Maccabees, History of the

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The name "Maccabee" is generally given to John, Simon, Judas, Eleazar, and Jonathanthe five sons of Mathathias, a Jewish priest of the line of Joarib who died in the year 166 b.c. (1 Mc 2). The name is derived properly from that of the third son, Judas Maccabee. The Greek form, Μακκαβαîος, probably goes back to the Aramaic word maqqābai, the meaning of which is uncertain. The name is generally explained as derived ultimately from the Hebrew word maqqebet meaning hammer. Hence, "Judas, the hammer (or hammerer)," because of the hammerlike blows he inflicted on the Syrian oppressors of Israel in the early years of the Maccabean wars. Some scholars, however, maintain that the name is a shortened form of the Hebrew maqqab-yāhû (from nāqab, "to mark, to designate"), meaning "the one designated by Yahweh." The name, which was applied first to Judas, then to his brothers, was subsequently used to designate all their kinsmen and adherents, and ultimately given to all the champions of religion during the Greek period.

According to Josephus, Simeon, the grandfather of Mathathias, was called "the son of Hasmonaeus." The family is thus more correctly designated by the name of Hasmonaeans.

This article will treat the remote and proximate background of the Maccabean wars and give an account of the three Maccabean brothers, Judas, Jonathan, and Simon.

Historical Background

The Maccabees liberated Judea from oppression by the Syrian kings, restored religious freedom, and regained political independence for the Jewish people. To be adequately appreciated these achievements must be seen against the background of the times.

The Hellenization of Palestine. After the return from the Babylonian exile in 538 b.c., Judea was subject for four centuries to the great powers that ruled the Near East: Persia, Alexander the Great, the Ptolemaic kings of Egypt, and finally the Seleucid kings of Syria beginning c. 200 b.c. With the exception of the Seleucid King antiochus iv epiphanes (175164 b.c.) and his successors, none of Judea's pagan overlords interfered seriously with the practice of the Jewish religion; their policy had been that of subjection and tribute in temporal affairs, freedom in spiritual affairs. Antiochus IV, however, attempted to unify his domains, and especially Palestine, by imposing upon all his subjects the practice of Hellenistic religion. This included the worship of Zeus and other gods of the Greek pantheon, as well as the king himself as the visible manifestation of Zeus (the name "Epiphanes" meaning "the god manifest").

In its civil and cultural aspects Hellenism was nothing new to the Jews. Hellenization of Palestine had been in progress under both Ptolemaic and Seleucid kings since the era of Alexander. By the time of Antiochus IV, however, serious tensions had come to exist among the Jews between the liberal factions, enthusiastic about Hellenistic culture, and the conservative factions, suspicious of Hellenistic culture and antagonistic to Hellenistic religion. Between 175 and 174 b.c. Jason (the brother of the legitimate high priest Onias III), a leader of the pro-Hellenist faction among the Jews, offered Antiochus IV, in return for the office of high priest, a large sum of money and a promise of cooperation with his policy of Hellenization of Judea. Having been recognized as high priest by Antiochus IV, Jason immediately initiated an active policy of Hellenization. He established a gymnasium in Jerusalem and encouraged Greek sports and fashions (1 Mc 1.1315; 2 Mc 4.1015). Three years later a rival, Menelaus, managed to outbid Jason for the office of high priest and began to sell the Temple vessels. When the legitimate high priest Onias III protested, Menelaus had him assassinated (2 Mc 4.2336). In 169 b.c., with the connivance of Menelaus, Antiochus IV pillaged the Temple. When it became apparent that the religious Jews would not submit voluntarily to Hellenization, Antiochus IV decided to use force. A Syrian army under Apollonius looted and partially destroyed Jerusalem. A Syrian garrison was installed in 167 b.c. in a newly built citadel called the Akra, located on the hill west of the Temple. Antiochus IV then began a systematic persecution of the Jews aimed at destroying the Jewish faith and substituting Hellenistic religion in its place. Regular sacrifices in the Temple were suspended; Jews were no longer permitted to observe the Sabbath and the traditional feasts; it became a crime to possess a copy of the Law or to circumcise Jewish children. Pagan altars were set up throughout the land, and Jews who refused to sacrifice swine's flesh upon these altars were liable to death. In December 167 b.c., the cult of Olympian Zeus was instituted in the Temple, an altar to Zeus was erected, and Jews were compelled to take part in the pagan feasts. A systematic religious persecution of the Jews was in full progress (1 Mc 1.4367; 2 Mc 6.111).

