BMCR 2015.02.48

The Hasmoneans: Ideology, Archaeology, Identity. Journal of Ancient Judaism. Supplements, 10

, The Hasmoneans: Ideology, Archaeology, Identity. Journal of Ancient Judaism. Supplements, 10. Göttingen: Ruprecht, 2013. 340. ISBN 9783525550434. €99.99.


Although the Second Temple period is an intensively researched period of Jewish history and although the Hasmonean rulers were key players for one and a half centuries within this period, only a few comprehensive portraits of the Hasmoneans and their time have been published in the past 10 years. Eyal Regev, professor of archaeology at Bar Ilan University, provides a very solid overview of various aspects of the Hasmonean rule and legacy, concentrating on ideology and identity and thereby filling a thematic gap in research on the Hasmoneans. Regev strives for a twofold interdisciplinary approach – historical and archaeological as well as text-oriented historical-critical and comparative socio-anthropological – “in order to see more clearly WHO the Hasmoneans actually were” and “HOW they ruled the Jewish people”.

In his introduction Regev explains how he and other Judaic scholars tend to apply the unusual term “nationalism” in studying the Hasmonean state and he pursues this theme throughout his book.1 He also criticizes the “dichotomy between Judaism and Hellenism in the study of the Hasmoneans and their ethos as simplistic and anachronistic”, referring to previous scholarship often having failed to avoid “falling into the traps of both the critical outlook of ancient Greco-Roman authors on these rulers who shattered Greek cities and sanctuaries and the modern nationalistic Jewish-Israeli admiration of such acts”.2 His goal is to go beyond the canon of historical studies, not to reconstruct the nature of the Hasmonean rule along the “thin line between Hellenistic culture and Jewish identity” but to decipher the ideological matrix and symbolic language of the Hasmoneans that “created a new sense of Jewish identity”.

The book falls into seven chapters and a very compact, three and a half page “conclusion”. The first three chapters deal with religion and the Hasmoneans as religious leaders while the next three cover government and the Hasmonean kingship; chapter 7 synthesizes these two perspectives.

The “religious” part of the book establishes Hanukkah as the constitutional festival for the cleansed Hasmonean Temple, then examines the Temple as the real and ideal basis of Hasmonean ideology and its development and ends with the Hasmoneans acting at the Temple as priests and religious leaders as well as the authority of the Jews.

Chapter 1 “discusses the Maccabean view of Hanukkah as a Temple festival for the renewal of ancient cultic traditions.” Regev discusses the cultic characteristics of Hanukkah as “the festival of Tabernacles”, first explaining how it relates to the days of millu’im in Ex 29 and Lev 8-9. He suggests that despite dissimilarities to its description in 1 Maccabees Hanukkah is essentially a millu’im ceremony, making his point clear with an elaborate treatment of the relevant text of 2 Maccabees. He finally attributes to Hannukah the function of a “political festival”, explaining it as an “invented tradition” in Eric Hobsbawn’s sense, that served as the point of departure of the development of all Hasmonean ideology.3

In chapter 2 Regev analyzes the Temple as the center of Hasmonean ideology. Step by step he discusses the relevant sources – 1 Maccabees, Eupolemos, Josephus, 2 Maccabees and Pseudo-Aristeas – to build his line of argument. Regev focuses on the payment of the Temple tax (or tribute) and the role of pilgrimage as two major innovative religious as well as legal practices. He finally adds a sub-chapter on Qumran’s “moral opposition” to the Temple as it is evident in the Psalms of Solomon, profiting from his former in-depth study on Qumran (2007).

Chapter 3 deals with the development of the priesthood of the earlier Hasmoneans. After a short treatment of the High Priesthood in the Persian and early Hellenistic periods, Regev analyzes the period of each single Maccabee in detail, starting with Mattathias the Zealot, Judah the Savior, Jonathan the Judge, Simon the elected High Priest, and ending with John Hyrcanus the Prophet. He synthesizes their rules in his overview on the Hasmoneans as religious leaders, including consideration of the priestly descent of the Hasmoneans and their lack of Zadokite descent, and finally offers a sub-chapter covering aspects of the transition from priesthood to kingship, discussing in particular the issues of the Hasmonean rulers earning Hellenistic honors and accumulating wealth.

The “governmental” part of the book investigates Hasmonean kingship. Regev discusses the more basic and general issues in chapter 4 and elaborates his theses in chapter 5 dealing with Hasmonean coinage as political medium and chapter 6 dealing with the Hasmonean palaces at Jericho as architectonic reflection of their builders’ self-understanding.

