I Have a Question
December 1998

“I Have a Question,” Ensign, Dec. 1998, 49–53

Who were the Maccabees, and how did they influence Jewish history?

Gaye Strathearn, instructor in ancient scripture at Brigham Young University

The time period between the Old and New Testaments is a blank in our scriptures, yet those 400 years were a very significant period in the Holy Land. In many respects the Holy Land in that era resembled a military chessboard on which two important Greek dynasties, the Seleucids of Syria and the Ptolemies of Egypt, fought for control after the death of Alexander the Great.

When the dust settled around 200 B.C., the Seleucids, under the leadership of Antiochus III, were the victors. The fundamental cultural and religious differences between these Greeks and their Jewish subjects eventually led to a divisive rift, the repercussions of which are seen in the New Testament. A family that came to be known as the Maccabees had much to do with shaping the political and cultural climate of this New Testament period.

We can learn much about this time period from the Old Testament Apocrypha, a group of ancient texts whose name comes from a Greek word meaning “hidden.” The early Christian fathers knew of these texts and cited them,1 but Christian faiths have long been ambivalent about whether they are truly scripture. While translating the Bible, the Prophet Joseph Smith sought the Lord’s advice about these texts. He was told that they contain many “interpolations by the hands of men” and, therefore, “it is not needful that the Apocrypha should be translated” (D&C 91:2, 3). But the Lord also declared that these books include “many things … that are true” and “whoso is enlightened by the Spirit shall obtain benefit therefrom” (D&C 91:1, 5).2 Some of the important historical truths we can glean from them are found in their accounts of conflict between the Jews and their Greek rulers before the era of Roman rule.

At the center of the conflict were three main groups: the Jewish high priests; the Seleucid leaders, particularly Antiochus III’s son, Antiochus IV; and the Jewish Hasmonean family who became famous in history as the Maccabees. Two texts from the Apocrypha, 1 and 2 Maccabees, help illuminate some of the historical shadows of this period and give us valuable New Testament background.

The High Priests

In Leviticus 21:10 [Lev. 21:10], the Lord designates the high priest as one “upon whose head the anointing oil was poured, … consecrated to put on the [priesthood] garments.” As the presiding officer in the Aaronic Priesthood, he was to be a literal descendant of Aaron and was also required to observe higher levels of purity than others because he was Jehovah’s representative among the people. The Lord instructed: “[He] shall be holy unto [his] God” (Lev. 21:6).

During the reign of Antiochus III, the high priest was Onias III, who had inherited the office from his father and traced his lineage back to Aaron through Eleazar (see Ex. 28:1) and Zadok (see 1 Chr. 6:3–8). In 2 Maccabees, Onias III is described as a “zealot for the laws” of the Torah (2 Macc. 4:2). Like his predecessors, he saw Israel’s manifest destiny inseparably tied to the Torah and their covenant relationship with Jehovah. Not everyone in Israel marched to the same drum, however. Increasingly, Onias III faced opposition from Hellenistic sympathizers—people who wished to incorporate Greek cultural and religious practices into their society. So great was the pressure from these Hellenists that in 175 B.C., the high priest’s own brother, Jason, deposed him by buying the office from the Greek king, Antiochus IV (see 2 Macc. 4:7–9).

Jason’s actions had three major consequences whose ripples extended into the New Testament period.

First, power over the high priest’s office was given to foreign political leaders. From this point on, the office would be bought and sold for either money or political favor. Three years after Jason bought the office (about 172 B.C.), one of his senior officials named Menelaus beat Jason at his own game. While representing him before the king, Menelaus outbid Jason by three hundred talents of silver and became the new high priest (see 2 Macc. 4:23–24). Although we have no record of money exchanges involving later high priests, down to and through the New Testament era, we do see the office being filled by political appointment (see 1 Macc. 7:8–9). By New Testament times, this was an established practice.

Second, Jason’s actions gave rise to the concept of an ex-high priest who could retain considerable influence among at least some of the people. When Jason’s successor, Menelaus, stole some gold vessels from the temple and sold them to neighboring cities (presumably to finance his political bribes), Onias III denounced him publicly (see 2 Macc. 4:25–34). Angered by the opposition, Menelaus sent an assassin to Syria to kill the ex-high priest (see 2 Macc. 4:34).

