The Great Events by Famous Historians/Volume 2/Judas Maccabaeus Liberates Judea


B.C. 165


(The noble-minded Judas Maccabaeus was the hero of Jewish independence— the deliverer of Judea and Judaism during the bloody persecutions of the Syrian king Antiochus Epiphanes, in the second century B.C. This King was attempting to destroy in Palestine the national religion. For this purpose pagan altars were set up among the Jews and pagan sacrifices enjoined upon the worshippers of Jehovah. Many Jews fled from their own towns and villages into the uninhabited wilderness, in order that they might have liberty to worship the God of their fathers; but a few conformed to the ordinances of Antiochus. Soon, however, open resistance to the decrees of the pagan ruler began to manifest itself among the faithful.

The first protest in the shape of active opposition was made by Mattathias, a priest living at Modin. When the servants of Antiochus came to that retired village and commanded Mattathias to do sacrifice to the heathen gods, he refused; he went so far as to strike down at the altar a Jew who was preparing to offer such a sacrifice. Then he escaped to the mountains with his five sons and a band of followers. These followers grew in numbers and activity, overthrowing pagan altars, circumcising heathen children, and putting to the sword both apostates and unbelievers. When Mattathias died, in B.C. 166, he was succeeded as leader by his son Judas, called Maccabaeus, "the Hammer"; as Charles, who defeated the Saracens at Tours, is called Martel or hammer.

The successes of Judas were uninterrupted, and culminated B.C. 165 in the repulse of Lysias, the general of Antiochus, at Bethzur, where a large Syrian force gathered in the expectation of crushing the patriotic army of Judas. After this victory Judas led his followers into Jerusalem and proceeded to restore the Temple and the worship of the national religion, and to cleanse the Temple from all traces of pagan worship. The great altar was rebuilt; new sacred vessels provided; and an eight-days' dedication festival begun on the very day when, three years before, the altar of Jehovah had been desecrated by a heathen sacrifice. This Feast of the Dedication was ever afterward observed in the Temple at Jerusalem and is mentioned in the gospels [John x. 22]. Judas established a dynasty of priest-kings, which lasted until supplanted by Herod, with the aid of the Romans, in B.C. 40; and gave by his genuinely heroic bearing his name to this whole glorious epoch of Jewish history.)

Now at this time there was one whose name was Mattathias, who dwelt at Modin, the son of John, the son of Simeon, the son of Asamoneus, a priest of the order of Joarib, and a citizen of Jerusalem. He had five sons: John, who was called Gaddis, and Simon, who was called Matthes, and Judas, who was called Maccabæus,[1] and Eleazar, who was called Auran, and Jonathan, who was called Apphus. Now this Mattathias lamented to his children the sad state of their affairs, and the ravage made in the city, and the plundering of the Temple, and the calamities the multitude were under; and he told them that it was better for them to die for the laws of their country than to live so ingloriously as they then did.

But when those that were appointed by the King were come to Modin that they might compel the Jews to do what they were commanded, and to enjoin those that were there to offer sacrifice, as the King had commanded, they desired that Mattathias, a person of the greatest character among them, both on other accounts and particularly on account of such a numerous and so deserving a family of children, would begin the sacrifice, because his fellow-citizens would follow his example, and because such a procedure would make him honored by the King. But Mattathias said that he would not do it, and that if all the other nations would obey the commands of Antiochus, either out of fear or to please him, yet would not he nor his sons leave the religious worship of their country; but as soon as he had ended his speech there came one of the Jews into the midst of them and sacrificed as Antiochus had commanded. At which Mattathias had great indignation, and ran upon him violently with his sons, who had swords with them, and slew both the man himself that sacrificed and Apelles, the King's general who compelled him to sacrifice, with a few of his soldiers.

