Spartans and Judeans: First Maccabees’ and Josephos’ claims about kinship ties (ca. 100 BCE / ca. 90s CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Spartans and Judeans: First Maccabees’ and Josephos’ claims about kinship ties (ca. 100 BCE / ca. 90s CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified May 22, 2023,

Ancient authors: First Maccabees (in the Apocrypha of the Bible) 12:1-25 and 14:16-26 (link); Josephos, Judean Antiquities 12.223-228 and 13.163-171 (link).

Comments (Phil Harland and Richard Last): Alongside negative stereotypes about other peoples and attempts to claim a higher position than others on the ethnic ladder, there were also times when certain groups claimed close kinship (whether real or fictive) for a variety of reasons with another group. Claims of close ties, which often included telling tales of common ancestors or shared gods, were part of diplomatic relations between communities  by which those involved might gain either support (e.g. an alliance, help in difficult times) or less tangible – though highly valuable – prestige by association. Sometimes, people might also create stories after the fact about specific diplomatic relations when none of the kind had existed, as well.

In this passage set in the Hasmonean period, the Judean author of First Maccabees (writing ca. 100 BCE about earlier events) claims that Jonathan and then Simon engaged in diplomacy with Spartans, and that there had been an even earlier precedent with the high priest Onias I (ca. 300 BCE). That early letter further claims that there was another document at Sparta that confirmed that Judeans (Jews) and Spartans had expressed a sense of being fellow-descendents of Abraham. Such myths of origins and connection were an important part of actual diplomacy, though it is hard to determine what degree of truth (about actual diplomatic events in the times of the Hasmoneans and Onias) there may be in these particular claims. It is also possible that the documents attributed to Jonathan’s time, if authentic, may well belong with Simon (see Dancy 1954, 164-165).

Josephos, who tends to follow 1 Maccabees with revisions, also reports on similar documents relating to connections between Judean leaders and Spartan ones. In this case, Josephos presents the letter of Onias to the king of Sparta separately (and at a roughly chronological point in Josephos’ narrative) from the Jonathan material. Further on, Josephos then gives his own revised report of what he finds about Jonathan and the Spartans in the narrative of 1 Maccabees.

Regardless of whether these documents are authentic or not (see Jones 1999 77-80), the later expansion, modification or creation of them by Judean authors underlines how important the perception of relations between peoples remained. In this case, Judeans tie themselves to a very long-standing and highly respected Greek community whose apparent alliances with Rome at certain points may well be crucial here.

As Richard Last (Trent University) points out to me, one of the most peculiar and notable things about this story of kinship is that – with the use of Abraham as ancestor – Spartans are incorporated within the Judean sphere (see also Gruen 2016). Many Greek stories of kinship might appeal to a shared Greek ancestral figure such as Herakles. Also unusual here is the lack of any concrete calls for particular support in connection with these claims of kinship. On such specific calls for help in connection with claims of kinship, see the Dorians of Kytenion’s appeal to kinship with the Xanthians of Lycia (link coming soon).

Works consulted: J.C. Dancy, A Commentary on I Maccabees (Oxford: Blackwell, 1954) (link); E.S. Gruen, “The Purported Jewish-Spartan Affiliation,” in The Construct of Identity in Hellenistic Judaism (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2016), 153–166; C.P. Jones, Kinship Diplomacy in the Ancient World (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1999).

Source of the translations: G.T. Zervos in A. Pietersma and B. G. Wright, A New English Translation of the Septuagint (Oxford: OUP, 2007), thoroughly adapted by Harland; H.S.J. Thackeray and R. Marcus, Josephus, volumes 1-7; LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1926-43), public domain (Thackeray passed away in 1930, Marcus passed away in 1956, and copyright not renewed), adapted by Harland.


