The Maccabean War and First Century Judea

This is a paper written for my New Testament introduction class. The prompt was to discuss the effects of the Maccabean war on first century Judaism. Enjoy!


When attempting to determine how to navigate exploring the question of the effect of the Maccabean war on first century Judaism, I found myself in a sea of information. Where to begin? How does one go about looking at the effects of a war, without first looking at the war? How does one look at the war, without looking at the historical context which led to the war? These seem to be the same questions that the authors of 1 and 2 Maccabees struggled with, as they begin with similar information. As a Bible student, I must also take into account what the Bible says about this war, if anything. To that end, I will be looking at the effects of the war last, instead of first or all throughout. My hope is that by having a clear presentation of the history leading up to the war and of the war itself, the effects will be nearly self-explanatory. Therefore, this paper will go by the following outline: (1) The Biblical Texts (2) The Extra-Biblical Texts (3) The History (4) the Effects.

The Biblical Texts

The key canonical texts concerning the intertestamental period are all located in Daniel. Chapter 7 details the succession of empires from Babylon through Rome, and chapter 11 details much of what actually occurs to bring about the Maccabean Revolt, including a description of the “abomination of desolation,” or at least one of them.

Daniel 7

Chapter 7 begins with a vision of four beasts, each beast representing a different empire: a winged lion, a lopsided bear, a four-headed and four-winged leopard, and a fourth terrifying beast. Daniel then sees the ancient of days and the books being opened (for the New Testament reader, this smacks of Revelation 20) and the son of man coming on the clouds receiving his kingdom. The vision is then interpreted for Daniel. Given the history that follows, we can safely conclude at the very least, what empires the first three beasts represent. The lion must be Babylon, likely standing up as a man referring to Nebuchadnezzar’s salvation experience described in chapter four. The bear represents the Medo-Persian Empire (lopsided because the Persians were the dominant power in the alliance). Finally, the four-headed leopard must be the Greek Empire, which conquered the Persians under Alexander and then split into four smaller empires. The two out of those four with which we will be concerned are the Seleucids and the Ptolomies. This is the most common reckoning of the first three beasts, particularly among dispensationalists. Though, other schemes exist, they seem insufficient in accounting for every major part of the metaphor.[1]

Daniel 11

Daniel 11 goes into great, and confusing, detail about the intertestamental history of Greece. Many pages could be written expositing this, but as that is not the purpose of this paper, we will only take a brief overview. Verses 1-4 describe Persian history leading up to Alexander the Great’s conquest of Persia. His empire “as soon as he ha[d] arisen” was plucked from him by death and given to four generals “and not to his posterity.”[2] Then, a series of conflicts between “the king of the south” and “the king of the north” along with their descendants is described. These are the conflicts for power between the Ptolomies and Seleucids and a small section of the Diadochi Wars. From verse twenty onward the chapter zooms in on the actions of Antiochus Epiphanes IV. His various abominations and transgressions are detailed throughout the chapter, ending with his death “between the sea and the glorious holy mountain” (Dan 11:45).

In the midst of this, Daniel recounts this ruler of the north saying that “forces from him shall appear and profane the temple and fortress, and shall take away the regular burnt offering. And they shall set up the abomination that makes desolate.” The nature of this “abomination that makes desolate” will be discussed later.

The Extra-Biblical Texts

The extra-biblical texts that shed light on this period are clearer and numerous. Given the plethora of sources for these wars and histories, many of them contradictory, focused attention will be paid to the books of 1 and 2 Maccabees, and Josephus’s Antiquities and Wars of the Jews.[3]

Maccabees 1 and 2

1 Maccabees give us the most details of the war itself, beginning with the event that started it all: Mattathias’s refusal to profane the sacrifice. In chapter one, the litany of cultic practices Antiochus Epiphanes enforced upon Jerusalem are detailed. Special attention is given to the date on which “they erected a desolating sacrilege on the altar of burnt offering” as well as the fact that Jewish custom was being systematically erased, by setting up altars, killing the circumcised, and burning the Torah (1 Macc 1:54-61). In Chapter two, Mattathias, patriarch of the Maccabees, is introduced as a holy man who refuses to take part in the pagan sacrifices, and when another Jew attempts to do so, he burns with righteous anger and kills him and the guard enforcing the sacrifice. Mattathias takes a band of rebel Jews to live in the wilderness around Judea and go on a crusade reforming Israel back to obeying the Torah.

