In the 2nd century BC a "mad king" threatened to extinguish the Jewish religion and obliterate the Jew's unique identity. A champion arose, David-like, to challenge the Seleucid Goliath and defend his people: Judah Maccabee, "The Hammer"! His struggle freed the Jewish people and gave us a lasting legacy, celebrated by the Festival of Light: Hanukkah.

(To read Part Two go here)

For Antiochus, fourth of that name to rule the Seleucid Empire, and self-named Epiphanes ("god made manifest"); the only way to unite the disparate peoples of his vast domain was through the promotion of Hellenism as the universal culture of the empire. A true zealot in the cause of Hellenism, Antiochus founded (or reorganized) Hellenic cities throughout the vast lands under his rule; and engaged in a broad program of temple building and public works.

Close at hand to the center of his kingdom in norther Syria was Judea; home to the Jews. This long-disputed border province between the lands of the Seleucids and those of their traditional rivals, the Ptolemaic rulers of Egypt, Coele-Syria ("Hollow Syria" as it was known to the Graeco-Macedonian rulers of this land) was too strategically important to be allowed to defy his edicts, and for the Jews to maintain their unique (and uniquely stubborn) religion and culture.

Coin of Antiochus IV, with victory-bearing Zeus on the reverse. Zeus was the deity Antiochus identified with his reign; making the Olympian king the chief god of the Seleucid Empire

For years, Antiochus had patronized the ruling faction in Judea, that which embraced his program of Hellenizing the Jews. Menelaus, the High Priest of the Temple in Jerusalem and defacto chief magistrate of the Jews, toed the royal line and promoted Antiochus' policies. However, he was venal and corrupt, and used his position to embezzle from the Temple treasury. Wildly unpopular even among many of the Hellenized Jewish elite he represented, a revolt against his rule erupted in 168-167 BC. The rebels in Jerusalem drove Menelaus into hiding and slaughtered many of his adherents.

Unfortunately, this revolt occurred at the very time when King Antiochus, campaigning in Egypt against the Ptolemies (See Part One and Part Two), most needed stability in this province which straddled the line of communications with his capital. Hearing of the event in Jerusalem, Antiochus was informed that the rebels had not just arisen against the corrupt Menelaus, but (falsely) that the rebels were anti-Seleucid and were killing Antiochus' supporters in the city. Returning in frustration from Egypt, Antiochus entered Jerusalem and vented his spleen upon the city.

According to the Book of Maccabees, Antiochus "ordered his soldiers to cut down without mercy those whom they met and to slay those who took refuge in their houses. There was a massacre of young and old, a killing of women and children, a slaughter of virgins and infants. In the space of three days, eighty thousand were lost, forty thousand meeting a violent death, and the same number being sold into slavery. [1]  

At this moment occurred an event that has left an indelible mark on Jewish history. Antiochus profaned the Temple by entering the "Holy of Holies", the inner sanctum where only the High Priest was allowed to enter on the Day of Atonement. Following the king's orders, an alter to the Greek high-god, Zeus, was erected within the Temple upon the brazen alter. Animal sacrifices were given, and the Temple further defiled with the blood and flesh of these animals left scattered on the floor. This event came to be known in Jewish history, within the Torah and the Bible as the abomination of desolation.

Jerusalem was not alone in being signaled-out for desecration. In Samaria, on the sacred Mount Gerizim, the alter to Jehovah was defiled and replaced with one to Zeus.

Early 20th century photo of Mount Gerizim, with the village of Nablus at its base.

The king departed Jerusalem bearing off the Temple treasury (allegedly some 135,000 pounds of silver) and many of the richly adorned sacred objects of Jewish worship, such as the golden menorah.

Still Antiochus' wrath was not appeased. He seems to have  shifted the anger at his humiliation at the hands of the Romans in Egypt (see Part 2) onto the Jews; perhaps somehow blaming the revolt in Jerusalem for the failure of his Egyptian campaign. Of all the ethnic and religious minorities in his empire, the Jews drew his particular ire. It is often stated that his anger against them was only because of their refusal to accept Hellenization. However, this was only partially true: many Jews had already accepted Hellenism and Seleucid rule; and the seductive allure of Greek culture was spreading among the towns and villages of Judea and Samaria, and into Jewish communities in the Trans-Jordan. Time seemed to favor Antiochus' plans. Patience was all that was required to see his goal through.

