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Judas Maccabeus (or Judah Maccabee, also spelled Machabeus, or Maccabaeus, Hebrew: יהודה המכבי, Yehudah HaMakabi, Judah the Hammer) was a Kohen and the third son of the Jewish priest Mattathias. He led the Maccabean revolt against the Seleucid Empire (167 BC-160 BC) and is acclaimed as one of the greatest warriors in Jewish history alongside Joshua, Gideon and David.

The Jewish feast of Hanukkah ("Dedication") commemorates the restoration of Jewish worship at the temple in Jerusalem in 165 BC, after Judah Maccabee removed the pagan statuary.


Judah was the third son of Mattathias the Hasmonean, a Jewish priest from the village of Modiinmarker. In 167 BC Mattathias, together with his sons Judah, Eleazar, Simon, Jochanan, and Jonathan, started a revolt against the Seleucid ruler Antiochus IV Epiphanes, who since 175 BC had issued decrees that forbade Jewish religious practices. After Mattathias's death in 166 BC, Judah assumed leadership of the revolt in accordance with the deathbed disposition of his father. The First Book of Maccabees praises Judah's valor and military talent, suggesting that those qualities made Judah a natural choice for the new commander.

In the early days of the rebellion, Judah received a surname Maccabee. Several explanations have been put forward for this surname. One suggestion is that the name derives from the Aramaic maqqaba ("makebet" in modern Hebrew), "hammer" or "sledgehammer" (cf. the cognomen of Charles Martel, the 8th century Frankish leader), in recognition of his ferocity in battle. It is also possible that the name Maccabee is an acronym for the Torah verse Mi kamokha ba'elim YHWH, "Who is like unto thee among the mighty, O LORD!" (Exodus 15:11). Rabbi Moshe Schreiber writes that it is an acronym for his fathers name Mattityahu Kohen Ben Yochanan.

Mindful of the superiority of Seleucid forces during the first two years of the revolt, Judah's strategy was to avoid any involvement with their regular army, and to resort to guerrilla warfare, in order to give them a feeling of insecurity. The strategy enabled Judah to win a string of victories. At the battle of Nahal el-Haramiah (wadi haramia), he defeated a small Syrian force under the command of Apollonius, governor of Samariamarker, who was killed. Judah took possession of Apollonius's sword and used it until his death as a symbol of vengeance. After Nahal el-Haramiah, recruits flocked to the Jewish cause.

Early victories

Shortly thereafter, Judah routed a bigger Seleucid army under the command of Seron near Beth-Horon, largely thanks to a good choice of battlefield. Then in the Battle of Emmaus, Judah proceeded to defeat the Seleucid forces led by generals Nicanor and Gorgias. This force was dispatched by Lysias, whom Antiochus left as viceroy after departing on a campaign against the Parthians. By a forced night march, Judah succeeded in eluding Gorgias, who had intended to attack and destroy the Jewish forces in their camp with his cavalry. While Gorgias was searching for him in the mountains, Judah made a surprise attack upon the Seleucid camp and defeated the Seleucid at the Battle of Emmaus. The Seleucid commander had no alternative but to withdraw to the coast.

The defeat at Emmausmarker convinced Lysias that he must prepare for a serious and prolonged war. He accordingly assembled a new and larger army and marched with it on Judeamarker from the south via Idumea. After several years of conflict Judas drove out his foes from Jerusalem, except for the garrison in the citadel of Acra. He purified the defiled Temple of Jerusalemmarker and on the 25th of Kislev (December 14, 164 BCE) restored the service in the Temple. The reconsecration of the Temple is a permanent Jewish holiday, Hanukkah. The liberation of Jerusalem was the first step on the road to ultimate independence.

After Jerusalem

Upon hearing the news that the Jewish communities in Gilead, Transjordanmarker, and Galilee were under attack by neighboring Greek cities, Judah immediately went to their aid. Judah sent his brother, Simeon, to Galilee at the head of 3,000 men; Simeon proceeded to successfully fulfill his task, achieving numerous victories and transplanted a substantial portion of the Jewish settlements, including women and children, to Judea. He personally led the campaign in Transjordan, taking with him his brother Jonathan. After fierce fighting, he defeated the Arab tribes and rescued the Jews concentrated in fortified towns in Gilead. The Jewish population of the areas taken by the Maccabees was evacuated to Judea. At the conclusion of the fighting in Transjordan, Judah turned against the Edomites in the south, captured and destroyed Hebronmarker and Mareshamarker. He then marched on the coast of the Mediterranean Seamarker, destroyed the altars and statues of the pagan gods in Ashdodmarker, and returned to Judea with much spoils.

