Kraus on Berthelot, 'In Search of the Promised Land?: The Hasmonean Dynasty between Biblical Models and Hellenistic Diplomacy'

Katell Berthelot
Matthew A. Kraus

Katell Berthelot. In Search of the Promised Land?: The Hasmonean Dynasty between Biblical Models and Hellenistic Diplomacy. Göttingen: Vandenhoek & Ruprecht, 2017. 494 pp. $125.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-3-525-55252-0.

Reviewed by Matthew A. Kraus (University of Cincinnati) Published on H-Judaic (September, 2018) Commissioned by Katja Vehlow (University of South Carolina)

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The Hellenistic period was characterized by major political changes that were deeply embedded in the social and cultural interactions between Greek and native communities. For example, the victory of Antiochus III over the Lagids in the Fifth Syrian War (200-199 BCE) did more than mark the transfer of Judea from Ptolemaic rule to Seleucid sovereignty. It also initiated a series of events from 175 to 63 BCE that included Seleucid disregard of ancestral Judean traditions, internal and external efforts to Hellenize Jews, the rededication of the desecrated Temple and the establishment of about a century of Judean sovereignty after successful resistance to Antiochus IV and his successors. Scholarship on the Hasmoneans has traditionally concentrated on the causes of the Maccabean revolt and the nature of the encounter between Judaism and Hellenism, but more recent research has shied away from these questions. On the one hand, because of the numerous plausible explanations for Antiochus IV’s attempts to Hellenize Jerusalem, the only consensus is that the issue remains ultimately irresolvable.[1] On the other hand, the zero-sum binary between Judaism and Hellenism represents the worldview of the primary sources (1 and 2 Maccabees) rather than a more nuanced perspective that includes mutual cultural appropriations.[2] Katell Berthelot’s In Search of the Promised Land?: The Hasmonean Dynasty between Biblical Models and Hellenistic Diplomacy represents this newer trend by dealing with the combined Jewish and Hellenistic models of the Hasmonean dynasty rather than the events that put them into power.  

This publication is an outgrowth of several studies on Jewish interpretations of the biblical conquest of Canaan.[3] Berthelot notes that while most twentieth-century historians adopted the view that the Hasmoneans sought to recover the land promised to Israel and/or reestablish the Davidic Kingdom, the evidence hardly supports this consensus. In this 494-page work, the author offers a careful and convincing reading of the sources that acknowledges biblical influence on Hasmonean self-representation and policy but distinguishes this from a biblically based Hasmonean program of land ownership and conquest. Not only does the author masterfully analyze the directly relevant primary sources—1 and 2 Maccabees and Josephus—she also demonstrates facility with the Dead Sea Scrolls, rabbinic literature, Psalms of Solomon, classical texts, and an impressive bibliography of secondary sources. The book is more than a rejection of a pervasive assumption that the Hasmoneans rewrote the biblical conquest. Instead, Berthelot relates her analysis to broader issues germane to the period: Were the Hasmoneans influenced by religious/biblical or political/Hellenistic models? Was there a consistent Hasmonean policy or did their policy vary depending on their ruler? Do the primary sources reflect the actual positions of the Hasmoneans or how they and others chose to represent them? Space does not allow a full description of the rich content and discussions in this work. Therefore, following a brief summary of the book’s structure, I will focus on the author’s reading of 1 Maccabees 15:33-34 and its relationship to some of the broader debates about the Hasmoneans. 

After an introduction tracing Hasmonean historiography since 1850 on biblical and nonbiblical motivations for the creation of the Hasmonean state, the book is divided into three parts that are further divided into numerous sections and subsections. Part 1, “Did the Hasmoneans Seek to Reconquer the Promised Land or Restore Judea? The Account of the Hasmonean Wars in 1 Maccabees,” demonstrates that the Hasmoneans applied a historical rather than a theological claim to conquer and possess Judea and neighboring territories. In part 2, “The Era of the Conquests: Rise and Fall of the Hasmonean State,” and relying on Josephus and non-Jewish sources, the author proves that nonbiblical justifications apply to the policies of the successors of Judas and his brothers, especially, John Hyrcanus, Aristobulus I, and Alexander Jannaeus. Part 3, “Polemic, Memory, Forgetting,” examines the image of the Hasmoneans in Qumranic and rabbinic literature. A brief conclusion highlights the book’s primary arguments and supporting evidence. Appended to the end are several useful resources: an excursus on Eupolemus’s portrayal of kings David and Solomon, a list of Roman-Hasmonean diplomatic documents, a parallel Seleucid-Hasmonean chronology, two maps, extensive bibliography, and an index of ancient sources. A subject and authors cited index would perhaps make the book more user-friendly, but since the bulk of the book consists of close textual readings, the source index suffices.   

