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From the Hasmonean Priest-Monarchs to Herod's Judeo-Arab Kingdom

For three hundred years Israel was a vassal state to Babylon, Ptolemy and then to the Seleucid monarchy. In 175 BCE Antiochus Epiphanes came to throne in Syria and within ten years the Maccabeans revolted and routed Syrian domination in Israel. Judah the Maccabee did not claim the title "king", only Nasi – prince, but in 141 BCE, his brother Simon accepted the dignity of high-priest and king. A large assembly "of the priests and the people and of the elders of the land, [declared] to the effect that Simon should be their king and high priest forever, until there should arise a faithful prophet".[1] Recognition of the Hasmonean dynasty by the Roman Senate soon followed and for the first time, Israel was ruled by a priest-monarch of the tribe of Levi. The Hasmoneans ruled by force, and several of the royal family were murdered by its own members to prevent rival claimants. This situation was unfavorable to the Davidic house, and a notice in al-Makrizi, seems to indicate the exodus of Davidic descendants from Israel to Babylonia at the beginning of Hasmonean rule.[2]

The rivalry between Hasmoneans, Hyrcanus and Aristobulus, brought about a civil war in 68-63 BCE. The war ended with the invasion of the Roman general Pompey and the forfeiture of the freedom of the Jewish people. Israel was forced to pay tribute to Rome and placed under the supervision of the Roman governor of Syria. From 63-40 BCE the government officially was in the hands of Hyrcanus, but in actuality the power rested with his Roman-Arab advisor Antipatris and his son Herod.

In an attempt to rid Israel of the house of Herod and claim the throne, Aristobulus' son Antigonus, through the mediation of the Babylonian Exilarch, obtained Parthian troops and aid. The Parthians troops defeated the Roman army and Herod fled to Rome. Hyrcanus was captured by the Parthians and held in the Exilarch's quarters in Nehardea, but not before Aristobulus cut off his ears to render him unfit for Hight Priesthood[3] Hyrcanus lived for a time under house arrest. The Exilarch, it seems, had the intention of founding a high-priesthood for Babylonia through marriage to the exiled Hyrcanus.[4] (As late as the third century certain inhabitants of Nehardea claimed their descent back to the Hasmoneans). After three years Herod returned with Roman troops to siege Jerusalem. Antigonus' supporters were slaughtered, and he was beheaded. Herod assumed supreme and total power. Herod proceeded to eliminated all his rivals, the aged Hyrcanus, his daughter Alexandra, and her two children, Miriam (whom Herod married) and Aristobulus (whom Herod drowned). This ended the Hasmonean house, with the exception of Herod's children.[5]

All the Hasmonean kings adopted a policy of territorial expansion. This led to the problem of what to do with the non-Jewish population in the newly annexed territories. Although opposed by the Pharisaic-Rabbinic leadership and without any historical precedent, an early Hasmonean king, Yochanan Hyrcanus, began a policy of forced conversion to a limited form of Judaism.[6] Sadduceean leadership, under Alexander Yannai began an active program of seeking and encouraging converts that was especially successful among other Semitic peoples.

According to Josephus, Herod – his mother an Arab princess[7] – actively sought to combine Jewish Israel with Arab trans-Jordan in one large Judeo-Arabic kingdom. Although he never succeeded territorially, his building enterprises in Jerusalem and elsewhere made a lasting impression on the entire region. Josephus says that just as Athens was the center of all things Greek, the Temple in Jerusalem had become the focal point for a vast Judaic nation consisting of Jews and Arabs, Parthians and Babylonians, Jews beyond the Euphrates and the Adiabeni or Assyrians.[8] Temple sympathizers arrived en mass for the Pentecost – Succot holiday. They included Parthians, Medes, Elamites, Babylonians, Egyptians, Cretes and Arabs.[9] Six hundred years before the Prophet, the Arabs and Jews were one nation with one common religion. A vast Judaic nation from the 'Nile to the Euphrates' that performed the Festival – Hagg pilgrimage and shared in the Korban Shlamim temple offering of which they were allowed to eat. They were called alternatively Gerrim, Kenites, Nethinim, and Shlamai (=muslim).[10]

