The Maccabean Wars

by Joel Ramshaw

The period of the Maccabean Wars was truly a history-defining time for Israel. A small band of poorly equipped Jews managed to defeat the world power of Greece. This is surprising given that the Greek soldiers were ferocious professionals trained from birth in the art of war, widely considered undefeatable in battle. In addition they also possessed the latest technology of masses of war elephants and phalanx units considered invincible in battle. This period is still unknown to many Christians though, because there is no record of this period of Israel's history in the Bible. These wars occurred in the period between the Old and New Testament and so the story is not contained in either. One can still learn about God and His dealings from this era however, even though it is not recorded in the standard 66 books of the Bible. The books of 1st and 2nd Maccabees are especially useful to study this era. They are listed in the set of books known as the Apocrypha. We will also look at secular historical sources of the time to get a good view of these events.

Maccabean Wars:

           The setting for the Maccabean wars was the brutal reign of Antiochus IV over the people of Israel. Under Alexander the Great, the Greeks had conquered Persia and with it came the territory of Palestine where the Jews lived. The Jews lived under Greek rule without major trouble until the reign of Antiochus. By the time Antiochus was ruling there were many Jews in high positions who had compromised their faith for the luxury and power that could be attained by conforming to Greek ways and interests. The Greeks gave basically all the top political, religious, and economic positions to these Hellenized Jews. One of these Jews Jason, had bribed the Greeks for the position of High Priest. He also asked Antiochus if he would grant permission for them to build a gymnasium in Jerusalem, and once permission was granted he quickly set about to build it. The Greek gymnasium was not just a place where Greeks would exercise, and play sports; all of this was done while naked. There were also secular teachings brought in there, that reflected Greek mindsets. This greatly displeased and shocked the orthodox community who having remembered the exile, did not want to be displeasing to God in any way whatsoever.

           Antiochus had set out a military plan and made camp in the wilderness areas.

           The Jews were not ready to attack the Greeks in standard army-clashes, so rather they warred in a guerrilla-type method. They would raid various towns and villages, tearing down pagan altars and killing Greek officials and apostate Jews. Soon enough though, Matthias died. He had chosen his son Judas to lead the rebellion in his place.     

The book of 1 Maccabees gives Judas a large amount of praise in its records of him, and lists the people of Israel as having renowned him especially. The revolt was spreading quite quickly, and Judas won several battles first against the Apollonius and his army, and then against Seron and his forces. The fact that the odds were much against the Jews, yet they kept overcoming did much to boost their morale. Antiochus was furious and sent a larger army of fifty thousand footmen against the mere six thousand Jews. Miraculously, the very small Jewish army was able to defeat the much larger, and highly-trained Seleucid army sent against it. The Seleucids then sent a larger army of sixty-thousand infantry and six thousand cavalry against Maccabeus. Maccabeus had to quickly gather seven thousand more troops in addition to the remnant of three-thousand that had survived the previous battle. Amazingly enough, he also won this battle despite all odds. He thus took his victorious forces across to Jerusalem and fought against the Seleucid garrison there. His army quickly overcame it, except for the fortress of Acra, within the Jerusalem walls.

           Now that they were victorious, the Jews straightaway began the process of rededicating the Jerusalem temple to God. The Seleucids had defiled it, sacrificing swine, and setting up an idol in the sanctuary. The Jews therefore, after mourning the defiled state of the temple, quickly set about to restore it. They destroyed the idol (known as the Abomination, it was a fulfillment of the prophecy in Daniel 11:31 where the Antichrist would set up a sacrilegious object in the most holy place of the temple), they also chose to destroy the defiled altar and build a new one. After this they took eight days to celebrate. This celebration is continued by Jews annually up till this present time, known as Hanukkah. After rejoicing and feasting in Jerusalem, the Jews knew they still had a task to do. They promptly left from Jerusalem and began to recapture cities and towns around Palestine that had fallen under Seleucid control. They did not have much time for this though, since the Seleucids were returning with an army of one-hundred twenty-thousand soldiers, twice the size of the previous one, and which included eighty war elephants from Persia. This army marched to retake the capital Jerusalem from the Jews. The Jews hastily returned to put up a defence against them. The small band of rebels was no match for this gargantuan Seleucid force, and they had no choice but to retreat to safety within the walls of Jerusalem. They did skirmish first however losing several hundred troops. Most famously it was at this time that Eliazar the younger brother of Judas Maccabeus, was killed while single-handedly attacking a decoy war elephant that had been decorated as if it was the one carrying Antiochus. He killed troops guarding the elephant, and then stabbed its underbelly. The elephant landed on top of him as it died, killing him as well.