Perhaps only the vindictive streak that was a part of his nature accounts for his continued persecution of the Jews, beyond punishing them for this brief rebellion.

Departing Jerusalem for Antioch, he issued edicts outlawing many aspects of Jewish religious practice and traditions; including circumcision of male Jewish children. Worse still, he ordered the worship of Olympian Zeus (the deity Antiochus identified with his own person as ruler of the empire) as the supreme god [2] of the realm. This was anathema to the Jews, a direct attack upon their very existence as a "people apart".

To enforce his orders, Antiochus reappointed Menelaus as High Priest; and selected two military governors to administer the region. Over Judea he placed Philip, which the second book of Maccabees calls a "man of Phrygia", "more evil than Antiochus himself" [3]; and over Samaria one Andronicus. Their instructions included Hellenizing (by force if necessary) the Jewish and Samaritan populations. Agents were sent out across the land, to oversee the erection and dedication of additional pagan alters; and to insure that the Jews offered sacrifices upon them.

Apparently there was enough resistance to the official Hellenizing policy that two years later, an angry Antiochus dispatched an army of some 22,000 under an officer named Apollonius (who may have been an Athenian "senator" [4]). Apollonius was to take over as governor of Samaria (nothing is said of what became of the before-mentioned Andronicus). But first he detoured south to Jerusalem. Then, awaiting on the Sabbath when he knew the observant Jews would be at home and unwilling to take any action, his army attacked the city. A massacre ensued, for the second time in as many years [5]. The Jewish population was killed or enslaved (save, perhaps, those confirmed Hellenized Jews supporting the regime). To hold the city, Jerusalem was garrisoned with a Seleucid force; and a fortress, the Acra, built within to house this force:

And they built the city of David with a great and strong wall, and with strong towers, and made it a fortress [Greek: Acra] for them: And they placed there a sinful nation, wicked men, and they fortified themselves therein: and they stored up armour, and victuals, and gathered together the spoils of Jerusalem; And laid them up there: and they became a great snare. And this was a place to lie in wait against the sanctuary, and an evil devil in Israel.

The Acra of Jerusalem became the center of Hellenistic and Seleucid power in Judea; and Jerusalem home to only Hellenized Jews and these foreign (Seleucid) elements. For the next 20 years, it would stand as the living embodiment of "wickedness" and oppression for those Jews wishing to retain their heritage and culture.

Jerusalem in the 2nd century, with the Seleucid Acra dominating the Temple Mount.

One such Jew survived the massacre in Jerusalem, fleeing to his home village of Modin. His name was Judah, a son of a priest named Mattathias. His escape was to have lasting and (for the Hellenizers) catastrophic consequences. For he was a man of great energy and military ability; and a deep and unshakable belief in God and his people's unique place in the world. This piece of Seleucid treachery and brutality left him filled with an implacable fury and desire for revenge against his people's oppressors.

Soon he would come to be known to his fellow Jews as Judah Maccabeus: "The Hammer"!


  1. 2 Maccabees 5. 11–14
  2. 2 Maccabees 6. 1-12
  3. 2 Maccabees 5. 22. Phyrgia was no longer a part of the Seleucid domain, given up in 188; along with all territories "beyond" the Taurus Mountains according to the terms of the Treaty of Apamea with Rome, following the Seleucid defeat at the Battle of Magnesia. This officer may have been a soldier of fortune come to Antiochus' service.
  4. 2 Maccabees 6:1–11
  5. There may be confusion in the accounts, in which this second sack is merely a retelling of the first by Antiochus following his Egyptian campaign. It seems strange that after losing 80,000 inhabitants in the first sack that there would be a significant enough Jewish community only two years later to warrant another such attack and massacre; no matter how much Antiochus may have hated the Jews at this point in his reign.

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