Nov. 21, 2022

Judas Maccabeus Recaptures Jerusalem

Judas Maccabeus Recaptures Jerusalem

November 21, 164 BCE. Judas Maccabeus recaptures Jerusalem during the Maccabean Revolt and rededicates the Second Temple, since commemorated in the Jewish festival of Hanukkah.


Cold Open

It’s early December 164 BCE in Judea, a province ruled by the Seleucid Empire.

A Jewish priest walks through the Temple of Jerusalem towards the altar. He weaves his way around workmen covered in dirt who scurry around the building. Today, the holiest place in the Jewish religion is a hive of noise and activity. But the priest does not mind the peace being disturbed, because a dreadful act of sacrilege is finally going to be corrected.

As he reaches the center of the temple, the priest stops to watch a group of stonemasons chipping away at the base of a large statue of Zeus, the chief of the Greek gods. The statue was placed here by officials by the Seleucid Empire, who’ve spent the last few years trying to quash Judaism and replace it with the Seleucid’s own Greek-inspired religion and culture. The priest says a small prayer of thanks that this statue that’s been defiling the Temple is finally coming down. The priest looks on as one of the workers swings back his tool… and strikes the statue with a heavy blow, one that causes it to wobble forward.  

A stonemason shouts a warning and waves the priest back as the statue tips further and further… until it topples to the ground.

Workers rush forward and begin looping ropes around the fallen statue to pull it out and away from the holy place. The priest smiles, satisfied with their work. Now that the statue is gone he can begin making preparations for a grand ceremony to rededicate the Temple to the Jewish faith. He closes his eyes and prays that his people might finally be left alone to worship in peace.

In preparation for the rededication ceremony, the Temple priests seek out oil to light the candles of the menorah, a seven-branched candelabrum that serves as a symbol of the Jewish people. But the priests only find one pot that wasn't defiled by the Seleucids. According to legend, this vessel contained only enough oil to keep the menorah burning for 24 hours but miraculously, it was enough oil to keep it alight for eight days.

Every year, the rededication ceremony in the Temple of Jerusalem is celebrated during an eight-day holiday known as Hanukkah or the festival of lights. But the tradition is about more than the miracle of the oil. It’s about the Jewish people’s yearning for freedom. The first Hanukkah was celebrated during the unrest of the Maccabean Revolt, a rebellion in which Jews under the leadership of a priest—Judas Maccabeus—rose up against their Seleucid rulers.

The holiday commemorates the greatest triumph of the Maccabees when they forced the Seleucids out of Judea and took control of Jerusalem and its holy Temple on November 21st, 164 BCE.


From Noiser and Airship, I’m Lindsay Graham and this is History Daily.

History is made every day. On this podcast—every day—we tell the true stories of the people and events that shaped our world.

Today is November 21st, 164 BCE: Judas Maccabeus Recaptures Jerusalem.

Act One

It’s 167 BCE in Modein, a small town in Judea, three years before Judas Maccabeus retakes the Temple of Jerusalem.

Mattathias, a Jewish priest, kneels and prays before the altar in the town’s temple. Mattathias is one of Modein’s most respected elders, a man who previously served in the Temple of Jerusalem before moving to spend his twilight years here in Modein. But his hopes of a peaceful retirement are about to be shattered.

For the last 50 years, the province of Judea has been ruled by the Seleucid Empire—a vast, Greek-influenced realm that arose after Alexander the Great’s death. The empire’s territory covers much of the Middle East from modern-day Turkey to Afghanistan. The Seleucids initially allowed Judea’s majority-Jewish population to manage their own affairs. But last year, in 168 BCE, Emperor Antiochus IV Epiphanes sought to impose greater Seleucid control. He sent new, hardline Greek-speaking governors to rule the province. He built a new citadel in Jerusalem and garrisoned it with Seleucid soldiers. He banned circumcision. He even defiled the Temple of Jerusalem by building a new altar and dedicating it to Zeus. Now, Mattathias has heard that Seleucid officials have been sighted in Modein, and he is worried the Emperor’s culture war is about to expand into his own town.

As Mattathias prays, he hears footsteps behind him. He rises from his knees and turns to see some of Modein’s residents nervously following a handful of unfamiliar men into the temple. One of the strangers steps forward and identifies himself as an emissary from the Seleucid emperor. He looks around the temple with a sneer. And demands to know whether the people of Modein are following the emperor’s decrees on worship.

Mattathias stays silent. The emissary repeats his question wanting to know whether the priests of Modein still insist that Jews not eat pork or work on the Sabbath. The emperor says that those rules no longer apply. Then the emissary asks whether Modein’s priests are still circumcising babies. Mattathias does not answer. He has been following the laws of the old, Jewish religion, not the deviant edicts laid down by the Seleucid Greek gods.

The emissary loses patience and beckons to one of his colleagues. The small crowd parts as one of the strangers carries a small pig to the altar. Mattathias is shocked. Jews are not allowed to eat pork, and bringing a pig to the temple is an insult. Mattathias protests, but the emissary shouts him down. Then the Seleucid emissary pulls a knife from his robe and hands it to Mattathias, handle first. He orders the priest to sacrifice the pig to the Greek gods on the temple’s altar.

