The Maccabees to Herod

The Hasmonean Dynasty
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When I have bent Judah for me, filled the bow with Ephraim, and raised up thy sons, O Zion, against thy sons, O Greece, and made thee as the sword of a mighty man.—Zechariah 9:13

David Rice

This text in Zechariah speaks prophetically of a conflict between the Israelites and the “sons” of Greece. That conflict came about not during the time of Alexander—for he brought peace to Jerusalem and allowed Israel many liberties—but six generations after the passing of Alexander.

At that time, the two strongest fragments of the Grecian Empire were the Seleucid Empire in Syria, north of Israel, and the Ptolemaic Empire in Egypt, south of Israel. The names of these empires came from the first kings of each, Seleucus Nicator and Ptolemy Soter. These were Greek leaders who had been in the retinue of Alexander, and subsequently rose to power in their own spheres, Syria and Egypt.

Daniel chapter eleven refers to these powers as the “king of the north” and the “king of the south” respectively, and touches upon the history of six generations of these kingdoms until the time of Antiochus Epiphanes, king of the Seleucid Empire. In Egypt the rulers were:

Ptolemy Soter
Ptolemy Philadelphus
Ptolemy Eugertes
Ptolemy Philopator
Ptolemy Epiphanes
Ptolemy Philometor

In Syria the rulers were:

Seleucus Nicator
Antiochus Soter
Antiochus Theus
Seleucus Callinicus
Seleucus Ceraunus, Antiochus Magnus
Seleucus Philopator, Antiochus
      Epiphanes (brothers)

The exploits of these six generations of rulers are described prophetically in Daniel 11:5-21 and following. Verse 21 introduces the reign of Antiochus Epiphanes who became the infamously inhumane persecutor of the Jewish people. In revolt against his atrocities, a priest named Mattathias, from the small Israelite town of Modin (thirty miles northwest of Jerusalem), launched a popular uprising which God greatly prospered, even to the defeat of the Seleucid armies sent against them. Mattathias himself died a year later and committed the leadership of the army to Judas Maccabeus, one of his five sons. Judas was remarkably successful, and his name endures in the term “Maccabees.”

After leading Israel for seven years, Judas was killed in battle. Israel greatly mourned their fallen hero of faith. The leadership of the revolt fell to his brother Jonathan, who led Israel until his capture through treachery in 143 B.C. He was killed not long after. His brother Simon Maccabeus, the last remaining of the five brothers, replaced him both as military leader and high priest (for at some time during his leadership Jonathan had assumed the duties of high priest also). Simon concluded an agreement with the Seleucid King Demetrius, and established a period of peace for Israel.

“In the year 170 [142 B.C.], Israel was released from the Gentile yoke; the people began to write on their contracts and agreements: ‘In the first year of Simon, the great high priest, general, and leader of the Jews’ ” (1 Maccabees 13:41,42). “As long as Simon ruled, Judaea was undisturbed. He sought his nation’s good, and they lived happily all through the glorious days of his reign” (1 Maccabees 14:4).

The dynasty thus begun was known as the “Hasmonean Dynasty,” drawing from the name of an ancestor, Hasmoneus. It was accorded recognition by the Roman Senate about the year 139 B.C. Although Simon died in 135 B.C., the Hasmonean Dynasty endured.

The Next Generation

Simon, with two of his sons, was assassinated by the husband of his daughter, whereupon the rule of Israel passed, for the first time, outside the original generation of the revolt. Simon’s third son, John Hyrcanus, replaced him as ruler and high priest until his passing in 104 B.C. John was credited with the (forcible) conversion of the Idumeans, the stock from whence later came King Herod. He destroyed the temple of the Samaritans at Mount Gerizim, though many continued to worship among its ruins. Some think the apocryphal “Book of Jubilees” was composed during his tenure. Some also hold that the division between Sadducees and Pharisees congealed during this time, though others date this separation earlier.

John also took the name Hyrcanus, a Greek name, which evidenced a spirit of compromise with his Gentile neighbors. Though his rule is considered by some as a political high-water mark of the dynasty, seeds of decline and corruption had already taken root. These blossomed immediately upon his passing.

Decline and Corruption

John Hyrcanus left the government to his wife, and the high priesthood to his son Aristobulus. But his son soon seized power, had his mother arrested, and allowed her to starve in prison. He was the first to take the title “king,” illicitly, to the objection of many of his countrymen, inasmuch as he was not of the kingly line of David, nor even of Judah. (His predecessors had had the title nasi, something like president.) His greed for power brought corruption, family disloyalty, and intrigue which degenerated the moral fabric of the rulership. Religious intolerance also surfaced, as John Hyrcanus oppressed the party of the Pharisees. He reigned but a year.

