The Revolt of the Maccabees

Crash Course in Jewish History Part 29: The Revolt of the Maccabees   The Jewish revolt against the Greeks sets a precedent in human history - it becomes the world’s first religious war.

We know the details of the Jewish fight against the Greeks and Hellenism from the two Books of the Maccabees as well as the writings of the Jewish historian Josephus.

These chronicles are not included in the Hebrew Bible because the Men of the Great Assembly had decided many years earlier what the Hebrew Bible should consist of and these events occurred much later in time. The Books of the Maccabees were both written in the first century BCE. I Maccabees was originally written in Hebrew as an official court history for the Hasmonean Dynasty. II Maccabees was originally written in Greek and based on earlier work written by Jason of Cyrene.

This revolt of the Jews sets a precedent in human history. It is the world’s first ideological/religious war. No one in the ancient world died for their gods; only the Jews thought that their religion—the only monotheistic religion at the time—was worth dying for.

But it is not just a war against the Greeks, it is also a civil war—Jews, who were loyal to Judaism, fighting other Jews, who had become Hellenized and who were siding with the Greeks.

The year is 167 BCE and the horrible persecution of Judaism by the Greeks is in full swing. The Greek troops show up in the town of Modi’in (a site west of Jerusalem which you can visit today off the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway) and demand that the Jews there sacrifice a pig to the Greek gods. The elder of the town, Mattathias, who is a cohen, that is of the priestly class, refuses. Even if all the nations that live under the rule of the king obey him, and have chosen to do his commandments, departing each one from the religion of his fathers, yet I and my sons and my brothers will live by the covenant of our fathers…We will not obey the king’s word by turning aside from our religion to the right hand or to the left. (I Maccabees 2:19-22)

But there is a Hellenized Jew in the town who is willing to do what is unspeakable in Jewish eyes. As he’s about to sacrifice the pig, Mattathias stabs him, also killing the Greek official present. He then turns to the crowd and announces: “Follow me, all of you who are for God’s law and stand by the covenant.” (1 Maccabees 2:27)

Those who join Mattathias and his five sons—named Yohanan, Shimon, Judah, Eleazar, Yonaton—head for the hills, expecting that the Greeks are going to come back and wipe out the whole village as a reprisal. In the hills, they organize a guerilla army, led primarily by the oldest of the sons named Judah, nicknamed Maccabee, which means “the Hammer.” Maccabee is also an acronym for mi komocho ba’alim Hashem, “who is like you among the powers O God,”—the battle cry of the Jewish people.

We don’t know exactly how large this Maccabee army was, but even the most optimistic estimates put the number at no more than 12,000 men. This tiny force takes on the fighting Greek army of up to 40,000 men.

It’s not just a numerical superiority the Greeks have. The Greeks are professional soldiers—they have equipment, they have training, and they have a herd of war elephants, which were the tanks of the ancient world. The Jews are vastly outnumbered, poorly trained, and poorly equipped (not to mention, they have no elephants), but what they lack in training and equipment they make up in spirit.

Most of the battles take place in the foothills leading from the coastal plain area (Tel Aviv) to Jerusalem. The Greeks are trying to march their armies up the natural canyons that lead into the mountain areas, the stronghold of the Jewish army. There’s only a few places where the Greeks can ascend and this is where the Maccabees choose to take them on.

Now when we read the story of the Maccabees it seems like it’s something that takes place over a few weeks—the battles take place, the Jews win, and the Greeks go home. But, in fact, it takes 25 years of fighting and a great many casualties on both sides until the Selucid Greeks finally reach a peace agreement with the Jews.


After the first three years, the Jews are able re-conquer Jerusalem. They find the Temple defiled and turned into a pagan sanctuary, where pigs are sacrificed on the altar. When they re-enter the Temple, the first thing they do is try to light a make-shift menorah (as the real gold one had been melted down by the Greeks) but only one vial of pure lamp oil with the special seal is discovered. They use this vial to light the menorah and miraculously it stays lit for eight days, by which time fresh pure oil has been pressed and delivered to the Temple.

The Maccabees then purify the Temple and rededicate it on the 25th of Kislev, which is the date on the Hebrew calendar when we begin to celebrate the eight days of Chanukah. (The Hebrew word Chanukah means “dedication” or “inauguration.”)

Early in the morning of the 25th day of the ninth month which is the month of Kislev…they [the priests] rose and offered sacrifices, as the law directs, on the new alter of burnt offerings which they had built…it was dedicated with songs and harps and lutes and cymbals…So they celebrated the dedication of the alter for eight days...(I Maccabees 4:52-56)

The miracle of the oil lasting for eight days (which is not mentioned in the Book of the Maccabees) is described in the Talmud:

...and when the royal Hasmonean House gained the upper hand and vanquished them. [the Greeks], [the Hasmoneans] .searched and found only one flask of oil…with the Kohen Gadol’s [High Priest] seal, and it contained only [enough oil] to burn for one day. A miracle occurred and it burned for eight days. (Talmud, Shabbat 21b)

Chanukah—one of two holidays added to the Jewish calendar by the rabbis—celebrates two kinds of miracles: 1) the military victory of the vastly outnumbered Jews against the Greeks; and 2) the spiritual victory of Jewish values over those of the Greek. It is this spiritual victory which is symbolized by the lights of Chanukah.

If we look at these two miracles, clearly the military victory was greater yet it is the miracle of the oil that is commemorated during the festival of Hanukah. The military victory may have been more impressive, but as we already mentioned, the real battle was spiritual and not physical. It is precisely this spiritual victory that is symbolized by the light of the menorah. (Fire, the soul and spirituality are all connected in Jewish thought). The light of Chanukah is symbolic of the inner spiritual strength of the Jewish people that despite all odds is never extinguished. It is precisely this inner spiritual strength that has enabled the Jewish people to outlast the greatest empires in history and have monumental impact on humanity.

