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What happened in the Maccabean Revolt?

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The Maccabean Revolt was a Jewish rebellion against their Greek/Syrian oppressors in Israel, c. 167—160 BC, as well as a rejection of Hellenistic compromises in worship. The history of the Maccabean Revolt is found in 1 and 2 Maccabees and in the writings of Josephus. The origin of Hanukkah is traced back to the Maccabean Revolt.

First, some background on the events leading up to the Maccabean Revolt. The Old Testament closes with the book of Malachi, covering events to roughly 400 BC. After that, Alexander the Great all but conquers the known civilized world and dies in 323 BC. His empire is distributed to his four generals who consolidate their territory and establish 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. Israel, located between the two kingdoms, occupied a precarious position.

Ptolemaic rule of Israel (Palestine) was tolerant of Jewish religious practices. However, the Seleucid Empire eventually won control of the area and began to curtail Jewish religious practices. In 175 BC, Antiochus IV came to power. He chose for himself the name Antiochus Epiphanes, which means “god manifest.” He began to persecute the Jews in earnest. He outlawed Jewish religious practices (including the observance of kosher food laws) and ordered the worship of the Greek god Zeus. His ultimate act of desecration, precipitating the Maccabean Revolt, was to sacrifice a pig to Zeus in the temple in Jerusalem in 167 BC.

Faithful Jewish opposition had been an undercurrent all along, but Antiochus’ overt act of desecration brought it to the surface, and the result was the Maccabean Revolt. Mattathias, a Jewish priest, led the organized resistance along with his five sons: John Gaddi, Simon Thassi, Eleazar Avaran, Jonathan Apphus, and Judas Maccabeus (Maccabeus comes from the Hebrew word for “hammer”). Mattathias started the rebellion by preventing a Jew from sacrificing to a pagan god and then killing an officer of the king. Mattathias escaped with his family to the hills where he was joined by many other faithful Jews. From there, they conducted guerilla warfare against the Seleucids, but much of their wrath was also directed against fellow Jews who had embraced Greek culture (Hellenized Jews). The rebels tore down pagan altars, circumcised boys, and forced Hellenized Jews to become “outlaws” with no rights or legal protection. Upon Mattathias’ death in 166 BC, his son Judas Maccabeus took command of the rebellion. Judas saw himself as a leader like Moses, Joshua, and Gideon.

Under the leadership of Judas Maccabeus, the rebellion continued successfully, and the Maccabees, as they were called, were able to capture Jerusalem and rededicate the temple in c. 164 BC. (It is from this time that the festival of Hanukkah comes.) From there Maccabeus took the war to Galilee in an effort to reclaim all Jewish territory. In 164 BC, Antiochus Epiphanes died, and his son and successor Antiochus Eupator agreed to peace, allowing the resumption of Jewish practices; however, the war resumed shortly after that, and Judas sought and received help from the fledgling power of Rome to finally throw off Seleucid control. Judas died in about 161 BC and was succeeded by his brother Jonathan. Finally, under Jonathan’s leadership, peace was made with Alexander Balas, the Seleucid king, in about 153 BC. After Jonathan, his brother Simon ruled over a semi-independent Jewish nation. With the collapse of the Seleucid Empire in 116 BC, the nation of Israel enjoyed full independence until 63 BC when Rome installed a puppet king in Jerusalem.

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. Mattathias and his family are sometimes called the Hasmoneans; they are also referred to as the Maccabees, after Judas, and the revolt they led is referred to as the Maccabean Revolt.

The history of the rebellion is recorded in Josephus’s The Jewish Wars and in the non-canonical books of 1 and 2 Maccabees.

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What happened in the Maccabean Revolt?
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This page last updated: January 4, 2022