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Maccabean Revolt
Maccabean revolt.jpg
Jerusalem and Judea during the revolt
Date 167–141 BCE
Judea, part of Coele-Syria in the Seleucid Empire

Revolt succeeded

  • Rebellion fought under leadership of Judas Maccabeus from 167–160 BCE
  • Festival of Hanukkah established in honor of the capture of Jerusalem, cleansing of the Second Temple, and rededication of the altar
  • Seleucid authority in major cities reestablished from 160–152 BCE
  • Judean autonomy from 152–141 BCE
  • Simon Thassi appointed High Priest in 141 BCE, start of the independent Hasmonean kingdom
Maccabees Seleucid Empire
Commanders and leaders
Mattathias †
Judas Maccabeus 
Jonathan Apphus Executed
Eleazar Avaran 
Simon Thassi
John Gaddi 
Antiochus IV Epiphanes
Antiochus V Eupator †
Demetrius I Soter †
Lysias †
Units involved
Judean rebels Seleucid army

The Maccabean Revolt (Hebrew: מרד החשמונאים) was a Jewish rebellion led by the Maccabees against the Seleucid Empire and against Hellenistic influence on Jewish life. The main phase of the revolt lasted from 167–160 BCE and ended with the Seleucids in control of Judea, but conflict between the Maccabees, Hellenized Jews, and the Seleucids continued until 134 BCE, with the Maccabees eventually attaining independence.

Seleucid King Antiochus IV Epiphanes launched a massive campaign of repression against the Jewish religion in 168 BCE. The reason he did so is not entirely clear, but it seems to have been related to the King mistaking an internal conflict among the Jewish priesthood as a full-scale rebellion. Jewish practices were banned, Jerusalem was placed under direct Seleucid control, and the Second Temple in Jerusalem was made the site of a syncretic Pagan-Jewish cult. This repression triggered exactly the revolt that Antiochus IV had feared, with a group of Jewish fighters led by Judas Maccabeus (Judah Maccabee) and his family rebelling in 167 BCE and seeking independence. The rebels as a whole would come to be known as the Maccabees, and their actions would be chronicled later in the books of 1 Maccabees and 2 Maccabees.

The rebellion started as a guerrilla movement in the Judean countryside, raiding towns and terrorizing Greek officials far from direct Seleucid control, but it eventually developed a proper army capable of attacking the fortified Seleucid cities. In 164 BCE, the Maccabees captured Jerusalem, a significant early victory. The subsequent cleansing of the temple and rededication of the altar on 25 Kislev is the source of the festival of Hanukkah. The Seleucids eventually relented and unbanned Judaism, but the more radical Maccabees, not content with merely reestablishing Jewish practices under Seleucid rule, continued to fight, pushing for a more direct break with the Seleucids. Judas Maccabeus died in 160 BCE at the Battle of Elasa against the Greek general Bacchides, and the Seleucids reestablished direct control for a time, but remnants of the Maccabees under Judas's brother Jonathan Apphus continued to resist from the countryside. Eventually, internal division among the Seleucids and problems elsewhere in their empire would give the Maccabees their chance for proper independence. In 141 BCE, Simon Thassi succeeded in expelling the Greeks from their citadel in Jerusalem. An alliance with the Roman Republic helped guarantee their independence. Simon would go on to establish an independent Hasmonean kingdom.

The revolt had a great impact on Jewish nationalism, as an example of a successful campaign to establish political independence and resist governmental anti-Jewish suppression.