He also overthrew the idol altar and cried out, "If," said he, "anyone be zealous for the laws of his country and for the worship of God, let him follow me"; and when he had said this he made haste into the desert with his sons, and left all his substance in the village. Many others did the same also, and fled with their children and wives into the desert and dwelt in caves; but when the King's generals heard this, they took all the forces they then had in the citadel at Jerusalem, and pursued the Jews into the desert; and when they had overtaken them, they in the first place endeavored to persuade them to repent, and to choose what was most for their advantage and not put them to the necessity of using them according to the law of war; but when they would not comply with their persuasions, but continued to be of a different mind, they fought against them on the Sabbath day, and they burned them as they were in the caves, without resistance, and without so much as stopping up the entrances of the caves. And they avoided to defend themselves on that day because they were not willing to break in upon the honor they owed the Sabbath, even in such distresses; for our law requires that we rest upon that day.

There were about a thousand, with their wives and children, who were smothered and died in these caves; but many of those that escaped joined themselves to Mattathias and appointed him to be their ruler, who taught them to fight even on the Sabbath day, and told them that unless they would do so they would become their own enemies by observing the law [so rigorously] while their adversaries would still assault them on this day, and they would not then defend themselves; and that nothing could then hinder but they must all perish without fighting. This speech persuaded them, and this rule continues among us to this day, that if there be a necessity we may fight on Sabbath days. So Mattathias got a great army about him and overthrew their idol altars and slew those that broke the laws, even all that he could get under his power; for many of them were dispersed among the nations round about them for fear of him. He also commanded that those boys who were not yet circumcised should be circumcised now; and he drove those away that were appointed to hinder such their circumcision.

But when he had ruled one year and was fallen into a distemper, he called for his sons and set them round about him, and said: "O my sons, I am going the way of all the earth; and I recommend to you my resolution and beseech you not to be negligent in keeping it, but to be mindful of the desires of him who begat you and brought you up, and to preserve the customs of your country, and to recover your ancient form of government which is in danger of being overturned, and not to be carried away with those that either by their own inclination or out of necessity betray it, but to become such sons as are worthy of me; to be above all force and necessity, and so to dispose your souls as to be ready when it shall be necessary to die for your laws, as sensible of this, by just reasoning, that if God see that you are so disposed he will not overlook you, but will have a great value for your virtue, and will restore to you again what you have lost and will return to you that freedom in which you shall live quietly and enjoy your own customs.

"Your bodies are mortal and subject to fate; but they receive a sort of immortality by the remembrance of what actions they have done; and I would have you so in love with this immortality that you may pursue after glory, and that when you have undergone the greatest difficulties you may not scruple for such things to lose your lives. I exhort you especially to agree one with another, and in what excellency any one of you exceeds another, to yield to him so far, and by that means to reap the advantage of everyone's own virtues. Do you then esteem Simon as your father because he is a man of extraordinary prudence, and be governed by him in what counsels he gives you. Take Maccabaeus for the general of your army, because of his courage and strength, for he will avenge your nation and will bring vengeance on your enemies. Admit among you the righteous and religious, and augment their power."

When Mattathias had thus discoursed to his sons and had prayed to God to be their assistant and to recover to the people their former constitution, he died a little afterward, and was buried at Modin, all the people making great lamentation for him. Whereupon his son Judas took upon him the administration of public affairs, in the hundred and forty-sixth year; and thus, by the ready assistance of his brethren and of others, Judas cast their enemies out of the country and put those of their own country to death who had transgressed its laws, and purified the land of all the pollutions that were in it.

When Apollonius, the general of the Samaritan forces, heard this he took his army and made haste to go against Judas, who met him and joined battle with him, and beat him and slew many of his men, and among them Apollonius himself, their general, whose sword, being that which he happened then to wear, he seized upon and kept for himself; but he wounded more than he slew, and took a great deal of prey from the enemy's camp, and went his way; but when Seron, who was general of the army of Celesyria, heard that many had joined themselves to Judas, and that he had about him an army sufficient for fighting and for making war, he determined to make an expedition against him, as thinking it became him to endeavor to punish those that transgressed the King's injunctions. He then got together an army as large as he was able, and joined to it the renegade and wicked Jews, and came against Judas.

