Revolt of the Maccabees Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

The Maccabees revolted against the Seleucids, recaptured Jerusalem, and ruled Judaea until the end of the second century b.c.e.

Summary of Event

The Seleucid king Antiochus the Great (r. 223-187 b.c.e.) took Judaea from the Ptolemies of Egypt in the Fifth Syrian War (201-200) and made it part of his Asian empire. He lowered taxes and guaranteed freedom to Jews to practice their religion and follow their ancestral laws. Nevertheless, the Jews hated the Seleucids, regarding them as godless promoters of foreign customs, greedy taxers of widows and orphans, and, above all, protectors of the idols that the pagans worshiped. They failed to propagate the true worship of the Lord Yahweh. Some Jews even hoped for the return of the Ptolemies so that they might recover the lucrative official posts they had once held. On the whole, however, Seleucid rule provoked much less hostility than the Ptolemaic Dynasty had caused. More Jews collaborated than had done so under the Ptolemies because the Seleucids were milder and because the important cultural currents that had been flowing over Judaea since the beginning of the Greek period now began to bring forth fruit. Hellenism at its best was an attractive way of life, with its sensible humanism and its personal freedoms; it made Jewish dietary restrictions and the painful practice of circumcision appear to be barbaric superstitions. Conversions to Hellenism occurred, and about 180 b.c.e., Jesus ben Sirach, the author of Ecclesiasticus, had to admonish the younger generation to have greater respect for the traditional Jewish Law. Antiochus IV Epiphanes Joshua Onias III Onias Mattathias Maccabaeus, Judas Jonathan





Judaea was caught up in great international events during the reign of the Seleucid Antiochus IV Epiphanes, a remarkable man: efficient, brilliant, and erratic. His father Antiochus the Great had been badly beaten in a war with Rome, and in the aftermath of that debacle, the Seleucids lost their easternmost provinces. To strengthen the weakened state, Antiochus decided to encourage the partially Hellenized towns of his empire to adopt the Greek civic institutions of gymnasia, Hellenized religious cults, and autonomous assemblies. In this way, he hoped to increase the stock of Hellenized manpower available for the defense of his empire against Rome and for the recovery of his lost eastern territory.

In 174 b.c.e. a Hellenically minded Jewish notable named Joshua, whose name was altered to the Greek form “Jason,” proposed to make Jerusalem a Greek city if Antiochus would depose the high priest Onias III and install Jason in his place. Antiochus accepted this offer and granted a charter to the newly organized Jerusalem. A gymnasium was built, and Jewish youths exercised in the nude, to the dismay of conservatives. A citizen body was enrolled and debated affairs in a gerousia, or council, to the degradation of the Jewish law. In 172 b.c.e., Jason was outbid for his office by a man called Onias, who offered to increase the taxes paid by Judaea to Antiochus. The king straightway deposed Jason, who withdrew into sullen exile, and invested Onias as high priest under the Greek name Menelaus. Jews loyal to their law were rightly outraged at this cavalier treatment of their most sacred office, and Jews friendly to the Seleucids were disturbed to see Antiochus’s sudden cancellation of his father’s promise of lowered taxes.

Simultaneously, Ptolemy VI was preparing a war to recover Palestine. Antiochus, however, attacked him first, and, in the Sixth Syrian War (170-168 b.c.e.), he defeated the Egyptian forces, captured Ptolemy, and made himself king of Egypt. At this point Rome intervened, fearful that Antiochus was growing too strong, and ordered him out of Egypt on pain of instant war. Antiochus prepared to obey. His diplomatic defeat inspired a rumor reporting his death, and Joshua (Jason) decided to drive his rival Menelaus (Onias) out of Jerusalem (Antioch) at this favorable moment. Antiochus, returning to Syria, came on the city in revolt against his lawful high priest. He suppressed the revolt by force, fined the Jews heavily, and, later in 167, decided to assist his loyal Hellenizers by forbidding the practice of the Jewish religion in Judaea. In the temple, the worship of the Syrian god Baal Shamim was substituted for that of Yahweh. This provoked armed resistance. In 167, Mattathias, a landed magnate of priestly rank, revolted. From 167 until 164, while Antiochus was campaigning in the east against Parthia with first-line Seleucid troops, Mattathias’s son Judas, surnamed Maccabaeus (the Hammer), warred against Seleucid mercenaries and Hellenized Jewish militia alike, successfully establishing himself in the countryside. Even so, he had to accept a truce with the Seleucid government in the spring of 164. During this war, about 165 b.c.e., the Old Testament book of Daniel was made public in its present form. It was an important part of Jewish propaganda, looking forward to the death of Antiochus (“a mouth speaking great things”), the end of the Hellenistic Age, and the dawn of a divine fifth monarchy, presided over by a Messianic figure. Late in 164, Antiochus unexpectedly died, and Judas took advantage of this to break the truce. He entered Jerusalem and seized the temple, which in December was ritually cleansed and rededicated to Yahweh.


With Antiochus dead, the Seleucid Dynasty soon suffered the disaster of the emergence of two rival lines of kings at war with each other. With the central government distracted, the courageous, skillful, and ruthless Maccabees made headway in Judaea until, in 152 b.c.e., both Seleucid factions recognized Jonathan, a younger brother of Judas (who had been killed in the fighting), as high priest. In 142, his brother Simon became king of newly independent Judaea, founding the Hasmonean kingdom, which lasted until Rome conquered Palestine in 63 b.c.e. This century of Jewish independence was a time of great national, cultural, and religious revival, and of growing strife between differing schools of religious thought and belief.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bickerman, Elias. The God of the Maccabees: Studies on the Origin and Meaning of the Maccabean Revolt. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 1979. Bickerman focuses on the revolt and its significance.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bickerman, Elias. The Maccabees: An Account of Their History from the Beginnings to the Fall of the House of the Hasmoneans. New York: Shocken Books, 1947. A short but highly competent survey by an outstanding scholar.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cohen, Shaye. From the Maccabees to the Mishnah. Philadelphia: Westminster John Knox Press, 1995. An examination of Jewish history, beginning with the Maccabees.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schalit, Abraham, ed. The Hellenistic Age: Political History of Jewish Palestine from 332 to 67 b.c.e. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1972. This history of Jewish Palestine covers the period in which the Maccabean rebellion occurred.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sievers, Joseph. The Hasmoneans and Their Supporters: From Mattathias to the Death of John Hycranus I. Atlanta: Scholars Press, 1990. Sievers examines the Hasmonean Dynasty that began with the Maccabean rebellion.
Related Articles in <i>Great Lives from History: Ancient World</i>

Antiochus the Great; Herod the Great; Flavius Josephus Maccabees, revolt of (167-142 b.c.e.)

Categories: History