This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

The Tomb of the Last Hasmonean? *

The Hasmonean dynasty, which leaped onto the stage of history with such dramatic heroism, disappeared from that same stage with cruel suddenness. The despot Herod, whose régime was forced upon the unwilling Jewish populace by his Romans overlords, was fully aware that the aura of Hasmonean charisma would constitute a continual threat to his power, and hence he undertook to ruthlessly murder all the remaining descendants of that family, including his beloved wife Mariamne, granddaughter of the Hasmonean ruler Hyrcanus II. Herod executed her on trumped-up charges of disloyalty, as he did afterwards to the two sons she had borne him, Alexander and Aristobulus.

The last Hasmonean to actually wield power was Antigonus, son of Aristobulus II, who succeeded, with the help of Parthian allies, in restoring Jewish autonomy for a few years (40-37 B.C.E.), until the young Herod persuaded the Roman rulers to send legions to uphold his own claim to the title of "King of Judea." Assisted by Roman and Edomite forces, Herod destroyed Antigonus' Galilean guerrillas in the caves where they were concealed. He then proceeded to besiege Jerusalem, where his forces conducted a wholesale carnage of the civilian population. Antigonus surrendered his person to the Roman general in the vain hope that the latter could be persuaded to treat his victims with greater compassion. In the end, Antigonus was led in chains to Antioch to be executed ignobly before Marc Antony.

A link to that tragic episode may have been revealed in 1971 when a bulldozer was preparing the foundation for a private house in Jerusalem's Givat Hamivtar district. As so often occurs in Israel, the excavation unexpectedly uncovered an archeological site, an ancient burial cave. As the scholars and archeologists were summoned to examine the site, their attentions focused upon an extraordinary inscription facing the cave's entrance, composed in the Aramaic language in the "old Hebrew" alphabet in use among the Samaritans.

The inscription told a terse but moving story related in the first person by an individual who identified himself as "Abba descendant of Eleazar the son of Aaron the High Priest." This Abba goes on to describe how he was born in Jerusalem, but was subsequently "tortured and persecuted," and exiled to Babylonia. Now he has returned to his home bearing the remains of one Matathias son of Judah, to bring them to final burial in this cave.

Many suggestions have been proposed to fill in the details of this tantalizing inscription. Although the old Hebrew script would seem to point to Samaritan origins, this would conflict with the importance assigned to Jerusalem as the protagonist's birthplace and the final resting place of the deceased. The Samaritans decisively rejected Jerusalem in favour of their own sanctuary on Mount Gerizim near Shechem.

Even more puzzling is the question of why an individual who takes such apparent pride in his priestly pedigree would subject himself to defilement through contact with a corpse, in defiance of the Biblical laws of priestly holiness. Since the deceased was evidently not a close relation, the burial must have been perceived as an act of especial importance. Indeed Talmudic religion attaches supreme importance to the "met mitzvah" the obligation to arrange for the proper burial of a corpse for whom nobody else is caring. Could this have been such a case?

It did not take long for scholars to turn their attentions to the name of the deceased. The names Matathias and Judah are of course familiar from the Hanukkah story, and they reappear throughout the short history of the Hasmonean dynasty. We learn from their coinage that the Hasmonean rulers normally had both Hebrew and Greek names. "Antigonus" was always employed as the Greek equivalent for Matathias, and "Aristobulus" for Judah. The possibility thus emerged that the cave on Givat Hamivtar belong to none other than Antigonus, the last Hasmonean king!

While it remains within the realm of speculation, the theory provides plausible explanations for some of the riddles referred to above. We know that the Hasmoneans had a special affection for the old Hebrew alphabet, which appears prominently on the coins that they minted. The distinguished status of this king and national hero would warrant a priest's defiling himself to bring him to burial near the holy city. Since the Hasmoneans were a priestly family, it is possible that Abba was a distant relation or family retainer. It might even be significant that he traced himself directly back to Aaron, rather than to the rival (and pro-Roman) Zadokite line that constituted the priestly aristocracy during the Second Temple era, but to which the Hasmoneans did not belong.

Most intriguing is the description of the "tortured and persecuted" Abba whose forced exile from his homeland had likely resulted from activities against Herod and Rome. We may imagine that the Romans forbade proper burial to a rebel who had been executed in political disgrace, and that attempts to counter that prohibition had to be conducted at tremendous personal risk.

Though the jury is still out on the question of how to correctly interpret the evidence, the controversy should be seen as yet another example of the inseparable bond that binds our people to the personalities and exploits of previous generations.


This article and many others are now included in the book

Holidays, History and HalakhahHolidays, History and Halakhah

by Jason Aronson Publishers

Return to the main index of Eliezer Segal's articles

My email address is: eliezer.segal@ucalgary.ca

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