He then came as far as Bethoron, a village of Judea, and there pitched his camp; upon which Judas met him, and when he intended to give him battle he saw that his soldiers were backward to fight because their number was small and because they wanted food, for they were fasting. He encouraged them and said to them that victory and conquest of enemies are not derived from the multitude in armies, but in the exercise of piety toward God; and that they had the plainest instances in their forefathers, who, by their righteousness and exerting themselves on behalf of their own laws and their own children, had frequently conquered many ten thousands, for innocence is the strongest army. By this speech he induced his men to contemn the multitude of the enemy, and to fall upon Seron; and upon joining battle with him he beat the Syrians; and when their general fell among the rest they all ran away with speed, as thinking that to be their best way of escaping. So he pursued them unto the plain and slew about eight hundred of the enemy, but the rest escaped to the region which lay near to the sea.

When king Antiochus heard of these things he was very angry at what had happened; so he got together all his own army, with many mercenaries whom he had hired from the islands, and took them with him, and prepared to break into Judea about the beginning of the spring; but when, upon his mustering his soldiers, he perceived that his treasures were deficient, and there was a want of money in them, for all the taxes were not paid, by reason of the seditions there had been among the nations, he having been so magnanimous and so liberal that what he had was not sufficient for him, he therefore resolved first to go into Persia and collect the taxes of that country. Hereupon he left one whose name was Lysias, who was in great repute with him, governor of the kingdom, as far as the bounds of Egypt and of the Lower Asia and reaching from the river Euphrates, and committed to him a certain part of his forces and of his elephants and charged him to bring up his son Antiochus with all possible care until he came back; and that he should conquer Judea and take its inhabitants for slaves and utterly destroy Jerusalem, and abolish the whole nation; and when king Antiochus had given these things in charge to Lysias, he went into Persia, and in the hundred and forty-seventh year he passed over Euphrates and went to the superior provinces.

Upon this Lysias chose Ptolemy the son of Dorymenes, and Nicanor, and Gorgias, very potent men among the King's friends, and delivered to them forty thousand foot-soldiers and seven thousand horsemen, and sent them against Judea, who came as far as the city Emmaus and pitched their camp in the plain country. There came also to them auxiliaries out of Syria and the country round about, as also many of the renegade Jews; and besides these came some merchants to buy those that should be carried captives—having bonds with them to bind those that should be made prisoners—with that silver and gold which they were to pay for their price; and when Judas saw their camp and how numerous their enemies were, he persuaded his own soldiers to be of good courage, and exhorted them to place their hopes of victory in God and to make supplication to him, according to the custom of their country, clothed in sackcloth, and to show what was their usual habit of supplication in the greatest dangers, and thereby to prevail with God to grant them the victory over their enemies. So he set them in their ancient order of battle used by their forefathers, under their captains of thousands, and other officers, and dismissed such as were newly married, as well as those that had newly gained possessions, that they might not fight in a cowardly manner out of an inordinate love of life, in order to enjoy those blessings.

When he had thus disposed his soldiers he encouraged them to fight by the following speech, which he made to them: "O my fellow-soldiers, no other time remains more opportune than the present for courage and contempt of dangers; for if you now fight manfully you may recover your liberty, which, as it is a thing of itself agreeable to all men, so it proves to be to us much more desirable, by its affording us the liberty of worshipping God. Since, therefore, you are in such circumstances at present, you must either recover that liberty and so regain a happy and blessed way of living, which is that according to our laws and the customs of our country, or to submit to the most opprobrious sufferings; nor will any seed of your nation remain if you be beat in this battle. Fight therefore manfully, and suppose that you must die though you do not fight; but believe that besides such glorious rewards as those of the liberty of your country, of your laws, of your religion, you shall then obtain everlasting glory. Prepare yourselves, therefore, and put yourselves into such an agreeable posture that you may be ready to fight with the enemy as soon as it is day to-morrow morning."

And this was the speech which Judas made to encourage them. But when the enemy sent Gorgias with five thousand foot and one thousand horse, that he might fall upon Judas by night, and had for that purpose certain of the renegade Jews as guides, the son of Mattathias perceived it and resolved to fall upon those enemies that were in their camp, now their forces were divided. When they had therefore supped in good time and had left many fires in their camp he marched all night to those enemies that were at Emmaus; so that when Gorgias found no enemy in their camp, but suspected that they were retired and had hidden themselves among the mountains, he resolved to go and seek them wheresoever they were.

