John Hyrcanus (Yohanan Girhan; Yohanan Hyrcanus – יוחנן הורקנוס, Ιωάννης Υρκανός) was a Hasmonean (Maccabeean) leader of the 2nd century BCE (born 164 BCE, reigned from 134 BCE until his death in 104 BCE).
Josephus explains in The Jewish War that John was also known as “Hyrcanus”, but does not explain the reason behind this name. The only other primary source, the Books of the Maccabees, never used this name with respect to John, with the single reference to Hyrcanus in 2 Maccabees 3:11 referring to a man to whom some of the money in the Temple belonged during the c. 178 BCE visit of Heliodorus.
The reason for the name is disputed among biblical scholars, with a variety of reasons proposed.
He was the son of Simon Maccabaeus and hence the nephew of Judas Maccabaeus, Jonathan Maccabaeus and their siblings, whose story is told in the deuterocanonical books of 1 Maccabees and 2 Maccabees, in the Talmud, and in Josephus. John was not present at a banquet at which his father and his two brothers were murdered, purportedly by his brother-in-law, Ptolemy, son of Abubus. He attained to his father’s former offices, that of high priest and national leader (but not king). Josephus said that John Hyrcanus had five sons but only named four in his histories–Judah Aristobulus I, Antigonus I, Alexander Jannai, and Absalom.
During the first year of Hyrcanus’ reign, he faced the most serious challenge to independent Judean rule from the Seleucid Empire. Antiochus VII Sidetes marched into Judea, pillaged the countryside and laid a year long siege on Jerusalem. The prolonged siege caused Hyrcanus to remove any Judean from the city who could not assist with the defense effort (Antiquities 13.240). These refugees were not allowed to pass through Antiochus’ lines. Therefore, these Judeans were literally trapped in the middle of a chaotic siege. With a humanitarian crisis on his hands, Hyrcanus re-admitted his estranged Jerusalemites when the festival of Sukkot arrived. Afterwards, due to massive food shortages in Jerusalem, Hyrcanus negotiated a truce with Antiochus.
The terms of the truce consisted of three thousand talents of silver as payment for Antiochus, breaking down the walls of Jerusalem, Judean participation in the Seleucid war against the Parthians, and once again Judean recognition of Seleucid control (Antiquities 13.245). These terms were a harsh blow to a young ruler. Furthermore, Hyrcanus needed to loot the tomb of David to pay the 3000 talents (The Wars of the Jews I 2:5).
The repercussions of the Seleucid siege were initially a difficult setback for Hyrcanus. Judea faced tough economic times after the countryside was plundered and Jerusalem was under siege. Economic struggles were greatly magnified by taxes to the Seleucids enforced by Antiochus. Furthermore, Hyrcanus was forced to accompany Antiochus on his eastern campaign in 130 BCE. Hyrcanus probably would have functioned as the military commander of a Jewish company in the campaign. Instead of governing a devastated Judean state, Hyrcanus was in Parthia fighting with Antiochus.
Additionally, this probably caused a loss of support for the inexperienced Hyrcanus among the Judean population. Judeans in the countryside were especially disillusioned with Hyrcanus after Antiochus’ army plundered their land. The fact that Hyrcanus was fighting alongside Antiochus probably caused serious resentment. Furthermore, Hyrcanus driving out the non-military population of Jerusalem during the siege also probably caused resentment for his rule in the city. Finally, the action of looting the Tomb of David violated his obligations as High Priest. This would have offended the religious leadership.
Therefore, at a very early point in his thirty-one year reign of Judea, Hyrcanus had lost the support of Judeans in various cultural sectors. The Jerusalemites, countryside Judeans and the religious leadership probably doubted the future of Judea under Hyrcanus. However, Hyrcanus was met with fortune in 128 BCE when Antiochus VII was killed in battle against Parthia. What followed was an era of conquest led by Hyrcanus that marked the high point of Judea as the most significant power in Syria.