Judah then laid siege to the Syrian garrison in the Acra, the Seleucid citadel of Jerusalem. The besieged, who included not only Syrians but also Hellenistic Jews, appealed for help to Lysias, who effectively became the regent of the young king Antiochus V Eupator after the death of Antiochus Epiphanes at the end of 164 BCE during the Parthian campaign. Lysias together with Eupator set out for a new campaign in Judea. Lysias skirted Judea as he had done in his first campaign, entering it from the south, and besieged Beth-Zur. Judah raised the siege of the Acra and went to meet Lysias. In the Battle of Beth-zechariah, south of Bethlehemmarker, the Seleucids achieved their first major victory over the Maccabees, and Judah was forced to withdraw to Jerusalem. Beth-Zur was compelled to surrender and Lysias reached Jerusalem, laying siege to the city. The defenders found themselves in a precarious situation because their provisions were exhausted, it being a sabbatical year during which the fields were left uncultivated. However, just as capitulation seemed imminent, Lysias and Eupator had to withdraw when Antiochus Epiphanes's commander-in-chief Philip, whom the late ruler appointed regent before his death, rebelled against Lysias and was about to enter Antiochmarker and seize power. Lysias decided to propose a peaceful settlement, which was concluded at the end of 163 BCE. The terms of peace were based on the restoration of religious freedom, the permission for the Jews to live in accordance with their own laws, and the official return of the Temple to the Jews. Lysias defeated Philip, only to be overthrown by Demetrius, the true heir to the Syrian throne. Demetrius appointed Alcimus (Jakim), a Hellenist Jew, as high priest, a choice the Hasidim (Pietists) might have accepted since he was of priestly descent.

Internal conflict

When war against the external enemy came to an end, an internal struggle broke out between the party led by Judah and the Hellenist party. The influence of the Hellenizers all but collapsed in the wake of the Seleucid defeat. The Hellenizing High Priest Menelaus was removed from office and executed. His successor was another Hellenizer Alcimus. When Alcimus executed sixty priests who were opposed to him, he found himself in open conflict with the Maccabees. Alcimus fled from Jerusalem and went to the Seleucid king, asking for help.

Meanwhile, Demetrius I Soter, son of Seleucus IV Philopator and nephew of the late Antiochus IV Epiphanes, fled from Romemarker in defiance of the Roman Senate, arrived in Syria, captured and killed Lysias and Antiochus Eupator, and usurped the throne. It was thus Demetrius to whom the delegation led by Alcimus, complained of the persecution of the Hellenist party in Judea. Demetrius granted Alcimus's request to be appointed High Priest under the protection of the king's army and sent to Judea an army led by Bacchides. The weaker Jewish army couldn't oppose the enemy and withdrew from Jerusalem, so Judah returned to wage Guerrilla warfare. Soon after, it was necessary for the Seleucid Army to return to Antiochmarker because of the turbulent political situation. Judah's forces returned to Jerusalem and the Selucids dispatched another army, again led by Nicanor. In a battle near Adasa, on the 13th Adar 161 BCE, the Syrian army was destroyed and Nicanor was killed. The annual "Day of Nicanor" was instituted to commemorate this victory.

Agreement with Rome

The Roman-Jewish Treaty was an agreement made between Judas Maccabeus and the Roman Republic in 161 BCE according to 1 Maccabees and Josephus. It was the first recorded contact between the Jewish people and the Romans.

Renewed fighting

The agreement with Rome failed to have any effect on Demetrius' policy. On receipt of the news of Nicanor's defeat, he dispatched a new army, again commanded by Bacchides. This time the Syrian forces of 20,000 men were numerically so superior that most of Judah's men left the field of battle and advised their leader to do likewise and to await a more favorable opportunity. However, Judah decided to stand his ground. In the Battle of Elasa, Judah and those who remained faithful to him were killed. His body was taken by his brothers from the battlefield and buried in the family sepulchre at Modiinmarker.

The death of Judas Maccabee (d. 160 BCE) stirred the Jews to renewed resistance. After several additional years of war under the leadership of two of Mattathias' other sons (Jonathan and Simon), the Jews finally achieved independence and the liberty to worship freely.

In the arts

Pre-19th Century

As warrior hero and national liberator, Judah Maccabee has inspired many writers, and several artists and composers. 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 Shakespeare's Love's Labour's Lost, Judas Maccabeus is enacted along with the other Nine Worthies, but heckled for sharing a name with Judas Iscariot. Most significant works dedicated solely to him date from the 17th century onwards. William Houghton's Judas Maccabaeus, performed in about 1601 but now lost, is thought to have been the first drama on the theme; however, the earliest surviving literary work is El Macabeo (Naplesmarker, 1638), a Castilian epic by the Portuguesemarker Marrano Miguel de Silveyra. Two other 17th century works were La chevalerie de Judas Macabé by the Frenchmarker dramatist and tragedian Pierre du Ryer (c. 1600–1658) and the anonymous neo-Latin work Judas Machabaeus (Romemarker, 1695).