Thereafter his imprisoned brother Alexander Jannaeus was released and assumed authority. He ruled for twenty-seven years, to 76 B.C. He was brutal. Some estimate that 50,000 countrymen including women and children died in a civil war in which the Pharisees sided against him, thus deepening the division between them and his Grecianized party of Sadducees. Eight hundred Pharisees were crucified during his reign. After his death the rulership went to his wife Salome Alexandra for nine years, and the priesthood to his son John Hyrcanus II—who, ironically, was partial to the Pharisees and reconstituted the Sanhedrin according to their wishes.

Salome died in 67 B.C., succeeded briefly by her son John Hyrcanus II, the high priest. But soon his younger brother Aristobulus II rebelled and took the throne. A civil war erupted which was ended by the conquest of Judea in 63 B.C. by the Roman General Pompey. Aristobulus was taken to Rome and there assassinated in 50 B.C. In 63 B.C. John Hyrcanus II was nominally restored as king, but did not exercise ultimate authority. His son Antigonus, with the help of Parthian allies, asserted himself as king in 39 B.C., but that same year, the Romans appointed Herod to be king of Judea. Herod took Jerusalem three years later in 36 B.C., Antigonus was sent captive to Antony, and soon executed. Thus ceased the rule of the Hasmoneans.

Here is a summary list of the generations of Maccabean leaders:

1. Mattathias, then his sons Judas, Jonathan, Simon.

2. John Hyrcanus.

3. Aristobulus, Alexander Jannaeus, Salome Alexandra.

4. John Hyrcanus II, Aristobulus II.

5. Antigonus.

The Books of Maccabees

The history of these times, at least through Simon, was written in the Book of Maccabees. There are four books by this name, referred to as First, Second, Third, and Fourth Maccabees. These are part of the Apocrypha of the Old Testament. Though they are not included as part of the inspired writings acknowledged by Jews or Protestant Christians, the first two are included in the Catholic Bible. The Oxford Study Bible, Revised English Bible with the Apocrypha, contains the first two books. The information in these is supplemented with information from the Jewish historian Josephus of the first century A.D.

First Maccabees was written in Hebrew, but only a Greek translation has survived. It is “a simple history written in the manner of the day by an unknown adherent of the Hasmonean kings descended from Simon” (Oxford Study Bible, p. 1197).

Second Maccabees “is a shortened version of a five-volume historical work, now lost, by Jason of Cyrene ... To this shortened version, the abbreviator prefixed two letters ... Second Maccabees was written in Greek in Egypt about 124 B.C.” (Oxford Study Bible, p. 1233).

Both books date events in terms of the Seleucid Era, whose year one commenced in 311 B.C.1 Thus the famous rededication of the temple in the time of Judas Maccabeus, which began “early on the twenty-fifth day of the ninth month, the month of Kislev, in the year 148” (1 Maccabees 4:52), would be December 13, 164 B.C., Julian calendar. This is celebrated today as the Jewish festival “Hanukkah” (dedication, or consecration), which lasts for eight days in commemoration of the eight-day rededication ceremonies. Jewish menorahs of eight branches, customary in synagogues today, also commemorate these eight days. The “feast of the dedication” of John 10:22 is this same celebration, as is the modern “festival of lights.”

Defiled Bread

This act of reformation and cleansing apparently was pointed to in the book of Ezekiel. That prophet was told to eat defiled bread for 430 days, both to indicate so many years of mostly past iniquity of Israel and Judah, and to signify so many years of future punishment during which the Israelites would eat their spiritual “bread” with an admixture of defilement under the rule of pagan governments. From the year in which Ezekiel received this command, until the year in which the temple was rededicated under Judas Maccabeus, was a period of 430 years (Ezekiel 4:4-13).

Antiochus Epiphanes

This infamous king, Antiochus Epiphanes, had been a hostage in Rome before he succeeded to the throne at the death of his brother in 175 B.C. About that time a movement of Jews decided things would go better for them if they became more like the Gentiles: “This proposal was widely approved, and some of the people in their enthusiasm went to the king [Antiochus Epiphanes] and received authority to introduce pagan laws and customs. They built a gymnasium in the Gentile style at Jerusalem; they removed their marks of circumcision and repudiated the holy covenant; they intermarried with Gentiles and sold themselves to evil” (1 Maccabees 1:12-15).

