The Maccabean revolt was a landmark in Jewish history. Judea had for a century and a half been under the suzerainty of Hellenistic kingdoms, first the Ptolemies of Egypt and then the Seleucids of Syria, relatively benign rulers who interfered little in the internal governance, culture, or religion of the Jews. In the mid 160s BCE, however, a sudden, unexpected, and unparalleled blow stunned the inhabitants of Judea. The Seleucid monarch Antiochus IV Epiphanes reversed the policies of his predecessors, raining terror and devastation upon the land of the Jews. The acts of abomination culminated in 168 and 167 not only with the installation of Syrian garrisons and the ordering of massacres in Jerusalem but with altogether unprecedented decrees of the monarch outlawing Jewish religious practices, like sacrifices, burnt offerings, libations, and circumcision. Agents of the king compounded the calamity by entering the Temple, piling profane offerings on the altar, and even compelling Jews to eat pagan sacrificial victims and parade with wreaths of ivory at Dionysiac festivals. Antiochus seemingly overturned all that was sacred, even rededicating the Temple itself to Zeus Olympios. The final desecration came with the introduction of a pagan altar into the Temple and the sacrifice of a pig on that altar. This series of unspeakable deeds proved intolerable, eventually prompting a fierce reaction headed by the family of the Maccabees and led by Judah Maccabee.
The efforts of Judah found fruition. Guerilla warfare, followed by pitched battles, allowed the Maccabees to regain control of the Temple. In December of 164, the most significant symbol of the turnabout occurred: the recovery, cleansing, and rededication of the Temple as the central element of Jewish identity. That pivotal accomplishment issued in a grand celebration, extended over eight days, and subsequently established as an annual memorialization, still celebrated as the festival of Hanukkah. The commemoration marked a signal achievement that gave Jews a sense of successful defiance of oppression and the assertion of independence and self-governance to be reaffirmed every year.
Such is the essential narrative that exists on the Maccabean rebellion. But we need to be aware of the sources of our information. The principal evidence stems from the historical treatises termed 1 Maccabees and 2 Maccabees. Those texts, found among the writings of the so-called Apocrypha, were not part of the canonical Hebrew Bible, but were preserved in Greek largely by Christian scholars who evidently saw them as a source of inspiration to be retained as part of the Jewish works that presaged the teachings of the early Church. 1 Macc, originally composed in Hebrew, probably by an author in Palestine, survives now only in Greek translation. The date of its composition cannot be ascertained with precision but belongs somewhere in the late 2nd cent. BCE. 2 Macc, by contrast, provides an abridged version of a much larger work attributed to a certain Jason of Cyrene, and composed in Greek, so that our version is presumably close to the original. Its date too is disputed, but a scholarly consensus places it in the later 2nd or early 1st cent. BCE, perhaps not far in time from 1 Macc. But the two works, although they cover some of the same ground, are entirely different in character and purpose. Both, however, belong to a time two generations or more after the Maccabean uprising and cannot claim eyewitness testimony. More significantly, both works have agendas that take them out of the realm of sheer objectivity. 1 Macc, after an introductory portion, supplies a narrative that begins with Antiochus’s assaults on Jerusalem and the Jews and takes the story not only through the rebellion but well into the history of Judah Maccabee’s successors, the dynasty of the Hasmoneans, down to the accession of John Hyrcanus in 134 BCE. 2 Macc begins earlier but covers a shorter span. The treatise supplies a broader background, including purported correspondence between Jews in Judea and those in Egypt, events in the reign of Seleucus IV who preceded Antiochus, and conflicts among Jewish leaders and factions leading up to the depredations of Antiochus. It contributes more details on the battles of Judah Maccabee but concludes with his final victory, stopping short of his death in 160. The approaches and objectives of the two works are quite different from one another. 1 Macc holds a strong brief for the Hasmonean family, stressing the qualities and accomplishments of the patriarch of the clan, Mattathias, and the four members of the family who succeeded one another as leaders of the land, Judah, Jonathan, Simon, and John Hyrcanus, thus justifying the legitimacy of their rule and their divine mission to deliver their people from oppression. Thus 1 Macc hardly qualifies as an impartial or disinterested historical record. 2 Macc (and presumably the much longer work of Jason of Cyrene from which it excerpted) has an altogether distinctive quality. It does not advance the dynastic claims of the Hasmoneans but portrays the clash between Judah Maccabee and Antiochus as part of a larger confrontation between the principles and values of Judaism and the encroaching Hellenism adopted by many Jewish leaders who embraced a wider Greek cultural and political world. That representation perhaps owes something to the perspective of the author who stems from a Hellenized diaspora environment rather than Judea. Further, 2 Macc, unlike the relatively sober historical narrative of 1 Macc, contains various tales of supernatural intervention, miraculous events, and extraordinary sacrifice, like martyrdom, for the cause that have the flavor more of fantasy than of history. Both of our main sources, therefore, have axes to grind and messages to promote. This does not, of course, render them altogether unreliable. But it does suggest caution in assessing their reconstruction of the Maccabean revolt and its consequences. The sources provide no clear and decisive reason for Antiochus’s striking reversal of Seleucid policy and assault on Jerusalem.
