The Glossary of Terms

1 Maccabees


Harper’s Bible Dictionary

edited by Paul J. Achtemier (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1985)

You are strongly recommended to add to your library the excellent revised edition of Harper's Bible Dictionary titled, The Harper Collins Bible Dictionary, Revised Edition [book review], edited by Paul J. Achtemeier, with the Society of Biblical Literature (NY: Harper Collins, 1996). It is currently the best one-volume Bible dictionary in English, and it is available at Border's Books, Christian Science Reading Rooms,, or

Maccabees, the First Book of the, a history of the Maccabean revolt from the accession of Antiochus IV Epiphanes to the Seleucid (Syrian) throne in 175 b.c. until the death of Simon, one of the leaders of the Jewish resistance and then high priest and ethnarch, in 132 b.c. The struggle is the point of a clash between Hellenistic culture and the exclusivism of Judaism. The book was composed in Hebrew, sometime after the death of John Hyrcanus, Simon’s son, in 104 b.c. but before the beginning of Roman rule in Palestine in 63 b.c. It is the primary source for the history of the period. The original Hebrew is no longer extant; however, the book has been preserved in Greek as a part of the Septuagint. It is considered one of the Apocrypha by Protestants, while Catholics classify it as one of the deuterocanonical writings.


The First Book of the Maccabees

I. Antiochus IV Epiphanes and the desecration of the Temple (175-167 b.c.; chap. 1)

II. Mattathias initiates the resistance (166 b.c.; chap. 2)

III. The struggle under Judas, who liberates the Temple but eventually perishes as a result of renewed efforts by Demetrius I to install Alcimus, one of the Hellenizers, as high priest (166-160 b.c.; 1 Macc. 3:1-9:22)

IV. Jonathan takes up the fight, driving the Syrians from the country, then becoming high priest (150 b.c.) as he takes various sides in the politics of the empire, and finally perishing as a captive (160-143 b.c.; 1 Macc. 9:23-13:30)

V. Simon follows Jonathan, becoming both ethnarch and high priest as the result of the acclamation of the Jewish people, securing virtual independence from the Syrians, and finally falling to an assassin’s sword to be succeeded by John Hyrcanus, his son (143-134 b.c.; 1 Macc. 13:31-16:24)

The purpose of 1 Maccabees seems to be to legitimate the Hasmoneans (Maccabees) as rulers of Palestine in consequence of the contribution made to the liberation of Judea from Seleucid rule by the founders of the dynasty, Judas, Jonathan, and Simon, the sons of Mattathias. Maccabee means ‘the hammer’ in Hebrew and is the nickname of Judas, possibly because of the hammerlike blows he dealt the enemy. It is applied more generally to the three brothers as well as to the revolt they led.

The story begins with the Hellenistic ‘reforms’ instituted by the Hellenizers, members of the Jewish aristocracy (the ‘lawless men’ of 1 Macc.), in association with Antiochus IV. These reforms turn Jerusalem into a Greek city-state under Greek law and lead to opposition by a large segment of the Jewish population. Antiochus responds by desecrating the Temple and attempting to extirpate Judaism in Palestine through violence. 1 Maccabees represents his motive as a desire to create a state religion rather than the need to suppress resistance to the new form of government, as in 2 Maccabees. At the forefront of the initial opposition are the Hasidim or ‘pious ones’ (the Hasideans in 1 Macc.), the forerunners of the Essenes and the Pharisees. 1 Maccabees plays down their role in the revolt in favor of the Maccabees—in fact, according to 1 Maccabees it would appear that all efforts not led by Judas, Jonathan, or Simon are automatically doomed to failure. On the other hand, the book of Daniel, which seems to have been produced by the Hasidim during this revolt, plays down the role of the Maccabees (see Dan. 11:34). The Hasidim would have been satisfied with religious freedom, while the Maccabees seek political independence and power. 1 Maccabees seems to be designed to justify their choice, possibly in the face of conflict between the Pharisees and the Hasmoneans in the first years of the following century.

First Mattathias, and then his sons, one after another, lead the resistance to the Syrians with their Greek ways. The Temple is liberated and cleansed in 164 b.c. under Judas, while Jonathan later becomes high priest. Simon finally secures liberty and becomes both high priest and ethnarch before his assassination by Ptolemy, the governor of Jericho, in 132 b.c. Aiding in the fight for independence is a protracted power struggle within the Seleucid Empire after the death of Antiochus IV in 163 b.c. as well as the emergence of Rome as a major power in the near east. These factors are apparent between the lines, although 1 Maccabees attributes the victory to the leaders’ reliance on the power of God. The book is filled with allusions to the older biblical histories of Israel, going back to the period of the judges, in order to develop this interpretation.


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Copyright 1996-2002 Robert Nguyen Cramer
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