           While the Jews were inside the walls of Jerusalem, the Seleucids were forming a siege outside the city to starve them to death. In a quite fortuitous turn of circumstances in the Jews favor, the Seleucid king had the army of his opponent (the rightful king) marching against his homeland. He was forced to retreat, but first offered a peace treaty with the Jews. The terms were that the Jews would be able to freely worship their God without interference, as long as they remained politically loyal to the Seleucids. Judas accepted this treaty and Lycias then left to fight his adversary in his own land.

           Judas did not have much time though, before another war broke out. This time it was different though; the war was civil. Between the Hellenistic Jews, and the traditional, orthodox Jews. The Hellenists were the aggressors, seeking to impose Greek ways upon the traditional Jews. The Hellenistic Jews got the Seleucids to join them in their cause, and the Seleucids were eager to do this. In 160B.C. the Seleucids and the Hellenistic Jews combined forces against Judas Maccabeus, and were able to easily defeat his force of only eight-hundred men. Some of them managed to escape, but most of them died. Most pivotal was that Judas himself was killed in this battle. The remaining rebels had to flee to the wilderness to rebuild their forces.

           Jonathan Maccabeus stepped into the role of leader of the rebellion in place of his fallen brother Judas. Jonathan did not excel in military prowess as did his brother, however he was an extremely successful diplomat, and won much territory over for the Jews by his dealings. As the Seleucid kingdom was in a civil war, he allied with the winning faction, and improved relations with Rome and Sparta. The Seleucid monarch he allied with gave him rights to the office of high priest as well as official kingship over Judea. His brother Simon was given lordship over the coast of Philistines. Jonathan used the preoccupation of the Seleucids with the continued rebellions and uprisings in their empire to secure territories for the Jews, and eventually he was able to double the territory he controlled. Jonathan was tricked into coming to a city where there was an ambush for him. He was captured right away, and held by the Seleucids. They later executed him after a failed attempt to take over Judea.

           Simon Maccabeus stepped into this power vacuum and took the reigns of the nation. He was able to force the hand of Demetrius, the rightful Seleucid king, by offering an alliance with him in the civil war against Alexander Balas, the pretender to the throne. The condition of this alliance was that Judea would be free of having to pay tribute to the Seleucid monarchs. This was a tacit conceding of basic independence to the Jews. The Jewish coins were minted showing this also. Rather than saying year 170 of the Seleucid reign they now said, the first year of Simon the great high priest, the governor and leader of the Jews.

           Now that Simon led the newly independent Jewish nation, he promptly completed the siege of the Acra fortress in Jerusalem, drove out the Hellenizers, and turned it into a palace for himself. Later he also captured the fortress at Gazara to secure the route between Jerusalem and the seaport of Jaffa. The Seleucids became angry at this, and demanded that these structures be returned to them, but Simon would not budge.

           As he was at a banquet, Simon was assassinated by the direction of his son in law who also hosted the banquet covertly for this reason. His sons were also killed. This thus ended the period known as the Maccabean revolt, and Jewish history shifted to the corrupt period of Jewish history under Hasmonian rule (which had technically began also under Simon).

Seleucid and Jewish Military:

           To fully appreciate the Maccabean wars, it is very important to understand the Jewish and Seleucid military systems in place. The Seleucids were currently one the world powers at the time. Their army was largely based off of the Macedonian model which relied on the traditional phalanx infantry. This type of infantry relied on rectangular formations of soldiers who would lock their shields together, and form a wall against their enemy. The ranks directly behind the front rank would protrude their five meter long spears over the shields of the front-line soldiers and thrust against the enemy. This formation proved very effective in the Greek wars against the Persians, besides its regular use in city-state wars against each other. The Greek phalanx warriors were trained professionals who were taken from Greece and Macedonia and brought East. The Seleucids did not train natives of Mesopotamia for their phalanx units, they always brought them once they were done training in Greece and Macedonia.

