The Historical Background to the Maccabean Revolt
In 333 B.C.E., with the conquest of Judea, Alexander the Great instituted Greek rule over all of Judea and of Israel. Alexander allowed the Jews to maintain their traditions and accorded them religious and national autonomy.
After his death, the kingdom was divided between the Ptolemies, who ruled in Egypt, and the house of the Seleucids, who ruled in Syria. Both kingdoms fought for control of Judea. In 198 B.C.E. Antiochus III, king of Syria, conquered Judea and reconfirmed the religious and national autonomy of the Jews.
The situation changed in 175 BCE with the rise to power of Antiochus IV, Antiochus Epiphanes, in Greece. Antiochus Epiphanes saw himself as the representative of Greek (Hellenistic) culture which he wished to disseminate throughout his empire.
In this period there were two positions in Judea: "Hellenists" and "Hasidim".
- * The supporters of Greek culture, who spoke Greek and adopted Greek customs, were known as Hellenists( See also: Hellenists. Most of this group came from the middle or upper classes.
- * The great majority of the people remained faithful to the Jewish religion and tradition and rejected Greek culture. A popular movement arose of people who wished to preserve Jewish national and religious values. They called themselves "Hasidim". The "Hasidim" opposed the domination of Hellenistic culture, which they realized would lead to the annihilation of Jewish culture.
Antiochus Epiphanes wished to make Jerusalem a Greek city. He imposed edicts against the Jewish religion, banning Sabbath observance, circumcision and Torah study. He built an altar in the Temple and forced the Jews to sacrifice to the Greek gods. The Greeks also erected altars to their gods in the streets of Jerusalem.
The resentment among the Jews grew steadily, culminating in 167 BCE with the outbreak of a revolt against Greek rule in Judea.
The rebellion, which began in the village of Modi'in, was led by the old Hasmonean priest, Matityahu. Matityahu slew a Greek soldier who attempted to sacrifice swine on the altar in the village, destroyed the altar set up by the Greek soldiers and escaped to the mountains, accompanied by his five sons: Yohanan, Shimon, Judah, Jonathan and Elazar. Many Jews, mainly farmers, gathered around Matityahu and his sons in order to combat the Greeks. At the head of this army stood Matityahu's son, Judah Maccabee.
The slogan of the Jewish fighters was: Who is like you among the gods, O Lord (mi kamocha ba'elim hashem), a Hebrew acrostic for the word Maccabee. The Jews fought heroically. This was a war between unequal forces: few against many, unarmed peasants against a regular, trained army. It was a popular, partisan war, in which many Jews fell, including Elazar the Hasmonean.
Judah Maccabee defeated Antiochus' army and liberated Jerusalem in 165 BCE. He purified the Temple and reinstituted the sacrifices. On the 25th of Kislev the Jews inaugurated the Temple and offered up the first sacrifice to the Almighty on the new altar. The inauguration festival for the Temple lasted eight days.
After the inauguration of the Temple, the fighting went on. Judah Maccabee fell in battle. Following his death, his brothers Jonathan and Shimon continued to strengthen the country. They repealed Antiochus' edicts and proclaimed Judea an independent state.
Shimon became the first Prince of Judea, instituting the Hasmonean dynasty. The Hasmonean kings expanded the borders of the kingdom, which in the time of King Alexander Yannai stretched from the desert east, beyond the River Jordan to the Mediterranean Sea in the west, and from Lebanon in the north to Rafiah in the south. The country extended over most of the area of historical Eretz Israel.
The Hasmonean dynasty continued to reign also after the Roman conquest of Eretz Israel in 67 BCE and until the death of the last Hasmonean king in 37 BCE.