Martyrdom of the Maccabees

In the 2nd century B.C., the Maccabee family formed an insurgency to expel the Seleucid Greek forces from Judea. When they succeeded in 165 B.C. they reestablished the The Temple in Jerusalem. Later, they became the Hasmonean dynasty and ruled Judea for around 80 years. After the Maccabees and their forces retook Jerusalem, they lit the Menorah in the Temple. The oil, which was supposed to last one night, miraculously lasted eight. This is remembered with the Jewish holiday Hannukkah and to this day Jewish families worldwide display a menorah in their windows and light a candle every night for eight days in remembrance of the miracle of the oil lasting eight nights.

In 167 B.C., the Maccabees (Hasmoneans) began what became 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 Maccabees were led by the elderly Mattahias and his five sons. They captured Jerusalem and rededicated the Temple in 166 or 164 B.C. depending on the source.

The Maccabees 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 until 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.

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: Virtual Jewish Library ; Judaism101 ; ; Chabad,org ; Bible and Biblical History: ; Biblical Archaeology Society ; Bible History Online Bible Gateway and the New International Version (NIV) of The Bible ; King James Version of the Bible ; Jewish History: Jewish History Timeline Jewish History Resource Center ; Center for Jewish History ; Jewish ; Internet Jewish History Sourcebook

Background of the Maccabees Revolt

The Greek took control over Judea in 323-324 B.C. when Alexander the Great defeated the Persians, who previously controlled Judea. Hellenization intensified when Antiochus IV Epiphanes (175–164), the Seleucid ruler of Syria, claimed Judea and appointed Jason, a Hellenized Jew, to the office of high priest. Jason transformed Jerusalem into a Greek polis (city-state) named Antiochia, in honor of the Seleucid king. A sports arena was built to replace the Temple as the focus of the city's social and cultural life. [Source: Paul Mendes-Flohr Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices, 2000s, BBC]

Ultimately dissatisfied with Jason, Antiochus replaced him with Menelaus, another Hellenized Jew. In 175 B.C. they desecrated the Temple, plundered its Temple's treasures. and implemented a series of laws aimed at wiping out Judaism in favour of Zeus worship. There was a revolt led by Jason. In the wake of a revolt, Antiochus took further measures to wipe out the Jewish character of Jerusalem. He forbade Jews to practice their religion and forced them to eat foods forbidden by the Torah and to participate in pagan rites. The Temple truned into place of Zeus worship. These draconian measures led to an uprising led by the Hasmoneans, a priestly family headed by Mattathias.

Mattahias Appealing to Jewish Refugees
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.

Cause of the Maccabean Revolt

Scholars say that much of the impetus for revolt was disagreements between elite Jewish families, who clashed over the extent to which they should be Hellenized. Candida Moss wrote in the Daily Beast: Ideological and religious conflicts between the Maccabees (from which the Hasmonean Dynasty emerged) and other prominent families led to vying for control of the priesthood. Just as the Jewish homeland was treated like a football by foreign powers like the Ptolemies of Egypt and Seleucids of Syria, the power of the priesthood was an important focus in intra-Jewish power struggles. [Source: Candida Moss, Daily Beast, November 29, 2021]

“We can see this in the sources themselves, after a ceasefire between the Syrian general Bacchides and Jonathan (Judah Maccabee’s younger brother) in 160 B.C.E, 1 Maccabees tells us that “Jonathan settled in Michmash and began to judge the people; and he destroyed the godless out of Israel.” This continuing struggle is one reason that some scholars see the Hanukkah not just as, as Dr. Shayna Zamkanei writes, a “celebration of the restoration of the Second Temple…[but] also a reminder of the dangers of civil war.”

“The conflicts between various families and desire to shake free of Syrian control rippled through the subsequent centuries. Even after 160, Paula Fredriksen, the Aurelio professor of scripture emerita at Boston University and a professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, told me fighting continued as the Hasmoneans continued to gain strength” and remains of forts from the time period in the area tell s “story of the Hasmoneans’ subsequent rise to power. Hasmonean warrior-priests picked off formerly Seleucid territories and incorporated them into a growing Judean kingdom.”

