Magazine article The National Interest

The Revolt of the Maccabees

Magazine article The National Interest

The Revolt of the Maccabees

Article excerpt

AS THE insurgency in Iraq continues and questions about its outcome surface, one might look for possible historical parallels--and one of the most successful insurgencies against a colonial power in the Middle East was the Jewish revolt, under the leadership of Judas Maccabeus, against Greek Seleucid overlords in the second century B.C.E. (1)

The success of the revolt is still celebrated today by Jews as the Feast of Hannukah. Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox know the story because their Bible contains the First and Second Books of the Maccabees. Protestants, on the other hand, are less familiar with this narrative, because these two books are not in their Bible but belong to what are called the apocryphal books.

The story of the revolt is told in two versions, the First and the Second Books of the Maccabees (although the second is not a sequel to the first, but a completely different telling). While the First Book glorifies the deeds of the Hasmonean family "through whom deliverance was given to Israel", 2 Maccabees stresses God as the defender and protector of his people and their temple, if they obey his laws. These are differences in emphasis, however. Both versions hold that Jews must follow their ancestral laws, as religion and politics are inextricably entwined in their view. We are fortunate to have these two different versions, particularly as they describe the events from the perspective of the insurgents.

AFTER THE death of Alexander the Great, three major powers emerged in the Eastern Mediterranean: the Macedonian Empire in Greece; the Ptolemaic Empire based in Egypt; and the Seleucid Empire, which stretched from present-day Turkey to present-day Afghanistan.

The sheer size of the Seleucid Empire led to problems of control, and, during the third century B.C.E., it gradually shrunk, both in the western part of present-day Turkey and in the eastern side at Afghanistan and eastern Iran. While the Seleucids claimed sovereignty over this entire region, their core area comprised what is present-day Syria and Iraq.

The Seleucids were in constant struggles with the Ptolemies of Egypt for control of the coastline from present-day Lebanon to the Red Sea, which had been in Egyptian hands since 301 B.C.E. However, following the battle of Panion (200 B.C.E.), this entire region--including Judea--became part of the Seleucid Empire.

During the first twenty years of Seleucid hegemony over Judea there does not seem to have been any confrontation between the authorities in Judea and the Seleucid rulers. The Seleucid ruler had, in fact, generously allowed the Jews to be governed by their own ancestral laws in Jerusalem. The small state of Judea, with a radius of about twenty miles around its capital Jerusalem, was ruled by wealthy priestly and lay families. The situation is sometimes described as an idyllic one. However, there are indications of factional strife between and within the priestly families, and there was some friction between the rulers of Jerusalem and the Seleucid king. Lurking behind these frictions is the larger issue of what constitutes Jewish identity and who makes that definition. (2)

Jason, the high-priest of Jerusalem, is said to have sent money for a sacrifice to Herakles, but those carrying the money thought it inappropriate. Less extreme assimilation would be education in a gymnasion, which clearly some Jerusalem Jews underwent, and the ability to write decent Greek, which the author of 2 Maccabees possessed. A low level of assimilation would be avoiding contact with Gentiles as much as possible. The author of 2 Maccabees thought Jason was really not a Jew, but Jason no doubt thought he was. These frictions, however, did not lead to any serious conflicts--until 167 B.C.E., when an insurgency arose.

Scholars have given very different views for the cause of this revolt. The two greatest twentieth-century scholars of the Maccabean revolt, Elias Bickermann (3) and Victor Tcherikover (4), each placed the blame on the policies of the Jewish leaders and not on the Seleucid ruler, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, but for different reasons. …

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