Game of Crowns: Judas Maccabeus

The Rise of the Hasmonean Monarchy 


Many of us know the legend of Chanukah and its essential plot points. How after the death of his father, Mattathias, Judah Maccabeus assumed leadership of the Jewish rebels and (through pure military talent and a bit of luck) defeated the Seleucid forces and reclaimed Jerusalem, reconsecrating the Temple on the 25th of Kislev, 164 BCE. Throw in the myth of the ever-burning menorah and that’s the legend in a nutshell. Yet, there is so much more to the story of the Maccabees. After all, the Hasmoneans established what would become the last Jewish Monarchy, and the infighting, murder, and political intrigue in their dynasty rivals that of the fictional universe of G.R.R Martin’s Game of Thrones. Join me in this blog series, as I introduce the main players–the heroes and villains–in a real life game of thrones that played out in Judea over two millennia ago.

Judas Maccabeus [191-160 BCE]

And when his character was so excellent [while he was alive], he left behind him a glorious reputation and memorial, by gaining freedom for his nation, and delivering them from slavery under the Macedonians. And when he had retained the high priesthood three years, he died (Ant. 12.434).

According to the ancient, Jewish historian Flavius Josephus and the books of I and II Maccabees, Judas Maccabeus was one of five sons of the priest Matityahu ben Yoḥanan HaKohenHis family likely periodically served at the Jerusalem Temple, while maintaining their residence in the nearby village of Modi’in.  According to 1 Maccabees, Judas and his family were descended from the Zadokite High Priest Phinehas (Num 25:1-9). Like this zealous ancestor, Judas would also seek to purify Israel of foreign influence.

After a spectacularly failed attempt to conquer Egypt, the Seleucid ruler Antiochus IV (216-164 BCE) was in debt, desperate for money to pay off Rome. He turned to Judea, a province that had only recently fallen into the control of the Seleucids. Unlike the Ptolemies, the Seleucid overlords sought greater political and religious control of their Jewish constituents. They removed Onias the III, and replaced him with first one and then another puppet High Priest, both of whom richly compensated Antiochus Epiphanes. In-fighting between these two appointees and their supporters led to a civil war, and in 168/7 BCE Antiochus intervened, possibly believing Jerusalem was revolting. He sided with Jerusalem’s Hellenized faction, looted the Temple, and eventually outlawed key identifiably Jewish religious traditions (2 Maccabees 6:1–12). The strong religious motivations that 1 and 2 Maccabees give Epiphanes and the rebels are misleading.  Most likely, this war was as much about political power and economics as it was about religion.[1]

Matityahu and his sons represented a pious political faction within Judea, but not the whole of the Jewish people. According to the legend in I Maccabees, Matityahu killed a Seleucid official at Moi’idin, uttering his famous challenge before leading a group of dissidents into the Judean wilderness.

Let everyone who has zeal for the Law and who stands by the covenant follow me! -1 Macc 2:27

Judas became the revolt’s military leader and his method of guerrilla warfare, tactical facility and knowledge of the terrain led to several surprising military victories. At the Battle of Ma’aleh Levona in 167 BCE, he defeated the Seleucid General Apollonius. The following year, at the Battle of Beth Horon, Judas ambushed and defeated the forces of the Syrian Governor Seron, who still relied on the cumbersome tactics of the phalanx. That same year, Judas again defeated a still larger force led by General Gorgias and Nicanor (Ant. 12.7, 3). Two years later Syrian governor Lysias, failed to defeat Judas at the Battle of Beth Zur, and lost control of Jerusalem. Still, the Seleucids retained control of the fortress of Akra which overlooked the Temple Mount.

Judas, however, eventually fell prey to the same overconfidence that had in the past led to his enemies’ defeat. Instead of relying on guerrilla tactics he choose to meet Antiochus V Eupator’s forces on the field at the Battle of Beth Zechariah (164 BCE). Faced with war elephants and superior army,  Judas’ forces panicked and the battle was lost.19a1913b4c43bc983ce3ea4de89352d8--lira-coin Eleazar Maccabeus tried to rally the Jewish army but died in the attempt, crushed by an elephant he had speared (1 Mac 6:43-47). Things looked pretty hopeless, when Lysias and Eupator marched the 18 miles to Jerusalem and besieged the city.  Fate, however, intervened. Eupator granted Judas an amicitia, a peace, because he was forced to return to Antioch and deal with the political machinations of his rival Philip forced. He even made Judas the governor of the region (2 Macc 13:23-25) and executed the traitorous high priest Menelaus for conspiracy (Ant. 12.3383-387).[2] As I argued in my MA thesis, it is quite possible that Judas served as a sort of de facto High Priest for a short period of time, possibly explaining why the historian Josephus insists Judas was the first Hasmonean High Priest (Ant. 12.434).

Unfortunately, the coveted high priestly office was not left alone for long. In 163/162 BCE Alcimus, supported by hellenistic opponents to the Hasmoneans, was appointed by the Seleucids as High Priest. The Maccabean faction understandably opposed another Seleucid sympathizer. Alcimus appealed first to the Seleucids and then to Demetrius I (Eupator’s cousin and rival) for aid in gaining the office (1 Macc 7:5).

Thus, in the spring of 161 BCE, Judas once again faced Nicanor, the newly appointed strategos of the Judea, in battle. Nicanor had previously been sympathetic to the Judas, apparently confirming or appointing him deputy high priest [3] before Demetrius I forces him to meet Judas at the Battle of Adasa. In 2 Maccabees 15, Judas offers his troops a rousing speech that led to an astonishing victory, still commemorated today on מגילת תעניתAfter hanging Nicanor’s head from Akra and reclaiming Jerusalem (15:25-37), Judas began to flex his power over Temple affairs, perhaps laying the groundwork for the latter Hasmonean merger of the roles of King and High Priest. He even sent a embassy to Rome to make an alliance that recognized Judean autonomy and Roman patronage (1 Macc 8).[4]

In essence Judas had become the effective religious and political leader of Judea.[5] But these days of peace were not to last. Spurred by yet another appeal from Alcimus, Demetrius I sent a final force led by Bacchides in the spring of 160 BCE.  Bacchides cut a swath through Galilee, massacring many. Luring Judas from Jerusalem by feigning a retreat to the hill country, Judas was eventually outflanked and surrounded.[6] There, on the field of Elasa, Judas died and with him, it seemed, the hopes of a budding Jewish monarchy. However, the spark of independence that Judas lit simply would not die.





[1] Schultz, Joseph P. (1981). Judaism and the Gentile Faiths: Comparative Studies in Religion. Fairleigh Dickinson Univ Press. p. 155

[2] Phillip was a political confidant of Antiochus IV and a rival for custody his son Eupator, the young monarch. Phillip’s arrival in Antiochia with a significant force was a threat to Lysias’ power (1 Macc 6:55-57).

[3] Babota, The Institution, 100-101; Brutti, The Development, 73-74.

[4] Judas was essentially the “governor of Judea.” See John D. Grainger, Syrian Wars, Mnemosyne Supplements 320, (Leiden: Brill, 2010), 322.

[5] Mandell, “Rome, Syria and the Jerusalem High Priest,” 82.

[6] Bezalel Bar Kochva, The Seleucid Army: Organization and Tactics in the Great Campaigns, 194.

Fun Facts:

The name Antiochus Epiphanes [Ἀντίοχος Δ΄ ὁ Ἐπιφανής] literally means “God Manifest” but his eccentricities led some to called him Epimanes, or “the mad one” (Polybius 26.10).


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