Psalms of Solomon and the Hasmoneans

Image result for psalms of solomon pseudepigraphaIf 1 Maccabees can be described as pro-Hasmonean propaganda, the Psalms of Solomon vilify the Hasmoneans as corrupt law-breakers who have brought the might of Rome down upon Israel. The eighteen psalms are preserved in both Greek and Syriac manuscripts from the tenth century A.D. but were likely written in Hebrew and date much earlier than the surviving manuscripts since the Psalms were used by the author of 2 Baruch. The psalms refer to an invasion of the land, so they may be dated as early as Antiochus IV Epiphanes, but Pompey (in 63 B.C.) and Titus (in A. D. 70) are also possibilities. R. B. Wright gives a range of dates from 70 to 45 B.C. for the dateable Psalms, but since some do not have events which can be dated, they may come from another period and were added to the collection when it reached its final form.

As Brad Embry summarizes, the Psalms of Solomon are “masterfully wrought defense of the Jewish faith in a time of crisis.” Given the range of dates suggested for this literature, this crisis of faith is the failure of the Hasmoneans to rule like proper sons of David. Rather than rule as righteous kings from the Hebrew Bible, they are more like Manasseh or even Antiochus himself!

For example, Psalm 4 condemns of those who sit in the council but are “far from the Lord” and provoking the Lord to anger. This person is eager to take the home of the poor person and to scatter the orphans.

Psalms of Solomon 4:1-2 Why are you sitting in the council of the devout, you profaner? And your heart is far from the Lord, provoking the God of Israel by lawbreaking; Excessive in words, excessive in appearance above everyone, he who is harsh in words in condemning sinners at judgment.

The word council is συνέδριον (synédrion), translated Sanhedrin in the New Testament. This ruling council has provoked the Lord (4:1 and 4:21). The verb παροργίζω is often used as an explanation for why a great calamity has fallen on Israel. For example, in LXX 2 Kings 23:26, Manasseh provoked the Lord to anger, resulting in the destruction of Jerusalem. In Daniel 11:36 (OG) with reference to the Antiochus’s action in the temple, provoking the Lord to anger. In t.Levi 3.10, the word refers to the sons of men insensitive to spiritual things and “keep sinning and provoking the anger of the Most High.”

Verses 14-22 is a harsh condemnation of these hypocrites. The writer pronounces curses on the hypocrites (using a series of aorist passive optative verbs), invoking the Lord to make the lives of these people miserable.  For example, verse 18, “May his old age be in lonely childlessness until his removal.”

PsSol 4:20-22 Let crows peck out the eyes of the hypocrites, for they disgracefully empty many people’s houses and greedily scatter (them). 21 They have not remembered God, nor have they feared God in all these things; but they have angered God, and provoked him. 22 May he banish them from the earth, for they defrauded innocent people by pretense.

In contrast to the fate of the hypocrite, the final three verses of the Psalm are a confession in faith in a beatitude form, “Blessed are those who fear the Lord in their innocence, the Lord will save them” (PsSol 4:23-25). The one who is innocent will be saved from these arrogant people.

The writers of the Psalms of Solomon do not see the descendants of the Hasmoneans as the fulfillment of the prophetic hope for a good, righteous shepherd king in the tradition of David. Their protest is against the current regime (whatever the date) is in the tradition of prophetic condemnations of Manasseh in the Hebrew Bible.

How does the contrast between the ideology of 1 Maccabees or 2 Maccabees differ from that of the Psalms of Solomon? Does reading the other Psalms in this collection provide additional evidence of this diversity in the Second Temple period?


Bibliography: Bradley Embry, “The Psalms of Solomon and the New Testament: Intertextuality and the Need for a Re-Evaluation.” Journal for the Study of the Pseudepigrapha 13 (2002): 99-136.

6 thoughts on “Psalms of Solomon and the Hasmoneans

  1. God wants us to fear him, but not fear him enough that we are unwilling to follow his Word. He wants us to love him no matter what just as he loves us no matter what we do. On the other hand, God is not going to force us to fear him nor love him so he shows us what all he can do through nature, death, and life. When we do something that is unpleasing to God, he will punish us in a way that reminds us that he is all powerful and will do anything in order to lead us in the way that he knows is best without forcing us to do exactly what he wants.

  2. The Hasmonean rule was one of political distraction. Even though the Jews were technically independent from foreign control, their faith was still secondary to the rulers. The Hasmoneans’ preoccupation with politics over religion earned them the disapproval of the orthodox Jews at the time, and the Psalms the condemn them are proof of this: “And your heart is far removed from the Lord, provoking with transgressions of the law the God of Israel” (Psalms of Solomon 4:1). This passage and others like it clearly indicate a strong conflict of interests between the Hasmonean rulers and the devout Jews. In spite of the seemingly positive circumstances surrounding the Hasmonean era, it would seem that it wasn’t a positive time for the Jewish faith. Instead of returning to the practices given to them in the law after the Maccabean revolt, they had to face the new issue of improper government priorities.

  3. I find it interesting that some of the Jews compare the Hasmoneans to Antiochus because the whole reason the Hasmoneans formed their dynasty was because of the tyranny of the Greeks. The Hasmoneans set out to save Israel and yet became in some eyes, the Greeks. It reminds me of what Harvey Dent says in the movie The Dark Knight, “Either you die the hero, or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.” I find this statement intriguing because again and again in the Bible we see strong heroic characters fall short like Moses, Samson, David, and Solomon, that the Maccabean men were aspired to duplicate. Any ruler will have shortcomings and fail in their responsibilities. That is one of the most difficult things about modern politics. Every ruler is going to fail. Even as a youth pastor, I know I will fail my teens with making them all feel fulfilled in the youth group. I can only press forward and do the best with what I have and continue to learn from my mistakes as those in the Old Testament. It is scary that some of the Jews thought the removal of Greek tyranny opened them to Jewish tyranny. This concept makes me reflect on the brutal revolutions that France and Mexico had to undergo multiple times because of the failure to distribute rights and power to all its people.
    1 and 2 Maccabees have deep contrasts in comparison to Psalms of Solomon. The contrast is that 1 and 2 Maccabees shows the Maccabeans as biblical heroes and Psalms of Solomon view them as unlawful hippocrates. Anthony Tomasino says it best in his book, Judaism before Jesus, “So what did the Hasmoneans actually accomplish? Perhaps the most significant legacy of the Hasmoneans is the rebirth of Jewish nationalism” (Tomasino 210). Israel was a free state, and all of Israel was happy about that.

    • Did your comment get cut off Dale? It seems like you were going to say more there.

      Like you blog, by the way…some good material there.

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