Maccabees (in Daniel)

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Maccabees is the name given to the Jewish family that led the armed revolt against Syria at the time of Antiochus IV Epiphanes and furnished a dynasty of priests and rulers of the state that emerged. The dynasty is also known as the Hasmonaeans, a name derived from a mythical family ancestor Hasmonaeus.

The revolt came as a result of the policies of Antiochus IV Epiphanes which were quite unacceptable to devout Jews. After about a year of severe persecution, the revolt began when Mattathias killed a royal officer and a Jew about to offer a heathen sacrifice. He leveled the altar and then fled with his five sons to the hills, where they were joined by others "zealous for the law" like Phineas (167 BC; 1 Macc 2; Num 25). After some months of vigorous fighting, Mattathias died. The revolt was left to his five sons. Two sons, Eleazar and John, were killed.

Judas called Maccabee became the leader (166–160 BC), and from him comes the name Maccabees. Maccabee means "hammer," a nickname likely given because he would hit his enemies like a hammer hitting a nail (Anderson: 454). Judas was a warrior with the goal of defending and enforcing observance of the covenant law and reestablishing an independent Jewish state. Judas successfully defeated the Syrian generals Apollonius and Seron. This cut down the revenues Antiochus was receiving from Palestine, and in desperation he set out to raise funds in Persia, where he died. Meanwhile, to quell the revolt in Judea, Antiochus sent Lysias with three generals, Ptolemy, Nicanor, and Gorgias. Judas called the men of Galilee together and at Emmaus defeated Gorgias (165–164 BC. In 164 BC Judas defeated Lysias at Bethzur. In December 164 BC Judas cleansed the temple of Gentile abominations and reestablished worship with a great new Feast of Dedication (1 Macc 3–4). The Syrians and renegade Jews still held the citadel in Jerusalem and struggled to keep a toehold of political control.

Judas waged war against his enemies east of Jordan, while another brother brought the Jews scattered in Galilee to Judea for safety.

Lysias returned with a large army and defeated Judas. Lysias, however, did not attempt to disrupt Jewish worship.

After the death of Antiochus IV Epiphanes (164 BC; 1 Macc 6; 2 Macc 9), his successor Demetrius I sent Nicanor to put an end to the rebellion. He was defeated by Judas. Nicanor threatened in turn to burn the temple if Judas was not turned over to him. This aroused great support for Judas and led to the slaying of Nicanor. Judas then made a treaty of friendship with Rome as though Judea were a sovereign state. The Roman senate sent word to Demetrius I to stop fighting the Jews. Before the message arrived, however, Judas was defeated by the Syrian general Baccides and killed (1 Macc 7:26–9:22).

Jonathan undertook leadership of the revolt in 160 BC. In a battle to avenge the death of his brother John, Jonathan was defeated. Jonathan continued until 142 BC when he was succeeded by Simon, another son of Mattathias. After a quarter century of struggle and warfare, the Jews achieved political freedom from the yoke of the Gentiles in 142 BC (1 Macc 13:41–42). In 140 BC Simon became high priest while serving also as military commander and civil governor of the Jews. Simon met a violent death in 134 BC and was succeeded by his son John Hyrcanus (134–104 B.C.), who brought the Jewish state to it highest point of influence and prosperity. The Hasmonaean period extended to 63 B.C., when Pompey invaded Palestine and Roman rule began.

The stories of the Maccabees are told in the books of 1, 2, and 4 Maccabees. These books are from the Greek Old Testament, and 1–2 Maccabees appear in Bibles that include the Apocrypha. In deference to Eastern Orthodox churches, the NRSV Apocrypha also prints 3 Maccabees (about struggles of Egyptian Jews half a century prior to Antiochus IV) and 4 Maccabees (an expansion of 2 Macc 6:12–7:42, interpreted by Greek philosophy, with emphasis on immortality of the soul instead of resurrection). Scholars consider parts, such as 1 Maccabees, to be relatively reliable, but embellishments appear, especially in other books. However, even history is told with a bias.

First Maccabees is written to praise the Maccabees for their freedom fighting, show parallels between them and Old Testament leaders, and legitimize the Hasmonean dynasty as priests and kings. It criticizes pious folks who are massacred because they refuse to fight, bound by their religion to obey the Torah and not to rebel, and not even to defend themselves on the Sabbath (1:54-64; 2:29-38; cf. 2 Macc 6:11). Such people are portrayed as foolish for trusting the words of Seleucid agents (1 Macc 7:5-30). The Jews are delivered by the Maccabean exploits, without prophecy or miracles from heaven. This book does not mention the reward of resurrection—probably due to Mattathias, who discouraged unresisting martyrdom as the only pious course. Mattathias honors the stories of the three young men in the furnace and Daniel in the lions' den (2:59-60), but 1 Maccabees says nothing of the visions, probably regarding them as forgery (Dan. 7–12). The book even takes pains to correct the sequence or content of events predicted in Daniel 11 (Goldstein: 42–54). Salvation comes from obeying the law and the Hasmonaeans (1 Macc 5:62).

Second Maccabees tells the story of the Maccabean brothers but shows that they were "at best ineffective and at worst tainted by treason and sin" (Goldstein: 33). Miracles of deliverance abound. Martyrs are praised. There is affirmation of resurrection for martyrs. God is acknowledged as creating all from nothing (2 Macc 7; 12:42-45; 14:46). Victories come from divine favor won by the martyrs and by prayer. Even Judas says he trusts God rather than arms (8:18). The book has two parallel sections, each recounting a threat to the temple, martyrdom, triumph "with the Almighty as their ally" (8:24), and then the first celebration of a new festival: the Feast of Dedication (2 Macc. 1–10), and the Day of Nicanor (11–15). Onias III is a model and helps to show that covenants with Gentiles can be beneficial as long as the Jewish law is not neglected. In several ways, 2 Maccabees (rather than 1 Maccabees) is more compatible with Daniel in valuing prayer, in trusting God to deliver, and to some degree in practicing nonresistance (2 Macc 6:11-17), leading to martyrdom, and resurrection (Goldstein: 4–36; Fischer: 440–450).


  • Anderson, Hugh. "Maccabees, Books of: Third Maccabees; Fourth Maccabees," ed. David Noel Freedman, The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 4:450-54.
  • Fischer, Thomas. "Maccabees, Books of: First and Second Maccabees" ed. David Noel Freedman, The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 4:439-50.
  • Goldstein, Jonathan A. I Maccabees. The Anchor Bible, vol. 41. Ed. by W. F. Albright and D. N. Freedman. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1974.

Paul M. Lederach