Central to Berthelot’s rejection of the scholarly consensus is a convincing reinterpretation of 1 Maccabees 15:33-34 within the context of recent historiography on the Hasmoneans. Around 138 BCE King Antiochus VII requested that the Hasmonean Simon, now the high priest and ethnarch of Judea, return or offer financial compensation for Joppe, Gazara, and the citadel in Jerusalem, “which are cities of my kingdom,” as well as places captured outside of Judea (p. 162). Simon refuses, claiming that “neither have we taken a foreign land, nor (a land belonging to) others, but the inheritance of our fathers, which was held unjustly by our enemies for a certain time. But we, seizing the occasion, are clinging to the inheritance of our fathers” (1 Macc. 15:33-34, trans. Zervos, NETS 501, with slight modification by Berthelot, see p. 162). It is this passage that has provided the basis for most scholars to assume that the Hasmoneans used the book of Joshua and the Davidic Kingdom as models to expand the borders of Judea and to judaize the local population. Berthelot closely reads these verses through a contextual and Hellenistic rather than a biblical framework. Accepting the authenticity of the letter, she notes that the non-Judean territories under dispute are left unspecified while Joppa and Gazara, parts of the Promised Land, had to be conquered for Judea’s defense, and not in order to restore the Davidic kingdom. Moreover, Simon distinguishes between land which is “the inheritance of their fathers” and Joppa and Gazara, thereby indicating that “inheritance of the fathers” and the Promised Land are not the same. Therefore, in 1 Macc. 15:33-34, Simon is more likely defending the reconquest of Jerusalem and its citadel. Further, reading Simon’s words as a parallel response to Antiochus VII’s claim to restore the “kingdom of his fathers” (1 Macc. 15:3), Berthelot puts the Hasmoneans and Seleucids on equal levels. She convincingly argues that Simon applies Seleucid language to justify his claim that would be more palatable to Antiochus VII. The key here is a distinction between the divine gift of the land and ancestral inheritance, a distinction that correlates with the four ways to legitimate possession of land in Hellenistic/Roman antiquity: patrimonial transmission, purchase, gift, and conquest (in a just war). Berthelot cites a Cretan inscription proving that applying ancestral rights to adjudicate property rights is a Hellenistic conceit. Also key is the Hellenistic idea that possession by itself does not necessarily constitute legitimate land ownership, while for the Romans, “continuous occupation and exploitation of land did confer a right of ownership” (p. 181). This provides a compelling explanation for 1 Maccabees’s inclusion of Simon’s correspondence with Rome in the middle of the negotiations with Antiochus VII (1 Macc 15:15-24). Since Rome made judgements based on the state of ownership when the alliance with Rome began, it supports the Hasmonean case to show that Antiochus VII already had acknowledged their possession and ownership of the land. Rather than evidence of a biblical program, Berthelot shows that 1 Maccabees 15 “exhibits the Hasmoneans’ mastery of the arguments developed by Hellenistic diplomats in cases of territorial conflict” (p. 177).  

Because of Berthelot’s deep familiarity with the scholarship and sources of the period, she is well aware that her rejection of the conventional reading of 1 Maccabees 15:33-34 raises numerous questions and objections and she addresses these throughout parts 1 and 2. First and foremost, one might wonder that if the ancestral inheritance does not refer to the divine gift of the Promised Land and its reconquest, then what does Simon mean? Here Berthelot advances the “historical-juridicial” (p. 185) idea of Israel’s ownership rights to the land in contrast to the traditional “theological-juridicial” (p. 185) model that forms the basis of the reconquest narrative. Hinted at in the Genesis Apocryphon (col. XVI-XVII) and made more explicit in the book of Jubilees chapters 8-10, the historical-juridicial account explains that after Noah assigned territory by lot to Shem, Ham, and Japhet, they swore an oath to respect each other’s territorial inheritance. Since Canaan, son of Ham, violated the oath and possessed Judea, the land was never supposed to be called Canaan and the Canaanites were well aware of the consequences of their illegal occupation. Land distribution by lots reflects a Hellenistic rather than biblical context, while both Greek and biblical traditions distinguish between ownership and possession. It is noteworthy that Jubilees envisions a land claim that predates Abraham and is not dependent on the covenant. Thus, “what we are seeing here is the integration of the logic of a Greek argument within a Jewish narrative inspired from the Bible” that Abraham and Joshua mark a “return” to the land that was illegally possessed by the Canaanites (p. 202). This also provides a rationale for the claims of kinship between Sparta and Israel, who unlike Athens, base their land claims on “ancestral right of ownership” (p. 203), not autochthony. 

