Judas Maccabeus was a priest who led the revolt against the Seleucid Empire in Israel in the second century BC.
When the Old Testament closes, the people of Israel have returned from the Babylonian Exile, and the work of rebuilding has begun. Under Nehemiah, the wall of Jerusalem is rebuilt. Ezra begins to call the people back to devotion to Yahweh. The temple has also been rebuilt, although it does not compare favorably to the splendor of Solomon’s temple (Ezra 5). In the time of Malachi, the last prophet in the Old Testament, the temple is functioning again with sacrifices being offered, although the people were not zealous for the Lord and were offering blemished animals.
Between Malachi and the coming of John the Baptist, about 400 years passes. While there was no official prophetic word during that time, there was still a lot going on. Judas Maccabeus is from this period, sometimes called the “silent period” because there was no prophetic voice. It is also called the “Intertestamental Period” because it covers the time between the Old and New Testaments.
The Old Testament closes roughly 400 BC. Alexander the Great all but conquers the known civilized world and dies in 323 BC. His empire is then distributed to his generals who consolidate their territory and their dynasties. Ptolemy, one of his generals, ruled in Egypt. Seleucus, another of his generals, ruled over territory that included Syria. These generals founded dynasties that were often at war with each other. A look at a map will confirm the precarious position of Israel, located as it was between the territories of the Ptolemies and the Seleucids.
Ptolemaic rule of Israel (Palestine) was tolerant of Jewish religious practices. However, the Seleucid dynasty eventually won control of the area and began to curtail Jewish religious practices. In 175 BC, the Seleucid king Antiochus IV came to power. He chose for himself the title Epiphanes, which means “god manifest.” He began to persecute the Jews in earnest. He outlawed Jewish religious practices (including the observance of food laws) and ordered the worship of Zeus. His ultimate act of desecration was to sacrifice a pig to Zeus in the temple in Jerusalem in 167 BC. Things were set up for Judas Maccabeus and his rebellion.
Faithful Jewish opposition had been an undercurrent all along, but Antiochus’ overt act of desecration brought it to the surface. Mattathias, a Jewish priest, led the organized resistance along with his five sons, John Gaddi, Simon Thassi, Eleazar Avaran, Jonathan Apphus, and Judas Maccabeus. Mattathias started the rebellion by preventing a Jew from sacrificing to a pagan god and then killing an officer of the king. He escaped with his family to the hills where he was joined by many other faithful Jews. From there, they conducted a guerilla war against the Seleucids. Upon Mattathias’s death in 166 BC, his son Judas Maccabeus took command of the rebellion. He saw himself as a leader like Moses, Joshua, and Gideon.
Under the leadership of Judas Maccabeus, the rebellion continued successfully, and the Jews were able to capture Jerusalem and rededicate the temple in c. 164 BC. (It is from this event that the festival of Hanukkah comes.) From there Judas Maccabeus took the war to Galilee in an effort to reclaim all Jewish territory. In 164 Antiochus Epiphanes died, and his son and successor Antiochus Eupator agreed to peace and to allow the resumption of Jewish practices. However, the war resumed shortly thereafter, and Judas sought and received help from the fledgling power of Rome to finally throw off Seleucid control. Judas Maccabeus died in about 161 and was succeeded by his brother Jonathan. Finally, under Jonathan’s leadership, peace was made with Alexander Balas, the Seleucid king, in about 153.
In spite of the fact that Judas Maccabeus neither started the rebellion nor saw it to its completion, he is considered to be the central figure in it. The name Maccabeus is derived from the Hebrew word for “hammer,” and he is often referred to as “Judas the Hammer.” After his death, Maccabeus (or Maccabee) became the family name so his brothers and even his father are referred to as “the Maccabees” (also called the Hasmoneans), and the revolt is referred to as “the Maccabean Revolt.”
The history of the rebellion led by Judas Maccabeus is recorded in Josephus’s Antiquities of the Jews and in the apocryphal books of 1 and 2 Maccabees.