Chapters three through sixteen tell the history of battel after battle, and the succession of commanders in the family who take over the war as it continues through history. Mattathias is succeeded by Judas, then Jonathan, then Simon, and finally John. It is interesting to note that Jonathan is the first in this family to be the leader of the revolt and high priest in Jerusalem. The family was a priestly one, from the family of Jehoiarib a descendant of Phinehas, so the office of high priest was not necessarily precluded from him (1 Macc 2:1,54). However, the role of military leader and high priest, along with political corruption of the office, made for a conflict of interests, the imports of which can be seen hanging on a cross at Calvary. More on this later.

2 Maccabees, beginning in Chapter 8, details only the section of the war led by Judas Maccabeus. It goes into greater detail than 1 Maccabees about his conflicts with Nicanor, Lysias, Menelaus, and others.

Josephus Antiquities and Jewish Wars

Josephus clearly used 1 and 2 Maccabees extensively in his recording of the Maccabean revolution. Books twelve and thirteen of Antiquities, and book one of Jewish Wars cover the relevant history. Book twelve of Antiquities follows very closely with 1 Maccabees, however, by chapter eight of book thirteen, the history has progressed beyond that of the books of Maccabees, and well into the Hasmonean dynasty, detailing the events under the rule of John Hyrcanus, Aristobulus, Alexander, Alexandra, and the rest, all the way to Herod the Great. Here, the inspired Biblical account of history picks up again.

The History

What then occurred in this period of history? How did the cultural norms of the New Testament come to be? The following section tells the history garnered from the sources above.

Antiochus III-Onias

We pick up our history with Antiochus III as the ruler of the Seleucid Empire, coming to the height of his power at around 200 B.C.[4] In his quest for greater power, money, and property, he became over-zealous and underestimated the Romans. He was defeated by Scipio Asiaticus at Magnesia in Lydia and lost the majority of the Seleucid wealth. He was later killed at Elymais while ransacking a temple for gold.[5]

Onias was the high priest for much of Antiochus III’s rule, and his character is a disputed one. According to 2 Maccabees, Onias was a pious man, and because of “his hatred of wickedness, it came about that the kings themselves honored the place and glorified the temple with the finest presents, even to the extent that King Seleucus of Asia defrayed from his own revenues all the expenses connected with the service of the sacrifices” (2 Macc 3:2-3). The author of Maccabees paints Onias in the purest of lights as a man who prayed even for his enemies, and who suffered slander at the hand of Simon, a Benjaminite who disliked Onias’s dealings with the city market. Josephus seems to have heard only the slander. He describes Onias as a man “of a little soul and a great lover of money.”[6] This is likely due to the fact that Onias resisted Greek interference with Jewish way of life, a virtue Josephus was happy to do without.

Antiochus IV-Jason

After Antiochus III’s death, Seleucus IV reigned until Antiochus Epiphanes IV took the reins of the empire in 175 B.C. When he did, Onias’s brother, Jason, bought his way into the office of high priest (2 Macc 4:7-8). Jason is a prime example of the puppetry for which the office was later associated. Antiochus IV ruled the empire strictly according to Hellenistic culture, much to the displeasure of the Jews. Jason, as his puppet in the seat of the high priest, helped along the Hellenization of the culture. Antiochus IV did everything in his power to erase Jewish culture from Judea, as mentioned above. Jason’s reign as high priest came to an end when he sent Simon’s brother, Menelaus, to the king with money from the temple. Menelaus also proved himself as slimy a character as Jason, outbidding him for the role of high priest, which Antiochus IV accepted. Antiochus used his position as king and his puppets in the priesthood to torture the Jews into submission. One particularly frightening account is of seven brothers and their mother, whom Antiochus IV whipped to death because they refused to eat pork. This persisted until Mattathias refused to comply and make pagan sacrifices on the altar at Modin, thus the Maccabean war began.