Mattathias hears a gasp from the crowd of onlookers. His face burns red with anger. He cannot believe he’s been ordered to defile his own place of worship. Mattathias and the emissary stare each other down as the small crowd watches in silence.

Eventually, a man steps forward from the crowd and calls for a stop to the show now. Mattathias recognizes him as one of the Jews who lives here in Modein. The Jew says he does not want conflict and offers to sacrifice the pig himself to spare Mattathias.

But Mattathias is suspicious. The man who claims to be a peacemaker is one of Modein’s Hellenized Jews—a man known to be sympathetic to the Seleucids and their Greek ways. So when the Jew approaches Mattathias, his hand held out for the knife, Mattathias’s anger boils over into a murderous rage. He jabs the knife into the Jew’s flesh. The man falls, as bloodstains blossom on his white robe.

Then, Mattathias turns his ire on the Seleucid emissary. He rushes toward him with his knife in the air. The unarmed emissary holds up his hands in a vain attempt to defend himself but Mattathias slashes him with the blade. And the emissary collapses to the ground as his colleagues run for the door.

Mattathias stands over the emissary's body and turns to look at the crowd of onlookers who stare in shock. He takes a deep breath and then addresses them, apologizing that they had to see such violence. He says the emperor will demand vengeance when he hears about what has happened here today. But Mattathias does not repent. He tells the crowd that he killed the two men to protect the laws of his God, not the laws of a distant emperor. As Mattathias finishes, he sees the crowd is no longer shocked but instead inspired.

The death of the two men at the temple of Modein marks the beginning of a Jewish revolt against the Seleucids. In the coming days, Mattathias flees Modein and hides in the countryside. But he does not go alone. His five sons accompany him, as do many other men from Modein who want to fight against their Seleucid rulers. Soon, this group of rebels are given a nickname—the Maccabees, meaning “hammers”—for the way they drive their enemies from their land.

Mattathias will not be responsible for directing the Maccabean Revolt. He dies within a year. So the leadership of the rebels passes to one of Mattathias’s sons—Judas Maccabeus. Soon, Judas will begin a guerilla campaign that will slowly gain momentum and lead to the Maccabees beating the Seleucids on the field of battle.

Act Two

It’s night-time near the town of Mizpah in September 165 BCE, one year before Judas Maccabeus recaptures Jerusalem.

The black night hides a broad grin on the face of Gorgias, a Seleucid general, as he looks at the burning campfires of the Maccabee camp. Gorgias marched through the night with 5,000 infantry and 1,000 cavalry to surprise Judas Maccabeus in a pre-dawn raid. All he needs to do is give the word and his troops will attack and destroy the rebels who have been a pain in the side of the Seleucids for the past several years.

After sparking the Maccabean Revolt at Modein in 167 BCE, Mattathias—and later his son, Judas Maccabeus—led the rebels on raids around the countryside of Judea. They targeted Hellenized Jews who were too open to the Greek ways of the Seleucids. The Maccabees drove the Seleucid sympathizers off their land. They burned villages, destroyed altars to the Greek gods, and forcibly circumcised boys. They adopted guerilla warfare tactics, harassing isolated bands of Seleucid soldiers and then disappearing when confronted by a bigger force. But all the while, the Maccabees were gaining support and numbers as more dissident Jews joined their cause. But now, Gorgias thinks he has an opportunity to crush the Maccabees once and for all.

Gorgias quietly gives the order to attack. He kicks his horse into a gallop and his soldiers and cavalrymen follow behind him. But his men don’t roar or cheer. They ride and march in silence, just like Gorgias told them to. The General doesn’t want the Maccabees to have any warning at all of what is about to hit them.

And as he hoped, as Gorgias charges into the Maccabee camp, he doesn’t hear any sounds of alarm. He delights in taking them completely by surprise but then he slows his horse near the enemy’s campfires and looks around. Gorgias is puzzled because he cannot see any Maccabee soldiers slumbering by the fires. There's no one. The camp is deserted.

Gorgias angrily summons the Hellenized Jews who guided his troops to this camp. As they grovel before him, the General demands to know if they have double-crossed him. But they claim ignorance. They say the Maccabees were definitely camped here yesterday. Disgusted, Gorgias turns away and scans the terrain around them.

As the first rays of dawn begin to light their surroundings, Gorgias eyes the nearby mountains and decides that the Maccabees must have found out the Seleucids were coming and snuck away to the high hills, as they have countless times before. Gorgias sighs, frustrated. There’s nothing they can do but return to their own camp near Emmaus.

But the Maccabees have not fled to the mountains. Instead, the rebel Jews are about to launch a pre-dawn raid of their own. At the very moment that Gorgias realizes the enemy has eluded him, a group of Maccabee infantry hide in the brush, ready to attack.

