In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Maccabean Revolt

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Literary Sources
  • Preliminaries to the Reign of Antiochus IV Epiphanes
  • Antiochus IV Epiphanes and the Persecution of the Jews
  • Jewish Responses to Seleucid Rule
  • Judea’s Foreign Relations
  • Warfare and Conquest in Judea
  • Hellenization and Local Tradition in Judea: The Seleucid and Hasmonean Periods
  • Jewish Groups and Sects
  • Greek Epigraphy
  • Numismatics
  • Archaeology

Biblical Studies Maccabean Revolt
Dov Gera
  • LAST REVIEWED: 30 July 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 30 July 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393361-0031


In 167 BCE the Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes (reign from 175–164 BCE) ordered the religious persecution of the Jews living in the satrapy of Coele Syria and Phoenicia. The Seleucid ruler banned the Jewish cult in an attempt to force the Jews (and the Samaritans) to forsake their belief in the God of Israel. Instead, the worship of foreign gods and goddesses was imposed on them. Antiochus’s persecution of the Jewish religion and his attempt to eradicate a cult of a people inhabiting their ancestral land were unprecedented in the ancient world. Had his policy succeeded, Judaism would have ceased to exist, and Christianity would never have had the climate from which it would later evolve. However, passive resistance to the religious persecutions immediately surfaced, and some Jews preferred to die as martyrs rather than abandon their faith and transgress their laws. These martyrs were to serve as a model for other followers of the monotheistic faiths, be they Jews or not. Armed opposition to the king’s policy began almost immediately afterward, under the leadership of Mattathias the Hasmonean and his sons. Thus a new period in the history of the Jewish people was inaugurated, a period that was to last for more than half a century. In those years, Mattathias’s heirs headed a military as well as a political struggle. Mattathias’s original goal was to secure religious freedom for the Judean Jews, but his son, Judas the Maccabee, and other members of the Hasmonean family sought to achieve military, administrative, and political control in an expanded Judea, crowning their success with the achievement of independence. In this struggle, the Hasmoneans clashed with the Hellenistic Kingdom of the Seleucids and the Greek cities around Judea, yet at the same time the Maccabean state acquired some of the Hellenistic cultural traits of its adversaries. One can offer alternative dates for the Maccabean Revolution. However, several achievements undoubtedly symbolize the heights reached by the Hasmoneans: the reconquest of the Jerusalem temple and its rededication (164 BCE); the signing of a compact with Rome (161 BCE); the appointment of Jonathan as high priest (153 BCE); the conquest of the Acra, the Hellenistic stronghold in Jerusalem, and Simon’s declaration of Judea’s independence (142 BCE); the official stamp given to Simon’s powers as high priest, military commander, and political leader by his people; and the military conquests of John Hyrcanus I, especially those achieved toward the end of his reign (c. 112 BCE). These made Judea a military power roughly equal in strength to that of its Seleucid opponents; the self enthronement of the Hasmoneans was first undertaken either by Judas Aristobulus (reigned 104–103 BCE) or by his brother, Alexander Janneus (reigned 103–76 BCE). All these landmarks reflect a sharp change in the standing of the Jews and the state of Judea. However, while the reign of Alexander Janneus may be perceived as the high point of the Jewish state, his reign witnessed not only foreign wars of expansion but also a bloody civil war waged by the king against the Pharisees. No wonder, then, that soon after his death (76 BCE), increasing divisions within the royal house coupled with the rivalry between the Pharisees and Sadducees eroded the remaining strength of the Hasmonean Kingdom. The advent of Rome, first to Syria and then to Judea, soon brought about the subjugation of the Jews (63 BCE). Thus, the edifice of a Jewish state enjoying political and military power was to last for less than a century before its collapse.

General Overviews

The persecution of the Jews by Antiochus IV Epiphanes and the Jewish reactions to this are often studied against their background. Thus, several scholars offer a study of Judea since its occupation by Alexander the Great (Tcherikover 1959), or since the beginning of the contention between the Ptolemaic and the Seleucid Kingdoms over the mastery of that country (Hengel 1974). The question of the early Hellenization of various groups inhabiting Judea is also a major concern of these two scholars, Victor Tcherikover and Martin Hengel. Some of the other studies prefer to open their investigation with the annexation of Coele Syria and Phoenicia, Judea included, to the Seleucid Kingdom (Bickerman 1979). Still others select the reign of Antiochus IV as their starting point (Sievers 1990).

  • Bickerman, Elias. The Maccabees: An Account of Their History from the Beginnings to the Fall of the House of the Hasmoneans. Translated by Moses Hadas. Schocken Library 6. New York: Schocken, 1947.

    The running thread in this booklet is the process by which the Hasmonean ruling family, and Jewish society as a whole, absorbed Hellenistic culture yet maintained the supremacy of Jewish Law above all else. Judaism was thus saved from stagnation, and its existence was ensured for generations to come. The author’s wish was that this modest volume would serve “as a nucleus for a future extended work on the subject.” Reprinted in Bickerman’s From Ezra to the Last of the Maccabees: Foundations of Post-biblical Judaism (New York: Schocken, 1962), pp. 91–186, with minor changes.

  • Bickerman, Elias. The God of the Maccabees: Studies on the Meaning and Origin of the Maccabean Revolt. Translated by Horst R. Moehring. Studies in Judaism in Late Antiquity 32. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1979.

