Maccabees

Alexander the Great’s dream of a united world speaking Greek and living a Greek lifestyle ran into trouble when it was applied to the Palestinian Jewish world. The Diadochi, generals who followed the short-lived grandeur of Alexander the Great, allotted the Asian share of Alexander’s conquests to the Seleucid Empire.

Besides quarreling with the house of the Ptolemies over the control of Palestine, the Seleucids had their hands full with the resident Jews represented by the family of the Maccabees, a name that means "hammer-like". In rabbinic literature they are know as the Hasmonaeans.

At first favors were granted to the Jews who lived in Palestine to win over their sympathies. Later the Seleucids reversed their policies: They needed to raise capital to fund their wars and pay their tribute, so now the Jews were seen as sources of revenue.

Jewish taxes were raised, the Jerusalem temple treasury was raided, and religious offices were bought and sold for the profit of the Seleucids. Another part of their strategy to take over Palestine was to turn Jerusalem into a Greek city-state (or polis), whose culture would have supported things such as theater, gymnasiums, dance, and Greek mythology and pantheon, all repugnant in the eyes of the religious Jew.


The Seleucids found that Jewish opposition was so great that they had to establish a military garrison in Jerusalem in 167 b.c.e. The error of building a foreign base in the Jewish holy city was compounded by another grave error: The Seleucid emperor Antiochus IV started derogating Jewish customs and planning for the transformation of the Jewish Temple into a shrine for Zeus. By these measures Antiochus was abrogating Jewish self-rule and imposing Hellenistic values on all Jews.

Had these reforms been adopted, as they had in nearly every realm of the Mediterranean world, the Jewish people might not have survived past the second century b.c.e. Instead, a new generation fought assimilation to the Seleucids. Its leaders were the Maccabees, who "hammered" away at the Seleucid Empire, attained political independence, and retained their religious identity.

Their struggle lasted 40 years, beginning with Mattithias and passed on to seven of his sons. The apocryphal (or deuterocanonical) book of the Maccabees tells the tale of their struggle.

The first of the sons was Judas. He started a military uprising, brilliantly capturing the temple precincts with his elite religious force and reinstituting Jewish worship there. The feast of Hanukkah (dedication) commemorates this event.

Judas eventually won concessions from the Seleucids, and the disastrous decisions of 167 b.c.e. were rescinded. Eventually, the Hellenized Jews and Seleucids rebounded and killed Judas.

The youngest son, Jonathan, arose as the new strong man of his people, much like the biblical Judges before the time of King Saul. Jonathan tried negotiation. The Seleucids reciprocated by appointing him high priest and giving him several districts in Samaria.

They also gave land to the last remaining Maccabean brother, Simon. Instead of drawing the Jews into the Seleucid Empire, the reverse happened: Now Judah was reconstituted under the two brothers, so much that the Romans even noticed and gave the Maccabees political recognition.

The Seleucids tried to cut their losses by killing Jonathan, but Simon acted with even greater fervor: He expelled the foreign troops from Jerusalem and abolished all payment of tribute to Syria. Syrian domination of Judah then came to an end.