Righteous Revolt: 1 Maccabees 1
The rise of tyrant and “madman” Antiochus Epiphanes, the Jews that accommodated Greek dominance, and the start of resistance.
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The book of 1 Maccabees sits between Israel’s return from captivity and the coming of Christ. If you’ve ever wondered what happened in this period, 1 Maccabees is a great place to start.
No one knows the author’s identity, but he was fluent in the region’s history and geography and wrote shortly after the events he describes. He presents a straightforward narrative. Later historians, such as Josephus, have relied on his work. But he’s also been called a partisan, even a propagandist, for the Hasmonean family and their later Judean rule.
The book starts with a quick summary of Alexander the Great’s rise in Macedonia and his eastward conquering spree, resulting in the defeat of Persian ruler Darius III and Alexander’s annexing of the Persian empire. After their resettlement of Judea, Jews lived under Persian rule. But Alexander reset the game board. Says the narrator,
He fought many battles, conquered strongholds, and put to death the kings of the earth. He advanced to the ends of the earth, and plundered many nations. When the earth became quiet before him, he was exalted, and his heart was lifted up. He gathered a very strong army and ruled over countries, nations, and princes, and they became tributary to him.
But nothing lasts forever. Alexander died in 323 BC, and his successors split his empire into four new powers. “His officers began to rule, each in his own place,” says the narrator. Lysimachus took Syria, Cassander took Macedonia, Ptolemy took Egypt, and Seleucus Nicator took Babylonia. Daniel seems to allude to this division:
Then a mighty king will arise, who will rule with great power and do as he pleases. After he has arisen, his empire will be broken up and parceled out toward the four winds of heaven. It will not go to his descendants, nor will it have the power he exercised, because his empire will be uprooted and given to others. (Daniel 11.3–4)
The narrator of 1 Maccabees continues, “They all put on crowns after his death, and so did their descendants after them for many years; and they caused many evils on the earth.” Instead of Persian rule, Jews now fell under the power of Ptolemaic Egypt—until the rise of Antiochus Epiphanes, head of the Seleucid empire. And this is where the real action begins.
Cramming more than 150 years of history into a few verses, the narrator is itching to explain what happened when Antiochus—“a sinful root”—came to power in 175 BC, inaugurating a double crisis.
The first part of this crisis was Jewish accommodation. As Hellenistic culture spread through Alexander’s successor kingdoms, some Jews were tempted to adopt the ways of their new rulers. They adopted Hellenistic customs and education and tried hiding and even doctoring their circumcision, which was on display in athletic competition.
“Since the Greek ideal of beauty viewed circumcision as a mutilation, and since the custom was for athletes in Greek games to compete in the nude, some strove to remove the marks of circumcision,” explains The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary. Latin author Celsus (25 BC–50 AD) described surgical means for accomplishing this. What’s more, participation in the Greek gymnasia meant tacit acknowledgment of Greek gods, a no-no for Jews.
The second part of the crisis was Antiochus’ despotism. While he adopted the name Epiphanes, which means “manifestation of God,” his enemies referred to him as Epimanes, which means “crazy man” or “mad man.” Following in Alexander’s footsteps, overreach was his standard posture. Our narrator tells us that Antiochus wasn’t satisfied with his own kingdom.
When Antiochus saw that his kingdom was established, he determined to become king of the land of Egypt, in order that he might reign over both kingdoms. So he invaded Egypt with a strong force, with chariots and elephants and cavalry and with a large fleet. He engaged King Ptolemy of Egypt in battle, and Ptolemy turned and fled before him, and many were wounded and fell. They captured the fortified cities in the land of Egypt, and he plundered the land of Egypt.
The Ptolemy in question is Ptolemy VI—far down the line of Alexander’s general and his namesake.
On his way back home, Antiochus came through Jerusalem and robbed the temple, something he repeated a year later on a second military adventure in Egypt. For Antiochus, plundering temples was a regular means of raising funds. And he wasn’t done.
The Abomination of Desolation
Two years after ransacking the temple, Antiochus sent an official to collect tribute. The official went even further, tearing through Jerusalem: burning, killing, enslaving, plundering, and even erecting a fortress to block the Jews from accessing their own temple. “The citadel became an ambush against the sanctuary, an evil adversary of Israel at all times,” says the narrator. Jerusalem’s inhabitants fled, and Seleucid interlopers took up residence.
Antiochus’ despotism knew no bounds. He envisioned an empire in which everyone was united under one ruler and one religion. He directed all his subjects to cease their own pieties and traditions and adopt Hellenistic rites and customs. Those who hadn’t already done so would now be forced by sword point. Some Jews did so “gladly,” the narrator says—if only to make the persecution stop. But the persecution was just getting started.
Antiochus set up an altar, or possibly a statue, in the temple on December 6 or 8, 167 BC, dedicated to Zeus. This was the “abomination of desolation,” mentioned by Daniel (see 11.31 and 12.11; when the evangelists mention this in Matthew 24.15–16, Mark 13.14, and Luke 21.20–21, the audience would have had this context in mind). The king’s agents built additional altars throughout the region and enforced sacrifice far and wide.
Says The New Interpreter’s Bible, pulling also from 2 Maccabees,
What we do know is that (1) the Temple was dedicated to Zeus Olympios (2 Macc 6:2); (2) unlawful sacrifice were made on the altar of burnt offering (1 Macc 1:59; 2 Macc 6:5); (3) other altars were placed in the cities of Judea (1 Macc 1:54) and in the agora of Jerusalem (2 Macc 10:2); (4) feasts of Dionysus were celebrated, as was the king’s birthday (2 Macc 6:7); (5) pigs were sacrificed, as was frequently done in Greek religious practices.
Further, as Jewish faith was increasingly dependent on books, sacred libraries came under attack as well. “The books of the law that they found they tore to pieces and burned with fire,” says the narrator. “Anyone found possessing the book of the covenant, or anyone who adhered to the law, was condemned to death by decree of the king.” Violence and death was pervasive. No one was safe. Women and children were murdered.
What drove Antiochus? The Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible speculates, “Antiochus saw the Jews as rebels threatening the stability of the province of Coele-Syria and Phoenicia, and simplistically tried to remove the threat by destroying the religion which sustained it.” The commentator continues, “If that was Antiochus’s hope, he misjudged badly.”
Says our narrator, “Many in Israel stood firm and were resolved in their hearts not to eat unclean food. They chose to die rather than to be defiled by food or to profane the holy covenant.” And so began the resistance movement, to which we will return next week.