Scholarly theories remain divided and disputed. There is little support for the idea that Antiochus was an ardent champion of Hellenism and had the encouragement of Jewish “Hellenizers.” Nor does the evidence show that he needed to exploit the Temple treasury for economic purposes or to finance his imperialist aims. That Antiochus needed to crush a Jewish rebellion is inadequate explanation, since it had already been crushed by the time Antiochus delivered his most cruel measures. And the whole idea of a fundamental split in Jewish society that divided those attracted by Greek culture from those who clung to ancient traditions and practices stands on shaky foundations. The concept of a deadly clash between Hellenism and Judaism has largely been discredited by recent scholarship. The motivation of Antiochus Epiphanes may forever elude us.
Whatever the goals of Antiochus, however, the Maccabean rebellion stands as a memorable achievement. But what did the “rebellion” amount to? The Hanukkah festival proclaims it as a liberation of the Jews from foreign oppression and the establishment of Jewish autonomy, independent of the rule of Hellenistic monarchy. But that edifying picture does not tell the whole story - or perhaps even the most important part of it. It is too simple to see Judah Maccabee’s uprising as an effort to overthrow the imperial rule of the Seleucid kingdom - let alone to extirpate Hellenism from the holy land.
2 Macc itself records four letters that reveal exchanges and negotiations between the royal court or its representatives and the Jews. They disclose cordial relations between the crown and the Jewish leadership after Judah’s recovery of the Temple. The successors of Antiochus IV did not revive his policies of eradicating traditional practices or imposing Greek cults upon the Temple Mount. To be sure, hostilities continued. But Judah’s campaigns directed themselves at least as much against neighbors and rivals of the Jews as against Hellenic foes, thus reliving the epic battles and triumphs of the biblical era. Periodic truces with Seleucid forces showed mutual regard and avoided continuous conflict. The goal of Judah Maccabee does not seem to have included a permanent release from Seleucid overlordship. What then was the outcome of the Maccabean “revolt’? It was largely a return to the status quo as it had existed prior to Antiochus IV’s assaults. The Seleucid garrison remained in Jerusalem. A new Seleucid king reached an accord with Jonathan, brother and successor of Judah, forswearing further hostilities. The monarch remained in charge, backing a new Jewish leader who would maintain order and stability in the region and in the interests of the regime. Even when Simon, younger brother of Judah and Jonathan, attained the high priesthood and claimed in the 140s BCE, according to 1 Macc, that he had lifted the yoke of gentile rule from the Jews, real independence did not follow. Simon’s position was authorized and acknowledged by the Seleucid sovereign who secured for him the high priesthood and named him officially one of the king’s friends. This did not entail the independence of the Jewish state. Hasmonean authority expanded in subsequent decades. But the expansion owed much to the internal disintegration of the Seleucid empire, and Judean successes came largely through support for one or another of the Seleucid contenders for the throne. In short, Judah Maccabee’s uprising accomplished the immediate and important aim: the reversal of Antiochus’s abominations and recovery of the Temple, more than enough to justify the celebration of Hanukkah. But it is well to remember that this did not bring about the elimination of Seleucid rule or the establishment of Jewish liberty. The Maccabean resistance to Antiochus’s unique atrocities did not constitute a revolt against Hellenistic sovereignty. The repercussions for later generations remain significant.
Whatever the realities of the immediate situation, the symbolism of Maccabean victory, through the Hanukkah commemoration, retains a powerful hold on Jewish self-esteem. We do not know whether Jews celebrated the festival continuously from the first occasion after rededicating the Temple in 164. It receives little mention in Jewish writings of the Second Temple period. Some have conjectured that it was abandoned or suspended for some years. But it is mentioned in the Gospel of John as being observed in the time of Jesus, evidently as a routine matter, so that it continued to be a meaningful memorial for the Jews of Judea. And allusions to it in the letters of 2 Macc addressed to Egyptian Jews suggest that it was meaningful to the Jews of the diaspora as well. Further references to Hanukkah appear in Rabbinic midrashim, including one that links the tale of Judith and her miraculous rescue of the Jews to that of Judah Maccabee. The rabbis also added the most famous legend of all, the oil lamp that burned eight days to allow the purification of the Temple (a legend unmentioned in the books of the Maccabees).