But about break of day Judas appeared to those enemies that were at Emmaus, with only three thousand men, and those ill-armed by reason of their poverty; and when he saw the enemy very well and skilfully fortified in their camp he encouraged the Jews and told them that they ought to fight, though it were with their naked bodies, for that God had sometimes of old given such men strength, and that against such as were more in number, and were armed also, out of regard to their great courage. So he commanded the trumpeters to sound for the battle, and by thus falling upon the enemy when they did not expect it, and thereby astonishing and disturbing their minds, he slew many of those that resisted him and went on pursuing the rest as far as Gadara and the plains of Idumea, and Ashdod, and Jamnia; and of these there fell about three thousand. Yet did Judas exhort his soldiers not to be too desirous of the spoils, for that still they must have a contest and battle with Gorgias and the forces that were with him, but that when they had once overcome them then they might securely plunder the camp because they were the only enemies remaining, and they expected no others.

And just as he was speaking to his soldiers, Gorigas' men looked down into that army which they left in their camp and saw that it was overthrown and the camp burned; for the smoke that arose from it showed them, even when they were a great way off, what had happened. When, therefore, those that were with Gorgias understood that things were in this posture, and perceived that those that were with Judas were ready to fight them, they also were affrighted and put to flight; but then Judas, as though he had already beaten Gorgias' soldiers without fighting, returned and seized on the spoils. He took a great quantity of gold and silver and purple and blue, and then returned home with joy, and singing hymns to God for their good success; for this victory greatly contributed to the recovery of their liberty.

Hereupon Lysias was confounded at the defeat of the army which he had sent, and the next year he got together sixty thousand chosen men. He also took five thousand horsemen and fell upon Judea, and he went up to the hill country of Bethsur, a village of Judea, and pitched his camp there, where Judas met him with ten thousand men; and when he saw the great number of his enemies, he prayed to God that he would assist him, and joined battle with the first of the enemy that appeared and beat them and slew about five thousand of them, and thereby became terrible to the rest of them. Nay, indeed, Lysias observing the great spirit of the Jews, how they were prepared to die rather than lose their liberty, and being afraid of their desperate way of fighting, as if it were real strength, he took the rest of the army back with him and returned to Antioch.

When, therefore, the generals of Antiochus' armies had been beaten so often, Judas assembled the people together, and told them that after these many victories which God had given them, they ought to go up to Jerusalem and purify the Temple and offer the appointed sacrifices. But as soon as he with the whole multitude was come to Jerusalem and found the Temple deserted and its gates burned down and plants growing in the Temple of their own accord on account of its desertion, he and those that were with him began to lament and were quite confounded at the sight of the Temple; so he chose out some of his soldiers and gave them orders to fight against those guards that were in the citadel until he should have purified the Temple. When therefore he had carefully purged it and had brought in new vessels, the candlestick, the table [of shewbread], and the altar [of incense], which were made of gold, he hung up the veils at the gates and added doors to them.

He also took down the altar [of burnt-offering], and built a new one of stones that he gathered together and not of such as were hewn with iron tools. So on the five-and-twentieth day of the month of Casleu, which the Macedonians call Apelleus, they lighted the lamps that were on the candlestick and offered incense upon the altar [of incense], and laid the loaves upon the table [of shew-bread], and offered burnt-offerings upon the new altar [of burnt-offering]. Now it so fell out that these things were done on the very same day on which their divine worship had fallen off and was reduced to a profane and common use after three years' time; for so it was, that the Temple was made desolate by Antiochus, and so continued for three years. This desolation happened to the Temple in the hundred forty and fifth year, on the twenty-fifth day of the month Apelleus, and on the hundred and fifty-third Olympiad; but it was dedicated anew, on the same day, the twenty-fifth of the month Apelleus, in the hundred and forty-eighth year, and on the hundred and fifty-fourth Olympiad. And this desolation came to pass according to the prophecy of Daniel, which was given four hundred and eight years before, for he declared that the Macedonians would dissolve that worship [for some time].

