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The Oxford History of the Biblical World An in-depth chaptered work by leading scholars providing a chronological overview of the history of biblical times.

Jonathan and Simon as Jewish Leaders

Enemies of the Jews, knowing of their refusal to fight on the Sabbath, often launched their attacks on that very day. Imagine Bacchides' surprise when his Sabbath sortie against Jonathan's forces was answered by defensive actions by the Jews, who in this way succeeded in extricating themselves from what would otherwise have been sure defeat. This bold reinterpretation of the traditional understanding of biblical law was not accepted by all Jews; some undoubtedly judged it an arrogant power play by the Maccabees. In their defense Jonathan, or his father Mattathias before him, could have argued that obedience to God's law was intended to result in life, not death. Perhaps more forceful than the abstract theological argumentation was the interpretation of Maccabean victory, won at the price of self-defense on the Sabbath, as signifying divine approval for such activity. In any event, the main lines of later Jewish exegesis sided with the Maccabees and even went beyond their practice to allow for offensive attacks on the Sabbath. The seventh day, when Joshua and his forces stormed the city of Jericho, was identified with the Sabbath, providing the required biblical precedent. The Maccabean period thus saw the beginnings of this line of development, when questions arose not only about the substance of this interpretation but also the authority of Mattathias and his family to formulate and impose their interpretation on others. When in mid-year 159 BCE the high priest Alcimus suffered a painful death, this seemed another sign that the Hasmoneans were charting a course in accordance with the divine will.

With Alcimus out of the way, Bacchides felt it safe to withdraw his strong military presence from Judea. Throughout most of the remainder of the decade an uneasy but largely uneventful peace prevailed between the Seleucids and the Hasmoneans. Curiously, Bacchides did nothing to secure a successor for Alcimus, and the office of high priest fell vacant for approximately seven years.

In 152 a challenge to Demetrius I arose in the person of Alexander Balas, whose claim to the Seleucid throne was buttressed by his claim to be a son of Antiochus IV. In the bidding that followed, Jonathan prospered and set an example for later Hasmoneans who found themselves in similar circumstances. Demetrius made the first bid for Jonathan's support: the Jewish leader could legally assemble and equip an army, those held hostage in the Akra would be released (although the Akra itself would remain as a foreign garrison), and Jonathan would be recognized as leader of the Jews. Thus equipped, Jonathan was able to enter Jerusalem, rebuild its walls, and provide for new construction on the Temple Mount. Alexander Balas raised the ante by confirming everything Demetrius had offered plus naming Jonathan as high priest and one of the “king's friends.” Jonathan readily assumed the high priesthood in the fall of 152, during the festival of Sukkot. Demetrius's counteroffers were ineffectual, and his defeat by Alexander Balas two years later confirmed the validity of Jonathan's appointment. The Hasmoneans, although priests, were not from the line of Zadok. In their defense it could be added that non-Zadokites had already served as high priests, so that Jonathan's acceptance was not unprecedented. Nevertheless, it aroused opposition and may even have precipitated the development of one or more of the sectarian movements to be discussed below. Opponents of Jonathan who voiced their concerns to Alexander Balas received no support from the Seleucid monarch. Quite the opposite: he heaped additional honors on Jonathan, further solidifying his position as the leader of Judea.

Alexander Balas's confidence in Jonathan was not misplaced, although it was several years before the Jewish leader had to demonstrate his loyalty. At that time Demetrius II, son of Demetrius I, rose to challenge Alexander Balas. When the governor of the region deserted Alexander Balas in favor of this challenger, Jonathan and his brother Simon took the lead in inflicting a punishing defeat on him. By now Jonathan was a “kinsman of the king,” several rungs higher up the royal ladder than his earlier rankings as one of the “king's friends” and “first friend.”

But Alexander Balas's days were numbered. Not long after Jonathan received the last batch of honors from his royal patron, Ptolemy VI intervened on behalf of Demetrius II, who was crowned as Seleucid king following the defeat of Alexander. Taking advantage of the uncertainty associated with such changes in leadership, Jonathan launched another attack on the Jerusalem Akra. Demetrius II was not about to allow this challenge to go unanswered, and he summoned Jonathan before him. Since neither side wished to risk a full-scale conflict at this time, they reached a compromise whereby the Akra remained in Seleucid hands and Jonathan retained most of his power over a newly enlarged Judea.

Although Jonathan showed himself as loyal to Demetrius as he had to his predecessor, the current monarch did not reciprocate with the generosity that had characterized Alexander's dealings with the Jewish leader. Jonathan repaid Demetrius in kind by offering his full support to a rival claimant to the throne, Antiochus VI. This young son of Alexander Balas was championed by a man named Tryphon. Jonathan fought bravely on behalf of Antiochus and against Demetrius's supporters, taking this opportunity to launch an expanded assault on the Akra. In Jonathan's eyes, its continued existence was a major irritant.

Jonathan also used his increased power and prestige to enlarge the scope of his diplomatic activity. Not only did he take steps to ensure that his alliance with the Romans remained intact, but he also initiated official contacts with the Spartans, with whom he claimed a long kinship. Such a claim, although dubious, gives insight into the way Jonathan perceived the Jews in relation to other peoples of the ancient world.

Like many other regents before him, Tryphon aimed not so much to safeguard the throne for his young charge as to ascend it himself. Because he discerned that Jonathan would block such a move on his part, he lured the Jewish leader into a trap that resulted in the slaughter of his substantial bodyguard and his own capture. Leadership of the Jews now fell to Simon, the last remaining son of Mattathias. He ably parried every attempt by Tryphon to follow up his treachery with military success, but in the end Tryphon thwarted Simon's attempts to gain his brother's freedom. When Simon reluctantly accepted Tryphon's offer to free Jonathan in return for ransom money and two of Jonathan's sons, the disreputable Tryphon took all that Simon gave but refused to keep his part of the bargain. Soon after, Tryphon killed Jonathan on his way out of Judea.

These actions probably elevated Simon's stature among his own people, some of whom declared him the new high priest. That status was later confirmed by Demetrius II, who also exempted the Jews from the payment of those taxes associated with subservience to the Syrian empire. For all practical purposes Demetrius had granted independence to his former Jewish subjects. Documents dated to this period, in the autumn of 142 BCE and later, refer to Simon as high priest, commander, and chief of the Jews.

In general, the eight years of Simon's leadership were positive and successful for the new Jewish state. Early on he succeeded in finally expelling foreign troops, foreign civilians, and their Jewish sympathizers from the Akra. When Demetrius II was succeeded by Antiochus VII, the latter left in place all of the provisions agreed to by his predecessor and even allowed the Jews to mint their own coins (a privilege later rescinded). But like several of his predecessors, Antiochus VII soon grew suspicious of the power of his Jewish allies; his moves against them were, however, countered by Simon and his sons Judas and John.

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