The annual commemoration of the Maccabean purification and rededication of the Temple kept the story alive and perhaps offered some reassurance even among Jews who experienced the destruction of the Temple by the Romans in 70 CE. We can presume that among them were those Jews who embraced the new sect of worshippers of Jesus Christ. Just how large a role the accomplishment of the Maccabees may have played in the ideology and experience of the early Christians is very hard to discern. But some possible clues suggest themselves. A wrenching, but powerful and moving, narrative in 2 Macc reports the woeful fate of some of Antiochus’s victims in the time of persecution. The elderly and distinguished Eleazar rejected to his final day the efforts of Antiochus’s soldiers to compel him to swallow pork. Eleazar spat out the swineflesh, refusing the option of pretense and deception, subjecting himself instead to the brutal flogging that soon ended his life, a model and inspiration to all his fellow Jews. 2 Macc follows that tale with the even more memorable and heartrending episode of the mother who unflinchingly observed the torture and death of each of her seven sons, indeed encouraged each with great pride to endure the most monstrous torments. These compelling stories had clear resonance for a Christian readership. Most particularly the text brings to the fore the striking idea of resurrection. That concept had already surfaced earlier, in the Book of Daniel, where the prophet proclaims that many of those who sleep in the dusty earth will awake, some to everlasting life and others to eternal disgrace. The belief emerges with full force in 2 Macc where the second son declares in his final breath that the king of the universe will resurrect to an eternal life those who remain faithful to the laws. That conviction is reaffirmed by the fourth son who defies Antiochus by asserting that it is better to perish at the human hands and look to God for resurrection, a future denied to the wicked king. And the courageous mother strengthened the resolve of her last surviving son by reminding him that God will restore his life and spirit because of his allegiance to the laws. She herself, before her own ghastly death, declares to the last son that his defiance of the king’s orders will allow her to receive him back again, together with all his slain brothers, of whom he proved himself worthy. The narrative of 2 Macc, by setting forth the concept of resurrection in dramatic form gave it a significance that may well have subsequently seeped into Christian consciousness.
Another text brings this matter of yielding up life for a higher reward even greater prominence. The work has come down to us as 4 Macc in the Septuagint. It possesses a character very different from 1 and 2 Macc. The anonymous author has little interest in historical matters and makes no mention of the Maccabees at all. He provides only a brief précis of events leading up to Antiochus’s persecutions, but dwells at great length and in graphic detail on the martyrdoms of Eleazar and of the woman with her seven sons drawn from 2 Macc but much expanded. Precise date of the treatise remains beyond our grasp, but most scholars place it somewhere between the mid-1st and mid-2nd cent. CE, contemporary with the era of early Christianity. It does not profess or attempt to be a work of history. Its orientation is philosophical and rhetorical. The author focuses from the outset on the issue of reason’s control of the emotions and the choice of a life of wisdom as knowledge of matters human and divine and their causes, standard Stoic doctrines, though not limited to the Stoics. 4 Macc’s insistence upon the four cardinal virtues, good sense, justice, courage, and self-control, can also be traced back to Plato and Aristotle. The treatise dwells predominantly on the martyrology for it exemplified reason as sovereign over the passions and represented the exercise of philosophical principle in the face of tyranny and injustice. Equally important, it did not limit application to the specific circumstances of the Maccabean martyrs. The treatise alludes only vaguely to any precepts or practices that could be identified as Jewish. The term “Judaism” notably appears just once in the text. Eleazar emerges simply as “philosopher of the divine life” and advocate of “divine philosophy.” The language left open the possibility of exploitation by both Jews and Christians. We can only speculate about whether the early Christians were familiar with the books of the Maccabees. No explicit reference to those books appears in the New Testament. But the idea of resurrection of the (worthy) dead was clearly in the air, and those Jews who entered the circles of Christ-worshippers may well have spread it to their compatriots. Hints of this exist, for instance in Heb 11:35, where the author speaks of women who received their dead by resurrection and welcomed their own torture and death in order to rise again to a better life. And echoes of this conviction occur in the Gospel of John which affirms that those who have performed good deeds can look forward to the resurrection of life, while the wicked are subject to a resurrection of judgment. The themes and language of 2 Macc or 4 Macc or both do recur in later Christian writers on the martyrs of the Church. The strong similarities suggest a direct familiarity with those texts or, at the very least, the motifs that they advance. Ignatius, the bishop of Antioch, mirrored the Maccabean martyrs in connection with his own martyrdom in the early 2nd cent. by reckoning his experience as a rebirth. The depiction of Polycarp’s execution in the mid 2nd century bears close resemblance to that of Eleazar and the seven brothers in their refusal to countenance alternatives proffered by Antiochus and Roman officials respectively Origen’s Exhortation to Martyrdom in the early 3rd cent. directly cites the martyr tales of the Maccabean victims. The traditions of Jewish martyrdoms continued to have strong resonance in the consciousness of early Christian writers.
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