Jewish family who fought against the rule of Antiochus IV Epiphanes of the Hellenistic Seleucid dynasty, who was succeeded by his infant son, Antiochus V Eupator. The Maccabees founded the Hasmonean royal dynasty and established Jewish independence in the Land of Israel for about one hundred years, from 165 B.C.E. to 63. Their defeat of a much larger power was a remarkable feat. Israel had not known self-governance since 587 B.C.E. The Hasmoneans succeeded in winning back a considerable portion of Solomon's old empire.
They consolidated their power by centralizing authority in Jerusalem and combining the office of king and High Priest. This attracted criticism from some because the Hasmonean's were not descended from Moses' brother, Aaron the first High Priest and from others, especially the Pharisees because they exercised both religious and political authority. The Pharisees favored separation. The Hasmoneans tried to purify Judaism of what they saw as corrupt elements, destroying the Samaritan Temple on Mount Gerizim. However, they favored assimilation of Greek culture which was opposed by groups such as the Essenes, who withdrew to the Dead Sea region where they established a rival priesthood and community of the pure. The dynasty's downfall was caused by rivalry within the family and by the arrival of the Romans. In 63 B.C.E., Pompey brought Israel, generally known as Palestine, under Roman jurisdiction and in 37 B.C.E. the Romans supported Herod the Great's usurping of power. Not until the creation of the modern State of Israel would the Jews again know independence.
It would in fact be those who opposed the dynasty established by the Maccabees, the Pharisees, who enabled post-Biblical Judaism not only to survive but also to flourish after the Temple's destruction in 70C.E. with their focus on the Torah and on personal piety. The example of the Maccabees inspired Jews in their struggle to achieve and to defend the modern state of Israel, inspiring some to use guerrilla tactics against the British, who made little effort during their post World War I administration of Palestine to establish the Jewish homeland as mandated by the League of Nations. Remembering the example of the Maccabees reminded Jews that they did not have to be victims but could also be victors.
The biblical books of 1 Maccabees, 2 Maccabees and 4 Maccabees deal with the Maccabean revolt.
In 167 B.C.E., after Antiochus issued decrees in Judea forbidding Jewish religious practice, a rural Jewish priest from Modiin, Mattathias the Hasmonean, sparked the revolt against the Seleucid empire by refusing to worship the Greek gods and slaying the Hellenistic Jew who stepped forward to worship an idol. He and his five sons fled to the wilderness of Judea. After Mattathias' death about one year later, his son Judah Maccabee led an army of Jewish dissidents to victory over the Seleucids. The term Maccabees as used to describe the Judean's army is taken from its actual use as Judah's surname.
The revolt itself involved many individual battles, in which the Maccabean forces gained infamy among the Syrian army for their use of guerrilla tactics. After the victory, the Maccabees entered Jerusalem in triumph and religiously cleansed the Temple, reestablishing traditional Jewish worship there.
Following the re-dedication of the temple, the Maccabees supporters were divided over the question of whether to continue fighting. When the revolt began under the leadership of Mattathias, it was seen as a war for religious freedom to end the oppression of the Seleucids; however, as Maccabees realized how successful they had been many wanted to continue the revolt as a war of national self-determination. This conflict led to the exacerbation of the divide between the Pharisees and Saducees under later Hasmonean monarchs such as Alexander Jannaeus.
Every year Jews celebrate Hanukkah in commemoration of Judah Maccabee's victory over the Seleucids and subsequent miracles.
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