Martyrdom of the Maccabees

In 168 B.C., the Hasmoneans (Maccabees) carried a successful revolt against Antiochus Epiphanes of Syria, a tyrannical Greek King who led the Seleucid kingdom and attempted to destroy the Jewish religion and force the Jews to worship pagan idols. Many young Jewish men died as martyrs. The Hasmoneans led by the elderly Mattahias and his five sons captured Jerusalem and rededicated the Temple. The revolt is remembered through the holiday period of Hanukkah. See Hanukkah

The Hasmoneans were a clan of pious and noble Jewish warriors that emerged from the area around Modiin near the border of Samaria and Judea (present-day Israel and the West Bank) . They established a Jewish kingdom that lasted from 168 to 63 B.C. During their brief rule they encouraged everyone to convert to Judaism. There was a long period of chaos, social upheaval and expectations of a Messiah. The Greeks decided to move out. In the mid 1990s a Hasmonean ossuary was found near Modiin. It was the first archaeological proof that the Hasmoneans actually lived in the Modiin area.

Hershel Shanks wrote for PBS: “In about 175 B.C. Jason--who had Hellenized his Hebrew name, Joshua--bribed the Seleucid monarch Antiochus IV to depose his brother and in his place appoint Jason to the office of high priest in Jerusalem. In gratitude, Jason briefly changed the name of Jerusalem to Antiochia and erected a gymnasium in the capital, where Greek sports were played and Greek philosophy was taught. Josephus reports that Jason "at once shifted his countrymen over to the Greek way of life." Later Antiochus issued a decree banning circumcision, religious study, and observance of festivals and the Sabbath, and forced Jews to worship his gods and to eat forbidden foods. [Source: Hershel Shanks, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]

“Such radical Hellenization inevitably brought on the Maccabean revolt, giving birth to the Hasmonean dynasty of Jewish kings and high priests (142-37 B.C.). What began as an anti-Hellenistic revolt, however, soon turned into a pro-Hellenistic dynasty. Political intrigue was rife among the Hasmoneans and the highest political authority (the king) was soon combined with the highest religious authority (the high priest). Religious schisms widened and antagonistic religious parties vied with one another. On the festival of Sukkot (Tabernacles), which is celebrated with palm branches and a lemon-like fruit called etrog the populace threw their etrogim at the high priest. In a civil war during the early years of the first century B.C., dissident ]ews joined the Syrian king Demetrius III in an attack on Jerusalem, while the Jewish king Alexander Yannai (Jannaeus) hired Syrian mercenaries to defend the city. Yannai crucified eight hundred of his subjects for supporting his enemies. For the elite, whose elaborate tombs and elegant mansions have been discovered in Jerusalem, this was nevertheless a prosperous time. In the prime residential section of Jerusalem, Nahman Avigad of Hebrew University has recovered not only their opulent residences, including beautifully paved ritual baths, but also their hncy dinnerware and costly furniture.

Important Dates During Period of Jewish Independence
The Revolt (175-135 B.C.)
I Macabbees , written c. 100 B.C.
Hasmonean Rule (134-64 B.C.)
Conquest By Pompey 63 B.C.

Outline of The Hasmonean Kingdom: 1) The previous leadership--the priests descended from Zadok"--were now replaced by the Hasmonean priestly family. 2) The Sadducees were the supporters of the former leadership. 3) The Pharisees may have opposed any expansion of priestly authority, especially the usurpation of kingship, which belonged to the House of David. 4) The political stakes were now much higher than before. For the first time in centuries, Judea was a fully independent state with control over army, taxes, foreign policy, etc. 5) Josephus does not mention the parties before this time. 6) The roots of the division were probably much earlier Two models of religious authority appear to have coexisted throughout the Persian period: A) Hereditary priests presided over the political administration of the community, as well as the Temple. B) "Scribes" studied and taught the Torah, and perhaps other components of the religious tradition. [Source:]

Websites and Resources: Bible and Biblical History: Bible Gateway and the New International Version (NIV) of The Bible ; King James Version of the Bible ; Bible History Online ; Biblical Archaeology Society ; Internet Jewish History Sourcebook ; Complete Works of Josephus at Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL) ;

Judaism Judaism101 ; ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; ; Chabad,org ; Religious Tolerance ; BBC - Religion: Judaism ; Encyclopædia Britannica,;

Jewish History: Jewish History Timeline ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Jewish History Resource Center ; Center for Jewish History ; Jewish ;

I Maccabees

Mattahias Appealing to Jewish Refugees
Gerald A. Larue wrote in “Old Testament Life and Literature”: “The story of Jewish Independence recorded in I Maccabees reads like an adventure story. Jewish resistance to Antiochus' proscription of Judaism began in 168 at Modin, a village in the hill country twenty miles north of Jerusalem. Mattathias, an aged priest, not only refused to comply with a government edict to perform pagan sacrifice, but killed the Syrian official who delivered the order and a fellow Jew who was prepared to conform to the decree. With his sons Judas, Jonathan and Simon, the old man fled to the hills and organized an armed resistance party employing guerrilla tactics. At first the Jews were handicapped by their refusal to do battle on the Sabbath, but when Antiochus' soldiers killed nearly one thousand Hasidim on the Sabbath, Mattathias and the Hasidim who joined him agreed to fight on the holy day to preserve their lives. [Source: Gerald A. Larue, “Old Testament Life and Literature,” 1968, ]

“In addition to the dramatic historical document, I Maccabees, the literature of the late Hasmonean period consists of documents written in the name of former heroes or well-known figures, including Jeremiah and his scribe Baruch, Daniel, Esther, Solomon and a theologized version of some of the events included in I Maccabees. II Esdras, often called IV Esdras or Ezra, was written in the name of Ezra in the Christian era. [Source: Gerald A. Larue, “Old Testament Life and Literature,” 1968, ]

Hanukkah and the Maccabees

Hanukkah (“Dedication," or “Festival of Lights”) is an eight day festival that begins on the 25th day of the ninth Jewish month (in December). It commemorates the victory of Maccabees — a clan of Jewish warriors also known as the Hasmoneans — over the tyrannical Greek-Syrian Seleucid King Antiochus IV, who had looted and desecrated the Temple of Jerusalem and persecuted the Jews, in 168 B.C. , and prevented them from worshiping at the Temple.

