In Jerusalem, some Jews responded favorably to Hellenism. This caused sharp internal conflicts I which the emperor often intervened. In 169, he seized the opportunity of “restoring order” during one such clash to enter the Temple, plunder it, and carry off its holy and precious vessels and treasures. This touched off city-wide riots, and Antiochus sent in a stronger force who slaughtered many of the inhabitants and partially destroyed the walls and a number of buildings. He followed up the action by erecting a Hellenistic fortress, called the Akra, on the western hill, opposite the Temple Mount, garrisoned by Seleucid troops.

Then came the final phase of his attempts to Hellenize the Jews. The Temple, “that was to be called thenceforth after the name of Olympian Zeus,” was defiled. Within its sacred precincts, Greek troops practiced heathen rites, introduced the image of Zeus, sacrificed swine upon the altar, destroyed the Scrolls of the Law. The observance of customs special to the Jewish religion, such as the Sabbath, traditional feasts, circumcision, was punishable by death. So was failure to observe idolatrous Hellenistic practices. Jews were executed for refusing to eat pig’s flesh, or bow down to Greek images, or partake of the monthly sacrifice in honor of the king.

This brutality was met at first by passive resistance on the part of the orthodox Jews, known as the Hassidim, Hebrew for “pious.” They continued observance of the Jewish law in secret. When caught, they were slain. Ordered to “conform with Greek manners,” they preferred death to submission. Persecution mounted and resistance now became active. This in turn was met by more brutal repression which, in its turn, brought more intensive and widespread rebellion. Soon all Judah was in armed revolt.

In the year 167, the Jews struck back at their oppressors in a national war of resistance which was to constitute one of the heroic chapters in Jewish history. The liberation and “cleansing” of Jerusalem and freedom of worship—which now meant freedom from Seleucid rule—was the aim of the campaign. The strategy of the Jewish rebels was thus to isolate the Jerusalem garrison of occupying troops by seizing key positions commanding all the approaches to the city. It was, inevitably, a guerrilla campaign on the part of the poorly armed Jews against the regular forces of Antiochus’ regime.


Judah was clearly a born military leader, courageous, resourceful, inspiring, and it was he who transformed his guerrilla bands into a national liberation army with independence as his objective. The Book of Macccabees mentions four major battles, and these show the Seleucid aim of crashing through to Jerusalem and Judah’s strategy of blocking their entry. Jewish reconnaissance patrols first bring news that General Apollonius is mustering “a large force from Samaria, to wage war against Israel.” Judah goes out to meet him while he is still getting organized “and struck him down and killed him. Many were killed, and the rest fled.”

Then came General Seron “with a strong expedition” and tried to break through from the northwest. He was met and routed by the Maccabees at the pass of Beth-Hoon, just southeast of Modin, and some twelve miles northwest of Jerusalem. A third expedition was routed at Emmaus, some fifteen miles west of Jerusalem, and a fourth at Beth Zur, the same distance south of the city.

The approaches to Jerusalem were now free, and there was little immediate fear of another expeditionary force. The Maccabees thereupon “gathered together and went up to Mount Zion.” They beheld a sorry sight on the Temple Mount, the sanctuary desolated, the altar profaned, the gates burned, the priests’ chambers torn down, weeds growing in the courts “as in a forest or as on one of the mountains.” Seleucid troops were still behind their fortified walls in the Akra citadel, so “Judah appointed certain men to fight against the garrison…until he could cleanse the sanctuary.”

All traces of the cult of Zeus were removed, a new altar was installed, and new sacred vessels were brought in. The Temple was then re-dedicated. The date was “the twenty-fifth day of the ninth [Jewish] month,” corresponding to the month of December. It was three years to the day after it had been desecrated.

“Judah and his brothers and the entire congregation of Israel decreed that the days of the dedication of the altar should be kept with gladness and joy at their due season, year after year, for eight days from the twenty-fifth of the month of Kislev” (I Maccabees IV, 59). To this very day, Jews throughout the world celebrate the Feast of Channukah (Channukah is Hebrew for “dedication”) by the kindling of lights, lighting a candle on the first night and an additional one on each successive evening, and by reading from the Book of the Maccabees. Most modern celebrants are familiar with the Talmudic story of the “miracle of the oil” as the reason for the eight day feast- that when the Hasmoneans came to re-dedicate the Temple, there was only enoguht pure (undefiled) oil in the cruse to burn for one day, yet, through the blessing of God, it lasted for eight days, when a fresh supply became available.

It is evident from the Maccabean story that Judah and his men reoccupied not the whole city of Jerusalem but only the Temple Mount. (From the state in which he found it, its courts overgrown with shrubs, it seems that the Greeks must have tired of abusing the sanctuary.) The town seems to have remained in the possession of the Greeks and the apostates, guarded by the garrison in the Akra citadel. The rest of the original population, loyalist Jews who had escaped massacre, had long joined the faithful villagers of Judah who had flocked to the Maccabean banner in the hills and wastes of the surrounding countryside.

