The dilemma of the Jewish dynasty in Hellenistic Judea
The Hellenistic period (c. 332–37 B.C.E.) brought major changes all across the Eastern Mediterranean. Culturally, the fundamental characteristic was one of interactions between the Greek culture of the ruling class and the local traditions of native communities. The resulting culture is customarily referred to as Hellenistic, meaning an organic mixture of the Greek and local cultures.
Hellenistic Judea was first ruled by the foreign dynasty of Ptolemies—the Egyptian kings of Macedonian descent who established themselves as legitimate heirs of Alexander the Great in Egypt. Following the Fifth Syrian War (200–199 B.C.E.), control over Judea transitioned to the Seleucids—Alexander’s successor dynasty in Syria.
Beginning in 152 B.C.E., however, the local Jewish dynasty of Hasmoneans ruled over Hellenistic Judea. Descendants and heirs of the Maccabees, who led a successful rebellion to overthrow their Seleucid overlords, the Hasmonean rulers governed Judea first as high priests and secular rulers and thereafter took up the title of “king” under Alexander Jannaeus (103–76 B.C.E.).
The process of Hellenization was often characterized by disregard of local traditions and peoples: local vernaculars were relegated to the status of second-class languages, while the public sphere was dominated by Greek; indigenous religious traditions and practices were either obliterated or blended into syncretic cults infused by Greek elements. In Judea—especially under the Seleucids—Hellenization meant disregard of ancestral Judean traditions, efforts to Hellenize Jews, and desecration of the Jerusalem Temple.
In his article “The Hasmonean Kings–Jewish or Hellenistic?” in the November/December 2018 issue of BAR, Eyal Regev of Bar-Ilan University takes a close look at how aspects of Hellenism played out in Hellenistic Judea, specifically under the Jewish dynasty of Hasmonean kings. Avoiding the oft-treated general issue of the nature of the encounter between Judaism and Hellenism, Regev focuses on how the Hasmonean rulers navigated the treacherous path between being seen as devoted Jews (and legitimate lords of their subjects) and Hellenistic potentates. In particular, the author looks at how the Jewish dynasty displayed wealth and identity through their architecture.
Given that royal palaces are typically magnificent domiciles intended as a residence of the king and a seat of the state administration that also provides a venue for royal ceremonies, Regev turns to the Hasmonean palaces in Jericho to see how the Hasmonean kings presented themselves as Hellenistic rulers of a Jewish state.
“The Hasmonean palaces transmitted contrasting messages,” writes Regev. “The plan and architecture of the domestic buildings were plain—even becoming increasingly modest over the years, from John Hyrcanus’s large Buried Palace through Jannaeus’s Fortified Palace to the later small Twin Palaces. … In each palace a simple and single bathtub is almost the only indication of Hellenistic “self-indulgence.” … In bold contrast, the numerous swimming pools surrounded by gardens represent recreational facilities and Hellenistic monumental architecture in a manner that was unique …; [and they] were meant to impress.”
To explore the specific examples and nuanced arguments about the display of wealth and piety in Hellenistic Judea, read “The Hasmonean Kings–Jewish or Hellenistic?” by Eyal Regev in the November/December 2018 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review.
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