The Maccabean Revolt: The Jewish Rebellion Against the Seleucid Empire
The Maccabean Revolt was a Jewish rebellion against the Seleucid Empire that took place during the 2nd century BC. Not long before the revolt, Jerusalem had been captured by the Seleucids.
According to ancient sources, the Maccabean Revolt was launched as a result of the policies implemented by the Seleucids that discriminated against the Jews. In other words, the Maccabean Revolt was presented as a nationalistic uprising against the oppression of a foreign power. The revolt was a success, leading, subsequently, to the establishment of an independent Jewish state under the Hasmonean dynasty.
Additionally, the Jewish festival of Hannukah, which is still celebrated today, traces its origins to the Maccabean Revolt.
A portrait of the Maccabees by artist Wojciech Stattler (a Polish Romantic painter of Swiss aristocratic ancestry) showing Joseph Maccabee, the leader of the Maccabean Revolt, on the right and a Seleucid soldier on the left. (Wojciech Stattler / Public domain )
The Maccabean Revolt: Named After the Priestly Maccabees
The Maccabean Revolt is named after the Maccabees, the priestly Jewish family that organized the uprising. The name Maccabee itself is a Hebrew title, which may be translated to mean “Hammer,” “Hammerer,” or “Extinguisher,” and was bestowed upon Judas, a key leader of the revolt. Subsequently, the title was extended to the rest of Judas’ family, i.e., his father, Mattathias, his four brothers, John, Simon, Eleazar, and Jonathan, and his nephew and successor, John Hyrcanus.
Although Judas is arguably the best-known figure of the Maccabean Revolt, it was his father, Mattathias, who initiated the revolt in 167 BC. Mattathias was an old Jewish priest living in Modi’in, a village located to the west of Jerusalem. According to 1 Maccabees, the Seleucid Empire sent officials to the towns and villages of Judaea, including Modi’in, demanding that its inhabitants offer sacrifices to the Greek gods . Mattathias, as a local leader of the village, was asked to make the first sacrifice. To encourage Mattathias, he was offered rich rewards , and was promised that he and his family would be “in the number of the king’s friends.”
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As a devout Jew, however, Mattathias refused to comply with the demands of the Seleucids. Following this rejection, one of the villagers, a Hellenized Jew, came forward to offer sacrifice, which infuriated Mattathias. Consequently, the old priest slew the man. The Seleucid official too was slain by Mattathias, and the altar to the Greek gods torn down. Mattathias called on the devout Jews of Modi’in to follow him, and fled with his sons into the mountains, as they expected retribution form the Seleucids. This marks the beginning of the Maccabean Revolt.
A slightly different version of the story is found in Flavius Josephus’ “ The Jewish War.” According to Josephus, Mattathias and his five sons slew a Seleucid general by the name of Bacchides, who had been sent to “keep the fortresses.” Josephus paints a negative portrait of the Seleucid general , describing him as “having these wicked commands [which were issued by the ruler of the Seleucid Empire] joined to his own natural barbarity, indulged all sorts of the most extreme wickedness, and tormented the worthiest of the inhabitants, man by man, and threatened their city every day with open destruction.” Josephus claims that this led to the murder of Bacchides by Mattathias and his sons.
Mattathias slaying the Jewish apostate in painting by Philippe James De Loutherbourg. This engraved plate is in the Macklin Bible (Cadell & Davies edition of the Apocrypha). ( Phillip Medhurst )
Interestingly, Josephus contradicts himself, as the same general is mentioned in another of his works, “ Antiquities of the Jews.” In this work, Bacchides was sent during the latter part of the Maccabean Revolt to deal with the rebels, which precludes his slaying by Mattathias at the beginning of the revolt. Moreover, Josephus even describes Bacchides as “a good man,” which seems to contradict the description of the general in his other account.
The Seleucid emperor Antiochus IV invades Judea with his elephants and takes the town of Bethsura in February 134 BC. ( Public domain )
The Enemy: Antiochus IV Epiphanes, Seleucid Empire Ruler
In any event, the unnamed Seleucid official in 1 Maccabees, and Bacchides (if Josephus were to be believed), were only carrying out the orders of their master, who was responsible for the anti-Jewish policies. This man was Antiochus IV Epiphanes , the ruler of the Seleucid Empire, and a noteworthy character in his own right.