Now Judas celebrated the festival of the restoration of the sacrifices of the Temple for eight days, and omitted no sort of pleasures thereon; but he feasted them upon very rich and splendid sacrifices, and he honored God and delighted them by hymns and psalms. Nay, they were so very glad at the revival of their customs, when after a long time of intermission they unexpectedly had regained the freedom of their worship, that they made it a law for their posterity that they should keep a festival, on account of the restoration of their Temple worship, for eight days. And from that time to this we celebrate this festival and call it Lights. I suppose the reason was, because this liberty beyond our hopes appeared to us, and that thence was the name given to that festival. Judas also rebuilt the walls round about the city, and reared towers of great height against the incursions of enemies, and set guards therein. He also fortified the city Bethsura that it might serve as a citadel against any distresses that might come from our enemies.

When these things were over, the nations round about the Jews were very uneasy at the revival of their power and rose up together and destroyed many of them, as gaining advantage over them by laying snares for them and making secret conspiracies against them. Judas made perpetual expeditions against these men, and endeavored to restrain them from those incursions and to prevent the mischiefs they did to the Jews. So he fell upon the Idumeans, the posterity of Esau, at Acra-battene, and slew a great many of them and took their spoils. He also shut up the sons of Bean, that laid wait for the Jews; and he sat down about them, and besieged them, and burned their towers and destroyed the men [that were in them]. After this he went thence in haste against the Ammonites who had a great and a numerous army, of which Timotheus was the commander. And when he had subdued them he seized on the city of Jazer, and took their wives and their children captives and burned the city and then returned into Judea. But when the neighboring nations understood that he was returned they got together in great numbers in the land of Gilead and came against those Jews that were at their borders, who then fled to the garrison of Dathema, and sent to Judas to inform him that Timotheus was endeavoring to take the place whither they were fled. And as these epistles were reading, there came other messengers out of Galilee who informed him that the inhabitants of Ptolemais, and of Tyre and Sidon, and strangers of Galilee, were gotten together.

Accordingly Judas, upon considering what was fit to be done with relation to the necessity both these cases required, gave order that Simon his brother should take three thousand chosen men and go to the assistance of the Jews in Galilee, while he and another of his brothers, Jonathan, made haste into the land of Gilead with eight thousand soldiers. And he left Joseph, the son of Zacharias, and Azarias, to be over the rest of the forces, and charged them to keep Judea very carefully and to fight no battles with any persons whomsoever until his return. Accordingly Simon went into Galilee and fought the enemy and put them to flight, and pursued them to the very gates of Ptolemais, and slew about three thousand of them, and took the spoils of those that were slain and those Jews whom they had made captives, with their baggage, and then returned home.

Now as for Judas Maccabaeus and his brother Jonathan, they passed over the river Jordan, and when they had gone three days' journey they lighted upon the Nabateans, who came to meet them peaceably and who told them how the affairs of those in the land of Galilee stood and how many of them were in distress and driven into garrisons and into the cities of Galilee, and exhorted him to make haste to go against the foreigners, and to endeavor to save his own countrymen out of their hands. To this exhortation Judas hearkened and returned into the wilderness, and in the first place fell upon the inhabitants of Bosor, and took the city, and beat the inhabitants, and destroyed all the males, and all that were able to fight, and burned the city. Nor did he stop even when night came on, but he journeyed in it to the garrison where the Jews happened to be then shut up, and where Timotheus lay round the place with his army; and Judas came upon the city in the morning, and when he found that the enemy were making an assault upon the walls, and that some of them brought ladders on which they might get upon those walls, and that others brought engines [to batter them], he bid the trumpeter to sound his trumpet, and he encouraged his soldiers cheerfully to undergo dangers for the sake of their brethren and kindred; he also parted his army into three bodies and fell upon the backs of their enemies. But when Timotheus' men perceived that it was Maccabaeus that was upon them, of both whose courage and good success in war they had formerly had sufficient experience, they were put to flight; but Judas followed them with his army and slew about eight thousand of them. He then turned aside to a city of the foreigners called Malle, and took it, and slew all the males and burned the city itself. He then removed from thence, and overthrew Casphom and Bosor, and many other cities of the land of Gilead.

