A very good question was sent to me regarding my last posting. The reader was not sure why I wrote about King Alexander Jannaeus and his wife, Queen Salome Alexandra. How do they connect to Hillel’s life? The truth is that I did explain it before, in the prologue, but unless the reader digs into the previous posts, the explanation may have disappeared into the archives. Naturally, writing a book like that, upside down so to speak, might sometimes be confusing… Well, the reason I am interested in the King and Queen is because Hillel was born on or around the time of Jannaeus’ death, which connects them in a strange way. Also, Alexandra is an interesting representative of the Hasmoneans – very likely the best one of this strange lot – and so knowing about her may enhance the plot of the book.
To make things easier, here is a short entry about dates. The events in this book take place two thousand years ago. In terms of history, it is not such a long time, and human nature does not change. It’s very easy to relate to Hillel and to the supporting cast in this drama. But they did not think exactly like us when regarding history. Dates meant little to people in that era, and while oral history is to be respected and often trusted, it is never as accurate as the written record. So here is a little explanation of how I date some of the events, and also a time line. You will notice that some of the dates on the timeline are missing, replaced with question marks. That is because the research for this book is not over – this is why it is called “a book in progress” on the site – and these dates, in my opinion, merit further research. Nevertheless, it will supply a frame to the story and make it easier to know where we stand.
Much more must be added as I go through further research. Missing material includes:
1. Herod’s extensive building program (other than the Second Temple).
2. Herod’s murders of the Hasmonean family, particularly the horrific murder of his own sons and that of his wife Mariamne, the beautiful Hasmonean princess.
3. Cleopatra’s various attempts to annex large parcels of land which belonged to other countries, including Judea.
Hillel’s dates of birth and arrival in Judea are a subject of unresolved debate. His death is usually accepted to have happened at 10 C.E., but it is entirely possible that he lived longer, particularly if the issue of his teaching of Jesus is to be accepted as fact. If Jesus went to Hillel’s academy, which to me makes a lot of sense, he had to be at least ten years old, so Hillel might have lived somewhere up to 20 C.E.
Rabbinic legends gave Hillel a life of a hundred and twenty years. They divided his life into three periods, each forty years long and devoted to a different purpose: coming to Judea from Babylonia at the age of forty, studying with the sages for forty years, and acting as the leader of Israel for forty years.
This unlikely division is clearly a romantic comparison to Moses, who is said to have lived a hundred and twenty years, forty of which were spent in the desert. It would make Hillel walk the great distance from Babylonia to Judea, then start working as a wood cutter, which is heavy physical labor, and climb on his teachers’ academy’s roof (for the purpose of listening to lectures he could not afford to pay for), an act requiring great agility, at age forty. At Hillel’s time, when most people lived shorter lives than we do, a man was not physically young at forty. He would also not study with the sages until age eighty before starting his career, particularly since the sages involved, Shemaya and Avtalion, were not young when he started studying with them. All events show that Hillel was in his mid to late twenties when he walked to Judea, climbed roofs, and chopped wood. On the other hand, it is quite likely that Hillel’s second journey and return to Judea occurred when he was about forty, and that would fit the tradition very well.
Some modern researchers go to the other extreme, and state that Hillel lived only sixty years, from 50 B.C.E to 10 C.E. This is just as unlikely, considering that he started his distinguished career rather late in life, and accomplished an amazing amount of work. His second journey back to Babylonia, his resettling in Judea, the time he spent with the Essenes, the establishment of his academy, and his long and interesting relationship with Herod, all speak against the assumption of a relatively short life. Besides, I believe Judaic oral tradition had a strong base in reality even when highly embellished, and while it should not be blindly accepted without proof, it must not be lightly dismissed, either. Therefore I cannot believe he died relatively young.
A third group of scholars attributed to him about eighty to ninety years of life. This makes the most sense. Basing my assumption on all available material and debates, I suggest that Hillel was born around 73 B.C.E. and died on 10 C.E. to 20 C.E.
The following time line covers the years that correspond to his life, and includes significant public events in both Jewish and general history. Hillel’s life story will be developed against those events, using available historical material and the many legends.
(To be continued with Part Two)