The Maccabees had captured Jerusalem during a revolt against Antiochus IV. Upon reclaiming the temple, the Jews lit a lamp to rededicate the Temple. Although there was only oil for one day it miraculously lasted for eight days.


Hanukkah (also spelled Chanukah) usually falls around the time of Christmas. Families have traditionally lit candles on the menorah (a candelabra) each of eight nights. The menorah is an ancient Jewish symbol derived from the candlestick that originally stood in the Temple built by Solomon. The first night the center candle — which is used for lighting the other candles — is lit. The second night other candles are lit, and so on until all nine candles are lit on the last night. Jews also display a special lamp in the window of their homes; children receive gifts of money; people eat food fried in oil, and play games of dreidels using cylindrical four or six-sided dice with handles.

The key ingredient in traditional Hanukkah foods is oil (like the oil used in the lamps). Food made with oil include latkes (potato pancakes, often topped with sour cream, cheese, apple sauce or chutney) eaten by Americans and northern and eastern Europeans; loukamades (fried cakes dipped in honey and covered in powdered sugar) eaten by Greek Jews; zelebi (deep fried spirals of dough and syrup) eaten by Iranian Jews; and sufganiyot (jelly donuts) eaten by Israeli Jews.

Period of Jewish Independence

Gerald A. Larue wrote in “Old Testament Life and Literature”: “Antiochus IV was engaged in a struggle with the Parthians, but dispatched a powerful army in 166 to put down the Jewish rebels. Mattathias had died, but his son Judas, who was called Maccabee,l defeated the Syrians. In 165, a second and stronger army was stopped by Judas, whose forces grew with each victory. Now Syrians and Jews signed a peace treaty which removed the hated restrictions on Jewish religious expression. Judas and his soldiers entered Jerusalem, cleansed the temple, and on the 25th of Chislev (December), three years to the day from the time Antiochus IV had desecrated the altar, reconsecrated the shrine and instituted worship services. The event has been commemorated ever since in the Feast of Dedication or the Festival of Hanukkah. [Source: Gerald A. Larue, “Old Testament Life and Literature,” 1968, ]

“Antiochus died in 164 and his son Antiochus V Eupator became king. Judas attempted to seize the Acra in Jerusalem, the fortified high place held by a Syrian garrison. When he failed, Syrian reprisal was swift. The temple walls were razed and Menelaus, the high priest, executed. Antiochus V was killed by his cousin Demetrius I Soter in 162. Demetrius appointed a pro-Syrian, Alcimus, to the high priesthood. Judas continued to struggle against the Syrians until his death in 161. His brother Jonathan took command of the Jewish forces.

“Now a pretender, Alexander Balas, challenged Demetrius and subsequently became king. Jonathan threw in his lot with Balas and was rewarded with the high priesthood in 153, and with the governorship of Judah in 150. When Balas married Cleopatra, daughter of Ptolemy VI, in 150, the breach between Egypt and Syria was temporarily healed. In Egypt the Jews enjoyed particular benefits, and under Onias, son of Onias III, a Jewish temple was established at Leontopolis, a few miles from Memphis. Had the situation in Palestine been more normal, there is little doubt that there would have been much criticism of this violation of Deuteronomic law.

“Balas was next confronted with a legitimate heir to the throne, Demetrius II Nicator, son of Demetrius I. By 145, Balas had been murdered and Demetrius was king. Jonathan supported Demetrius, rescuing him with Jewish soldiers when his life was endangered by Balas' son Antiochus VI and Balas' former general Tryphon. At that desperate time Demetrius promised special favors to Jonathan which he failed to keep. Now Jonathan gave aid to Antiochus VI and Tryphon and, aided by his brother Simon, overcame Demetrius. Tryphon tricked Jonathan, imprisoned him and finally had him killed. Antiochus was murdered and Tryphon became king. Now Simon, Jonathan's brother, came to Jerusalem and by 142 had seized the Acra and had made Jerusalem a free city and the Jews an independent people. During these turbulent days several Jewish writings made their appearance, and a distinctive literary form known as apocalyptic writing came into being.

Early Involvement of Rome in Judea

David L. Silverman of Reed College wrote: “Judea enjoyed a political independence, of sorts, from the revolt of the Maccabees against Seleucid (Syrian) domination beginning in 166 BC. Interestingly, it was in the initial stages of the revolt that the Jews had their first diplomatic contact with Rome; in 164, the Jewish leaders appealed successfully to the Romans for help in arranging a temporary armistice with the Seleucids (2 Macc. 11:34-38, where the initiative for the intervention is falsely ascribed to the Romans). Three years later, in 161, after the Maccabean revolt had succeeded, a treaty was concluded between the Romans and the Hasmoneans; subsequently there were sporadic renewals of or appeals to the treaty; an important instance was in 142, when the Roman consul L. Caecilius Metellus wrote to Ptolemy in these terms: “The envoys of the Jews have come to us as our friends and allies to renew our ancient friendship and alliance .... We therefore have decided to write to the kings and countries that they should not seek their harm or make war against them and their cities and their country. [Source: David L. Silverman, 1996, Internet Archive, Reed College /+/]

“This is not to say that the Romans had a protectorate over Judea, of course; what they had was merely the standard agreement of philia, and this did not always translate into active Roman assistance when the Jews were in trouble with the Syrians or Egyptians. The pattern in the late second and early first centuries BC is for the Romans to warn or admonish enemies of the Jews, but not to back it up with troops. /+/

