Who Were the Maccabees?

The Maccabees were a group of Jewish rebels who pushed back against their Seleucid rulers.

May 11, 2024By Paul Brian, PGDip Broadcast Journalism, BA Humanities

who were maccabees


The Maccabees were Jewish rebels who rose in the 2nd century BCE to overthrow the anti-Jewish Seleucid leader Antiochus IV. The Maccabees are seen as Jewish heroes who helped gain independence for Judea and who defeated the enemies of the Jewish people. Their reconquest of the Temple in Jerusalem is still celebrated today during the festival of Hannukah.


A Hero Emerges as the Jewish People Suffer 

the maccabees revolt chanukah
Eleazar Maccabee sacrifices himself to topple the king, engraving by Jan de Broen from design by Bernard Picart, 1673-1733, Source: Merrimackvalleyhavurah


In the 2nd Century BCE, Jews in what is now Israel were ruled by the Syrian-Greek run Seleucid Empire. It had taken over from the previous much more tolerant Ptolemaic Empire and was determined to wipe out any trace of Jewish beliefs and traditions.


Practicing the Jewish religion, including kosher laws and circumcision became illegal, and Jews were effectively second-class citizens to the ruling elites, who often murdered and executed them for the smallest infraction. Jews were given the death penalty for refusing to eat pork, for example. Attacks against Jews were often carried out on the Sabbath so they would not be prepared to defend themselves.


Hellenism was forcefully imposed on Jews and the Seleucid king Antiochus IV pushed worship of gods like Zeus once he took power in 175 BCE. Though Syrian, Antiochus venerated the Greek gods and their culture. Laws against Jews continued to tighten, with the death penalty for any practice of the religion. Judaism was being erased from its ancient lands and brought under the heel of the conquering empire and its pagan beliefs.

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This forcing of non-Jewish beliefs on Jews was initially done with the collaboration of a section of the Jewish aristocracy. This cadre of officials felt it would be more advantageous and safe to side with the Seleucids and to Hellenize Jews so that they stopped having a unique religious or ethnic identity.


seleucid empire at its height
The Seleucid Empire at its height in 281 BCE, by Cattette, Source: Wikimedia Commons


The Maccabean Revolt of 167-160 BCE was a Jewish uprising in Judea against the repression of the Seleucid Empire. The revolt was led by a priest called Mattathias, and his military followers became known as the Maccabees. The revolt was successful, Jerusalem was captured and the Temple of Jerusalem reconsecrated, an act still commemorated today in the Jewish Hanukkah festival.


It was at the height of the persecution that a man named Judas began leading a guerilla revolt against the Seleucids. Judas, the son of Mattathias, was a key figure in the Jewish fight against the Greeks from 168 to 164 BCE, and he and his four brothers Simon, John, Eleazar, and Jonathan all received the honorary title “Maccabee.”


The Fight for Jewish Independence Begins 

Initial “A” with the Battle of the Maccabees, ca. 1360–70, Source: MET Museum


Sporadic fighting and guerilla resistance to Greek rule began with Antiochus’ 168 BCE expulsion of many Jews from Jerusalem and the ramping up of persecution and executions. However, the entrance of the Maccabees took it to the next level and led to a significant period of independence.


Judas’ father Mattathias was a Jewish priest who left Jerusalem to get away from the worst of the Seleucid persecution. However, a royal official demanded that he sacrifice to the Greek gods in his new location in Modin. Mattathias declined to do so. Instead, Mattathias killed a Jew coming to make a pagan sacrifice at the altar as well as the official who’d made the request and then smashed the altar itself.


Mattathias, Judas, and his brothers then ran away to the mountains along with a large contingent of fellow rebels. Thus began their campaign to rid Judea of Greek religion and customs, which they did by wrecking altars across the land, kicking non-observant Jews off their land, recruiting new members, and organizing circumcision and Jewish worship wherever possible.


When Mattathias died in 166 BCE, Judas took over as the leader of the group and his four brothers helped as well. He led the assault of traditional Jews in rural Judea against the more Hellenized and liberal Jews in Jerusalem who wanted to assimilate. It morphed into a war of independence, with the Maccabees using bold and stunning guerilla tactics to surround Seleucid fighters and strike them down.