Third, as high priests, Jason and his two immediate successors, Menelaus and Alcimus, instituted Hellenistic reforms. The author of 2 Maccabees records that Jason “abolished the lawful way of life and introduced practices which were against the law” (2 Macc. 4:11). In particular, Jason established a Greek gymnasium in Jerusalem and actively encouraged the youth to participate in its activities (see 2 Macc. 4:9–12). The gymnasium apparently became so popular that the priests were no longer intent upon their service at the altar. Instead, they “despised the temple and neglected the sacrifices,” hurrying to take part in the unlawful proceedings in the wrestling arena “whenever the opening gong called them.” They were disdaining the values and traditions prized by their ancestors, caring “above everything for Hellenic honours” (2 Macc. 4:14–16). Apparently Jason, as the Jewish high priest, also sent money to be used for sacrifices to the Greek hero Hercules (see 2 Macc. 4:18–19). These actions were certainly not in accord with the level of purity and singular dedication the Lord had outlined for his high priests.

Menelaus and Alcimus also embraced Hellenistic practices. Menelaus escorted the Greek king, Antiochus IV, into the temple sanctuary when the king desecrated it and confiscated its riches (see 2 Macc. 5:15–16). Alcimus executed a group of 60 Hassideans, a group who campaigned against the incursion of Hellenism (see 1 Macc. 7:15–16), and he actively condemned those involved in the Maccabean Revolt (see 2 Macc. 14:3–10).

Antiochus IV

In spite of the activities of these high priests—efforts at personal aggrandizement—many of the common people still resisted Greek ideas and culture. It was the foreign policy of the Seleucid king Antiochus IV that ignited the flames of Jewish rebellion. His vision of a Hellenistic empire (see 1 Macc. 1:41–42) had little tolerance for nationalistic loyalties, especially when they were grounded in Judaism. In an effort to bring his Jewish subjects into line with the rest of his empire, the king decreed that it was illegal for any Judean to offer sacrifices at the temple, observe the Sabbath and other holy days, or circumcise a son. The penalty for any infraction was death. He commanded the Jews to build pagan altars and temples and to sacrifice swine and other unclean animals (see 1 Macc. 1:44–50). In Jerusalem, the temple—the central symbol of the Jewish religion—was converted into a temple for Zeus (see 2 Macc. 5:15–20; 6:1–2).

But Antiochus underestimated just how deeply Jewish religious feeling undergirded the society.3 For the most stalwart of Jews, martyrdom was preferable to betraying covenantal obligations. For example, 2 Maccabees records that the aged scribe Eleazar, as well as a mother and her seven sons, submitted to torture and execution rather than eat swine flesh (see 2 Macc. 6:18–31; 7:1–42; and for comparison, Lev. 11:7–8). This type of resistance led to what is known as the Maccabean Revolt.

The Maccabees

In Modin, a small town 17 miles northwest of Jerusalem, a priest named Mattathias, surnamed Hasmoneas, not only refused to offer a sacrifice on a pagan altar but responded to the imperial decree by killing the Jew who attempted to comply, along with the king’s representative (see 1 Macc. 2:15–26). Mattathias then fled into the wilderness with his five sons and anyone else who supported his stand (see 1 Macc. 2:27–30).4 The author of 1 Maccabees identifies Mattathias’sinitial supporters as the “Hasidaeans,” a group of “stalwarts of Israel, … every one of them a volunteer in the cause of the law” (1 Macc. 2:42). These refugee warriors became the nucleus for small pockets of organized resistance against the Greeks and Greek sympathizers.

Although Mattathias only lived one year after initiating the revolt, his ideals and leadership lived on in his sons. A son named Judas (nicknamed Maccabee, “the hammer”) stepped up the resistance efforts. Under his leadership “the war turned into a full-scale campaign.”5 Judas and his warriors went from a local irritation to a major threat for the Seleucid government. The crowning achievement in Judas’s military conquests was his recapture of the Jerusalem temple (see 1 Macc. 4:36–41; 2 Macc. 10:1–9). He oversaw its purification and dedicatory festivities and initiated an annual eight-day festival known as Hanukkah (see 1 Macc. 4:52–59; 2 Macc. 10:5–8).

