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date: 23 February 2024



  • Erich S. Gruen


The term Maccabees derives from the Jewish rebel leader Judah Maccabee (Judah “the hammer”) who led the successful insurrection against the Seleucid monarch Antiochus IV and his policy of stamping out Jewish practices and installing an alien cult in the Temple in Jerusalem. Judah succeeded in recapturing and cleansing the Temple in 164, thus laying the basis for the Hanukkah celebration that signified rededication. The victories, however, came at the expense not only of the Seleucid forces but also of other communities and peoples in Palestine and indeed of other Jewish factions hostile to the Maccabees. They allowed Judah to build the foundation of a continuing dynasty, subsequently called the Hasmoneans after a forefather, that retained power for a century thereafter. Our principal sources for Maccabean history are 1 and 2 Maccabees, both included among the so-called Apocrypha (i.e. non-canonical works) in the Septuagint, and the works of the 1st-century ce historian Josephus. But each of them for different reasons had its own motives and objectives for presenting a laudatory portrait of the Maccabees, and their accounts need to be examined with caution. Among other things, they give inadequate attention to the complex entanglements between Hasmoneans and Seleucids that suggested as much mutual dependency as hostility. The Maccabees, far from being responsible for the overthrow of Hellenic hegemony, themselves adopted the accoutrements of Hellenistic monarchy, like coinage, mercenaries, royal titles, and crowns. Adaptation to a larger Mediterranean world was more characteristic than confrontation with it.


  • Jewish Studies

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Article rewritten to reflect current scholarship.

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