The rededication of the Temple does not end the fight however. A Greek garrison remained stationed in Jerusalem in the Acra fortress and the Greek armies besiege Jerusalem and attempt to re-conquer the City. Many more battles will be fought before the conflict finally ends

It’s not until 142 BCE, during the reign of Seleucid monarch Demitrius, that the Greeks finally have enough of the fighting and sign a peace treaty with Simon, the last survivor of the five sons of Mattathias. (In 162 BCE-Eleazar falls in battle: thrusting a spear into the belly of war elephant on which he thought the king was riding, the elephant falls on him crushing him death. Yehuda is killed at the battle of Elasa in 161 BCE and Jonathan falls in battle in 142 BCE.)

In [that] year, Israel was released from the gentile yoke; the people began to write on their contracts and agreements: “In the first year of Simon, the great High Priest, general and leader of the Jews.” (1 Maccabees 13:41-42)

Thus Jewish sovereignty over the Land of Israel is officially restored.


As noted above, Mattathias was a cohen, and so it is not surprising that his son, Simon, should become High Priest. But Simon also takes on himself the title of nasi meaning “prince/president/leader.” He did not call himself king because he knew full well that a Jewish king could only come from the line of David, but for all practical purposes they assumed the role of kingship.

(The line of David—the line of kings—comes from the tribe of Judah, whereas the line of the cohanim, the priests, comes from the tribe of Levi, as per the blessing of Jacob on his twelve sons, the twelve tribes of Israel.)

This is a bad choice on the part of Simon because his descendants do not respect this distinction. They start a new ruling dynasty in Israel—the Hasmonean dynasty—which lasts for 103 years and which is marked by great territorial expansion but also by a terrible moral and religious decline. They should not have been kings in the first place and then they became corrupted by their own power.

The next ruler is Simon’s son, Yochanan Hyrcanus, a powerful and ambitious ruler. Among his many errors, Yochanan Hyrcanus does a terrible anti-Jewish thing. As part of his effort to expand the borders of Israel and strengthen the country, he forcibly converts the newly conquered peoples. This is something Judaism has never done before nor since—Jews discourage converts rather than the other way around.

One of the peoples that are forcibly converted at this time are the Idumeans. And this error costs the Jews dearly.

In Israel, not far from Beit Shemesh, there is a fascinating archeological site open to tourists called Beit Guvrin Maresha. It consists of thousands of man-made caves that are mostly cut into the soft limestone. This was one of the major cities of the Idumeans. And you can even play archeologist and go there and dig for a day. This is one of the places that the Hasmoneans conquered, giving the people a choice - convert or leave. Many of the inhabitants chose to destroy their houses and leave the country.

One of the Idumean families that is forcibly converted will become very significant for its role in the drama some years later when the Romans invade. A descendant of this family—Herod—will be appointed Jewish king and he will be a schizophrenic ruler. He will murder the High Priest, 45 members of the Jewish Supreme Court as well as several members of his own family, but he will also embark on a series of fantastic building projects that will include the city of Caesarea, the fortress at Masada, and a total re-building of the Temple. As we will see, Herod (who is only nominally Jewish) will have a very schizophrenic relationship with the Jews.


The son of Yochananon Hyracanus, Alexander Yanai, is a classic case of Hasmonean ruler leading the nation in the wrong direction. He is largely Hellenized and siding with the Sadducees (the Jews who only follow the Written Torah, making up their own interpretations) against the Pharisees (the mainstream Jews). When some of the Pharisees oppose him, he has 800 of them executed after first forcing them to watch the slaughter of their families. During the executions, Alexander Yannai hosts a Greek-style feast.

After Yannai’s death his widow, Queen Shlomzion (Salome) will rule from 76-67 BCE. She is the only ray of light in this dismal period. Her brother is Shimon ben Shetach, the leading rabbi of his generation and during her reign there is peace between the leadership and the Rabbis. This will be the last period of true peace and stability for a very long time.

The history of the Hasmonean Dynasty is a classic case of one of the great tragic families starting off so illustriously and ending so disastrously, bringing the Jewish people to ruin. (1)

The last two Hasmonean rulers are the sons of Shlomzion, Hyrcanus and Aristobolus, both of whom are totally Hellenized. Hyrcanus is the weaker of the two but he has a strong advisor by the name of Antipater, a descendant of Idumean converts to Judaism (who just happens to have a baby boy named Herod).

The brothers are fighting with each other as to who should be king. The obvious answer is neither. But tell that to morally corrupt, power hungry men. They hit on the idea of asking Rome to mediate in their dispute. (The relationship between the Jews and the Romans actually began during the Maccabian Revolt when Judah Maccabee made an alliance with Rome)

Inviting the Romans in is not like inviting a multi-national peace-keeping force or international mediation team. We’re talking about people with an incredible energy to conquer and gain all the territory they can.

The year is 63 BCE and the great Roman general Pompeii is cleaning up the last of the Greek Empire. He is more than happy to oblige and move his armies into Israel.

1) Perhaps the greatest irony of the legacy of the Maccabees is what is named after them today: The Maccabiah Games.(the Jewish Olympic Games, started in 1932 and held every four years in Israel). There is virtually no cultural institution that more typifies ancient Greek culture than their athletic competitions. That the Maccabees, who gave their lives to save Judaism from Greek influence, should have Greek-style sporting events named after is the most ironic of endings to this tragic story.

#29 of 70 in the Jewish History Series
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Part 28: Greek Persecution
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Part 30: The Romans

by  Ken Spiro
Posted in: Jewish History