home | history

Hellenism and the Maccabean Revolt

Among Jews, Greek remained the language of trade and intellectuality, to the annoyance of those who believed the old ways were best. There were Jews who admired Greek education, schools and libraries. Some were interested in Greek philosophy and Greek art. Visiting the Greek gymnasium – for bathing and exercise – had become popular. Many Jews were attracted by athletic games. Many of those who traveled had a Hebrew name for use within their community and a Greek name for use elsewhere. Jews were tolerating the mixed marriages that the High Priest Ezra had forbidden. Some were abandoning circumcision and restrictions on foods.

There were scribes who wanted to their his fellow Jews to be proud of their heritage, and Jewish culture was described as the oldest in the world and the Jews as teachers of other peoples. Around 150 BCE a writer names Eupolemus wrote that Abraham was one of those who had survived the flood, that it was Abraham who had build Babylon, that Moses was the first philosophy and that Moses had invented letters and had taught the Greeks.

A few Jews argued that if there were gods, the gods didn't care. The devout countered with the claim that Yahweh cared but that he worked in ways that were mysterious to people because mortals were limited in their understanding of Yahweh's labors, and they argued that eventually the righteous would be rewarded and the wicked punished.

Meanwhile, more warring had taken place. Egypt defeated the Seleucids in the Fourth Syrian War in the years 217, but the Seleucid King Antiochus III came back in the year 198, during the Fifth Syrian War. A later Seleucid emperor, Antiochus IV, whose reign began in 175 BCE, while ruling over Judea he assumed that the worship of Yahweh among the Jews could be transformed as easily as had occurred in his dominions farther east – where Jews worshiped Yahweh under the name of Zeus Sabazions. Antiochus assumed that the Jews of Judea would easily accept the notion that all worshiped the same God. In 167 he had the temple in Jerusalem rededicated as a shrine to Zeus, and some Jews saw Antiochus as compelling them to practice idolatry.

Rather than allow time for Jews to start using Greek as the name for their god, Antiochus was pushy and sent a military expedition around Judea to force compliance with the new laws of worship. The expedition came upon an old priest in the village of Modein who refused to offer a sacrifice to Zeus. The priest, Mattathias, struck down another Jew who was about to do so. To escape punishment, Mattathias and his five sons – the Maccabees family – went with other Jews into the Gophna Hills. Their rebellion won support from people across Judea. It was supported also by the author of the Book of Daniel – written as the war was unfolding.

The rebellion became partly a civil war and partly a war of national liberation. Its opposition to the rule of Antiochus IV pleased the great power on the Italian peninsula, Rome. Rome wished to see Antiochus IV weakened. And to strengthen his forces against Antiochus, Judas Maccabeus made a treaty with Rome.

In 141 BCE, more than twenty-five years into the rebellion the rebels managed to expel the Seleucid dynasty's garrison from the citadel in Jerusalem. With the strength of Rome behind the Maccabees, Judea won formal independence: an independent Jewish state for the first time in more than four centuries. By then Judas Maccabeus and other Maccabees had died, and the last of the five Maccabeus brothers, Simon, ruled. Simon Maccabeus was chosen by the popular assembly as High Priest despite his lack of qualifications by birth. He also took the position of "ethnarch," or Ruler of the Nation, announcing that his family would rule only until a true prophet should arise. He created a festival called Hanukkah to celebrate both Judea's independence and the day that his rule began.

CONTINUE READING: Rome dominates the Italian Peninsula

to the top | home

Copyright © 2016 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.