When Judas eventually fell in battle (see 1 Macc. 9:11–22), his brother Jonathan assumed leadership. It was Jonathan’s finesse as a statesman rather than a military leader, however, that built upon Judas’ initial military successes and won a measure of self-rule for the Jewish freedom fighters. Perhaps his most controversial achievement was to attain the appointment as high priest (see 1 Macc. 10:20; 11:27). Though Jonathan was from a priestly family (see 1 Macc. 2:1–5), he had no legal or religious claim to the high priest’s role. His appointment was just one more evidence of how the position had devolved from a religious office into a political appointment. When Jonathan was killed in battle (about 143–142 B.C.), his brother Simon came to political and spiritual leadership (see 1 Macc. 13:36–42; 14:35–43). The highlight of Simon’s reign occurred when he defeated the Jerusalem citadel, “the last symbol of anti-Maccabean power in Jerusalem” (1 Macc. 13:49–52), and thus achieved the last success of the revolt.6

Although 1 Maccabees ends with Simon, the Maccabean dynasty continued for another 70 years, until infighting between two of Simon’s great-grandsons, Hyrcanus II and Aristobulus II, resulted in Roman intervention (by Pompey, in 63 B.C.) and subsequent Roman political control of the Holy Land (see Antiquities of the Jews, 14.3.3–4, in Josephus: Complete Works, trans. William Whiston [1960]).

The Maccabean Family Tree

The Maccabean Family Tree

New Testament Times

There are several very important ways in which the events of 1 and 2 Maccabees affected the New Testament period, when Christ and His Apostles ministered to those who accepted the gospel.7

1. Simon’s grandson, Alexander Jannaeus (176–103 B.C.), first elevated to political power the family from which Herod the Great would come. Simon appointed Antipater I as governor of Idumea (see Ant. 14.1.3). Herod the Great, Antipater I’s grandson, ruled Judea under Roman authority when the New Testament opened at the time of Christ’s birth (see Matt. 2:1–18). Herod continued his family’s ties with the Maccabean family.8 While it was the Roman Senate that had appointed him king of the Jews, he was very much aware of the need for continued support from the Maccabean dynasty. In an effort to consolidate his political power, he married Mariamne, a great-granddaughter of Alexander Jannaeus and thus an heiress to the Maccabean legacy.9

As one scholar notes, however, Herod “saw all the members of the [Maccabean] family as his natural enemies.”10 He was not only responsible for his wife’s death (see Ant. 15.7.4), but he also ordered the deaths of the high priest, Aristobulus III, Mariamne’s brother (see Ant. 15.3.3); Hyrcanus II (see Ant. 15.6.1–4); Mariamne’s mother (see Ant. 15.7.8); and his two sons by Mariamne, Alexander and Aristobulus (see Ant. 16.10.3–7; 11.2–7), all because their heritage and popularity with the people posed a threat to his power. Is it any surprise, then, that this same Herod would order the slaying of “all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under” (Matt. 2:16) when wise men came searching for Him “that is born King of the Jews”? (Matt. 2:2).

2. The books of 1 and 2 Maccabees also shed light on the development of Pharisaism. It is generally acknowledged that although their Mosaic-law views probably dated as early as the Babylonian exile, the Pharisees’”first appearance asa ‘sect’ … cannot be traced further back than the time of the Maccabean Revolt.”11 It was then that we find them first mentioned by name (see Ant. 13.10.5). It has been suggested that the Hasideans, who initially joined with the Maccabees, were in fact the ideological seed-bed from which the Pharisees sprang.12 Certainly during the reign of Simon Hasmoneas’s son, John Hyrcanus, they appear “to have been allies and aids to Hyrcanus, probably as lower officials and functionaries in the newly organized Hasmonean rule”13 (see Ant. 13.10.5). Their close relationship with the Maccabees, however, was short lived. Josephus reports that after a disagreement, Hyrcanus switched allegiance from the Pharisees to the Sadducees and “abolish[ed] the decrees (i.e., the oral law) [which the Pharisees] had imposed on the people” (Ant. 13.10.6). It wasn’t until the reign of Hyrcanus’ daughter-in-law, Alexandra (wife of Alexander Jannaeus), that the Pharisees regained a measure of political favor and their oral laws became binding upon the people once again (see Ant. 13.16.2).

Unfortunately, there is no further mention of them until the time of Herod the Great, when their political activities drew Herod’s ire (see Ant. 17.2.4). In the New Testament, they play a prominent role. Their oral laws are a major point of contention with the Savior (see Matt. 15:1–9; Matt. 23:1–33), and prominent individuals such as Nicodemus (see John 3:1), Gamaliel (see Acts 5:34), and Paul (see Philip. 3:5) are identified among their members.

3. During New Testament times we also see two major, related repercussions on the high priest’s office as a result of events in the Maccabean period.

