The Maccabees appear in history as the family of a priest, Mattathias, dwelling in Modin, who opposed the Hellenizing tendencies of the Syrian ruler Antiochus IV. Antiochus had taken advantage of factionalism among the Jews and had stripped and desacralized the Temple and begun a religious persecution. Mattathias, after killing an apostate Jew who took part in a Greek sacrifice, killed the royal enforcing officer. With his five sons he fled to the mountains and was joined by many Hasidim. Thus began a guerrilla war.
On Mattathias' death (166 BC) the leadership passed to his son Judas Maccabeus, from whose surname the family name is derived. Judas, an excellent military leader, defeated an expedition sent from Syria to destroy him. Having occupied Jerusalem, he reconsecrated the Temple; the feast of Hanukkah celebrates this event (165 BC). At that time there was civil strife in Syria. Demetrius I, then in control, sent the general Nicanor with an army against Judas; that expedition was routed, but another, led by Bacchides, defeated and killed Judas (161? BC).
Judas' brother Jonathan, the new leader, was successful for a time; he supported Demetrius' rival, Alexander Balas, and made treaties of friendship with Sparta and Rome. Jonathan was killed by treachery in 143 BC, and the last brother, Simon, succeeded; he was recognized by the other powers as civil ruler as well as high priest, and Palestine enjoyed some years of peace. Eventually Antiochus VII sent an expedition against the Jews; Simon defeated it, but in the disorder afterward he was murdered (135 BC) by an ambitious son-in-law. John Hyrcanus, Simon's son, managed to gain the ascendancy in the subsequent strife. He fought against Antiochus and remained in power until his death (105? BC). Under him Judaea enjoyed its greatest political power.
John Hyrcanus was succeeded by his son Aristobulus I, who died a year later. Another son, Alexander Jannaeus, then took the throne; he governed with great severity and headed the Sadducees in their strife with the Pharisees. Upon his death (78? BC) his widow, Salome Alexandra, who had also been married to Aristobulus, became queen. She favored the Pharisees and governed well. After her death, her son John Hyrcanus II, who had been high priest, acquired the temporal rule as well, but his more energetic brother, Aristobulus II, revolted. A civil war followed and resulted in Roman intervention and the taking of Jerusalem by Pompey (63 BC).
The house of the Maccabees made several efforts to throw off Roman rule. One of its members, Alexander, led an abortive rebellion in Syria, and in 40 BC Antigonus, the son of Aristobulus II, invaded Judaea with Parthian aid. Some of the Jews rallied to his standard, but he was defeated and put to death (37 BC) at the request of Herod the Great. Hyrcanus II, who had been reinstated as high priest by the Romans, was captured by the Parthians and deprived of his ears in order to render him unfit for priestly service. He returned (33 BC) to Judaea but was put to death (30 BC) on a charge of treason.
The chief sources for the Maccabees are the books of First and Second Maccabees and the Antiquities of Josephus. The name Maccabees has been extended to include the Jewish martyrs of the persecution, notably those of 2 Mac. 6; 7.
See E. Bickerman, The Maccabees (Eng. tr. 1947); A. Tcherikover, Hellenistic Civilization and the Jews (1959); D. J. Harrington, The Maccabean Revolt (1988). See also bibliography under Old Testament and Jews.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
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