Maccabean Dynasty of Priests

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Damien F. Mackey


Of necessity the conventional, and much over-extended, arrangement of Persian history (with its duplicating of kings “Darius” and “Artaxerxes”), and also the over-extended Hellenistic (and Seleucid) history, must also affect the arrangement of the Jewish high priests who belonged to these eras. Just as there are now too many kings “Artaxerxes”, so, too, do we find that there are as many as four high priests, “Onias” (I-IV).


Whilst there is quite some debate and dispute about the exact succession of post-exilic high priests (Herb Stork, for instance, has discussed this in some detail in his History and Prophecy: A Study in the Post-Exilic Period, House of Nabu, 1989), a typical listing would include the following candidates (


After the Babylonian Exile ….


The five descendants of Joshua are mentioned in Nehemiah, chapter 12, 10f. The chronology given above, based on Josephus, however is not undisputed, with some alternatively placing Jaddua during the time of Darius II and some supposing one more Johanan and one more Jaddua in the following time, the latter Jaddua being contemporary of Alexander the Great.


  • Onias I, son of Jaddua, ca. 320-280 BC
  • Simon I, son of Onias, ca. 280-260 BC Josephus identified him as Simeon the Just[8]
  • Eleazar, son of Onias, ca. 260-245 BC
  • Manasseh, son of Jaddua, ca. 245-240 BC
  • Onias II, son of Simon, ca. 240-218 BC
  • Simon II, son of Onias, 218-185 BC
  • Onias III, son of Simon, 185-175 BC, murdered 170 BC
  • Jason, son of Simon, 175-172 BC
  • Menelaus, 172-162 BC
  • Alcimus, 162-159 BC     Thus I would anticipate, with a strong degree of likelihood, that the number of Jewish high priests “Onias” – and indeed those priests “Simon” associated with the priests “Onias” – must be reduced. Priests “Onias”, I-IV, will probably need to be at least halved: to, say, Onias I-II.   In those days arose Mathathias [Mattathias] the son of John, the son of Simeon, a priest of the sons of Joarib, from Jerusalem, and he abode in the mountain of Modin.   Simeon is used here to distinguish him from his descendant Simon.The high priest who is said to have met Alexander the Great – whether or not it is a true event – is variously given as Jaddua and Simon (Simeon). Unfortunately, though, there is now much confusion about high priest Simon, as is attested by this article from the Jewish Encyclopedia: “About no other high priest does such a mixture of fact and fiction center …”: (
  • With Mattathias an early contemporary of the Seleucid king, Antiochus (supposedly IV) “Epiphanes”, whose pagan impositions the courageous Jewish priest fiercely resisted, then Onias belongs to the period approximately between Alexander the Great and Antiochus IV, whilst Simeon would be the Simon who was contemporaneous with Alexander the Great.
  • This Maccabean text will become the matrix for my revision of the Oniad dynasty of priests, with the great Onias himself, now numbered as I, being recognised as “John” the father of Mattathias (himself a descendant of the priest, Zadok, through Joarib, or Jehoiarib) – and the father of this Onias (= John), that is, “Simeon”, also to be numbered as I, being the great-grandfather of “Simon” II (the Hasmonean).
  • I Maccabees 2:1-5
  • And he had five sons: John who was surnamed Gaddis: And Simon, who was surnamed Thassi: And Judas, who was called Machabeus [Maccabeus]: And Eleazar, who was surnamed Abaron: and Jonathan, who was surnamed Apphus.
  • Simeon I
  • then the very lengthy conventional Persian-to-Greek chronology must necessarily be shortened quite considerably.
  • Nehemiah bridges Persia and Greece
  • We have discovered, however, that, with the great Nehemiah actually – and most surprisingly – dipping down into early Maccabean times:
  • Here we find four (I-IV) priests “Onias”.