After years of war with Mattathias and Judas Maccabeus, Antiochus Epiphanes IV died. This was during the war just after Judas Maccabeus’s first big victory over Nicanor.

Antiochus V-Menelaus

Antiochus Eupator V succeeded his father on the throne and took up the reins of fighting the Jewish rebels. Menelaus continued in his role as high priest through the majority of Judas Maccabeus’s war. He sided with Antiochus V in many conflicts, hoping that the Antiochus would beat the Jewish rebellion into submission so that he would retain his role as high priest. However, his two-faced deeds finally caught up to him, as Antiochus himself, upset that Menelaus was the cause of a particular skirmish with Judas, ordered he be put to death by pushing him from a tower at Beroea.


From this point on, Judas Maccabeus and his descendants are in a place of relative power, so it is better to trace the history from their perspective.

After Antiochus V other kings of both the Antiochid and Seleucid lines vied for control of Israel, but in each case, Judas or his brothers rose up to defend the country and won in the end. 1 Maccabees chapters nine through sixteen detail the various conflicts, battles, deceptions, and treaties that took place from 160-142 B.C. By that time, three important events had occurred. “Judas gained freedom of religion in 162 B.C. Jonathan became high priest in 152 B.C. Simon achieved tax exemption in 142 B.C.”[7] At this point, the point of financial, religious, and political autonomy, the Hasmonean Dynasty can be said to have truly started.

The Hasmoneans ruled from 142-63 B.C. The family proved the old adage that power does indeed corrupt. Simon was the second in the family to rule Judea from the office of high priest, though it is clear through his actions that he was really a military ruler at heart. Simon, having inherited military power after his brother Jonathan was slain, continued to wage war with the Greeks on all sides. Josephus and the writer of Maccabees again disagree about the nature of Simon. Reading Josephus, one gets the impression that Simon was a power-hungry and impudent young man, but from 1 Maccabees, he is a deliverer and peacemaker, and “during his entire reign, he used his position of power and influence to do what was good for his people, and they were always pleased with him as their ruler” (1 Macc 14:4). The truth may be somewhere in between.

However, it is clear that Josephus and 1 Maccabees agree in the method of Simon’s death. His son-in-law, Ptolemy, assassinated him, wanting the country for himself (1 Macc 16).[8] Ptolemy’s success was short-lived, though, because John Hyrcanus, Simon’s son, took the office of high priest and control of the army and defeated Ptolemy. Hyrcanus is described largely as a benevolent ruler, but a ruler nonetheless. He acted to defend Judea from more Greek oppression, but his job was eased by the looming shadow of Rome. The divided Greek empire was in the process of being assimilated by Rome, and so its focus was not as centrally located on reclaiming Judea, as it had been in the years of Antiochus III and IV.

It is also during the reign of Hyrcanus that we see the Pharisees and the Sadducees taking a larger role in the cultural dynamics. Josephus mentions that there were three major philosophical sects within the Jews, and makes it clear that they existed in the time of Judas Maccabeus, but does not detail how they came about. He does describe the three sects, however, saying, “The followers of the first of whom are the Pharisees of the second the Sadducees, and the third sect, who pretends to a severer discipline, and called the Essenes. These last are Jews by birth and have a greater affection for one another than the other sects have.”[9] He goes into great detail in this chapter describing the Essenes and their ideology. He later describes the Pharisees saying:

“the Pharisees are those who are esteemed most skillful in the exact explication of their laws, and introduce the first sect. These ascribe all to fate [or providence], and to God, and yet allow, that to act what is right, or the contrary, is principally in the power of men, although fate does cooperate in every action. They say that all souls are incorruptible; but that the souls of good men are only removed into other bodies –but that the souls of bad men are subject to eternal punishment.”[10]

