Maccabean Revolt (167-160 B.C.)Maccabean Revolt (167-160 B.C.) - After their release from exile by Cyrus the Great, most of the Jews held captive in Babylon returned to Judea. But they did not re-found their ancestral kingdom of Israel because the land was under the control of the Persian Empire. That ended with the conquest of Persia by Alexander the Great (see Alexander conquers Persia), which in turn, ended with his death. At that point, the region bounced back and forth between two of Alexander's successor kingdoms; the Ptolemaic and Seleucid Empires. Initially, it belonged to the Ptolemies, and the Jews lived in relative peace and prosperity while under Ptolemaic rule. Recall that Ptolemy II Philadelphus commissioned the translation of the Hebrew Bible into Greek (see Septuagint). However, in 198 B.C. at the Battle of Paneas, Antiochus III wrested control of Judea from the Ptolemies and added it to the Seleucid Empire. At first, things didn't change much for the Jews; but upon the ascension of Antiochus' son, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, things began to change rather dramatically. Alexander and his successors brought Greek culture along with them on their conquests. This meant the Greek language, Greek religion and Greek fashion among other things. As a result, after years of influence on the region, Greek and Jewish traditions began to clash.


Antiochus IV was a staunch Hellenizer. Under previous reigns, the Jews were largely left alone to observe their traditions how they saw fit. But Antiochus decided to meddle in Jewish affairs, which as king, he felt was his right. He replaced the Jewish high priest, Onias III, with his pro-Greek brother, Jason. He set about transforming Jerusalem into a Greek city. A gymnasium was built, in which young Jewish lads started exercising in the nude. Greek festivals were held which were opened with invocations to pagan deities. And many young Jews began abandoning their Jewish names in favor of Greek ones. All this was done to the consternation of more traditional Jews. Things intensified in 170 B.C., when Antiochus invaded Egypt and was on the brink of destroying the Ptolemaic Empire. But before he did, Rome, whose power was growing throughout the Mediterranean, intervened and forced him to leave. Antiochus obeyed, but was furious. He turned his wrath inward and took most of his frustration out on Jerusalem. In 168, he sent an army, under the command of general Apollonius, with the edict that Judaism had been officially outlawed. This included the practice of circumcision, observance of the Sabbath and celebration of Jewish festivals, such as Passover. The army enforced the edict brutally. Jerusalem was plundered and pagan sacrifices became compulsory. But the harshest act of all, was the erection of a statue of Zeus in the temple. Those who refused to abide by the edict were either killed or enslaved.


But resistance came quickly. In 167, in the outlying town of Modein, a Jewish priest named Mattathias refused to perform the pagan sacrifice under the order of the king's royal agent. When another Jew stepped forward to comply, Mattathias killed him, killed the royal agent and destroyed the pagan altar. He then fled to the mountains along with his five sons and a group of rebels, and the revolt had begun. The family was known as the Hasmoneans, after Mattathias' great-grandfather, Hasmon, or the Maccabees, which was the nickname of his son, Judas Maccabeus ("the Hammer"). The revolt lasted seven years and was a war against the Seleucids as well as a civil war between pro-Hellenistic and anti-Hellenistic Jews. It consisted largely of guerilla warfare on the part of the Maccabees and ended with the expulsion of the Seleucuids, and restoration of the Jewish traditions. It also established the Hasmonean Dynasty and temporary independence which lasted until 37 B.C.. But it also led to internal strife and the formation of three major Jewish sects; the Pharisees, the Sadducees and the Essenes. It was the third group, the Essenes who wrote the Dead Sea Scrolls (see Dead Sea Scrolls). Today the Jewish holiday Hanukkah celebrates the restoration of the Jewish traditions resulting from the Maccabean Revolt