Who Were the Maccabees?

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The name Maccabeus was first applied to Judas, one of the sons of Mattathias generally called in English the Maccabees, a celebrated family who defended Jewish rights and customs in the 2nd century B.C.E. (1 Macc 2:1-3). The word has been variously derived (e.g. as the initial letters of Mi Khamokha, Ba-‘elim Jehovah! “Who is like unto thee among the mighty, O Jehovah?”), but it is probably best associated with maqqabhah “hammer,” and as applied to Judas may be compared with the malleus Scotorum and malleus haereticorum of the Middle Ages (see next article). To understand the work of the Maccabees, it is necessary to take note of the relation in which the Jews and Palestine stood at the time to the immediately neighboring nations.

Palestine Under Kings of Syria

The rivalry Between Syria and Egypt

On the division of Alexander’s empire at his death in the year 323 BC, Palestine became a sort of buffer state between Egypt under the Ptolemies on the South, and Syria, under the house of Seleucus, the last survivor of Alexander’s generals, on the North. The kings of Syria, as the Seleucid kings are generally called, though their dominion extended practically from the Mediterranean Sea to India, had not all the same name, like the Ptolemies of Egypt, though most of them were called either Seleucus or Antiochus. For a hundred years after the death of Alexander, the struggle went on as to which of the two powers was to govern Palestine, until in the year 223 came the northern prince under whom Palestine was destined to fall to the Seleucids for good.

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Palestine Seized by Antiochus the Great

This was Antiochus III, commonly known as Antiochus the Great. He waged two campaigns against Egypt for the possession of Palestine, finally gaining the upper hand in the year 198 BC by his victory at Panium, so-called from its proximity to a sanctuary of the god Pan, a spot close to the sources of the Jordan and still called Banias. The Jews helped Antiochus to gain the victory and, according to Josephus, his rule was accepted by the Jews with goodwill. It is with him and his successors that the Jews have now to deal. Antiochus, it should be noticed, came in contact with the Romans after their conquest of Macedonia in 197, and was defeated by Scipio Asiaticus at Magnesia in 190. He came under heavy tribute which he found it difficult to pay and met his end in 187 while plundering a Greek temple in order to secure its contents. His son and successor Seleucus IV was murdered by his prime minister Heliodorus in 176-175 BC, who reaped no benefit from his crime.

The accession of Antiochus Epiphanes

The brother of the murdered king succeeded to the throne as Antiochus IV, generally known as Antiochus Epiphanes (“the Illustrious”), a typical eastern ruler of considerable practical ability, but whose early training while a hostage at Rome had made him an adept in dissimulation. Educated in the fashionable Hellenism of the day, he made it his aim during his reign (175-164 BC) to enforce it upon his empire a policy which brought him into conflict with the Jews. Even before his reign, many Jews had yielded to the attraction of Greek thought and custom, and the accession of a ruler like Antiochus Epiphanes greatly increased the drift in that direction, as will be found described in the article dealing with the period between the Old and the New Testaments (see BETWEEN THE TESTAMENTS). Pious Jews meanwhile, men faithful to the Jewish tradition, Chasidim (see HASIDAEANS), as they were called, resisted this tendency, and in the end were driven to armed resistance against the severe oppression practiced by Antiochus in advancing his Hellenizing views.

Hasmonean Dynasty
David S. Dockery et al., Holman Bible Handbook (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 1992), 512.

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Palestine under the Maccabees

Mattathias

Mattathias, a priest of the first 24 courses and therefore of the noblest who dwelt at Modin, a city of Judah, was the first to strike a blow. With his own hand he slew a Jew at Modin who was willing to offer the idolatrous sacrifices ordered by the king, and also Apelles, the leader of the king’s messengers (1 Macc 2:15-28). He fled with his sons to the mountains (168 BC), where he organized a successful resistance; but being of advanced age and unfit for the fatigue of active service, he died in 166 BC and was buried “in the sepulchres of his fathers” at Modin (1 Macc 2:70; Josephus, Ant, XII, vi, 3). He apparently named as his successor his 3rd son, Judas, though it was with real insight that on his deathbed he recommended the four brothers to take Simon as their counselor (1 Macc 2:65).

