans were literally trapped in the middle of a chaotic siege. With a humanitarian crisis on his hands, Hyrcanus re-admitted his estranged Jerusalemites when the festival of Sukkot arrived. Afterwards, due to massive food shortages in Jerusalem, Hyrcanus negotiated a truce with Antiochus.

The terms of the truce consisted of three thousand talents of silver as payment for Antiochus, breaking down the walls of Jerusalem, Judean participation in the Seleucid war against the Parthians, and once again Judean recognition of Seleucid control (Antiquities 13.245). These terms were a harsh blow to a young ruler. Furthermore, Hyrcanus needed to loot the tomb of David to pay the 3000 talents (The Wars of the Jews I 2:5).

The repercussions of the Seleucid siege were initially a difficult set-back for Hyrcanus. Judea faced tough economic times after the countryside was plundered and Jerusalem was under siege. Economic struggles were greatly magnified by taxes to the Seleucids enforced by Antiochus. Furthermore, Hyrcanus was forced to accompany Antiochus on his eastern campaign in 130 BC. Hyrcanus probably would have functioned as the military commander of a Jewish company in the campaign. Instead of governing a devastated Judean state, Hyrcanus was in Parthia fighting with Antiochus.

Additionally, this probably caused a loss of support for the inexperienced Hyrcanus among the Judean population. Judeans in the countryside were especially disillusioned with Hyrcanus after Antiochus’ army plundered their land. The fact that Hyrcanus was fighting alongside Antiochus probably caused serious resentment. Furthermore Hyrcanus driving out the non-military population of Jerusalem during the siege also probably caused resentment for his rule in the city. Finally, the action of looting the Tomb of David violated his obligations as High Priest. This would have offended the religious leadership.

Therefore, at a very early point in his thirty-one year reign of Judea, Hyrcanus had lost the support of Judeans in various cultural sectors. The Jerusalemites, countryside Judeans and the religious leadership probably doubted the future of Judea under Hyrcanus. However, Hyrcanus was met with fortune in 128 BC when Antiochus VII was killed in battle against Parthia. What followed was an era of conquest led by Hyrcanus that marked the high point of Judea as the most significant power in Syria.

Conquests of John Hyrcanus

John Hyrcanus was able to take advantage of unrest in Seleucia to assert Judean independence and conquer new territories. Demetrius III returned from exile to take control of Seleucia. However, transition of power made it difficult for Demetrius to assert control over Judea. Furthermore, the Seleucid Empire itself fell apart into smaller principalities. The Ituraeans of Lebanon, the Ammonites of the Transjordan, and the Arabian Nabateans represented independent principalities that broke away from Seleucid control. Hyrcanus was determined to take advantage of the dissipating Seleucid Empire to increase the Judean State.

Hyrcanus also raised a new mercenary army that strongly contrasted with the Judean forces that were defeated by Antiochus VII (Ant.13.257). The Jewish population was probably still recovering from the attack of Antiochus, and therefore could not provide enough able men for a Hyrcanus-led army. Hyrcanus’ army was supported by the Judean State once again by funds that Hyrcanus removed from the Tomb of David.

Hyrcanus’ first conquest was an invasion of the Transjordan. Hyrcanus’ mercenary army laid siege to the city of Medeba and took it after a six-month siege. After these victories, Hyrcanus went north towards Schechem and Mount Gerizim. The city of Schechem was reduced to a village and the Samaritan Temple on Mount Gerizim was destroyed. This military action against Schechem has been dated archaeologically around 111-110 BC. Destroying the Samaritan Temple on Mount Gerizim helped ameliorate Hyrcanus’ status among religious elite and common Jews who detested any Jewish temple outside of Jerusalem.

Hyrcanus also initiated a military campaign against the Idumeans in the Negev near Eilat. During this campaign Hyrcanus conquered Adora, Marisa and other Idumean towns (Ant.13.257). Hyrcanus then instituted forced conversions on the Idumeans. This was an unprecedented move for a Judean ruler.

Beginning in 113 BC, Hyrcanus began an extensive military campaign against Samaria. Hyrcanus placed his sons Antigonus and Aristobulus in charge of the siege of Samaria. The Samarians called for help and eventually received 6000 troops from Antiochus IX Cyzicenus. Although the siege lasted for a long, difficult year, Hyrcanus was unwilling to give up his siege. Ultimately, Samaria was overrun and totally destroyed. Cyzicenus’ mercenary army was defeated and the city of Scythopolis seems to have been occupied by Hyrcanus as well. The inhabitants of Samaria where then put into slavery. These slaves were not Israelites or worshippers of YHWH. Instead, the Samarians sent into slavery were reported to be Macedonian settlers.

At the end of his reign, John Hyrcanus had built a kingdom that rivaled the size of Israel under King Solomon.

