The word Maccabean comes from Judas Maccabeus, the leader of the Jewish revolt against Syria which took place from 167 – 160 B. C. E. In 2nd Maccabees 15 v 30 he is described as “The perfect champion of his fellow citizens. ” The story is recorded in the Apocryphal Biblical Books Ist and 2nd Maccabees, the sources written closest in time to the events and to a lesser extent by the Jewish 1st century C. E. historian Flavius Josephus in his Antiquities ( Books XII and XIII) who wrote some 200 years later.
Martin Cohen ( The Hasmonean Revolution Politically Considered,1975, page 21) describes all three of authors, those of the Maccabean books and Josephus, as being overly partisan and seems to be saying that the so called sinners weren’t as black as they are painted. Some might say however that his article is in danger of going too far the other way in parts. The name means ‘hammer’ and was used to describe Judas’ immense strength. It was then taken as a name by his brothers, two of whom succeeded him, and other followers.
The conflict had been stirred when, after a period of increasing Hellenisation, Syrian ruler Antiochus IV Epiphanes gave orders forbidding certain Jewish customs and practices and turned the Temple into a shrine for the pagan god Zeus – the idol the Jews refer to as ‘the abomination of desecration’ mentioned in Daniel 11. Judas Maccabeus and his followers incited a revolt. In 164 B. C. E they were able to regain control of the Temple, which was then cleansed and rededicating to the God of Israel. To this day Jews celebrate the feast of Hanukkah to recall these events.
The story ends with the death of Nicanor in 2 Maccabeans 15 and also the idea of dedicating a special day to its remembrance- the thirtieth day of the twelfth month. The use of the menorah, the seven branched candlestick, is a reminder of the same events. Members of Judas’ family, the Hasmoneans, continued to rule in Israel until the Romans arrived in force in 63 B. C. E. Ist Maccabees was originally written in Hebrew, but that version is now lost and the text used is taken from the Greek Septuagint.
The book is set in the period of Greek rule and covers the period of revolt from 175 to 134 B. C. However it also describes how many Hebrews actually welcomed the coming of Greek customs, even to the extent of trying to pass themselves off as Greeks. In 1st Maccabees 1 v 15 the writer tells how some were trying to hide the marks of circumcism i. e. the very mark of their Jewishness. In 2nd Maccabees the events are again related, but this time seemingly with the intention of showing God’s continued care for his people.
It begins by urging Alexandrian Jews to keep the feast of Hanukkah and looks back at the events that led up to the first celebration. At the same time it castigates several people – the Hellenistic Jewish priests, in particular including High Priest Jason who was said to have sent money for statue of Herakles, something Martin Cohen ( Page 15 ) sees as a bribe rather than as a genuine donation because of faith.. Robert Doran ( 2006, The revolt of the Maccabees) looked for historic similarities and likened it to the modern day insurgency in Iraq.
He tells how for the first years of Seleucid rule there were no major problems between the two groups. He describes the main problem as being about Jewish identity and who controls that definition. He makes the point that some would not have considered Jason to be a Jew at all, whereas he, as Jewish high priest, presumably did. He cites 20th century Jewish scholars Elias Bickermann and Victor Tchenikover who put the blame not on the Seleucids, but upon the Jewish leaders of the time.
While I Maccabees blames the Seleucid leader, it has been pointed out by scholars such as Otto Morkholm (Antiochus IV of Syria, 1966) that in general he supported local cultures. The writer of 2nd Maccabees blames the institution of Greek education, even though there were a number of years between the opening of the Greek school and the revolt. The truth seems to be that when a villager from Modein, the Hasmonean home town, went to make sacrifices, Mattathias, the father of Judas, struck him with his sword.