           These unusually long, cumbersome spears the phalanx units used were known as sarissas. They’re length ranged from four to six and a half meters long. The reason for this length was because most Greek city states already used pikes that were three meters long. Phillip II invented the Sarissa with extra length to get at the opposing pikes before they had a chance to fight back. These worked excellently if the formation held together, the flanks were protected, and the battle took place on an open field. The Macedonian Phalanx was considered invulnerable from the front, except from another phalanx unit. Different terrain would cause the formation to break though, as well as giving strategic opportunities to their opponents to assail them. Flanking manoeuvres were a common way to try to break up a phalanx unit, and so the flanks were often protected by cavalry.

           Another major component to the Seleucid army were the archers. The archers were mostly brought from the East, since there were already trained and effective archers among the eastern peoples, and the demographics of the Seleucid empire necessitated that it man its army with eastern people. Cavalry were another important component in the Seleucid army. In addition to this, the Seleucids would often hire mercenaries from across their vast territory, ranging from Indian mercenaries, to those of Crete. They also used war elephants as support troops, however the purpose of this was just as much to generate panic in the opposing army as it was to rely on them as weapons.

           The Maccabean army on the other hand, was far less synchronised in terms of weapons and military doctrine. The sword had always been a common weapon among the Jews, however the Jews no longer had a standing army of their own, so most of them were not able to afford swords. A few prominent individuals such as the Maccabean family were able to acquire them. Archers had been more common in the biblical time frame, however the book of Maccabees does not speak of the Jews having these. It is hard to know exactly what weapons the Maccabean army used, since they simply used whatever each person had available on hand. This would have included slings, as well as improvised weapons made out of farm equipment. Later, as they won more battles the Jews made sure to take Seleucid weapons that were left over from their defeats. After the first Seleucid army was destroyed they would have taken many sarissas, short swords, and shields which were the standard Greek weapons of the time. The Jews operated by forcing the Seleucids into hand-to-hand combat, which was effective because the Seleucids were not trained as well for this type of fighting, they were trained to fight in strict formation. A Jew with a farm implement could easily outmanoeuvre a Greek with his five meter long sarissa. The Sarissa only worked while used in tight formation. The Greek would be forced to drop his sarissa and use his less-effective short-sword. Eventually the Jews took to imitating the Macedonian phalanx in some of their units.

 Spiritual aspects to the War:

           First of all it should be noted that the Maccabean Wars were the first religious wars in history. Nations had consulted their gods for battles, but they never made their gods the primary cause of a war. Antiochus therefore had no clue what he was getting into when he made a goal of annihilating Judaism. It had been previously unheard of that an entire nation would risk their lives simply for the sake of their God. The Jews had learned their lesson in the exile however, and with this still fresh in their memory, they made sure to faithfully and tenaciously cling to their God.

           The Maccabean Wars were prophesied of in Daniel chapter eight. Daniel first saw the vision of the beasts at war, and then Gabriel interpreted which kingdoms each beast represented (in brackets). It tells of two-horned ram (Media-Persia alliance), being struck down by a goat with a large horn (Greece under Alexander). The large horn is then broken, and four smaller ones grow up in its place (the four generals Alexander allotted his kingdom to when he died). Verse nine to twelve then make an undeniable picture of Antiochus IV and his aggression against the Jews.

           The hand of God is clearly evident across these wars. Even the best tactician could not have hoped to take a group of farmers and fishermen with their tools against the world power of the day, and its professional army. But the Jews believed in God for every victory, and consistently gave Him the credit for each one, rather than assume that it was because of their own prowess, or strategic use of the terrain. Because of this, they were able to overcome absolutely unthinkable odds. This of course, was never a new thing for the Jews. They had the entire history of the Old Testament to take faith from. From the Exodus, to the defeat of Sennacherib, they were immersed in exploits of faith since childhood.


           The Maccabean Wars are a very important part of Jewish history. They were also a fulfillment of prophecy. Not only that, but by studying this time period, one is able to see how God was still at work, even though this historic time is not found in scripture. These stories are a testimony to the fact that standing up for God always pays off in the end, and that He does indeed answer genuine faith.

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