Maccabees and Method

The Maccabaean Revolt is an interesting case study to introduce some aspects of historical method, as can be seen below.

Increasing Chaos

Ptolemy I

In 332 BCE, Alexander the Great added Judea to his ever expanding empire. Compared to his earlier and later conquests, this was not a very significant addition. All that changed after Alexander’s death, however, when his general, Ptolemy established a kingdom for himself in Egypt. Egypt could only be reached by sea or through the desert, making it relatively easy to defend. Nevertheless, just to be a hundred percent sure, Ptolemy occupied the places from which potential enemies could launch attacks. This included the Cyrenaica, Cyprus, and Coele Syria, roughly present-day Israel and Lebanon. Suddenly Judea had become strategically very important.

As it happened, the defense of Egypt was a very real issue at that moment. Not only was there a potential attacker but that attacker was very powerful indeed and had a good motive for such an attack. Seleucus, another general from Alexander’s army, was seen as his legitimate successor in Asia. In the past, Ptolemy had helped Seleucus and for this reason, Seleucus now considered it dishonorable to start a war against Ptolemy for illegally occupying Coele Syria. However, that did not apply to the descendants of the two generals and they fought no less than five wars in the third century. Eventually, Antiochus III the Great, a great grandson of Seleucus, conquered Coele Syria in the Fifth Syrian War.

In this conflict, the Jewish High Priest Simon played an important role. At just the right moment he transferred his loyalties from the Ptolemaic to the Seleucid side. In exchange, the new king promised to sacrifice in Jerusalem, to recognize Jewish Law, and to reduce taxes from 300 to 200 talents annually.

In 190 BCE, however, Antiochus was defeated by the Romans, who imposed such a high tribute on him that his successor, Seleucus IV Philopator, was hard put to balance his budget. In his search for funds to pay this tribute, he seems to have re-imposed the old tax tariff in Judea and when the tax was not paid fast enough, General Heliodorus came in person to collect it. We do not know exactly how it ended, because, at the climax of the story, our only source, the Second Book of the Maccabees, does no more than offer us a legend about a supernatural intervention. With more certainty, however, we know what the consequences were: Heliodorus returned to the Seleucid capital Antioch, killed King Seleucus, and replaced him with his brother.

Antiochus IV Epiphanes

The new ruler was Antiochus IV Epiphanes, who inherited the financial problems. Consequently, he listened eagerly when Jason, brother of the High Priest Honi, told him that the Jews could well afford to pay him 360 talents. Even more interesting was Jason’s information that Antiochus could receive 80 talents from another funds and that Jerusalem was willing to pay an extra 150 talents for the privilege of being allowed to build a gymnasium. The king took the hint, replaced one brother by the other, and raised taxes.

Tax increases are never welcome but the Jews would receive something in return. From then on, Jewish boys – at least those who could afford to go to a gymnasium – could participate in competitions in the Seleucid Empire. In this way, they came into contact with the elite of the empire, enabling them to obtain prestigious official posts. It goes without saying that this did not apply to the majority of tax payers and it would seem that the unequal division of taxes and privileges led to tensions. Furthermore, the expert in Jewish law, Ezra, had forbidden assimilation. Anyone who considered the text named after Ezra as part of the Bible, could only conclude that the High Priest Jason was committing heresy when he strove to assimilate into the imperial elite. No doubt Jason will have seen that differently, because at that time the canon of the Bible was not fixed. Many felt that the sacred texts consisted only of Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy. These believers, who were later known as Sadducees, were not interested in Ezra.

Thus, there were three divisive issues running parallel: dissatisfaction with the increase in taxes, confusion about whether or not assimilation was a good idea, and disagreement on which texts exactly constituted the Bible. It would be interesting to know if Antiochus was aware of any of this when he visited Jerusalem in the winter of 173/172. What we do know, however, is that some months later he replaced Jason by a certain Menelaus, who had suggested to him that Judea could contribute a further 300 talents annually to the King’s treasury.

With the appointment of Menelaus, a fourth issue came into play. Traditionally, the high priests always came from the same priestly family. Menelaus did not belong to that family. He lacked authority, as was obvious when, on discovering that he had promised the king more than he could deliver, he tried to siphon off funds from the temple treasury. Perhaps his predecessors could have got away with this; however, in the case of Menelaus it led to disturbances. Antiochus may have wanted to take action by dismissing Menelaus, but he had just learnt that the Ptolemies were planning to re-conquer Judea, giving him more pressing things to think about than finding a replacement for a loyal ally in a strategically important area.