Antiochus was the son of Antiochus III the Great and became the ruler of the Seleucid Empire following the death of his brother, Seleucus IV Philopater, in 175 BC. Although the throne should have gone to Seleucus’ son, the future Demetrius I Soter, this did not happen, as Demetrius had been sent to Rome as a hostage, in exchange for Antiochus, who had been a hostage since 188 BC.
Antiochus seized the opportunity to take control of the Seleucid Empire, and ruled jointly with another of Seleucus’ sons, the infant Antiochus, whom he subsequently murdered.
Antiochus was an ambitious ruler who sought to expand the Seleucid Empire and his own influence. This opportunity arose in 170 BC, when the Sixth Syrian War broke out. Although the war was declared by the Ptolemies, the rulers of Egypt, and the archenemy of the Seleucids, Antiochus decided to strike first. In 169 BC, Antiochus was in control of the whole of Egypt, apart from Alexandria.
Ptolemy VI Philometor was placed on the throne as a Seleucid puppet. The Alexandrians, however, chose Ptolemy VIII Physcon as their ruler. Having defeated the Ptolemies, Antiochus left Egypt, leaving the two brothers to fight amongst themselves.
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Once Antiochus had left, however, the two Ptolemies were reconciled, and ruled jointly. Consequently, Antiochus invaded Egypt again in 168 BC. Once again, the kingdom was overrun, and whilst the Seleucids were besieging Alexandria, the Ptolemies appealed to Rome for help. An embassy led by Gaius Popillius Laenas was sent to confront Antiochus, and the Romans demanded the king to withdraw from Egypt. Antiochus had no choice but to obey, and withdrew, thus ending the war.
According to Josephus, when the Seleucids were returning home after the first invasion of Egypt, Antiochus launched an expedition against Jerusalem. Josephus notes that the city was taken without fighting, as the gates were open to the Seleucids by “those of his own party,” i.e., the Hellenized Jews. The Jewish historian goes on to say that after Antiochus took Jerusalem, “he slew many of the opposite party; and when he had plundered it of a great deal of money, he returned to Antioch.”
Antiochus brought his army against Jerusalem again, following the humiliation he suffered at the hands of the Romans after his second invasion of Egypt. Josephus reports that “the King came up to Jerusalem: and, pretending peace, he got possession of the city by treachery. At which time he spared not so much as those that admitted him into it, on account of the riches that lay in the temple.” Antiochus stripped the Temple of its treasures, massacred the population, and returned home. According to 1 Maccabees, the king “entered proudly into the sanctuary,… and when he had taken all [the treasures of the Temple] away, he went into his own land, having made a great massacre , and spoke very proudly.”
Josephus claims that Antiochus’ violent treatment of Jerusalem and its inhabitants did not satisfy the king. Therefore, he decided to oppress the Jews further by imposing on them laws that ran counter to their religious practices , “he compelled the Jews to dissolve the laws of their country, and to keep their infants uncircumcised, and to sacrifice swine’s flesh upon the altar; against which they all opposed themselves, and the most approved among them were put to death.” It was not long after this that the Maccabean Revolt broke out.
Faux "tomb of the Maccabees" near present-day Mevo Modi'im in central Israel where many were slaughtered by the Seleucid generals. (Bukvoed / CC BY 3.0 )
The Maccabean Revolt Was Supported By Many Jews
The revolt was supported by many Jews, who followed the Maccabees into the mountains. According to 1 Maccabees and Josephus, when the Seleucid generals heard of this, they gathered their men, and pursued the rebels into the mountains. After overtaking a group of the rebels, the Seleucids tried to persuade them to repent, but they would not. Therefore, they did battle with the Jews. It so happened that the Jews were attacked on a sabbath, and therefore did not offer any resistance. Consequently, they were slaughtered.
Nevertheless, there were those who managed to escape. And they fled to Mattathias. The old priest was appointed as the leader of the rebellion and succeeded in persuading the Jews to fight on the sabbath if they needed to. Mattathias and his supporters went about enforcing Jewish practices amongst the Jews, killing those who refused to obey them. A year after the revolt broke out, Mattathias died, and was succeeded by his third son, Judas. Whilst Mattathias’ war was aimed mainly at the Hellenized Jews, his son broadened its scope, attacking the Seleucids as well.
