What Were the Impacts of the Maccabean Rebellion on the Ancient Near East?

Bust of Antiochus IV, King of the Seleucid Empire (Ruled 175-164 BC)

From 168 to 140 BC Judaea, now known as Israel, was in full revolt against the Greek-Seleucid Dynasty that ruled over the region. The rebellion was primarily a response by the native Jews against the political and religious policies of Antiochus IV (reigned 175-164 BC), which were certainly oppressive, but there was a fair amount of misunderstanding by both the Jews and the Greeks that exacerbated the situation. The Maccabean Rebellion was a conflict that pitted Hellenism against Abrahamic monotheism, leaving several long-lasting impacts on the Near East and a few that can still be seen today. The rebellion marked the end of Seleucid control over the Levant and signaled the end of the Seleucid Dynasty. The Jews were able to reestablish an independent kingdom once more under the Hasmonean Dynasty, influencing Judaism and later Christianity in the process. Finally, as the Seleucids lost their grip on the Levant as a result of the Maccabean Rebellion, the Romans used the opportunity to insert themselves permanently in the region.

Hellenism versus Abrahamic Monotheism

In order to understand the impacts that the Maccabean Rebellion had on the Near East, it is important to examine some of the factors that led to the rebellion and then the revolt itself. After Alexander the Great died in 323 BC, his generals divided his spoils and established kingdoms whereby Macedonian-Greeks ruled over native peoples. The general Seleucus I (ruled 305-281 BC) was given Mesopotamia and most of the Levant. Other kings were Ptolemy I, who received Egypt and Lysimachus was given Thrace. Each of these warrior kings carried with them aspects of Greek culture to their new kingdoms – with the exception of democracy – such as philosophy, science, the Greek language, and gymnasiums. Entirely new cities were built and named after these kings (Alexandria, Antioch, Lysimachia, etc.) and Greeks were brought from the homeland to populate these kingdoms. This era of Greek cultural expansion became known as the Hellenistic Period and the idea of spreading Greek culture in these ways is referred to as “Hellenism.” [1]

Seleucus I and the descendants of his dynasty were ardent proponents of Hellenism, promoting its tenets throughout Mesopotamia and the Levant/Syria in a variety of ways. Seleucus I moved thousands of Greeks into Mesopotamia, especially to his eponymously named city of Seleucia, while his son and successor, Antiochus I (ruled 281-261 BC), followed suite by building Antioch in Syria. It is estimated that up to 50,000 Greeks emigrated from Greece and Macedonia to Syria and Mesopotamia during their reigns. [2] It is important to know that although Hellenism was certainly a Greek-centric philosophy, it was also universal in that native elites under Greek rule were encouraged and found it beneficial to learn Greek and take part in Greek customs and past times. The Greeks may have thought of their culture as superior, but they also believed that it could be given as a gift to others, especially those from older, venerated cultures.

Hellenism presented a unique challenged to the Jews of the Levant and their culture. It was devoid of some of the more unacceptable ideas that the Jews found in their earlier rulers – such as the Egyptians, Assyrians, and Babylonians – and its universality enticed Jews who wished to elevate their standing within the Greek-Seleucid Empire. [3] The result was that many Jews learned Greek and observed some of the cultural aspects of Hellenism, such as taking part in gymnasiums and taking Greek first names, while still clinging to their religion and Jewish traditions. As a result, many of the Greeks saw the Jews attempts to Hellenize as half-hearted and insincere and continued to view them as insular, clannish, and untrustworthy. [4]

On an official level, Antiochus III (ruled 222-187 BC) and his successor, Seleucus IV (reigned 187-175 BC), appear to have developed a good working relationship with the Jews of Jerusalem and the surrounding area. Both kings allocated funds to rebuild the Second Solomonic Temple and allowed the Jews to practice their religion as they did before the Babylonian captivity. In return, the Jews of the region generally supported the Seleucids against the Ptolemies and many adopted aspects of Hellenism into their lives. [5] The good relations that had developed between the Jews and Greeks of Syria, though, would quickly come to an end during the kingship of Antiochus IV.

