The Revolt of the Maccabees and Hanukkah

Can you briefly describe the Maccabean Revolt and how Hanukkah came into being? I find Josephus confusing.
Hanukkah or Chanukah (or more properly hanukiyah) — the Festival of Lights — is a Jewish holiday. It commemorates the re-dedication of the second temple in Jerusalem during the time of the Maccabean Revolt (c. 167-160 BC). Hanukkah is not observed by most Christians.

The details of the Maccabean Revolt and Hanukkah can be read in the uninspired books of 1 & 2 Maccabees [1], the Talmud, and Jewish Antiquities (Book 12, Chpt. 5 - Book 13 Chpt. 7) and Jewish War (Book 1, Chpts. 3-6), both written by Flavius Josephus. However, different sources contain different information (especially the dating) and so every detail of the revolt can be rather difficult to reconstruct.

The Maccabean Revolt was both a war against the Greeks and a civil war against other Jews who sided with them (cf. 1 Macc. 1:11-5). Essentially, the Greek Seleucid king, Antiochus IV Epiphanes (c. 215-164 BC), the son of King Antiochus III the Great, ordered the persecution of the Jews. Antiochus IV Epiphanes considered himself to be the Greek god Zeus. In his efforts to hellenize [2] the Jews, he attempted to change their culture and traditions. If individuals were caught reading the Torah, they could be punished or even put to death. The Sabbath Day observation was abolished. Circumcision was even banned, etc.

So, the Jews were undergoing tremendous trials and injustices. Greek troops finally arrived in the town of Modi'in west of Jerusalem. The Seleucid Greeks erected a statue of the Greek god Zeus. They demanded that the Jews sacrifice a pig to Zeus. But Zeus is/was a false god (cf. Exod. 20:2; Deut. 5:6) and pigs were considered unclean (cf. "chew the cud" in Lev. 11:3-8; Deut. 14:3-8). [3] So, Mattathias, an elder in Modi'in, refused to sacrifice a pig to Zeus (cf. 1 Macc. 2:19-22). However, another Jew was willing to do it (cf. 1 Macc. 2:23). As 1 Maccabees indicates, Mattathias killed him and a Greek official that was present (cf. 1 Macc. 2:24-25). He then invited the Jewish crowd to follow him, emphasizing God's law and covenant (cf. 1 Macc. 2:27). However, though many followed Mattathias into the hills, the Greeks further desecrated the temple and made their false sacrifices anyway. [4]

Among those who joined Mattathias were his five sons (Yohanan, Shimon, Judah, Eleazar, and Yonaton; cf. 1 Macc. 2:28-30 [spellings differ in some accounts]). When Mattathias died a short time later, the revolt continued to be led by his son Judah, nicknamed Maccabee, meaning "the Hammer." Thus, the word "Maccabean" in the phrase "Maccabean Revolt."

The Jews organized comparatively small guerrilla type forces to fight the Greeks who had trained soldiers, better equipment, and even outnumbered them. But what the Jews lacked in numerical superiority, equipment, and training they made up for in spirit. Indeed, God protected his people. The Jewish guerrilla units took on the Gentile army in the foothills leading from the coastal plain areas near Jerusalem.

After three years the Jews took Jerusalem back in part (cf. 1 Macc. 4:1-35). As previously stated, the temple had been defiled and turned into a pagan sanctuary (cf. 1 Macc. 4:36-40). The menorah had been melted down by the Greeks. As tradition states, the conquering Jews made a make-shift menorah but found only one cruse of pure olive oil - enough for merely one day. However, it is recorded that the menorah miraculously stayed lit for eight days until more oil had been pressed and delivered to the temple (cf. Talmud, Shabbat 21b). [5] The temple was purified (cf. 1 Macc. 4:41-51) and re-dedicated (Chanukah means "re-dedicated") on the 25th of Kislev (cf. 1 Macc. 4:52-56). So, the eight day festival of Hanukah celebrates both a spiritual and military victory.

However, the re-dedication of the temple didn't fully end the conflict (cf. 1 Macc. 5:1-2). Judas (1 Macc. 8:20-21) and Jonathan (1 Macc. 12:1), both sons of Mattathias, made alliances with Rome. Several other battles took place with the Greeks. The main battles in the Maccabean Revolt were 1) Battle of Wadi Haramia (167 BC); 2) Battle of Beth Horon (166 BC); 3) Battle of Emmaus (166 BC); 4) Battle of Beth Zur (164 BC); 5) Battle of Beth Zechariah (162 BC); 6) Battle of Adasa (161 BC); 7) Battle of Elasa (160 BC). Ultimately, it wasn't until c. 142 BC, during the reign of the Greek monarch Demitrius, that the Greeks finally signed a peace treaty with Shimon, the last remaining son of Mattathias (cf. 1 Macc. 15:1-9).

It is always interesting to note the providence of God in redemptive history. The sons of Mattathias made alliances with Rome, whom God ordained before the foundation of the world would a short time later crucify his only begotten Son (Gen. 3:21; John 1:29; Acts 2:23-24; 4:27-28; 1 Pet. 1:18-20; Rev. 5:6, 8, 9, 12; 13:8; 17:8; cf. Matt. 25:34; Rom. 8:29; Eph. 1:4).

Additionally, both the Septuagint (i.e. Greek Old Testament) and the New Testament were written in Koine Greek. This was a divinely designed missionary gift to the Apostolic church ("Go therefore and make disciples of all nations," Matt. 28:18-20) much like the Gutenberg Press was to the Reformation (see below). Christ's death and resurrection and these writings remain great gifts today! As the Apostle Paul once proclaimed:

Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! "For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor?" "Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid?" For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen. (Rom. 11:33-36).


[1] 1 & 2 Maccabees are part of the Apocrypha. It is especially relevant here that while Christ affirmed the Hebrew canon of his day (Luke 11:51), he nowhere affirmed these extra-canonical works. Note that in the Jewish Bible the books are arranged in three groups: (1) The Five Books of Moses (Chumash), (2), Eight Books of the Prophets (Neviim) and (3) the Twelve Books of the Writtings (Kesuvim). The last book in the Torah is Chronicles. So, Jesus in his description of the Canon "from the blood of Abel" (Genesis, the first book) "to the blood of Zechariah" (Chronicles, the last book) destroys any possibility that the Apocrypha (written during the 400 years of silence from Malachi to Matthew) of being in the Canon. Please see Apocrypha Accounts?

[2] Hellenized Jews where those who adopted Greek speech, manners, and culture, from the fourth century BC through the first centuries (cf. Acts 6:1).

[3] "Kashrut" is the part of the Jewish law that specifies which foods are kosher (allowed) or forbidden to Jewish people. "Kashrut" comes from the Hebrew meaning fit, proper, or correct. It can also refer to ritual objects being fit for ritual use.

[4] This was far to early in redemptive history to fulfill Daniel 9:24-27. The passages in Daniel were fulfilled in 70 AD when Titus entered Jerusalem, destroyed the temple, and otherwise ransacked Jerusalem (cf. Matt. 24:15-22; Mark 13:14-20; Luke 21:20-24). Many Jews were murdered and others made prisoners, etc.

[5] On the menorah, eight of the arms are for the candles which represent the eight miracle days it reportedly stayed lit with one vile of oil and the ninth arm is for the light used by others.

Related Topics

What is the Gutenberg Bible?

Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr.

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (IIIM).