The prophet Yeshu—Pt. 3: A brief historical overview c. 140–100 BCE

Christians as well as researchers into the origins of Christianity are very familiar with the historical dynamics and events in Palestine around the turn of the era—the Herodian dynasty, the Roman occupation, events leading up to the First Jewish War… The canonical gospels and later Church literature supplement (generally with unreliable or even invented material) the works of Josephus which, unfortunately, scholars are finding to be not always accurate.

Those of you who are following my hypothesis regarding Yeshu ha-Notsri (and I thank you for that interest) must, however, completely redirect your focus to a period about one century earlier. This post is not going to be a history lesson—I’m just going to furnish some basic historical facts available anywhere, but also some interpretations that I have arrived at, interpretations that are germane to our investigations but that are not necessarily held by mainstream scholarship.

The main historical sources for the early first century BCE, which belongs to the Hasmonean Period, are the books I and II Maccabees, as well as the works of Josephus. However, Josephus’ famous analysis of Jewish sects into three principal parties (Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes, Ant. 18.1) is now commonly viewed as overly simplistic and even anachronistic—more relevant to the early first century CE than the early first century BCE, when these groups were still coalescing and searching for definition. The genesis of all three groups may remain forever shrouded in mystery. When the Hasmonean dynasty began c. 140 BCE, its first ruler Simon Thassi was emphatically not ‘king.’ He was leader (sometimes termed “Prince”) and above all High Priest ruling at the summit of a theocracy. Thus, the Jewish aristocracy of the early Hasmonean Period (late second century BCE) was a ruling priesthood, later known as the Sadducees (from Tsadik, “righteous” or, alternatively, self-described descendants of Zadok/Tsadok, the High Priest under Kings David and Solomon). The name “Sadducee” probably came into usage in opposition to the emergent Pharisees, a more progressive wing in Judaism that emphasized scholarship over ritual, and the so-called ‘oral Law’ (which the conservative Sadducees did not admit) in addition to the Torah or written Law. As Josephus relates, the Pharisees eventually (in the first century CE) became far more popular with the people: “they [the Sadducees] are able to do almost nothing of themselves; for when they become magistrates… they addict themselves to the notions of the Pharisees, because the multitude would not otherwise bear them” (Ant. 18.1.5).

This foregoing description by Josephus, however, was not the case c. 100 BCE. During the long reigns of both Hyrcanus I (Simon’s son, known simply as John Hyrcanus, r. 134–104 BCE) and Jonathan (better known as Alexander Janneus, r. 103–76 BCE) the Jerusalem priestly elite was still thoroughly dominant. John Hyrcanus was known as Yohanan Cohen Gadol, “John the High Priest.” John delegated considerable power to an “Assembly of the Jews” that later evolved into the Beit Din (“House of Judgment”), also known as the Sanhedrin. Originally, this assembly was composed of priests. It met daily in the Hall of Hewn Stones of the Jerusalem Temple. However, as the Pharisees gained in power, the composition of the Sanhedrin changed. In fact, by the Roman conquest of Palestine in 63 BCE the Sanhedrin was already dominated by Pharisees.

In his brief reign of one year, Aristobulus I (the eldest son of John Hyrcanus) upset many people by declaring himself “king.” Some religious Jews considered this an abomination, as the High Priest could not also be king. Josephus writes that Aristobulus was the first Jew in “four hundred and eighty three years and three months” to have established a monarchy since the return from the Babylonian Captivity. This move particularly infuriated the Pharisees. They perceived in it a crass attempt of the priestly Sadducean camp, via Aristobulus I, to seize and expand its power. The Pharisees began an armed rebellion, but Aristobulus died within a year after Judaizing the Galilee at the point of the sword and also destroying Shechem, the ancient religious capital of Samaria. Not a particularly nice fellow, in that brief year of power (104–03 BCE) Aristobulus also found time to murder his brother Antigonus I and to starve his mother to death.

Civil war between Janneus and the Pharisees

In 103 BCE the pro-Sadducee Alexander Janneus succeeded his elder brother Aristobulus and, like his brother, he made himself king as well as High Priest. The Pharisees considered Janneus no more than a desecrated priest and resumed their rebellion. A bloody six-year civil war ensued, beginning in the late 90s BCE. Janneus killed whatever Pharisees he could find, and about 88 BCE he crucified 800 Pharisees in an infamous display of cruelty. It must have been around this time that the religious leader of the Pharisees, Joshua ben Perachiah, fled to Alexandria in Egypt along with Yeshu ha-Notsri—as we discussed in a previous post.

Janneus was the last powerful ally of the Sadducees. No priesthood would ever again dominate Judaism, a religion that now entered a long period of change, as the scholar-Pharisees slowly became the dominant force. Strife, civil warfare, and the eventual destruction of the Jerusalem Temple (c. 70 CE) all solidified the position of the Pharisees and doomed the Jewish priesthood.

It was towards the beginning of Janneus’ reign that a gifted priest began to call for Sadduceean reform. He is referred to in the Dead Sea Scrolls as the Righteous Teacher, or Teacher of Righteousness (Moreh Tsedek). This ‘John the Baptist’ figure apparently organized a community near the Dead Sea, and I discuss him in the next post.

It was also about 100 BCE that Yeshu ha-Notsri was born.

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About René Salm

René Salm is the author of two books on New Testament archeology and manages the companion website

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