This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

The Wicked Hasomonean Priest*

We have all learned to admire them as supreme Jewish heroes: The five sons of Mattathias the Hasmonean, the freedom fighters whose heroic exploits against religious persecution brought about the celebration of Hanukkah.

The leader of the revolt, Judah Maccabee, was the first of the brothers to fall in battle before the goals of the rebellion had been accomplished. It was left to his brother Jonathan to complete the job, removing the last Greek garrison from the city of Jerusalem and initiating a century of Jewish independence. Jonathan assumed the High Priesthood, beginning an unbroken line of Hasmonean High Priests that continued from 163 B.C.E. until 37 B.C.E.

And yet, to judge from contemporary documents, many Jews were less than appreciative of this Hanukkah hero, and saw him as an enemy of Judaism and the Jewish people.

This hostility is most evident in an ancient commentary to the book of Habakkuk that was included among the Dead Sea Scrolls at Qumran. The work in question belongs to a special genre known as Pesher, in which the words of the biblical prophets were applied to events in recent history.

The Habakkuk Pesher has a great deal to say about a figure that it calls the "Wicked Priest." This villainous character, according to the author,

was called in the name of truth when he first arose. But when he ruled over Israel his heart became proud, and he forsook God and betrayed the precepts for the sake of riches.

The Pesher accuses the Wicked Priest of corruption and oppressing the poor, and generally violating God's law. He profaned the holy city of Jerusalem and its Temple with terrible abominations.

But the gravest of his crimes was his persecution of the person known as the "Teacher of Righteousness." As described in the Qumran scrolls, this figure was a revered individual, endowed with a special spiritual wisdom and revelation, who instructed his devoted disciples in the true meaning of the Torah.

The author of Pesher Habakkuk relates that the Wicked Priest became arrogant in his power, leading him to violate God's laws and to cause unspecified suffering to the Teacher and his followers.

Ultimately the Wicked Priest met his deserved retribution. He fell into the hands of enemies who inflicted bitter suffering upon him.

Who were the Wicked Priest and the Teacher of Righteousness? These questions are crucial to any proper evaluation of the Dead Sea Scrolls and their message.

The history of the Second Jewish Commonwealth provides us with a number of candidates for the role of Wicked Priest. Several figures of priestly lineage were counted among the leading proponents of the Hellenistic reforms that sparked the Maccabean uprising.

Thus, for example, an individual named Jason (originally Joshua), scion of a respected priestly family, purchased the High Priesthood from Antiochus Epiphanes, and used his three-year term of office to enforce pagan practices in Judea. He was eventually deposed, and ended his days as a rootless exile who perished miserably at Sparta.

His rival and successor, Menelaus (known formerly by his Hebrew name Honio or Onias) was even more resolute in his campaign against Judaism. A virtual civil war erupted during his reign, until Antiochus determined that the only way to restore peace among the rival factions was by deposing Menelaus and exiling him to the Syrian town of Berea, where he was put to death in his tenth year of office.

The next infamous figure in the series was Alcimus, a stubborn and ruthless opponent of the Hasmoneans who served as High Priest under the pro-Greek regime, and came to a sordid end, stricken with a painful and debilitating paralysis.

Although some of the details mentioned in the Pesher Habakkuk--such as the allusion to the priest's righteous beginnings-- remain unexplained by the known facts of these priests' biographies, it is not entirely inconceivable that one of these wretched figures could have been the Wicked Priest.

However, a virtual consensus has developed among interpreters of the Dead Sea Scrolls, that the most likely identity for the Wicked Priest of Pesher Habakkuk was the Hasmonean ruler Jonathan, the brother of Judah Maccabee. Almost all the expressions in the document, after we have made allowances for their flowery and cryptic style, can be readily linked to known episodes in Jonathan's life.

Jonathan's initial appearance on the stage of history, as a champion of traditional Judaism against pagan reforms and Seleucid oppression, was applauded by loyal Jews. However, once the revolt had elevated him to a position of leader ship, his activities began to provoke criticism from many circles.

We know from other sources that Jonathan's most harshly condemned act was when he appointed himself High Priest, an office that had previously been the exclusive birthright of the ancient dynasty of the Zadokites. It is probable that the origin of the Sadducee sect is to be traced to this event. Some contemporaries, who might otherwise have tolerated Jonathan's High Priestly status, were nevertheless dismayed that he and his successors laid claim to the monarchy as well. The concentration of so much authority in the hands of a single individual was exceptional in Jewish history.

Pesher Habakkuk's description of the Wicked Priest's dreadful demise also dovetails nicely with the known facts of Jonathan's life. The Hasmonean ruler met an ignominious end when he was treacherously imprisoned by the Syrian general Tryphon who kept him in a dungeon until his execution. In the eyes of Pesher Habakkuk's author, this pathetic end of a heroic Jewish freedom fighter was a just settling of accounts.

The one detail in this account that remains obscure is the dispute that arose between Jonathan and the Teacher of Righteousness. The Second Temple era was replete with sectarian controversies over the correct interpretation of the Torah, but our sources do not yet allow us to identify with any certainty the specific issue that brought about the schism between the Wicked Priest and the Teacher of Righteousness, a schism that may have led to the founding of the Essene community by the shores of the Dead Sea.

If this theory is correct, then Jonathan the Hasmonean can join the ranks of many other war heroes and liberators who found it easier to rally their followers against a common enemy than to maintain their loyalty through the obstacles of day-to-day politics.

This article and many others are now included in the book

In Those Days, At This Time
In Those Days, At This Time:
Holiness and History in the Jewish Calendar

published by

University of Calgary Press
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  • First Publication:
    • Jewish Free Press, December 21, 2000, pp. 24-5.

  • Bibliography:
    • Avi-Yonah, Michael, and Zvi Baras, eds. Society and Religion in the Second Temple Period, World History of the Jewish People: First Series: Ancient Time. Jerusalem: Massada Publishing, 1977.
    • Vermes, Geza. The Complete Dead Sea Scrolls in English. London: Penguin, 1995.
    • Vermès, Géza. Discovery in the Judean Desert. New York: Desclee, 1956.