High priest. He is identical either with Simeon I. (310-291 or 300-270 B.C.), son of Onias I., and grandson of Jaddua, or with Simeon II. (219-199 B.C.), son of Onias II. Many statements concerning him are variously ascribed by scholars to four different persons who bore the same surname; e.g., to Simeon I. by Fränkel and Grätz; to Simeon II. by Krochmal and Brüll; to Simon Maccabeus by Löw; and to Simeon the son of Gamaliel by Weiss.

About no other high priest does such a mixture of fact and fiction center, the Talmud, Josephus, and the Second Book of Maccabees all containing accounts of him. He was termed “the Just” either because of the piety of his life and his benevolence toward his compatriots (Josephus, “Ant.” xii. 2, § 5), or because he took thought for his people (Ecclus. [Sirach] l. 4). He was deeply interested both in the spiritual and in the material development of the nation. Thus, according to Ecclus. (Sirach) l. 1-14, he rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem, which had been torn down by Ptolemy Soter, and repaired the damage done to the Temple, raising the foundation-walls of its court and enlarging the cistern therein so that it was like a pool (that these statements can apply only to Simeon I. is shown by Grätz, and they agree, moreover, with the Talmudic accounts of Simeon’s undertakings).

When Alexander the Great marched through Palestine in the year 333, Simeon the Just, according to the legend, dressed in his eight priestly robes went to Kefar Saba (Antipatris) to meet him (Yoma 69a), although Josephus (l.c. xi. 8, § 4) states that Alexander himself came to Jerusalem (but see Jew. Encyc. i. 341b, vii. 51b). The legend further declares that as soon as the Macedonian saw the high priest, he descended from his chariot and bowed respectfully before him. When Alexander’s courtiers criticized his act, he replied that it had been intentional, since he had had a vision in which he had seen the high priest, who had predicted his victory. Alexander demanded that a statue of himself be placed in the Temple; but the high priest explained to him that this was impossible, promising him instead that all the sons born of priests in that year should be named Alexander and that the Seleucidan era should be introduced (Lev. R. xiii., end; Pesiḳ. R., section “Parah”).


[End of quote]


We shall need clearly to distinguish between the high priest Simon (Simeon), I, who was contemporaneous with Alexander the Great, and the high priest Simon, II (“the Just”?), eulogised by Sirach (50:1-23).


Onias (= John)




In his vision, Judas [Maccabeus] saw Onias, who had been high priest and was virtuous, good, modest in all things, gentle of manners, and well-spoken. From childhood he had learned all things that properly belong to a good moral life. This man had his hands extended to pray for the entire nation of the Jews. Then … another man, noteworthy for his … dignity, appeared with astonishing and splendid glory. Onias said, ‘This man is one who loves his brothers and sisters and prays … for the people and the holy city: God’s prophet Jeremiah’.


2 Maccabees 15:12-14




That is a mystical account of the priestly Onias whom I tentatively number as I.

He is first introduced into the Maccabean history in Ch. 3, in an idyllic time of “perfect peace”, honour and glory for the Jews (vv. 1-3):


While the holy city lived in perfect peace and the laws were strictly observed because of the piety of the high priest Onias and his hatred of evil, the kings themselves honored the place and glorified the temple with the most magnificent gifts. Thus Seleucus, king of Asia, defrayed from his own revenues all the expenses necessary for the liturgy of sacrifice.


This paradisiacal harmony would eventually be interrupted by the violent attempt of Heliodorus to rob the Temple (vv. 13-40): a dramatic tale replete with pathos, the miraculous, and a complete reversal of fortune for the intruder.


But here I am particularly interested in the ancestry of Onias with an eye to identifying him with “John” the father of Mattathias (the father of Judas Maccabeus).

My source here will be The Jerome Biblical Commentary (1968), beginning with an introduction to the Oniads as provided by Frs. Wright, Murphy and Fitzmeyer in their article, “A History of Israel” (75:106): “The Oniads belonged to the family of a certain Yohanan (Honi, and in the Greek form, Onias), father of the high priest Simon II, who is so fervently praised in Sir 50:1-21”.

Whilst I would agree that it is Simon II whom Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) so greatly lauds, I shall be identifying this Simon as, not the son of Onias, but rather as the grandson.