“What’s interesting, as Fredriksen writes in her beautiful book When Christians were Jews: The First Generation, is the ways in which international politics plays out both visibly and invisibly in the background. The position of High Priest, she pointed out, had to be filled by someone who could work with the Seleucids. The traditionalist Maccabees might have been victorious in 160 B.C.E, but for seven years afterwards the priesthood lay empty because they had no strong candidates who could play nice with foreign rulers. It was only after the death of the Syrian monarch Antiochus in 152 B.C.E that Jonathan became high priest and his political opponents left Jerusalem.

Mattathias, His Five Sons and I Maccabees

Mattathias and his five sons proved their mettle both as warriors and leaders. They liberated the countryside from Seleucid (Greek) control with a guerilla warfare. After Mattathias's death in 167 B.C., his son Judah Maccabees became leadership of the revolt. A brilliant strategist and tactician, he led a series of victories over the Greeks and eventually drove them out of Jerusalem. After Judas Maccabees died in battle in 160, his brothers Jonathan and Simeon took up the guerilla campaign against the Seleucids. Through diplomatic and military efforts they prevailed and gained de facto independence of Judea. In 140 Simeon convened an assembly of priests and learned men who confirmed him, and his sons after him, as the high priest and commander in chief of the Jewish nation. [Source: Paul Mendes-Flohr Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices, 2000s,]

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”) commemorates an event during the Maccabean revolt when the candelabrum in the Jerusalem Temple miraculously burned for eight days despite only having enough oil for one. The holiday lasts for eight days and begins on the 25th day of the ninth Jewish month (in December). It commemorates the victory of Maccabees over the tyrannical Greek-Syrian Seleucid King Antiochus IV, who had looted and desecrated the Temple of Jerusalem and persecuted the Jewsand 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. The event has traditionally been dated to 166 B.C.E, when Judah “the Hammer” Maccabee, the son of the former priest Mattathias, used guerrilla tactics to drive the Syrian Seleucids from Jerusalem then cleansed and rededicated the Second Temple.


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.

Candida Moss wrote in the Daily Beast: The origins of Hanukkah are murky. Our earliest literary sources for the events of the Maccabean revolt don’t mention anything about the miracle of oil. Oddly, the first-century Jewish historian Josephus, who first refers to a holiday called the “Festival of Lights,” never calls it Hanukkah or explains why it is associated with light. Dr. Catherine Bonesho an assistant professor in Early Judaism at UCLA told The Daily Beast that our sources for the miracle are quite late. After Josephus, she said, “the ritual of lighting lamps does not appear in textual form until the Mishnah (200 CE), nor does the tradition of the miracle of oil appear until the Babylonian Talmud (edited between fifth and seventh centuries CE).” [Source: Candida Moss, Daily Beast, November 29, 2021]

Archaeological Evidence of the Maccabean Revolt?

In January 2021, the the Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) announced that archaeologist had unearthed the charred remains of a fort destroyed by Jewish rebels more that 2,000 years ago and claimed that it offered evidence of the Maccabean revolt. In a statement, the IAA said that scientists had found the burned wooden beams and ruins of a small — 15 meter (50-foot) x 15 meter — Hellenistic fort in the Lachish Forest, about an hour drive the southwest of Jerusalem on the summit of a high hill in the Judean foothills. The fort was positioned so that it had a clear view of the city of Maresha, the largest Hellenistic center in the area.[Source: Candida Moss, Daily Beast, November 29, 2021]

“Saar Ganor, Vladik Lifshits, and Ahinoam Montagu, excavation directors on behalf of the IAA, said that the site “provides tangible evidence of the Hanukkah stories. It appears that we have discovered a building that was part of a fortified line erected by the Hellenistic army commanders to protect the large Hellenistic city of Maresha from a Hasmonean offensive. However, the finds from the site show that the Seleucid defenses were unsuccessful; the building was badly burnt and devastated by the Hasmoneans.”

The Minister of Culture and Sports, Chili Tropper, said in the statement: “The Israel Antiquities Authority’s fascinating new discovery is a classic example of how traditional, well-known and well-loved stories become part of the historical and archaeological record. The building’s excavation reflects the glorious roots of the Jewish people in the Land of Israel and brings the Hanukkah stories to life.”

