In the second century B.C.E., Judea was governed by the Seleucid kings, who were based in Syria. They were among the successors of Alexander the Great and patrons of Greek culture. The word "cosmopolitan" describes this Greek approach to life. The term is based on Greek words meaning "world citizen." The idea is that a person's identity was not determined by birth into a particular nationality, for through education in Greek philosophy and adopting Greek customs people could advance socially and become citizens of the wider Greek world.
This cosmopolitan ideal clashed with the conviction that the Jewish people were God's chosen people. The issue became clear in the context of the gymnasium. Athletic training was common throughout the Greek world. But athletes trained and competed unclothed--and Greek men were not circumcised. To participate in gymnastic life more fully, some Jewish men had their circumcisions surgically reversed. The problem was that circumcision was the sign of God's covenant with Israel (Genesis 17:9-14). Therefore, traditional Jews insisted that those assimilating into Greek culture had abandoned Israel's covenant with God.
The conflict became a crisis in the reign of the Seleucid king Antiochus IV, who reigned from 175-164 B.C.E. He was known as "Epiphanes," a word suggesting a "manifestation" of divine power. Antiochus pressured Jewish people to abandon their traditional ways. He forbade circumcision and turned the Jerusalem temple into a temple to Zeus.
Antiochus's policies provoked a military response from some Jews. The principal leader of the revolt was a man named Judah, nicknamed "Maccabeus" or "the hammer." Accounts of the conflict, known as the Maccabean revolt, appear in the books of Maccabees, which are part of the Apocrypha.
Judah Maccabee's troops captured the Jerusalem temple in 164 B.C.E. They celebrated the restoration of temple worship with a new festival called "Dedication" or "Hanukkah." Fighting against the Seleucids continued, but eventually the Maccabees gained complete control of the region and established an independent Jewish kingdom that would continue until the Romans conquered the region in 63 B.C.E. The Hasmoneans vigorously extended their influence by capturing the region of Idumea to the south and converting its inhabitants to Judaism. Some Jews objected to the way the priests were administering temple life. They formed a separate community at Qumran near the Dead Sea, where they compiled the library of Jewish texts known as the Dead Sea Scrolls.
AUTHOR: Craig R. Koester, Professor of New Testament