Fr. Neil McEleney (C.S.P.) also tells of the emergence of the Oniads of the line of Zadok when writing his “Commentary on 1 Maccabees” for The Jerome Biblical Commentary (27:31):


With Alcimus a new priestly line appears. Onias III [sic], who belonged to the traditional family of high priests – who were descended from Zadok (2 Sm 8:17) by way of Joshua (I Chr 6:8-15; Hag 1:1; Neh 12:10-11) and Jaddua (Ezr 2:36) had been replaced by his brother Jason (2 Mc 4:7), then by Menelaus (2 Mc 4:23-26).

[End of quote]


Fr. McEleney will continue along similar lines in his “Commentary on 2 Maccabees” (27:62):


  1. Onias: Onias III, son of Simon II [sic] (cf. Sir 50:1-21) and grandson of another Onias [sic] (Josephus, Ant. 12. 4, 10 § 225), whose Gk. name appears (from the Hebr text of Sir) to be a contraction based on the Hebr Yoḥanan, “God is gracious”. The family of Onias were descendants, through Jaddua (Ezr 2:36; I Chr 24:7; Josephus, Ant. 11. 8, 7 § 347), of Joshua, the high-priest of the post-exilic community (Neh 12:10-11).

[End of quote]


What we learn from all this is that the name “Onias” equates to the Hebrew Yoḥanan, or Honi.

And that is the very name “John” that we are looking for, in order to identify Onias with the father of Mattathias, who was John. For, we learn ( “The Hebrew name [Yohanan] was adopted as Ἰωάννης (Iōánnēs) in Biblical Greek as the name of both John the Baptist and John the Apostle”.






Although he was in the line of high priests, according to this series, the priestly career of Mattathias was rudely interrupted by the arrival in Syro-Palestine of the hostile pagan king, the Seleucid Antiochus IV ‘Epiphanes’, and his henchmen.




I Maccabees 2:1-5 introduced us to Mattathias and his five sons.

Let us return to v. 1: “In those days Mattathias, son of John, son of Simeon, a priest of the family of Joarib, left Jerusalem and settled in Modein”.

We have now identified the grandfather, “Simeon”, as the high-priest Simeon (Simon) I, at the time of Alexander the Great, and the father, “John”, as the great Onias at the time of Heliodorus. Would we not expect Mattathias, the son of Onias/John, to have followed in his father’s footsteps and to have become the next high priest?

Although he was in the line of high priests, according to this series, the career of Mattathias was rudely interrupted by the arrival in Palestine of Antiochus IV ‘Epiphanes’ and his henchmen. And so, “Mattathias … left Jerusalem and settled in Modein”.

He, like Job and Jeremiah, lamented the day of his birth (2:6-9):


When he saw the sacrileges that were being committed in Judah and in Jerusalem, he said:

‘Woe is me! Why was I born

to see the ruin of my people,

the ruin of the holy City—

To dwell there

as it was given into the hands of enemies,

the sanctuary into the hands of strangers?

Her Temple has become like a man disgraced,

her glorious vessels carried off as spoils,

Her infants murdered in her streets,

her youths by the sword of the enemy. …’.



Mattathias was, despite his sorrow, defiant, and he single-handedly precipitated the Maccabean revolt (vv. 19-28):


But Mattathias answered in a loud voice: ‘Although all the Gentiles in the king’s realm obey him, so that they forsake the religion of their ancestors and consent to the king’s orders, yet I and my sons and my kindred will keep to the covenant of our ancestors. Heaven forbid that we should forsake the law and the commandments. We will not obey the words of the king by departing from our religion in the slightest degree’.

As he finished saying these words, a certain Jew came forward in the sight of all to offer sacrifice on the altar in Modein according to the king’s order. When Mattathias saw him, he was filled with zeal; his heart was moved and his just fury was aroused; he sprang forward and killed him upon the altar. At the same time, he also killed the messenger of the king who was forcing them to sacrifice, and he tore down the altar. Thus he showed his zeal for the law, just as Phinehas did with Zimri, son of Salu.

