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Alexander Yannai (Jannaeus)

(b. c. 126–76 B.C.E.)

Alexander Yannai (Jannaeus) was the Hasmonean ruler of Judea (103–76 B.C.E.), son of John Hyrcanus; was high priest and king. According to Josephus, Yannai was hated by his father and for this reason was forced to spend his childhood in Galilee. When his eldest brother, Aristobulus, inherited the high priesthood from their father, he was imprisoned together with other brothers and his mother for fear they would attempt to seize power. Upon the death of Aristobulus, his widow, Salome Alexandra, designated Yannai as the successor, and the new high priest married his sister-in-law, in accordance with the Jewish rite of levirate.

Since Josephus holds that Aristobulus had already transformed the government into a kingdom, he also assumes that Yannai inherited the kingship from him. However, Strabo's assertion (16:2, 40) and the testimony of Aristobulus' and Yannai's coins may support the opinion that Aristobulus never was a king and that Yannai became a king only at a later stage of his rule.

The political history of Judea under Yannai may be divided into four periods. The first period extends from 103 until about the year 95. At the start of his rule, Yannai took advantage of the dissensions inside the Ptolemaic kingdom and besieged one of the most impressive Ptolemaic strongholds on the Mediterranean coast: Ptolemais (Acco). Ptolemy Lathyrus, who previously was compelled to retreat to Cyprus by his queen Cleopatra III, his mother, promptly reacted. While leaving part of his army besieging Ptolemais, he invaded Judaea and defeated Yannai. The latter was saved only by Cleopatra's intervention. She launched a military campaign against Lathyrus, took again Gaza and Ptolemais, and forced him to retreat again to Cyprus. Thus freed from Lathyrus' threat, Yannai seems to have turned to Transjordan, perhaps in order to take revenge upon Lathyrus' allies, notably Theodorus, the tyrant of Amathus. Yannai succeeded in conquering Gadara in Transjordan, and Amathus. In the meantime, Cleopatra met her death, while Lathyrus carried on waging war against his brother Ptolemy Alexander. As a result, Yannai turned again to the Mediterranean coast, and this time, he succeeded in subduing Gaza (c. 96). By this time, he had gained control of the entire coastal region from Mount Carmel in the north down to the Egyptian border (with the exception of Ashkelon).

The second period extends roughly from c. 95 to 88. It seems that strengthened by his successes, Yannai assumed the title of king only at this stage of his rule, thus claiming to be free of any other political power. In any case, Yannai's military policies may have overly angered the Jewish population and a civil war broke out, which lasted six years and whose leaders were probably the Pharisees. Since they were unable to defeat the king's army reinforced by mercenaries, they called the Seleucid overlord of Judea, Demetrius III, to come and fight against Yannai. Demetrius invaded Judaea and defeated Yannai near Shechem (89/88 B.C.E.). Taking advantage of Yannai's weakness, the *Nabateans compelled him to relinquish the territories he previously conquered in Transjordan.

In the aftermath of his defeat, Yannai was compelled to renounce the title of king. He seems to have spent the next three years fighting his Jewish opponents and recovering from his bitter defeat. Having subdued their most powerful stronghold, Bethoma, he made his opponents prisoners, and bringing them back to Jerusalem, he ordered eight hundred of them to be crucified. Both Josephus and Qumranic Pesher Nahum echo the horror of such a cruel deed.

The last period of his rule (84–76 B.C.E.) was the culmination of his power and of the territorial expansion of his kingdom. Both Ptolemaic Egypt and Seleucid Syria were on their decline. Although he still endured attacks from Seleucids, Antiochos XII Dionysus attempted to again subdue Judaea on his way against the Nabateans and from Nabateans themselves, when Aretas became the ruler of Damascus. However, with the appearance of the Armenians under Tigranes in 83 B.C.E., and Lathyrus' death in 80 B.C.E., Yannai got rid of his old enemies and felt free to recapture most of the territory east of Jordan, the Decapolis and Golan. New series of coins were struck bearing the title of king once again.

