The Maccabees (מכבים or מקבים), Maqabim, were the leaders of a Jewish rebel army that took control of Judea, which at the time had been a province of the Seleucid Empire. They founded the Hasmonean dynasty, which ruled from 164 BCE to 63 BCE. They reasserted the Jewish religion, partly by forced conversion, expanded the boundaries of Judea by conquest and reduced the influence of Hellenism and Hellenistic Judaism.
In the 2nd century BCE, Judea lay between the Ptolemaic Kingdom (based in Egypt) and the Seleucid empire (based in Syria), monarchies which had formed following the death of Alexander the Great (356–323 BCE). Judea had come under Ptolemaic rule, but fell to the Seleucids around 200 BCE. Judea at that time had been affected by the Hellenization campaign begun by Alexander. Some Jews, mainly those of the urban upper class, notably the Tobiad family, wished to dispense with the Jewish Torah and to adopt a Greek lifestyle. According to the historian Victor Tcherikover, the main motive for the Tobiads’ Hellenism was economic and political. The Hellenizing Jews built a gymnasium in Jerusalem, adjacent to the Temple, competed in international Greek games, “removed their marks of circumcision and repudiated the holy covenant” i.e. abandoned and despised the Torah of Mosheh.
When Antiochus IV Epiphanes (circa 215–164 BCE), became ruler of the Seleucid Empire in 175 BCE, Onias III held the office of High Priest in Jerusalem. To Antiochus, the High Priest was merely a local governor within his realm, a man whom he could appoint or dismiss at will, while devout Jews saw the holder of the High Priesthood as divinely appointed. Jason, the brother of Onias, bribed Antiochus to make him High Priest instead of Onias. Jason abolished the traditional theocracy and “received from Antiochus permission to convert Jerusalem into a Greek polis called Antioch”. In turn, Menelaus then bribed Antiochus and was appointed High Priest in place of Jason. Menelaus had Onias assassinated. Menelaus’ brother Lysimachus stole holy vessels from the Temple; the resulting riots led to the death of Lysimachus. Menelaus was arrested for Onias’ murder, and was arraigned before Antiochus, but he bribed his way out of trouble. Jason subsequently drove out Menelaus and became High Priest again. Next, Antiochus pillaged the Temple, attacked Jerusalem and “led captive the women and children” in 168 BCE. From this point onwards, Antiochus pursued a zealous Hellenizing policy in the Seleucid satrapies of Coele Syria and Phoenicia.
The First Book of Maccabees describe the Maccabean revolt as a rising of pious Jews against the Seleucid king who had tried to eradicate their religion, and against the Hellenising Jews who supported Antiochus. The Bool 1 Maccabees has Pharasaic undertones in the sense the co-operation with Rome is advocated. In contrast, 2 Maccabees is a thoroughly Purist Tzadoqim work, albeit containing some fantastic (unrealistic) imagery. The author of the Second Book of Maccabees presented the conflict as a struggle between “Judaism” and “Hellenism” — concepts which he coined. Most modern scholars argue that King Antiochus reacted to a civil war between traditionalist Jews in the Judean countryside and Hellenized Jews in Jerusalem, though the king’s response of persecuting the religious traditionalists was unusual in antiquity, and was the immediate provocation for the revolt. According to Joseph P Schultz, modern scholarship “considers the Maccabean revolt less as an uprising against foreign oppression than as a civil war between the orthodox and Helleniser parties in the Jewish camp”, while John J. Collins writes that while the civil war between Jewish leaders led to the king’s new Hellenising policies, and that it is simplistic to see the revolt as simply a conflict between Judaism and a Hellenism imposed from the outside, since “the [Maccabean] revolt was not provoked by the introduction of Greek customs (typified by the building of a gymnasium) but by the persecution of people who observed the Torah by having their children circumcised and refusing to eat pork.” In the conflict over the office of High Priest, traditionalists with Hebrew & Aramaic names like Onias contested with Hellenizers with Greek names like Jason and Menelaus. What began as a civil war took on the character of an invasion when the Hellenistic Seleucid kingdom of Syria sided with the Hellenizing Jews against the traditionalist Torah-zealots. As the conflict escalated, Antiochus IV prohibited the practices of the traditionalists (i.e he forbade Torah-observance), thereby, banning and outlawing the ancestral religion of an entire people.
According to 1 Maccabees, Antiochus banned many traditional Jewish and Samaritan religious practices: he made possession of Torah-scrolls a capital offense and burned the copies he could find; sabbaths and feasts were banned; circumcision was outlawed, and mothers who circumcised their babies were killed along with their families; and ritual sacrifice was forbidden. An idol of Zeus was placed on the altar of the Temple and Hellenizing Jews set up altars to Greek gods and sacrificed unclean animals on them.
After Antiochus issued his decrees forbidding Jewish religious practice, a rural Jewish priest from Modiin, Mattathias the Hasmonean, sparked the revolt against the Seleucid Empire by refusing to worship the Greek gods. Mattathias killed a Hellenistic Jew who stepped forward to offer a sacrifice to an idol in Mattathias’ place, when the latter refused. He and his five sons fled to the wilderness of Judah. After Mattathias’ death about one year later in 166 BCE, his son Yehudah the Hammer (Judas Maccabee) led an army of Jewish dissidents to victory over the Seleucid dynasty in guerrilla warfare, which at first was directed against Hellenizing Jews, of whom there were many. The Maccabees destroyed pagan altars in the villages, the circumcised boys and forced Jews to join the guerillas i,e, the Torah-partisans. The term Maccabees as used to describe the Jewish army is taken from the Hebrew word for “hammer”.
The revolt involved many battles, in which the Maccabean forces used guerrilla tactics. After the victory, the Maccabees entered Jerusalem in triumph and ritually cleansed the Temple, re-establishing traditional Jewish worship there and installing Yehonathan HaMaqabi as Kohein Gadol — high priest. A large Seleucid army was sent to quash the revolt, but returned to Syria on the death of Antiochus IV. Its commander, Lysias, preoccupied with internal Seleucid affairs, agreed to a political compromise that restored religious freedom to the Torah-Jews.
The Jewish festival of Hanukkah, originally a “copy” of Chag Sukkot, celebrated Judah Maccabee’s military victory over the Seleucids. Later, to appease the Romans, it was refashioned to commemorate the re-dedication of the Temple after the victory of Benei Yisra’el over Benei Yawan, while the aspect of a military uprising using strike-and-hide guerrilla war tactics, was moved to the background.
Why the Books of the Maccabees are not in the Canon of the TaNaKh
The canon of the TaNaKh was decided at Yamnia in the decade or decades immediately after the disastrous uprising and war of 66 CE – 73 CE. The books of the Maccabees talks eloquently and positively about a successful liberation war of Torah-faithful patriots against a foreign occupying power who repressed the people. The rabbanim at Yamnia, spared by a victorious Rome, were most certainly not inclined to canonize the Sifrei haMaqabim — documents that so clearly praised a military uprising.