Then Mattathias cried out in the city, ‘Let everyone who is zealous for the Law and who stands by the covenant follow me!’ Then he and his sons fled to the mountains, leaving behind in the city all their possessions.


Interestingly, Maccabean coins were apparently discovered in April this year at the very site of Modein (Modi’in) to where the priest Mattathias removed himself and his family (


A hoard of silver coins, along with bronze coins bearing the names of the Maccabean kings, dating to the year 126 BCE in the Hasmonean period was discovered in April during an archaeological excavation near the city of Modi’in, the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) announced on Tuesday.


The bronze coins bear the names of the Jewish kings Yehohanan, Judah, Jonathan, and Mattathias (including his title: “High Priest and Head of the Council of the Jews”) – all of the Hasmonean family that rose up against the Greek persecution in events commemorated by the holiday of Hanukkah. Images of the Selucid Greek King Antiochus IV, the villain of the Hanukkah story, appear on the silver coins unearthed.


[End of quote]


Mattathias, son of John, son of Simeon (or Simon), named his sons after his predecessors, for example (2:2-3): “John, who was called Gaddi; Simon, who was called Thassi”.

That was according to Jewish custom.



Simon II



Simon son of Mattathias, rather than the high priest Simon at the time of Alexander the Great, was the one so splendidly eulogised by Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) 50:1-21.


I have skipped over two of the mighty sons of Mattathias, the (for a time) invincible warrior, Judas Maccabeus, whose heroic exploits occupy Chapters 3-9 of I Maccabees, and Jonathan, who succeeded Judas on his death, and who became a most revered High Priest (9:23-12:53).

Despite all of this, Sirach will consider Simon as being “the greatest” amongst the brothers (50:1-4):


The greatest of his brothers and the pride of his people was the High Priest Simon son of Onias, who repaired the Temple and laid the foundation for the high double wall and the fortifications of the Temple. The reservoir, as big as the bronze tank, was dug while he was in office. He made plans to protect his people from attack and fortified the city so that it could withstand a siege.


Sirach here calls Simon “son of Onias”.

Thanks to the chaotic nature of the received chronology, this can be a cause of great confusion – though it is quite common for Jewish genealogies to refer to a grandfather as if he were the father. Whilst Mattathias was, according to this series, the actual father of Simon, with Onias being the grandfather, Sirach may have opted to mention Onias instead because he – as was Simon – was a High Priest.

Mattathias, I have suggested, was prevented from becoming such due to the extreme politico-religious turmoil then raging in the land.


The Eulogies


One has only to compare the glowing account of Sirach about Simon with that of I Maccabees 14:4-15 about Simon, to appreciate that the same man is being eulogised in both cases:


The country was at peace throughout the days of Simon. He sought the good of his nation and they were well pleased with his authority, as with his magnificence, throughout his life. To crown his titles to glory, he took Joppa and made it a harbour, gaining access to the Mediterranean Isles. He enlarged the frontiers of his nation, keeping his mastery over the homeland, resettling a host of captives.

He conquered Gezer, Beth-Zur and the Citadel, ridding them of every impurity, and no one could resist him.

The people farmed their land in peace; the land gave its produce, the trees of the plain their fruit. The elders sat at ease in the squares, all their talk was of their prosperity; the young men wore splendid armour.

He kept the towns supplied with provisions and furnished with fortifications, until his fame resounded to the ends of the earth.

He established peace in the land, and Israel knew great joy. Each man sat under his own vine and his own fig tree, and there was no one to make them afraid.

No enemy was left in the land to fight them, the very kings of those times had been crushed.

He encouraged the afflicted members of his people, suppressing every wicked man and renegade. He strove to observe the Law, and gave new splendour to the Temple, enriching it with many sacred vessels.


The land was restored to the idyllic state that it had experienced under his grandfather, Onias.


However great may have been the Simeon (Simon) I, contemporary of Alexander the Great, this Simon II is the one to whom the epithet “the Just” most undoubtedly belongs.