The Maccabean Revolt

By James M. Rochford

All citations are taken from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV).

Death of Alexander the Great (323 BC)

After the death of Alexander the Great, the Greek empire broke apart into four factions, because Alexander had four generals who seized power. Two of these empires fought over Israel:

The Ptolemaic Empire (pronounced toll-oh-MAY-ick) received its name from Ptolemy (TOLL-emy). It was centered in Egypt, where Alexandria was the capital. The Ptolemies ruled in Israel from (320-198 BC), and they treated the Jews well. The Ptolemies ruled Palestine until 198 BC, when Antiochus III threw them out.

The Seleucid Empire (pronounced sell-OOH-sid) took its name from Seleucus (pronounced sell-OOH-sis). It was centered in Syria, and Antioch was its capital. In 198 BC, Antiochus III took over Israel. DeSilva writes, “Antiochus III, the great-great-grandson of Seleucus I, wrested Palestine from Ptolemaic control in 198 B.C.E. He continued the tolerant policy that Judea had enjoyed under Persian, Greek, and Ptolemaic rule. Josephus preserves a document written by Antiochus III in which the king gives Jews the legal right to continue self-regulation under the Torah (Jewish Antiquities 12.138-146).”[1]

Israel was sandwiched between these two rival empires: the Ptolemies and the Seleucids. Both empires struggled for their tax dollars, and both wanted this land as a buffer zone in between their warring nations.

Antiochus Epiphanes IV

Antiochus Epiphanes seized the throne in Israel after Seleucus died. Antiochus Epiphanes (“God manifest”) was called Epimanes (“madman”) by his enemies. He started to reign in Israel in 175 BC (1 Macc. 1:10).

Antiochus made it a capital crime to practice Temple offerings, Sabbaths, festivals, and circumcision (1 Macc. 1:50). Instead, the Jewish people had to sacrifice pigs and worship idols (1 Macc. 1:45-49). In 167 BC (1 Macc. 1:54), Antiochus offered the desolating sacrilege on the altar. His Greek soldiers collected and burned the Scriptures (1 Macc. 1:56), and killed anyone who possessed a Bible (1 Macc. 1:57). They even killed Jewish mothers who circumcised their boys (1 Macc. 1:60). 1 Maccabees states,

“Anyone found possessing the book of the covenant, or anyone who adhered to the law, was condemned to death by decree of the king” (1 Macc. 1:57).

“According to the decree, they put to death the women who had their children circumcised, and their families and those who circumcised them; and they hung the infants from their mothers’ necks” (1 Macc. 1:60-61).

After hearing about a revolt from his subjects, Antiochus led an absolute slaughter in Israel (2 Macc. 5:11-12).

“He commanded his soldiers to cut down relentlessly everyone they met and to kill those who went into their houses. Then there was massacre of young and old, destruction of boys, women, and children, and slaughter of young girls and infants. Within the total of three days eighty thousand were destroyed, forty thousand in hand-to-hand fighting, and as many were sold into slavery as were killed” (2 Macc. 5:12-14).

Next, Antiochus (along with Menelaus) plundered the Temple (2 Macc. 5:15), killed all the men, and sold the women and children as slaves (2 Macc. 5:24). They did this on the Sabbath, so that the Jewish people wouldn’t fight back (2 Macc. 5:25). 2 Maccabees records,

“Not long after this, the king sent an Athenian senator to compel the Jews to forsake the laws of their ancestors and no longer to live by the laws of God; also to pollute the temple in Jerusalem and to call it the temple of Olympian Zeus, and to call the one in Gerizim the temple of Zeus-the-Friend-of-Strangers, as did the people who lived in that place” (2 Macc. 6:1-2).

“The temple was filled with debauchery and reveling by the Gentiles, who dallied with prostitutes and had intercourse with women within the sacred precincts, and besides brought in things for sacrifice that were unfit” (2 Macc. 6:4).

Antiochus commanded the people to not keep the Sabbath or the festivals (2 Macc. 6:6); instead, he commanded them to make sacrifices to the Greek god Dionysus (2 Macc. 6:7). His men killed any Jewish people who refused to assimilate and apostatize (2 Macc. 6:9). 2 Maccabees records,

“For example, two women were brought in for having circumcised their children. They publicly paraded them around the city, with their babies hanging at their breasts, and then hurled them down headlong from the wall. Others who had assembled in the caves nearby, in order to observe the seventh day secretly, were betrayed to Philip and were all burned together, because their piety kept them from defending themselves, in view of their regard for that most holy day” (2 Macc. 6:10-11).