The city itself thus continued to serve as a Seleucid base. The Temple Mount continued to serve as a Jewish outpost. For the next twenty-three years, the Greeks and the Jews were to face each other from the walls of their fortresses, the Akra and the Temple Mount, only a few score yards apart. They could harass each other, but neither could breach the other’s fortifications. Numerous and fierce were the engagements in the years that followed, with intervals of truce when pressure on the Maccabees was lightened by power struggles for the Seleucid throne after the death of Antiochus Epiphanes in 163.

Judah the Maccabee was killed in battle at Elasa (some twelve miles northwest of Jerusalem) in the year 160. Maccabean leadership now passed to his brother Jonathan who carried on the struggle for liberation. This, plus sharpened internal conflict among the Seleucid hierarchy, together with their realization that trying to suppress the Jewish religion was futile and a moderate policy might prove more fruitful, prompted the imperial rulers to yield. Jonathan entered Jerusalem in the year 152, not only as military leader but also as High Priest, and virtual Governor of Judea. To this post he was appointed by King Demetrius, who had seized the Seleucid throne in 162, and was now being challenged by a rival. Each sought the help of the rebel Judean leader, and Jonathan enjoyed far-reaching concessions.

The city of Jerusalem was now in the possession of the Maccabees. Jonathan began to rebuild and refortify it, and also to extend independent Jewish rule over an increasingly wide area of Judah. Among the cities that fell to him were Jaffa, Ashkelon and Ashdod. Jerusalem once again had its outlet to the Mediterranean. The Akra citadel, however, remained a Greek stronghold, some scholars suggesting that its disbandment was one concession the king was not prepared to make.


Rome’s conquering hero, Pompey, was leading a successful campaign in Armenia at the time, and had despatched a force southwards to take Damascus. When that city fell, he sent his commander Marcus Scaurus to take over. Scaurus, when he reached Damascus, heard of the trouble further south, in the land of Judah, and promptly went to investigate, losing no time in seizing this golden—in the literal sense—opportunity where two rivals would be bidding for his aid. Aristobulus won—“400 talents” was the price—and Scaurus immediately threatened Aretas “with Pompey and the Romans” unless he raised the siege on Jerusalem. Aretas quickly retired, and back to Damscus went Scaurus, heavily laden with bribes.

But the respite enjoyed by Aristobulus—and Jerusalem—was brief indeed. Pompey came on into Syria, conferred in Damascus, and resolved to continue marching southwards. He entered Judah, took Jericho, and advanced on Jerusalem. Josephus writes that Aristobulus, shaken by the impossible odds, went out to present his submission; but his supporters were bent on resistance, and when Pompey’s officer came to receive the surrender, they refused to allow him even to enter the city. Pompey accordingly put Aristobulus in custody and appeared in force before Jerusalem.

Strife then broke out in the city between the supporters of Aristobulus, who called for war and the rescue of the king, and the partisans of Hyrcanus, who thought the chances hopeless and submission the most prudent course. The former, outnumbered, retire into their Temple stronghold, destroyed the bridge linking the Temple to the Upper City, “and prepared to fight to the death.” The supporters of Hyrcanus, on the other hand, concentrated in the Upper City, opened their gates to Pompey.

What Pompey saw, in reconnoitering the possible lines of attack, were the strong outer walls of the Temple compound with steep natural slopes on all except the north side, and access from the western, or city, side now denied by the destruction of the bridge. He accordingly resolved to attack from the north, though even here there was a broad and peed ditch, dug by the defenders, and protected by huge towers. (The well-traveled first-century BC Greek geographer and historian, Stabo, says the ditch was 60 feet deep and 250 fee broad.)

Pompey set his troops to filling this ditch, a formidable task, says Josephus in his book, The Antiquities of the Jews, because of its size and also because the Jews harassed them from the towers above. When the ditch was filled, Pompey rolled across it the siege engines and battering rams which he had brought up from Tyre, and began attacking the wall, his stone-throwers tying to prevent interference from the besieged. Nevertheless, for weeks he could make no headway. Only when the siege was in its third month did the Romans succeed in effecting a breach and swarming through. “The Temple was taken on a fast day…On entering the place the enemy made a general massacre; but even this cruelty did not deter those at the altar from proceeding in their devotions, as they deemed it preferable to fall into the hands of an inveterate foe than to abandon the rights of their religion.”

Pompey put Jerusalem under tribute to Rome; placed the administration of the conquered territories in the hands of his commander Scaurus; reinstated Hyrcanus as High Priest—which made him the puppet ruler in Jerusalem; executed the surviving leaders of the Jewish resistance; and then left in triumph for Rome, carrying captive Aristobulus and his sons Alexander and Mattathias Antigonus. The year was 63 BC.