Who Were the Maccabees?
FOR many, the period of the Maccabees is like a black box hidden between the completion of the last books of the Hebrew Scriptures and the coming of Jesus Christ. Even as certain details are revealed when an airplane’s black box is studied after a crash, some insight can be gained by a close look into the Maccabean era—one of transition and transformation for the Jewish nation.
Who were the Maccabees? How did they affect Judaism before the coming of the foretold Messiah?—Daniel 9:25, 26.
The Tidal Wave of Hellenism
Alexander the Great conquered territories all the way from Greece to India (336-323 B.C.E.). His vast kingdom was a factor in the spreading of Hellenism—the language and culture of Greece. Alexander’s officers and troops married local women, causing a fusion of Greek and foreign cultures. After Alexander’s death, his kingdom was divided among his generals. At the beginning of the second century B.C.E., Antiochus III of the Grecian Seleucid dynasty in Syria wrested Israel from the control of the Greek Ptolemies of Egypt. How were the Jews in Israel affected by Hellenistic rule?
One historian writes: “Since Jews could not avoid contact with their Hellenized neighbors, still less with their own brethren abroad, absorption of Greek culture and Greek ways of thinking was unavoidable. . . . Merely to breathe in the Hellenistic period involved absorption of Greek culture!” Jews took on Greek names. To varying degrees, they adopted Greek customs and dress. The subtle power of assimilation was on the rise.
Corruption of the Priests
Among the Jews most susceptible to Hellenistic influence were the priests. To many of them, accepting Hellenism meant allowing Judaism to progress with the times. One such Jew was Jason (called Joshua in Hebrew), the brother of the high priest Onias III. While Onias was away in Antioch, Jason offered a bribe to the Greek authorities. Why? To induce them to appoint Jason as high priest in place of Onias. The Greek Seleucid ruler Antiochus Epiphanes (175-164 B.C.E.) readily accepted the offer. Greek rulers had not previously interfered with the Jewish high priesthood, but Antiochus needed funds for military campaigns. He was also pleased to have a Jewish leader who would more actively promote Hellenization. At Jason’s request, Antiochus granted Jerusalem the status of a Greek city (polis). And Jason built a gymnasium where young Jews and even priests competed in the games.
Treachery begat treachery. Three years later Menelaus, who may not have been of the priestly line, offered a higher bribe, and Jason fled. To pay Antiochus, Menelaus took large sums of money from the temple treasury. Since Onias III (in exile in Antioch) spoke out against this, Menelaus arranged his murder.
When a rumor spread that Antiochus had died, Jason returned to Jerusalem with a thousand men in an effort to take the high priesthood from Menelaus. But Antiochus was not dead. Hearing of Jason’s action and of disturbances among the Jews in defiance of his Hellenization policies, Antiochus responded with a vengeance.
Antiochus Takes Action
In his book The Maccabees, Moshe Pearlman writes: “Although the records are not explicit, Antiochus appears to have concluded that allowing the Jews religious latitude had been a political error. To him, the latest rebellion in Jerusalem had sprung not from purely religious motives but from a prevailing pro-Egyptian mood in Judea, and these political sentiments had been given dangerous expression precisely because the Jews, alone of all his people, had sought and been allowed a large measure of religious separatism. . . . This, he decided, would be stopped.”
Israeli statesman and scholar Abba Eban summarizes what followed: “In rapid succession during the years 168 and 167 [B.C.E.], Jews were massacred, the Temple was looted, the practice of the Jewish religion was proscribed. Circumcision became punishable by death, as was Sabbath observance. The ultimate insult came in December 167, when, by order of Antiochus, an altar to Zeus was erected within the Temple, and the Jews were required to sacrifice swine flesh—unclean, of course, by Jewish law—to the god of the Greeks.” During this period, Menelaus and other Hellenized Jews continued in their positions, officiating at a now defiled temple.
While many Jews accepted Hellenism, a new group calling themselves Hasidim—pious ones—encouraged stricter obedience to the Law of Moses. Now disgusted with the Hellenized priests, the common people sided more and more with the Hasidim. A period of martyrdom set in as Jews throughout the country were forced to conform to pagan customs and sacrifices or die. The apocryphal books of the Maccabees give numerous accounts of men, women, and children who preferred death to compromise.