Jewish National Fund stamp (1938) invoking the Maccabees

The Jewish festival of Hanukkah celebrates the rededication of the Temple following Judas Maccabeus's victory over the Seleucids. According to rabbinic tradition, the victorious Maccabees could only find a small jug of oil that had remained pure and uncontaminated by virtue of a seal, and although it only contained enough oil to sustain the Menorah for one day, it miraculously lasted for eight days, by which time further oil had been procured. During the era of the Hasmonean kingdom, Hanukkah was observed prominently; it acted as a "Hasmonean Independence Day" to commemorate the success of the revolt and the legitimacy of the Hasmonean rulers. Diaspora Jews celebrated it as well, fostering a sense of Jewish collective identity: it was a liberation day for all Jews, not merely Judean Jews. As a result, Hanukkah outlasted Hasmonean rule, although its importance receded as time passed. Hanukkah would gain new prominence in the 20th century and rekindle interest in its origins in the Maccabees.

The Jewish victory at the Battle of Adasa led to an annual festival as well, albeit one less prominent and remembered than Hanukkah. The defeat of Seleucid general Nicanor is celebrated on 13 Adar as Yom Nicanor.

The traumatic time period helped define the genre of the apocalypse and heightened Jewish apocalypticism. The portrayal of an evil tyrant like Antiochus IV attacking the holy city of Jerusalem in the Book of Daniel became a common theme during later Roman rule of Judea, and would contribute to Christian conceptions of the Antichrist.

The persecution of the Jews under Antiochus, and the Maccabees response, would influence and create new trends in Jewish strains of thought with regard to divine rewards and punishments. In earlier Jewish works, devotion to God and adherence to the law led to rewards and punishments in life: the observant would prosper, and disobedience would result in disaster. The persecution of Antiochus IV directly contradicted this teaching: for the first time, Jews were suffering precisely because they refused to violate Jewish law, and thus the most devout and observant Jews were the ones suffering the most. This resulted in literature suggesting that those who suffered in their earthly life would be rewarded afterward, such as the Book of Daniel describing a future resurrection of the dead, or 2 Maccabees describing in detail the martyrdom of a woman and her seven sons under Antiochus, but who would be rewarded after their deaths.

As a victory of the "few over the many", the revolt served as inspiration for future Jewish resistance movements, such as the Zealots. The most famous of these later revolts are the First Jewish–Roman War in 66–73 CE (also called the "Great Revolt") and the Bar Kochba revolt from 132–136 CE. After the failure of these revolts, Jewish interpretation of the Maccabean Revolt became more spiritual; it instead focused on stories of Hanukkah and God's miracle of the oil, rather than practical plans for an independent Jewish polity backed by armed might. The Maccabees were also discussed less as time went on; they appear only rarely in the mishnah, the writings of the Tannaim, after these Jewish defeats. Rabbinical displeasure with the later rule of the Hasmoneans after the revolt also contributed to this; even when stories were explicitly set during the Maccabean period, references to Judas by name were explicitly removed to avoid hero-worship of the Hasmonean line. The books of Maccabees were downplayed and relegated in the Jewish tradition and not included in the Jewish Tanakh (Hebrew Bible); it would be Christians who would produce more art and literature referencing the Maccabees during the medieval era, as the books of Maccabees were included in the Catholic and Orthodox Biblical canon. Medieval Christians during the Carolingian era esteemed the Maccabees as early examples of chivalry and knighthood, and the Maccabees were invoked in the later Middle Ages as holy warriors to emulate during the Crusades. In the 14th century, Judas Maccabeus was included in the Nine Worthies, medieval exemplars of chivalry for knights to model their conduct on.

The Jewish downplaying of the Maccabees would be challenged centuries later in the 19th century and early 20th century, as Jewish writers and artists held up the Maccabees as examples of independence and victory. Proponents of Jewish nationalism of that era saw past events, such as the Maccabees, as a hopeful suggestion to what was possible, influencing the nascent Zionist movement. A British Zionist organization formed in 1896 is named the Order of Ancient Maccabeans, and the Jewish sporting organization Maccabi World Union names itself after them. The revolt is featured in plays of the playwrights Aharon Ashman [he], Ya'akov Cahan, and Moshe Shamir. Various organizations in the modern state of Israel name themselves after the Maccabees and the Hasmoneans or otherwise honor them.

See also

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