Once Antiochus was established on his throne, he determined to take Egypt and rule both kingdoms. King Ptolemy was routed and Antiochus, on his victorious return, marched against Israel and Jerusalem in the year 169 B.C. He plundered the riches of the temple, killed thousands, and boasted arrogantly of it all. Two years later he sent a governor to lay Judaea under tribute, sacked and burned Jerusalem, killed many thousands more, and left a fortified garrison as a “perpetual menace to Israel” (1 Maccabees 1:36).

Furthermore, Antiochus issued an edict to forbid the customary Jewish sacrifices, to cease the practice of circumcision, to advance the sacrifice of swine, and to profane the sabbath. The death penalty was imposed for disobedience to this wholesale derogation of the sacred Jewish laws. Deputies went from town to town to enforce the orders.

“On the fifteenth day of the month of Kislev in the year 145 [167 B.C.], the abomination of desolation was set up on the altar of the Lord. In the towns throughout Judaea pagan altars were built; incense was offered at the doors of houses and in the streets. Every scroll of the law that was found was torn up and consigned to the flames, and anyone discovered in possession of a Book of the Covenant or conforming to the law was by sentence of the king condemned to die ... they put to death women who had had their children circumcised; their babies, their families, and those who had performed the circumcisions were hanged by the neck ... Israel lay under a reign of terror” (1 Maccabees 1:54-64). In one specially egregious episode the king roasted a woman’s seven sons, one by one, as they refused to commit sacrilege, and she last of all.


It was against these travesties that Mattathias, a priest of the line of Joarib family from Jerusalem, now settled at Modin, took a public stand. Mattathias had five sons: John Gaddis, Simon Thassis, Judas Maccabeus, Eleazar Avaran, and Jonathan Apphus. When the king’s officers came to Modin to enforce the sacrilege, Mattathias was called upon publicly, as a man of influence, to lead the people into apostasy. There were promises of wealth and riches for his service.

In a ringing voice, he publicly refused on behalf of himself and his sons: “We will not obey the king’s command, nor will we deviate one step from our way of worship” (1 Maccabees 2:22). As an apostate proceeded to offer sacrifice on a pagan altar, Mattathias was aroused to indignation. Shaking with passion, he slew the offender, also the officer of the king, demolished the pagan altar, and roused the people to follow. He and his sons took to the hills, leaving behind all they possessed. His band swelled. They went throughout the land violating the pagan altars, upholding the Jewish laws, and defending the faithful. There were tragedies—the loss of a thousand men, women and children who would not defend themselves against a Sabbath attack—but also many victories.

The Prophecy of Daniel

The persecutions brought by Antiochus, the stirring resistance by Mattathias and his sons and followers, and the later defections from the movement, seem predicted in prophecy (Daniel 11:31-35 and onward). But the same passage was used by God to foreshadow even more extensive persecutions of the Lord’s people to come in later times. Thus these very texts apply again to the persecutions of Jews and Christians under Pagan Rome, and later the even more extensive persecution of Papal Rome against Christians during the Gospel age.

Thus Daniel 11:31 refers not merely to the desecrations of the temple by Antiochus, but also to the destruction of the temple under the Romans in 70 A.D. (compare Matthew 24:15), and the corruption of the spiritual temple, the church, by Papacy. It is the latter application of the text which Bible Students focus on primarily. It is also that application which is the basis for the prophetic days in the twelfth chapter of Daniel, the 1,260, 1,290, and 1,335 years. These periods of time commence with the establishment of Papal power in Rome and Italy upon the subjection of the Ostrogoths at Ravenna in 539 A.D.

Seventh Phase of Jewish History

From the time Israel was constituted as a nation, when Moses mediated the Law Covenant, one can trace seven phases of history of the Jewish people:
1. Deliverance under Moses.
2. Conquest of Canaan under Joshua.
3. Judges.
4. Kings.
5. Dispersion by Babylon.
6. Regathering under Persia.
7. Maccabean revolt and Hasmonean Dynasty.

This takes us to the time of Herod, under whom Jesus was born.

It is worthy of note that there are some parallels between the seventh phase, namely the Maccabean revolt, and the seventh phase of the Gospel age commencing with the work of Pastor Charles Russell. Mattathias was moved with indignation against the Grecian atrocities, in particular the desecration of the altar, and called for those who were like-minded to follow him in a separation to the mountains. There God gave him and the movement thus spawned remarkable victories. Subsequently they took the temple again and rededicated it to the worship of Jehovah.

