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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.

From Queen Alexandra to General Pompey

As queen, Alexandra appears to have followed her husband's advice with respect to the Pharisees. The Sadducees also seem to have given her their support during the nine years of her rule. In foreign affairs, the reign of Alexandra was likewise tranquil, with only a handful of military engagements, for the most part successful. Janneus and Alexandra had two sons: John Hyrcanus II and Judas Aristobulus II. Hyrcanus, the elder, succeeded his father as high priest, while Alexandra maintained royal power and prerogatives for herself. This unusual arrangement sufficed so long as the queen remained in good health. Only near the time of her death in 67 BCE did fraternal rivalry threaten to tear apart the Jewish kingdom. From the perspective of the Hasmonean dynasty it was unfortunate indeed that this threat became a reality only four years after Alexandra's death.

While the queen was still alive, but noticeably weakened, Aristobulus took aggressive steps to ensure that he, and not his elder brother Hyrcanus, would succeed their mother as king. Shortly after Alexandra's death, armed forces loyal to the two brothers clashed. Aristobulus had the military advantage, and Hyrcanus, bowing to reality, proposed a face-saving compromise compatible with his own chief interests: Aristobulus would be both king and high priest; Hyrcanus would retire from public life, but retain considerable prestige and wealth. Aristobulus instantly accepted.

With this agreement in place, it was possible to envision continued peace and prosperity for the Jewish state. But such was not to be. The irritant was the Idumean leader Antipater (Herod the Great's father). Antipater's father had for many years served Hyrcanus's parents, and Antipater himself threw his support behind Hyrcanus. Perhaps he thought him easier to manipulate than his younger brother Aristobulus, or perhaps he feared for his life if Aristobulus gained too much power. In any event, Antipater persuaded Hyrcanus to break his fraternal pact and seek support from the Nabatean monarch Aretas III, whom Janneus had earlier opposed. Encouraged by Antipater, Aretas raised a huge army and marched against Aristobulus. Hyrcanus joined in this effort, which resulted in a massive defeat for his younger brother. Aristobulus and his supporters retreated to the Jerusalem Temple and maintained the traditional rituals of sacrifice while staving off the attacks of their opponents.

Both brothers sought the advantage by appealing to the Roman leader Pompey, who was then in Asia Minor. At first, one of Pompey's aides declared in favor of Aristobulus. This was enough for the Nabateans, who had no desire to challenge Roman power. Aristobulus now had the upper hand and rapidly took advantage of his vastly improved circumstances. Pompey decided to look into these matters himself and summoned both Hyrcanus and Aristobulus to Damascus. A third party to this dispute was also given the chance to make its case. This third party consisted of a delegation from the general populace of Judea. Pompey listened to all sides, but adjourned the session without announcing his final disposition of the matter.

In the interim Aristobulus acted in what Pompey interpreted as a hostile manner. As a result, Pompey attacked Aristobulus's forces, predictably compelling the Jewish leader to surrender. It must have occasioned surprise on Pompey's part when he learned that Aristobulus's supporters, still in control of the Jerusalem Temple, desired to keep up the struggle. Hyrcanus's group gave its full support to Pompey's continued efforts, but only after a protracted and bloody siege did the Romans succeeded in capturing the heavily fortified Temple Mount. As victorious general, Pompey had no scruples against entering the Temple's innermost chamber, the holy of holies, but he was well advised not to steal anything from the Temple's great store of wealth. This occurred in 63 BCE.

The Romans were now firmly in charge. This was obvious to all through the imposition of tribute and the submission of Judea to the direct control of the Roman governor of Syria. Aristobulus and his family were taken to Rome as captives. Jewish freedom was a thing of the past. In these circumstances it is difficult to imagine that most Jews took much solace in Pompey's reinstatement of Hyrcanus as high priest.

For over a century prior to Pompey's triumph, Hasmoneans had dominated Jewish religious, cultural, and political life. Individual Hasmoneans varied greatly in terms of personal characteristics and fitness to lead the Jewish people. On the whole, members of that dynasty were probably more willing to reach compromises with the forces of Hellenism than was the general populace. But it is not clear that they consciously courted foreign favor at the expense of Judaism as they understood it, or that they consistently promoted policies that favored Hellenizers over more traditional Jews. In this regard, it is instructive to point out that the last Hasmonean defenders of the Temple, Aristobulus's supporters, refused to fight against the Romans on the Sabbath, and many Jews were slaughtered by the Romans in the very midst of their performance of Temple ritual.

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