People

Maccabees by Chris Seeman

The Maccabees were a family of Jewish priests who freed Judea from foreign rule during the latter half of the second century BCE. Their military success led to the establishment of the first native monarchy to rule Israel since the Babylonian exile. Although their dynasty was eventually eclipsed by Herod the Great in 37 BCE, the Maccabees’ impact on subsequent Jewish history was significant. Many elements of early Judaism owe their development to the Maccabean achievement.

Why was Judas called “the Maccabee”?

The name “Maccabee” properly belongs only to the first member of the family to achieve notoriety: Judas Maccabeus—in Hebrew, Yehudah Ha-Maqbi (“Judah the Hammer”), possibly a boast about his military success in “hammering” Israel’s enemies. Judas was one of five sons of a priest named Mattathias. In Jewish sources, Mattathias and his descendants are called the “Sons [or House] of Hashmonay,” after Mattathias’s grandfather or great-grandfather. Hence, moderns also refer to the Maccabees as the Hasmoneans.

How did the Maccabees impact Jewish history and religion?

At the time the Hasmoneans rose to prominence, the Jews of Judea were subjects of the Seleucids, the Hellenistic dynasty that had ruled most of western Asia since the beginning of the third century BCE. Like most ancient empires, the Seleucids were generally respectful of their subjects’ religious practices, patronizing local temples and their personnel. This incentivized their subjects to accept their rule and not rebel.

This pattern of concord broke down during the reign of Antiochus IV Epiphanes (ruled 175-164 BCE), who alienated many of his Jewish subjects by appointing an unpopular high priest, fleecing the Jerusalem temple of its treasures, installing a garrison, and violently suppressing all Jewish religious observance. The king’s ultimate offense, in the eyes of those who opposed him, was his dedication of the temple to Olympian Zeus. This involved the erection of a pagan altar, which Jewish sources excoriate as “the abominating desolation.”

Jewish reaction to Antiochus’s depredations was immediate and widespread, ranging from avoidance of the king’s minions to voluntary martyrdom to militant resistance. The last of these was spearheaded by the Maccabees—first by Mattathias, then by Judas and his brothers. Zeal for God’s law was their rallying cry, modelled on the biblical tale of the priest, Phinehas, who saved Israel from catastrophe by slaying those who violated the covenant.

Judas’s guerilla raids quickly morphed into full-scale battles. Initial success in these engagements enabled Judas to seize the temple mount, purge it of its pagan accretions, and rededicate it to the God of Israel. This became the occasion for the annual commemoration of Hanukkah. Eventually, however, the Maccabean forces were unable to repulse the Seleucid army and were compelled to withdraw, precipitating negotiations that resulted in the rescinding of the king’s oppressive policies.

Not satisfied with this resumption of the status quo, Judas fought on, endeavoring (unsuccessfully) to depose the high priest appointed by Antiochus’s successor. In spite of his tenacity, Judas fell in battle, a setback that might have terminated the Maccabean cause had not his brother, Jonathan, negotiated a truce. In time, Jonathan foiled his domestic rivals by collaborating with the Seleucid regime, obtaining for himself the high priesthood. As the regime began to degenerate into deadly warfare, Jonathan’s brother Simon exploited the distraction to overpower and expel the Seleucid garrison from Jerusalem.

Although Simon touted this undoing of Antiochus’s legacy as Israel’s liberation from “the yoke of the gentiles,” Seleucid hegemony remained a reality. It was successfully reasserted a few years after Simon’s death and, though it again fell into abeyance, this was due more to Seleucid weakness than to Hasmonean strength. Nevertheless, in the course of defending their temple and their nation, the sons of Mattathias and their descendants came to wield unprecedented power, combining high priestly office with military and political dictatorship and ultimately claiming royal honors.

Not all Jews were prepared to grant legitimacy to this authoritarian innovation. As criticism of the Hasmoneans mounted, sectarian differences hardened, polarizing groups like the Pharisees and Sadducees—as well, very likely, as the community that produced the Dead Sea Scrolls. Dissatisfaction with Hasmonean kingship also coincided with the emergence of messianic interpretations of Israel’s scriptures: hopes for a better future contrasted with the increasingly oppressive present experience of Hasmonean monarchy.

 

Chris Seeman, "Maccabees", n.p. [cited 9 Dec 2019]. Online: http://bibleodyssey.org/en/people/main-articles/maccabees

Contributors

seeman-chris

Chris Seeman
Associate Professor of Theology, Walsh University

Chris Seeman, PhD (2002), University of California at Berkeley, is Associate Professor of Theology at Walsh University in North Canton, Ohio. His publications include Rome and Judea in Transition: Hasmonean Relations with the Roman Republic and the Evolution of the High Priesthood (New York: Lang, 2013) and, with Paul Spilsbury, Flavius Josephus: Translation and Commentary, Judean Antiquities 11 (Leiden: Brill, 2017).

The Maccabees/Hasmoneans, a prominent priestly Jewish family, freed Judea from foreign rule and established the first monarchy to rule Israel after the exile.

Did you know…?

  • Antiochus Epiphanes’s violent suppression of Judaism may be the first instance of religious persecution in human history
  • In their militant defense of religious freedom, the Maccabees were inspired by the example of the biblical priest, Phinehas.
  • The Maccabees were victims of their own success; the power they came to wield turned many Jews against them.

Of or relating to ancient lower Mesopotamia and its empire centered in Babylon.

A sequence of rulers from the same family.

The historical era of Judaism spanning the periods of Persian and Roman rule, from the 6th century BCE to the 3rd century CE.

general condition of living away from ones homeland or specifically the Babylonian captivity

The religion and culture of Jews. It emerged as the descendant of ancient Israelite Religion, and is characterized by monotheism and an adherence to the laws present in the Written Torah (the Bible) and the Oral Torah (Talmudic/Rabbinic tradition).

the southern kingdom of Judah during the divided monarchy or what later became the larger province under imperial control

A system of rule with a monarch as its head; or the hereditary system passed from one monarch to another.

A dynasty that ruled Israel from 140-37 B.C.E.; their origin is recounted in 1 and 2 Maccabees.

Relating to the priests, the people responsible for overseeing the system of religious observance, especially temple sacrifice, depicted in the Hebrew Bible.

A West Semitic language, in which most of the Hebrew Bible is written except for parts of Daniel and Ezra. Hebrew is regarded as the spoken language of ancient Israel but is largely replaced by Aramaic in the Persian period.

Ruler of the Seleucid Empire from 175 to 164 BCE, he was emperor during the Maccabean Revolt.

The application of critical models of scholarship to a text.

A collection of Jewish texts (biblical, apocryphal, and sectarian) from around the time of Christ that were preserved near the Dead Sea and rediscovered in the 20th century.

A number of troops stationed in a particular location.

The Jewish festival which recalls over an 8-day period the rededication of the Temple in 165 B.C.E. by the Maccabees who fought against the Seleucids.

Relating to the dynasty established by Simon Maccabeus that ruled Israel independently from 140-37 B.C.E.

Of or relating to Greek culture, especially ancient Greece after Alexander the Great.

(n.) One who adheres to traditional or polytheistic religious and spiritual belief and practice systems; sometimes used to refer broadly to anyone who does not adhere to biblical monotheism.

Related to a particular religious subgroup, or sect; often used in reference to the variety of Jewish sects in existence in the Roman period in Judea and Samaria.

The site in Jerusalem of the First and Second Temples, according to the Bible.

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