The family then fled, but also began a campaign of throwing down the pagan alters that they found and killing those who opposed what they felt was right. By the opening of 2nd Maccabees the father had died and it is Judas who is leading the revolutionaries. There are other major differences between the accounts, namely with regard to fighting on the Sabbath. This happens in the first book, but not in the second. According to Doran, in what seems to be a quite objective account ( page 107), upon the death of Antiochus his successor seems, to have let the matter stand, with the Hasmoneans in charge in Jerusalem.
However the revolution was spreading to other areas. Jerusalem became the center for a general revolt against Seleucid rule. In 162 B. C. E. Judas finally lost control of the Temple area and was killed. Josephus describes in the opening words of his second book about the period, (Antiquities of the Jews, Book 13) how, after the death of Judus Maccabeus ‘all the wicked, and those that transgressed the laws of their forefathers, sprang up again in Judea. ’ And so the battles continued under new leadership.
However soon after this the Seleucid Empire began to crumble because of its own internal divisiveness and Simon, brother of Judas, was able to expel the Seleucids. He was recognized as high priest of Judea in 140 B. C. E. So what had begun as a religious protest ended up as the basis for an independent kingdom – at last for a while. Martin Cohen took a new look at the events portrayed in the scriptures. He sees it as much as an internal fight among Jews as a revolt against foreign rule.
He states (page 26) that Antiochus believed that no Jewish group was capable of holding the peace. He had trouble elsewhere and this is why he came down hard, turning Jerusalem into a fortress and he also removed the power of the Jewish constitution. This turned many into revolutionaries. If they had no Jewish law how could they be Jewish? Cohen describes how the revolt has often been viewed as a class struggle between the Hellenistic rulers and the ordinary people, despite the fact that there seems to have been grass roots support of Hellenisation.
The Maccabees were not just non Hellenistic however, they were totally anti – Hellenistic, not just for themselves, but for Judaism as such. Cohen points out that the two accounts are both conflicting and inadequate and that the facts cited by Jewish historian Josephus don’t add a great deal to historic knowledge. He also describes how the Jewish Hellenistic aristocracy were very small in number. If they had not had popular support then the Selucid would have had to come down hard. Right from the beginning.
The priests concerned are condemned in passages such as 2nd Maccabees 4 v 11 and 14. In the former passage they are accused of adding to the Pentateuch. The Pentateuch was scripture, but it was also the basis for all Jewish life. At the time of the revolution religion and politics, as far as the Jewish people were concerned were one and the same thing. But the Hellenistic Jews did not deny Judaism and the priests amongst them continued with their sacrificial roles, which they do not seem to have considered as being in opposition to their Hellenistic practices.
Conclusion Whatever the truth of the matter regarding the origins of the revolt and wherever the true blame should lie, essentially this was about preserving Judaism as it had been for hundred of years and was about defining what is a Jew – an argument that can still be seen to be going on, even if sometimes in silence, in the differences to be observed daily in the 21st century between those who call themselves Orthodox Jews and others of the same faith and race, believers and otherwise. Works Cited
Bible, King James, “2nd Maccabees”, Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia 12th May 2010, Libraryhttp://etext. virginia. edu/toc/modeng/public/Kjv2Mac. html Bible, Revised Standard Version, “Ist Maccabees”, National Council of Churches of Christ in America 12th May 2010, http://quod. lib. umich. edu/cgi/r/rsv/rsv-idx? type=DIV1&byte=4219672 Cohen Martin, “The Hasmonean Revolution Politically Considered: Outline of a New Interpretation,” The Journal of the Central Conference of American Rabbis , (Fall 1975 ): 13-34
Doran , Robert, “The Revolt of the Maccabees “ The National Interest ( September –October 2006):99, 100 Josephus , “Antiquities of the Jews” , Book XII ,12th May 2010, http://www. ccel. org/j/josephus/works/ant-12. htm Josephus , “Antiquities of the Jews” , Book XIII 12th May 2010 http://www. ccel. org/j/josephus/works/ant-13. htm Morkholm, Otto,” Antiochus IV of Syria”, Classica et Mediaevalia Dissertationes VIII, Copenhagen. 1966