Maccabean Revolt

Dimitris Stamatios | January 30, 2023


The Maccabean Revolt, which took place from 175 to 140 B.C., was both a revolt of the Jews of Judea against the Seleucids and an internal conflict among the Jewish people between traditionalists and Hellenizing Jews. It takes its name from the Maccabean family, including Mattathias and his sons Judas and Simon. This episode is recounted in the first two books of the Maccabees and leads to the foundation of the Hasmonean dynasty.

The question of Hellenistic Judaism

The Maccabean revolt was both a revolt of pious Jews against the Greek Seleucid dynasty and an internal conflict within the Jewish people between traditionalists hostile to the evolution of Jewish tradition in contact with Greek culture and Hellenizing Jews more favorable to cultural mixing. The leaders of this revolt were Mattathias and his sons, notably Judas Maccabeus and Simon.

After the death of Alexander the Great in 323, Judea came under the control of the Lagids of Egypt and became part of the province of Syria-Phoenicia. This marked the beginning of a period of encounter between Judaism and Greek culture both in Judea and in the Diaspora. At the end of the fifth Syrian war, around 201, Antiochos III took control of Judea; but in 188, the Seleucids were defeated by the Romans during the Antiochian war and had to pay a colossal indemnity to Rome, leading Antiochos IV Epiphanes, successor of Antiochos III more or less supported by the Romans, to increase taxation in Judea, obliging the High Priest, appointed by the Seleucid power, to cut into the Temple treasury. At this time, the High Priest of the Jews is a person of primary importance; it is he who is entitled to take money from the Temple treasury to pay the tribute demanded by Antiochos IV.

Jason and the foundation of Antioch-Jerusalem (175)

In 175 BC, at the time of the death of Seleucus IV, the High Priest of the Jews, Onias III, is in Antioch to justify himself for having refused the taking of the treasures of the Temple of Jerusalem by the Seleucid minister, Heliodorus. He is accompanied by his brother, Joshua, who calls himself Jason. This one intrigues with the new king, Antiochos IV, brother of the previous one, whose legitimacy is disputed: it is to his nephew, hostage in Rome, that the royalty should return. Jason makes a triple proposal to the new king: that he appoints him, Jason, as High Priest in the place of Onias, that he grants him the right to transform the city of Jerusalem into a new Greek city, a polis, and in exchange, he promises him an increase of the tribute and the payment of important additional sums. Antiochos accepts. First essential point: the transformation of Jerusalem into a Greek city is not done at the initiative of the king, but of the Hellenized Jews.

Moreover, at the time when Antiochos IV Epiphanes took the head of the Seleucid empire in 175, a Hellenic party established itself in Judea for a long period. A Seleucid fortress, the Acra, was built in the heart of Jerusalem which became a Greek polis. Back in Jerusalem, Jason establishes the list of the new citizens of this Antioch of Jerusalem (to distinguish it from the many other Antiochs), founds a gymnasium at the foot of the Temple Mount and an ephebion, an organization for the training of future citizens. Jason thus founded a Greek city in Jerusalem, a common practice at the time, in a region, Judea, which already had a gerusia; he does not seem to have upset the political institutions; moreover, his worst adversary, the author of the second book of the Maccabees, a contemporary, does not reproach him for it. Moreover, many well-to-do Jews subscribe to what appears to them to be a useful modernization of Jewish society: the priests rush to the gymnasium as soon as the gong announces the beginning of the distribution of oil.

An enthusiastic Hellenizer, Jason sends athletes to the games in honor of the Tyrian Heracles Melkart. Does this mean that these Jews are ready to renounce their rites and the precepts of the Law? The author of the 2nd Maccabees is obliged to agree that it does not: when they go to Tyre to attend the gymnastic competitions in honor of Heracles, invited like all the inhabitants of the Greek cities of the area, the Antiochians of Jerusalem spend the sums of money to buy equipment for the triers, not to sacrifice to idols. The contrary would have been surprising: who would imagine that the Jewish High Priest would seek to abolish the religion which is the foundation of his power? For several historians, in particular Martin Hengel, it is clear that Jason, pushed by a part of the Hellenized elites of Judea, seeks to erase the differences between the Jews and their neighbors, to bring them into the modern world, which is largely Hellenized. Jason”s reform was in fact a real success, confirmed by the two books of the Maccabees. But this does not mean that Jason is ready to renounce the essential precepts of his religion.