The precedent that had been set during Maccabean times when the office of high priest became a political appointment led to the death of the last Maccabean who held that position. Herod, unable to control the influential office of the high priest because of his strained relationship with the Maccabean family, made a vacancy in the office when he had Aristobulus III put to death. Herod was then free to appoint his own high priest; in fact, during his tenure he appointed a total of seven! According to Josephus’s record, Herod’s successors appointed another 21 before the destruction of the temple in A.D. 70 (see Ant. 20.10.1). The New Testament identifies two of these latter appointments; the Roman procurator Quirinius appointed Annas (see Luke 3:2) in A.D. 6. Nine years later, Annas was deposed by Quirinius’s successor, Valerius Gratus. The latter appointed four high priests, the last of which was Annas’s son-in-law, Joseph Caiaphas.14

Matthew, Mark, and Luke record that after Jesus’ arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane, he was taken and tried before the high priest. Matthew identifies this priest as Caiaphas (see Matt. 26:57). John records, however, that before going to Caiaphas, the chief priests and elders took Jesus first to see Annas (see John 18:13–14). This event has puzzled some New Testament readers. Why take Jesus to Annas, who had not been the high priest for a number of years? The answer is that apparently Annas—like Onias III, who had proved a thorn in the side of the Hellenists after they deposed him years earlier—still wielded significant influence even though he had fallen out of political favor.

The office he had held, established by the Lord as a calling to be passed from father to son, had degenerated into a political prize with significant power, and it was no longer a position of spiritual authority recognized by God. And as effective as the Maccabees had been in winning concessions for the Jews from foreigners who governed their land, their religious and priestly leadership did not possess the legitimate priesthood authority or the moral leadership of the high priest’s office that had been lost through unrighteousness.

  1. For a good overview of the use of the Apocrypha by the early Christian Fathers see “Apocrypha,” The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, ed. F. L. Cross and E. A. Livingstone (1997).

  2. Drawing upon this revelation, the Prophet Joseph Smith later said, according to Edward Stevenson, that “much of the Apocrypha was true, but it required the Spirit of God to select the truth out of those writings” (They Knew the Prophet, comp. Hyrum L. Andrus and Helen Mae Andrus [1974], 86).

  3. The books of 1 and 2 Maccabees clearly represent a Jewish perspective. Greek and Latin authors had a very different view of these events. See Diodorus of Sicily, 34/35.1.1–5, and Tacitus, Histories V.8.

  4. Second Maccabees does not include Mattathias’s story, but it does confirm the central importance of his family in the revolt (see 2 Macc. 8:1–4).

  5. Uriel Rappaport, “Maccabean Revolt,” in The Anchor Bible Dictionary, ed. David Noel Freedman, 6 vols. (1992), 4:434.

  6. Daniel J. Harrington, “1 Maccabees,” in The Harper Collins Study Guide: New Revised Standard Edition, ed. Wayne A. Meeks (1989), 1684.

  7. To fill in the gap between the end of the Maccabean record and the beginning of the New Testament, we must turn to the Jewish historian Josephus, whose own record shows clear signs of reliance on First and Second Maccabees.

  8. Antipater II zealously supported Hyrcanus II in a dispute over leadership with Hyrcanus’s brother Aristobulus II. In fact, Antipater became Hyrcanus’s ambassador to seek support from the Roman leader Pompey (see Ant. 14.3.2).

  9. Although there is no doubt about the political motivations for this marriage, Herod apparently did love Mariamne (see Ant. 15.7.4).

  10. Emil Schürer, The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ, rev. and ed. Geza Vermes, Fergus Millar, and Matthew Black, 4 vols. (1973), 1:297.

  11. Schürer, 2:400.

  12. John Kampen, “The Hasideans and the Origin of Pharisaism: A Study in 1 and 2 Maccabees,” Septuagint and Cognate Studies 24 (1988), 214–15; and Schürer, 2:397.

  13. Anthony J. Saldarini, “Pharisees,” The Anchor Bible Dictionary, 5:292.

  14. Schürer, 2:230.

Joseph and his family fled from Herod the Great, who had come to power through the Maccabean line. (Flight into Egypt, by Robert T. Barrett.)

The priest Mattathias’s slaying of a Jew who profaned the altar began the Maccabean Revolt.

As a result of the Maccabean Revolt, by Christ’s time the high priest was a political appointee. (The Lord Accused before Caiaphas, by Frank Adams.)