My Understanding of 1 Maccabees

What a long book! These guys like to fight. 1 Maccabees is the story of Mattathias and his sons who led a Jewish rebel army from 175 to 134 BCE that eventually took control of Judea. They founded a dynasty that ruled Judea for about a century from 164 BCE to 63 BCE with various degrees of authority. They reasserted the Jewish religious practices and expanded the boundaries of Judea. They also reduced the influence of Hellenism and Hellenistic Judaism.  This book highlights how the salvation of the Jewish people in this crisis came through Mattathias’ family, particularly his sons, Judas Maccabeus, Jonathan Apphus, and Simon Thassi, and at the end, Simon’s son, John.

1 Maccabees is part of the canonical Bible in the Roman Catholic, Orthodox, and Coptic Christian churches. As it was not part of the Hebrew Bible, the Reformers of the 16th century, the Anglican and the various Protetant denominations, considered it to be an apocryphal book. 1 Maccabees has no official religious status within Judaism, but it some Jewish historical interest. Interesting enough there are three other books titled Maccabees, 2, 3, and 4. For Catholics, 2 Maccabees is also a canonical work of the Bible that centers only on Judas Maccabeus. However, 3 and 4 Maccabees are not held as canonical except for the Orthodox Christian Churches. Thus the books of Maccabees are often considered as deutero-canonical books in most Christian Bibles.

The name Maccabee is often used as a synonym for the entire dynasty, but there was only one Maccabee, Judas Maccabeus. One explanation of the name’s origins is that it derives from the Aramaic word for hammer, in recognition of Judas’s ferocity in battle. The traditional Jewish explanation is that Maccabee is an acronym for the Torah verse that was the battle-cry in Exodus 15:11. ‘Who is like you, O Yahweh, among the gods? Who is like you, majestic in holiness, awesome in splendor, doing wonders?’ This is almost like the Islamic verse. ‘There is no other God except Allah, and Muhammad is his prophet.’

Though it might have been originally written in Hebrew,  the version of 1 Maccabees that we have today comes down to us via the Greek Septuagint translation.   Some authors date the original Hebrew text even closer to the events covered, while others suggest a later date, closer to 100 BCE, but none before 125 BCE. This unknown Jewish author wrote after the restoration of an independent Jewish kingdom, in the latter part of the 2nd century BCE. He showed intimate and detailed geographical knowledge of Israel. This biblical author interpreted the events not as a miraculous intervention by God, but rather that God was using the instrument of the military genius of the sons of Mattathias to achieve his ends. The prose is sometimes interrupted by poetic sections of laments and hymns of praise, which imitate classical Hebrew poetry.

In the early 2nd century BCE, Judea lay between the Ptolemaic Kingdom based in Egypt and the Seleucid Empire based in Syria.  Both of these kingdoms were formed after the death of Alexander the Great (356–323 BCE). Judea had been under Egyptian Ptolemaic rule, but fell to the Syrian Seleucids around 200 BCE. Judea was affected by the general Hellenism that begun with Alexander the Great. Some Jews, mainly those of the urban upper class, wished to dispense with Jewish law and to adopt a Greek lifestyle for economic and political reasons.

The author of 1 Maccabees regarded the revolt as a rising of pious Jews against the Seleucid king who had tried to eradicate their religion. This holy group was also against the Jews who supported the growing Hellenistic movement. Some modern scholars argue that the king was reacting to a civil war between traditionalist Jews in the countryside and the so-called renegade Hellenized Jews in Jerusalem. This revolt was less an uprising against foreign oppression than a civil war between the Jewish orthodox and reformist parties with religious, political, social, and economic factors in this conflict. What began as a civil war took on the character of an invasion when the king of Syria sided with the Hellenizing Jews against the Jewish traditionalists. As the conflict escalated, the Seleucid king prohibited the practices of the traditionalists. Gradually this civil war transformed into a war of national liberation.

