Revolt of the Maccabees

Revolt of the Maccabees

Mini Teaser: The Biblical account tells a cautionary tale for Mid-East policy today—to those reading between the lines.

by Author(s): Robert Doran

Judas' numbers grew. When local Seleucid officials tried to squash the revolt, the insurgents' knowledge of the local terrain helped them put the local officials and their forces to flight as a result of these successful skirmishes, Judas and his brothers came to be feared, "and terror fell on the Gentiles all around them." (1 Macc. 3:25) Also, many more recruits joined the insurgents.

Antiochus IV tried to negotiate with them but without success, as he still relied on the despised elite high priest to act as his interlocutor, assuming that as a fellow Jew he could reach common ground with the insurgents. While he was away campaigning in the eastern regions of his empire, the insurgents captured Jerusalem. They purified it from the ways of the Gentiles, and they began to follow their ancestral laws again. This re-dedication was celebrated by a new festival, the festival of Hannukah.

Immediately after the death of Antiochus IV, his successor appears to have ratified the insurgents' control of Jerusalem, as laid out in a letter he wrote to the Jews soon after his accession. But the insurgency expanded; both 1 and 2 Maccabees begin to tell of raids outside Judea: to the south, in Idumea; to the north, in Galilee; and in the Transjordan area--either to repel attacks originating from these areas or to help Jews who were suffering persecution in these neighboring cities.  Judea thus became a base for the expansion of the insurgency against Seleucid authority. The Maccabees became a force to be reckoned with in the local arena--but, when confronted by the full weight of the Seleucid army, they could not withstand it, and were defeated. This happened when Antiochus V Eupator invaded the country in 162 B.C.E. Judas lost control of the temple mount and the wall around Mt. Zion was destroyed; the following year, Judas was killed and the victorious Seleucid commander took vengeance on Judas' friends and allies.

The Seleucids thought they had turned a corner. The insurgents, now led by Judas' brother Jonathan, were on the run; the country was apparently being pacified, as a series of towns were fortified and garrisons deployed. But, when the Seleucid commander Bacchides felt the situation stable enough to leave Judea in the hands of Alcimus, the high priest, Jonathan came out of hiding, set up his own fortified encampment, and again made hit-and-run attacks. When the Seleucid commander returned because of Jonathan's disruption of the peace and tried, with local allies, to capture Jonathan in his fortified city, he was unable to. A standoff resulted, with the Seleucid commander promising not to harm Jonathan. We have little to no information about the following five-year period. Our one source, 1 Maccabees, portrays Jonathan as setting up an alternative government at Michmash, about seven miles north of Jerusalem, where King Saul had settled. Jonathan's rule is described idyllically in terms reminiscent of the ancient judges of Israel: "The sword ceased from Israel. Jonathan settled in Michmash and began to judge the people and he rooted out the godless in Israel." Well, not exactly. The Seleucid garrisons still controlled the main cities, and in particular Jerusalem.

However, now external factors played into the insurgents' hands. After reigning for almost ten years, in 152 B.C.E., Demetrius I faced a usurper in Alexander Balas who claimed to be a son of Antiochus IV. From this point on, the Seleucid empire now became weakened through internal divisions, as first one and then another usurper of the throne emerged and fought for control of the empire. In the various confrontations between the claimants to the throne, Jonathan and his group gained further recognition and even positions of honor within the Seleucid Empire, as each claimant vied for help from the battle-hardened forces of Jonathan. The insurgents had attained respectability.

They would not attain complete independence until 143/142 B.C.E. "when the yoke of the Gentiles was removed from Israel", that is, when Demetrius II sent a letter saying that the Jews no longer had to pay tribute. The Hasmonean leader who had replaced Jonathan, his brother Simon, gained full control of Jerusalem and expelled the Seleucid garrisons from the country. He was acclaimed as leader and high-priest of Judea in 140 B.C.E., and recognized as such by the Roman Senate in 139 B.C.E.

The resistance had taken around 24 years to be successful. It had harried the Seleucid forces all this time, and, through the internal weakness of the kingdom, had attained their goal.

What had begun as a protest against the removal of the ancestral traditional laws, customs and religion of this small city-state ended in the formation of a geographically larger, independent kingdom. After gaining independence, the battle training and tactics learned in the resistance were turned outwards to the larger region. This small kingdom could not threaten the existence of the larger empires, but it could be a nuisance.

Both 1 and 2 Maccabees are not analyses of an insurgency in the modern sense, but are encomiastic. We do not learn much about their opponents, except that they are renegades, i.e. they have a different view of what Jewish identity entailed. We can tease out of these books that there were moments when the insurgency could have ended but did not. Antiochus IV tried to reinstate the ancestral laws but his overtures were rejected. We do not know why. Was it because, to Judas and his followers, Menelaus was not really a Jew? Judas was settling into married life in Jerusalem and was great friends with the Seleucid governor, Nicanor, but the king listened to the slander of Judas's opponent and those in the king's own court who did not want peace with Judas. One gets the sense that once violence has begun, it is hard to restrain the impulse to unleash it and to negotiate.

A close reading of the tale of the Maccabees might lead strategists of great powers to formulate three "don'ts." First, don't remain ignorant of the customs, cultures and religious sensibilities of smaller communities with whom they come into contact. Second, do not use insufficient forces to quell small disturbances lest they escalate into larger problems over time. Finally, don't listen only to those members of the community who have already assimilated themselves to the values and mores of the larger power. Whatever its good intentions, the superpower's efforts will be seen by the local population as an attempt to force its notions of proper polity, to impose its ideas, on an unwilling populace who will rejoice at any discomfit of the larger power, and cheer when it leaves.


1 After Judas, the revolt is called the Maccabean revolt, or sometimes, after his family name, the Hasmonean revolt.

2 A good discussion of the question of assimilation is found in John M. G. Barclay, Jews in the Mediterranean Diaspora: From Alexander to Trajan (323 b.c.e.-117 c.e.) (1996).

3 The God of the Maccabees, originally published in German in Berlin in 1937.

4 Hellenistic Civilization and the Jews, originally published in Hebrew in 1931, but significantly enlarged when published again in English in 1963.

Essay Types: Essay