The Maccabaean Revolt

Antiochus IV, ruling his empire including Jerusalem from Syria, wrongly assumed that the worship of Yahweh among the Jews could be transformed into the worship of the universal god, Zeus, as easily as such transformations had been made in his dominions farther east — where Jews worshiped Yahweh under the name of Zeus Sabazions. He wrongly assumed that the Jews of Judea would easily accept the notion that all worshiped the same God. In 167 he had the temple in Jerusalem rededicated as a shrine to Zeus. A problem in semantics developed. Some Jews saw Antiochus as compelling them to practice idolatry — something neither the Persians nor the Ptolemies had tried to force upon them.

Rather than allow time for Jews to start using Greek as the name for God, a military expedition was sent around Judea to force compliance with the new laws of worship. The expedition came upon an old priest in the village of Modein who refused to offer a sacrifice to Zeus. The priest, Mattathias, struck down another Jew who was about to do so. To escape punishment, Mattathias and his five sons — the Maccabees family — went with other Jews into the Gophna Hills. Their rebellion won support from people throughout Judea. It was supported too by the author of the Book of Daniel — which was written during the time of the war that was unfolding — the Maccabaean war.

The rebellion became partly a civil war and partly a war of national liberation. Its opposition to the rule of Antiochus IV pleased Rome because Rome wished to see Antiochus IV weakened. To strengthen his forces against Antiochus, the leader of the revolt, Judas Maccabeus, made a treaty with Rome, which made the success of his rebellion more likely.

The Maccabaean rebellion took control of much of Judea, but because Judas Maccabeus was not from the kind of aristocratic family that qualified him to be the High Priest, that highest position among the Jews went to a priest and supporter named Alcium. Some among those fighting for independence objected to the appointment, believing that Alcium was insufficiently devout and insufficiently hostile to foreigners and foreign influences, and Alcium had sixty of these critics executed.

In 141 BCE, more than twenty-five years into the rebellion (and shortly after Greece lost its independence to Rome) the Jews finally expelled the Seleucid dynasty’s garrison from the citadel in Jerusalem. By now, Antiochus IV, Judas Maccabeus and other Maccabees had died. The last of the five Maccabeus brothers, Simon, ruled. With the strength of Rome behind the Maccabees, Judea won formal independence: an independent Jewish state for the first time in more than four centuries. Simon Maccabeus was chosen by popular assembly as High Priest despite his lack of qualifications by birth. He also took the position of “ethnarch,” or Ruler of the Nation, announcing that his family would rule only until a true prophet should arise. He created a festival called Hanukkah to celebrate both Judea’s independence and the day that his rule began.

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