First Maccabees

(12:1-25) Jonathan [active ca. 161-142 BCE] saw that the time was opportune for him, and he chose men and sent them to Rome to affirm and to renew the friendship with them. He sent letters for the same purpose to the Spartans and other places. And they [messengers] went to Rome and entered the meeting place of the council and said:

“Jonathan the high priest and the people (ethnos) of the Judeans sent us messengers to renew friendship with them and the previous alliance.”

And they [the Romans] gave letters to them [the Judean messengers] – for those at each place – in order to take them to the land of Judah with peace.

Τhis is a copy of the letters that Jonathan wrote to the Spartans:

“Jonathan the high priest, the elders’ council of the people, the priests, and the rest of the People (dēmos) of the Judeans to their brothers the Spartans, greetings. Previously, letters were sent to Onias the high priest from Areios [Areus, ca. 309-265 BCE], who was king over you, that you are our brothers as the copy of the letter shows. Onias received the man who had been sent with honour and accepted the letters in which it was made clear concerning the alliance and friendship. Since we were not in need of these things and we were taking comfort in the sacred books in our possession, we have tried to send this proposal to renew our brotherhood and friendship with you so that we may not be alienated from you, for many seasons have passed since you sent your message to us. So at every opportunity continuously both at our feasts and the other appropriate days, we remember you in the sacrifices that we offer and in the prayers, as is appropriate and fitting to remember brothers. We also rejoice at your glory. However, many difficulties and wars have surrounded us, and the kings around us have made war upon us. So we decided not to bother you and the rest of our allies and friends in these wars, because we have help from heaven helping us, we were rescued from our enemies, and our enemies were humiliated.”

“Therefore, we selected Numenius son of Antiochos and Antipater son of Jason and sent them to the Romans to renew the former friendship and alliance with them. We then commanded them to come to you as well, to greet you, and to deliver to you the letters from us concerning the renewal and our brotherhood. Now it would be good for you to respond to us regarding these things.”

And this is a copy of the letter that they had sent to Onias:

“Areios king of the Spartans to Onias the great priest, greetings. It has been discovered in a document about the Spartans and the Judeans that they are brothers (adelphoi) and that they are of the descent group (genos) of Abraham. Now that we know these things, it would be good for you to write us concerning your peace. In return, we write to you: ‘Your livestock and your belongings are ours and ours are yours.’ Therefore, we commanded that they inform you about these things.”

And Jonathan heard that the commanders of Demetrios had returned with a large force, more than before, to fight against him, and he departed from Jerusalem and met them in the country Hamathitis, for he did not give them the opportunity to march into his country. . . [following sections omitted].

. . . (14:16-26) It was heard in Rome and as far as Sparta that Jonathan had died, and they were very upset. But when they heard that Simon his brother had become high priest in his place and that he was in control of the country and of the cities in it, they wrote to him on bronze tablets to renew with him the friendship and alliance which they had established with Judas and Jonathan his brothers. The contents of the tablets were read before the assembly in Jerusalem.

This is a copy of the letters that the Spartans sent:

“The rulers and the city of the Spartans to Simon the great priest, the elders, the priests and the rest of the People (dēmos) of the Judeans, our brothers, greetings. The ambassadors who were sent to our People announced to us concerning your glory and honour, and we rejoiced at their coming. We have recorded the things said by them in the resolutions of the People (dēmos) in this way:

‘Numenius son of Antiochus and Antipater son of Jason, ambassadors of the Judeans, came to us renewing their friendship with us. And it was pleasing to the People to receive these men honorably and to place a copy of their words in the official books of the People so that the People of the Spartans may have a reminder about them. They also wrote a copy of them for Simon the high priest.’”

After this, Simon sent Numenius to Rome with a large gold shield weighing one thousand minas in order to establish the alliance with them. And when the People heard of these developments they said:

“What favour should we return to Simon and his sons? For he himself, his brothers and the house of his father stood firm and fought off the enemies of Israel and established freedom for it.”

And they recorded this on bronze tablets and placed them on slabs on Mount Zion.