The Sadducees are the last to be described:

“[Those who] take away fate entirely, and suppose that god is not concerned in our doing or not doing what is evil; and they say that to act what is good, or what is evil, is at men’s own choice, and that the one or the other belongs so to everyone, that they may act as they please. They also take away the belief of the immortal duration of the soul and the punishments and rewards in Hades. Moreover, the Pharisees are friendly to one another, and are for the exercise of concord and regard for the public. But the behavior of the Sadducees one towards another is in some degree wild, and their conversation with those that are of their own party is as barbarous as if they were strangers to them.”[11]

It is necessary to see these descriptions here in the recounting of history because John Hyrcanus actually belonged to one party, and then switched. Hyrcanus was a disciple of the Pharisees, having a close kinship with the party that generally held the sway of popular opinion, or as Josephus put it, “have so great a power of the multitude, that when they say anything against the king or against the high priest, they are presently believed.”[12] When Hyrcanus had a disagreement with the Pharisees he in turn sided with the Sadducees more heavily until the point of his death. These dynamics will be important later when examining the effects of this dynasty on Jewish ideologies.

After Hyrcanus died, the human nature and way of the world took over the Hasmoneans and they ruled Judea as aristocrats much as the emperors of Rome ruled their subjects. Aristobulus, Hyrcanus’s oldest son, took control of Judea and disregarded the high priesthood, instead taking the title of king and making it clear that he ruled a kingdom. He was the first Jew to style himself as “king” over Judea since Babylon destroyed Jerusalem in 586 B.C. After Aristobulus, then Alexander Janneus became king, then his wife Alexandra became Queen, followed by Hyrcanus II and Aristobulus II. Finally, in 63 B.C. Rome had become the dominant world-power, had conquered Judea, and Herod the Great had begun working his way into the place of King of Judea. He killed and married members of the Hasmonean family and between Pompey, Crassus, Octavian, and Antony, Grecco-Roman culture took hold over the 60 years leading to the birth of Jesus and the New Testament era.

The Effects

Having seen the history of the Maccabean war clearly laid out, many of the effects are largely obvious; however they will be explored for clarity. In particular, four aspects of Jewish culture will be analyzed: (1) Jewish Ideology in Light of Hasmonean Ideology, (2) The Jewish Sects, and (3) Jewish Expectations and the Abomination that Makes Desolate.

Jewish Ideology in Light of Hasmonean Ideology

Some of the Jewish ideologies in the New Testament can be clearly sourced in the ideologies of the Hasmonean family, going as far back as Mattathias. The clearest ideologies would be (1) The Role of High Priest, (2) The Spirit of Independence, and (3) The Regard for the Law.

The Role of High Priest

The Role of high priest clearly shifted from a seat of religious piety and holiness to a seat of corruption and power. This is nothing new for the people of Israel. Even as early as Nadab and Abihu, the first sons of the first high priest, Aaron, the role of priest had been abused and corrupted. There were periods of time in which the high priest actually was a pious man, but the period of Seleucid and Hasmonean control is hardly a shining example of this. Particularly under Antiochus III and IV, it is clear that the high priest was a seat that could be bought, and wielded for monetary gain.

The high priests who took the seat during the Maccabean revolt, Jonathan, Simon, and Hyrcanus, may have been more purely motivated by a love of the Torah to hold the office, but they also clearly had a zealous lust for obedience to the Torah that may have crossed the line in the way they wielded military power in enforcing it.

It is, however, interesting to note that, according to the Torah, the high priest was essentially the leader of Israel. God established the nation as a “kingdom of priests, and a holy nation” (Ex 19:6) and so, this short period in which the leader of Judea also took the role of high priest may be closer to the correct mode of authority for Israel than that of kingship, as in the majority of their recorded history. This also might feed into their expectations about the Messiah and the accurate theology concerning Jesus’s High Priesthood as recorded in the book of Hebrews.

