A History of the Hasmonean State

Josephus and Beyond

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Kenneth Atkinson
  • New York, NY: 
    Bloomsbury Academic
    , September
     208 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


There have been many books published in recent years that seek to illuminate the rulers of the Hasmonean Dynasty and the events which led to its rise and subsequent fall, such as H. Eshel’s The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Hasmonean State (Eerdmans, 2008) or J. H. Charlesworth’s The Pesharim and Qumran History (Eerdmans, 2002). Entire monographs have been dedicated to individual Hasmonean kings which explore even the most obscure references in the biblical material, extant Qumran citations, and rabbinic materials. Kenneth Atkinson adds his name to this list by offering a distilled summary of Hasmonean history through the comparison of the accounts of Josephus with relevant archaeological data acquired via papyrology, numismatics, and previously under-utilized Dead Sea Scroll and pseudepigraphic material. In doing so, Atkinson seeks to alter traditional readings of literary evidence typically applied to the Hasmoneans.

After introducing his audience to the writings of Josephus and the methods used in creating his works, Atkinson dives into the “pre-history” of the Hasmonean state (chapter 2). The revolt of the Maccabees against the Seleucids is covered in a terse 23 pages and yet the summary provides a sufficient overview of events from the beginnings of the rebellion until the rule of Simon Maccabeus.

The next five chapters (chapters 3-7) discuss each of the Hasmonean rulers in detail with particular attention paid to John Hyrcanus (chapter 3), Judah Aristobulus (chapter 4), and Alexander Jannaeus (chapter 5). For Hyrcanus and Alexander Jannaeus to have respective chapters dedicated to their rule is quite logical considering that these two rulers collectively reigned for over half of the total length of the Hasmonean dynasty. Though it may seem odd to afford the same treatment to Judah Aristobulus, who ruled for a considerably shorter period, his rise to power despite the wishes of his father and his status as the first person to conflate the roles of king and high priest are cause for much discussion.

In terms of the analysis of his source material, Atkinson highlights the favored view of Hyrcanus on the part of the author of 1 Maccabees, and rightly asserts the need to proceed with caution when attempting to use the report for historical reconstruction. He further calls into question the historical reliability of the death of Aristobulus provided by Josephus. He claims that much of the narrative is an adoption of novelistic features and serves to provide an explanation for Josephus’s audience as to why the king died so early in his reign: he fell out of favor with God due to his murder of his brother and mother. Atkinson also quite effectively highlights the multiple chronological issues present in the various accounts of Alexander Jannaeus (chapter 5).

Aside from pointing out various inconsistencies within the narratives of these three kings, the majority of these chapters are devoted to summarizing the three major works—1 Maccabees and Josephus’ Jewish War and Antiquities of the Jews—which discuss the respective rules of these kings. This proves significantly more helpful than one might initially imagine, as Atkinson effectively weaves all three into a coherent narrative while pointing out divergences and, when available, using exterior evidence to bolster his reconstruction.

Though comparatively little is known about Shelamzion Alexandra compared to other Hasmonean rulers, Atkinson endeavors to provide a historical reconstruction worthy of the Queen (chapter 6). Josephus portrays a reluctant admiration for her; he praises her for her religious devotion while simultaneously highlighting her weakness at the death bed of her husband and proclaiming her to be a pawn of the Pharisees. Interestingly, Atkinson views the end of the reign of Shelamzion Alexandra to be the true end of the Hasmonean Dynasty, as infighting between her sons would ultimately lead to the dissolution of the empire at the hands of the Romans.

Just as Hasmonean rule passed quickly between Hyrcanus II and Aristobulus II (chapter 7), so too does Atkinson move quickly through the final years of the dynasty. He highlights the low opinion of the two kings held by Josephus as well as further chronological inconsistencies in the account.

The finals gasps of the dynasty following the Roman conquest, such as the death of Antigonus, are detailed in chapter 8. Most interestingly, Atkinson discusses Alexandra, a sister of Antigonus, who led an effort to reinstitute the Hasmonean dynasty. She captured and held Hyrcania for six years until her death at the hands of Herod. To Atkinson, Alexandra was the final ruler of the independent Hasmonean state; he asserts this contrary to the claim of Josephus that the Hasmonean line rightfully passed to Herod.

A History of the Hasmonean State concludes with an attempt to situate Josephus within his larger Roman milieu, discussing the pro-Roman aspects of the writer while also illuminating the subversive features of his writing. Particularly interesting is Atkinson’s treatment of Josephus as a chronicler caught between his previous role in the Jewish revolt against Rome and his new position as a Roman citizen. It was in this context that Josephus was molded by contemporary history writers. Atkinson identifies the similarities between the Maccabean revolt against the Seleucids and the First Jewish Revolt.

By refusing to rely solely on textual accounts of the Maccabean revolt and the ensuing reign of the Hasmoneans, Kenneth Atkinson has appealed to the myriad of resources available to scholars to reconstruct this era and handled them responsibly. The result is a work that should be one of the first taken off of the shelf when acquainting oneself with either Hasmonean rule or Flavius Josephus.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Raleigh C. Heth is a graduate student in theology at the University of Notre Dame.

Date of Review: 
September 19, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Kenneth Atkinson is professor of history at the University of Northern Iowa.


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