Jason”s reform is not without problems, however. First of all, he obtained his position by intrigue and by promising money: it is the people who pay. Moreover, in the eyes of the traditional Jews, those who are strangers to the new fashions, it is difficult to understand how one can remain a Jew by adopting morals as foreign to tradition as the nudity of the gymnasium. All the more so since the Jews who attended the gymnasium came to either conceal their circumcision (“they had foreskins made”), or to renounce it for their male children, thus violating the law of the Torah. According to Maurice Sartre, Jason played a major role in this evolution, wanting to be the architect of a reform which would erase Jewish particularism without abolishing Judaism.

From the pontificate of Menelaus to the Edict of Persecution (172-167)

Besides the tensions created within the Jewish population between the partisans of a forced Hellenization and the traditionalists, the revolt of the Maccabees took place against a background of corruption and political crisis created around the position of High Priest.

By buying his office, Jason opened the door to competition: in fact, in 172 BC, one of his relatives, Menelaus, whose name says enough about Hellenism, coming from a priestly family related to the High Priest, intrigues in his turn with Antiochos. He is named High Priest in the place of Jason in 172 and makes assassinate Onias III then refugee in Antioch. His brother Lysimachus took sacred vessels from the Temple, provoking riots in 170 and the death of the thief who fell into the hands of the rioters. Menelaus was arrested and brought to justice before Antiochos, but the latter managed to make him free by giving money. Jason returns as High Priest in the place of Menelaus in 168. Antiochos is outraged by the fact that his foal Menelaus was sent back. He sacks the Temple and puts Menelaus back in his place. This return of Jason intervenes after several years of war between the Jewish factions of Menelaus and Jason, both Hellenizing, but that of Menelaus is certainly more radical and more ready to give up the Jewish traditions. A period of civil war between the two Hellenizing factions then begins.

The people, impotent, assist to this civil war for which they pay the bill. The tax pressure for the benefit of the king, between 175 and 169 was so strong that it must be taken into account in the popular uprising on the point of bursting. Some fled to the desert, others became agitated. One passes from the mute indignation to a beginning of revolt to which Menelaus is unable to face. He calls upon the royal troops, whereas Jason, overcome, takes refuge initially at the king of Nabateans in Petra, then in Sparta. The Seleucid troops – second capital fact – intervene thus initially to put an end to disorders between Jews.

In 170-169, Antiochos IV, who did not care much about the affair, except to appoint the High Priest and to pocket as much money as possible (he had a heavy war debt towards the Romans and intended to launch new expeditions against Egypt and in Iran), began to worry. Why are the Jews getting restless? He had to campaign against Egypt in the spring of 169, and it was not advisable to leave a hotbed of rebellion in his rear which could cut him off from his Syrian bases. To his questions on the causes of the troubles in Judea, one had to answer him that the Jews disputed about the Law: the text of 2Maccabees constantly opposes those who show zeal for the Law (Torah), and those who show zeal against the Law, i.e. the Hellenists who are not hostile to the Law but propose a modern interpretation of it. Antiochos IV deduced a radical and disastrous but logical political measure: if the Jews argue about the Law, let”s abolish the Law! Besides, it is usual that a rebellious people loses the privilege to govern itself according to its own laws.

In the autumn of 168, Antiochos IV thus promulgates an edict to abolish the Torah. It is what is wrongly called the edict of persecution, which in fact leads to the prohibition of Judaism. The Jews were ordered to abandon the essential practices of their religion: Jewish sacrifice was forbidden, festivals and circumcision were outlawed with the death penalty for those who continued to observe the Sabbath. The Temple was dedicated to Olympian Zeus.

One sees by which chain one arrived there. There is in Antiochos no fanaticism, no intention to carry out the unit of its States or to extend the religion or the Greek culture: one wonders where it would have drawn such an idea, completely foreign to the Greeks. No Hellenistic king, not more Antiochos IV than another, did not care to Hellenize his subjects of which it expects only that they pay the tribute and submit to its authority. Nothing in the policy of Antiochos IV, well known in addition for its spirit of tolerance, does not let glimpse the least will of a policy of forced Hellenization, or promotion of the Greek cults. But, like his predecessors and his successors, when sufficiently Hellenized natives wish to acquire the favorable status of a polis, it grants it to them if that does not contradict its interests.

Where Antiochus IV makes a masterful political error is that he did not understand that abolishing the Torah not only deprived the Jews of their civil laws, but led to the abolition of Judaism. Many pious Jews preferred martyrdom (hence the edifying accounts of 2Maccabees), while others fled into the desert. The repression was all the more bloody because many Greeks and Syrians accused the Jews of arrogance, accusing them of denying the divinity of other people”s gods, of refusing to share their meals and of avoiding all contact under the pretext of ritual purity.

