Israel had been under foreign rule for centuries, perpetually under the control of one empire and being absorbed into the next big empire that gobbled up the last. After years of exile among other nations and learning from these nations both practical sciences and the art of remaining a people set apart, the Jews wanted their country back. Nehemiah and Ezra led a relatively minor but ideologically important return to the land of Canaan. Eventually the two-horned ram of the Medes and Persians was split by the greatest goat who ever lived, Alexander the Great (Daniel’s words, not mine). Alexander was good to the Israelites, but like all humans, he had a propensity for giving out and dying eventually. Around 200 BCE, Israel fell to the Syrian successors to Alexander the Great’s empire, the Seleucids, who had no clue what they were getting themselves into by picking on the Jews. The ensuing external battles against Syrian aggression were coupled with an internal battle against Hellenization.
Hellenization truly was a fresh invasion. It’s the apex of oddity that although the Greek cultural zenith coincides with the return to Canaan, Herodotus never mentions the struggling Jewish state being forged from repentant people returning from all corners of a vast empire (Gilbert, p. 520). In fact, the two never really came into contact in any large and meaningful way until the conquest of Alexander the Great. Alexander's reign was very beneficial for the Jews, and Greek culture was an attractive import. Maintaining a strong identity has been a trademark of Jewish communities the world over, usually in Diasporatic communities in foreign countries. The Seleucid foe, however, brought both an unwanted, forceful invasion, and an appealing culture that threatened the Jewish way of life. Culture has always been the Jews' secret weapon to weathering every storm. The Hellenists likely had the only combination of the military might to subdue and the culture to entice that could truly defeat the Jews on both levels and incorporate them as full subjects of an empire. The Maccabean Revolt sprang up to meet this challenge in the gap between Alexander the Great's death, and the Roman takeover, which brought in a new, physical society that was less enticing to the Jews, and did more to galvanize them as an independent people.
In the chaos of Ptolemy V Epiphanes of Egypt’s death, the Seleucids swept through Judea en route to invading Egypt, returning again through a chaotic Israel after their attempt was stunted by Roman threats of retaliation. Two years later they took advantage of the leaderless chaos Jerusalem was experiencing, and came to stay. Their first act was an insult to Judaism, sacrificing a swine on the altar and plundering the temple’s riches. A fitting introduction to the Maccabean feats is a look at what Josephus claims the Samaritans were doing after the Seleucids conquered Israel: claiming no relation, and declaring that their “temple without a name” be known as that of Zeus Hellenios (Josephus, p. 211).
For such a large and important geographic area, much of Josephus’ focus is on the status of the Temple: whether sacrifices and ceremonies were safe to perform, whether it was occupied, polluted, or in any state of disarray. Josephus’ personal interest as a Jew is important here, and while he is noted as both a traitor and a mouthpiece of the Jews to the Roman world, this focus provides a window into the focus of the public eye in the first century CE (or at least an attempt at pandering to the focus of the public eye). At times, the following retelling of the history of the Maccabees might seem somewhat colorful. If this is the case, then in the interest of scholarly loyalty to a primary source and plausible deniability, I would like to point out that Josephus was not entirely unbiased in his recounting, and his bias itself is of interest, if not necessity to understanding the story on a deeper, more personal level, which also provides plausible deniability to the possibility that the author of this paper has been caught in a spider web-like trap for hyper-masculine historian-flies who are drawn to the pheromone-like scent of the gratuitous destruction of larger forces by smaller ones.
Mattathias came on the scene in 166 BCE. He was the one who really began the resistance. Some Seleucids asked the Jewish high priests to sacrifice for them, knowing the spirit of Jewish resistance would be broken if they did. Mattathias refused. Some priest, likely admitted to the priesthood by virtue of pity, probably a turd-breathed frequenter of primitive litter boxes, went ahead and did the sacrifice so Mattathias wouldn’t have to. Mattathias and his sons thanked him by hacking to death with knives everyone present and starting the Maccabean Revolt.
