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Maccabees

A family of Jewish patriots. In 175 B.C. Antiochus Epiphanes became king of Syria and made a determined effort to stamp out the Jewish religion. At first he met with considerable success, owing partly to a Hellenizing movement among the Jews themselves, and altars were erected to Zeus in many parts of the Holy Land. Resistance began at Modin, a town near Beth-horon, where an aged priest named Mattathias, of the family of Hasmon or Chasmon, slew the sacrificers, and also the king’s officer under whose direction the altar had been erected. Mattathias was the father of five sons, and with a large body of followers took refuge among the mountains. They were attacked on the Sabbath, and thousands were slain. It was afterwards resolved to disregard the Sabbatical rule and, if necessary, to fight in self-defense. After Mattathias’s death, his son Judas, surnamed Maccabaeus, or “the hammerer,” became the leader. Several great victories were gained. The ruined temple was restored, the desecrated altar was pulled down and reconstructed, and the new altar was dedicated amid great rejoicing. In 165 B.C. a large Syrian army under Lysias invaded Palestine, the war continuing during several years with varying success. After the death of Judas in 161 B.C. his brothers Jonathan and Simon became the leaders. Jonathan was also high priest but was treacherously murdered about 144 B.C. Simon was then sole leader of the patriotic party. Under him the country enjoyed greater prosperity than at any other period after the Exile. The Jews, in gratitude for what he had done, put up in the temple a memorial tablet to Simon and his family, and he was appointed “governor and high priest for ever until there should arise a faithful prophet.” In 135 B.C. he was treacherously murdered by his son-in-law. His son, John Hyrcanus, then became high priest. He built the fortress in Jerusalem that was afterwards known as the Castle Antonia and destroyed the Samaritan temple on Mount Gerizim. After his death the position of the family was less secure. The Herodian family were powerful rivals, and the marriage of Mariamne, a Maccabean princess, with Herod the Great in 38 B.C. marks the end of the Maccabean dynasty.

The first book of Maccabees (see Apocrypha) contains a history of events from 175 to 135 B.C. and was probably written about 100 B.C. It was written in Hebrew or Aramaic, but only a Greek translation has survived. It forms a historical document of the highest importance. The second book of Maccabees deals with the years 175–160 and therefore goes over part of the period described in the first book of Maccabees. It was written in Greek, probably by an Egyptian Jew.