The Maccabees or Asmonéans
GOD’S Word the Bible is silent regarding Jewish history between the time of Nehemiah and John the Baptist. This was not due to some oversight, but doubtless because the spirit of prophecy was not at work among them. (2 Pet. 1:21, NW) It was during the latter part of this period, particularly between the years 168 B.C. and 40 B.C., that the Maccabees took the lead in Jewish affairs in Palestine.
For more than a century after Nehemiah’s time the Jews had comparative quiet. They prospered, multiplied and strengthened themselves, for the Persian rulers as well as their successor, Alexander the Great, were very favorably disposed toward them. At Alexander’s death, in 323 B.C., his kingdom was divided among his four generals, Ptolemy Soter being given Egypt and Seleucus being given Syria, including Palestine. During the next twenty years Palestine became a pawn in the hands of these two generals as it was taken and lost, taken and lost, by one or the other.
Then, during the rule of Ptolemy Soter’s son, Philadelphus, the Jews enjoyed great prosperity. It was he who made Alexandria the center of learning in the ancient world and caused the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures, to be started, in 280 B.C., for the benefit of some 80,000 Jews residing in Alexandria, most of whom had been brought to Alexandria by his father.
Several other Ptolemies succeeded Philadelphus in their turn, not, however, without a gradual weakening of their rule, so that, in 199 B.C., the Syrian ruler Antiochus the Great (III) was able to retake Palestine. After him came his son, Antiochus Epiphanes (175-164), a religious fanatic, who, because of his lack of success in his wars against the old enemy Egypt, embarked on a religious crusade to force the people under him to convert to the religion of the Greeks. According to the historian Lord, “this monarch was one of the most cruel, rapacious and tyrannical princes” ever to achieve infamy on the pages of history.
He succeeded in converting the Samaritans by force and then proceeded in the same manner with the Jews, appointing a high priest willing to suppress everything Jewish and popularize everything Greek. In 170 B.C., he came to Jerusalem and looted the temple. Two years later he returned, desecrating the temple by sacrificing a sow on its altar and dedicating it to Zeus Olympus. Copies of the law were burned, and possession of them was made punishable with death. An image was set up in the temple and harlots were brought into it. Circumcision was a capital crime and Jews were forced to eat swine’s flesh. The walls of Jerusalem were razed, and in the city a garrison of Greeks and apostate Jews was planted to enforce this policy of unification by the Grecian religion and “culture.”
Because of these events some of the Jews fled Jerusalem to Modin (location of which is uncertain), among whom was one Mattathias, a Levite priest who had five grown sons. Influential and rich, the king’s officer endeavored to bribe Mattathias to get him to co-operate in the Grecian proselytizing campaign. However, Mattathias not only contemptuously rejected the offer but publicly announced he would adhere strictly to the law of Moses. It seems that at the very time he made this declaration an apostate Jew came forward to sacrifice upon a heathen altar. This so enraged old Mattathias that he not only slew the Jew upon the altar but also killed the king’s commissioner, and then tore down the pagan altar.
As a result of this he had to flee to the mountains, taking with him not only his five grown sons but also a large following who responded to his call: “Let everyone zealous for the Law follow me!” Soldiers were sent after these, and, attacking on a sabbath, when the Jews refused to fight, they slew a thousand of his followers. Because the Jews repeatedly suffered great losses due to their refusal to fight on the sabbath, Mattathias decreed that from then on they would fight if attacked on the sabbath.
Although very old, Mattathias was able to raise a large army and succeeded in driving the persecuting soldiers out of the country, pulling down heathen altars and re-establishing Jewish ceremonies. After but two years of this activity he died at the age of 145, according to Josephus. Shortly before his death he called together his five sons, John (Johannes), Simon, Judas “Maccabeus,” Eleazar and Jonathan, and urged them to keep up the struggle against the policies of Antiochus to Grecize the Jews.
In accordance with the recommendation of Mattathias, Judas Maccabeus took the lead in the warfare against the Syrian overlords, and his name soon became associated with all his brothers and their descendants, so that they all were called Maccabees, regarding the derivation of which name there are many theories. Actually, however, the proper name for the family is Asmonéan or Hasmonéan, from the great-grandfather of Mattathias, Chasmon, who, it appears, was a descendant of the priestly family Jehoiarib.—1 Chron. 24:7.
Judas Maccabeus and his soldiers went through the cities of Judah and destroyed pagan worshipers, Gentile and apostate Jew alike, and tore down their altars. Apollonius, military governor of Samaria, marched forth against Judas with a much superior force, only to be slain and have his army scattered. Hearing of this, Seron, commander-in-chief of the Syrian forces in Palestine, and a higher-ranking general with a larger force, set out against Judas. He likewise suffered defeat with a great loss of men. As a result the name of Judas Maccabeus became a terror to the nations round about.
King Antiochus Epiphanes, furious at the setbacks these Syrian armies received at the hands of Judas, had his deputy or lieutenant, Lysias, prosecute the war against the Jews while he embarked on other campaigns. Lysias put three experienced generals at the head of forces numbering 40,000 footmen, 7,000 horsemen and a number of elephants. Judas and his band of 3,000 outmaneuvered the generals and routed their armies, slaying some 3,000 and taking immense spoil. The following year Lysias himself set out against Judas at the head of 60,000 chosen footmen and 5,000 cavalry. Judas with but 10,000 dispersed these also.
This victory, occurring in the year 165 B.C., opened to Judas the way to Jerusalem. Entering it, he cleansed and rededicated the temple just exactly three years to the day after it had been so vilely polluted by Antiochus and his armies. This day, the twenty-fifth of Chislev, the ninth month, was thereafter celebrated by the feast of dedication and is referred to at John 10:22.
