Maccabean Revolt

Eumenis Megalopoulos | Jan 27, 2024

Table of Content


The Maccabean revolt, which took place from 175 to 140 BC, was both a revolt by the Jews of Judea against the Seleucids and an internal conflict within 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 led to the founding 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 through contact with Greek culture and Hellenizing Jews more favorable to cultural mixing. The leaders of this revolt were Mattathias and his sons, notably Judas Maccabaeus 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, Antiochus III took control of Judea; but in 188, the Seleucids were defeated by the Romans in the Antiochian War and had to pay a colossal indemnity to Rome, leading Antiochus IV Epiphanes, successor to Antiochus III and more or less supported by the Romans, to increase taxation in Judea, forcing the high priest, appointed by the Seleucid power, to cut into the treasury of the Temple of Jerusalem. At the time, the high priest was a person of prime importance; it was he who was empowered to draw money from the Temple treasury to pay the tribute demanded by Antiochos IV.

Jason and the founding of Antioch-Jerusalem (175)

In 175 BC, when Seleucus IV died, the Jewish high priest, Onias III, was in Antioch to justify his refusal to allow the Seleucid minister, Heliodorus, to take the treasures of the Temple of Jerusalem. He is accompanied by his brother Joshua, who calls himself Jason. The latter intrigues with the new king, Antiochos IV, brother of the previous king, whose legitimacy is disputed: his nephew, a hostage in Rome, should be king. Jason makes a threefold proposal to the new king: appoint Jason as high priest in place of Onias, grant him the right to transform the city of Jerusalem into a new Greek city, a polis, and in exchange, promise him an increase in tribute and the payment of substantial additional sums. Antiochos accepted. First essential point: the transformation of Jerusalem into a Greek city was not initiated by the king, but by the Hellenized Jews.

Moreover, when Antiochus IV Epiphanes took over the Seleucid Empire in 175, a Hellenic party established itself in Judea for a long period. A Seleucid fortress, Acra, was built in the heart of Jerusalem, which became a Greek polis. Back in Jerusalem, Jason drew up a list of the new citizens of this Antioch of Jerusalem (to distinguish it from the many other Antiochs), founded a gymnasium at the foot of the Temple Mount and an ephebeion, an organization for training future citizens. Jason thus founded a Greek city in Jerusalem, a common practice at the time, in a region, Judea, which already had a gerousia; he does not seem to have upset the political institutions; indeed, his worst adversary, the author of the Second Book of the Maccabees, a contemporary, does not reproach him for this. What's more, many well-to-do Jews embraced what they saw as a useful modernization of Jewish society: the priests rushed to the gymnasium as soon as the gong sounded announcing the start of the oil distribution.

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 II Maccabees is obliged to agree that they were not: when they went to Tyre to attend the gymnastic competitions in honor of Heracles, invited like all the inhabitants of the Greek cities in the region, the Antiochians of Jerusalem spent the money on equipment for the triers, not on sacrificing to idols. The opposite would have been astonishing: who would imagine that the Jewish high priest would seek to abolish the religion that was the foundation of his power? For several historians, in particular Martin Hengel, it is clear that Jason, urged on by some of Judea's Hellenized elites, sought to erase the differences between the Jews and their neighbors, to bring them into the modern, largely Hellenized world. Jason's reform was a real success, as confirmed by the two Books of the Maccabees. But this does not mean that Jason was ready to renounce the essential precepts of his religion.

Jason's reform is not without its problems, however. Firstly, he obtained his position through intrigue and the promise of money: it's the people who pay. What's more, in the eyes of traditional Jews, those who are strangers to new fashions, it's hard to understand how one can remain a Jew by adopting mores as foreign to tradition as gymnasium nudity. All the more so as the Jews who frequent the gymnasium come to either conceal their circumcision ("they had foreskins made"), or forgo it for their male children, thus violating the law of the Torah. According to Maurice Sartre, Jason played a major role in this evolution, striving for a reform that would erase Jewish particularism without abolishing Judaism.