Yannai met his death while besieging Regev, a fortress east of Jordan. According to his will, the throne went to his widow. He left two sons, Hyrcanus and Aristobulus, the former nominated high priest by Alexandra, until the civil war which erupted after the death of their mother (67 B.C.E.).

Yannai and the Pharisees

Josephus on the one hand and rabbinic sources on the other record a number of clashes between Yannai and the Pharisees (e.g., Ant., 13:372–383; Kid. 66a; Sot. 47a; Sanh. 19a). However, according to Josephus (Ant., 13:400–404), on his death bed the king advised his wife to yield a certain amount of power to them, so that she could govern with no problems.

Yannai and Qumran Literature

Yannai appears at least in two Qumranic compositions. Pesher Nahum is indignant of the way the "Lion of Wrath" took revenge of "those who seek smooth things" by hanging men alive after Demetrius' unsuccessful attempt to conquer Jerusalem (1Q p Nahum 1:2–8). The historical coincidence points to Yannai's deed against his opponents, mainly Pharisees (here surnamed "those who seek smooth things").

Although the king is named "Alexander Yannai" by Josephus and "Yannai the king" by rabbinic literature, his full name was "Alexander Jonathan" (or "Yehonathan") as attested to by his coins. Therefore most scholars think a previously unknown prayer (4Q448) recalls him when speaking of "Jonathan the king." The editors understood the prayer as "for the welfare of King Jonathan and his kingdom." However the meaning of the biblical phrases quoted by the author suggests another interpretation. It is rather a call to God to arise against Jonathan the king so that God's kingdom may be blessed.

Another group of texts, mainly Pesher Habakkuk, recalls the way the "Wicked Priest" persecuted the "Teacher of Righteousness," the head of the Dead Sea sect, and his group. The phrase "Wicked Priest" seems to aim at the High Priest living in Jerusalem, contemporary of the Teacher of Righteousness. Thus some scholars identify this figure with Alexander Yannai, while other scholars seek to identify him with one of his predecessors or successors. An additional hypothesis suggests to understand the phrase "the Wicked Priest" as a generic surname referring to each of the Hasmonean rulers, one after the other. The various opinions seem to result from the supposed times of the Teacher of Righteousness.


Derenbourg, Hist., 95ff; Schuerer, Hist., 82–90, 95; A. Schalit, in: Eretz Israel, 1 (1951), 104–21; C. Rabin, in: JJS, 7 (1956), 3–11; A. Schalit, in Theokratia, 1 (1967/59), 3–50 (Ger.); M. Stern, "Thrachides – Surname of Alexander Yannai in Josephus and Syncellus," in: Tarbiz, 29 (1959–60), 207–9 (Heb.); E. Schuerer, History, rev. and ed. by G. Vermes, F. Millar, and M. Black, vol. 1 (1973), 219–28; A. Negev, "The Early Beginnings of the Nabatean Realm," in: PEQ (1976), 125–33; M. Stern, "Judaea and her Neighbors in the Days of Alexander Jannaeus," in: The Jerusalem Cathedra, 1 (1981), 22–46; A. Kasher, in: Cathedra, 41 (1986–7), 11–36 (Heb.); D.R. Schwartz, "On Pharisaic Opposition to the Hasmonean Monarchy," in: Studies in the Jewish Background of Christianity (1992), 46–56; E. Eshel, H. Eshel, and A. Yardeni, "A Qumran Composition Containing Part of Ps. 154 and a Prayer for the Welfare of King Jonathan and his Kingdom," in: IEJ, 42 (1992), 199–229; E. Main, "For King Jonathan or Against? The Use of the Bible in 4Q448," in: M. Stone and E. Chazon (eds.), Biblical Perspectives: Early Use and Interpretation of the Bible in Light of the DSS (1998), 113–35.

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.