Jonathan Maccabeus was one of the sons of Mattathias Maccabaeus. His father was a Kohen credited as the founding figure of the rebellion of the Maccabees against Antiochus IV Epiphanes of the Seleucid Empire. However Mattathias died in 167 BCE while the rebellion was only beginning.
He was survived by Jonathan and his brothers Eleazar Maccabeus, Johanan, Judas Maccabeus, and Simon Maccabaeus. They were sworn to continue the rebellion of their father. Judas soon became their de facto leader and the military chief of the rebellion.
Jonathan served under his brother and took active parts in the battles against the Seleucid forces. His reputation for courage is lesser to that of Judas but hardly questionable. His courage had been frequently tried. However, Judas was one of the casualties of the Battle of Elasa (161/160 BCE). The victor of the battle was Bacchides, a Seleucid general under Demetrius I Soter. Bacchides proceeded with crushing rigor against the Maccabean party while at the same time a famine broke out in the land. The Jewish rebels required a new leader and Jonathan was chosen.
Jonathan noticed that Bacchides was trying to entrap him. He reacted by retiring with his brother Simeon and his followers to a desert region in the country east of the Jordan River. They set camp near a morass by the name of Asphar. But Bacchides followed him there and overtook them during a Sabbath. Jonathan gave all the baggage into the hands of his brother John who took a small force and headed towards the friendly Nabataeans. The plan was to secure their baggage there but the "sons of Jambri of Medaba", a hostile tribe apparently, ambushed them during their journey. John and his companions were killed and their cargo was looted (I Macc. ix. 32-36; Josephus, "Antiquities of the Jews" xiii. 1, § 2). Jonathan would later take revenge for the death of his brother.
Meanwhile on that Sabbath, Jonathan and his companions were forced to engage in battle with Bacchides. Jonathan had encountered and had raised his hand to slay Bacchides, when the latter evaded the blow; the Jews, defeated, sought refuge by swimming through the Jordan to the western bank. In this first encounter Bacchides lost about 1,000 men.
Soon after this event, informed that one of the sons of Jambri was leading home a noble bride in great pomp, the Maccabean brothers proceeded to Medaba, ambushed the bridal procession, killed the entire party, to the number of 300, and seized all the treasure (I Macc. ix. 37-49; Josephus, l.c. xiii. 1, §§ 3-4). They remained, however, in the swamp in the country east of the Jordan. Bacchides thought them insignificant. Following the death of his puppet governor Alcimus, Kohen Gadol of Jerusalem, Bacchides felt secure enough to leave the country.
However Jonathan was not idle. He continued activities against the Jews influenced by the Hellenistic civilization. Two years after the departure of Bacchides from Judea, the City of Acre felt sufficiently threatened to contact Demetrius and request the return of Bacchides to their territory.
Jonathan was now more experienced in guerrilla warfare, the primary tactic used by the Maccabean forces, and was constantly on guard to avoid direct confrontations with enemy forces even while continuing hostile operations. A frustrated Bacchides reportedly took out his anger on the Hellenists and reportedly killed fifty of their leaders out of frustration. Jonathan and Simeon thought it well to retreat farther, and accordingly fortified in the desert a place called Beth-hogla ; there they were besieged several days by Bacchides.
Jonathan perceived that Bacchides regretted having set out. He contacted the rival general with offers of a peace treaty and exchange of prisoners of war. Bacchides readily consented and even took an oath of nevermore making war upon Jonathan. He and his forces then vacated Judea. The victorious Jonathan now took up his residence in the old city of Michmash. From there he endeavored to clear the land of "the godless and the apostate" .
Jonathan must have used this peaceful period to good advantage, for he was soon in possession of great power. An important external event brought the design of the Maccabeans to fruition. Demetrius I Soter's relations with Attalus II Philadelphus of Pergamon (reigned 159 - 138 BCE), Ptolemy VI of Egypt (reigned 163 - 145 BCE) and his co-ruler Cleopatra II of Egypt were deteriorating. They supported rival claimant to the throne Alexander Balas against him who claimed to be the son of Antiochus IV Epiphanes and a first cousin of Demetrius.
Demetrius was now forced to recall the garrisons of Judea, except those in the City of Acre and at Beth-zur; he also made a bid for the loyalty of Jonathan, whom he permitted to recruit an army and to take the hostages kept in the City of Acre. Jonathan gladly accepted these terms and took up residence at Jerusalem in 153 BCE. He soon began fortifying the city.
Alexander Balas also contacted Jonathan with even more favorable terms. Including official appointment as High Priest in Jerusalem. Withdrawing his support from Demetrius and declaring allegiance to Alexander, Jonathan was the first member of his dynasty to achieve appointment as High Priest. The title was not merely nominal. Jonathan became the official leader of his people and the Hellenistic party could no longer attack him without severe consequences. On the Feast of Tabernacles of 153 BCE, Jonathan put on the High Priest's garments and officiated for the first time.
It is unknown whom Jonathan displaced as High Priest, though some scholars suggest that this was the Teacher of Righteousness, later founder of the Essenes. In this theory, Jonathan is considered the "man of lies".
Jonathan had determined to side with Alexander Balas, not trusting Demetrius, who in a second letter made promises that he could hardly have kept and conceded prerogatives that were almost impossible . The events justified Jonathan's action; Demetrius lost his throne and life in 150 BCE. Alexander Balas was victorious and sole ruler of the Seleucid Empire. He was given the further honor of marriage to Cleopatra Thea, daughter of his allies Ptolemy VI and Cleopatra II.