According to 1 Maccabees, Judas was in command of a force of 3000 men. This was a small force compared to the army sent by the Seleucids against the rebels. Lysias, the Seleucid governor of Syria, sent an army of 40,000 footmen and 7,000 horsemen against Judas. This army was led by Ptolemy, son of Dorymenes, Nicanor, and Gorgias. As Judas was heavily outnumbered by the Seleucids, he resorted to guerrilla warfare, which was a highly effective strategy, as it won the Maccabees many victories. One of the most significant victories won by Judas was the Battle of Emmaus, which was fought in 166 BC. During the battle, Judas defeated a Seleucid army of 5,000 men that was led by Gorgias.
After defeating the Seleucids on numerous occasions, the Maccabees succeeded in recapturing Jerusalem in 164 BC. As the Temple had been defiled by Antiochus, it was purified. New vessels were brought into the Temple, whilst the defiled altar was torn down, and replaced with a new one.
The restoration of the Temple was celebrated for eight days by Judas and his men. According to Josephus, “Now Judas celebrated the festival of the restoration of the sacrifices of the temple for eight days; and omitted no sort of pleasures thereon: but he feasted them upon very rich and splendid sacrifices; and he honored God, and delighted them, by hymns and psalms.”
This is the origin of Hanukkah (meaning “Dedication”), which is still celebrated by Jews today. Hanukkah is known also as the Festival of Light, and Josephus speculates that it was named as such because “this liberty beyond our hopes appeared to us.” According to the Rabbinic tradition, a miracle occurred during the first Hannukah. When Judas and his followers rededicated the Temple, they found that there was only enough untainted olive oil to keep the candles of the menorah burning for a day, as the rest of the oil had been profaned. Much to the surprise of the Jews, the candles continued burning for eight whole days, which was regarded as a miracle.
The horrible death of Judas Maccabeus or Judah Maccabee painted by the Brazilian artist José Teófilo de Jesus. Judas was killed at the Battle of Elasa in 160 BC, and his brother, Jonathan, took over as leader of the revolt. (José Teófilo de Jesus / Public domain )
The Recapture of Jerusalem Did Not End The Maccabean Revolt
The recapture of Jerusalem and the rededication of the Temple, though important, did not mark the end of the Maccabean Revolt. Neither did the war end with the death of Antiochus in late 164 (around the time Jerusalem was recaptured), as his successors continued the war with the rebels. Whilst the Maccabees continued their war against the Seleucids, diplomacy came to play an increasingly important role as well.
For instance, Antiochus was succeeded by his son, Antiochus V, who was still a child. Consequently, the empire was administered by Lysias, who had other wars to fight. The Jews were able to turn this to their advantage, by negotiating a sort of peace with the Seleucid regent. These negotiations also secured them their freedom of worship .
More importantly were the diplomatic relations forged by the Maccabees with foreign powers, the most notable of which was no doubt Rome, the great enemy of the Seleucid Empire. Whilst Judaea started off as an enemy of Rome, it would later become one of its client kingdoms, and eventually, a Roman province . For the time being, however, being an ally of the Romans benefitted the Jews in their struggle against the Seleucids.
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Judas was killed at the Battle of Elasa in 160 BC, and his brother, Jonathan, took over as leader of the revolt. Once again, diplomacy played a part in the revolt. Apart from dealing with external enemies, the Seleucids were also faced with internal problems. By 152 BC, the Seleucid ruler, Demetrius I, was challenged by Alexander Balas. To secure an alliance with the Jews, the latter appointed Jonathan as high priest in Jerusalem, thereby marking the beginning of the high priestly line of the Hasmoneans.
In 142 BC, Jonathan was succeeded by his brother Simon Thassi, who not only received the religious office of high priest, but also the secular office of prince. By 140 BC, Judaea was a semi-independent vassal of the Seleucid Empire that was ruled by the Hasmonean dynasty. The Hasmoneans would eventually gain full independence around 110 BC, thanks to the disintegration of the Seleucid Empire.
To conclude, the Maccabean Revolt was a significant period in Jewish history. One of the results of the revolt was the emergence of an independent, though short-lived, Jewish state under the Hasmonean dynasty. Moreover, the origin of the festival of Hannukah, which is still celebrated by Jews today, can be traced back to the Maccabean Revolt.
Top image: Judas Maccabeus' attack on the Jerusalem’s Accra during the Maccabean Revolt. Source: mniši / Public domain
By Wu Mingren
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