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

Alongside the tensions created within the Jewish population between supporters of forced Hellenization and traditionalists, the Maccabean revolt took place against a backdrop of corruption and political crisis surrounding the post of high priest.

By buying his position, Jason opened the door to competition: in fact, in 172 BC, one of his relatives, Menelaus, whose name says enough about his Hellenism, from a priestly family related to the high priest, intrigued with Antiochus in his turn. He was appointed high priest in Jason's stead in 172, and had Onias III assassinated while taking refuge in Antioch. His brother Lysimachus took sacred vessels from the Temple of Jerusalem, provoking riots in 170 and the death of the thief who had fallen into the hands of the rioters. Menelaus was arrested and brought to trial before Antiochus, but the latter managed to free him by giving him money. Jason returns as High Priest to replace Menelaus in 168. Antiochos is outraged that his protégé Menelaus has been dismissed. He sacks the Temple and reinstates Menelaus. Jason's return came after several years of war between Menelaus' and Jason's Jewish factions, both Hellenizing, but Menelaus' faction was certainly more radical and quicker to abandon Jewish traditions. This marked the beginning of a period of civil war between the two Hellenizing factions.

The people, powerless, witnessed this civil war and paid the price. Between 175 and 169, the king's tax burden was so great that it had to be factored into the popular uprising that was about to break out. Some fled to the desert, others became agitated. We move from mute indignation to the beginnings of a revolt that Menelaus is unable to cope with. He calls in the royal troops, while the defeated Jason takes refuge first with the king of the Nabataeans in Petra, then in Sparta. The Seleucid troops - the second most important fact - intervene to put an end to the troubles between the Jews.

In 170-169, Antiochos IV, who had paid little attention to the affair except to appoint the high priest and pocket as much money as possible (he owed a heavy war debt to the Romans and planned to launch new expeditions against Egypt and into Iran), began to worry. Why are the Jews getting restless? He must campaign against Egypt in the spring of 169, and it's not a good idea to leave a hotbed of rebellion in his rear that could cut him off from his Syrian bases. When asked about the causes of the unrest in Judea, he must have been told that the Jews were arguing about the Law: the text of II Maccabees constantly contrasts those who are zealous for the Law (Torah), and those who are zealous 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 are arguing about the Law, let's do away with the Law! Besides, it's customary for a rebellious people to lose the privilege of governing themselves according to their own laws.

In the autumn of 168, Antiochus IV issued an edict to abolish the Torah. This is what is improperly known as the Edict of Persecution, which in fact led to the prohibition of Judaism. 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 Jerusalem Temple was dedicated to Olympian Zeus.

It's easy to see how this came about. Antiochos had no fanaticism, no intention of uniting his states or spreading Greek religion or culture: one wonders where he would have got such an idea, totally foreign to the Greeks. No Hellenistic king, Antiochos IV or any other, ever bothered to Hellenize his subjects, who he simply expected to pay tribute and submit to his authority. Nothing in the policies of Antiochos IV, otherwise well known for his spirit of tolerance, suggests the slightest desire for a policy of forced Hellenization, or for the promotion of Greek cults. But, like his predecessors and successors, when sufficiently Hellenized natives wished to acquire the favorable status of a polis, he would grant it to them if it did not contradict his interests.

Where Antiochus IV committed a masterly political error was in failing to understand that abolishing the Torah not only deprived the Jews of their civil laws, but also led to the abolition of Judaism. Many pious Jews preferred martyrdom (hence the edifying accounts of II Maccabees), while others fled into the desert. The repression was all the more bloody as many Greeks and Syrians accused the Jews of arrogance, accusing them of denying the divinity of other people's gods, refusing to share their meals and avoiding all contact on the pretext of ritual purity.

