The Sword of Apollonius:
The Legacy of the Maccabees

West Side Moravian Church
December 29, 2013


How did we come to this?

A megalomaniac Idumean sitting on the throne of Israel, killing babies. Parents running away as refugees to Egypt. What happened to angels singing sweetly, cattle lowing, and a contented baby boy? It is hard for us to remember warrior angels frightening the shepherds, a village overcrowded for the census, and dirty diapers. But this? This is a massacre.

How did we ever come to this?

Alexander and his Generals

To find an answer, we must begin as the First Book of Maccabees begins. We must go back to Alexander the Great. This is how First Maccabees describes the upheaval of civilization which was Alexander:

Alexander of Macedon, the son of Philip, marched from the land of Kittim, defeated Darius, king of Persia and Media, and siezed his throne, being already king of Greece. In the course of many campaigns he captured fortified towns, slaughtered kings, traversed the earth to its remotest bounds, and plundered innumerable nations.

The time came when he fell ill, and, knowing that he was dying, he summoned his generals … and divided his empire among them. … On his death they were all crowned as kings, and their descendants succeeded them for many years. They brought untold miseries upon the world.

1 Maccabees 1: 1-3, 5-9 NEB

Among these generals, Seleucus took over Babylon and later claimed Syria, Armenia, Persia, Palestine. Farther west, Ptolemy became the king of Egypt. All this happened more than 300 years before Jesus' birth.

About 175 years before the birth of Jesus, the throne of Syria was seized by a Seleucid descendant who was named Antiochus Epiphanes. The nickname "Epiphanes" refers to him showing forth divinity. Among his ancestors were Antiochus "the God" and Antiochus "Savior". You would not find any of these honorifics to be appropriate, but Antiochus did. Having god-like power over other people, Antiochus demanded worship and sacrifices from all the people in his empire.

Antiochus Epiphanes also invaded Egypt, conquering all of it except the city of Alexandria and capturing Egypt's current king, Ptolemy VI. Although the book of Maccabees doesn't describe this war in detail, it seems that Ptolemy had made an alliance with Rome; the Romans opposed Antiochus Epiphanes taking over Egypt – and they had enough clout to make him withdraw.


So Antiochus withdrew from Egypt back into Judea, where he made a terrible nuisance of himself trying to take the place of God. Antiochus forbade worship of all local gods, decreeing that worship should be given to himself. Children who were circumcized as required by Jewish Law were killed; the parents who had had them circumcised were killed; anyone who kept a copy of the Bible was killed. Israel lived under a reign of terror.

1 Maccabees 1: 64 footnote

There was a man named Mattathias, a priest of God and resident of Modin, a village to the west of Jerusalem. Mattathias was fervently religious, zealous about the customary observances of God's Law, and bitterly judgemental toward anyone who submitted to Antiochus' decree. It happened one day that the king's officers came to this village. Looking for peaceful submission, they approached the priest Mattathias and asked him to lead the sacrifice.

Mattathias would not do it, nor would he be quiet about it. We will not obey the king, he said, nor will we deviate one step from our form of worship. Someone else stepped forward instead, which only enraged Mattathias more. He rushed to the altar and killed both the apostate and the officer. Then he called to the townspeople to follow him into the hills. Thus Mattathias showed his fervent zeal for the Law, though whether his zeal encompassed the most important parts of the Law I leave for you to think about.

1 Maccabees 2: 22-26

Mattathias with his sons and followers were not the only people running to the hills in order to escape the state terror of Antiochus. Another group was pursued into the arid region by Antiochus' soldiers. The soldiers caught up with them on the Sabbath. For the religious Jews, work and travel were forbidden on a Sabbath and pagan offerings were forbidden at any time. They would not come out; they would not worship Antiochus or his gods; they would not fight. Let us all meet death with a clear conscience, they decided. And so they were slaughtered.

1 Maccabees 2: 37

For Mattathias and his sons, the clear conscience was not worth the possibility of destruction. There was no concept of non-violent resistance with them. They said, If we refuse to fight the Gentiles for our lives as well as for our laws and customs, then they will soon wipe us off the face of the earth.

1 Maccabees 2: 40

Thus began the revolt of the Maccabees. For nearly a decade, Mattathias led a guerrilla movement with a certain amount of success. They destroyed pagan altars, harassed foreign troops, and provided some protection for those who were resisting. Mattathias then died, leaving the struggle to his sons. In the story, Mattathias admonishes the younger men how to carry on the struggle, saying, Gather to your side all who observe the law, and avenge your people's wrongs. Repay the Gentiles in their own coin.