Berthelot has ready answers to additional potential objections or questions raised by the historico-juridicial thesis. Thus, she touches upon numerous topics such as Josephan evidence, actual biblical parallels and models, the concept of the Bible, Canaanites and Judeans, land purification, Hasmoneian policies after Judas and his brothers, forced conversions, and mercenary troops. Here, I will touch upon just a few examples of the author’s detailed discussion of these topics. If the Maccabees did not use biblical models to justify their land claims, perhaps the Bible never influenced their policies. Berthelot rightly observes that Judas applied biblical precepts such as Deuteronomic exemptions from military duty (Deut. 20:5-9; 1 Macc. 3:56), and both Mattathias and Judas refer to figures and events such as Phinehas, Abraham, Joseph, Joshua, David and Elijah, and the battle of Jericho to inspire their followers (1 Macc. 2:49-61; 2 Macc. 12:15-16). This does not mean that the Hasmoneans applied the principle of herem (extermination) of the Canaanites (Deut. 20:16-18), as they did not consider non-Judeans to be Canaanites. As both 1 and 2 Maccabees make clear, they were primarily interested in purifying the Temple, not the land. If the Hasmoneans did not fight to recapture and restore the holy land, what was their rallying cry? It depends on the source. In 1 Maccabees, they primarily battle for their ancestral traditions and in 2 Maccabees it is for the TemplePerhaps the generations of Hasmoneans after Judas and his brothers carried out a biblically based policy. After all, they expanded their territorial holdings beyond Judea, destroyed pagan temples, annihilated the inhabitants of some towns, and forcibly converted the Idumeans and Itureans. In part 2, “The Era of Conquests: Rise and Fall of the Hasmonean State,” Berthelot addresses these issues. Rather than reflecting a coherent Hasmonean policy, motivations of expansions varied under subsequent Hasmoneans. In fact, the author sympathizes with Daniel Schwartz’s attribution of their motivation to the logic of power: “they had the possibility of conquering new territories and so that is what they did.”[4]  The absence of a coherent Hasmonean policy also requires rethinking of the conversion of the Idumeans attributed to John Hyrcanus. Their forced circumcision need not represent an actual conversion but rather a limited Judaization of Hellenized Idumean elites. Even if John Hyrcanus did forcibly “convert” the entire populace, this correlates more with the primary biblical model of tolerating the ger (resident alien) who may or may not be circumcised. Most striking is Berthelot’s suggestion that the need to control “areas peopled with non-Judeans” (p. 323) led the Hasmoneans to adopt strategies employed by the Seleucid Empire to meet similar “challenges with similar answers” (p. 324). Hasmonean Judaization could be modeled in part on Antiochus IV’s Hellenization of Judea, which could be understood as legitimate punitive measures against insubordinate subjects who “interpreted these measures as a persecution” (p. 316).[5] This appropriation of Seleucid methods explains why the Hasmoneans also used mercenaries and John Hyrcanus’s successor Aristobulus I received the epithet phil-hellene (friend of the Greeks). Judaization of non-Jewish populations may not be entirely biblical or inconsistent with Hellenistic norms.

While I learned a great deal from part 3's analysis of Qumranic and rabbinic literature, it did not advance the argument beyond enhancing its plausibility. Here Berthelot examines possible references to the Hasmoneans in the Qumran manuscripts, which at the least offer no counterevidence. The cryptic nature of these texts, contested textual reconstructions and readings, and the uncertain provenance of these works reduce Berthelot’s analysis to legitimate, possible readings that do not contradict her description of the Hasmonean state. Similarly, the section “Memory and Forgetting: The Hasmonean Expansion in Rabbinic Literature” is an important piece that stands on its own. In both bodies of literature, the issue of the land is minor compared to high praise for the Hasmonean war of liberation coupled with a praise and critique of later Hasmonean accumulation and exercise of power. In problematizing the Hasmonean expansion as an illicit application of power, these texts do not view the Hasmoneans as being motivated by Joshua and the covenantal conquest of the land. 

In such a rich and thorough work, there are some points with which one might disagree. For example, when the author argues that the Hasmoneans destroyed the Temple of Dagon because enemies were hiding there rather than because of a biblical proscription against idolatry, nothing precludes the simultaneous presence of both motivations. This preference for either/or rather than both/and also applies to the claim that the destruction of the Samaritan Temple on Mount Gerizim was religiously motivated, but not rooted in the biblical proscription against idolatry. After all, the Samaritans had dedicated their temple to Zeus Xenios (Josephus, Antiquities 12.257-264), so both affirming the centrality of the Jerusalem Temple and opposition to idolatry may have motivated John Hyrcanus’s actions. In such a comprehensive work, I was surprised that the author did not mention the famous Animal Apocalypse in 1 Enoch, simply because this text represents a positive view of the Hasmoneans in a text popular among the Qumranites. Such critiques do not detract from the overall impressive accomplishment of the author. Her method is sound, focusing on the texts themselves rather than somewhat arbitrary categories like Diasporan v. Palestinian texts and she wisely assumes an evolving Hasmonean program depending on the ruler (contra Eyal Regev).[6] The main argument, moreover, is quite convincing. In fact, Berthelot need not be so apologetic for using an argumentum ex silentio (p. 427). Rather, the claim that she is refuting is primarily based on arguments from silence, so the burden of proof rests on those who claim that Hasmoneans impose the Joshuan model or restore the Davidic Kingdom. For those relatively new to the topic, sources, and period, the book provides ample context and translates not only Greek and Latin texts, but also foreign-language secondary sources. Similarly, experts on the Hasmoneans, the books of the Maccabees, Josephus, Dead Sea Scrolls, and rabbinic literature will find much of value and will have to take this book into consideration. 