The Maccabean guerrilla war

It was at this time (during 168, early 167 BC) that Mattathias (he. C.) that Mattathias (he. מתתיהו בן יוחנן הכהן, Matityahou ben Yohanan HaCohen) and his sons intervene, notably his third son Judas, the only one to whom the name Maccabaeus (he. מקבים) of uncertain etymology. The revolt is already well underway, but without a leader or clear objectives. According to the first Book of the Maccabees, a text that exalts the dynasty of Mattathias, the king's officers approached Mattathias, a respected citizen of Modi'in, and asked him to perform a pagan sacrifice with the promise of being introduced among the "king's friends". 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 firstly at the Hellenized Jews who were accommodating the ancient Jewish tradition with Greek cultural ingredients, and secondly at the foreign occupier who was harshly taxing the country 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 military organization to a revolt started by pious Jews who allowed themselves to be massacred on the Sabbath so as not to violate the Law. Although little is known about the groups of Hasidim or pious Jews who joined the Maccabees, it is clear that from the outset they had to accept compromises with the Law, such as fighting on the Sabbath.

On Mattathias' death (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 rebels defeat 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 another invasion. Judas took advantage of this respite to take control of Jerusalem. By December 165 or 164, Jerusalem was delivered and the Temple was once again dedicated to Yahweh. After the death of Antiochus IV in Persia in the autumn of 164, and the accession of a minor king, Antiochus V, negotiations began: not only were the two principal ministers of the deceased king at loggerheads, 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 further.

In 164, the Jewish festival of Dedication, Hanukkah, was celebrated for the first time in the Temple, which had been returned to Jewish worship. In the spring of 163, the edict of persecution was brought back. Judas obtained freedom of worship for the Jews from the Syrian regent Lysias. Nevertheless, the war continued in confusion, probably because the Jewish communities scattered around Judea felt threatened: Judas and his brothers went on expeditions to southern Syria, Transjordan and Idumea (Negev) to help persecuted Jews. On the other hand, the Seleucid troops had not been defeated: they continued to occupy the citadel of Jerusalem, the Acra, until 141, protecting the Hellenizing Jews by their very presence. In fact, it was an impossible war: the rebellious Jews waged a guerrilla war against which the regular Seleucid troops were disarmed, while the Jews were incapable of defeating the Seleucids in open country.

Towards victory for the Maccabees

The death of Antiochus IV and the lull of 164 BC did not bring an end to the fighting. Judas' military successes led him to lay siege to Acra, the last remaining symbol of the Seleucid presence in Jerusalem. The Seleucids reacted with force, mounting an expedition to Jerusalem from the Hebron mountains. In 162, at the battle of Beth Zachariah, Judas' brother Eleazar was crushed by a war elephant he had tried to storm. A year later, the Greek troops led by Nicanor were partly annihilated; but at the battle of Elasa in 160, it was Judas's turn to die, leaving his brother Jonathan to take his place.

Jonathan pursued a policy of alliance with Rome, the better to combat the governor Bacchides, who had installed the Hellenizing High Priest Alcimus in Jerusalem. From 160 to 158, the Hellenizers held sway in Jerusalem, while their protector Bacchides built fortifications at Bethel, Beth-Horon and Emmaus.

As the war wore on, a political agreement was reached between the Maccabees, now led by Jonathan, and their opponents, and the most extreme Hellenists were eliminated (Menelaus was atrociously executed in Aleppo), a new high priest, Alcime, chosen from among the moderate Hellenists, was appointed. After his death in 159 BC, however, he was not replaced. For Maurice Sartre, the appointment of Alcimus, a moderate Hellenist, was accepted by the rebels. For Elie Barnavi, an agreement between Jonathan and Bacchides, minister to the sovereign Demetrios I Soter, successor to Antiochos IV, was not reached until 152. The chronology of the years 157-152 is problematic. In 152, Jonathan, taking advantage of the civil war between two pretenders to the throne in Antioch, managed to gain the title of high priest (to which he was not entitled), while at the same time being honored with Seleucid court titles.