The Maccabees Win

relics of the maccabees
Relics of the Maccabees displayed at St. Andrews Church in Cologne, Germany, photo by Hans Peter Schaefer, Source: Wikimedia Commons


The Maccabees experienced a major victory against the Seleucids, after heading to Jerusalem, kicking out any signs of pagan worship and putting Jonathan Maccabee in place as the new high priest in 165 BCE. However, Antiochus wasn’t done yet, and he sent his replenished new army to destroy the upstarts. The new forces that came to Jerusalem under the Seleucid military commander Lysias were also unsuccessful. Furthermore, the death of Antiochus in 164 BCE led to a deal with Lysias, who agreed to allow Jews to worship and live by their customs once again.


Fighting continued, however, as the tensions were still in place between the remaining Seleucids and traditionalist Jews. Judas was killed in action in 160 BCE and leadership of the army passed to Jonathan, who was now high priest and supreme commander of the Jewish forces. Jonathan was eventually killed by a jealous rival, but was succeeded by his surviving brother Simon Maccabee. Simon went on to found the Hasmonean kingdom after assuming leadership of the country’s military and religious authorities in 140 BCE.


By 130 BCE, the Maccabees had gained independence for the Jewish people, which lasted until 63 BCE when the Roman Senate designated Herod the Great to be the leader of Judea, taking over rulership of the troubled land as a client state of the Roman Empire.


The Battle of Beth Zechariah 

Death of Eleazer, by Gustave Doré, 1866, Source: Wikimedia Commons


One particularly colorful and intense chapter of the Maccabean revolt comes from the martyrdom of Judas’ brother Eleazar, who died in the spring of 162 BCE at Beth Zechariah.


The story of what happened is told by reputed historian Josephus as well as by 1 Maccabees, a piece of scripture which is believed by many historians to have been written by an eyewitness to the combat. This battle was a defeat for the Maccabees, but it is notable for the sacrifice of Eleazar, who died going up against a massive Seleucid war elephant.


Judas besieged the Seleucid-held area of Jerusalem called Acra in April of 162 BCE. This was the last major outpost of Seleucid power in Judea, and the Maccabees wanted it gone.  They easily took it over, but the Seleucids responded via Lysias and a massive army. It was also hard to keep the army supplied with enough to eat, something that Lysias and his forces also struggled with.


Josephus estimates the Seleucid forces at around 55,000 soldiers, including 5,000 cavalry and 80 elephants. The Maccabean forces are estimated to have been around 10,000 to 20,000 strong — vastly outnumbered but in a stronger position due to holding the high ground.


During intense fighting at Beth Zechariah near Jerusalem, Jewish fighters became afraid of the massive war elephants. Demonstrating that the large beasts were nothing to fear, Eleazar attacked an elephant with his sword and stabbed it in the stomach. The elephant reared up and killed him, although it died as well.


Although the Seleucids eventually won this battle and forced the Maccabees to retreat back up into the mountains, Lysias eventually struck a peace deal as noted earlier, leading to the continued power of the Maccabees until Herod eventually took power.


What Does “Maccabee” Really Mean?

the triumph of judas maccabeus peter paul rubens
The Triumph of Judas Maccabeus, by Peter Paul Rubens, 1635, Source: Fine Art America


There is continuing debate about the exact meaning of the word “maccabee.” The Hebrew word “machabi” means “hammer” or “the extinguisher.” This is the most common explanation, that Judas and his brothers’ combat heroism led to the honorary title.


Other theories posit that Maccabee is an acronym for a piece of Torah scripture shouted out by Judas and his brothers in combat, namely “mi chamocha baelim yahweh” or “who is equal to you among the heavenly powers, my God!”


The Maccabees continue to be an inspiration for Jewish people, including during the festival of Hannukah. Maccabi Tel Aviv is also one of the most popular and successful football teams in Israel and was founded in 1906, well before Israel was created. The team’s logo uses a Star of David design, referencing both the Jewish religion and the Jewish national story which heralds back to the Maccabean revolt and beyond.

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By Paul BrianPGDip Broadcast Journalism, BA HumanitiesPaul is a freelance journalist and author specializing in culture, religion, and geopolitics who has contributed and reported for Foreign Policy, BBC, Reuters, the Spectator, the Critic, the Federalist, the American Conservative and more. He has reported from around the world including the United States, Canada, Brazil, Republic of Georgia, Abkhazia, Hungary, Poland, Ukraine, Israel and Palestine.