Josephus, Judean Antiquities

(12.223-228) At that time there had begun to reign over Asia Seleukos, surnamed Soter [reigning ca. 187-175], who was the son of Antiochos the Great [III, reigning ca. 227-187 BCE]. Then Hyrkanos’ father Joseph also died. Joseph had been an excellent and high-minded man. He had brought the Jewish people (laos) from poverty and a state of weakness to greater opportunities of life during the twenty-two years when he controlled the taxes of Syria, Phoenicia and Samaria. Joseph’s uncle Onias also died. Onias left the role of high priest to his son Simon. When he too died, his son Onias became his successor in office, and it was to him that the Lakedaimonian [i.e. Spartan] king Areios [Areus] sent an embassy with a letter, of which the following is a copy:

“Areios king of the Lakedaimonians to Onias, greetings. We have happened on a certain document from which we have discovered that the Judeans and Lakedaimonians are of one descent group (genos) and share kinship (oikeiotētos) through Abraham. So it is right that you as our brothers (adelphoi) should send to us to let us know whatever you may want. We will also do this, and will consider what is yours as our own, and what is ours we will also share with you. Demoteles, the courier, is bringing this letter to you. The writing is square. The seal is an eagle tightly holding a serpent.”

Such, then, were the contents of the letter sent by the Lakedaimonian king.

. . . (13.163-171) So after winning a brilliant victory in which he killed two thousand of his enemies, Jonathan returned to Jerusalem. When he saw that by God’s providence all his affairs were going to his liking, he sent ambassadors to the Romans because he wanted to renew the friendship which his people (ethnos) had formerly had with them.

Jonathan instructed these same ambassadors to visit the Spartans on their return from Rome, and to remind them of the Judeans’ friendship (philia) and kinship (syngeneia) with them. Accordingly, when they came to Rome, they appeared before the senate and delivered the message of the high priest Jonathan, saying that he had sent them to confirm the alliance. At that point the senate ratified its former decrees concerning friendship with the Judeans, and gave them letters to take to all the kings of Asia and Europe and to the magistrates of the cities, in order that through them they might obtain safe-conduct to their own country.

On their return, the ambassadors came to Sparta and delivered to them the letter which they had received from Jonathan, of which the following is a copy:

“Jonathan, high priest of the people of the Judeans, the council of elders, and the association of priests to their brothers (adelphoi), the civic leaders (ephors), Council and People of Lakedaimon [i.e. Sparta], greetings. If you are well, and your communal and individual affairs are proceeding satisfactorily, it would be as we wish. We are also well. Previously, when Demoteles brought a letter to Onias (who was our high priest) from Areios [Areus] your king (of which a copy is attached) concerning the kinship (syngeneia) which exists between us and you, we gladly received the letter and showed ourselves kindly disposed toward both Demoteles and Areios, although we needed no such evidence since the kinship had been made certain through our sacred writings. Nor did we prematurely recognize the relationship, so that we would not seem to be greedy in seeking the honour conferred by you. Even though a long time has passed since our kinship was first discussed, we continue to ask our God for your well-being and victory when we offer sacrifices to God on the holy days and memorial days. Even though we have been involved in many wars through the envy of our neighbours, we resolved not to trouble you or anyone else connected with us.”

“However, after overcoming our enemies, we have sent to the Romans Numenius the son of Antiochos and Antipater the son of Jason who belong to our elders’ council and are held in honour by us, and have given them a letter to you also, in order that they may renew our ties with you. So it would be good for you to also write us and instruct us concerning anything you may need, being assured that we will be eager to carry out your wishes in every respect.”

And the Lakedaimonians received the ambassadors in a friendly manner. After making a decree concerning a friendly alliance with the Judeans, sent them on their way.

Now at this time there were three sects among the Judeans, which held different opinions concerning human affairs . . . [omitted digression on the three Judean “philosophical sects,” on which go to this link, followed by continuation of Jonathan’s leadership and military campaigns].

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