The Sixth Syrian War broke out in 169 BCE. The Seleucid troops fought their way through the Delta of the Nile Valley, plundering as they went. Accordingly, the king, who was the only one who could have prevented Judea descending into civil war, was in Egypt at the time.


Up to this point, we had access to a reasonably accurate source, the above-mentioned Second Book of the Maccabees, written at the end of the second century BCE. In addition, relevant information can be found in Flavius JosephusJewish Antiquities. He cites a text in which a tax reduction is granted by Antiochus III. In this way, we can reconstruct the outbreak of the civil war in Judea that has gone down in history as the Revolt of the Maccabees.

This is the subject of more sources, such as the First Book of the Maccabees – roughly the same vintage as the Second Book – and the Bible Book Daniel. This text describes the events in the form of an apocalyptic prophecy, which makes it quite obscure. At some stage the prophecy-like history descends into pure speculation, the moment, we can assume, when the author wrote Daniel. Daniel is contemporaneous with the Revolt of the Maccabees.

Surprisingly, the relatively abundant sources only manage to confuse the issue further. Take the next visit of Antiochus IV to Jerusalem, for example. In the Second Book of the Maccabees it says that Jason, the deposed high priest, tried to regain his position in the confusion of the war and that on his return from Egypt, Antiochus drove him out of Jerusalem again. That sounds credible. However, the First Book of the Maccabees places Jason’s failed coup at a later date and says that Antiochus came to Jerusalem to collect 1800 talents. This caused the people to revolt and a blood bath ensued. Nevertheless, Menelaus gave the king a tour of the temple and handed over to him the contents of the temple treasury. This story too is quite credible.

In this case, the contradiction is relatively unimportant, but matters become increasingly more complex. In 168 BCE, Antiochus laid siege to Alexandria. The Roman diplomat Popilius Laenas, however, informed him that Rome would not stand by idle if there was a unification of the Seleucid and Ptolemaic empires. Antiochus was forced to withdraw to Judea where he took some administrative measures – but to no avail. In the spring of 167 Seleucid soldiers, commanded by one Apollonius, were unexpectedly garrisoned at Jerusalem. Shortly afterwards Antiochus issued a decree that caused a revolt by the people. At least that is what it says in First Book of the Maccabees. Conversely, the Second Book of the Maccabees describes the decree as being issued in response to the revolt.

A historian can reconcile the two versions: revolt was already smoldering, as we can read in the Second Book of the Maccabees, and when Antiochus issued the decree, Judea exploded, as reported in the First Book of the Maccabees. This reconstruction is plausible and can even be correct, but it needs to be stressed that it contradicts both sources.

Furthermore, what should we make of the decree itself? In fact, we only know that it led to a change of cult, interpreted by the Jews as an attack on their religion. But who formulated the decree? Was that the king, the high priest, or someone else? And what did the decree actually say? According to First Book of the Maccabees the king ordered that all of his subjects should become one people and that meant that the Jews would have to give up their own customs. This does solve the question of who was responsible; Antiochus. However, it is at odds with what we know about the administration of the multi-ethnic Seleucid Empire. Moreover, it is very strange that there is no reference to such a measure being passed in any other part of the Seleucid Empire while for that period, in particular, source material from Babylon (e.g., the Astronomical Diaries and the Chronicles) is rich in references to the cult.

The Second Book of the Maccabees says no more than that Antiochus wanted to dedicate the temple at Jerusalem to Zeus. Such a step suggests an initiative by assimilated Jews like Menelaus, who possibly equated their one god with the upper god of the Greeks. However, it is somewhat aggravating that the contemporary source Daniel reports a cult for “the God of Forces”.

We will never resolve it, the reason being that the books of the Maccabees were written long after the conflict. The Jewish religion had changed in the meantime, which meant that factors that played a role during the revolt, such as the worshipping of the God of Forces, were long forgotten. Greek customs that those involved found acceptable at the time had later become unacceptable. We can assume that the visit of Antiochus to the temple in the winter between his first and second Egyptian campaign was not seen by him or my Menelaus as blasphemous, while at a later date people looked on the visit of heathens to the temple very differently.

More Contradictions

The two books of the Maccabees agree that the leader of the revolt was Judas Maccabeus. (We have no satisfactory explanation of his nickname.) There is also consensus that his first opponent was the garrison general of Jerusalem, Apollonius. According to the First Book of the Maccabees, Apollonius tried to attack Judas with troops from the city of Samaria but was defeated. On the other hand, the Second Book of the Maccabees reports that Judas was in Jerusalem when Apollonius marched into the city with his garrison of soldiers from Mysia and that he fled.

