Judas Maccabeus

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Judas Maccabeus (or Judah the Maccabee from the Hebrew: Yehudah HaMakabi) was the third son of the Jewish priest Mathathias. He led the Maccabean revolt against the Seleucid Empire (167-160 BC). His surname Maccabeus is from the Syriac word "maqqaba" (hammer), and this name was granted to him in recognition of his ferocity in battle.

In 175 BC, Antiochus IV Epiphanes assumed the emperorship of the Seleucid Empire and began a campaign of assimilation against the Jews in Palestine. In an effort to unify the Greek elements of his empire, Antiochus determined to destroy the Jewish faith and Hellenize the sons of Jacob. However, a priest from Modin, Mattathias, resisted assimilation and instigated a rebellion when he killed one of the emperor's officers. The resistance he started was to be nurtured and led by his son, who would go on to join Joshua, Gideon, and David as one of the greatest warriors in Jewish history.


The rise of Judas Maccabeus

Before the patriarch Mattathias died in 167 BC, he bestowed upon his sons John, Simon, Eleazar, and Jonathan the task of continuing the holy war he had started--with Judas at their head as military chief. Judas was able to recruit only a few hundred troops from among the Judean province early on. However, he effectively conducted a guerrilla war against Antiochus' troops, who were actively engaged in forcing Greek culture onto Judea.

After two years of small-scale, hit-and-run campaigning, the Maccabee faced a great challenge. Apollonius, the Seleucid governor of Judea and commander of its forces, decided to lead his army into the field to dispose of the Jewish rebels. Though Apollonius' army greatly outnumbered his own, Judas surprised the Syrians at Nahal el-Haramiah and completely crushed them. The Seleucid commander was killed in the battle.

After Nahal el-Haramiah, recruits flocked to the Jewish cause. But an even larger Syrian force loomed. Antiochus tasked another general, Seron, with suppressing the revolt. Seron, with twice as many men as his predecessor, entered Judea and attempted to march to the relief of the Seleucid garrison at Jerusalem. However, in an attack reminiscent of his battle against Apollonius, Judas surprised the enemy force at Beth-horon and sent it reeling into the countryside.

Antiochus sent yet a third expeditionary force into Judea under command of his viceroy, Lysias. However, the rebels turned back the Syrians again at the Battle of Emmaus.

Judas Maccabeus had, in two years, transformed from obscure son of a Modin priest, to great military captain. Recruits flocked to the cause in numbers like never before, and the people began to hail him as a savior of the people. The Maccabee continued to remind his men that they fought for God, family, and country.

The Restoration

Lysias, eager to avenge his defeat, again led an expedition into Judea, this time with the intention of working in tandem with the Seleucid forces in the Acra fortress at Jerusalem. However, the Seleucid general was again driven back by Judas' smaller army. After this campaign, the Jewish hero entered the Holy City and restored the Temple, which had been profaned by the pagan Seleucids. According to Jewish myth on the twenty-fifth day of Kislev in 164 BC, the Temple was re-dedicated. Supposedly, only one day's supply of oil was available to burn in the candelabrum and it miraculously lasted for eight days. Today, this event is commemorated by the festival of Hanukkah (also called the Festival of the Restoration).

Leaving the seemingly impregnable Acra in the hands of the Syrians, Judas turned his attention to relieving Jews throughout the countryside, who were being persecuted by enemy troops. After accomplishing this mission in 162 BC, Judas turned his attention back to the Acra, which remained a Seleucid bastion in the midst of the holiest of Jewish cities. Meanwhile, in Antioch, Lysias was vying for control of the empire with Philip, the regent appointed by Antiochus IV Epiphanes before the emperor's death in 164 BC. The Maccabee took advantage of this internal conflict and besieged the Acra with the hope that this power struggle would prevent Seleucid forces from taking the field against the Jews.

However, the spite that Lysias felt for Judas Maccabeus was greater than the spite he felt for Philip. The Seleucid general left Antioch with the largest field army yet seen in this conflict, and marched toward the Jewish force besieging the Acra. Not wanting to be hemmed in, Judas marched his army out to meet the enemy at Beth-zechariah. But, without the element of surprise, the small band of Jewish citizen-soldiers was no match for the numerically superior Syrian army. The Jews were forced to fall back to Jerusalem, where Lysias besieged them. However, Lysias received ominous news from the east. Philip was returning to Antioch after completing his latest military campaign and could assume the throne in Lysias' absence from the city. The general formulated a compromise to free him of his siege of Jerusalem: he granted the Jews religious freedom under the law. Judas agreed to this proposal, and Lysias hastened to Antioch.

Toward political independence

On the surface, it appeared that the sons of Mattathias had met with ultimate success. However, Judas only provisionally accepted the course of events. He insisted that religious liberty would not continue unabated without political independence and vowed to continue the war. In the meantime, Demetrius I, nephew of the late Antiochus IV Epiphanes, garnered popular support in Antioch, overthrew Lysias, and put him to death. He then ordered a renewed offensive against the Jews. Judas responded by waging guerrilla operation against the Syrians until the spring of 161 BC. The Maccabee then sent a diplomatic envoy to Rome to request formal recognition of the independent state of Judea. Rome complied. However, this simply stirred Demetrius to a new ardor for quashing what he still considered a rebellion. He ordered his army to march on Jerusalem in a campaign to subdue the troublesome Jews once and for all. Judas gave battle to a Syrian force of over 20,000 men at the Battle of Elasa. Finding himself enveloped by enemy troops, Judas Maccabeus fought hand-to-hand alongside his men--then died a warrior's death. The people mourned his loss and shouted, "How is the mighty one fallen, the Savior of Israel!"

The crusade realized

The death of the Maccabee stirred the Jews to renewed resistance. After several additional years of war, and under the leadership of two of Mattathias' other sons, the Jews finally achieved independence and the liberty to worship God as their fathers had.

In the Divine Comedy, Dante sees the spirit of Judas Maccabeus in the Heaven of Mars with the other "heroes of the true faith".

In 1746, the German composer George Frideric Handel commemorated the heroism of Judas Maccabeus in his oratorio of the same name.

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