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John Hyrcanus (Yohanan Girhan) (reigned 134 BCE - 104 BCE, died 104 BCE) was a Hasmonean (Maccabeean) leader of the 2nd century BC. Apparently the name "Hyrcanus" was taken by him as a regnal name upon his accession to power.

Life and work

He was the son of Simon Maccabaeus and hence the nephew of Judas Maccabaeus, Jonathan Maccabaeus and their siblings, whose story is told in the deuterocanonical books of 1 Maccabees and 2 Maccabees, in the Talmud, and in Josephus. John was not present at a banquet at which his father and his two brothers were murdered, purportedly by his brother-in-law Ptolemy. He attained to his father's former offices, that of high priest and king (although some Jews never accepted any of the Hasmoneans as being legitimate kings, as they were not lineal descendants of David).

His taking a Greek regnal name - "Hyrcanus" - was a significant political and cultural step away from the intransigent opposition to and rejection of Hellenistic culture which had characterised the Maccabean revolt against Seleucid rule. It reflected a more pragmatic recognition that Judea, once having attained independence, had to maintain its position among a milieu of small and large states which all shared the Hellenistic culture. All subsequent Hasmonean rulers followed suit and adopted Greek names in their turn.


John Hyrcanus apparently combined an energetic and able style of leadership with the zeal of his forebears. He was known as a brave and brilliant military leader. He is credited with the forced conversion of the Idumeans to Judaism, which was unusual for a Jewish leader; Judaism was not typically spread by the sword. He also set out to resolve forcibly the religious dispute between the Jews and the Samaritans; during his reign he destroyed the Samaritan temple on Mount Gerizim (although their descendants still worship among its ruins), which served further to deepen the already-historic hatred and rivalry between the two groups. Many historians believe that the apocryphal book of Jubilees was written during his reign; some would suggest even at his behest. Some writers, particularly Christian ones, have dated the division of Judaism into the parties of Pharisees and Sadducees to his era; most Jewish writers and some Christian ones suggest that this split actually well predates him. Some historians would go so far as to identify him, as a priest, predominantly with the Sadducee party, which was closely associated with the Temple worship and the priestly class.

Hyrcanus and the Tomb of David

According to Josephus (Wars of the Jews, Book One, chapter 2, paragraph 5), Hyrcanus plundered the sepulcher of King David and stole from it over 3,000 Talents of gold, which provided him with enough wealth to buy off Antiochus and to hire some mercenaries. However, it is hard to believe that the tomb had survived unplundered through eight centuries of wars, invasions, revolts and brigandage.

Peak and decline of the kingdom

John Hyrcanus represented in some ways the highest point of the Hasmonean Dynasty. The restored Jewish "kingdom" approached its maximum limits of both territory and prestige. Upon his death, his offices were divided among his heirs; his son Aristobulus I succeeded him as high priest; his wife as "Queen regnant". The son, however, soon came to desire the essentially unchecked power of his father; he shortly ordered his mother and his brothers imprisoned. This event seems to mark the beginning of the decline of the Hasmonean Dynasty; in just over four decades they were removed from power by the Roman Republic and none of them ever began to approach the level of power or prestige that had pertained to John Hyrcanus or his predecessors.

Modern commemoration

Tel Aviv has a Yochanan Hyrcanus Street (רחוב יוחנן הורקנוס), as do several other cities in contemporary Israel. In the early decades of the 20th century, the Zionist historical perception of the Jewish past tended to approve of and revere strong warrior kings of both Biblical and later periods, and Hyrcanus' exploits earned him a place in that pantheon.

External links

This page uses content from the English Wikipedia. The original article was at John Hyrcanus. The list of authors can be seen in the page history.