The Maccabean Revolt

Hanukkah, the “Festival of Lights”, has its origin in a Jewish rebellion against the Greeks, centuries before the Roman conquest.


Mattathias in the temple

There are two primary sources for the story of the Maccabean Revolt. The biblical accounts in the 1 and 2 Books of Maccabee are Apocryphal, and focus on the religious aspects of the rebellion. The account given by the Romanized Jew Josephus is more secular, but it also contradicts many of the biblical accounts. And there is precious little in the way of archaeological evidence. So, there is much debate and disagreement over exactly what happened.

What is known is that in 323 BCE Alexander the Great, who ruled an empire stretching from Europe to India, died without an heir, and his realm was subsequently divided into four separate kingdoms, each ruled by one of his generals. In the area that is now Syria, General Seleucus became king. In Egypt, General Ptolemy installed himself as the new Pharaoh.

Between them was Palestine, which contained a small area known as Judea. This was a strategic crossroads, and although the province originally belonged to the Ptolemeic kingdom in Egypt, the Seleucid kings made constant attempts to take it. In 198 BCE, Antiochus III succeeded in conquering Judea and making it a part of the Seleucid kingdom.

In his policies of conquest, Alexander the Great had always practiced a degree of religious and cultural tolerance that was remarkable for the time: subdued people were allowed to keep their native religion and culture, and were often overseen by their own native rules—as long as they gave proper deference to Alexander. For the most part, this course of action was continued by all of Alexander’s successors. But Antiochus III had suffered a military defeat at the hands of the Romans, and now decided that he needed a unified nation behind him. His policy became that of “Hellenization”, requiring all of the different peoples in his empire to adopt Greek culture and religion.

This brought about a sharp rebellion within Judea, where the local Jewish people refused to give up their traditional religion. In the end, Antiochus decided that he could not risk an internal civil war, so he exempted the Jews from his “Hellenization” policy.

But in 176 BCE, Antiochus IV assumed the throne, and he now decided that the best way to resist the growing power of the Romans was to unify Syria and Egypt, and to do that he needed a secure population at home. So once again, the Judeans became the target of “Hellenization”. Many Jewish religious rituals were outlawed, and a statue of Zeus was placed inside the most sacred site in all of Judea—the Temple in Jerusalem.

The biblical account depicts this as mere religious persecution, but it was much more complex than that. Although the Judeans had been exempted from Hellenization, many Jews, especially the educated elite, had voluntarily adopted Greek culture anyway. The majority of people in Judea, however, were rural herders and farmers, and they kept their ancient traditions and refused to assimilate. The resulting tension was almost like a class war, with the poor in the countryside remaining traditionalist, and the wealthy urban elites becoming integrated into the Greek state. It was a recipe for conflict.

The explosion happened in 167 BCE, when a delegation of royal officials arrived in the village of Modiin. The local Jewish leader here was Mattathias, a traditionalist. When the king’s officers demanded that he perform a Greek animal sacrifice in the local Jewish temple, Mattathias refused, and when a Hellenized Jew stepped forward to do it instead, Mattathias killed him, then killed one of the king’s emissaries. Turning to the crowds, Mattathias shouted, “Let everyone who is zealous for the law and who stands by the covenant follow me!”

Retreating to the hills with his followers, Mattathias and his five sons became the leaders of a guerrilla war, which attacked not only the Greek Seleucid officials, but Hellenized Jews who did not follow the traditional religion. Antiochus sent a few army units in to quash the rebellion, but Mattathias, who knew the terrain, was able to ambush them. He earned the moniker “Maccabee” (the Hammer).

When Mattathias died a year later, leadership of the revolt fell to his son Judah (sometimes Romanized as “Judas”). Judah proved to be as adept at guerrilla warfare as his father had been, and the Maccabees soon controlled much of the Judean countryside, and had assembled an army that was equipped and trained on the Greek model. Antiochus now sent 60,000 troops under his best general, Lysias, to crush the rebellion, but, though outnumbered, Judah was able to defeat him with skillful use of terrain.

Then foreign events came to the aid of the Maccabees. The Parthian king Mithridates I invaded Syria, and Antiochus was forced to withdraw his troops to defend his homeland. By 165 BCE, the Maccabees were strong enough to capture Jerusalem. The first thing they did was re-dedicate the Temple, which was partially in ruins. After eight months of rebuilding and ritual cleansing, the Temple was re-opened in December.

According to the Biblical account, the Maccabees could only find one unbroken container of sacred oil for the lamps, enough for just one day. But by divine miracle, the lights burned for eight days until a new supply could be found, and this event is the basis for the modern festival of Hanukkah. But this story is not mentioned in any of the secular accounts and did not appear in rabbinical texts until many years later.

It took another 20 years of revolt and fighting before the Seleucids, now ruled by Lysias who had succeeded Antiochus, finally withdrew from Judea, leaving it in a state of independence.

But the Jewish religion had survived. If Antiochus had been successful in his efforts at Hellenization, it is likely that Judaism would have died out, the history of world religions would be entirely different, and neither Christianity nor Islam would exist today.