The Outbreak of the Maccabean Wars. Israelite response to Antiochus's program of enforced Hellenization and the suppression of the Jewish faith was threefold. Those enthusiastic about Hellenism apostatized. Some through fear of torture and death unwillingly complied and forsook the faith of their fathers. Others, however, defied the persecutors and either died for their faith or went into hiding (2 Mc 6.811).

Meanwhile, in the hill towns and in the desert resistance smoldered, awaiting only a spark to ignite active rebellion. In the little town of Modin, in the foothills northwest of Jerusalem, sometime in late 167 b.c. the spark was struck. The King's officers came to Modin and urged the old priest Mathathias and his five sons to be the first to offer sacrifice on the pagan altar. Mathathias refused vehemently, but while he was still speaking, another Jew approached the altar to sacrifice and abjure his faith. Inflamed with righteous anger, Mathathias slew the man on the spot; turned and killed the King's men; tore down the pagan altar; and then fled to the hills with his sons, where they were joined by the hasidaeans and others who refused to accept Hellenization. In a short time the nucleus of a guerrilla army had taken form. Shortly afterward, having confided the leadership of the resistance to his third son, Judas Maccabee (1 Mc 1.66), Mathathias died.

The Maccabean Brothers

Of the five sons of Mathathias, Eleazar and John played only minor roles in the Maccabean wars. Eleazar, called "Abaron," was killed in battle at Bethzacharam (Bethzacharia) in 163 b.c., crushed to death beneath an elephant that he had attempted to kill, believing that it was carrying the Syrian King Antiochus V (1 Mc6.4346). John, called "Gaddis," was killed by raiders from Medaba in Transjordan shortly after the death of Judas in 160 b.c. (1 Mc 9.3542). Judas, Jonathan, and Simon played major roles in the Maccabean wars. They will be treated at length.

Judas Maccabee (166160 B.C.). When Judas took over the leadership of the Jewish resistance in 166 b.c., there was no army; there were no supplies, no weapons, and no plans. When he died in battle six years later, his name was a byword throughout the Near East. He had formed a close-knit, hard-hitting guerrilla army, armed them with the weapons of defeated Syrian troops, repulsed a series of Syrian armies sent against him, won back Jerusalem and the Temple, and re-established the daily sacrifices. He had set the stage for the eventual return of religious and political freedom to Judea.

A man of contagious courage, invincible confidence, and extraordinary ability, Judas infected his troops with his own indomitable faith and won battle after battle against almost insuperable odds. His fortress was the hills; his strategy, guerrilla tacticsthe unsuspected slashing attack followed by a swift retreat and disappearance into the hills.

Judas's first victory was over Apollonius, sent by Antiochus IV from Samaria to subdue the rebellion (1 Mc3.1012). A short time later he reduced and scattered a second Syrian force under Seron at the pass of Bethhoron (1 Mc 3.1324). Neither defeat was a disaster for the Syrians, but the effect of the victories on the morale of Judas's guerrilla army was dramatic. When Lysias, the regent of Antiochus IV, sent an army into Judea in the following year (165 b.c.) under Nicanor and Gorgias, Judas met the enemy near Emmaus and was victorious again (1 Mc 3.384.25). Lysias then took charge himself and approached Judea from the south. The battle took place near Bethsura, and again Judas was able to secure a victory (2 Mc 11.12). Lysias was forced for a time to recognize Jewish interests in order to give himself to his duties as regent. An account of the diplomatic negotiations between Judas and Lysias, as well as those between Judas and Rome at that time, is preserved in the 1lth chapter of 2 Maccabees.

When Antiochus IV died in the autumn of 164 b.c., Lysias seized the government in the name of Antiochus V, the nine-year-old son of Antiochus IV. On December 14 of that same year, Judas purified and rededicated the Temple at Jerusalem. In the following summer, he was able to extend his influence in Palestine by rescuing faithful Jews in Galilee and Galaad, and by punishing pro-Hellenistic Jews throughout the land (1 Mc 5).

In the autumn of 163 b.c. Judas besieged the Syrian citadel in Jerusalem, intending to rid Judea of all Syrian influence. Forced into action by Judas's actions, Lysias and the young King came from Antioch with a large army and besieged Judas's base of operations at Bethsura, forcing Judas to quit the siege of the citadel. When Judas came south to assist the garrison at Bethsura, his army met the Syrians at Bethzacharam, but was forced back to Jerusalem, where refuge was taken in the fortress of the Temple. When Bethsura fell, Lysias's army besieged the Temple fortress. Fortunately for Judas, Lysias was forced to make peace when news arrived that Philip, the rival regent who had been designated by Antiochus IV on his deathbed, was advancing toward Antioch. Lysias successfully disposed of Philip's threat, but was later executed, along with Antiochus V, by Demetrius I Soter (161150 b.c.), nephew of Antiochus IV (1 Mc6.177.50).