The Maccabees React
The extreme actions of Antiochus prompted many Jews to fight for their religion. In Modiʼin, northwest of Jerusalem near the modern city of Lod, a priest named Mattathias was called to the center of town. Since Mattathias was respected by the local populace, the king’s representative tried to convince him to participate in a pagan sacrifice—to save his own life and to set an example for the rest of the populace. When Mattathias refused, another Jew came forward, ready to compromise. Filled with indignation, Mattathias grabbed a weapon and killed him. Stunned by the violent reaction of this elderly man, the Greek soldiers responded slowly. Within seconds, Mattathias had killed the Greek official as well. The five sons of Mattathias and the town’s residents overpowered the Greek troops before they could defend themselves.
Mattathias cried out: ‘Let everyone who is zealous for the Law follow me.’ To escape reprisals, he and his sons fled to the hill country. And as word of their actions spread, Jews (including many Hasidim) joined them.
Mattathias appointed his son Judah over military operations. Perhaps because of Judah’s military prowess, he was called Maccabee, meaning “hammer.” Mattathias and his sons were called Hasmonaeans, a name derived from the town Heshmon or from a forefather so named. (Joshua 15:27) Since Judah Maccabee became the prominent figure during the rebellion, however, the whole family came to be called the Maccabees.
The Temple Reclaimed
During the first year of the revolt, Mattathias and his sons were able to organize a small army. On more than one occasion, Greek troops attacked groups of Hasidim fighters on the Sabbath. Though capable of defending themselves, they would not violate the Sabbath. Mass slaughters therefore resulted. Mattathias—now viewed as a religious authority—instituted a ruling that allowed Jews to defend themselves on the Sabbath. This ruling not only gave new life to the rebellion but also set a pattern in Judaism of allowing religious leaders to adapt Jewish law to changing circumstances. The Talmud reflects this trend in the later statement: “Let them desecrate one Sabbath so that they may sanctify many Sabbaths.”—Yoma 85b.
After the death of his elderly father, Judah Maccabee became the undisputed leader of the revolt. Realizing that he had no ability to defeat his enemy in open battle, he devised new methods, like guerrilla warfare of modern times. He struck the forces of Antiochus in areas where they could not resort to their usual methods of defense. In one battle after another, Judah thus succeeded in defeating forces overwhelmingly larger than his own.
Faced with internal rivalries and Rome’s rising power, rulers of the Seleucid Empire were less concerned with enforcing anti-Jewish decrees. This opened the way for Judah to press his attack to the very gates of Jerusalem. In December 165 B.C.E. (or perhaps 164 B.C.E.), he and his troops captured the temple, cleansed its utensils, and rededicated it—three years to the day after its desecration. The Jews commemorate this event annually during Hanukkah, the festival of dedication.
Politics Over Piety
The goals of the revolt had been attained. Prohibitions against the practice of Judaism had been removed. Worship and sacrifices at the temple had been restored. Now satisfied, the Hasidim left the army of Judah Maccabee and returned to their homes. But Judah had other ideas. He had a well-trained army, so why not use it to establish an independent Jewish state? The religious causes that set the revolt in motion were now replaced by political incentives. So the struggle continued.
Looking for support in his fight against Seleucid domination, Judah Maccabee made a treaty with Rome. Although he was killed in battle in 160 B.C.E., his brothers continued the fight. Judah’s brother Jonathan maneuvered matters so that the Seleucid rulers agreed to his appointment as high priest and ruler in Judea, though still under their sovereignty. When Jonathan was deceived, captured, and killed as the result of a Syrian plot, his brother Simeon—the last of the Maccabee brothers—took over. Under Simeon’s rule, the last vestiges of Seleucid domination were removed (in 141 B.C.E.). Simeon renewed the alliance with Rome, and the Jewish leadership accepted him as ruler and high priest. An independent Hasmonaean dynasty was thus established in the hands of the Maccabees.
The Maccabees reestablished worship at the temple before the coming of the Messiah. (Compare John 1:41, 42; 2:13-17.) But just as confidence in the priesthood was broken by the actions of Hellenized priests, it was shaken even further under the Hasmonaeans. Indeed, rule by politically minded priests rather than by a king of faithful David’s line did not bring true blessings to the Jewish people.—2 Samuel 7:16; Psalm 89:3, 4, 35, 36.
[Picture on page 21]
Mattathias, the father of Judah Maccabee, cried out: ‘Let everyone who is zealous for the Law follow me’
Mattathias appealing to the Jewish refugees/The Doré Bible Illustrations/Dover Publications