Pastor Russell was moved to action by his appreciation of the ransom doctrine, and concern for the pollutions of Christian doctrine which came from pagan influences, such as the trinity, and the Grecian notion of inherent immortality. He called to those who were like-minded to join him in a separation from the defiled Christian sects. In the words of Matthew 24:16, they would “flee into the mountains,” away from “Judaea” (Christendom). There God gave him and the movement thus spawned remarkable victories. The temple class was rededicated with an appreciation of the ransom for all, and its meaning for God’s Plan of the Ages.

Corruption of the Movement

Daniel 11:32-35 describes a lengthy period mixed with victories, sufferings, triumphs, defeats, flatteries, and backsliding. This describes the period of the Maccabees; on a wider scale it also describes the exploits of early Christianity at the time of Pagan Rome; on a still wider scale it describes the exploits of the saints during the time of Papal Rome.

In all of these cases, the Lord’s people were developed by the troubles which came their way. The test was to maintain their faith in God, and the worship of God. The effect was “to try them, and to purge, and to make them white” (Daniel 11:35).

In the aftermath of the Maccabean revolt, there was a time of backsliding. Two factions emerged in the spiritual leadership of Israel, the Sadducees and the Pharisees. The name Sadducees derives from Zadok, the faithful priest in the days of David and Solomon. These became the official leaders of the Temple, but their faith became diluted so that by New Testament times “the Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, neither angel, nor spirit: but the Pharisees confess both” (Acts 23:8).

The Pharisees maintained a closer adherence to the Law and respect for the spiritual values and beliefs of the Jewish faith. The people came to look to them for leadership in spiritual things, even though they were not officially in control of the Temple and its services. Thus there was tension between the Sadducees and Pharisees. The former became more political, the latter became more religious. But by the time of Christ the Pharisees’ adherence to the Law had degenerated to an emphasis on details which had been added to the Law by the elders. Thus they maintained an outward appearance of respectable worship, but failed to develop inwardly the righteousness of the Law in their hearts.

Involvement with Rome

In its prime, the Seleucid Empire had been the most powerful empire of its day. But Rome had been growing in status, influence, and power. Rome defeated Carthage in a series of three Punic Wars, from 264 to 164 B.C. When Antiochus Magnus tried to expand the Seleucid Empire westward, he was soundly defeated by Rome, and in his treaty with them in 188 B.C. agreed to a large monetary debt to Rome (Daniel 11:18).

His successor Seleucus Philopator struggled to pay this debt, and was later assassinated by his minister Heliodorus in 175 B.C. (Daniel 11:20). The throne was taken by Philopator’s brother Antiochus Epiphanes (Daniel 11:21), who had been a hostage in Rome.

In 170 B.C., Antiochus Epiphanes successfully invaded Egypt for the first time, leaving the young Ptolemy Philometor on the throne as a puppet ruler, so as not to alarm the Romans. Two years later in 168 B.C. he invaded again, but this time two Roman ambassadors compelled him to leave (Daniel 11:30) and he did not invade a third time. On his way home he mounted a specially grievous persecution of the Jews, including the massacre of 40,000 and the captivity of a like number. This is recounted in 2 Maccabees chapter five.

Thus it was natural for Judas Maccabeus, after his preliminary victories, to seek an alliance with Rome against his enemies in the north. The Roman-Jewish Treaty was contracted in 161 B.C., and was influential in stemming some of the campaigns of the Seleucids against the Jews. (See 1 Maccabees chapter eight for this treaty.)

Lessons for Us

The Maccabean revolt was predicated upon Godly faith exercised by Godly leaders. God blessed it as predicted in Zechariah 9:13 (and the remainder of chapters nine and ten), and in Ezekiel 4:13. During this period, both the political and religious rulership of Israel was consolidated in one leader, which foreshadowed the time of the true Messiah who would reign as a king and a priest. Indeed, the very prophecy which speaks of the triumph of the Maccabees, Zechariah 9:13, speaks also of the triumph of Christianity as it “conquered” the Greek world through faith.

But as the Maccabean revolt became corrupted in later years, so Christianity became corrupted in later years. The ideals of faith which blazed into a righteous revolt, later degenerated into religious intolerance on one hand, and moral corruption through power on the other. The parallels to Christendom are striking. The same lessons need our attention. Let the faith which burned in our souls to launch our consecration, and which prospered under devoted attention, not fade in the face of sin, lethargy, and worldliness. Nor let our supple ardor for truth be replaced by set positions beyond the shaping influence of Scripture, evidence, and reason.

Do we suppose the dangers are all past?

There were two reckonings of the Seleucid Era, one following Babylonian years (beginning in the spring with the month Nisanu), and a second following Macedonian years (beginning in late summer or autumn). This subtle difference is the key to resolving some minor disparities.|