19th century

Interest in Judah only revived in the 19th century, with Giuda Macabeo, ossia la morte di Nicanore... (1839), an Italianmarker "azione sacra" based on which Vallicella composed an oratorio. One of the best-known literary works on the theme was Judas Maccabaeus (1872), a five-act verse tragedy by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. A Hebrew version of Longfellow's play was published in 1900. Two later 19th-century interpretations of the story were Judas Makkabaeus, a novella by the German writer Josef Eduard Konrad Bischoff which appeared in Der Gefangene von Kuestrin (1885); and The Hammer (1890), a book by Alfred J. Church and Richmond Seeley.

20th century

Several 20th century Jewish authors also wrote works devoted to Judah Maccabee and the Maccabeean Revolt. Jacob Benjamin Katznelson (1855–1930) wrote the poem, "Alilot Gibbor ha-Yehudim Yehudah ha-Makkabi le-Veit ha-Hashmona'im" (1922); the Yiddish writer Moses Schulstein wrote the dramatic poem, "Yehudah ha-Makkabi" (in A Layter tsu der Zun, 1954); Jacob Fichmann's "Yehudah ha-Makkabi" is one of the heroic tales included in Sippurim le-Mofet (1954). Many children's plays have also been written on the theme by various Jewish authors.

In addition, the American writer Howard Fast penned the historical novel, My Glorious Brothers, which was published in 1948, during the Israeli War of Independence.

During World War II the Swiss-German writer Karl Boxler published his novel Judas Makkabaeus; ein Kleinvolk kaempft um Glaube und Heimat (1943), the subtitle of which suggests that Swiss democrats then drew a parallel between their own national hero, William Tell, and the leader of the Maccabean revolt against foreign tyranny.

Visual arts

In the medieval Christian art, Judah Maccabee was regarded as one of the heroes of the Old Testament. He figures in a tenth-century illustrated manuscript Libri Maccabaeorum. The late medieval French artist Jean Fouquet painted an illustration of Judah triumphing over his enemies for his famous manuscript of Josephus. Rubens painted Judah Maccabee praying for the dead; the painting illustrates an episode from II Maccabees 12:39–48 in which Judah's troops found stolen idolatrous charms on the corpses of Jewish warriors slain on the battlefield. He therefore offered prayers and an expiatory sacrifice for these warriors who had died in a state of sin. During the Counter-Reformation the passage was used by Catholics against Protestants in order to justify the doctrine of purgatory. Accordingly, Rubens painted the scene for the Chapel of the Dead in Tournaimarker cathedral. In the 19th century, Paul Gustave Doré executed an engraving of Judah Maccabee victoriously pursuing the shattered troops of the Syrian enemy.


In music, almost all the compositions inspired by the Hasmonean revolt are primarily concerned with Judah. In 1746, the composer George Frideric Handel composed his oratorio Judas Maccabeus putting the biblical story in the context of the Jacobite Rising. This work, with libretto by Thomas Morrell, had been written for the celebrations following the Duke of Cumberland's victory over the Scottishmarker Jacobite rebels at the Battle of Cullodenmarker in 1746. The oratorio's most famous chorus is "See, the conqu'ring hero comes". The tune of this chorus was later adopted as a Christian Easter hymn tune Thine Be The Glory, Risen Conquering Son. Handel's Judas Maccabaeus was often performed in the Land of Israel, with the motif of "conqu'ring hero" becoming a Hanukkah song.

Tom Lehrer refers to Judas Maccabeus in his song "Hanukah in Santa Monica".

Mirah refers to Judah Maccabe in her song "Jerusalem".


"Recourse to the Sword," the fifth chapter in Robert Struble's Treatise on Twelve Lights, 2007-08 edition, is dedicated to the Maccabees.


Judas Maccabeus strongly disapproved of athletic games and competitions, which were a clear influence of Greek culture, were introduced into Jerusalem by his staunch enemies the Hellenising Jews, and were abolished upon his getting control of the city.

Nevertheless, by the irony of history one of the main sports federations of contemporary Israelmarker is named for him Maccabi, and most Israeli cities have athletics, football and basketball clubs of that name (some of them internationally famous). Also named for him are the Maccabiah Games, an international Jewish athletic event similar to the modern Olympics - in turn modeled on the Classical Greek ones, of which Maccabeus also evidently disapproved as part of a foreign and hostile culture.

See also


  1. Virtually all that is known about Judah Maccabee is contained in the Books of the Maccabees and in the works of Josephus, largely dependent on this source.
  2. Galilee, however, does not seem to have been evacuated of its Jewish population, since two generations later, when John Hyrcanus conquered it, he found it largely inhabited by Jews.
  3. Josephus Flavius Antiquities of the Jews Book 12 Chapter 8 paragraph 6.

Further reading

  • Schalit, Abraham (1997). "Judah Maccabee". Encyclopedia Judaica (CD-ROM Edition Version 1.0). Ed. Cecil Roth. Keter Publishing House. ISBN 965-07-0665-8
  • Schäfer, Peter (2003). The History of the Jews in the Greco-Roman World. Routledge. ISBN 0-415-30585-3

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