King Antiochus IV Epiphanes (215–163 BCE), became the ruler of the Syrian Seleucid Empire in 175 BCE. Many of the renegade Jews accepted his gentile customs. After a successful attack on Egypt, King Antiochus IV pillaged the Jerusalem Temple and Jerusalem itself. He established a citadel fortress in Jerusalem. He then banned many traditional Jewish religious practices, Sabbath observance, or any public observance of Jewish laws, including ciccumcision and reading from the Mosaic Law. Altars to Greek gods were set up with Jewish prohibited animals sacrificed on them.

King Antiochus IV’s persecution of the religious traditionalists was unusual in antiquity as it was a departure from the usual Seleucid tolerance practice. The Seleucid Empire had rarely banned the religion of an entire people. King Antiochus IV claimed that this zealous Hellenizing policy was an attempt to unify the Seleucid Empire. He further introduced Hellenistic culture with the construction of a Greek gymnasium in Jerusalem.

Israel was then in mourning, lamenting the prison citadel in Jerusalem. Inspectors were sent out to make sure that the new laws were being followed.   As the persecution of the Jews continued, some Jews decided to die rather than follow these Hellenistic practices. However, there were many Jews who sought out or welcomed the introduction of Greek culture.

A rural Jewish priest from Modein, Mattathias sparked the revolt against the empire by refusing to worship the Greek gods. Mattathias and his five sons in Modein called upon people loyal to the traditions of Israel to oppose the invaders and the Jewish Hellenizers. Mattathias then killed a Hellenistic Jewwho stepped forward to offer a sacrifice to an idol. He and his five sons then fled to the wilderness of Judah after this incident. There was a loss of a thousand Jews when these defenders of the Jewish life refused to fight on the Sabbath. The other Jews with Mattathias then reasoned that, when attacked, they would fight even on the holy Sabbath day. A whole rebel army began around Mattathias.

At his death, Mattathias reminded his sons about their ancestors and the importance of the Law. He appointed Judas Maccabeus to be in charge of his army and his son Simon to be the high priest. About one year later after Mattathias’ death, in 166 BCE, his son Judas Maccabeus led an army of Jewish dissidents to victories with guerrilla warfare techniques. This revolt involved many battles, in which the Jewish forces gained notoriety among the Seleucid army. They were also against the Hellenizing Jews so that they destroyed the pagan altars in the villages. Judas Maccabeus became the new military and political leader, almost a legendary hero, as he won victory after victory. He defeated Apollonius and Seron, the commander of the Syrian army, as well as a successful campaign at Beth-horon.

As King Antiochus IV had money problems, he put Lysias in charge of half the Syrian army that was to wage war on Judah. Judas Maccabeus learned about the Syrian forces coming under the leader Gorgias, so that he and his fellow Israelites prayed at a penitential assembly at Mizpah. Judas Maccabeus then divided the troops. After he gave them a pep talk, they went to battle with Gorgias at Emmaus. He told them not to plunder the camp until the enemy was defeated. With this defeat, Lysias decided to go to battle himself. Once again, Judas Maccabeus prayed before the battle and defeated Lysias. After this victory, they entered Jerusalem in triumph.

When Judas Maccabeus saw the desolation in Jerusalem, he wanted to cleanse the sanctuary, rebuild the altar, and ritually cleanse the Temple. He reestablished traditional Jewish worship in 165 BCE as the Temple was re-consecrated. Then they had a great eight day celebration at the renewed Temple. They fortified the Temple and installed the brother of Judas, Jonathan, as the high priest.

Then a large Seleucid army was sent to quash the revolt, but returned to Syria on the death of Antiochus IV. Lysias, preoccupied with internal Seleucid affairs, agreed to a political compromise that restored religious freedom. Meanwhile their neighbors were angry at the Jews. Judas Maccabeus then fought against Idumea and the Ammonites. He received letters from Gilead about the dire situation in the north. Thus he led a military campaign in Galilee against the gentiles. He met with the Nabateans. Then he led an attack on Bozrah, Dathema, Alema and other cities.

