Judas Maccabeus

Judas Maccabeus (died 160 B.C.) was the leader of a Jewish revolt against the repressive policies of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the king of Syria.

Third son of Mattathias, the Hasmonean priest of Modin, Judas received the added name Maccabeus, generally believed to mean "Hammerer," because of the hammer blows dealt by Judas and his small and poorly equipped guerrilla bands of Jewish patriots against the well-equipped and well-trained Syrian army. The Syrians had been sent by Antiochus IV Epiphanes to Judea to suppress Judaism and supplant it with Greek paganism. This marked the first recorded war for religious freedom.

Judas, a remarkable strategist, succeeded by means of surprise attacks, ambush, and quick mobility of his forces in defeating a succession of Syrian generals. After several years of conflict Judas drove out his foes from Jerusalem, except for the garrison in the citadel of Acra. Judas then proceeded with a group of faithful priests to cleanse the Temple of its pagan gods and restore the Sanctuary. On the twenty-fifth of the Jewish month of Kislev, 165 B.C., the golden menorah was rekindled, and the Temple was solemnly rededicated. Chanukah ("Dedication"), as the festival was called, is still celebrated each year for 8 days with the kindling of lights in commemoration of this event.

Antiochus died in 163. Judas ventured to attack the Acra citadel. Lysias, who had assumed the regency, counterattacked and defeated Judas at Bet Zecharia (162). Judas retreated to the Temple Mount but could not hold out because of an acute food shortage.

Lysias, however, needed a respite as well to deal with Philip, the regent appointed by Antiochus before his death. He therefore agreed to a peace (162) in which the Jews received complete freedom of worship. Lysias defeated Philip, only to be overthrown by Demetrius, the true heir to the Syrian throne. Demetrius appointed Alcimus (Jakim), a Hellenist, as high priest, a choice the Hasidim (Pietists) might have accepted since he was of priestly descent.

Alcimus's treacherous assassination of 60 priests, however, led Judas to continue to fight for political independence to secure his people's religious liberty. Demetrius dispatched Nicanor, a trusted general, with a strong force against Judas (161). Nicanor was defeated in several encounters and died in the battle of Adassa, in which Judas scored a brilliant victory. The triumphal day, the thirteenth of Adar, was ordained as an annual festival.

Judas solicited help from Rome, but before it could come, a new general, Bacchides, attacked him at Elesea with a formidable force. Judas's soldiers lost courage and fled, leaving their leader with only 800 men. They were completely routed, and Judas fell in battle (160). The conflict against foreign rule, however, was continued intermittently for a period of almost 3 centuries.


Further Reading on Judas Maccabeus

Sidney Tedesche and Solomon Zeitlin, First Book of the Maccabees and Second Book of Maccabees (1950-1954), are translations from the Greek originals of these works. Elias Bickerman, The Maccabees (1935; trans. 1947), presents an illuminating discussion of the adjustment of Judaism to Hellenism. Victor Tcherikover, Hellenistic Civilization and the Jews (trans. 1959), is the English version of a Hebrew work which examines the influence of Hellenistic culture on the Jews in Judea and the Diaspora. Norman Bentwich, Hellenism (1919), sketches the impact of the various branches of Hellenistic thought on Judaism.

Additional Biography Sources

Bar-Kochva, Bezalel, Judas Maccabaeus: the Jewish struggle against the Seleucids, Cambridge Cambridgeshire; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1989.

Healy, Mark, Judas Maccabeus: rebel of Israel, Poole, Dorset: Firebird Books; New York, NY: Distributed in the United States by Sterling Pub. Co., 1989.