The Maccabean Rebellion

Map of the Near East in 89 BC

During the Seleucid Period of rule of Judea, the most important political position in that region was the high-priest of Jerusalem. The high-priest not only regulated the religious affairs of the Jews and was responsible for maintaining the Temple, but he also acted as the go-between with the Seleucid rulers, which could be quite lucrative. Generally speaking, the Seleucid kings allowed the Jews to pick their own high-priests, but Antiochus IV accepted a bribe from a Hellenized Jew named Jason to be given the position sometime just before 169 BC. The events were obviously an affront on many levels to the more traditional Jews, but things were made even worse when Jason announced he wanted to establish a Hellenistic gymnasium in Jerusalem. The situation then took an even more drastic turn when another Hellenized Jew named Menelaus paid even more for the position. Antiochus IV accepted Menelaus’ bribe because he needed to fund his army during the Sixth Syrian War against Ptolemaic Egypt, but the bribe was not enough so he decided to loot the Temple to pay for the remainder of the balance. [6] The events left many Jews incensed and ready for war.

The Jewish rebellion against Seleucid rule in Judea began in earnest in 168 BC. It was originally led by a man named Mattathias and his sons, especially Judas Maccabeus, for whom the rebellion would later be named. The early rebellion was quite confusing, though, as just as much violence took place between the Maccabees and the Hellenized Jews as happened between the Maccabees and Seleucids. To put an end to the factional fighting, Antiochus IV sent an army of mercenaries into Jerusalem, which only proved to be a temporary relief for the situation. [7] Determined to see no more unrest in Judea, Antiochus IV decided to strike back by essentially outlawing the Jewish religion and by establishing an altar to the Greek gods in the Temple. The first century BC Greek historian Diodorus wrote a particularly pro-Antiochus account of the events.

“Antiochus, called Epiphanes, on defeating the Jews had entered the innermost sanctuary of the god’s temple, where it was lawful for the priest alone to enter. Finding there a marble statue of a heavily bearded man seated on an ass, with a book in his hands, he supposed it to be an image of Moses, the founder of Jerusalem and organizer of the nation, the man, moreover, who had ordained for the Jews their misanthropic and lawless customs. And since Epiphanes was shocked by such hatred directed against all mankind, he had set himself to break down their traditional practices. Accordingly, he sacrificed before the image of the founder and the open-air altar of the god a great sow, and poured its blood over them. Then, having prepared its flesh, he ordered that their holy books, containing the xenophobic laws, should be sprinkled with the broth of the meat; that the lamp, which they call undying and which burns continually in the temple, should be extinguished; and that the high priest and the rest of the Jews should be compelled to partake of the meat.” [8]

Judas reacted by organizing what began as a small guerilla force around his family in the village of Modein. It was from there where they launched their attacks, creating much havoc in the region and often defeating larger Seleucid forces. Just before Antiochus IV died in 164 BC, Judas and his men retook the Temple on the twenty-fifth day of Kislev. The Romanized Jewish historian, Josephus, wrote about the event.

“As Judas did not expect Antiochus to take this lying down, he not only marshaled the available Jewish forces but took the bold step of allying himself with Rome. When Epiphanes again invaded the country he counter-attacked vigorously and drove him back; then striking while the iron was hot, he hurled himself against the garrison of the City, which had not yet been dislodged, threw the troops out of the Upper City, and shut them into the Lower – the part of the town called the Citadel. Then taking possession of the Temple he cleansed the whole area and walled it round, ordered a new set of ceremonial vessels to be fashioned and brought into the Sanctuary as the old ones were defiled, built another altar, and resumed the sacrifices. No sooner was Jerusalem once more the Holy City than Antiochus died, leaving as heir – both to his throne and to his hatred of the Jews – his son Antiochus.” [9]

Josephus’s passage noted two of the most immediate impacts the Maccabean Rebellion had: the celebration of the rededication of the Temple, which became known as Hanukkah, and the increasing Roman presence in the region.

