Would I Join the Military?

17.3.2021
A conference on “Middle Maccabees” (= the Hasmoneans in the second half of the second century BCE) in 2018 brought together textual scholars and archaeologist, who have much to learn from each other. Now the results have been published in the volume The Middle Maccabees: Archaeology, History, and the Rise of the Hasmonean Kingdom.

The Hasmoneans were military leaders, high priests, and eventually also kings in the second and first century BCE Judea. Their elite identity formation is thought to be evidenced in the sources such as 1 Maccabees and writings of Flavius Josephus, whose grand narratives blur the fact that the early Hasmoneans were commanders in the service of Seleucid kings. Even though the sources present the Hasmoneans as opposing the Seleucid rulers—or using these for their own aims—the military campaigns of the Hasmoneans also place them along the very image of ideal Hellenistic kings, as conquerors who rule new lands and found a strong dynasty. But what do we know about them in the archaeological record? And what about the other elites of the time, other priests and scribes – what do we know of their elite identity formation?

The results of the "Middle Maccabees" Conference have been published in the volume The Middle Maccabees: Archaeology, History, and the Rise of the Hasmonean Kingdom (ed. Andrea M. Berlin and Paul J. Kosmin, SBL Press, 2021).

Part 1 of the volume, “Material Evidence: Archaeology of the Regions,” introduces enormous amount of new material just recently excavated. All archaeological material needs interpretation, and scholars are now more cautious in making firm identifications of “ethnic” markers. Still, various articles discuss the possible traces of Hasmonean expansion (in several phases) in various areas around Judea and Jerusalem. Such expansion is especially seen from the mid-second century BCE onwards, when also, according to the literary testimony, the government and taxation of some districts were transferred from the Seleucid rulers to Jonathan, one of the Maccabees (e.g., 1 Macc 10:38, 89; 11:28). 

But how far and extensive was such expansion? The Roman-time Galilee is much better known than the preceding Hasmonean and Hellenistic times. When exactly did the Judeans/Jews begin to inhabit the central Galilee (presuming that Northern Israelites had largely been deported or fled during the Assyrian conquest in the iron age)? Which sites in the Galilee did the Hasmoneans take over and when? There remains controversy over this issue (cf., e.g., Leibner 2021, and Berlin 2021, who refers to the role of other local populations too).  

In 2018, I had a concrete dust-filled taste of these questions as I participated in one season of excavations (led by Uzi Leibner, Hebrew University) in a Hellenistic-type site, Khirbet el­‘Eika, which is overlooking the Arbel Valley, close to the Sea of Galilee. This site was short-lived, occupied only from the early second-century BCE until the mid-140 BCE. It had close contacts to the Phoenician coast, and the imported amphorae from Rhodes and Kos, with stamped handles, help archaeologists to date the occupation. Several other sites in the Lower and Upper Galilee show similar pattern of abandonment around the mid-second century BCE (Leibner 2021). This could be explained by the heated struggle of the Seleucids over the dynastic succession and the rule of coastal cities; the troops and the attention were targeted to the coast (Berlin 2021). Unlike some other sites, Khirbet el­‘Eika was never resettled – even the Hasmoneans were not interested in it. Only later, there is a Jewish village beneath the site at the nearby spring. 

Part 2 of the volume, “The Wider Stage: A Small State in a Great Power World,” shows how this Levantine area was not only effected by the struggles among the Hellenistic dynasties but also between new powers in the West and the East, Rome and Parthia. Part 3, “Voices: Textual Responses to the Middle Maccabees,” introduces some textual scholars’ take on the period. My contribution in the volume (Jokiranta 2021) argues that indeed the Dead Sea Scrolls bring other elite players (besides the Hasmoneans) onto our table of historical puzzle-making. These sources are not direct and need as much interpretation as archaeological evidence. 

I discuss one text in particular among the Dead Sea Scrolls that has received little attention from this perspective, the so-called Rule of the Congregation (Serekh ha-‘Edah=SE). It is preserved in a fragmentary condition from Cave 4 (4QSE), and in a better condition as part of the Community Rule (1QS-Sa-Sb; here known as 1QSa). The text reflects the desire to offer a path to male members in society to prove themselves, but as an alternative to Hasmonean military campaigns. In their view, military campaigns take place under highest priestly authority, which is distinct from royal authority. Ideal masculinity involves not only military success but accepting one’s place in the hierarchy and submitting oneself to purity demands. Thus, as the elite members were considering what to think of the new situation under the Hasmoneans and whether to join their campaigns, the authors of this text sought to win them to their own program, not denying the importance of military and other training but building an (ideal) alternative to it.

Further reading:

Berlin, Andrea M. “The Upper Galilee and the Northern Coast.” Pages 145–175 in The Middle Maccabees: Archaeology, History, and the Rise of the Hasmonean Kingdom. Edited by Andrea M. Berlin and Paul J. Kosmin. Atlanta: SBL Press, 2021.

Jokiranta, Jutta. “Competitors to Middle Maccabees: Evidence from the Dead Sea Scrolls.” Pages 363–78 in The Middle Maccabees: Archaeology, History, and the Rise of the Hasmonean Kingdom. Edited by Andrea M. Berlin and Paul J. Kosmin. Atlanta: SBL Press, 2021.

Leibner, Uzi. “Galilee in the Second Century BCE: Material Culture and Ethnic Identity.” Pages 123–44 in The Middle Maccabees: Archaeology, History, and the Rise of the Hasmonean Kingdom. Edited by Andrea M. Berlin and Paul J. Kosmin. Atlanta: SBL Press, 2021.