The term Maccabees refers to the family of Jewish rulers and leaders who descended from Mattathias the Hasmonean. Mattathias, whose family line could be traced back to Aaron's grandson Phinehas (1 Maccabees), was a priest in Israel. He served during a tumultuous time when an aggressive campaign was launched in order to Hellenize (bring the Greek culture into) Judea. This effort was spearheaded by Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the ruler of the Seleucids, beginning around 175 B.C.
Historically, the person who started the line of the Maccabees is Judas Maccabaeus, one of Mattathias' five sons. His zealousness, ferocity and heroism in leading the revolt against the Seleucids earned him the nickname "Maccabaeus." Together with his first name, the translation of his name means "Judah (Judas) the Hammer."
Antiochus, soon after his Hellenizing campaign begins, outlaws Jewish religious practices. Around 170 B.C. he plunders Jerusalem's Temple and slays many people. Around 168 the Jews are ordered, under the pain of death, to substitute their religious observances with Pagan rights and rituals. In about 167 a pagan altar is set up inside the Temple and unclean meat is offered on it (a shadow of the "abomination of desolation" referred to by Jesus). Mattathias rejects the new worship and begins a revolt. Although he soon dies, his son Judas (founder of the Maccabees) takes over the leadership of the revolt.
Judas, as the new military commander of the Jewish revolt, immediately employs his military genius. In quick succession, he wins stunning victories against Syrian generals Apollonius, Seron, Gorgias and Lysias. He then enters Jerusalem in 164 B.C. and has the pagan altar erected by the Seleucids removed from the temple. He then has it religiously purified and restores the worship of the true God. Tradition states that although only a single day's worth of oil can be found for the Temple's menorah, it burns for a total of eight days. This "miracle" is commemorated yearly in the Jewish celebration known as Hanukkah.
In 160 B.C., Judas Maccabee dies in battle. Jonathan, the youngest son of Mattathias, is the first of the Maccabees to assume the office of High Priest when he is elevated to this position during the Feast of Tabernacles around 153 B.C. Simon Maccabee, the second son of Mattathias, assumes the office when Jonathan is captured and killed by the Seleucid King Diodotus Tryphon. Upon Simon's murder by a son-in-law, his son John Hyrcanus I replaces him in the priestly office. The oldest son of Hyrcanus, Aristobulus I, then succeeds his father as High Priest. He is followed by Alexander Jannaeus, Hyrcanus II, Aristobulus II and Hyrcanus II again. Hyrcanus II is put back in office by the Romans, who in 63 conquer Jerusalem.
Antigonus II, the second son of Aristobulus II, is the last of the line of the Maccabees to serve as a leader and the temple's High priest. In 40 B.C., the Roman senate declares Herod the Great the new "King of the Jews" in Judea. It would take Herod three years, however, to conquer Judea and Jerusalem. In 37 B.C., Antigonus II is executed. From this time forward, the office of the High Priest is by appointment and not necessarily heredity. The entire period of the rule and influence of the Maccabees, on Judea and the Jews, lasts roughly 130 years.