“In any case, it took over forty years for the Jews to firmly establish their independence from Syria (141 BC). The Hasmoneans had shortly before been collaborators with the Seleucids and their representatives in Judea, but when the Hasmonean Simon came to power he broke from the Seleucids. The Hasmoneans then held power in Jerusalem until 37 BC: Simon, 142-134; John Hyrcanus I, 134-104; Aristobulus I, 104-103; Alexander Jannaeus, 103-76; Salome Alexandra, 76-67; Aristobulus II, 67-63; John Hyrcanus II, 63-40; Mattathias Antigonus, 40-37. Prior to the Hasmonean dynasty, the political and religious leadership of the Jews had always been separated: there was a king and a high priest at the same time. The Hasmoneans combined the two titles in the person of the king, and used the expanded power to conquer a good deal of neighbouring territory, such that by the end of their line Judea encompassed all of modern Israel. Curiously, the Hasmoneans were purists, rigorously anti-pagan (whereas throughout most of the Hellenistic period it had been fashionable to be Hellenized, and a Hellenized Jew was considered a moderate). Now, in the 1st century BC, there begin to appear in pagan authors the strains of anti-Semitism, the same kinds of accusations which would later be turned against the Christians. /+/

Maccabean Dynasty


Gerald A. Larue wrote in “Old Testament Life and Literature”: “The desperate plight of the Jews under Antiochus IV elicited a literary call for stubborn resistance to Greek culture and zealous loyalty to the traditional faith, in the conviction that God was about to act to bring in the long-awaited kingdom and to redeem his people. The roots of such thinking rested, in part, in Jewish sacred history, which proclaimed God's miraculous saving acts in the past in the story of the preservation of the righteous Noah, and the escape of Israel from Egypt; in part in Jewish theology, which extolled the justice of God, the punishment of the wicked and the rewarding of the righteous; and in part in Jewish particularism, by which election and covenant theory were woven throughout the Jewish interpretation of history to demonstrate the uniqueness of those chosen by God as his own. These Jewish beliefs were given new expression through influences coming from Iranian and Zoroastrian theology, including cosmic dualism and a concept of history that postulated a beginning, a series of time periods and a climactic ending of time. The catalyst was the persecution under Antiochus, which produced a failure of nerve, a despair of man's ability to effect the kingdom of God through his own efforts and a conviction that the situation could only get worse until God himself broke in to terminate the present evil age and inaugurate the ideal. [Source: Gerald A. Larue, “Old Testament Life and Literature,” 1968,]

“Literature of this kind is said to be "apocalyptic" or expressive of "apocalypticism," terms drawn from a Greek word meaning "to disclose" or "to reveal" or "to make manifest," and which signify the uncovering of information hidden from men. That which is revealed in apocalyptic literature consists of secrets of the future, knowledge possessed only by God and revealed to his elect. The mode of revelation is through visions marked by extreme, and at times almost grotesque imagery, or by cryptic numbers whose significance and meaning is interpreted by angels. The purpose of the apocalypticist is to encourage the faithful to endure persecution and hardship and to resist the forces of evil, in the conviction that the end of time is at hand. The fullest expressions of this form of writing are the book of Daniel in the Old Testament and the Revelation to John in the New Testament, although other examples are found in the Pseudepigrapha, including Enoch, The Testament of the Twelve Patriarchs, The Assumption of Moses and the Apocalypse of Baruch.

“The fundamental theological problem confronting the apocalypticist is theodicy. The response postulates a cosmic dualism with a polarity of good and evil. The struggle between good and evil experienced in human life is a microcosmic manifestation of a macrocosmic phenomenon. The roots of good and evil were metaphysical and cosmological, for the divine order was in itself bipolar. Powers of evil and good may be personified as they are in Zorastrianism by Ahura Mazda and Ahriman, or as they were to become in Jewish thought in God and Satan (or some other), or they may be left unpersonified. There is a further postulation of an eschaton, an end of time, when the forces of evil will be finally and completely defeated by the power of good. Time is pictured as a straight line with a point of beginning (already present in Jewish thought), a series of time-periods, an ending (incipient in Judaism in the Day of Yahweh concept), and a new beginning (implicit in the new beginnings in J). The reader is made to realize that he is standing at the threshold of the end of time, the destruction of the present evil world and the creation of a new world of righteousness. The writer speaks in the name of some ancient worthy and projects himself back in time to a specific historical setting and from that point "predicts" events that he knows have taken place as though they were "to come." Of course from his vantage point he can maintain relative accuracy, depending on his knowledge, in describing what has already occurred, but he colors his presentation with symbols, referring to nations as animals, or to rulers as "horns." When he attempts to go beyond his own day and unveil the shape of things to come, his predictions go awry, for history does not sustain his claims.

“Revelation comes through visions or dream-visions and interpretation is given by an angel (cf. Dan. 7:16; 8:15-18). The various apocalyptic writings so closely resemble one another that it is apparent that there was both borrowing of imagery and adherence to an accepted literary pattern. The visions are, therefore, more literary than experienced.

Jewish Freedom

Judas Maccabeus pursues Timotheus

Gerald A. Larue wrote in “Old Testament Life and Literature”: “ With Simon (141-135 B.C. ) a new era dawned for the Jews, and for the first time since the Babylonian conquest, they breathed the pure air of freedom. The atmosphere was charged with expectation. Simon seized the important port city of Gaza, providing Judah with a direct outlet to the Mediterranean world. Treaties were made with Rome and Sparta. Jewish coins were struck. Trade and industry increased and the arts were encouraged. A pro-Hellenistic, aristocratic, priestly group, later to be called the Sadducees, began to take form. The Hasidim tended to merge with other nationalists to become the nucleus of the religio-political party later called Pharisees. [Source: Gerald A. Larue, “Old Testament Life and Literature,” 1968,]

“In 138 B.C., Antiochus VII Sidetes was crowned king of Syria and attacked Judah, only to be soundly defeated near Modin by Jewish troops led by Simon's brothers, Judah and John. Three years later Ptolemy, Simon's son-in-law, murdered Simon and Judah and one of Simon's sons. John, later to be called Hyrcanus, rushed to Jerusalem and claimed the posts of governor and high priest. Antiochus VII seized this moment of internal disorder to attack Jerusalem. After a siege he won promises of large tribute payments, but when Antiochus was killed in 128 and Demetrius II Nicator once again became king of Syria, John Hyrcanus stopped payments to the Seleucids.