His main opponent seemed to be Timothy and the other gentiles. He then attacked Carnaim. The people in Ephron refused him passage, so that he attacked them. Then he returned to Jerusalem. However, there was a reversal of fortunes at Jamnia as the Jews lost there, but the success of Judas and his brothers continued. Meanwhile King Antiochus IV was defeated at Elymais in Persia as he got the bad news about his army’s lose in Judah. He then had a death bed repentance for all the evil things that he had done.

Next Judas Maccabeus started a siege of the citadel in Jerusalem. In response there was the expedition of King Antiochus V (163-161 BCE), the young son of King Antiochus IV, with a battle at Beth-zechariah. However, the Jews were defeated at Beth-zechariah, Bethzur, and Jerusalem. In the middle of this, there was the dispute between Lysias, the guardian of King Antiochus V, and Philip, who had been with King Antiochus IV when he died. Lysias wanted to get back to Antioch to deal with Philip so he agreed to a peace treaty with the Jews.

However, King Demetrius I (161-150 BCE), the brother of King Antiochus IV, took over. The renegade Jewish folks led by Alcimus brought the mission of Bacchides to wipe out Judas Maccabeus. The Hasideans, an ascetic group who strictly followed the Law of Moses, backed Judas Maccabeus. However, Bacchides was not able to take Jerusalem, but Alcimus did become the high priest in charge in Jerusalem.

Next there was the fight between Nicanor, King Demetrius I’s man, and Judas Maccabeus in Judea. Nicanor threatened the Temple, but Judas prayed for success before he defeated him. This defeat became a big deal in 2 Maccabees.

The importance of the Romans came into play as Judas Maccabeus sent two men to the trustworthy Roman Senate. In fact, there was a copy of the letter of the Romans to the Jews with a postscript about King Demetrius I. Then King Demetrius I sent more troops to Jerusalem. Judas Maccabeus and his small group decided to fight before he died in this battle. After a large funeral for Judas Maccabeus, it looked like the triumph of the pro-Syrian party.

With the death of Judas Maccabeus in 160 BCE, Jonathan Apphus, the younger brother of Judas Maccabeus succeeded him. As the new leader, Jonathan went into the wilderness. When his brother John Gaddi needed help with baggage, he was attacked and killed by the Jambri family. Jonathan rallied the troops and then killed everyone in the Jambri wedding party. He fought at the Jordan River against the fortifications of Bacchides. With the death of the Syrian backed high priest Alcimus, they planned to attack Jonathan. They met at Bethbasi, where Bacchides was defeated and left for home.

Jonathan then made a peace treaty with King Demetrius I. Jonathan released the men at the citadel in Jerusalem. He rebuilt Jerusalem as the renegades fled from there. Then King Alexander I (150-145 BCE), the son of King Antiochus IV appeared on the scene. He sent a letter to Jonathan. King Demetrius I realized what King Alexander I had done. He also sent a letter to Jonathan, but it was addressed to all the Jews. He promised no more taxes. He was going to allow all the Jewish feast days and even have Jews in his army. He was willing to give money to Jerusalem. However, in the end Jonathan favored King Alexander I so that this led to the fall of King Demetrius I.

King Alexander I sent a message to Egypt and King Ptolemy responded favorably. The king of Egypt set up a wedding between his daughter Cleopatra and King Alexander I. Jonathan was then honored by the new king of Syria, King Alexander I.

Now King Demetrius II (145-138 BCE), the son of King Demetrius I, appeared on the scene. Apollonius sent messages to Jonathan. Jonathan went to Joppa and fought at Azotus with his brother Simon, where they were victorious. Once again, King Alexander I honored Jonathan.

Then King Ptolemy VI of Egypt visited Syria and saw the destruction at Azotus. King Ptolemy VI decided to give his daughter Cleopatra to King Demetrius II, taking her away from King Alexander I, after defeating him. King Demetrius II and Jonathan had a disagreement so they came to a meeting. Finally, King Demetrius II then sent a letter to Jonathan approving him.