Then the surrounding nations, the Idumeans, descendants of Esau, with various Bedouin tribes, sought to accomplish what the Syrian armies had failed to do; but Judas, dividing his forces of 13,000 men into three sections, kept 2,000 in Jerusalem and divided the rest in two armies, and, marching in different directions, defeated all these enemies. By this time, 164 B.C., Antiochus was stricken with elephantiasis, and, noting that death was near, appointed his friend Philip regent until his son Eupator should come of age. Lysias, who had served as deputy or lieutenant, challenged this appointment of Philip and as a result of the wars between these two the Jews had a brief respite.
There was, however, still a sore spot to the Jews, the garrison of Syrian and apostate Jewish soldiers on Mount Zion, and so Judas proceeded to attack these, who in turn sent word to Eupator, or more likely to Lysias, the regent, who sent an overwhelming army of 100,000 soldiers, 20,000 cavalry and 32 elephants. In this battle, which was undecisive, Eleazar, one of the sons of Mattathias was crushed by an elephant, the first of the five Maccabees to fall. Lysias, hearing that his rival Philip had taken Antioch, hurriedly made peace with Judas and returned to Antioch to oust Philip. Shortly thereafter Demetrius, son of Seleucus, returned to the palace of his ancestors and slew both Lysias and the young king and reigned in their stead.
Judas defeated an army that Demetrius sent under Bacchides; and another under Nicanor, which general Judas himself slew. After this Judas made a treaty with the Romans. Again Demetrius sent Bacchides, one of his ablest generals, against Judas, this time with an army of 22,000. Due to bloody wars, propaganda and fear, the forces under Judas dwindled to a mere 800, but this did not prevent him from engaging the thousands under Bacchides in battle. Hemmed between two forces, the Jewish army was decimated and Judas slain.
JONATHAN AND SIMON
The patriotic party among the Jews offered to Jonathan, the youngest of the sons of Mattathias, the lead and he accepted. However, he was not the military leader Judas had been, and his warfare was mostly defensive or in the form of raids. The Syrian overlords, however, were glad to make peace with him because of the strife and confusion at home. Opposing factions each in turn sought the favor of the Jews and at times Jewish armies fought to help put down Syrian rebellion. In 144 B.C. Jonathan was nominated high priest by the Syrian king, and a year later a Syrian conspirator, Tryphon, lured Jonathan with a few soldiers into a trap and slew them, although at the time Jonathan had an army of 40,000 under him.
During the early part of Jonathan’s rule of eighteen years his brother John was slain. So now, with his death, there remained but Simon. In the first or second year of Simon’s leadership the Jews gained independence for themselves in Palestine, even getting rid of that hated Syrian garrison on Mount Zion that had so long harassed the worshipers at the temple. So noteworthy was this lifting of the Syrian yoke by Simon considered that the Jews began dating their documents from “the first year of Simon, high priest, commander and leader of the Jews.”
Under Simon the Jews prospered, and the treaty with Rome was renewed; although they must afterward have regretted it, as it furnished the excuse for Rome to gain mastery over Palestine eventually. While free from Gentile aggression, the Jews quarreled among themselves, and so it was that after but eight years of leadership Simon’s end came; he, together with two of his sons, was murdered by one Ptolemy, a son-in-law who aspired to the high priest’s office. Simon’s son, John Hyrcanus, took his place. He subdued Samaria and Galilee, extending the limits of his kingdom almost to its borders under King David.
After almost thirty years, John Hyrcanus was succeeded by his son Aristobulus, a wicked prince who assassinated his brother and starved his mother to death in a dungeon. After him came Alexander Jannaeus, whose turbulent reign lasted 27 years, to 78 B.C., and who was succeeded by his wife Alexandra, who ruled for nine years. Her son Hyrcanus II succeeded her; but, having to contend with the intrigues of his brother, Aristobulus, he put himself under the protection of the Romans. As the historian Lord expresses it: the Romans “came as arbiters, they remained as masters.” Supporting Hyrcanus’ cause was an Idumean prince, Antipater, “wealthy, active and seditious,” who wormed himself into favor with the Romans and soon enjoyed the actual power while Hyrcanus held the sovereignty. Antipater’s son Herod proceeded to Rome and by intrigues secured for himself the kingship of Judea. After a three-year war he subdued the Asmonéan prince Antigonus, and put him to death, as well as the other two remaining princes of that line and all the members of the Sánhedrin save two. While the Asmonéan line thus ended as far as its ruling princes were concerned, its policies continued through the Sadducees down to the desolation of Jerusalem A.D. 70.
During the time the Asmonéan princes held sway in Judea, “dangers then were as much from within as from without; and party jealousies brought the divine cause to the greatest peril.” “Enforced idolatry, a temporizing priesthood, and a faithless multitude” describes the Jews at that time. It was the time when tradition became more important than the written Word; when the apocryphal books were written, including the so-called Psalms of Solomon. The last of the high priest’s line had fled to Egypt, and the office had become a political commodity.
While certain historians grow eloquent in telling of the wars of the Maccabees and would place the Maccabees on a par with the valiant warriors mentioned in the Hebrew Scriptures and in the eleventh chapter of Hebrews, yet the fact remains that the wars of the Maccabees were not fought at Jehovah’s direction, his name was not the paramount issue, divine power was not exercised on their behalf. On the contrary, these were political, patriotic wars, even though the Jews’ religion was involved, and in that respect are to be likened rather to the wars fought by the Swiss, the Dutch and the Americans for freedom.
The record of the Maccabees graphically underscores the warning Jehovah gave the Jews as to what they could expect if they turned away from serving him, as well as the rule expressed by Christ Jesus, “All those who take the sword will perish by the sword.”—Leviticus, chapter 26; Matt. 26:52, NW.