“Under John Hyrcanus (135-105), Judaean territory was increased by the annexation of Idumea, Samaria and Perea. The Samaritan temple on Mount Gerizim, long an irritation to the Jews, was demolished. The Idumeans, descendants of the Edomites who had entered Judah in the early post-Exilic period, were compelled to become Jews and accept circumcision and obedience to the Torah. During Hyrcanus' reign, the characters of the Sadducee and Pharisee parties became clearly defined, and another group called the Essenes was formed.”

Rise of Qumran, Pharisees, Sadducees and Essenes in the 2nd Century B.C.

Hershel Shanks wrote for PBS: “In the mid-second century B.C.,” in the area where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found, “a small group of Jews, perhaps offended by the rampant materialism they saw all about them, perhaps distressed by the degradation of the priestly class, which had merged with the Jerusalem aristocracy, moved into the Judean desert to live in isolation. They settled at a place now called Qumran. Who these people were will be a major subject of this book. If in fact they were the keepers of the scrolls that were later found in this area, their leader held the title Teacher of Righteousness. It is clear that they rejected the Jerusalem Temple or at least its priesthood. [Source: Hershel Shanks, Frontline, PBS, April 1998. Book: “The Meaning and Mystery of the Dead Sea Scrolls” by Hershel Shanks (Random House, 1998)]

Entrance to a cave in Qumran where the Dead Sea scrolls where found

“At about the same time, other Jewish religious groups or sects were emerging. Of these, the Pharisees are the best known. To them are attributed the sources of the Oral Law--the Talmud of the later sages--that formed the basis of Rabbinic Judaism, the post-Exilic Judaism that spread throughout the diaspora after the destruction of the Temple by the Romans and the later expulsion of the Jews from Jerusalem.

“The second major grouping, the Sadducees (Tsadukim), claimed to be descended from Zadok (Tsadok), the original Solomonic high priest. On this descent rested much of their claim to power; although they objected to the usurpation of the high priesthood by non-Zadokites, they nevertheless often aligned themselves with Hellenistic Hasmoneans.

“A third, much smaller, group was the Essenes. They too objected to the non-Zadokite usurpation of the priesthood, but they were far more rigid in their adherence to and strict interpretation of religious law and less willing to adjust to the political realities of Hasmonean rule than were the Sadducees. Even the Essenes, however, could not entirely escape Hellenistic influences--for example, in the dualism (characterized by contrasting forces, such as good and evil, that control the world) that often permeates their religious writings.While these were the major groupings, there were many others about whom we know far less and doubtless still others who have left no trace in the historical record.”

Pharisees and Sadducees

Gerald A. Larue wrote in “Old Testament Life and Literature”: “The Pharisees, whose name may have meant "separatists," were a group of religious lay leaders committed to the purification of Judaism through meticulous observance of moral and ceremonial laws. They supported the temple cult but were most uneasy about the usurpation of the high priesthood by one of non-priestly caste. More often they were identified with synagogues, the local autonomous gathering places of the masses, where prayer and study were conducted. In addition to the study of the scriptures, the Pharisees emphasized the teachings of the elders or oral tradition as a guide to religion. They professed belief in the resurrection of the body and in a future world where rewards and punishments were meted out according to man's behavior in this life. They believed in angels through whom revelations could come, and later were to develop a belief in a Messiah.3 They tended to view alliances with foreigners with suspicion. [Source: Gerald A. Larue, “Old Testament Life and Literature,” 1968, ]

Feast of Simon the Pharisee by Rubens

“The Sadducees were pro-Greek, aristocratic priests, whose interests were centered in the temple and the cultic rites. Their name was probably derived from Zadok, the famous priest of the time of David and Solomon (II Sam. 8:17;. 15:24; I Kings 1:34). Because the offices of high priest and governor were combined, the Sadducees tended to be deeply involved in high-level politics. Politically, they were committed to independence and to the concept of the theocratic state, as were most Jews. Although they were opposed to foreign domination, they did not object to the introduction of foreign elements into Jewish life. Like the Pharisees, they stressed the importance of observance of the Torah, but they rejected the authority of oral tradition. When confronted by situations not covered in the Torah, they enacted new laws. They rejected the Pharisaic doctrine of a resurrection and a future life and held to the older Jewish belief in Sheol. Nor did they accept the belief in angels.

Outline of The Pharisees Political Activity: 1) Active opposition to Hyrcanus I, Jannaeus; many were executed. Apparently opposed to combining monarchy and high priesthood. ("Seekers after Smoothe things" mentioned in Nahum Pesher.) 2) In power under Salome Alexandra. Actively attacked their opponents. 3) Social class base: Non-"aristocrats" who sought political power. Religious ideology: Based on scholarly interpretation of Torah. 4) Initial sympathy toward Herod. 5) Role in uprisings at the expected end of Herod's life, and in final revolt against Rome (66-70 C.E.). 6) Relationship to Zealots. 7) Question of their disappearance from political life during Roman period (after 63 C.E.). 8) Neusner: Withdrew from politics to become "pure food club." 9) View that Pharisees exerted indirect control over institutions: Temple, Sanhedrin, schools, courts, diaspora communities. 10) Pragmatic, involuntary withdrawal. No opportunity to act effectively under Herod or Romans. 11) Lack of direct institutional authority under Herod. Greater indirect influence (or control?) over people. 12) Question of control of synagogues. What was a synagogue at that time, and what did it mean to control it?

History of Dispute: Apologetic Issues: 1) Jewish apologists: Pharisees as enlightened liberals, sympathetic to Jesus, etc. Popular but powerless. 2) Christian apologists: Pharisees were hypocritical, narrowly legalistic, and "in control" of institutions. 3) Additional evidence: Widespread distribution of Pharisaic ideas: Septuagint, Maccabees, Jesus, Paul, etc. 4) Were the Sadducee forced to act according to Pharisaic interpretations? 5) No apparent power in trial of Jesus.