The Talmud sheds an interesting light on the relationship of "Jews" in this Judaic Nation after the destruction of the Temple. Rabbi Akiva told this parable, "A fox [Herod, Idumean Arabs] was once walking alongside a river. He saw fish [Pharisaic Jews] swimming in groups from one place to another. The fox said to them, "From what are you fleeing?" They replied, "From the nets that fishermen [Romans] cast (to catch us)." He said to them, "Would you like to come up on the dry land so that you and I can live together in the way that our ancestors did? [When Jews and Arabs lived together]" They replied, "Aren't you the one that is called the cleverest of animals? You are not clever, but foolish. If we are afraid in the water where we live, how much more afraid we would be on the land where we would surely die!"[11]


  1. I Macc. xiv. 41
  2. The chronicle of Ahmad ibn Ali De Sacy as cited in “Chrestomathie Arabe,” i. 100; Herzfeld, "Gesch. des Volkes Yisrael," ii. 396
  3. Josephus, Antiquities 15, Paragraphs 1, 2
  4. Josephus, Antiquities 15, Paragraphs 2, 4
  5. Herod left three children: Archelaus, Phillippe and Antipater (also called Herod). Archelaus, which was the most evil of the three, inherited Jerusalem and the main portion of the Judea from his father. Antipater and Phillippe were given other areas like Trans-Jordan with minor Jewish populations (neither of the latter two played a great role in the Jewish nation, Phillippe ruled until his death and Antipater was eventually exiled by the Romans). When Archelaus became king, the people revolted against him and after a ten-year struggle succeeded in ousting him. When that happened, the Romans exiled him and confiscated his property; Judea was annexed to the Syrian territories of the Roman Empire and was put under the rule of Roman procurators
  6. This is explained more thoroughly in the Authors essay "From Bar Kochba to the Prophet Muhammed". Forced conversion is prohibited in Judaism. But as the Hasmonean king declared his conquered subjects to be his property, technically as "slaves" Avedim (c.f. Abdullah) they could be forced to convert to a limited form of Judaism that did not include most of the ritual requirements.
  7. Seder HaDoros and Josephus state that she was from the royal family of Edom and her name was Kapidon the Edomite. As mentioned above, Yochanan Hyrcanus forcibly converted the Edomites to Judaism and made them slaves to the House of the Hasmoneans. Thus, since Herod’s mother was an Edomite, she was considered a slave and passed on that status to her son.
  8. Josephus, Wars. Preface, Section 2.
  9. Acts 2:9
  10. Targum Onkolos on Exodus 2:25 and elsewhere renders Kenites (descendants of Yethro, the first convert) as Shlamai, probably related to the Korban Shlamim. Syed Abu-Ala' Maududi's "The Meaning of the Qur'an" basing himself on Qur'an 2.131-133 says "[Though the Jews] were originally Muslims, they had swerved from the real Islam … So much so that they had even given up their original name "Muslim" and adopted the name "Jew" instead, and made religion the sole monopoly of the children of Israel". The word "Islam" represents the infinitive, the noun of action, of the factitive stem of the Arabic root "salam," and is rightly compared (Zunz, "Literaturgesch." p. 641; comp. Steinschneider, "Polemische und Apologetische Literatur," p. 266, note 56) with the use of the "hif'il" of "shalam" in later Hebrew; e.g., Pesiḳ. 125a ("mushlam"); Tan., ed. Buber, Gen. p. 46 ib. (where "hishlim" is used of proselytes). (J.E. Islam)
  11. Berachot 61. It is interesting to note that Rabbi Akiva himself was descended from Arab converts to Judaism.