Eleazar—a 90 year old faithful scribe—refused to eat pig meat (2 Macc. 6:18). He told his persecutors that he would rather be sent to Hades! (2 Macc. 6:23). His last words were, “It is clear to the Lord in his holy knowledge that, though I might have been saved from death, I am enduring terrible sufferings in my body under this beating, but in my soul I am glad to suffer these things because I fear him” (2 Macc. 6:30).

A mother of seven boys also refused to eat pig meat (2 Macc. 7:1). Antiochus had the leader of the brothers tortured: The soldiers cut out his tongue, cut off his hands and feet, scalped him, and threw him alive onto a heated frying pan (2 Macc. 7:4-5). This all happened while his brothers and mother were watching!

After no one recanted their faith, the soldiers tortured the next brother, giving him an opportunity to recant and apostatize (2 Macc. 7:7). But he refused (2 Macc. 7:8). The second brother’s last words were, “You accursed wretch, you dismiss us from this present life, but the King of the universe will raise us up to an everlasting renewal of life, because we have died for his laws” (2 Macc. 7:9). They continued to torture and killed each brother in turn, and all the brothers theologically spit in the face of Antiochus (2 Macc. 7:10-19).

One final brother remained with his mother. But both mother and son refused to apostatize, and they received an even worse torture and death (2 Macc. 7:39).

1 Maccabees records that Antiochus tried to plunder Persia, because he was short on money. But he was turned away in Elymais (1 Macc. 6:1-3). Messengers told Antiochus how badly things were going back in Israel, and it scared him (1 Macc. 6:8). He believed he was dying from his anxiety, and he thought that his poor fortune was because he went against Israel (1 Macc. 6:12-13). He gave his kingdom to Philip and died in 163 BC (1 Macc. 6:16).

2 Maccabees records that Antiochus Epiphanes heard about the events in Israel, and he set out to make “Jerusalem a cemetery of Jews” (2 Macc. 9:4). On his way to Israel, Antiochus received a bowel disease, and he fell out of his chariot being horribly and mortally wounded (2 Macc. 9:5-7). His body was infested with worms (2 Macc. 9:9). He couldn’t endure his own stench (2 Macc. 9:12). He declared Jerusalem free, issued a restoration of the Temple, and even said he would become a Jewish evangelist (2 Macc. 9:14-17). But he didn’t get healed (2 Macc. 9:18). Antiochus bequeathed his kingdom to his son (also named Antiochus) before he died (2 Macc. 9:28).

The Priesthood during the Maccabean era

The Oniad Family. When Antiochus came to Israel, Onias III ruled as a faithful Jewish high priest. Jason—Onias’ brother—was a progressive Hellenizer, who wanted Israel to be more like Greek culture and religion.

Jason bought the high priesthood from Antiochus IV, and he led massive political and religious reforms to Hellenize Israel (2 Macc. 4:7-15). Antiochus offered the Jews citizenship, if they renounced Judaism. Jason took him up on this. Gundry describes this:

A gymnasium and an adjoining race track were built. There, to the outrage of strict Jews, Jewish lads exercised in the Greek fashion—nude. Track races opened with invocations to pagan deities. Even Jewish priests attended these events. Such Hellenization also included attendance at Greek theaters, the adoption of Greek dress, surgery to disguise circumcision when exercising in the nude, and the exchange of Hebrew names for Greek names.[2]

At the Greek games, Jason sacrificed 300 silver drachmas to Hercules (2 Macc. 4:19). DeSilva writes, “An additional bribe of 150 talents bought Jason the right to re-create Jerusalem as a Greek polis, a Greek city with a new constitution.”[3] As a consequence, Onias III was exiled and killed (2 Macc. 4).