1 Maccabees 2: 67-68

Judas Maccabaeus

The son who took primary leadership of the movement was Judas. His nickname, Maccabaeus, is the source for the name given to the movement and to the books written about them. Under Judas, the Maccabeans had significant military success. He was able to conquer Jersalem and to set up a government which minted coins and treated with foreign powers.

The First Book of Maccabees is written to be a history of the triumph of the Maccabean revolt and the beginning of the Hasmonean dynasty. The book is unabashedly laudatory of the accomplishments of Judas and his family; like most history, it was written by the victors and takes their perspective. Despite that, each time I read the book I am more dismayed by what they did. We've already mentioned how Mattathias was swept up in anger and revenge. His sons (it seems to me) were more calculating and efficient.

Judas roused much of Judea to oppose the impositions of Antiochus and his successors. He led armies of Jews against the battle-tested Syrian forces and often defeated them. He also attacked Jewish cities which he thought were aiding the oppressors. He drove Jewish citizens from their homes and looted the abandoned cities to enrich himself and his army. This was the practice of the time; it was the custom of the Seleucids, of the Ptolemies, of the Romans, and of the Maccabees.

Now Judas had heard about the Romans. … He was told about the wars they had fought, … their conquest of the Gauls, … of their successes in Spain – distant as it was from their own land …

Those whom they wished … to become kings, became kings, and those they wished to depose, they deposed …

1 Maccabees 8: 1-3, 13

Judas, therefore, sent ambassadors to Rome and initiated an alliance with them, just as the Egyptian Ptolemies had done in years past.

Judas Maccabaeus was a canny general and skilled at arousing his soldiers to rise to the situation. Before one battle, Judas is recorded speaking to his troops, inspiring them to rush headlong into the teeth of a superior force. Then he says, Let us cry now to heaven to favor our cause, to remember the covenant made with our fathers, and to crush this army before us today. Judas had adopted the strategies and practices of Antiochus, Ptolemy, and all of their henchmen and successors. Here he also adopted the pagan practice of trying to manipulate God to become an ally in the battle he was going to fight.

1 Maccabees 4: 10

At another battle, Judas defeated and then killed the Syrian general Apollonius. The story tells us, Judas took the sword of Apollonius and used it in his campaigns for the rest of his life. That was meant, I'm sure, as a simple statement of fact. For me, it also bears an allegorical truth: Judas took the manner and practices of the empires around him, even though he clothed them in the style of Jewish religion. The sword of Apollonius became the legacy which Judas left to his brothers and to the whole of the Jewish people.

1 Maccabees 3: 12

Eventually, Judas Maccabaeus died fighting when his army of 3,000 melted away in the face of 22,000 seasoned opponents.

Jonathan Apphus

After Judas' death, his brother Jonathan rose to command. During his time in leadership, there was much rebuilding, especially of Jerusalem.

There was also continued conflict. It could hardly be otherwise. In the first place, the Maccabean conquest was far from complete. Judas had taken the city of Jerusalem and Jonathan was rebuilding it, but a Syrian garrison remained in the fortress in the center of the city. There were fortresses and outposts in other Judean cities and villages, as well, all of them challenging the political and military ascendence of the Maccabean leadership.

In the second place, the surrounding empire was in the throes of perpetual upheaval. Since the death of Antiochus Epiphanes there had been no clear succession to the throne of Asia. At the time when Jonathan took command in Judea, there were two kings of the eastern empire, Alexander and Demetrius, contending against each other and against Egyptian and Roman aspirations.

These contending kings did not want to spend their resources dealing with an upstart province of Judea. Instead, they attempted to neutralize the problem. Demetrius declared Jonathan to be an ally and gave him permission to raise an army (presumably the one he had already raised). Alexander countered by appointing Jonathan to be High Priest and enrolling him as one of the King's Friends. Demetrius remitted certain taxes, including the tax on salt, and he incorporated the Jewish army into the imperial forces. Demetrius also appointed Jonathan as High Priest. After Alexander was killed, one of his followers continued the fight in the name of Alexander's young son Antiochus; he, too, promised tax relief and named Jonathan as High Priest. All of them sent Jonathan purple robes and golden crowns. In return, these kings and claimants required that Jonathan's soldiers fight for them in the wars.