Several days ago, Judas Maccabeus received word from his spies that the Seleucids were closing in on them. Rather than slip away like they normally would, Judas decided that the time had come to fight. He made camp here at Mizpah, knowing that local Hellenized Jews would soon carry word of his location to the Seleucids. When Judas’s spies informed him that the Seleucids were planning a night-time attack, Judas ordered the Maccabees to abandon camp—but leave the fires burning. Then, they took the backroads to the Seleucid camp at Emmaus. And now, Maccabee soldiers and fellow rebels are there, waiting for the order to attack. They know that Gorgias and most of his troops are away, trying to ambush them. But Gorgias left behind a contingent of soldiers to guard his camp. And the Maccabees want to force them to surrender.  

Soon, the Maccabee infantryman hear a loud trumpet blast. They step forward and roar a mighty battle cry. With the aggressive cheer of 3,000 spirited voices still crying, they charge toward the Seleucid camp.

As they breach the camp’s defenses, the Maccabees hear the Seleucids call in alarm and desperately scurry to find their weapons. But they're overrun. The bulk of the Seleucids retreat. And as dawn breaks, the Maccabee sees hundreds of Seleucids running away in the distance.

Some of the Maccabee infantrymen start scouring the camp, looking for valuables to pocket. But Judas rides among them, telling the soldiers that there will be time enough for loot and plunder—but not yet. So the Maccabee soldiers instead pile up Seleucid weapons and armor to give to any new men who join the rebellion. Other Maccabees set fire to anything that will burn. They want a plume of smoke to rise high in the air, a signal of their success against the Seleucids.

Soon, a loud cheer breaks out. Some Maccabee soldiers point into the distance. And there on the horizon is the Seleucid raiding party returning from their failed attack on the abandoned Maccabee camp. But the raiding party doesn’t charge into battle. They turn away and ride off into the distance. The Maccabee rebels erupt into ruckus cheers. They have won.

Judas’s victory at the Battle of Emmaus marks a turning point in the Maccabean Revolt. It is the first time his rebels have proven that they can take on the more powerful Seleucids on the battlefield. And this success will lead to further victories. As his band of rebels continues to grow, Judas will force the Seleucids to retreat from Judea before he rides into Jerusalem, victorious.

Act Three

It’s November 21st, 164 BCE.

Judas Maccabeus proudly surveys the scene as he rides his horse into Jerusalem. There is no opposition. The Seleucids have fled and the town gates are open. Hundreds of people line the streets cheering. Judas waves to a small boy who leaps up and down in excitement. The biggest and most important city in Judea is now firmly under Judas's control.

One month earlier, the Maccabees won a victory at the Battle of Beth Zur, forcing the Seleucid army to retreat from Jerusalem. A few days later, the Seleucid general commanding that army received a message stating that Emperor Antiochus IV Epiphanes had died. The Seleucid general opted to withdraw to Syria and wait for new orders, leaving Jerusalem undefended. Now, the Maccabees have come to claim the prize.

Judas and his soldiers ride through the streets of Jerusalem in triumph. All around, he sees the happy faces of Jews who have been liberated from the Seleucids. But Judas spots a few stony faces, too. There are many Hellenized Jews here in Jerusalem, and across Judea, who thrived under the Seleucids and who will agitate for their return. But right now, Judas wants to enjoy his hard-fought victory.

Soon, Judas approaches the spiritual heart of the city—the Temple—where he wants to give thanks to God for his victory. But when he dismounts his horse and walks inside, he founds a statue of Zeus standing in the center. As Judas approaches the altar, he sees bloodstains on the stone. It’s clear that the Seleucid priests have defiled the Temple by sacrificing pigs to their Greek gods.

Judas turns to his followers and tells them that the Temple will be cleansed of the Seleucids and their false idols. He says that the priests will hold a ceremony to rededicate the Temple to the one, true God.

This rededication of the Temple of Jerusalem marks the first Hanukkah. The celebration represents the greatest triumph in the life of Judas Maccabeus. But with the Maccabees now in control of Jerusalem and Judea, they can no longer rely on guerilla tactics to protect and defend their lands. When the Seleucids eventually return to reclaim Judea in 160 BCE, they overwhelm the Maccabees on the battlefield and Judas is killed.

But the Maccabean Revolt ensured that the Jews of Judea were granted a degree of independence and autonomy within the Seleucid Empire which outlasted their leader. The revolt lived on as a model of Jewish pride and nationalism, and no moment was more inspiring to future generations than when Judas Maccabeus recaptured Jerusalem on November 21st, 164 BCE.


Next on History Daily. November 22nd, 1718. A British Royal Navy Lieutenant attacks and boards a pirate ship off the coast of North Carolina, killing the vessel’s captain Edward Teach, better known as "Blackbeard".

From Noiser and Airship, this is History Daily, hosted, edited, and executive produced by me, Lindsay Graham. 

Audio editing by Mollie Baack.

Sound design by Derek Behrens.

Music by Lindsay Graham.

This episode is written and researched by Scott Reeves.

Executive Producers are Steven Walters for Airship and Pascal Hughes for Noiser.