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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The Maccabean struggle was also driven by issues of social class. Because only the wealthy—the urban ruling class and large landowners, led by the priests—were citizens, the "democracy" of the Hellenized Jerusalem polis oppressed the vast majority of Jews, who were powerless. Even before the Antiochan persecutions, social antagonisms existed between the zealots of the traditional faith—the urban craftspeople and village dwellers—and the freethinking Hellenizers, suggesting that the Maccabees may have been liberators, but that they were also driven by some degree of self-interest.

Legitimization Through Zealotry

Whereas some modern sensibilities will be offended by the Maccabees’ vicious treatment of the Hellenist Jews, First Maccabees not only lauds Mattathias’ zealotry against his coreligionists, but uses that very zealotry to legitimize the Maccabean dynasty. In First Maccabees, Mattathias acts in the tradition of other zealots in the Torah by murdering a fellow Jew in Modi’in who approaches a pagan altar to offer a sacrifice when requested to do so by a royal official. When this apostate Jew steps up to the altar, Mattathias kills him as well as the government official and then tears down the altar. Mattathias declares, "Let everybody who is zealous for the law and stands by the covenant follow me" (I Maccabees 2:27). With this self-conscious echoing of the words of Moses when confronted with the Golden Calf – “Whoever is for the Lord, come here” (Exodus 32:26) – First Maccabees begins its justification of Maccabean zealotry.

First Maccabees continues by explicitly comparing Mattathias to the biblical figure Pinchas, who killed a tribal leader and his Midianite partner to stop the spread of idolatry and was rewarded by God with a "brit shalom"--covenant of peace--of eternal priesthood (Numbers 25). The implication is that Mattathias derives his political and religious authority from this very act of zealotry, this taking of the law into his own hands, based on his perception that the continued existence of the Jewish community was in danger.

Although Mattathias saw himself as acting in a situation of conflict between an earthly power and the law of God, his act might be viewed from the outside as one of political terrorism; he had committed murder for the sake of what he perceived to be a greater good. Judah continued the fight begun by Mattathias by actively attacking apostasy—destroying idolatrous altars, compelling observance of Torah by force, circumcising newborn infants, and killing apostate violators of Torah law.

Later in the story, the Maccabean self-interest also led them to reinterpret Torah law so that the Jews hiding with them in the wilderness could defend themselves from government attack on the Sabbath. By interpreting the law on their own authority, the Maccabees were setting themselves up as an opposition government, infringing on the prerogatives of the sitting High Priest.

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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.