The Maccabees: Heroes or Fanatics?

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

Print this page Print this page

Although celebrated as heroes who saved Jewish practice and Torah law from suppression and abrogation by the Syrian Greeks, the Maccabees are portrayed in the First Book of Maccabees as religious zealots, murdering coreligionists who had chosen the path of Hellenism.
The historical reality is murky, refracted as it is through the political and religious agendas of First and Second Maccabees (books relating the Hanukkah story that the rabbis chose not to include in the Hebrew Bible). Because of this ambiguousness, both interpretations have some legitimacy, and later commentators choose the one most consonant with their own needs and goals. For example, readers who have personally experienced anti-Semitism may identify Mattathias as a hero who was loyal to his religious identity in the face of an anti-Semitic Greek civilization. On the other hand, civil libertarians may judge the Maccabees less generously, criticizing their infringement on the civil rights of their coreligionists [the latter of whom may also have treated those belonging to the Maccabean party in a similar manner].

The Role of Hellenism

Central to any assessment of the Maccabees is an evaluation of the role of Hellenism, an ideology whose universalistic outlook was based on Greek ideas and athletic prowess. Following in the footsteps of Alexander the Great, Hellenism became a political tool used by the Syrian Greeks to consolidate their power among the wealthy bourgeoisie. In turn, the aristocratic elites who embraced Hellenism gained access to the social and economic perquisites flowing to citizens of a Greek polis, including the right to mint coins, to take part in international Hellenistic events, and to receive protection from the city’s founding ruler.

But Hellenism encompassed more than a pragmatic relationship between the ruler and local economic elites; it also represented an "enlightened" worldview considered by many to be the way of the future. Nations who shut themselves off and did not confront the challenge of Hellenism were falling by the wayside. Because it was viewed as the wave of the future, the pressure to acculturate to Hellenism was quite intense in Judea. Therefore, the people of Judea had to decide whether the universalistic focus of Hellenism constituted a danger to their ancestral religion and its God or whether it simply represented a more modern and "progressive" way of life that could be merged with Jewish practice.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

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