The Spirit of Independence

The Maccabean Revolt gave the Jewish people a taste of independence, the likes of which they had not experienced since 586 B.C. Since the exile in Babylon, the Jews had always been subject to one major world power or another, be it Persia, Greece, or Rome. The Hasmoneans came close to giving the Jews back their country and land, which had been promised to their ancestors numerous times throughout Genesis.[13] The revitalized desire to be their own people, holy and set-apart influenced the general Jewish ideologies in the New Testament. It is thanks to the Hasmoneans and the Maccabean revolt that we see the zealots come to prominence near the end of New Testament history. Those Jews who wanted Roman occupation to end clearly drew inspiration from the Maccabean revolt.

The Regard for the Law

A high regard for the law was not new to the Hasmoneans, but was an ideology that had been stifled during the conquest of Alexander the Great and subsequent years. It’s clear from Antiochus IV’s persecution of Jews and attempted erasure of Jewish culture that compromise on the law was on the minds of many Jews, particularly those who were Hellenizing. The Jews who valued peace and safety over strict adherence to the law clashed with those like Mattathias who regarded compromising on the law as a fate worse than death.

Given that the law largely regulated culture, compromising on it meant changing your culture. The tension between Hellenistic Jews and “true” Jews grew into the New Testament era but began in the period of the Maccabean revolt. How far would a Jew go for safety? What were they unwilling to give up? For Mattathias, the answer was the sacrificial system and the abomination that makes desolate.

This is further seen in the renaissance of the language Hebrew, which occurred under the Hasmoneans. Thanks to Alexander’s Hellenization, the lingua franca of the known world was Greek, although Aramaic was still heavily used in Palestine at the time. For the Hasmoneans, the language of scripture was the language of choice, and so it was the language of choice for any Jew who was loyal to the Hasmoneans. “This Hebrew renaissance is reflected in the literature, particularly in the documents found in the Qumran library.”[14] It can also be seen on their coinage.[15]

This point about resistance to Hellenization can be over-emphasized, however. “The Maccabees did not resist everything that had to do with Hellenism, but only specific aspects which they found threatening […] Their rebellion was against the political system which persecuted their religion and imposed paganism upon them.”[16] It was the Torah that the Hasmoneans could not compromise on, but other customs were up for grabs, because some Hellenization was unavoidable; even the Maccabees recognized that.

Jewish Sects (Sadducees, Pharisees, Essenes)

The three major Jewish sects existed, as Josephus described them, for mainly philosophical reasons. As is explained above, the Pharisees were those so concerned with the entire law, and the will of man working with God in obeying the law, that their oral traditions and added rules were viewed on par with the law. They had the people on their side and under their thumb and they set the tone in the culture in terms of social issues. The Sadducees, on the other hand, had a more malleable view of scripture, though they claimed to believe the Torah, they seemed to have little regard for God’s workings in the world. They denied the resurrection and they set the tone in the culture in terms of political issues.

These basic differences can be seen more strongly in the New Testament, when the Sadducees are the group most in Rome’s pocket, and the Pharisees are the group most often battling Jesus for the will of the people. John Hyrcanus’s switch from Pharisee to Sadducee might possibly be the seed that blossomed into the New Testament portrait. It is not too fantastic to suggest that it was he, as the high priest and highest authority in Judea, who began the Sadducees love affair with political power, thus contributing to the political/moral de-sanctification of the role of high priest as well as the political importance of the Sanhedrin. It all starts with the Hasmoneans, and it is partially this political corruption that leads to the crucifixion.

The Essenes, on the other hand, were separatists. While much can be said about them, it is sufficient to say that they had little effect on the common culture, except to draw people out of it in favor of their communal way of life.