But not long after this Timotheus prepared a great army, and took many others as auxiliaries, and induced some of the Arabians by the promise of rewards to go with him in this expedition, and came with his army beyond the brook over against the city Raphon; and he encouraged his soldiers, if it came to a battle with the Jews, to fight courageously, and to hinder their passing over the brook; for he said to them beforehand that "if they come over it we shall be beaten." And when Judas heard that Timotheus prepared himself to fight he took all his own army and went in haste against Timotheus, his enemy; and when he had passed over the brook he fell upon his enemies, and some of them met him, whom he slew, and others of them he so terrified that he compelled them to throw down their arms and fly, and some of them escaped; but some of them fled to what was called the temple of Carnaim, and hoped thereby to preserve themselves, but Judas took the city and slew them and burned the temple, and so used several ways of destroying his enemies.

When he had done this he gathered the Jews together with their children and wives and the substance that belonged to them, and was going to bring them back into Judea. But as soon as he was come to a certain city the name of which was Ephron, that lay upon the road—and as it was not possible for him to go any other way, so he was not willing to go back again—he then sent to the inhabitants, and desired that they would open their gates and permit them to go on their way through the city; for they had stopped up the gates with stones and cut off their passage through it. And when the inhabitants of Ephron would not agree to this proposal, he encouraged those that were with him, and encompassed the city round and besieged it, and lying round it by day and night took the city and slew every male in it and burned it all down, and so obtained a way through it; and the multitude of those that were slain was so great that they went over the dead bodies. So they came over Jordan and arrived at the great plain over against which is situate the city Bethshan, which is called by the Greeks Scythopolis.[2] And going away hastily from thence, they came into Judea, singing psalms and hymns as they went, and indulging such tokens of mirth as are usual in triumphs upon victory. They also offered thank-offerings both for their good success and for the preservation of their army, for not one of the Jews was slain in these battles.

But as to Joseph, the son of Zacharias, and Azarias, whom Judas left generals [of the rest of his forces] at the same time when Simon was in Galilee fighting against the people of Ptolemais, and Judas himself and his brother Jonathan were in the land of Gilead, did these men also affect the glory of being courageous generals in war, in order whereto they took the army that was under their command and came to Jamnia. There Gorgias, the general of the forces of Jamnia, met them, and upon joining battle with him they lost two thousand of their army and fled away, and were pursued to the very borders of Judea. And this misfortune befell them by their disobedience to what injunctions Judas had given them not to fight with anyone before his return. For besides the rest of Judas' sagacious counsels, one may well wonder at this concerning the misfortune that befell the forces commanded by Joseph and Azarias, which he understood would happen if they broke any of the injunctions he had given them. But Judas and his brethren did not leave off fighting with the Idumeans, but pressed upon them on all sides, and took from them the city of Hebron, and demolished all its fortifications and set all its towers on fire, and burned the country of the foreigners and the city Marissa. They came also to Ashdod, and took it, and laid it waste, and took away a great deal of the spoils and prey that were in it and returned to Judea.

Footnotes edit

  1. That this appellation of Maccabee was not first of all given to Judas Maccabæaus, nor was derived from any initial letters of the Hebrew words on his banner, Mi Kamoka Be Elim, Jehovah? ("Who is like unto thee among the gods, O Jehovah?"), Exod. xv. II, as the modern rabbins vainly pretend, see Authent. Rec., part i., pp. 205, 206. Only we may note, by the way, that the original name of these Maccabees and their posterity was Asamoneans, which was derived from Asamoneus, the great-grandfather of Mattathias, as Josephus here informs us.
  2. The reason why Bethshan was called Scythopolis is well known from Herodotus, b. i., p. 105, and Syncellus, p. 214, that the Scythians, where they overran Asia, in the days of Josiah, seized on this city, and kept it as long as they continued in Asia; from which time it retained the name of Scythopolis, or the City of the Scythians.