The Results and Impacts of the Maccabean Rebellion

Map Showing the Growth of the Hasmonean Kingdom

Although Antiochus IV’s successor, Antiochus V (reigned 164-161 BC), reversed many of his predecessor’s policies in regards to Judea and the Jews in 162 BC, the Maccabean Rebellion had by that time transformed into an independence movement. With support from the Romans, the Maccabees were able to finally gain independence under Simon Maccabeus in 140 BC. [10] From that point forward, the ruling family of Judea was known as the Hasmonean Dynasty, named for one of their ancestors. Either Aristobulus (ruled 104-103 BC) or Janneus (reigned 103-76 BC) were the first Hasmonean rulers to officially take the title of “king.” Four more Hasmonean kings ruled in Judea before the Romans forcefully handed over power to the Herodian Dynasty in 37 BC. [11]

The Maccabean Rebellion also marked the beginning of Roman influence and then rule over the region and the beginning of the end for Seleucid rule. After the Parthians took the Seleucids’ possessions in Mesopotamia, the Romans incorporated Syria into their growing empire in 64 BC, which put an end to the Seleucid Empire and meant that the Hasmoneans were living on borrowed time. [12] After Aristobulus II (ruled 66-63 BC) acted in a manner that the Roman general and consul Pompey thought was aggressive – or perhaps Pompey just said he did in order to have a casus belli – the Roman general sent his army to Judea. Either way, Pompey put Jerusalem under a three-month siege and reduced it to direct Roman control. Rule of the city and region was then given to Herod and his descendants. [13]

Finally, one cannot overlook the cultural implications of Maccabean Rebellion. Besides the establishment of Hanukkah, which is much more popular among Jews in the West where Christmas is the dominant holiday, the rebellion inspired two books, Maccabees 1 and 2, which were added to the Bible. Today, the books are only considered canonical by the Roman Catholica and Eastern Orthodox Christian churches but have been used as a historical source for the Maccabean Rebellion, especially 1 Maccabees. [14]

Conclusion

The Maccabean Rebellion is often overlooked in the history of the Hellenistic world, but it greatly impacted the geopolitical situation of the Near East at the time and left a legacy that can still be seen today. The rebellion helped establish the first independent Jewish state in Judea in over 400 years and contributed to the end of the already ailing Seleucid Empire. A large part of the Maccabees’ success was the result of Roman aid, which helped to expand the Roman Empire into the region, eventually to the detriment of the Maccabean Hasmonean Dynasty. Finally, the Maccabean Rebellion left a legacy that can still be seen today in the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah and the Catholic and Orthodox Christian religious books of the Maccabees.

References

  1. Price, Simon. “The History of the Hellenistic Period.” In The Oxford History of Greece and the Hellenistic World. Edited by John Boardman, Jasper Griffin, and Oswyn Murray. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), pgs. 368-73
  2. Bryce, Trevor. Ancient Syria: A Three Thousand Year History. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), pgs. 168-73
  3. Greenspoon, Leonard J. “Between Alexandria and Antioch: Jews and Judaism in the Hellenistic Period.” In The Oxford History of the Biblical World. Edited by Michael Coogan. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 318
  4. Greenspoon, p. 321
  5. Greenspoon, p. 324
  6. Greenspoon, pgs. 326-7
  7. Greenspoon, p. 328
  8. Diodorus. The Library of History. Translated by C. H. Oldfather. (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2004), XXXIV/XXXV, 1, 1-3
  9. Josephus. The Jewish War. Translated by G. A. Williamson. Revised Edition with Introduction by E. Mary Smallwood. (London: Penguin, 1981), p. 34
  10. Hull, Caroline and Andrew Jotischky. The Penguin Historical Atlas of the Bible Lands. (London: Penguin), p. 33
  11. Greenspoon, p. 337
  12. Bryce, p. 221
  13. Greenspoon, p. 340
  14. Greenspoon, p. 343

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