Theology Thursday ... On Friday: The Maccabean Revolt

"The Maccabees," by Wojciech Stattler (ca. 1842)

Many Christians don’t send time reading the so-called Old Testament “apocryphal books.” These are a series of works (the number varies, depending on the source) which appeared in versions of the Greek Old Testament in the 400 years or so before Christ’s advent. Protestants have not traditionally considered these as canonical, but they’re an invaluable historical bridge to help us better understand the intertestamental period.

In this excerpt from 1 Maccabees 1:54 – 2:70,1 we read about how the Maccabean Revolt began as the Seleucids, under Antiochus Epiphanes IV (yes, the one from the Daniel commentaries) attempted to Hellenize the region of Judea by force in 169 B.C., desecrating the temple and outlawing the Israelite religion.

And on the fifteenth day of Chislev, in the one hundred and forty-fifth year, they set up upon the altar an ‘abomination of desolation’, and in the cities of Judah on every side they established high-places; and they offered sacrifice at the doors of the houses and in the streets. And the books of the Law which they found they rent in pieces, and burned them in the fire. And with whomsoever was found a book of the covenant, and if he was (found) consenting unto the Law, such an one was, according to the king’s sentence, condemned to death. Thus did they in their might to the Israelites who were found month by month in their cities.

And on the twenty-fifth day of the month they sacrificed upon the altar which was upon the altar of burnt-offering. And, according to the decree, they put to death the women who had circumcised their children, hanging their babes round their (mothers’) necks, and they put to death their (entire) families, together with those who had circumcised them.

Nevertheless many in Israel stood firm and determined in their hearts that they would not eat unclean things, and chose rather to die so that they might not be defiled with meats, thereby profaning the holy covenant; and they did die. And exceeding great wrath came upon Israel.

In those days rose up Mattathias, the son of John, the son of Simeon, a priest of the sons of Joarib, from Jerusalem; and he dwelt at Modin. And he had five sons: John, who was surnamed Gaddis; Simon, who was called Thassis; Judas, who was called Maccabaeus; Eleazar, who was called Auaran; and Jonathan, who was called Aphphus.

And he saw the blasphemous things that were done in Judah and in Jerusalem, and said, “Woe is me, why was I born to behold the ruin of my people and the ruin of the holy city, and to sit still there while it was being given into the hand of enemies, and the sanctuary into the hand of strangers?”

Her housed is become like (that of) a man dishonoured;

Her glorious vessels are carried away captive;

Her infants have been slain in her streets,

Her young men with the sword of the enemy.

What nation hath the kingdom not taken possession of,

(Of what nation) hath it not seized the spoils?

Her adornment hath all been taken away,

Instead of a free woman she is become a slave.

And, behold, our holy things, and our beauty, and our glory have been laid waste,

And the heathen have profaned them! To what purpose should we continue to live?

And Mattathias and his sons rent their garments, and covered themselves with sackcloth, and mourned greatly.

The Beginning of the Maccabean Revolt

And the king’s officers who were enforcing the apostasy came to the city of Modin to make them sacrifice. And many from Israel went unto them; but Mattathias and his sons gathered themselves together. Then the king’s officers answered and spake unto Mattathias, saying:

“A ruler art thou, and illustrious and great in this city, and upheld by sons and brothers. Do thou, therefore, come first, and carry out the king’s command, as all the nations have done, and all the people of Judah, and they that have remained in Jerusalem; then shalt thou and thy house be (numbered among) the friends of the king, and thou and thy sons shall be honoured with silver and gold, and with many gifts.”

Thereupon Mattathias answered and said with a loud voice:

“If all the nations that are within the king’s dominions obey him by forsaking, every one of them, the worship of their fathers, and have chosen for themselves to follow his commands, yet will I and my sons and my brethren walk in the covenant of our fathers. Heaven forbid that we should forsake the Law and the ordinances; (but) the law of the king we will not obey by departing from our worship either to the right hand or to the left.”

And as he ceased speaking these words, a Jew came forward in the sight of all to sacrifice upon the altar in Modin in accordance with the king’s command. And when Mattathias saw it, his zeal was kindled, and his heart quivered (with wrath); and his indignation burst forth for judgement, so that he ran and slew him on the altar; and at the same time he [also] killed the king’s officer who had come to enforce the sacrificing, pulled down the altar, and [thus] showed forth his zeal for the Law, just as Phinehas had done in the case of Zimri the son of Salom.

