Factors Leading to the Maccabean Revolt (Part 1)

Antiochus IV Epiphanes CoinEarly in his reign, Antiochus IV Epiphanes was involved in a dispute over the high priesthood in Jerusalem. Onias III was the legitimate High Priest. His pro-Hellenism brother Jason traveled to the newly established Antiochus and bribed the king to be appointed as High Priest (1 Mac 1:13-15, 2 Mac 4:7-15). In order to please Antiochus, Jason pledge to build a gymnasium near the temple and encourage the Jews to become more “Greek.” The gymnasium was popular, even among some of the priests who left their duties to play in the games, which were dedicated to Hermes.

As offensive as these things were to the orthodox Jews, for some the Hellenization did not go far enough. For this reason, Menelaus (with the support of the Tobiad party) went to Antiochus and offered the king a larger bribe (300 more talents than Jason) for the office. Antiochus immediately declared Menelaus High Priest and sent Syrian troops with him in order to oust Jason from Jerusalem.  Menelaus was not even of a priestly family and was only interested in the priesthood for political power and wealth. “Apparently, religion was to Antiochus nothing but a tool, a convenient means to an end” (Seow, Daniel, 183).

Menelaus had some serious problems as well.  Since most of the Jews did not support him as high priest, he had trouble raising the money to pay Antiochus his bribe.  As a result he was forced to sell temple items to pay bribes to the king’s agent Andronicus.

Onias III protested: Menelaus was not the real high priest and had no authority to sell anything from the temple, let alone to pay bribes to a Gentile king!  Andronicus was not impressed with his protest and had the true high priest killed (2 Mac 4:33-38, many would include Dan 9:26-27 here as well; For those who assume a second century date for Daniel, this is the “cutting off of the anointed one” in Daniel 9).

2 Maccabees 4:33-35 When Onias became fully aware of these acts, he publicly exposed them, having first withdrawn to a place of sanctuary at Daphne near Antioch. 34 Therefore Menelaus, taking Andronicus aside, urged him to kill Onias. Andronicus came to Onias, and resorting to treachery, offered him sworn pledges and gave him his right hand; he persuaded him, though still suspicious, to come out from the place of sanctuary; then, with no regard for justice, he immediately put him out of the way. 35 For this reason not only Jews, but many also of other nations, were grieved and displeased at the unjust murder of the man.

Menelaus’s robbing of the temple caused riots against his priesthood. Lysimachus, Menelaus brother, led troops against the rioters and killed 3000 people, but was himself killed in the battle. Menelaus was called into account by Antiochus, but managed to bribe his way out of trouble.

2 Maccabees 4:43-50  Charges were brought against Menelaus about this incident. 44 When the king came to Tyre, three men sent by the senate presented the case before him. 45 But Menelaus, already as good as beaten, promised a substantial bribe to Ptolemy son of Dorymenes to win over the king. 46 Therefore Ptolemy, taking the king aside into a colonnade as if for refreshment, induced the king to change his mind. 47 Menelaus, the cause of all the trouble, he acquitted of the charges against him, while he sentenced to death those unfortunate men, who would have been freed uncondemned if they had pleaded even before Scythians. 48 And so those who had spoken for the city and the villages and the holy vessels quickly suffered the unjust penalty. 49 Therefore even the Tyrians, showing their hatred of the crime, provided magnificently for their funeral. 50 But Menelaus, because of the greed of those in power, remained in office, growing in wickedness, having become the chief plotter against his compatriots.

The situation in Judea is one of political chaos as two men vie for the office of High Priest. Their motivation is not to lead Judea in worship, but to obtain wealth and power. Menelaus in particular is portrayed in 2 Maccabees as violent and greedy, willing to do whatever was necessary to maintain his power.

7 thoughts on “Factors Leading to the Maccabean Revolt (Part 1)

  1. This portion of Maccabees is a very sad reflection on religious government. It is such a painful concept to understand that when there is power to be had, power hungry people are quickly drawn to it. Jason wanted Antiochus to give him the role of high priest. So he bribed Antiochus. This is crazy because this shows Jason’s heart. Either he thinks there is no God of Israel or he thinks He has no power. Then in the comical, he who lives by the sword dies by the sword fashion (Matt 26:52), Jason gets out bribed by Menelaus. It is scary to think how much power people try to obtain in religious circles. It definitely reminds me of some of the difficult situations that that have caused people that are close to me to leave church. This is a reflection of a very modern problem. The people do not look at church and see the power of God, they see an opportunity for power for themselves.

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  2. Menelaus’ s corrupted motivation for taking the place as high priest is a common characteristic that is prevalent in many churches and authority figures today. Essentially, in the story we are seeing a prime example of power struggle. Now power struggles can happen in any group setting…anywhere from Sunday small group to your working office. However I find Menelaus’s behavior amidst his power struggle to be really be one of the most repulsive. Bribing the king to allow him a position, when he knew he couldn’t afford to pay him? Having absolutely no tie in the Zadok lineage? And selling gold from the temple in order to pay off his bribe? What a dirtball. His behavior certainly did not help the Jews to further their fascination with the Greco-Roman culture, and caused a great self-awareness on the Jew’s part of the apostasy they had committed towards Yahweh. In churches today, I am sure that bribes of money can be offered to people in higher positions, in order for one to get where they want to be. On a less dramatic scale, a bribe today may not always be in the form of a check. It may look like someone offering their ties and connections with other people as a way of advertisement for their church body, etc.

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  3. I can’t help but wonder how beat down the Jewish people must have felt at this point in their history. They no longer had a king of their own because Israel had been taken captive. Alongside that, the sacred priesthood had been perverted. What it must have been like to watch as the position of high priest changed hands in such a horrible fashion. It must of been heart breaking for those Jews who tried to retain their traditions. 1 and 2 Maccabees seems to show some of the outcry against all this. I also wonder to what degree does this occur in churches today. How many pastors or elders are motivated more so by the prospect of influence over others than serving our God as they are meant to?

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  4. When people talk about ‘corruption’ in early or current forms of the church, it’s interesting to be able to look back at the almost soap-opera like drama the Jews went through with the struggle to have a righteous high priest. Between selling church items for bribes and riots that killed thousands of people, it’s easy to see the pressure that was put on the Jewish people while they were kind of forced to watch these two men fight for a position not because of religious reasons, but because of power. Not to say that we slaughter thousands of people these days, but I think we can draw similarities in motive between some people leading or preforming in the Christian church today. What’s in the motive of one’s heart?

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