The wedding took place in Ptolemais in the presence of Ptolemy VI. Jonathan was invited but arrived after the wedding ceremony while celebrations continued. He appeared with presents for both kings, and was permitted to sit between them as their equal; Balas even clothed him with his own royal garment and otherwise accorded him high honor. He would not listen to the Hellenistic party that still accused Jonathan, but appointed Jonathan as strategos and "meridarch" (i.e., civil governor of a province; details not found in Josephus), and sent him back with honors to Jerusalem .
Jonathan proved grateful. In 147 BCE, Demetrius II Nicator, a son of Demetrius I Soter, started claiming the throne against Alexander Balas. Apollonius Taos, governor of Coele-Syria was probably supporting Demetrius. But he used the opportunity to challenge Jonathan to battle, saying that the Jews might for once leave the mountains and venture out into the plain.
Jonathan and Simeon led a force of 10,000 men against Jaffa where the forces of Apollonius lay. Not expecting an attack this early in the hostilities, Jaffa was not prepared for a siege. The gates of which were opened before the Jewish forces out of fear.
But the victory was not yet certain. Apollonius received reinforcements from Azotus and appeared in the plain in charge of 3,000 men. They were clearly outnumbered but Apollonius was relying on his superior cavalry and forced Jonathan to engage in battle. Jonathan assaulted, captured and burned Azotus along with the resident temple of Dagon and the surrounding villages.
In reward of his victory, Alexander Balas granted the victorious High Priest the city of Ekron along with its outlying territory. The people of Azotus vainly complained to King Ptolemy VI, who had come to make war upon his son-in-law Alexander Balas, that Jonathan had destroyed their city and temple. Jonathan peacefully met Ptolemy at Jaffa and accompanied him as far as the River Eleutherus. He then returned to Jerusalem , maintaining peace with the King of Egypt despite their support for different contenders for the Seleucid throne .
In 145 BCE, the Battle of Antioch resulted in the final defeat of Alexander Balas by the forces of his father-in-law Ptolemy VI. Ptolemy himself was however among the casualties of the battle. Demetrius II Nicator remained sole ruler of the Seleucid Empire and became the second husband of Cleopatra Thea.
Jonathan owed no allegiance to the new King and took this opportunity to lay siege to the Akra, the Seleucid fortress in Jerusalem and the symbol of Seleucid control over Judea. it was heavily garrisoned by a Seleucid force and offered asylum to Jewish Hellenists . Demetrius was greatly incensed; he appeared with an army at Ptolemais and ordered Jonathan to come before him. Without raising the siege Jonathan, accompanied by the elders and priests, went to the king, and pacified him with presents, so that the king not only confirmed him in his office of high priest, but gave to him the three Samaritan toparchies of Mount Ephraim, Lod, and Ramathaim-Zophim. In consideration of a present of 300 talents the entire country was exempted from taxes, the exemption being confirmed in writing. Jonathan in return lifted the siege of the Akra and left it in Seleucid hands.
Soon however, a new claimant to the Seleucid throne appeared in the person of the young Antiochus VI Dionysus, son of Alexander Balas and Clepatra Thea. He was three-years-old at most but general Diodotus Tryphon used him to advance his own designs on the throne. In face of this new enemy, Demetrius not only promised to withdraw the garrison from the City of Acre, but also called Jonathan his ally and requested him to send troops. The 3,000 men of Jonathan protected Demetrius in his capital, Antioch, against his own subjects .
As Demetrius II did not keep his promise, Jonathan thought it better to support the new king when Diodotus Tryphon and Antiochus VI seized the capital, especially as the latter confirmed all his rights and appointed his brother Simeon strategos of the seacoast, from the "Ladder of Tyre" to the frontier of Egypt.
Jonathan and Simeon were now entitled to make conquests; Ashkelon submitted voluntarily while Gaza was forcibly taken. Jonathan vanquished even the strategi of Demetrius II far to the north, in the plain of Hazar, while Simeon at the same time took the strong fortress of Beth-zur on the pretext that it harbored supporters of Demetrius .
Like Judah in former years, Jonathan sought alliances with foreign peoples. He renewed the treaty with the Roman Republic, and exchanged friendly messages with Sparta and other places. However one should note that the documents referring to those diplomatic events are questionable in authenticity.
Diodotus Tryphon went with an army to Judea and invited Jonathan to Scythopolis for a friendly conference, and persuaded him to dismiss his army of 40,000 men, promising to give him Ptolemais and other fortresses. Jonathan fell into the trap; he took with him to Ptolemais 1,000 men, all of whom were slain; he himself was taken prisoner .
When Diodotus Tryphon was about to enter Judea at Hadid, he was confronted by the new Jewish leader, Simeon, ready for battle. Trypho, avoiding an engagement, demanded one hundred talents and Jonathan's two sons as hostages, in return for which he promised to liberate Jonathan. Although Simeon did not trust Diodotus Tryphon, he complied with the request in order that he might not be accused of the death of his brother. But Diodotus Tryphon did not liberate his prisoner; angry that Simeon blocked his way everywhere and that he could accomplish nothing, he executed Jonathan at Baskama, in the country east of the Jordan . Jonathan was buried by Simeon at Modin. Nothing is known of his two captive sons. One of his daughters was the ancestress of Josephus .