Reprinted with permission from A Historical Atlas of the Jewish People edited by Eli Barnavi and published by Schocken Books.
Inner and Outer Enemies
The revolt launched by the priest Mattathias and later led by his third son, Judah Maccabee, was both a civil war and a war against an outside enemy. The company of Greek officers who arrived at Modi’in intending to enforce the king’s ordinances addressed Mattathias first, for he was held in high esteem by the villagers. They ordered him to begin the sacrificial offerings to the pagan idols, promising that in return he and his sons would be admitted to the circle of the king’s “friends.”
Mattathias refused outright. He killed a Jew who obeyed the command and then one of the king’s men. His flight to the mountains, together with his sons and his friends, marks the beginning of the uprising. Thus it appears that the revolt was directed first of all against those Jews who were willing to submit to Greek custom. Only then was it directed against the foreign occupier, the Syrian ruler who was forcibly imposing his culture upon the Jewish population and plundering the Temple and the land.
How the Rebels Fought
Our information about the rebellion is derived mainly from texts which eulogize Mattathias’s dynasty (I Maccabees) and in particular the figure of Judah, depicted as a lion of the desert (II Maccabees). We know much less of the Hassideans, the “pious,” who fought alongside Mattathias’s sons. What is obvious, however, is that one cannot win a war armed solely with religious purity. Compromise was essential from the beginning as, for example, Mattathias’s decision to fight on the Sabbath.
Moreover, the Seleucid army could not be defeated by guerrilla warfare alone. The Jewish rebels soon organized a real army modeled on the Greek military forces and capable, when fighting on its own terrain, of overcoming the Syrian troops. With great diplomatic skill they learned how to exploit the quarrels within the Seleucid dynasty, opportunely supporting some of the “usurpers” and obtaining various concessions in return.