Mattathias and Judas
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Mattathias and his sons fought a nearly twenty-five-year war against the Seleucid Empire. According to the traditional accounts preserved in the extant sources, the Maccabean Rebellion began when Mattathias defied the decree of the Seleucid monarch Antiochus IV Epiphanes that banned the observance of Jewish Law. When a man from his village of Modein stepped forward to perform an offering, Mattathias killed him along with the supervising official.
Josephus and his major source, 1 Maccabees, use passages from Scripture to frame this story.
Like the author of 1 Maccabees, Josephus appeals to the story of Phinehas’s murder of the idolatrous Israelites in Numbers 25 as a way of justifying Mattathias’s killing of a Jew from his hometown. In a direct echo of the biblical story, Josephus’s Mattathias cries out, “Whoever is zealous for our country’s laws and the worship of God, let him join me!”21
- 21 Ant. 12.271. For this story, see Num 25:6-8; Sir 45:23-26; Dąbrowa, Hasmoneans, 17-18; Berthelot, In Search of, 100; Regev, Hasmoneans,107-08.
For the use of the Phinehas tradition by the Hasmoneans, see J. J. Collins, “The Zeal of Phinehas: The Bible and the Legitimation of Violence,” Journal of Biblical Literature 122 (2003): 12-14.
For Josephus, the incident is important for his narration of subsequent Hasmonean territorial conquests as he portrays Mattathias, like Phinehas, purifying the land and his community by eradicating paganism, murdering apostates, and seizing territory towards the eventual goal of creating an independent state. With the land as the major focus for both Josephus and the writer of 1 Maccabees, and with Mattathias’s descendants successfully capturing land to create an independent state, it is unsurprising that both 1 Maccabees and Josephus appeal to biblical conquest traditions.
Josephus draws upon these narrative traditions to depict Mattathias as a modern-day reincarnation of Phinehas; there is, however, a significant difference between his account and that of the biblical story. In Josephus’s narrative, not God, but Mattathias and his son and successor, Judas, control events, liberate Jews, and begin to take possession of the Promised Land. Just as Phinehas was rewarded with a perpetual priesthood for his violence, Mattathias’s successors obtained a special priesthood, in this instance the office of high priest, also achieved through an act of violence. Josephus’s use of the Phinehas tradition may explain his controversial claim that Judas became high priest and held the office for three years. This claim clearly contradicts the chronology of his narrative and poses problems for the later account of the installation of Judas’s brother, Jonathan, as high priest. But Josephus sought to portray Mattathias’s revolt as successful by showing that his violence, like that of Phinehas, was approved by God, resulting in his descendants receiving a special priesthood as well as the land.
At times, the gaps in Josephus’s accounts of the Maccabean Rebellion suggest that he omitted considerable information about the deeds of the early Hasmoneans, a practice most evident in his account of the succession from Judas to Jonathan. It is plausible that Josephus tried to suppress the memory of an unknown high priest who officiated from 159-152 B.C.E. and that he intentionally obscured this in claiming that Judas became the first high priest in his family. The existence of such an anonymous priest would explain why his sibling Jonathan later had to be appointed high priest: if the office had been left vacant, it should have been easier for the Hasmoneans to supplant the line of Zadok with Joiarib. Jonathan may have, however, removed the high priest to take the position for himself, which may account for some of the opposition to his holding this office expressed in the extant narratives. Moreover, this earlier usurpation would explain the difficulties Simon later faced in gaining public recognition from his citizens when he assumed the office of high priest.
Josephus’s accounts of Simon and Jonathan show that his exegetical retelling of Hasmonean history through the lens of Scripture introduces chronological errors into his account ..