The Maccabean guerrilla

It is at this time (current 168, beginning 167 BC. C.) that Mattathias (he. מתתיהו בן יוחנן הכהן, Matityahu ben Yohanan HaCohen) and his sons, especially his third son Judas, the only one to whom the name Maccabees (he. מקבים) of uncertain etymology. The revolt is already well underway, but without a leader and without clear objectives. According to the first book of the Maccabees, a text that exalts the dynasty that came from Mattathias, the king”s officers approached Mattathias, a respected notable of Modi”in, to ask him to perform a pagan sacrifice with the promise of being introduced among the “friends of the king”. Mattathias refused, killed a Jew who had agreed to sacrifice as well as the king”s officer, and fled with his sons into the mountains.

The Maccabean revolt was aimed first at the Hellenized Jews who accommodated the ancient Jewish tradition with Greek cultural ingredients, and then at the foreign occupier who taxed the country harshly while also promoting the expansion of the Greek way of life and culture.

The intervention of Mattathias and his sons around 168-167 would have been decisive in giving leaders and a military organization to a revolt started by pious Jews who allowed themselves to be massacred on the Sabbath in order not to violate the Law. Although little is known about these groups of hasidim or pious people who joined the Maccabees, it is clear that from the beginning they had to accept compromises with the Law, such as fighting on the Sabbath.

On the death of Mattathias (166), the leadership of the resistance passed to his third son Judas Maccabaeus, who left his nickname to his entire family. The same year, 166, saw the victory of the rebels over the governor of Syria at the battle of Beth Horon. The following year, Judas defeated Nicanor and Gorgias in their own camp at the battle of Emmaus. The first two or three years of the revolt were used to organize the Jewish military force.

In 165, Lysias withdrew his military forces, probably with the intention of negotiating. From the end of 165 to the spring of 163, the Seleucids did not attempt a new invasion. Judas took advantage of this respite to take control of Jerusalem. By December 165 or 164, Jerusalem was delivered and the Temple was again dedicated to Yahweh. After the death of Antiochos IV in Persia in the autumn of 164, and the advent of a minor king, Antiochos V, negotiations opened: not only did the two principal ministers of the deceased king clash, but a Roman senatorial mission passing through the region made it known that it was giving its full support to the Jews, so as to weaken the Seleucids a little more.

In 164, the Jewish feast of the Dedication, Hanukkah, was celebrated for the first time in the Temple, which was given over to Jewish worship. In the spring of 163, the edict of persecution was brought back. Judas obtained from the Syrian regent Lysias freedom of worship for the Jews. The war nevertheless continued in confusion, probably because the Jewish communities scattered around Judea felt threatened: thus we know of expeditions by Judas and his brothers to southern Syria, Transjordan, and Idumea (Negev) to rescue persecuted Jews. On the other hand, the Seleucid troops were not defeated: they continued to occupy the citadel of Jerusalem, the Acra, until 141, protecting the Hellenizing Jews by its very presence. In fact, it was an impossible war: the rebellious Jews led a guerrilla war against which the regular Seleucid troops were disarmed, while the Jews were unable to beat the Seleucids in open country.

Towards the victory of the Maccabees

The death of Antiochos IV and the lull of 164 B.C. did not lead to the end of the fighting. The military successes of Judas push him to besiege Acra, last place symbol of the Seleucid presence in Jerusalem. The Seleucids reacted with force and mounted an expedition towards Jerusalem from the Hebron mountains. In 162, at the battle of Beth Zachariah, Eleazar, brother of Judas, was crushed by a war elephant that he had tried to storm. A year later, the Greek troops under the leadership of Nicanor were partly annihilated; but at the battle of Elasah in 160, it was Judas who died in his turn, leaving his brother Jonathan in his place.

Jonathan leads a policy of alliance with Rome in order to better fight against the governor Bacchides who has put in place in Jerusalem the Hellenizing High Priest Alcimus. From 160 to 158, it was the Hellenizers who held the upper hand in Jerusalem while their protector Bacchides built fortifications, notably at Bethel, Beth-Horon and Emmaus.

While the war loses momentum, a political agreement is reached between the Maccabees, now led by Jonathan, and their adversaries, and the most extreme Hellenists are eliminated (Menelaus was executed in an atrocious manner at Aleppo), a new high priest, Alcimus, chosen from among the moderate Hellenists, is appointed. After his death in 159 BC, however, he is not replaced. For Maurice Sartre, the appointment of Alcimus, a moderate Hellenist, was accepted by the rebels. For Élie Barnavi, an agreement between Jonathan and Bacchides, minister of the sovereign Démétrios Ier Sôter, the successor of Antiochos IV, is carried out only in 152. The chronology of the years 157-152 poses problem. In 152, Jonathan, taking advantage of the civil war which opposes two pretenders to the throne in Antioch, manages to be recognized the title of High Priest (to which he does not have right) at the same time as he is honoured with titles of court séleucides.