Did the Pharisees Represent a Social Class? 1) Ginzberg-Finkelstein thesis: Middle-Working class. Not well received. 2) Neusner: Rabbinic texts presuppose small independent land-owners. Does this reflect situation in Second Commonwealth times? 3) Martyrdom: Not a distinctively Pharisaic ideal. Note Talmudic discussion that defines conditions under which martyrdom is required (three cardinal transgressions). 4) Josephus, Little information--formulated for Greek-Roman audience. Pharisees seem to be presented as Stoics.


The Essenes were a breakaway, apocalyptic Jewish sect that lived around the Dead Sea. Regarded as the authors of the Dead Sea scrolls, they moved to the desert to await the Messiah and believed in baptism and redemption. Since their monasteries were so close to John's baptismal site many believe they were early purveyors of Christianity. Most everything that is known about the Essenes has been derived from the Dead Sea scrolls.

Dead Sea Scroll, the Temple Scroll

Some archaeologists now believe that the Essenes did not actually live in the Dead Sea area when the scrolls were written. They believed that when the scrolls were found the area was inhabited by ordinary farmers. This theory is based on findings that suggest that seasonal workers lived in Qumaran and there is no direct evidence that the Essenes or a people of “any uniqueness” lived there. They suggest the scrolls were written in Jerusalem and hidden in Qumran. Others disagree. One archaeologist found vessels — like those used to store the Dead Sea schools and bones — which appeared to have been laid out in some order, suggesting a religious ritual, possible evidence that the Essnes did live in the area.

Gerald A. Larue wrote in “Old Testament Life and Literature”: “The Essenes may have developed as early as the reign of Jonathan as a group of pious Jews within the Hasidim.4 The derivation of their name is not at all clear, and it may mean "the pious ones" or "the holy ones."5 For some unknown reason, they felt compelled to withdraw to the wilderness area on the shores of the Dead Sea, perhaps to mark their separation from the Pharisees. [Source: Gerald A. Larue, “Old Testament Life and Literature,” 1968, ]

“The discovery and excavation of a Jewish religious communal center dating from this period at Qumran, and the recovery of numerous scrolls and thousands of fragments of manuscripts in caves nearby, have led many scholars to make some identification of the Essenes and the Qumran sect, despite the fact that nowhere in the Qumran literature is the sect identified as "Essene." The scroll materials are from several different centuries and therefore may represent the evolving concepts of the wilderness community. The group appears to have been motivated in part by the expectation of the kingdom of God and in part by the belief that they had been, or were being, misled and betrayed by temple authorities. They withdrew to the desert to prepare God's way in fulfillment of Isaiah 40, to live in accordance with their understanding of the Torah, and to fulfill the ethical ideals of the prophets. The proper or right way to live was expounded by a "Right Teacher" or "Teacher of Righteousness"-an unknown person. Righteousness was best achieved in a community of those committed to the right way, composed of persons who yielded up private possessions to the community and were formally initiated into the sect. The group was structured with officers and varied ranks. In the wilderness setting they awaited the end of time and the final battle between the Sons of Light and the Sons of Darkness, which could culminate in victory and appropriate rewards for the righteous.

Outline of the Essenes: 1) External: Josephus, Philo, Latin writers: Pliny, etc. Note: No explicit mention in New Testament or Rabbinic works. 2) Internal records : Qumran (etc.). Community Rule [= Manual of Discipline] agrees remarkably with Josephus description of Essene ideas and communal organization. 3) Methodological problems: A) Do all Qumran documents emanate from the same group? B) Standard reconstructions of Essene history and belief are based on harmonizations of separate sources. C) How to account for contradictions among sources (e.g., regarding celibacy, pacifism). Differences in laws between Manual of Discipline and Damascus Fragment. 4) Conventional view of Essene origins: Founded by Zadokite High [?!] Priest known as Teacher of Righteousness, who was persecuted by Wicked Priest. [Source:]

Essene Beliefs and Lifestyle

Essene watch tower

The Essenes believed that they had been chosen to fight the "sons of darkness" as end of the world approached. They founded the earliest known monasteries and were led by leader called the Teacher of Righteousness. Their calendar was different from that of mainstream Jewish sects associated with the Temple of Jerusalem. They were highly secretive and conducted ritual bathes. Many lived in manmade caves dug into marl. Excavations by archaeologists of numerous bathing facilities at the Dead-Sea-scroll of Quamran suggests that these proto-Christians practiced baptism.

The Essenes allowed couples to live together without marriage. The relationship was only solemnized if the woman became pregnant. The Essenes may have influenced some of Jesus' teachings. The sect preached the idea of salvation but only to a few, not all of humanity like Jesus did. The Essenes were conquered in A.D. 68 by the Romans.

5) Description of Essene Community: A) Membership: A) Stages of acceptance; B) Trial periods; C) Participation in communal food and water; D) Communal property; E) Sanctions for disobedience: Guardians ; Removal from pure meal [=starvation?]; etc. 6) Worship: Communal prayer, Sun worship? 7) Exclusivism: Fragment from "The War of the Children of Light and the Children of Darkness" 8) Adoption of Priestly practices ? Immersion, pure garments, loincloths, refraining from wine (?) and oil. White clothing, The Purity/Pure Meal, Calendar, Secrecy to outsiders, openness to fellow members, Rejection of Temple cult in its current form, Role of Zadokite priests, Decline in their numbers and influence? Submission to absolute authority of leaders. [Source:]

Josephus' on the Essenes

In the Jewish Wars 2, Josephus wrote: “These last [i.e., the Essenes] are Jews by birth, and seem to have a greater affection for one another than the other sects have. They neglect wedlock, but choose out other persons children, while they are pliable, and fit for learning, and esteem them to be of their kindred, and form them according to their own manners. They do not absolutely deny the fitness of marriage, and the succession of mankind thereby continued; but they guard against the lascivious behavior of women, and are persuaded that none of them preserve their fidelity to one man. [Source:]

“Moreover, there is another order of Essenes, who agree with the rest as to their way of living, and customs, and laws, but differ from them in the point of marriage, as thinking that by not marrying they cut off the principal part of human life, which is the prospect of succession; nay, rather, that if all men should be of the same opinion, the whole race of mankind would fail. However, they try their spouses for three years; and if they find that they have their natural purgations thrice, as trials that they are likely to be fruitful, they then actually marry them. But they do not use to accompany with their wives when they are with child, as a demonstration that they do not many out of regard to pleasure, but for the sake of posterity.


