The Jewish Greek Wars

There are several historical facts that make the Jewish-Greek wars an interesting historical period:  

  • It is the first time in history that religious sanctions were imposed on a nation, and the first time in history that a religious and ideological war was fought. In a world which was mostly pagan, people did not fight for their gods. However, the Jews, who were the only people in the world at the time to have a monotheistic religion, could not stand conversion of their temple into a pagan worship place, stealing their temple’s treasure, and being forced to violate their religion. They revolted.
  • The war is disproportionally famous because of Hanukkah, the Jewish holiday to commemorate  the victory in this war.
  • Hanukkah is the only Jewish holiday that is celebrated for winning a war.
  • It is celebrated in December around the same time that Christmas is celebrated. For that reason, in modern times, in the Diaspora, it is considered a major Jewish holiday because of the competition with Christmas.

There are two historical sources that describe this war;  the two books of the Maccabees and the Jewish historian Josephus.

For a period of almost 400 years, between 538 BCE when the Jews returned to Israel from Babylon, and the beginning of the revolt in 167 BCE, the Jews had a religious freedom, but they were not independent. They lived in a state of anarchy. They were pretty much left alone to manage their own affairs by the empires that controlled the area as long as they paid their taxes.  The Jews paid civil taxes to the ruling empire, and religious taxes to the priests who maintained the Jewish temple and the religious structure. An independent Jewish  kingdom was restored only after this war.

The term “Greeks” is used loosely in this war: Although the war is known as the Jewish revolt against the Greeks, to be precise, the war was actually fought against the Seleucid Empire, which was a Hellenistic state founded by Seleucus I Nicator, following the division of the empire created by Alexander the Great. The Seleucid Empire included Syria, Israel, Babylonia, Anatolia, Persia, the Levant, Mesopotamia, Kuwait, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, northwest parts of India, and what is now Pakistan. Soldiers in the Seleucid Empire’s army were from many nations within the Empire’s borders. Most of them were not Greek.

There were several phases to the  war: It lasted over 25 years between 167 BCE and 142 BCE. There were periods of intense battles and  periods of low activities.  

The war started in the Judea mountains; a relative small area around Jerusalem. For most parts the war was about who controlled Jerusalem and the Jewish temple.

It started as a guerilla war between a small group of Jewish warriors who fought against the mighty empire. The small Jewish army had a brilliant leader, Judah the Maccabee, who used his knowledge of the terrain to set up ambushes in places where the larger Seleucid army couldn’t use its size as an advantage.

Early success led to an increase in the number of Jewish warriors. At its peak, the size of the Jewish army was between 11,000 to 15,000 soldiers. During that period the Jews felt confident enough to fight the  Seleucid army in open areas. The number of Seleucid soldiers fluctuated as well. In its peak, it included more than 20,000  soldiers.

During this period, there was a strong Hellenistic influence on the Jewish people. Many of them embraced and adapted the Greek lifestyle and culture, while maintaining their monotheistic religion. The hellenistic culture was more popular in the larger Jewish communities such as the city of Jerusalem. It was less popular in the smaller villages. A less known historical fact is that this was also a Jewish civil war; many Jews sided with the Greeks and fought alongside with them to end the Jewish revolt.

In a battle in 165 BCE the Jewish army defeated the Seleucid army and took control of Jerusalem and the temple. The first leader of the revolt, Judah the Maccabee, signed a treaty with Rome, in order to get support. The Romans, who did it to weaken the  Seleucid Empire did not participate in the war, but the fact that they signed a treaty was something that Seleucids had to consider.

A new research provides, that not all Greeks were considered “the enemy”, the revolt leaders maintained good relationships with Sparta, a Greek state, which was under Roman pressure and eventually was captured by the Romans in 146 BCE.

In 160 BCE, the Seleucid army defeated the Jewish army. The first revolt leader Judah the Maccabee was killed and control of Jerusalem was returned to the hands of the Seleucid Empire.

The Jewish revolt wasn’t the only revolt the Seleucid Empire fought at that time. From a Seleucid point of view, the Jewish revolt wasn’t the most important one. For that reason, although it had a larger army and had some success against the Jews, it couldn’t sustain the pressure and had to shift its attention back and forth between Judea and the eastern parts of the empire. On several occasions the Seleucids attempted to come to an agreement with the revolt leaders and end the revolt, but negotiations fell apart.

The Jewish army, under the leadership of Jonathan, Judah’s brother, retreated to the desert and continued attacking Seleucid forces with growing success, until it achieved full control over Israel in 142 BCE. The victory provided independence, but it did not end the influence of the Hellenistic culture on the Jews.  

Jews maintained complete independence from 142 BCE until 63 BCE, when the Romans captured Israel. A period of about a 80 years. This was the last time that Jews lived in an independent country, until the Zionists created the state of Israel in 1948. Jews were without a state for a period of over 2,000 years.

The success of the Jewish revolt against the Seleucid Empire was used as a guidelines for the revolts against the Romans 230 years later. However, the Roman Empire was much different than the Seleucid empire and so were the revolt’s results.

Fast forwarding 2000 years:

There is a link between the struggle for independence of the Jewish people against the Seleucid Empire, and the struggle for independence of the Jewish people against the British Empire. The circumstances were completely different. However, the memory of the ancient victory was a motivation that it is possible to win.  

The victory of the Jewish revolt over the Seleucid army and the restoration of the Jewish temple were celebrated by Jews for over 2000 years in the Diaspora. All those difficult years when they were living in places where they were discriminated against and suffered humiliations and attacks, they remembered how a small group of Jews was able to defeat an empire and live freely in their homeland.  2000 years later, when they fought the British Empire, a small group of Jewish people, the Zionists, used guerrilla tactics to force the British army out. Although very different circumstances; for the second time in history a Jewish revolt against a mighty empire ended with a free Jewish state.

 Related articles:

The Jewish Roman Wars

The Jewish Revolts Against the Roman Empire

Rabbi Akiva and the Bar Kochba Revolt against the Romans