The “king of the north,” a terrible beast, oppressed Israel; he was the abomination that made the Temple desolate. Some Israelites had risen up against him, and against all odds, had successfully removed the yoke of the Seleucids from Israel. They now began to reign as kings in their own right. The beginning of this reign is described in the apocryphal book of 1 Maccabees.
1 Maccabees was preserved in Greek as part of the Septuagint; it was originally written in Hebrew, as attested by both early Christians (Origen, according to Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History 6.25.2) and Semitic peculiarities in the text. The author of 1 Maccabees is unknown; he consciously imitated the historical writings of the Old Testament, wrote primarily about events taking place between 175 and 134 BCE, and perhaps was a late contemporary.
From the beginning the text was recognized as not inspired, not least by its own author (cf. 1 Maccabees 4:46); Jerome translated the text into Latin for the Vulgate but relegated it to a secondary status (later called deuterocanonical). Gradually, and only within Roman Catholicism, was 1 Maccabees inserted into the Old Testament and held to be inspired. Even though it is not inspired, 1 Maccabees is an important witness of a time in which many of Daniel’s prophecies were fulfilled and of great importance for understanding the beliefs and perspectives of Jews who lived in the days of Jesus toward the end of the Second Temple Period.
1 Maccabees begins by setting the scene with Alexander the Great through Antiochus IV Epiphanes; its author described Antiochus’ reign and the Maccabean revolt, Antiochus’ death, the succession crisis which beset the Seleucid Empire, and the establishment of the Maccabean kings, called Hasmoneans (from the house of Hashmon; 1 Maccabees 1:1-9:73).
The reign of Jonathan Apphus as both king and high priest is described in 1 Maccabees 10:1-13:29 (ca. 153-143 BCE). He obtained his status as the successor to his brother Judah the Maccabee and through favors and dispensations granted by Alexander Balas, with whom Jonathan had allied. Alexander met Demetrius I Soter in battle and defeated and killed him; later his son Demetrius II Nicator fought directly against Jonathan, but Jonathan prevailed (1 Maccabees 10:1-89). Ptolemy VI of Egypt conspired against Alexander and defeated him battle; Alexander fled and was killed in Arabia, Ptolemy VI died from wounds from the battle, and Demetrius II was made emperor. Demetrius honored Jonathan and his position and granted him authority over Israel, but they did not trust each other; Jonathan would favor the standing of a new claimant, Antiochus VI Dionysus and his general Tryphon (1 Maccabees 11:1-74). Jonathan renewed friendships with Rome and Sparta (1 Maccabees 12:1-23). Jonathan fought against Demetrius’ forces; Trypho, wishing to be king, seized Jonathan under false pretenses and threatened Judah (1 Maccabees 12:24-53). The people of Judah appointed Simon his brother to rule in Jonathan’s place; he attempted to ransom Jonathan’s life, but Trypho killed him anyway (1 Maccabees 13:1-29).
The reign of Simon Thassi as king and high priest is described in 1 Maccabees 13:30-16:24 (ca. 143-135 BCE). Trypho killed Antiochus VI Dionysus and ruled in his place; Simon appealed for relief from Demetrius II Nicator and received it; he also captured Gazara (1 Maccabees 13:30-45). Demetrius II Nicator met his end at the hands of the Persians, but Simon reigned in relative peace and stability, renewing friendships with Rome and Sparta, and the first officially installed king and high priest of the Jews from the Maccabean family “until a trustworthy prophet should arise”; he is thus the first official Hasmonean king (1 Maccabees 14:1-49). Antiochus VII Sidetes wished to assert authority over his father Demetrius’ empire; he at first was friendly with Simon, who assisted him in his siege against Trypho, but later turned against him; Antiochus VII Sidetes sent an army against Judah, but Simon’s sons Judah and John defeated that army (1 Maccabees 15:1-16:10). Afterward a governor of Jericho named Ptolemy, related to Simon by marriage, treacherously murdered Simon and two of his sons, but was not able to kill Simon’s son John. John would become known as John Hyrcanus and ruled in his father’s place (1 Maccabees 16:11-24).
The prophet Daniel had foreseen the abominations of the Seleucids under Antiochus IV Epiphanes and held out hope for Israel’s vindication (Daniel 9:24-27, 11:13-45). The success of the revolt was impressive enough; the consolidation of authority by Jonathan and Simon, creating the only independent Israelite kingdom from the days of Babylon until the modern era, would have been inconceivable a few decades beforehand. 1 Maccabees ends its narrative with John Hyrcanus; the Hasmoneans would continue to reign until 63 BCE.
The rule of the Hasmoneans was always considered provisional; they were not messianic saviors, and their rule was limited until the days when a prophet would arise to direct Israel as to what to do (1 Maccabees 14:41). The success of the Maccabean revolt and Hasmonean rule gave hope to Jewish people of a later generation about possible success over Rome, and colored everyone’s expectations about the work of the promised Messiah to come. As Jewish people listened to Jesus of Nazareth and His Apostles in the first century they did so in light of the experience of their people as reflected in 1 Maccabees. We do well to recognize the importance of this period in Israelite history and as background for first century Judaism.
Ethan R. Longhenry