The Morbid Bank Of High-Priest John Hyrcanus

John Hyrcanus, a member of the Maccabee/Hasmonean Dynasty, ruled Jerusalem from 135 to 104 BCE. Around the same time as John Hyrcanus’ ascendance, the Jewish state was invaded by the Seleucid Empire, from which the Hasmonean Dynasty of high priests had rebelled in 167 BCE. Antiochus VII, leader of the Seleucids, marched his army to the walls of Jerusalem in 135 or 134 BCE, intending to bring the Jewish realm back into a state of vassalage. A siege ensued, in which both the attackers and defenders suffered from inadequate supplies. As neither side was in an ideal situation to continue the siege, Antiochus VII and John Hyrcanus opened up peace negotiations. For these talks, the high priest needed to find more resources that he could use as leverage in the bargain. As the story goes, John Hyrcanus obtained these bargaining chips from a morbid source.

Josephus, a Jewish priest and historian from the 1st century, wrote about how John Hyrcanus responded to the siege of Antiochus VII. In The Jewish War, Josephus wrote, “Hyrcanus opened the tomb of David, the wealthiest of kings, and extracted more than 3,000 talents. He spent 300 on bribing Antiochus to raise the siege, and used the residue to hire a force of mercenaries—he was the first Jew to adopt this practice” (The Jewish War, I.61). What Josephus biasedly called a bribe, other ancient historians instead interpreted as a submittal by John Hyrcanus to the demands of Antiochus VII. Yet, the high priest of Jerusalem was indeed able to negotiate favorable terms for himself. Although John Hyrcanus, in the negotiations, apparently recognized Seleucid power and agreed to some demilitarization, he also convinced Antiochus VII to recognize Maccabee/Hasmonean rule in Jerusalem, and to allow the dynasty to continue exercising autonomy.

John Hyrcanus’ early concessions worked out in the long run, as he was able to regain lost ground after the death of Antiochus VII in 129 BCE, at which point the Seleucid Empire fell into a succession crisis and civil war. Along with the mercenaries paid by the treasure from King David’s tomb, John Hyrcanus also added a further check against foreign threats by reportedly making some sort of partnership or alliance with Rome.

Written by C. Keith Hansley

Picture Attribution: (Hoard of ancient gold coins, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).


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