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The Maccabees (166-129 BCE) by Mitchell Bard
Hasmoneans (Maccabees) ABS
The origin of the Hasmonean dynasty is recorded in the books of 1 Maccabees and 2 Maccabees. These books are not part of the Hebrew Bible, but are part of the deuterocanonical historical and religious material from the Septuagint.
Hanukkah and the origins of the Hasmonean Dynasty
The festival of Hanukkah was instituted by Judah Maccabee and his brothers in the year 165 BCE, to be celebrated annually with joy as a memorial of the dedication of the altar in the Temple in Jerusalem. (1 Macc. iv. 59). After having recovered Jerusalem, Judah ordered the Temple to be cleansed, a new altar to be built in place of the polluted one, and new holy vessels to be made. When the fire had been kindled anew upon the altar and the lamps of the candlestick lit, the dedication of the altar was celebrated for eight days amid sacrifices and songs (1 Macc. iv. 36) in a similar fashion to Sukkot, the Feast of Tabernacles (2 Macc. x. 6 and i. 9) which also lasts for eight days, and at which the lighting of lamps and torches formed a prominent part during the Second Temple (Suk.v. 2-4).
Talmudic Sources say that when they came to re-dedicate the Temple there was found only one vial of sanctified oil to light the menorah that had not been contaminated. This oil would usually be only enough to burn for one day but it
lasted for eight days and that was the miracle of Hanukkah.
The death of Alexander the Great of Greece in 323 BCE led to the breakup of the Greek empire as three of his generals fought for supremacy and divided the Middle East among themselves. Ptolemy secured control of Egypt and the Land of Israel. Seleucus grabbed Syria and Asia Minor, and Antigonus took Greece.
Palestine was sandwiched between the two rivals and for the next 125 years Seleucids and Ptolemies battled for the prize. The former finally won in 198 B.C. when Antiochus III defeated the Egyptians and incorporated Judea into his empire. Initially, he continued to allow the Jews autonomy, but after a stinging defeat at the hands of the Romans he began a program of Hellenization that threatened to force the Jews to abandon their monotheism for the Greeks' paganism. Antiochus backed down in the face of Jewish opposition to his effort to introduce idols in their temples, but his son, Antiochus IV, who inherited the throne in 176 B.C. resumed his father's original policy without excepting the Jews. A brief Jewish rebellion only hardened his views and led him to outlaw central tenets of Judaism such as the Sabbath and circumcision, and defile the holy Temple by erecting an altar to the god Zeus, allowing the sacrifice of pigs, and opening the shrine to non-Jews.
The Jewish Hammer
Though many Jews had been seduced by the virtues of Hellenism, the extreme measures adopted by Antiochus helped unite the people. When a Greek official tried to force a priest named Mattathias to make a sacrifice to a pagan god, the Jew murdered the man. Predictably, Antiochus began reprisals, but in 167 BCE the Jews rose up behind Mattathias and his five sons and fought for their liberation.
The family of Mattathias became known as the Maccabees, from the Hebrew word for "hammer," because they were said to strike hammer blows against their enemies. Jews refer to the Maccabees, but the family is more commonly known as the Hasmoneans.
Like other rulers before him, Antiochus underestimated the will and strength of his Jewish adversaries and sent a small force to put down the rebellion. When that was annihilated, he led a more powerful army into battle only to be defeated. In 164 BCE, Jerusalem was recaptured by the Maccabees and the Temple purified, an event that gave birth to the holiday of Chanukah.
Jews Regain Their Independence
It took more than two decades of fighting before the Maccabees forced the Seleucids to retreat from Palestine. By this time Antiochus had died and his successor agreed to the Jews' demand for independence. In the year 142 BCE, after more than 500 years of subjugation, the Jews were again masters of their own fate.
When Mattathias died, the revolt was led by his son Judas, or Judah Maccabee, as he is often called. By the end of the war, Simon was the only one of the five sons of Mattathias to survive and he ushered in an 80-year period of Jewish independence in Judea, as the Land of Israel was now called. The kingdom regained boundaries not far short of Solomon's realm and Jewish life flourished.
Maccabees, the family nickname of the Jewish dynasty that ruled Judea from the time of the Maccabean Revolt (167 B.C.) until the Roman conquest of Palestine by Pompey in 63 B.C., usually refers to the Jewish patriot Mattathias and his five sons. This family and their descendants are more properly known as the Hasmoneans. The story of the clans early efforts to liberate the Jewish people from their Seleucid rulers is told in the deuterocanonical/apocryphal books 1 and 2 Maccabees.
Mattathias, the head of the family, served as a priest in the temple. He refused to adopt the Greek culture and resisted the policies of Antiochus IV (Epiphanes) because they threatened to destroy the Jewish nation. In 167 B.C., he began what is known as the Maccabean revolt when he killed a Jew and one of Antiochus officials to keep them from offering pagan sacrifices in the temple. Following Mattathias death in 166 B.C., the struggle was continued by his five sons and grandson.
Judas (ruled from 166 to 160 B.C.), nicknamed Maccabeus or the hammer, was Mattathias third oldest son. This warrior successfully led the Jewish forces against the larger Syrian armies. He also led in the cleansing and rededication of the temple, which had been made unfit for worship when Antiochus IV ordered the sacrifice of ritually unclean animals upon its altar.
Jonathan (ruled from 160 to 142 B.C.), Mattathias fifth and youngest son, was a good diplomat as well as a warrior, as indicated by the treaties he established with leaders of several surrounding nations. In 152 B.C., he was named high priest.
Simon (ruled from 142 to 134 B.C.), Mattathias second eldest son, was even more successful at diplomacy than Jonathan and finally achieved independence for Judea. He, too, was made high priest. The office of high priest became a hereditary position in Simons family.
The leadership of the Hasmoneans was founded by a resolution, adopted in 141 BCE, at a large assembly "of the priests and the people and of the elders of the land, to the effect that Simon should be their leader and high priest forever, until there should arise a faithful prophet" (I Macc. xiv. 41).
John Hyrcanus, Simons son, ruled from 134 to 104 B.C., a period of great Jewish prosperity. Two major Jewish groups in Palestine, the Pharisees and the Sadducees, were formed at this time. Although most of the Jewish population favored the Pharisees, John Hyrcanus gave his support to the Sadducees. Unlike his father, uncles, and grandfather, John Hyrcanus died a peaceful death following a long and successful reign.
By 103 B.C. the throne passed to Alexander Janneus who ruled until 76 B.C. His widow, Alexandra, ruled during the decade following his death. When civil war broke out between her sons Aristobulus II and Hyrcanus II after her death, the conflict was eventually resolved by the Roman general Pompey the Great who designated Hyrcanus as high priest and ethnarch (a lesser title than king). The Hasmoneans continued to rule a much-reduced territory as clients of Rome until 37 B.C., when Herod, who was only related to the family by marriage, was made client king.