During the Sixth Zionist Congress, famous for the so-called Uganda controversy, a debate ensued over whether to establish a commission to investigate the possibility of settling some Jews in Kenya (not Uganda). This was to be a temporary move, not a rejection of the ultimate goal of establishing a Jewish homeland in Palestine. For the opponents of the proposal, it brought to the forefront the issue of why Palestine and only Palestine must be the Jewish homeland, thereby forcing secular Zionists opposed to the proposal to explain their nonreligious/nonbiblical justification for their position. In response to the proposal, Ahad Ha-Am, for example, argued that it was “the force of historic passion that binds the people to its land” of Zion.[7] The Hasmoneans similarly offered a historical rather than a theological argument. Remarkably, in antiquity as well there were multiple ways to justify the Israelite claim to the land. The significance of this point is not ignored by Berthelot, albeit relegated to a footnote where she observes that the Zionist position “reflects a Hellenistic, rather than Roman, perspective” (p. 181n353). It is refreshing to encounter an impressive work of scholarship that can contribute to modern debates both about antiquity and contemporary realities. 


[1]. See, for example, Albert I. Baumgarten, “Elias Bickerman on the Hellenizing Reformers: A Case Study of an Unconvincing Case,” The Jewish Quarterly Review 97, no. 2 (2007): 154; and John Efron, Steven Weitzman, and Matthias Lehman, eds., The Jews: A History, 2nd ed. (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson, Prentice Hall, 2014), 68-76.

[2]. Tessa Rajak, The Jewish Dialogue with Greece and Rome: Studies in Cultural and Social Interaction, Arbeiten zur Geschichte des antiken Judentums und des Urchristentums (Leiden: Brill, 2001), 3-10, 61-80.

[3]. Katell Berthelot, “The Biblical Conquest of the Promised Land and the Hasmonaean Wars according to 1 and 2 Maccabees,” in Books of the Maccabees: History, Theology, Ideology; Papers of the Second International Conference on the Deuterocanonical Books, Pápa, Hungary, 9-11 June, 2005, ed. Géza Xeravits and József Zsengellér (Leiden: Brill, 2007), 45-60, “The Original Sin of the Canaanites,” in The “Other” In Second Temple Judaism: Essays in Honor of John J. Collins, ed. Daniel C. Harlow and Karin Martin Hogan (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2011), 49-66, “The Canaanites Who 'Trusted in God': An Original Interpretation of the Fate of the Canaanites in Rabbinic Literature,” Journal of Jewish Studies 62, no. 2 (2011): 233-61, and The Gift of the Land and the Fate of the Canaanites in Jewish Thought, ed. Katell Berthelot et al. (New York: Oxford University Press).

[4]. Daniel R. Schwartz, interview with Estelle Villeneuve in “Les Asmonéens ont-ils reconquis la ‘Terre promise’?,” Le Monde de la Bible 204 (March-May 2013): 28-31, translated by Berthelot, 51.

[5]. Berthelot follows John Ma, “Re-Examining Hanukkah” in The Marginalia Review of Books, July 9, 2013; and Sylvie Honigman, Tales of High Priests and Taxes: The Books of the Maccabees and the Judean Rebellion against Antiochos IV (Oakland: University of California Press, 2014), 387-97.

[6]. Eyal Regev, The Hasmoneans: Ideology, Archaeology, Identity, Journal of Ancient Judaism Supplements (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2013). On letting the sources speak for themselves, see Ari Finkelstein, “Fitting a Square Peg into a Round Hole: Categorizing Works of Jewish Historiography of the Second Temple Period,” Journal for the Study of Judaism 49, no. 3 (2018): 303-29.

[7]. Ahad Ha'Am, “The Weepers,” first published in 1903 and cited in Eliezer Schweid, The Land of Israel: National Home or Land of Destiny, trans. Deborah Greniman (New York: Herzl Press, 1985), 112.

Citation: Matthew A. Kraus. Review of Berthelot, Katell, In Search of the Promised Land?: The Hasmonean Dynasty between Biblical Models and Hellenistic Diplomacy. H-Judaic, H-Net Reviews. September, 2018. URL:

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