Who Are the Maccabees?

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Who are the Maccabees? When did they live? What momentous impact did they have in the history of Judea and the Jews?

In 167 B.C. a Jewish priest named Mattathias, along with his five sons, begins a revolt against the Seleucid Empire and its king Antiochus IV Epiphanes. Although Mattathias dies one year later, his oldest son Judas (Judah) continues the revolt as its new military leader. Judah, because of his ferocity, zeal and heroism in battle, earns the nickname Maccabaeus (Maccabee) or "hammer."

The term Maccabee (Maccabeus), which originated with Mattahias' son Judah, is frequently applied to his four brothers. Additionally, even though Judah had no sons, the term is also used for the descendants of his brother Simon Thassi (Maccabeus). Simon is considered the founding ruler of the Hasmonean dynasty that will govern Israel until 37 B.C.

The Maccabean Revolt

Mattathias, the man who is creditted with starting the Maccabean revolt, can trace his lineage back to Aaron's grandson Phinehas (1 Maccabees). He served as a priest 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 the Seleucids beginning around 175 B.C.

Heliodorus Driven from the Temple
(Maccabees 3.22 - 30)
Bertholet Flemal, 1658 - 62

Antiochus, king of the Selecuids, soon after his Hellenizing campaign begins, outlaws Jewish religious practices. Around 170 B.C. he plunders Jerusalem's Temple. Around 168 the Jews are ordered to substitute their religious observances with pagan rituals.

Antiochus, in about 167, orders a pagan altar be set up inside the Temple and unclean meat offered on it (a shadow of the prophetic "abomination of desolation" referred to by Jesus in Matthew 24:15). Mattathias rejects the new worship and begins a revolt. When he dies in 166 his son Judas takes over the leadership of the revolt.

Judah the Hammer

Judas, as the new military commander of the 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 when the Maccabees retook Jerusalem's temple it had only a single day's worth of oil for the Temple's menorah. The oil lasts, however, for a total of eight days until more can be produced. This "miracle" is commemorated yearly in the Jewish celebration known as Hanukkah.

Judas Maccabee dies in battle in 160 B.C. Jonathan Apphus, one of Judas' brothers, 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 in 153. Simon Thassi (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, John Hyrcanus II, Aristobulus II and John Hyrcanus II again.

John Hyrcanus II is restored in 63 B.C., by the Romans, to the office of High Priest. Antigonus II Mattathias, son of Aristobulus II, is installed in 40 B.C. as a puppet king over Judea. He will be the last of a line of Maccabees to serve as both a ruler and High Priest.

Declared King of the Jews

The Roman Senate, in 40 B.C., declares Herod the Great the new "King of the Jews" over Judea. It will 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 as was commanded by God (Exodus 29:9, 29). The entire period of the influence of the Maccabees, on Judea and the Jews, lasts roughly 130 years (167 to 37 B.C.).

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1906 Jewish Encyclopedia
1911 Encyclopedia Britannica
Holy Bible, a Faithful Version