And Mattathias cried out with a loud voice in the city, saying, “Let everyone that is zealous for the Law and that would maintain the covenant come forth after me!” And he and his sons fled unto the mountains, and left all that they possessed in the city.

The Sabbath Massacre

At that time many who were seeking righteousness and judgement went down to the wilderness to abide there, they and their sons, and their wives, and their cattle; for misfortunes fell hardly upon them. And it was reported to the king’s officers and to the troops that were in Jerusalem, the city of David, that men who had set at nought the king’s command had gone down into hiding-places in the wilderness.

And many ran after them, and having overtaken them, they encamped against them, and set the battle in array against them on the Sabbath day. And they said unto them: “Let it suffice now; come forth, and do according to the command of the king, and ye shall live.”

And they answered, “We will not come forth, nor will we do according to the command of the king, and thereby profane the Sabbath day!”

Thereupon they immediately attacked them. But they answered them not, nor did they cast a stone at them, nor even block up their hiding-places, saying, “Let us all die in our innocency; Heaven and earth bear us witness that ye destroy us wrongfully!”

And they attacked them on the Sabbath; and they died, they and their wives, and their children, and their cattle, about a thousand souls.

Mattathias Strikes Back

And when Mattathias and his friends knew it, they mourned greatly for them. And one said to another, “If we all do as our brethren have done, and do not fight against the Gentiles for our lives and our ordinances, they will soon destroy us from off the earth.”

And they took counsel on that day, saying, “Whosoever attacketh us on the Sabbath day, let us fight against him, that we may not in any case all die, as our brethren died in their hiding-places.”

Then were there gathered unto them a company of the Chasidim, mighty men of Israel who willingly offered themselves for the Law, every one of them. And all they that fled from the evils were added unto them, and reinforced them. And they mustered a host, and smote sinners in their anger, and lawless men in their wrath; and the rest fled to the Gentiles to save themselves.

And Mattathias and his friends went round about, and pulled down altars, and they circumcised by force the children that were uncircumcised, as many as they found within the borders of Israel. And they pursued after the sons of pride, and the work prospered in their hand. And they rescued the Law out of the hand of the Gentiles, and lout of the hand of the kings, neither suffered they the sinner to triumph.

Mattathias’ Last Words and Death

And the days drew near that Mattathias should die, and he said unto his sons:

“Now have pride and rebuke gotten strength and a season of destruction and wrath of indignation. And now (my) children, be zealous for the Law, and give your lives for the covenant of your fathers. And call to mind the deeds of the fathers, which they did in their generations, that ye may receive great glory and an everlasting name.

Was not Abraham found faithful in temptation, and it was reckoned unto him for righteousness? Joseph, in the time of his distress, kept the commandment, and became lord of Egypt. Phinehas, our father, for that he was zealous exceedingly, obtained the covenant of an everlasting priesthood. Joshua, for fulfilling the word, became a judge in Israel. Caleb, for bearing witness in the congregation, obtained land (as) an heritage. David, for being merciful, inherited the throne of a kingdom forever and ever.

Elijah, for that he was exceeding zealous for the Law, was taken up into heaven. Hananiah, Azariah (and) Mishael, believing (in God), were saved from the flame. Daniel, for his innocence, was delivered from the mouth of the lions. And thus consider ye from generation to generation—all who hope in Him shall want for nothing.

And be not afraid of the words of a sinful man, for his glory [shall be] dung and worms. Today he shall be lifted up, and tomorrow he shall in no wise be found, because he is returned unto his dust, and his thought is perished. And ye, (my) children, be strong and show yourselves men on behalf of the Law; for therein shall ye obtain glory.

And behold Simeon your brother, I know that he is a man of counsels; give ear unto him always; he shall be a father unto you. And Judas Maccabaeus, he hath been strong and mighty from his youth; he shall be your captain and shall fight the battle of the people. And ye, take you unto you all those who observe the Law, and avenge the wrong of your people. Render a recompense to the Gentiles, and take heed to the commandments of the Law.”

And he blessed them, and was gathered unto his fathers. And he died in the one hundred and forty-sixth year; and his sons buried him in the sepulcher of his fathers at Modin; and all Israel made great lamentation for him.


1 This excerpt is from Robert Henry Charles, ed., Apocrypha of the Old Testament (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1913).

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