In the meantime, the Hellenistic faction in Jerusalem persuaded Demetrius I to recognize Alcimus, a Hellenistic Jew, as high priest and to send an army against Judas. Demetrius sent Nicanor, and in the ensuing battle near Adarsa (Adasa), Judas had his last victory. Shortly afterward, a Syrian army under Bacchides defeated Judas's army at Laisa (Elasa), and Judas died on the field of battle (1 Mc 9.122).

Jonathan Maccabee (160143 B.C.). The youngest of the Maccabees, Jonathan, also called "Apphus," took command after the death of Judas and wisely withdrew to the desert with the remnants of the shattered Jewish army. With Judea once more under Syrian control, Bacchides returned to Antioch, leaving to the triumphant Hellenistic Jews the task of patrolling the country and keeping the peace. After some time Bacchides returned to Judea to annihilate Jonathan's guerrilla army. Having failed in his first attempts, he made a truce with Jonathan. Quarrels with the Hellenistic Jews and internal difficulties in the Seleucid state may have prompted him to negotiate (1 Mc 9.2373).

Unhindered by the Syrians from 157 to 152 b.c., Jonathan increased his army and his influence. When Alexander Balas, a pretender to the throne of Syria, contended with Demetrius I for Jonathan's support, Jonathan wisely supported Alexander, who named him high priest, dubbed him "friend of the king," and made him both military and civic governor of Judea.

When Demetrius II in 145 b.c. succeeded with the help of Ptolemy IV of Egypt in deposing Alexander, he at first accepted the friendship of Jonathan. Later, however, Demetrius II broke his promise to Jonathan to remove the Syrian troops from the Akra in Jerusalem, and Jonathan went to the side of Tryphon, who was regent to a new pretender to the throne, Antiochus VI, son of Alexander Balas. However, when Jonathan built a high wall between the Syrian-occupied Akra and the rest of Jerusalem, Tryphon became distrustful. He invited Jonathan to a parley, took him prisoner, and later executed him in the land east of the Jordan at a place called Bascama whose location is now unknown (1 Mc 1112;13.23).

Simon Maccabee (143134 B.C.). The last of the Maccabees, Simon (also called "Thasi") rallied the Jewish army after the capture of Jonathan and succeeded in preventing Tryphon's army from assisting the Syrian garrison in Jerusalem. Later, when Tryphon executed Antiochus VI and declared himself king of Syria, Simon went over to the side of Demetrius II, who gave him, in return for his support, almost complete political freedom along with the abolition of all tribute past and future. Simon himself was acknowledged as "the high priest, the great captain, and Prince of the Jews" (1 Mc 13.42). It is from Simon, therefore, that the Hasmonaean dynasty arose, for his less scrupulous sons took the name of king and ruled an independent Judea for the better part of a century (1 Mc 1314).

In the meantime, Demetrius II had been captured by the Parthians, and when his brother Antiochus VII requested Simon's aid in destroying Tryphon, Simon complied with alacrity. Not long after, however, the two allies quarreled. Antiochus VII sent his general, Cendebeus, to attack Judea. In a battle at Cedron, south of Jamnia, the Jewish army under the leadership of Simon's sons, Judas and John, routed the army of Cendebeus, and Judea was at peace once more. Simon enjoyed the peace for only a few years. In 134 b.c., while at a banquet in the fortress of Doch near Jericho, he was treacherously assassinated along with his sons Judas and Mathathias, by his son-in-law Ptolemy. His remaining son, John Hyrcanus, succeeded him and carried on the Hasmonaean dynasty (1 Mc 1516).

See Also: hasmonaeans; maccabees, book of.

Bibliography: josephus, Antiquities (Loeb Classical Library [London-New York-Cambridge, Mass. 1912]) Bks. 1213. j. bright, A History of Israel (Philadelphia 1959) 407412. g. ricciotti, The History of Israel, tr. c. della penta and r. t. a. murphy, 2 v. (2d ed. Milwaukee 1958) 236279. f. m. abel, Histoire de la Palestine depuis la conquête d'Alexandre jusqu'à; l'invasion Arabe, 2 v. (Paris 1952) 1:108206. m. noth, The History of Israel, tr. and rev. p. r. ackroyd (2d ed. New York 1960). e. bicker-mann, The Maccabees, tr. m. hadas (New York 1947). h. a. fischel, ed., First Book of Maccabees (New York 1948). w. r. farmer, Maccabees, Zealots and Josephus (New York 1956). a. bevan, "The Origin of the Name Maccabee," Journal of Theological Studies 30 (1929) 191193.

[p. f. ellis]