The Tobiad Family. The Tobiad family were an ambitious family in opposition to the Oniad family. The Tobiads put forward their candidate for high priest: Menelaus (a Greek!). Menelaus out-bribed Antiochus for the high priesthood in 172 BC (2 Macc. 4:24). Antiochus Eupator fought Judea in 163 BC (2 Macc. 13:1). Menelaus encouraged this so that he could get himself back into office (2 Macc. 13:3). Antiochus Eupator turned on Menelaus, realizing that Menelaus was responsible for all of the bloodshed with the Jewish people (2 Macc. 13:4). Antiochus Eupator had Menelaus thrown into a 75 foot tower filled with ashes, where he died (2 Macc. 13:5-7).

Jason—the former high priest—heard a false report that Antiochus died, and he took it as an opportunity to rush the city with a thousand men (2 Macc. 5:5). Menelaus retreated into the inner citadel while the men were outside. Jason couldn’t overtake the citadel and had to go into hiding with the Ammonites (2 Macc. 5:7).

Mattathias: the father of the Maccabees

A priest named Mattathias settled in Modein (1 Macc. 2:1). He had five sons (1 Macc. 2:2-4). Mattathias mourned at the outrageous evil happening in Israel under Antiochus Epiphanes.

Antiochus’ officers tried to get Mattathias to apostatize by making an idolatrous sacrifice (1 Macc. 2:15), but Mattathias openly refused (1 Macc. 2:19). Immediately after making an impassioned speech to his fellow countrymen, a Jewish apostate/opportunist came forward to offer the idolatrous sacrifice in Mattathias’ place (1 Macc. 2:23). Mattathias killed the man on the altar, killed the Antiochus’ official, and tore down the pagan altar! (1 Macc. 2:24-25) This is where the Zealot party got their name (1 Macc. 2:27). Mattathias took his five sons and his followers to the wilderness to fight guerilla warfare (1 Macc. 2:29). This is similar to the plot of the movie Red Dawn.

Antiochus’ men waited to battle some of the survivors on the Sabbath, so that they couldn’t fight back (1 Macc. 2:32-38). These Jewish men didn’t defend themselves. It was an absolute slaughter: men, women, and children (~1,000 dead). Mattathias decided that his men would fight on the Sabbath in the future (1 Macc. 2:42). They killed apostates, tore down pagan altars, forcibly circumcised boys, and recovered the Scriptures (1 Macc. 2:44-48). Mattathias died in 166 BC (1 Macc. 2:70).

Judas Maccabeus

Judas Maccabeus was Mattathias’ son. He was given nickname “Maccabeus” (Greek Makkabaios, “Hammer”) because of his intensity in battle.[4] This is where we get the name “Maccabean Revolt.” Sometimes this family are referred to as the Maccabees, while other times they are called Hasmoneans (after Mattathias’ great-grandfather Hash-monai).

Judas was the “William Wallace” of his day. He led the Jewish rebel soldiers in guerrilla warfare, until they were able to defeat the Greeks in pitched battle. After Judas would win a war, he would disperse the booty to those who had been tortured, to orphans, and to widows (2 Macc. 8:28). He rededicated the Temple in Jerusalem in 164 BC (1 Macc. 4:52; 2 Macc. 10:1-5). This is where Jewish people get Hanukkah from (2 Macc. 10:6).

In about 160 BC (1 Macc. 9:3), most of Judas’ men abandoned him—only 800 remained. Judas and his small remaining men put up a good fight, but Judas was ultimately killed (1 Macc. 9:11-19). They called Judas the “savior of Israel” (1 Macc. 9:21).


One by one, Judas’ brothers led the war after his death, succeeding in gaining political and religious sovereignty for Israel. In subsequent years (142-37 BC), the Hasmonean Dynasty (i.e. the Maccabees) suffered from internal decay, splitting apart.

The Hasideans split into the Pharisees and the Essenes,[5] and the supporters of the Hasmonean priest-kings were the Sadducees. These groups lay a foundation for our understanding of Judaism in Jesus’ day.

Further Reading

See our earlier introductions to 1 Maccabees and 2 Maccabees.

[1] David A. deSilva, Introducing the Apocrypha (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2002), 47.

[2] Robert Horton Gundry, A Survey of the New Testament, 4th ed (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003), 7.

[3] David A. deSilva, Introducing the Apocrypha (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2002), 49.

[4] Ivor J. Davidson, The Birth of the Church: From Jesus to Constantine, AD 30–312 (Vol. 1. Grand Rapids: Baker, 2004), 39.

[5] Robert Horton Gundry, A Survey of the New Testament, 4th ed (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2003), 10.