8 thoughts on “The Maccabean Revolt”

  1. That’s quite a conterfactual stretch there!🤔🙄
    “If Antiochus had been successful in his efforts at Hellenization, it is likely that Judaism would have died out…”

    1. Would some group have kept it alive? Maybe, maybe not. But if it had shrunk to just some small group and was no longer the state-sponsored religion, I doubt that the Romans would have given it a pass when they conquered Judea–and they were a lot less polite about such things than the Greeks were. I doubt it would have survived at all, and would have disappeared like all the rest of the native religions conquered by the Romans.

      But of course we will never know.

  2. Hi Lenny

    The Maccabean Revolt is very likely not as much of a David/Goliath as it is often portrayed. The Seleucid rulers involved had neither the wealth, the military power, nor the stability of their predecessors. The power of the Seleucids had been shorn from them by the Romans in the West. The wealth of the East was denied them by the rise of the Parthians, who established power after the death of Antiochus the Great. Both Rome and Parthia had control of legitimate heirs, which both used to destabilize Syria, the Seleucid “rump state” remnant. The Maccabean revolt staved off and bled dry an already fallen power.

    Antiochus was called “the Great” for restoring the Seleucid Empire in the East where it had been whittled down by revolts, Parthian and possibly Bactrian aggression. The wealth he brought in he used to pay for his large army. Those revolts resumed after Antiochus was defeated by Rome, shearing him and his successors of the wealth he used to maintain power. Western historians tend to focus on western events and sources, which provide little information on events in Iran. I guess “the light is better over there”

    The battles and treaty with Rome crushed the Seleucid military, in particular it’s ability to rebuild. By denying Asia Minor to the Seleucids Rome closed off access to the replacement phalangites (heavy infantry) who were the core of the army. These were recruited from long-Hellenized areas, especially Asia Minor. These solid heavy infantry were key to imposing Seleucid power in the East. Their absence helped the revolts in the East to succeed. Antiochus himself was killed in 187 BC, a mere three years after Magnesia, and only one year after the Treaty of Apamea with Rome. The Romans then installed Seleucus IV Philopater, the cruel second son of Antiochus as ruler while retaining the senior heir in Rome, beginning a long period of weakness in Syria and disorder and loss of the rest of the (former) Seleucid Empire.

    The money to pay these troops (and the Roman war reparations) came from the East. Generally the Hellenized areas (typically cities) stayed loyal while native groups revolted. That is likely the motivation of Antiochus’s Hellenization program (if he even had one) which he did not live long to implement. It was the failure of the war in the East to restore the flow of wealth, combined with Roman (and Parthian) meddling in the Seleucid succession that resulted in the desperate attempt to seize the Jewish treasure in Jerusalem in 176 BC. This attempt directly resulted in Seleucus IV’s death. Heliodorus, the minister sent to collect the treasure immediately assassinated Seleucus IV and took power in the name of Seleucus’s infant son, while the legitimate heir was still in Rome. Rome swiftly restored the heir, Antiochus IV. He had not been in Syria for 20 years, and therefor had no real power beyond his palace. So, the Seleucids had neither wealth, soldiers, nor unity to put down the Maccabean revolt.

    I find interesting that Antiochus IV, son of Antiochus III was privately named Mithradates before his rise to such power as he achieved. Perhaps Antiochus III during his initial reconquest had tried to secure his dynasty by de-Hellenizing, rather than Hellenizing. This same Iranian name was identical to the one used by the Parthians to legitimize the Parthian claim to the Achaemenid Empire overthrown by Alexander. As a bit of scientific trivia you might like the Parthian rulers shared a rare facial deformity with the Achaemenid dynasty. This is documented by coins of the Achaemenids and the Parthians.

    We also tend to picture the Jews as simple shepherds and hardscrabble farmers who used sharpened farm tools and such to fight the Greeks and then the Romans. This is unlikely to be the case. The Jews were noted mercenaries and soldiers of the time, providing many peltasts and thureophoroi to support the flanks of Hellenistic armies throughout the period. Likely they were a major source of troops for the post-Apamea Seleucid army. Armed with spear, sword, javelins and shield, often with metal armor, they were potent auxiliaries. It is likely that Jewish mercenaries were heavily recruited into the “imitation Legionaries” adopted around this time by various Hellenistic and middle eastern powers, including the Seleucid rump state.

      1. I found that the references for Parthian legitimacy through Achaemenid blood hard to find on the web so I dug up my analog (book) referral out of storage and thought I would give you the citations.

        From Cam Rea, “The Rise of Parthia in the East” ISBN 1492933708

        There is ancient evidence that Artaxerxes I Longimanus received his surname because “his right hand was longer than his left” per Plutarch. This is evidence of “Unilateral upper limb giganticism”, which is associated with but strictly to, neurofibromatosis. Human Ashrafian explores this in an article titled “Limb Giganticism, neurofibromatosis, and royal heredity in the Ancient World 2500 years ago; Achaemenids and Parthians”, Journal of Plastic, Reconstructive, & amp; Aesthetic Surgery Volume 64, issue 4 (April 2011) page 557.

        The second reference is to Don Todman, “Warts and the Kings of Parthia: an Ancient Representation of Hereditary of Neurofibromatosis Depicted in Coins” in the Journal Of The History of the Neurosciences 17, no.2, (April 2008) pp 141-146.

        Being a simple history guy I have not read either of these references but think they are right up your alley, given what I have read of you

  3. It is interesting how the situation you describe – conservative, traditionalist rural people versus wealthy urban elite – keeps on playing itself out in various other times and places…

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