“Whoever is zealous for the laws of our country and the worship of God, let him follow me!” Josephus colorfully recounts Mattathias crying out as he overturned pagan altars. Thus began a period of the Seleucids getting in touch with God’s smiting-side. Mattathias and his sons fled into the desert, and the zealous flocked to them. Many brought their families to live in caves rather than live under Seleucid rule. A great loss of life but victory for the strength of the character of Judaism occurred when the Syrians burned many of the Jews alive inside their caves on the Sabbath. The Jews did not resist, or even attempt to block the smoke, and over 1,000 died. Many escaped, and under Mattathias they struck back, destroying pagan altars and those that sacrificed on them. The Jews decided then that battle would take place on the Sabbath if necessary, but the massacre of the caves still stood as a poignant picture of the peoples’ dedication to the Law of Moses.
After Mattathias died, Judas Maccabeus succeeded him, and proceeded to drive an overwhelmingly large force from their country. Apollonius, the governor of Samaria, tried to invade but was repelled, and paid for it with his life. Then the governor of Coele-Syria tried the same thing, also losing his large army and life to the Jews, suddenly an unconquerable force. Syria’s General Ptolemy attacked Maccabeus out-numbering him 47,000 to 3,000 after Judas pulled a righteous Gideon impersonation, winnowing down his force to a size that would necessitate a miracle. Which is exactly what happened. The Jews walked away from this encounter with not just a victory, but all the Syrians’ stuff they left behind while fleeing in righteous terror of the Jews. Showing a remarkable ability to not learn from its mistakes, Syria invaded again, outnumbering the Jews 65,000 to 10,000 (according again to Josephus), and expecting it to matter. Judas and his men fought desperately, killing the shit out of the Syrians until they got tired of dying and went home and continued their contemptible existence of paganism and liking the New York Giants.
Judas then purified the temple and put to siege the citadel in Jerusalem that some of the Syrians still occupied. The temple, which had been in disarray amidst the chaos of war, was restored to its former stateliness. This restoration was celebrated with an eight-day feast that is celebrated to this day in the Festival of Lights.
At this point, all the nations surrounding Israel summoned their armies, expecting to march into Israel, conquer it, and die at their own leisure. But what happened was Judas marched out and made them die in unexpected places. Then he then rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem, solidifying Israel’s claim as a permanent, sovereign, and practically defensible nation. At this time, Idumea was conquered.
Josephus returns now to the citadel in Jerusalem, which was occupied through this entire time by Syrians who engaged in all manner of evil in that tower, sallying forth to attack Jews while they sacrificed at the temple, not to mention other shitty things, like listening to Nickelback and watching the Star Wars prequels and liking them, or supporting George Lucas’ new editions that come complete with cheesy voice-overs and CGI edits the likes of which would make Genghis Khan wilt to his knees and droop into a slow weep. Some of the Jewish renegades in the citadel escaped to elicit aid from King Antiochus, who had a suspicious relationship with elephants that will not be identified in this paper. He attacked Israel with over 100,000 men and 32 war-pachyderms.
The ensuing battle was huge, and reminiscent of Thermopylae. The Seleucid forces were bottlenecked at a pass, the elephants in single file. The largest of the war elephants was also the most conspicuously armored, and Judas’ brother Eleazar plunged forward with righteous regicidal lust. He single handedly pushed into the enemy ranks, making his way to the mammoth creature, slaying it to death with his knife. The beast fell dead on Eleazar, crushing him, yet history will always remember that Eleazor died knifing to death a war-elephant, and it was the most bad ass death a man could ever die. Inter-species knife-fights aside, the Jews did not sense that such bad-assery was a good omen, and instead chose to focus on the fact that the elephant was in fact not carrying the king of Syria. They withdrew.
Fortuitously, rebellion had broken out in Syria and the Syrian army, despite losing so many men, lacked the food to feed them. Apparently they just anticipated everyone dying and planned accordingly, not taking into consideration the possibility of the Israelites getting spooked at a duel to the death between one of their leaders and an armored war elephant which, I repeat, is a death which any man should be willing to kill for in order to die. The Syrians pulled out, and the following history of Judas Maccabeus is so resplendent with the ornament of slain superfluously evil foes that it becomes more redundant than this sentence, and Josephus’ account more self-referential than this paper.
Wood, Leon James (1986). A Survey of Israel’s History. Zondervan.
Maier, Paul L. (1994). Josephus: The Essential Works. Josephus, Flavinius. Kregel Publications.
Gilbert, George Holley. (1909). The American Journal of Theology, Vol. 13, No. 4 (Oct. 1909), pp. 520-540. The Hellenization of the Jews between 334 B.C. and 70 A.D. The University of Chicago Press. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3155063.