Shifting Images of the Hasmoneans

Second Temple Legends and Their Reception in Josephus and Rabbinic Literature

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Vered Noam
  • Oxford, England: 
    Oxford University Press
    , May
     304 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Vered Noam’s Shifting Images of the Hasmoneans comes out of a larger project undertaken with Tal Ilan and a team of other scholars that seeks to examine various parallels between the narratives of Josephus, composed at the end of the 1st century CE, and historical anecdotes preserved in the Babylonian Talmud and other rabbinic texts from late antiquity. Among the stakes of this project, which has recently appeared in Hebrew as a two-volume study Josephus and the Rabbis (Yad Ben Zvi Press, 2017), is the question of what survives of Second Temple period oral lore in later rabbinic tradition. Shifting Images of the Hasmoneans gives readers of English a chance to learn about some of this research through a study focused on the Hasmoneans, the Judean dynasty established by the leaders of the Maccabean Revolt that ruled until it was displaced by the Herodian dynasty in 37 BCE.

The parallels that Noam examines in the book concern different generations of the Hasmonean dynasty. We know that one episode, about the defeat of the Seleucid general Nicanor by Judah the Maccabee, was narrated in a written source that predates Josephus and the rabbis--1 Maccabees. However, the other stories Noam treats do not appear in 1 Maccabees or the alternative account in 2 Maccabees. They evidently originated not from a written source but as oral traditions that circulated in Judea in the century or two before Josephus recorded them. These include a story of how the Hasmonean John Hyrcanus heard the voice of God in the Temple, another that recalls how his successor Alexander Jannaeus was pelted with citrons while officiating over a Temple ritual, two narratives that speak to how the Hasmoneans related to the Pharisees, and another about an internal struggle between two Hasmonean brothers, Antiochus II and Hyrcanus II, which precipitated the dynasty’s end. Such stories cannot be relied upon as sources for the historical Hasmonean dynasty, but Noam argues that they represent snapshots of how the dynasty was perceived, sometimes reflecting the later perspective of Josephus or the rabbis, but sometimes preserving the views of contemporary supporters or religious critics of the Hasmoneans.

Beyond what it tells us about the public image of the Hasmoneans, Noam’s study is important as a model for how to understand the relationship between parallel traditions in Josephus and rabbinic literature. The similarities are pronounced enough that we must be contending with variants of the same stories, but there are many differences as well—elements of the story as told by Josephus modified, omitted, or re-contextualized in rabbinic compositions; historical personages conflated or turned into anonymous priests or sages; scriptural allusions added or deleted from the story. How do we account for these differences? Which version is the earlier or original form of the story, and what might we learn from it about the Hasmoneans or Second Temple period Judaism? And what might the modifications introduced by Josephus and the rabbis tell us about them? Noam seeks to address these questions by scrutinizing the parallels more systematically than previous scholarship has done. 

As Josephus’s Antiquities is closer in time to the era of the Hasmoneans than the rabbinic sources, it seems logical to conclude that it preserves the earlier versions of these narratives. Indeed, it is not uncommon for scholars to maintain that the rabbinic stories are directly dependent on Josephus’s version, inserting changes into the stories that project their own self-image, religious or legal interests, or political positions into the Hasmonean past. Noam’s analysis affirms that some of the differences in the rabbinic versions are indeed changes that the rabbis themselves introduced, but her main thesis puts her at odds with this position: many of their differences from Josephus are not later rabbinic modifications—they preserve these stories in a pre-Antiquities form, either as an alternative to Josephus’s narrative that is just as ancient, or as a version that is actually closer to the story’s original language, literary form, and meaning than Josephus’s account. By showing that rabbinic versions of these stories fit what we know of the Hasmonean period from the Dead Sea Scrolls and other sources—for example, by preserving biblical allusions that accord with what we know about exegesis and polemics in that age—she extracts from the rabbinic parallels a cache of Second Temple period narratives: fragments of hypothetical Aramaic chronicles, priestly temple legends, and Pharisaic legends.

Noam’s method is similar to that of text-criticism and its quest to move from variant traditions back to a presumed original. If it can be shown that a given variant within a rabbinic version of the story does not derive from information in 1 Maccabees or Josephus’s account; if, further, it cannot be well explained as a rabbinic intervention in the story; and if it fits what we know about language, literature, biblical exegesis, sectarian conflict, or the politics of the Hasmonean era, then it follows that it originates from a pre-Josephus version of the story. The strength of this kind of argument can only be assessed on a case by case basis, one variant at a time, and all I can say in the context of a thousand-word review is that, while the evidence is not always sufficient to clinch her argument and one wishes that we had access to the Hebrew original of 1 Maccabees and other missing links in the transmission of the stories, her analysis is always well documented and well argued, and her insights into the shifting public image of the Hasmoneans deserve attention as an important supplement to what we can glean from the Dead Sea Scrolls or infer from works like 1 Maccabees. It is to the book’s credit that it does not impose a single explanation on all the variants but goes wherever the evidence leads. 

Once specialists digest Noam’s arguments, some will push back as her conclusions challenge the now commonplace scholarly view that rabbinic literature is not a reliable source for understanding the Second Temple period. But one can only be intrigued by the claim of a “lost Atlantis” of Second Temple era stories hidden in plain sight within later rabbinic texts. On the basis of this book, it is to be hoped that Noam’s broader study of parallels between Josephus and the rabbis becomes more accessible to American scholars soon.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Steven Weitzman is Abraham M. Ellis Professor of Hebrew and Semitic Languages and Literatures at the Univeristy of Pennsylvania.

Date of Review: 
July 5, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Vered Noam is Professor in the Department of Jewish Philosophy and Talmud and chair of the Chaim Rosenberg School of Jewish Studies at Tel Aviv University. In 2015 she was a fellow at the Israel Institute for Advanced Studies in Jerusalem and in 2011 was the Horace Goldsmith Visiting Professor in Judaic Studies at Yale University. In 2010 she was the recipient of the Rothschild Foundation's Michael Bruno Memorial Award.


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