This is not the only contradiction. According to the First Book of the Maccabees Judas first engaged with Seron and was defeated at Beth-Horon, while the Second Book of the Maccabees says nothing at all about this battle but mentions a man called Geron who supervises the executing of the decree. The two books do agree that the Jews supported the revolt, while Daniel shows that this is not true: the author accuses the insurgents of false pretenses and advises his readers to put their trust in supernatural intervention.

Meanwhile, believing the crisis could be solved without him, Antiochus IV Epiphanes went to visit his eastern provinces. He was quite right in his assumption; the conflict remained under control, although initially the situation threatened to take a different turn when Judas defeated two Seleucid armies at Emmaus in the summer of 165 BCE. This victory is reported in both the First and Second Book of the Maccabees. However, once again, the books do not agree on the sequel to the battle. The First Book describes how, at Beth-Zur, the insurgents defeated another army commanded by General Lysias. Judas then advanced on Jerusalem and in December 164 after ritually purifying the temple in accordance with the Judaic rites that applied before Antiochus issued his decree, it could once again be used for Jewish worship. The Jews commemorate this event every year under the name of Hanukkah.

Shortly after the purification of the temple – again according to the First Book – King Antiochus died. This is more or less correct, as it is mentioned in Babylonian cuneiform texts that the king died in November or December 164. Therefore the sequence of events according to Book 1 is: victory at Emmaus, defeat of Lysias, purification of the temple and the death of King Antiochus, a bragging story according to which the Jews liberated themselves. In the Second Book, however, the sequence of events is different. First there is the victory at Emmaus, then the death of the king, after which the purification of the temple took place. Lysias then undertook his military campaign and was defeated at Beth-Zur, and finally, we have a letter from the new king, Antiochus V Eupator, in which he recognises the Jewish rites of worship at the request of Menelaus.

As coincidence would have it, the contraction can be explained. The letter was dated 11 April 164, which means that it was written half a year before the death of Antiochus IV. The author of the Second Book of the Maccabees mixed up the namesakes of the king. This proves that the document was not an invention and that the persecutory decree was revoked before Judas re-consecrated the temple. The historical facts seem to be simply that after one or two Seleucid defeats, Menelaus understood that the resistance to the decree was too intense and he requested the king to revoke it. This would also explain why the Seleucid garrison in Jerusalem did not take action when the temple was again used for Jewish worship in accordance with the old rites. After all, it was done with royal permission.

Testis Unus, Testis Nullus

It is a story full of contradictions – but what does it matter! Are not historians always confronted by such contradictions? True. However, that is not the point of this article. It is not about the Revolt of the Maccabees but how the historian deals with contradictory sources.

When our sources contradict each other, we have to question which of them is the more reliable. Frequently it will be a choice between different variants. For example, were Judas’ first opponents Samarians or Mysians? Who won and who lost? Was Judas’ second opponent called Seron or Geron? Or, less trivial, which of the Books of the Maccabees gives the correct sequence of events? In the examples just mentioned, it is not possible for both sources to be right: at least one contains incorrect information.

There are also cases in which the historian can plausibly reconcile two conflicting sources. Such as with the question of whether the Antiochus IV Epiphanes’ decree was the cause or the result of the disturbances in Judea.

One of the most-frequently used methods – but also the one involving the most risks – is to trust that when two independent sources say the same thing, it must be true. According to this criterion, Judas would have been able to depend on the support of the Jewish people, since this is stated in both the First and Second Books of the Maccabees. The Book of Daniel illustrates how misleading congruence can be.

Up to this point, we have been concerned with known unknowns. However, just suppose we did not have Daniel at our disposal. In that case, would it have entered our heads that Judas could not depend on the support of the whole population?

Furthermore, what leads us to ask critical questions when there is only one source available? That was the situation before Antiochus’ decree, when all we could use was the Second Book of the Maccabees. There must be many inaccuracies in the first part of this article, which we cannot recognize as such because conflicting information is missing. Here, we are confronted with unknown unknowns (this type of situation is known as testis unus, testis nullus).

Because there is a desperate lack of sources, thinking about unknown unknowns constitutes the core of the study of the ancient world. The value of the study of antiquity lies not in the reconstruction of facts, which, after all, only have a currency in the eyes of nationalists, religious cranks, and other quack historians. Nor is the historiographic discussion important. The study of Antiquity is mainly practical because the lack of empirical basis forces the historian to think long and hard about the logic of his arguments.note