Jonathan and his brother Simon continued the policy of imposing their authority with slaughter, pillage, and hostages. Jonathan also resumed the policy of an alliance with Rome.

Eventually, all this duplicity caught Jonathan in its net. He accepted an invitation to take over yet another city, only to be captured and himself held as a hostage.

Simon Thassis

With Jonathan captured, Simon put himself forward as leader in his brothers' place. The assembly in Jerusalem said to him, Fight our battles, and we will do whatever you tell us. In this way, Simon made himself master of the whole land.

1 Maccabees 13: 10 and 14: 6

The Syrian general holding Jonathan pretended that the dispute was about a financial debt. He said, Send one hundred talents of silver and two of his sons as hostages, and we will let him go. The book says that Simon knew this was a trick, but he sent the money and the boys anyway. Simon, the book says, was afraid of popular opinion if he did not do everything possible to save Jonathan.

1 Maccabees 13: 16

Besides battling the foreign powers, who were still battling each other, and making himself as rich as Solomon, Simon had pyramids built as memorials for his father and mother and his four brothers, an odd thing, I would think, for a man defending the traditions of the Jewish people. He also continued to accept appointments to office from the competing kings of Asia.

1 Maccabees 13: 28

The partisan history of the Maccabean revolt gushes with praise for Simon. Echoing the prophet Micah, the book tells us that peace had come to Judea: Each man sat under his own vine and fig-tree, and they had no one to fear. Lawlessness was forced from the land and justice reigned, with Simon the protector of the poor. Or so it says.

1 Maccabees 14: 11

As part of this peace, Simon's army went off to aid the newest King Antiochus, but he was rebuffed. Simon's son John set out to battle the army of the other current claimant; John had some success in forcing back the adversary and in burning a few cities. Meanwhile, Rome was invited to be the protector of Simon, although the Romans bided their time.

Finally, about 130 years before the birth of Jesus, Simon fell to internal intrigue within the nation. One of his own generals became over-ambitious. He murdered Simon and two of his sons at a remote fort near Jericho and attempted to take over the government. Another son, John, learned of the putsch and was able to thwart it.

1 Maccabees 16: 13

The Sword of Apollonius

So ends the First Book of the Maccabees. The dynasty continued for another 3 generations as vassals to the Seleucid kings, though not without considerable bickering among themselves. In the year 63 BC, the Roman Pompey took possession of the kingdom of Asia and all its dependencies.

The legacy of the Maccabees was this:

Many others were active in Judea before the coming of Jesus, and all of them left a legacy to those who followed. The Maccabees can not be blamed for the Slaughter of the Innocents; that sin is laid at the feet of Herod. But the story of Mattathias and his sons can help us to understand how Herod the Idumeon came to sit on the throne of Judea – and why King Herod was so frightened about the birth of a baby in Bethlehem.

Fortunately, the bad news of massacre is only the very beginning of the story. Stay with us; there is Good News coming.

Response (adapted from 1 Maccabees and Matthew)

Mattathias and his friends said to each other,
"If we refuse to fight the Gentiles
for our lives as well as for our laws and customs,
then they will wipe us off the face of the earth."
Jesus said, "All who take up the sword
will die by the sword.
Do not fear those who kill the body,
but cannot kill the soul."
Mattathias told his sons,
"Gather to your side all who observe the law,
and avenge your people's wrongs.
Repay the Gentiles in their own coin."
Jesus said, "Anyone who nurses anger
must be brought to judgement."
And when they handed him a silver coin,
he said to them,
"Pay to Caesar what is due to Caesar,
and pay God what is due to God."
Judas Maccabeus encouraged his soldiers, saying,
"Let us cry now to heaven to favor our cause."
Jesus said, "This is how you should pray:
'your will be done.'"
Jesus himself prayed to the Father,
"Not what I want, but what you want."
Simon made himself master of the whole land.
Jesus said, "The greatest among you
must be your servant."


In the birth of Jesus, our God has come to us.
Let us come to meet him.
Our Lord Jesus has walked this life with us.
Let us walk with him.
In life, in death, in life beyond death, our Lord has conquered.
Let us follow him.

Bible quotations from The New English Bible. Oxford University Press and Cambridge University Press. 1970.