“...insomuch that among them all there is no appearance of poverty, or excess of riches, but every one's possessions are intermingled with every other's possessions; and so there is, as it were, one patrimony among all the brethren. Nor is there any one to be found among them who hath more than another; for it is a law among them, that those who come to them must let what they have be common to the whole order.

“They also have stewards appointed to take care of their common affairs, who every one of them have no separate business for any, but what is for the uses of them all....And after this purification is over, they every one meet together in an apartment of their own, into which it is not permitted to any of another sect to enter; while they go, after a pure manner, into the dining-room, as into a certain holy temple...but a priest says grace before the meal; and it is unlawful for any one to taste of the food before grace be said. The same priest, when he hath dined, says grace again after meat; and when they begin, and when they end, they praise God, as he that bestows their food upon them.

“Nor is there ever any clamor or disturbance to pollute their house, but they give every one leave to speak in their turn; which silence thus kept in their house appears to foreigners like some tremendous mystery. And truly, as for other things, they do nothing but according to the injunctions of their curators...that he will ever show fidelity to all men, and especially to those in authority, because no one obtains the government without God's assistance; and that if he be in authority, he will at no time whatever abuse his authority...only these two things are done among them at everyone's own free-will, which are to assist those that want it, and to show mercy; for they are permitted of their own accord to afford succor to such as deserve it, when they stand in need of it, and to bestow food on those that are in distress. They dispense their anger after a just manner, and restrain their passion.

“They are eminent for fidelity, and are the ministers of peace; whatsoever they say also is firmer than an oath; but swearing is avoided by them, and they esteem it worse than perjury for they say that he who cannot be believed without [swearing by] God is already condemned. They also take great pains in studying the writings of the ancients, and choose out of them. But now if any one hath a mind to come over to their sect, he is not immediately admitted, but he is prescribed the same method of living which they use for a year...And when he hath given evidence, during that time, that he can observe their continence, he approaches nearer to their way of living, and is made a partaker of the waters of purification....yet is he not even now admitted to live with them; for after this demonstration of his fortitude, his temper is tried two more years; and if he appear to be worthy, they then admit him into their society.”

Essenes: A Jewish Political Cult?

Qumran Caves

Shaye I.D. Cohen of Brown University wrote: “A good example of a group which separated itself from society at large and defined itself against the Temple in Jerusalem are the Essenes, or perhaps you might say, the people of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the Dead Sea community, whom most scholars regard as Essenes. Here is a group of people who left Jerusalem, went to live in the wilderness, to live by themselves, totally isolated from other Jews, from the rest of the community, and as their Scrolls reveal, saw themselves as the new sacred community, waiting for the time, when ... they imagine that the Temple would be reconstituted and reconstructed and rebuilt.... and a new and better priestly group would take over the Temple in Jerusalem. And, in the meantime, while the wicked priests are still off in Jerusalem, following the wrong calendar, following the wrong purity rules and officiating improperly before the Lord, in the meantime, pure purity and true holiness resided only among themselves, in their own community, off near the Dead Sea.... The community itself was a surrogate temple.” [Source: Shaye I.D. Cohen, Samuel Ungerleider Professor of Judaic Studies and Professor of Religious Studies Brown University, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]

L. Michael White of the University of Texas told PBS: “The Essenes are a group that literally abandoned Jerusalem, it seems, in protest... against the way the Temple was being run. So here's a group that went out in the desert to prepare the way of the Lord, following the commands, as they saw it, of the prophet Isaiah. And they go to the desert to get away from what they see to be the worldliness of Jerusalem and the worldliness of the Temple. Now the Essenes aren't a new group in Jesus' day. They too, had been around for a hundred years at that point in time. But it would appear that the reign of Herod, and probably even more so, the reign of his sons and the Roman Procurators, probably stimulated a new phase of life of the Essene community, rising as a growing protest against Roman rule and worldliness. [Source: L. Michael Whit, Professor of Classics and Director of the Religious Studies Program University of Texas at Austin, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]

Essenes: An End-of -the-World Messiah Apocalyptic Group?

L. Michael White of the University of Texas told PBS: “The Essenes are what we might best call an apocalyptic sect of Judaism. An apocalyptic sect is one that thinks of itself as, first of all, the true form of their religion. In fact, that's part of their terminology. Again, using the prophet Isaiah, they think of themselves as the righteous remnant ... the chosen ones ... the elect. But they're also standing over against the mainstream ... most of Jewish life, and especially everything going on at Jerusalem. So they're sectarian. They're separatists. They're people who move away. [Source: L. Michael Whit, Professor of Classics and Director of the Religious Studies Program University of Texas at Austin, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]

“The basis for that understanding is their reading of Scripture. They interpret Scripture, especially the prophets, Isaiah, the Torah itself, to suggest that the course of Judaism is going through a profound change. "Far too many people are becoming worldly," they would have said. The end, as they understood it, of the present evil age is moving upon them inexorably. And they want to be on the right side when it comes. In their understanding, there will come a day when the Lord revisits the Earth with power. And in the process establishes a new kingdom for Judaism. It will be like the kingdom of David and Solomon. A return to the golden age mentality. And this is part of that apocalyptic mind set.