Jewish Expectations and the Abomination that Makes Desolate

Thanks to the political and military power exhibited by Judas Maccabeus, the Jews likely expected their anointed one, the messiach spoken of in Daniel 9, to be a military leader like Judas. In fact, it’s understandable to confuse and conflate the passages in Daniel 11 that talk about Judas Maccabeus and the war against Antiochus Epiphanes IV, and the Daniel 9 passage that talks about the Messiah, because they have a common phrase: “the abomination that makes desolate.” In Daniel 11, the abomination that makes desolate is Antiochus IV’s desecration of the sacrificial system. It is this “abomination that makes desolate” that Mattathias rebels against in killing the Jew who tried to push the order through, and it is this “abomination that makes desolate” that Daniel 11:31 describes. Daniel 9, on the other hand describes an anointed one being cut off, the holy city being destroyed, and at the end of the seventy weeks prophecy, a “prince who is to come” doing much the same as Antiochus IV did, namely, putting an end to sacrifices. It then says, “On the wings of abominations shall come one who makes desolate, until the decreed end is poured out on the desolator.” Is this “desolator” Antiochus IV? I think not for many reasons, not the least of which being that the timing in the prophecy does not fit for Antiochus Epiphanes.

However, the reason for confusion is obvious. The people saw Judas Maccabeus, a seemingly “anointed one” by God, bringing Antiochus’s “abomination” to an end, and they understandably concluded that, if Judas Maccabeus wasn’t the Messiah Daniel 9, then the actual one would do a lot of the same stuff as Judas, namely, lead a military revolt against Rome.


In this paper it has been shown how the history of the intertestamental period, the Maccabean War and Hasmonean dynasty, had affected Jewish culture by the time of the New Testament era. Using mainly Josephus and 1 and 2 Maccabees, a serviceable picture of the history was reconstructed and used to analyze the Jewish ideology in light of Hasmonean ideology, the Jewish sects, and Jewish expectations and the abomination that makes desolate. It was briefly shown that the prophetic book Daniel, accurately predicted the world history it sought to handle.



Harrington, Daniel J. The Maccabean Revolt: Anatomy of a Biblical Revolution. Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 1988.

Josephus, Antiquities.

Josephus, The Wars of the Jews.

Regev, Eyal. The Hasmoneans: Ideology, Archaeology, Identity. Bristol, CT: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2013.

Reicke, Bo. The New Testament Era: The World of the Bible from 500 B.C. to A. D. 100. Philidelphia, PA: Fortress, 1968.

[1] In The Maccabean Revolt Daniel Harrington reckons the bear as only the Medes, the Leopard as only the Persians, and the fourth beast as the Seleucids, thus equating the horn which rises up after the first ten with Antiochus Epiphanes. However, this seems unlikely, given the myriad linguistic cues that the fourth beast is related to the Roman Empire in some way.

[2] Quotes from Daniel 11 verses 1-4.

[3] Other extra-biblical primary sources might be Diodorus Siculus’s Library of History, Plutarch’s Lives, Polybius’s Histories, and Appian’s Syrian Wars. All of these works in some form shed light on the culture or history of conflict that defined the intertestamental period in Palestine.

[4] Bo Reicke, The New Testament Era: The World of the Bible from 500 B.C. to A. D. 100 (Philidelphia, PA: Fortress, 1968), 49.

[5] Reicke, 49.

[6] Antiquities, 12.4 (158)

[7] Reicke, 61.

[8] Josephus Antiquities, 13.7.

[9] Josephus, The Wars of the Jews, 2.8

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Josephus, Antiquities, 13.10.

[13] Genesis 12:1-8; 13:14-18; 15:1-20; 17:9-22; 22:9-18; 26:3-5; 28:13-15 all detail various promises made by God to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob that he would give the land of Canaan to their “seed” for an everlasting possession. The Israelites obviously consider themselves the “seed” in question, though the singular “seed” may be preferable in many of these situations, indicating the Messiah to be the one to possess the land for an everlasting possession.

[14] Reicke, 63.

[15] Eyal Regev, The Hasmoneans: Ideology, Archaeology, Identity (Bristol, CT: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2013), 175-223.

[16] Ibid, 21.

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