Démétrios Ier died in 150 BC; Démétrios II succeeded him. But one of his rivals, Diodotus Tryphon, took Jonathan prisoner and put him to death. Simon Maccabeus, the second son of Mattathias, succeeded his younger brother. According to Elijah Barnavi, Demetrios II recognized the independence of the Hasmomean state, the name given to the dynasty that came from the Maccabees, but according to Maurice Sartre, no Seleucid recognized Jewish independence: attempts were made in 131-130 (with success), then in 87 (without success) to recover Judea. But the kings of Antioch, weakened by a dynastic quarrel which poisoned the life of the kingdom until its disappearance in 64, were most of the time incapable of contesting the de facto independence conquered by those who were henceforth called the Hasmoneans, founders of a new, strongly Hellenized Jewish state. Simon is considered the founder of the Hasmonean dynasty. In 140, he was proclaimed “High Priest, strategist and ethnarch” on a hereditary basis. Aristobulus I took the title of basileus in 104-103. Jewish autonomy lasted until 63, when Pompey took Jerusalem and submitted Judea to Roman authority.

The Maccabean revolt appears, in the words of Maurice Sartre, as a struggle for liberation quickly crowned with success. The Maccabees also knew how to take advantage of the weaknesses of the Seleucid dynasty, undermined by internal quarrels. Their diplomacy can take sides with the usurper of the moment, from whom they wrest concessions, or tie distant alliances, as with Sparta, while ensuring the benevolence of the Roman power. At the same time, they did not fail to resort to what Elie Barnavi calls “ideological weapons” by drawing parallels between the contemporary political situation and those of other periods when the Jewish people were facing problems of assimilation or subjugation. The supporters of the Maccabees wrote the Book of Daniel, the Book of Judith and the Book of Esther, which are more or less reminiscent of Deborah in the Book of Judges.

Thus, a civil war escalated when the Seleucid kingdom supported the Hellenized Jews in their conflict with the traditionalists. As the conflict escalated, Antiochus took the side of the Hellenizing Jews by forbidding the practices of the traditionalists. This may explain why Antiochus would have broken completely with the policy followed by the Seleucids in other places and times and would have come to forbid the traditional religion of a whole people.

The four Books of the Maccabees are recognized by the Orthodox as part of the Bible, while the Catholics recognize only the first two. They are part of the Deuterocanonical Books. Protestants and Jews do not recognize any of them. It is only through the Hanukkah of 164 that the Maccabean revolt is part of the rabbinic tradition, the rest of the story comes from Greek texts, later collected by Christians. The Jewish historian Flavius Josephus included these accounts in his War of the Jews.

These texts present the Hellenization and the persecutions led by Antiochos IV as the cause of the revolt, but most modern historians put forward that Antiochos intervened initially in an internal civil war with the Jewish population, pitting traditionalist Jews against Hellenized Jews. The competition for the post of High Priest opposed traditionalists bearing Hebrew or Aramaic names, like Onis, and Hellenizers bearing Greek names like Jason or Menelaus. Other authors underline, to explain the civil war, the socio-economic causes beside the purely religious causes.

External links


  1. Révolte des Maccabées
  2. Maccabean Revolt
  3. ^ The date of the treasury raid is disputed. 1 Maccabees suggests the Temple treasury was raided in 169 BCE after the first expedition to Egypt. 2 Maccabees suggests the treasury was raided in 168 BCE after the second expedition to Egypt. Possibly, the Book of Daniel (Daniel 11:28–11:30) suggests Antiochus IV raided Jerusalem twice, after each trip. Josephus says Antiochus IV visited Jerusalem twice and looted the city the first time, the Temple the second time.[8]
  4. ^ 1 Maccabees and 2 Maccabees are both sources heavily slanted against the Seleucids and in favor of the Maccabees, so historians such as Lester L. Grabbe caution that the outrages described within them should be taken with some skepticism. Nevertheless, it is clear enough that whatever actions the Seleucids did take were sufficient to enrage the populace, even if they were later exaggerated.[1]
  5. a et b Élie Barnavi, Histoire universelle des Juifs, Hachette Littérature, 2002, p. 40.
  6. Hersel Shanks Η περιπέτεια των χειρογράφων της Νεκρής θάλασσας. Κεφάλαιο 3. Η Σαδδουκαϊκή Καταγωγή της Ομάδας των Χειρογράφων της Νεκρής Θάλασσας του ΛΩΡΕΝΣ Χ. ΣΙΦΜΑΝ. σελ.129
  7. Штерн, 2001, с. 112.
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