Dead Sea Scroll map

“...The Dead Sea Scrolls show us a lot about the beliefs of the Essenes. Now, we typically think of this language of the coming kingdom as reflecting a belief in the end of the world ... as somehow coming upon them or us soon. But in fact, that's not exactly what they thought. They use language like "the end" or "the last things" or "the last days", but what they mean is the present evil age is coming to an end. Now this "end time" language is what we typically call "the eschaton" or "eschatology" ... thinking about the end. But in Jewish eschatology of this period, what they usually seem to be talking about is an end of a present evil age and a coming new glorious age ... a new kingdom.

“The Essenes had an apocalyptic point of view, and they believed in a new kingdom of some kind coming; would this necessarily bring a new Messiah with it?

“The idea that the coming kingdom is always to be accompanied by a Messianic figure is not entirely accurate for Judaism in this period. We hear of some groups, for example, who expect the coming change, but never mention a Messiah, or a Messianic figure at all, either as a deliverer figure, or as some sort of heavenly agent. So some forms of Judaism in this period don't ever talk about a Messiah. At Qumran, on the other hand, among the Dead Sea Scrolls, we hear not of just one Messiah, but at least two Messiahs. Some of their writings talk about a Messiah of David that is a kind of kingly figure who will come to lead the war. But there's also a Messiah of Aaron, a priestly figure, who will come to restore the Temple at Jerusalem to its proper purity and worship of God. In addition to these two major Messianic figures, we also hear of a prophet figure.”

Hasmonean Dynasty at Its Peak

Gerald A. Larue wrote in “Old Testament Life and Literature”: “John Hyrcanus had planned that, upon his death, his wife would take charge of civil affairs, and his son,Judas Aristobulus, would be high priest. When Hyrcanus died in 104, Judas imprisoned his mother and all other members of his family except his brother Antigonus. Judas Aristobulus had himself crowned king, taking the title Aristobulus I. In the single year (104) that he reigned, he seized the Galilee region for Judah and compelled the inhabitants, many of whom were of Syrian and Greek descent, to become Jews. His brother Antigonus was murdered, and his mother died of starvation in prison. [Source: Gerald A. Larue, “Old Testament Life and Literature,” 1968, ]

“Jonathan, a brother of Aristobulus who had survived imprisonment, took control of Judah, Hellenizing his name to Alexander Janneus. During his relatively long reign (104-78), the Hasmonean kingdom reached its peak of territorial power, for Janneus expanded the borders. As a despotic Sadducee, Janneus waged open war against the Pharisees. They publicly objected to his mockery of certain rituals and to what the Pharisces considered to be degrading acts. In savage retaliation, Janneus released his mercenaries on the Pharisees and about 6,000 were slaughtered. The result was civil war with numerous battles, and Janneus was not always victor. The Pharisees appealed for aid to the king of Syria, Demetrius III, a descendant of the ancient enemy of the Jews, Antiochus IV. This was an error, for after the defeat of Janneus, many Jews sympathetic to the revolt balked at the thought of Syrian control and joined Janneus' forces. Janneus smothered the revolt and exacted a gruesome revenge in the crucifixion of 800 of his fellow countrymen and the murder of many of their families before them as they hung dying on the crosses.7

Judas Maccabeus before the Army of Nicanor

“Janneus died in 78 and the throne was bequeathed to his widow, Salome, who had taken the Greek name Alexandra, and she became the second woman to rule the Jews (78-69). One son, Hyrcanus, was appointed high priest and another, Aristobulus, was left as a disgruntled, potential ruler. Alexandra was pro-Pharisee and released political prisoners who immediately began a retaliatory persecution of the Sadducees which soon got out of control. Alexandra favored a positive Pharisaism with reform without revenge, improvement of the administration and law courts and the introduction of a program of elementary education. Leading scholars from Alexandria, Egypt, were invited to Jerusalem to aid in the educational program. When the aging queen fell ill and it appeared that the mild-mannered Hyrcanus might be elevated to the throne, Aristobulus raised an army. He was about to attack Jerusalem when Alexandra died. Hyrcanus was defeated at Jericho and retired as king and high priest. Upon the advice of an Idumean official named Antipater, Hyrcanus took refuge with Aretas III, King of the Nabataeans. At this same time Syria became a Roman province.

“Whatever success Aristobulus II (69-63), the pro-Sadducce king and high priest, might have had in government was marred by civil war. Hyrcanus, urged on by the Idumean Antipater and backed by King Aretas, besieged Jerusalem. In 65, the Roman general Scaurus went to Syria as a legate of Pompey, and both Hyrcanus and Aristobulus appealed to him for aid. Scaurus, amply bribed by Aristobulus, ordered Hyrcanus to lift the siege, and as the Nabataean troops withdrew, they were set upon from the rear and defeated by Aristobulus.

“The victorious Aristobulus returned to Jerusalem and began a series of attacks on neighboring provinces. But the people were weary of him and his brother. When Pompey arrived in Syria in 64, several delegations of Jews appealed to him, representing Hyrcanus II, Aristobulus II, and a pro-Pharisee group seeking a theocratic government under the high priest. Pompey called for cessation of all hostilities, and when Aristobulus failed to obey, Pompey marched on Jerusalem. Aristobulus was taken prisoner and shipped to Rome. Hyrcanus was appointed high priest and ethnarch. Judah was reduced in size, losing all territories acquired since Simon's time, and was annexed to Rome as a part of the province of Syria, governed by Scaurus. Antipater was given charge of political relationships and served as a Roman puppet. The Jewish kingdom had ended. The Roman province of Judaea was born.

