The Maccabees: Heroes or Fanatics?

The Maccabees triumphed over the Syrian Greeks and liberated the Temple, but their legacy is not so clear.

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Reform or Revolt

Was the appropriate response, then, to reform Judaism in the spirit of Hellenism or to assume a stance protective of traditional Jewish values by "liberating" Judea from the Syrian Greeks? The Jewish Hellenists chose the first path; they wanted to move beyond separatism and assimilate the positive aspects of Greek culture into Judaism. As First Maccabees recounts, "In those days there emerged in Israel lawless men [Jewish Hellenists] who persuaded many, saying, ‘Let us go and make a covenant with the nations that are around us; for since we separated ourselves from them, many evils have come upon us’" (I Maccabees 1:11).

Jewish Hellenists used the secular power structures for their own benefit. First Jason and then Menelaus were able to secure the position of High Priest from Antiochus IV Epiphanes by way of monetary bribes and other machinations. Yet the involvement of these wealthy Jewish aristocrats and priests in Hellenism complicates any assessment of the role of the Maccabees. Whereas a liberator is generally one who frees a country from domination by a foreign power, the Maccabees seem to have "liberated" the loyal Jewish masses from the Hellenist Jews and their Syrian Greek allies in the context of a civil war. An assessment of the legitimacy of the Maccabean liberation, therefore, depends on whether the Hellenists are viewed as apostates or as Jews who have taken on some Greek ways.

According to historian Elias Bickerman, Jason and Menelaus wanted to preserve aspects of Judaism that fit with Greek ideals, like a universal God, but to remove those parts of Jewish practice that separated Jews from others: dietary laws, Sabbath observance, circumcision. Some Hellenists continued to worship the Jewish God, but moved their worship to outdoor sanctuaries and sanctioned the pig as a sacrificial animal. It is interesting, however, that even in Second Maccabees, which is considered an anti-Hellenist tract, envoys representing Jerusalem at the quinquennial games in Tyre [the ancient version of the Olympics] "thought it improper" to purchase a sacrifice for Hercules. Instead they decided to fit out a ship and donate it to Tyre (II Maccabees 4:18-20). Although these Hellenists were willing to participate in the athletic contests, they appear to have been squeamish about doing something completely counter to Torah law.

When evaluating the Maccabees’ role, one must ask whether these Hellenist Jews, deemed apostates by the Maccabees and their supporters, had the right to assimilate their Jewish observance to the surrounding Greek culture. The Maccabees answered with a resounding "no," and their judgment was confirmed when eventually Menelaus convinced Antiochus to enact a decree prohibiting Mosaic law. Through Antiochus’ decree, observance of the commandments of the Torah became a capital offense, and the worship of pagan gods was required.

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Michele Alperin is a freelance writer in Princeton, New Jersey. She has a masters degree in Jewish education from the Jewish Theological Seminary.