King Demetrius II had a growing opposition to him in Antioch, so that Jonathan sent troops to him to help put down the revolt there. However, King Demetrius II did not keep his word with Jonathan. In the meantime, Trypho, one of King Alexander’s men, returned to unseat King Demetrius II. Trypho put the young King Antiochus VI (145—140 BCE) on the throne as they favored Jonathan also.

Meanwhile, Jonathan was on the offensive at Gaza as he met the officers of the deposed King Demetrius II at Hazor. He then sent messengers to Rome and Sparta, since the Spartans were somehow related to the Jews via Abraham. He had a copy of the letter sent to Onias, the Jewish high priest, by a Spartan king.

Jonathan then fought against the commanders of the army of the deposed King Demetrius II, while Simeon went to Askalon. They worked on further fortifications in Jerusalem. Meanwhile Trypho wanted to become king himself as he got rid of King Antiochus VI. Then Jonathan and the new King Trypho (140-138 BCE) met. King Trypho told him to send his troops home since he was going to honor him at Ptolemais. When Jonathan got there with only 1,000 troops, Trypho captured him in 140 BCE, since he had planned to defeat the Jewish troops.

Meanwhile, Simon Thassi, thinking that his brother Jonathan was dead, gave a speech in Jerusalem to encourage the Israelites. By proclamation he was declared the new leader. King Trypho then sent a message to Simon to say that he would turn over Jonathan since it was a question of money that was owed to him. If he gave him the two sons of Jonathan as hostages and 100 talents of silver everything would be okay. Simon, afraid that others would say he was not willing to save his brother, agreed. However, King Trypho went back on his work. As he headed north to his home, he killed Jonathan at Baskama. Simon then buried his brother Jonathan in the family tomb in Modein where he built a great monument with seven pyramids for each of the family members.

As King Trypho became king of Asia, Simon wanted to contact the deposed King Demetrius II, who then sent a letter back to Simon. Simon agreed to support King Demetrius II against King Trypho, who had killed his brother. In return King Demetrius II exempted him from paying taxes, but he was still in exile. Simon conquered the port of Joppa and Gaza as he expelled the gentile population there. He also expelled the gentiles from the citadel in Jerusalem. Thus in 140 BCE, he was recognized by an assembly of priests, leaders and elders as the high priest, the military commander and the ruler of Israel. Israel now had gained its independence with a nice poem about Simon, who had brought peace to Israel.

Shortly after this, the Roman Senate renewed its alliance with the Jewish people as they heard from Sparta and Rome. There was a letter from the Spartans as well as a letter from the Romans to the Egyptian king that was sent to the other kings. Simon thus had an alliance with Rome, as the envoys returned from there.

The people then honored Simon and his brothers. A proclamation in bronze tablets was prepared that talked about the exploits of Simon and Jonathan. Simon had brought peace to Judea. King Demetrius II praised Simon also. As Simon took command, he assumed a dictatorial authority, with the title of ethnarch.

However, King Antiochus VII (138-129 BCE), the brother of King Demetrius II, had a dispute with Simon as he sent Athenobius to Jerusalem to meet Simon. Cendebeus became the commander of the coastal country for King Antiochus VII. King Antiochus VII then sent a letter to Simon before he invaded Dor. Simon then sent his sons to fight and defeat Cendebeus.

There was a tragic ending to Simon and two of his sons. He was visiting his son-in-law, at a banquet where they all got drunk. Then his son-in-law Ptolemy and his men killed them while they were drunk. Ptolemy wanted to take over by killing John the son of Simon, but he was unsuccessful.

Although the sons of Mattathias won autonomy, the region remained a province of the Seleucid Empire. Simon was required to provide troops to King Antiochus VII. Simon led the people in peace and prosperity, until he is murdered by Ptolemy, the son of Abubus, his son-in- law in 134 BCE. However, he was succeeded as high priest by Simon’s son John.  This book ended here without indicating anything about what happened between John and Ptolemy.

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