In chapter 4, Regev first sets out to explain the legitimacy of the kingship of the Hasmoneans. He analyzes the Hasmoneans’ royal ideology, suggesting that it resembles that of a “national monarchy” and comparing it with the idea of the “national” Macedonian monarchy. Regev examines the emergence of Hasmonean kingship against the backdrop of the idea of kingship in the Hebrew bible as well as of the quest for kingship in ancient Judaism in general in order to finally conclude with a rather crucial, elaborate and encompassing chapter on the pros and cons of Hasmonean kingship providing some useful aid for orientation in this complex discussion.

In chapter 5, numismatic evidence is used to test and expand the research results gathered so far. Regev begins by briefly describing ancient money, numismatic studies and their methodological keys, thereby enabling laymen to understand his line of argumentation.4 He then explains the iconography (such as anchor, palm branch, star, helmet) and legends, personal names and titles as well as language and script of Hasmomean coinage in regard to their importance for the understanding of Hasmonean royal ideology and identity construction.

Chapter 6 on the Hasmonean palaces in Jericho serves the same goal as the numismatic chapter. Again Regev first explains the basic methodological principles of archaeological interpretation before providing an overview of the size and function of the palaces themselves. He then turns to an access analysis of the palaces, as he had previously done for Qumran (2009).5 In the following sub-chapters he investigates different architectonic features of the palaces: the swimming pools and gardens, the bathhouses and the miqva’ot – all connected to the vital element of water. At this point an excursus is given on the problem of identifying the palaces of Aristobulus II and Hyrcanus II.6 Regev then expands his archaeological observations to the pottery found, and finally discusses both categories – water installations and pottery – in terms of the observance of purity in the Hasmonean way of life. Relying on comparisons with other Hellenistic palaces, especially the Herodian palaces, Regev concludes that “internal modesty and external propaganda” were characteristic of the Hasmonean palaces.

The final chapter draws together all previous results to provide a new explanation for the Hasmonean construction of Jewish collective identity. Here, Regev applies most of his sociological and anthropological approaches, including his excursion into political sciences in regard to nationalism research, but here replacing “nationalism” with “collective identity”. He concludes that the view observed in ancient literature, above all the scriptures of the New Testament but also the works of Flavius Josephus and Philo, that the Jews in the Second Temple period despite the emergence of religious sectarian groups formed a more or less uniform community in terms of religion (“devotion to the Temple, purity boundaries, the relationship between Judaea and the Diaspora and many others”), has been shaped by the long-term religious and political claims of the Hasmoneans. Thus the Hasmonean creation of a new Jewish collective identity was basically a partly intended, partly unforeseen result of the promotion and legitimization of their rule throughout the decades.

I find very little worth criticizing beyond the paucity and poor image quality of the plates, possibly the responsibility of the publisher. Although the text is not always easy to read the book is easy to use. Each of chapters 2-6 begins with an explanation of what Regev intends to do and ends with a few pages of “conclusions”. This double service allows for a quick reading of his book if someone is looking quickly for specific information and makes up for the rather brief and compact general index. Regev’s book has the potential to receive as much attention as e.g. Mendels’ Rise and Fall of Jewish Nationalism (1992).


1. One may comment that this very comprehensive and systematic and well structured study lacks a general political sciences (sub)chapter on this matter.

2. Not all modern scholarship on this topic is either Israeli or at least Jewish and therefore rather unlikely to be on the path of “nationalistic admiration”. I personally view much of recent Jewish-Israeli research on the Second Temple period in general and the Hasmonean period in particular as innovative and not circular as Regev insinuates.

3. Cf. Hobsbawn, E. 1983. “Introduction” in E. Hobsbawn and T. Tanger (eds.), The Invention of Tradition, Cambridge: University Press, 1-2 and 9.

4. He skips some ongoing debates in Hasmonean coinage, like the current debate on chronology (cf. Ostermann, S. 2005. Die Münzen der Hasmonäer. Ein kritischer Bericht zur Systematik und Chronologie, Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht), in order to keep the chapter straightforward and compact.

5. Regev, E. 2009. “Access Analysis of Kh. Qumran: Reading Spatial Organization and Social Boundaries”, BASOR 355: 85-99.

6. There are seven different phases of Hasmonean palaces at Jericho and their attribution to certain Hasmonean rulers has been a matter of attention long before the final excavations reports were published. See Netzer E. 2001. Hasmonean and Herodian Palaces at Jericho: Final Reports of the 1973–1987 Excavations, Vol. 1: Stratigraphy and Architecture, Jerusalem: Israel Exploration Society.