    Bickerman’s conclusion that Epiphanes’ ban on Jewish religion was influenced by Jewish Hellenizers contradicts the essence of Hellenistic kingship. The book’s motto comes from Augustine of Hippo, who questioned why God abandoned the Maccabees, and this leads not only to the main topic, but also to Nazi Germany, from which Bickerman escaped and in which this book was originally published. Against this background, his hypothesis seems paradoxical. Reprinted in Bickerman’s Studies in Jewish and Christian History, Vol. 2, edited by Amram Tropper (Boston: Brill, 2007), pp. 1025–1149.

  • Bringmann, Klaus. Hellenistische Reform und Religionsverfolgung in Judäa: Eine Untersuchung zur jüdisch-hellenistischen Geschichte (175–163 v. Chr.). Abhandlungen der Akademie der Wissenschaften, philologisch-historische Klasse 3.132. Göttingen, Germany: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1983.

    Bringmann offers a new chronological framework for the events discussed, which was not universally received. He further dwells on the monetary undertakings of Jason and Menelaus to the king. Their need for cash and the plundering of the temple created unrest in Jerusalem. This escalation was a key factor for Antiochus’s decision to launch a new policy of replacing the Jewish cult with a pagan one.

  • Dąbrowa, Edward. The Hasmoneans and Their State: A Study in History, Ideology, and the Institutions. Electrum: Studies in Ancient History 16. Kraków: Jagiellonian University Press, 2010.

    The book’s first half discusses the political and military history of the Hasmoneans, from the early days until Judea’s submission to Roman power in 63 BCE. In the second half, Dąbrowa analyzes the Hasmonean state’s institutions, including subjects that have habitually received little attention, such as local government and finances. Finally, there is an attempt to delineate the various strands of Judean society, and their attitude toward the ruling family.

  • Gera, Dov. Judaea and Mediterranean Politics, 219 to 161 B.C.E. Brill’s Series in Jewish Studies 8. Leiden, The Netherlands, and New York: Brill, 1998.

    An outsider’s view of Judean history is attempted, providing critical assessment of the Jewish sources. Internal Jewish struggles were apparently not motivated by support for, or opposition to, the Ptolemies and the Seleucids. Overall, Antiochus IV’s interest in Judea was marginal, and the king was busy forging together a balanced court, comprising his own partisans and those who supported the cause of the future Demetrius I.

  • Hengel, Martin. Judaism and Hellenism: Studies in Their Encounter in Palestine during the Early Hellenistic Period. 2 vols. 2d ed. Translated by John Bowden. Philadelphia: Fortress, 1974.

    In many ways, this book owes much to Bickerman’s thesis (Bickerman 1979) assigning responsibility for the persecution to the Jewish Hellenizers. The author assumes that the co-habitation in the citadel of Jerusalem (the Acra) of the Jewish reform party and non-Jewish military settlers led to a syncretistic cult in which there was one supreme deity, identified with the Phoenician Ba’al Shamin and the Greek Zeus Olympius. The new cult was to totally replace the Jewish Law. It may be noted, however, that the literary sources referring to Antiochus’s persecution of the Jews speak only of Greek deities.

  • Momigliano, Arnaldo. Alien Wisdom: The Limits of Hellenization. Cambridge, UK, and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1975.

    DOI: 10.1017/CBO9780511583773

    Within the framework of a lecture titled “Greeks, Jews and Romans from Antiochus III to Pompey” (pp. 97–122), Momigliano presents a sweeping, but at the same time detailed, survey of the Maccabean period. Attention is directed to the lacunae in our knowledge and perception of the chain of events that led to an unprecedented ban on the Jewish cult. The points of strength of the sources, as well as their limitations, are admirably presented.

  • Sievers, Joseph. The Hasmoneans and Their Supporters: From Mattathias to the Death of John Hyrcanus I. South Florida Studies in the History of Judaism 6. Atlanta: Scholars, 1990.

    A good discussion of the political and religious developments in Judea from the beginning of the Maccabean revolt. Sievers emphasizes the pivotal role played by Jonathan the Hasmonean in laying the foundations for the Hasmonean state. At every stage, an attempt is made to identify the groups supporting the Hasmoneans, a vexed question not sufficiently clarified by the ancient sources.

  • Stern, Menahem. “The Hasmonean Revolt and Its Place in the History of Jewish Society and Religion.” Journal of World History 11 (1968): 92–106.

    A map of Jewish society is delineated, focusing on the aristocratic families who played an active role in the Hellenizing movement. These families found themselves sliding down the social ladder, while the star of new families was on the rise. One may think here of the future royal family of Herod, of proselyte stock, but also of lowly priests and of sages of humble origins. Reprinted in Jewish Society through the Ages, edited by Haim H. Ben-Sasson and Samuel Ettinger (London: Vallentine, Mitchell, 1971), pp. 92–106.

  • Tcherikover, Victor. Hellenistic Civilization and the Jews. Translated by S. Applebaum. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1959.

    The first part of the book, titled “Hellenistic Civilization in Palestine” (pp. 1–265), is as much a social history of the Jews as it is a political history. Tcherikover’s original idea that a Jewish non-Hasmonean rebellion pushed Antiochus Epiphanes into retaliation—the launching of religious persecutions in Judea—has found adherents among later scholars, who often refashion his hypothesis. Republished as recently as 2011 (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic).

  • Will, Edouard, and Claude Orrieux. Ioudaïsmos-hellènismos: Essai sur le judaïsme judéen à l’époque hellénistique. Nancy, France: Presses Universitaires de Nancy, 1986.

    The book’s premise is the similarity between the Hellenistic world and the modern era’s colonial powers. In both periods, foreign powers conquered the natives, employing colonists from the home country who secured their holding, which was effected through the establishment of urban and agricultural settlements. The new elite brought their own dominant culture. However, a process of acculturation began, affecting both the indigenous population and the colonial ruling class.

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