Demetrios I died in 150 BC and was succeeded by Demetrios II. But one of his rivals, Diodote Tryphon, took Jonathan prisoner and put him to death. Simon Maccabaeus, Mattathias' second son, succeeded his younger brother. According to Elie Barnavi, Demetrios II recognized the independence of the Hasmomean state, the name given to the dynasty that descended from the Maccabees, but according to Maurice Sartre, none of the Seleucids 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 that poisoned the life of the kingdom until its demise in 64, were mostly unable to challenge the de facto independence won by the so-called Hasmoneans, founders of a new, strongly Hellenized Jewish state. Simon is considered the founder of the Hasmonean dynasty. In 140, he was proclaimed hereditary "high priest, strategist and ethnarch". Aristobulus I assumed the title of Basileus in 104-103. Jewish autonomy lasted until 63, when Pompey took Jerusalem and brought Judea under Roman rule.

In the words of Maurice Sartre, the Maccabean revolt appeared to be a liberation struggle that was 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 could take the side of the usurper of the moment, from whom they extracted concessions, or forge distant alliances, as with Sparta, while ensuring the benevolence of Roman power. At the same time, they did not fail to resort to what Élie Barnavi calls "ideological weapons", drawing parallels between the contemporary political situation and those of other eras when the Jewish people faced problems of assimilation or subjugation. 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.

The 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 Antiochos completely broke with Seleucid policy in other places and times, banning the traditional religion of an entire people.

The four Books of the Maccabees are recognized by the Orthodox as part of the Bible, while Catholics recognize only the first two. They form 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 becomes part of rabbinic tradition, the rest of the story coming from Greek texts later collected by Christians. The Jewish historian Flavius Josephus took up these accounts in his War of the Jews.

These texts present the Hellenization and persecution carried out by Antiochus IV as the cause of the revolt, but most modern historians emphasize that Antiochus first intervened in a civil war within the Jewish population, pitting traditionalist Jews against Hellenized Jews. Competition for the post of high priest pitted traditionalists with Hebrew or Aramaic names, such as Onis, against Hellenizers with Greek names, such as Jason or Menelaus. To explain the civil war, other authors emphasize socio-economic causes alongside purely religious ones.

Evidence of the Maccabean revolt in the Judean desert against the Greek Seleucid kingdom was found during excavations in 2022 at the archaeological site of Muraba Cave, in the Darageh Stream Nature Reserve near the Dead Sea. It was a small treasure in a wooden box, containing a piece of purple woollen cloth and 15 silver coins, stamped with the figure of Ptolemy VI, king of Egypt, who had reigned at the same time as his uncle Antiochus IV, dated 176-170 BC, hidden for some 2,200 years in this place when Antiochus was preparing to plunder the Temple of Jerusalem.


  1. Maccabean Revolt
  2. Révolte des Maccabées
  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. ^ Historian Bezalel Bar-Kochva propounds the view that the Seleucid army was a small but elite force that largely consisted of high-morale Greeks devoted to maintaining "their" empire, hence his writings that the rebels likely outnumbered the Seleucids despite the Books of Maccabees claiming otherwise. That said, the matter is not settled; other scholars such as Israel Shatzman keep to the older view that the Seleucids deployed a larger but less disciplined force with many non-Greek soldiers with low morale, fighting only for money and with little care for the Seleucid cause.[60]
  6. ^ The nature of Chapters 1–6 of Daniel is contested; some scholars believe that these chapters existed prior to the Revolt and were lightly modified at most, while others suggest that such reliance on pre-existing legends of Daniel was minor.[77]
  7. a et b Élie Barnavi, Histoire universelle des Juifs, Hachette Littérature, 2002, p. 40.
  8. 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
  9. Ιστορία του Ελληνικού Έθνους. Τόμος Ε΄ Ελληνιστικοί Χρόνοι. Σέλευκος Δ΄ Φιλοπάτωρ (187-175 π.Χ.).σελ.144
  10. Библиотека Руслана Хазарзара.Φλαυίου Ἰωσήπου ἱστοριῶν τῆς Ἰουδαικῆς ἀρχαιολογίας. Βιβλίο ΙΒ.IV.10.[223]-[224]
  11. Ιστορία του Ελληνικού Έθνους. Τόμος Ε΄ Ελληνιστικοί Χρόνοι. Ε΄ΣΥΡΙΑΚΟΣ ΠΟΛΕΜΟΣ(202-198 π.Χ. ).σελ.56
  12. Штерн, 2001, с. 112.

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