The Maccabees appear in history as the family of a priest, Mattathias, dwelling in Modin, who opposed the Hellenizing tendencies of the Syrian ruler Antiochus IV. Antiochus had taken advantage of factionalism among the Jews and had stripped and desacralized the Temple and begun a religious persecution. Mattathias, after killing an apostate Jew who took part in a Greek sacrifice, killed the royal enforcing officer. With his five sons he fled to the mountains and was joined by many Hasidim. Thus began a guerrilla war.
On Mattathias' death (166 B.C.) the leadership passed to his son Judas Maccabeus, from whose surname the family name is derived. Judas, an excellent military leader, defeated an expedition sent from Syria to destroy him. Having occupied Jerusalem, he reconsecrated the Temple; the feast of Hanukkah celebrates this event (165 B.C.). At that time there was civil strife in Syria. Demetrius I, then in control, sent the general Nicanor with an army against Judas; that expedition was routed, but another, led by Bacchides, defeated and killed Judas (161? B.C.).
Judas' brother Jonathan, the new leader, was successful for a time; he supported Demetrius' rival, Alexander Balas, and made treaties of friendship with Sparta and Rome. Jonathan was killed by treachery in 143 B.C., and the last brother, Simon, succeeded; he was recognized by the other powers as civil ruler as well as high priest, and Palestine enjoyed some years of peace. Eventually Antiochus VII sent an expedition against the Jews; Simon defeated it, but in the disorder afterward he was murdered (135 B.C.) by an ambitious son-in-law. John Hyrcanus, Simon's son, managed to gain the ascendancy in the subsequent strife. He fought against Antiochus and remained in power until his death (105? B.C.). Under him Judaea enjoyed its greatest political power.
John Hyrcanus was succeeded by his son Aristobulus I, who died a year later. Another son, Alexander Jannaeus, then took the throne; he governed with great severity and headed the Sadducees in their strife with the Pharisees. Upon his death (78? B.C.) his widow, Salome Alexandra, who had also been married to Aristobulus, became queen. She favored the Pharisees and governed well. After her death, her son John Hyrcanus II, who had been high priest, acquired the temporal rule as well, but his more energetic brother, Aristobulus II, revolted. A civil war followed and resulted in Roman intervention and the taking of Jerusalem by Pompey (63 B.C.).
The house of the Maccabees made several efforts to throw off Roman rule. One of its members, Alexander, led an abortive rebellion in Syria, and in 40 B.C. Antigonus, the son of Aristobulus II, invaded Judaea with Parthian aid. Some of the Jews rallied to his standard, but he was defeated and put to death (37 B.C.) at the request of Herod the Great. Hyrcanus II, who had been reinstated as high priest by the Romans, was captured by the Parthians and deprived of his ears in order to render him unfit for priestly service. He returned (33 B.C.) to Judaea but was put to death (30 B.C.) on a charge of treason.
The chief sources for the Maccabees are the books of First and Second Maccabees and the Antiquities of Josephus. The name Maccabees has been extended to include the Jewish martyrs of the persecution, notably those of 2 Mac. 6; 7.
See studies by J. A. Goldstein (1976, 1983); J. H. Charlesworth, ed., Old Testament Pseudepigrapha (Vol. II, 1985).
The Maccabees (Hebrew: מכבים or מקבים, Makabim or Maqabim; Greek Μακκαβαῖοι, /makav'εï/) were a Jewish national liberation movement that fought for and won independence from Antiochus IV Epiphanes of the Hellenistic Seleucid dynasty, who was succeeded by his infant son Antiochus V Eupator. The Maccabees founded the Hasmonean royal dynasty and established Jewish independence in the Land of Israel for about one hundred years, from 164 BCE to 63 BCE.
The revolt itself involved many individual battles, in which the Maccabean forces gained infamy among the Syrian army for their use of guerrilla tactics. After the victory, the Maccabees entered Jerusalem in triumph and ritually cleansed the Temple, reestablishing traditional Jewish worship there and installing Jonathan Maccabee as High Priest. A large Syrian army was sent to quash the revolt, but returned to Syria on the death of Antiochus IV. Its commander Lysias, preoccupied with internal Syrian affairs, agreed to a political compromise that provided religious freedom.
Following the re-dedication of the temple, the supporters of the Maccabees were divided over the question of whether to continue fighting. When the revolt began under the leadership of Mattathias, it was seen as a war for religious freedom to end the oppression of the Seleucids. However, as Maccabees realized how successful they had been many wanted to continue the revolt as a war of national self-determination. This conflict led to the exacerbation of the divide between the Pharisees and Sadducees under later Hasmonean monarchs such as Alexander Jannaeus.
Those who sought the continuation of the war of national identity were led by Judah Maccabee. On his death in battle in 160 BCE, Judah was succeeded as army commander by his younger brother, Jonathan, who was already High Priest. Jonathan made treaties with various foreign states, causing further dissent among those who desired religious freedom over political power. On Jonathan's death in 142 BCE, Simon Maccabee, the last remaining son of Mattathias, took power. That same year, Demetrius II, king of Syria, granted the Jews complete political independence and Simon, great high priest and commander of the Jews, went on to found the Hasmonean dynasty. Jewish autonomy lasted until 63 BCE, when the Roman general Pompey captured Jerusalem and subjected Judea to Roman rule, while the Hasmonean dynasty itself ended in 37 BCE when the Idumean Herod the Great became de-facto king of Jerusalem.
Every year Jews celebrate Hanukkah in commemoration of Judah Maccabee's victory over the Seleucids and subsequent miracles.
Although they were said not to be of the family of the Maccabees, seven Jewish brothers and their mother, described as martyred for their faith in 2 and 4 Maccabees, have been known in Christianity as the "Holy Maccabean Martyrs" or "Holy Maccabees", from the title of the book where their martydom is described: .
The Roman Catholic Church includes them in its official list of saints, assigning them 1 August as their feast day. From the time of the Tridentine Calendar until 1960, they were mentioned through a commemoration within the feast of St. Peter ad Vincula. When, among other second feasts of a single saint, Pope John XXIII suppressed this feast of Saint Peter, the Maccabees continued to be only commemorated, but this time within the Mass of the feria. Some continue to use this calendar of John XXIII, or indeed an older one, but the General Roman Calendar officially in force since 1969 has omitted this commemoration. The Holy Maccabees are still recognized as saints and martyrs. and as such may be venerated by all Catholics everywhere on their feast and at other times.
In the French language, the word "macchabée", sometimes shortened as "macchab" or "macab", is a slang term for a dead body.