Economy, foreign relations, and religion

After the siege of Jerusalem, Hyrcanus faced a serious economic crisis in Judea. We can assume that the economic difficulties subsided after the death of Antiochus VII. Hyrcanus no longer had to pay taxes or tributes to a weaker Seleucia. The economic situation eventually improved enough for Hyrcanus to issue his own coinage (see below). On top of that, Hyrcanus initiated vital building projects in Judea. Hyrcanus re-built the walls destroyed by Antiochus. He also built a fortress north of the Temple called the Baris and possibly also the fortress Hyrcania.

Moreover, Hyrcanus sought for good relations with the surrounding Gentile powers, especially the growing Roman Empire. Two decrees were passed in the Roman Senate that established a treaty of friendship with Judea. Although it is difficult to specifically date these resolutions, they represent efforts made between Hyrcanus and Rome to maintain stable relations. Also, an embassy sent by Hyrcanus received Roman confirmation of Hasmonean independence. Hyrcanus was an excellent case of a ruler backed by Roman support.

In addition to Rome, Hyrcanus was able to maintain steady relations with Ptolemaic Egypt. This was probably made possible due to various Jews living in Egypt who had connections with the Ptolemaic Court (Ant. 13.284-287). Finally, the cities of Athens and Pergamum even showed honor to Hyrcanus in an effort to appease Rome.

Furthermore, the minting of coins by Hyrcanus demonstrates Hyrcanus’ willingness to delegate power. Sixty-three coins found near Bethlehem bear the inscription, “Yohanan the High Priest.” The reserve side of the coins contains the phrase, “The Assembly of the Jews.” This seems to suggest that during his reign, Hyrcanus was not an absolute ruler. Instead, Hyrcanus had to submit at times to an assembly of Jews that had a certain amount of minority power. The coins lack any depictions of animals or humans. This suggests that Hyrcanus strictly followed the Jewish prohibition against graven images. The coins also seem to suggest that Hyrcanus considered himself to be primarily the High Priest of Judea, and his rule of Judea was shared with the Assembly.

In Judea, religious issues were a core aspect of domestic policy. Josephus only reports one specific conflict between the Pharisees and Hyrcanus (Ant. 13.288-296). Essentially, criticism of Hyrcanus’ roles as High Priest and ethnarch by the Pharisees led to a falling out. Thus, this conflict between Hyrcanus and the Pharisees elevated the status of the Sadducees.

There is, however, good reason to doubt this account by Josephus. First of all, Josephus reports elsewhere that the Pharisees did not grow to power until the reign of Queen Salome Alexandra (JW.1.110) The coins minted under Hyrcanus suggest that Hyrcanus did not have complete secular authority. Furthermore, this account may represent a piece of Pharisaic apologetics due to Josephus’ Pharisaic background. Therefore, this account might represent a historical creation meant to elevate the status of the Pharisees during the height of the Hasmonean Dynasty.

There were probably tensions because of the religious and secular leadership roles held by Hyrcanus. However, it is difficult to assume that this account by Josephus is an accurate re-telling of the relationship between Hyrcanus, the Pharisees and the Sadducees at that time.

Ultimately, one of the final acts of Hyrcanus’ life was an act that solved any kind of dispute over his role as High Priest and ethnarch. In the will of Hyrcanus, he provisioned for the division of the high priesthood from secular authority. Hyrcanus’ wife was given control of civil authority after his death, and his son Judas Aristobulus was given the role of High Priest. This action represented Hyrcanus’ willingness to compromise over the issue of secular and religious authority. (However, Aristobulus was not satisfied with this arrangement, so he cast his mother into prison and let her starve.)

Children: Alexander Jannai Maccabeus of Judea; Absalom of Judea


About יוחנן הורקנוס הראשון החשמונאי, מלך וכהן גדול (עברית)

יוחנן הורקנוס הראשון (164 לפנה"ס בערך - 104 לפנה"ס) היה נשיא יהודה וכהן גדול בשנים 134 לפנה"ס עד 104 לפנה"ס.

יוחנן מת בשנת 104 לפנה"ס לאחר שלושים ואחת שנות נשיאות, והוא כבן שישים. הוא הותיר אחריו חמישה בנים - יהודה אריסטובולוס הראשון, אנטיגונוס הראשון, אלכסנדר ינאי, אבשלום, ובן נוסף ששמו לא נודע. לפני מותו מינה את אשתו לכהונת המושלת, ואת בנו אריסטובולוס מינה לכהונה הגדולה. אך לאחר מותו כלא אריסטובולוס את אמו ואת אחיו (פרט לאנטיגונוס, אשר אותו מינה לשר צבאו), ולקח לידיו את שתי הכהונות.

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