I Maccabees

Gerald A. Larue wrote in “Old Testament Life and Literature”: “We read I Maccabees previously as we developed the history of events of the Maccabean period; therefore, in analyzing the book it will only be necessary to consult specific passages for reference. I Maccabees relates the thrilling story of the revolt against the tyrannical efforts of Antiochus IV to Hellenize the Jews and records the ultimate establishment of an independent state. The account begins with Alexander the Great and ends with John Hyrcanus. [Source: Gerald A. Larue, “Old Testament Life and Literature,” 1968,]

Jonathan Destroys the Temple of Dagon

The history is developed chronologically as the outline indicates:
1:1-9, a summary of Alexander's conquests and the acts of the Diodochoi.
1:10-64, the persecution of the Jews by Antiochus IV Epiphanes.
2:1-70, the story of Mattathias and the Jewish revolt.
3:1-9:22, the feats of Judas, the Maccabee.
9:23-12:53, Jonathan's leadership.
13:1-16:24, Simon's leadership.

“The book is the work of an unknown Palestinian Jewish patriot who wrote during the latter part of John Hyrcanus' rule or just after his death (104).12 Perhaps the author viewed his work as an extension of the history of the Chronicler for like the Chronicler, he used genealogies (2:1; 14:29), gave the speeches of key persons, inserted poems and referred to official documents. He is well versed in Hebrew scriptures and knows the events of the period and the terrain of Palestine. Despite his efforts to be accurate, he is not free from error, for he stated that before Alexander died he divided his empire among the Diodochoi (1:6). The speeches composed for Judas (3:58-60; 4:8-11, 16-18, 30-33) and Mattathias (2:7-13) and others may have some basis in reminiscences, but they should be treated as artificial, written in the tradition of Hellenistic writers of the period. The poems include dirges, laments and hymns of praise and may rest on a tradition of real events, but they may equally well be the composition of the author of I Maccabees (cf. 1:24-28, 36-40; 2:7-13; 3:3-9). The reported diplomatic documents and official letters may have been drawn from such official archives as "The chronicles of the high priesthood" (16:24) or copied from such inscriptions as the bronze memorial tablets (14:18, 27)13 and so represent official wording. They could equally well be semi-authentic reconstructions in the writer's own words. The simplicity of style and the general reliability of the record tend to convey an impression of historical accuracy. In the absence of other confirming or contradicting evidence, I Maccabees must be treated seriously.

“The author was a religious Jew and the scriptural allusions as well as the speech attributed to Mattathias recalling the heroes of the past reveal familiarity with sacred traditions. He does not attribute victories to any intrusion or direct act by God (cf. 3:58-60; 13:3-6), but in the speeches of the Jewish leaders and through their responses portrays God acting through natural means. He avoids direct references to God, preferring to speak of the people blessing "Heaven" (4:55), or to say that Judas prayed to the "Savior of Israel" (4:30). Attempts to demonstrate Pharisaic or Sadducean leanings have been inconclusive, and one can only note that the writer, as a man of faith, viewed Israel as a holy congregation, a people separated from and in opposition to the outside world because of their religious heritage and particularistic relationship to the universal God.

II Maccabees

Gerald A. Larue wrote in “Old Testament Life and Literature”: “II Maccabees is an abridged account of the Maccabean revolt based on a five-volume work by Jason of Cyrene (2:19-23).14 The larger work has disappeared, and nothing beyond this one reference is known of Jason. The extent to which the editor of the abridged version imposed his own point of view on the work of Jason is a matter of debate,15 but there is no valid reason for denying that the bulk of the summarized work is Jason's. The two letters appended at the beginning of II Maccabees, which urge the Egyptian Jews to observe Hanukkah, are not by Jason, nor are the editorial introduction (2:19-32) and the admonition to the reader, which is written in the first person (6:12-17), nor, perhaps, the side comment in 4:17. The rest of the work, we believe, fairly represents Jason. Most scholars date Jason's original work after the middle of the second century and the abridgment shortly before the close of the Hasmonean period. Jason probably wrote in Alexandria, Egypt. [Source: Gerald A. Larue, “Old Testament Life and Literature,” 1968, ]

“The purpose of the abridgment was to present a succinct outline of the struggle for independence (2:24-32), and perhaps also to reassure the reader that the afflictions suffered by the Jews were permitted by God for disciplinary reasons (6:12). Jason's purpose must be surmised, for it is not stated explicitly. The emphasis on the centrality of the temple has led some scholars to suggest that his aim was the exaltation of this holy place. Broadly speaking, Jason appears to have been interested in reporting the Maccabean struggle in terms of sacred history. To accomplish this, he does not hesitate to explain failures and victories as acts of God, rather than of men as the author of I Maccabees does. He introduces visions, angelic figures, theological concepts, festivals, and acts of worship as significant elements of his story. He extols the supremacy of God in universalistic terms and sermonizes on the way God responds to his people when they are faithful, and how they are punished when they sin.

“In addition to giving a theological interpretation of the Maccabean revolt, Jason designed his work to edify and inspire. Schooled in the rhetoric of Alexandria, Jason did not hesitate to employ exaggeration, epithets, melodramatic situations and any other literary tool that would enhance his work. The details of the profanation of the altar are subdued and the acts that defiled the temple dramatically enlarged. He wrestles with theological themes-the silence of God when his people suffer fiendish tortures, God's failure to respond when acts of indecency were committed within the temple precincts-and discusses these matters in terms of discipline, martyrdom (7) and sin (12:40). The wicked would die an eternal death with no resurrection (7:14), but the righteous would enjoy resurrection of the body, the renewal of life to eternity (7:9-12). He believed in the efficacy of expiation rites and prayers for the dead (12:43-45) and in angels. It is not possible to label Jason a Pharisee for certain, but without doubt he accepted many of their beliefs. “I Maccabees and II Maccabees are accepted as canonical by the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches.”

Arny Appears in the Heavens

Image Sources: Wikimedia, Commons, Schnorr von Carolsfeld Bible in Bildern, 1860

Text Sources: Internet Jewish History Sourcebook “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File Publications, New York); “ Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); “Old Testament Life and Literature” by Gerald A. Larue, King James Version of the Bible,, New International Version (NIV) of The Bible, Complete Works of Josephus at Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL), translated by William Whiston, , Metropolitan Museum of Art “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures” edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, New York, 1994); National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2018

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from, please contact me.