Judas

Judas, commonly called Judas Maccabeus–often called in 2 Maccabees “Judas the Maccabee”–held strongly the opinions of his father and proved at least a very capable leader in guerrilla warfare. He defeated several of the generals of Antiochus–Apollonius at Beth-horon, part of the army of Lysias at Emmaus (166 BC), and Lysias himself at Bethsura the following year. He took possession of Jerusalem, except the “Tower,” where he was subsequently besieged and hard pressed by Lysias and the young king Antiochus Eupator in 163 BC; but quarrels among the Syrian generals secured relief and liberty of religion to the Jews which, however, proved of short duration. The Hellenizing Jews, with ALCIMUS at their head, secured the favor of the king, who sent Nicanor against Judas. The victory over Nicanor first at Capharsalama and later (161 BC) at Adasa near Beth-horon, in which engagement Nicanor was slain, was the greatest of Judas’ successes and practically secured the independence of the Jews. The attempt of Judas to negotiate an alliance with the Romans, who had now serious interests in these regions, caused much dissatisfaction among his followers; and their defection at Elasa (161 BC), during the invasion under Bacchides, which was undertaken before the answer of the Roman Senate arrived, was the cause of the defeat and death of Judas in battle. His body was buried “in the sepulchres of his fathers” at Modin. There is no proof that Judas held the office of high priest like his father Mattathias. (An interesting and not altogether favorable estimate of Judas and of the spiritual import of the revolt will be found in Jerusalem under the High Priests, 97-99, by E.R. Bevan, London, 1904.)

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Jonathan

Jonathan (called Apphus, “the wary”), the youngest of the sons of Mattathias, succeeded Judas, whose defeat and death had left the patriotic party in a deplorable condition from which it was rescued by the skill and ability of Jonathan, aided largely by the rivalries among the competitors for the Syrian throne. It was in reality from these rivalries that resulted the 65 years (129-64 BC) of the completely independent rule of the Hasmonean dynasty (see HASMONEANS) that elapsed between the Greek supremacy of the Syrian kings and the Roman supremacy established by Pompey. The first step toward the recovery of the patriots was the permission granted them by Demetrius I to return to Judea in 158 BC–the year in which Bacchides ended an unsuccessful campaign against Jonathan and in fact accepted the terms of the latter. After his departure, Jonathan “judged the people at Michmash” (1 Macc 9:73). Jonathan was even authorized to reenter Jerusalem and to maintain a military force, only the “Tower” the Akra, as it was called in Greek, being held by a Syrian garrison.

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See further under HASMONEANSLACEDAEMONIANSTRYPHON.

Simon

Simon, surnamed Thassi (“the zealous”?) was now the only surviving member of the original Maccabean family, and he readily took up the inheritance. Tryphon murdered the boy-king Antiochus Dionysus and seized the throne of Seleucus, although having no connection with the Seleucid family. Simon accordingly broke entirely with Tryphon after making successful overtures to Demetrius, who granted the fullest immunity from all the dues that had marked the Seleucid supremacy. Even the golden crown, which had to be paid on the investiture of a new high priest, was now remitted. On the 23rd of Ijjar (May), 141, the patriots entered even the Akra “with praise and palm branches, and with harps, and with cymbals and with viols, and with hymns, and with songs” (1 Macc 13:51). Simon was declared in a Jewish assembly to be high priest and chief of the people “for ever, until there should arise a prophet worthy of credence” (1 Macc 14:41), a limitation that was felt to be necessary on account of the departure of the people from the Divine appointment of the high priests of the old line and one that practically perpetuated the high-priesthood in the family of Simon. Even a new era was started, of which the high-priesthood of Simon was to be year 1, and this was really the foundation of the Hasmonean dynasty (see HASMONEANS).

John Hyrcanus

John Hyrcanus, one of the sons of Simon, escaped from the plot laid by Ptolemy, and succeeded his father, both as prince and high priest. See HASMONEANS. He was succeeded (104 BC) by his son Aristobulus I who took the final step of assuming the title of king.

John and Eleazar

Two members of the first generation of the Maccabean family still remain to be mentioned: (1) John, the eldest, surnamed Gaddis (the King James Version “Caddis”), probably meaning “my fortune,” was murdered by a marauding tribe, the sons of JAMBRI, near Medeba, on the East of the Jordan, when engaged upon the convoy of some property of the Maccabees to the friendly country of the Nabateans (1 Macc 9:35-42). (2) Eleazar, surnamed Avaran, met his death (161 BC) in the early stage of the Syrian war, shortly before the death of Judas. In the battle of Bethzacharias (163 BC), in which the Jews for the first time met elephants in war, he stabbed from below the elephants on which he supposed the young king was riding. He killed the elephant but he was himself crushed to death by its fall (1 Macc 6:43-46). For the further history of the Hasmonean dynasty, see HASMONEANS.

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LITERATURE

There is a copious literature on the Maccabees, a family to which history shows few if any, parallels of such united devotion to a sacred cause. The main authorities are of course the Maccabean Books of the Apocrypha; but special reference may be made to the chapters of Stanley, Lectures on the History of the Jewish Church, dealing with the subject, and to E.R. Bevan. Jerusalem under the High Priests, 1904, or to the 2nd volume of House of Seleucus by the same author, 1902.

by J. Hutchison

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