“But does it? Candida Moss of Daily Beast wrote: The timing of the announcement was clearly calculated to coincide with the Jewish holiday celebrating independence and divine protection, but the chronology is a little off. The archaeologists report that on the basis of finds at the site, they date the destruction of the site to 112 B.C.E. The Hanukkah story, on the other hand, is traditionally dated to 166 B.C.E. Even putting aside this complication and accepting the traditional dating for the event, there’s still a substantial gap between the Maccabean revolt (which lasted from 168-160 B.C.E) and the destruction of the fort in the Lachish Forest. Even taking (as we should) a long view of the rebellion and its aftermath, which continued into the 150s, there’s still something of a gap. As Dr. Robert Cargill, an archaeologist at the University of Iowa told me, “It’s an excellent discovery but it looks like they’re trying a little too hard to fit it into the Hanukkah story.”

Just because the discovery can’t be tied to the Hanukkah miracle itself doesn’t make the discovery less valuable or less relevant to our understanding of Jewish history. Moreover, as Cargill said, “The region is a fascinating region. It’s a beautiful area of the country and there’s a lot of archaeology evidence left to be uncovered. The team is doing valuable work in the region” and you should still visit if you get a chance.

167 to 140 B.C. — Jews Revolt While the Greeks Try to Cling to Power

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

Hasmonean Kingdom (140 to 37 B.C.) — The Jews Are Free At Last

The Hasmonean Kingdom of Judea lasted from 140 to 37 B.C.. During that time Judea’s territory was expanded to include nearly all of present-day Israel. The leadership of the Pharisees was solidified under the rule (76–67 B.C.) of Queen Salome Alexandra, the widow of King Alexander Yanai (103–76), whose father, Aristobulus I, had assumed the title of king (104–103).

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.”

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

For the most part the Hasmoneans aligned themselves with the Pharisees, who regarded themselves as disciples of the Persian-era reformers Ezra and Nehemiah and developed Judaism so that it was based on both the Written and the Oral Torah. The Hasmoneans also recognized the Sanhedrin as the supreme judicial power of the Pharisees. For more than five centuries this body, composed of the 71 leading rabbis of the generation, and its leader served as the central religious authority of the Jews and at times even acted as their political authority. [Source: Paul Mendes-Flohr Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices, 2000s]

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.”

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

Legacy of the Maccabees and Hasmoneans

Candida Moss wrote in the Daily Beast: “The legacy of the struggles between different Jewish factions, Fredriksen told me, created the opportunity for Roman military intervention almost a century later. In the 60s CE another struggle for the priesthood, this time between Hasmonean brothers, destabilized the region and provided the pretext for Rome and Pompey’s siege of Jerusalem. The irony here, said Fredriksen, is that Roman influence and military might had bubbled in the background of Judean history since the beginning of the Maccabean revolt a century beforehand: “The alliance with Rome that had sponsored Judean independence in 168 B.C.E eventuated in the destruction of Jerusalem and its temple in 70 CE.” [Source: Candida Moss, Daily Beast, November 29, 2021]

Dr. Matthew Novenson, a professor at the University of Edinburgh and author of The Grammar of Messianism, agreed that legacies of these political struggles cast a long shadow over history. “The Hasmoneans were tremendously important not only for purifying the Jerusalem temple (thus providing the occasion for the festival of Hanukkah) and establishing an independent Jewish state” but also for creating a kind of mythology.

“By driving the Seleucids out of Judea, they also exercised a folk-hero influence upon later Jewish messianic movements, for instance, in the Jewish-Roman War of 66-70 CE and the Bar Kokhba War of 132-136 CE.” This is what scholar John Gager has called “the myth of the Maccabees” and it contributes to later forms of messianism that optimistically believed that they too could throw off the shackles of foreign domination. Fredriksen agreed, “The growth of Hanukkah as a Jewish holiday is testimony to the principle established by the victorious Maccabean Revolt: while living with diversity, Jews would also guard Jewish tradition, memory, and identity.”

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, New International Version (NIV) of The Bible,; Wikipedia, Live Science, Archaeology magazine, National Geographic, BBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, Times of London, The New Yorker, Reuters, AP, AFP, Lonely Planet Guides, and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2024

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