The last words of Mattathias, the man who saved Judaism

It all started with bloodshed. The priest of God killed one of his own people on a pagan altar. The truth was, however, that much had gone wrong before this moment. Vile and despicable people had ruined the Jewish holy places and replaced them with signs and symbols of evil.

The image of Jerusalem being plundered as seen on the Arch of Titus. This represents an event much later than those of this story, but is a clear image of the plundering of the Jewish Holy Land and its relics

The early Hebrews had several people who served as redeemer, deliverer, and savior throughout their history. Some of the most well known include the early judges like Deborah, Gideon, and Samson. Other include Moses, Joshua, David, Hezekiah, Josiah, Daniel, Esther/Mordecai, and of course, Jesus of Nazareth.

A group of nearly, if not completely, equal importance that often gets lost in the shuffle are the Hasmoneans, also known as the Maccabees. Their stories are recorded in the Apocrypha of the Old Testament, which is a collection of books that were included in the Bible at certain points in history but are no longer considered Scripture (For an explanation as to why, see the bottom of this post). A century and a half before Jesus was born, one Maccabean family in particular was credited with protecting the religious rights and practices of the Jewish people in Israel. This family stepped up because Jerusalem had been robbed of its temple and an evil king was seeking to eradicate the practices of Judaism entirely. Today, Jewish people celebrate the Maccabean deliverance with The Festival Lights – Hanukkah.


Ancient coin depicting Antiochus IV Epiphanes

The evil Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes (215-164 BC), one of many in the line of succession of Alexander the Great, had plundered Jerusalem and her temple. He had killed many of their men, women, and children. He had ordered destruction of their books of Law and banned circumcision, the sign of their covenant with God.

Things would get worse before they got better. Antiochus ordered pagan altars to be built in the small towns surrounding Jerusalem. These altars would be used to sacrifice unclean animals to the Greek gods and goddesses. The king then sent his general, Appeles, to the small town of Modin to promise the respected priest of Yahweh prosperity for his entire family if he would make the inaugural sacrifice on the altar as an act of faith and allegiance to the Greek way of life and gods like Zeus.

But, Antiochus and Appeles had chosen the wrong priest. Mattathias (died 166BC) was God’s man. When he was asked flatteringly to be the king’s man among the Jews, answered, “I and my sons and my brothers will continue to live by the covenant of our ancestors. Far be it from us to desert the law and the ordinances. We will not obey the king’s words by turning aside from our religion to the right hand or to the left.”

Just after Mattathias said this, a certain Jew stepped up and volunteered to make the sacrifice, presumably as an act of self-preservation and perhaps to gain the reward for himself. It was then that Mattathias’ righteous anger reached its height, and he killed the Jewish man on the pagan altar. Then, he killed general Appeles.

[PICTURE: The Revolt of Mattathias by the French artist Gustave Doré (1832-1833). This is Doré’s rendering of Mattathias killing the Jewish traitor on the pagan altar just before killing General Appeles.]

From this point the period known as the Maccabean (Hasmonean) Revolt was launched, and God’s people in and around Jerusalem stood firm to protect the faith of Judaism. After killing the Seleucid general in Modin, Mattathias and his followers retreated to desert mountains and caves. At first, a large group of these Jews gave up their lives to their enemies as pacifists.

Mattathias, distressed by the continuing massacres, commanded the Jewish people to defend themselves. Mattathias, along with his sons, began leading small, guerilla-style, military expeditions against the Seleucid armies and renegade Jews throughout the lands. By the time of his death, Mattathias and his sons had successfully established strongholds and the war for Jerusalem was turning in their favor. Just before he died, Mattathias announced that his third son Judas, known as the “Hammer,” would take over the military leadership (for more on Judas the Hammer, see the bottom of this post).

As you read Mattathias’ last words, consider the way Mattathias ties the history of God’s redemptive work among their Hebrew ancestors with God’s call and purpose for Mattathias and God’s people in his day. May these words be a reminder that God has always called obedient men and women to be a part of his redemptive activity in the world, and He is still calling people today.

[This passage comes from 1 Maccabees 2:49-64 (NRSV), and is also recorded by the Jewish historian Josephus (not to be confused with Bocephus!), in Antiquities, 12.6]

Now the days drew near for Mattathias to die, and he said to his sons: “Arrogance and scorn have now become strong; it is a time of ruin and furious anger. Now, my children, show zeal for the law, and give your lives for the covenant of our ancestors. Remember the deeds of the ancestors, which they did in their generations; and you will receive great honor and an everlasting name. Was not Abraham found faithful when tested, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness? Joseph in the time of his distress kept the commandment, and became lord of Egypt. Phinehas our ancestor, because he was deeply zealous, received the covenant of everlasting priesthood. Joshua, because he fulfilled the command, became a judge in Israel. Caleb, because he testified in the assembly, received an inheritance in the land. David, because he was merciful, inherited the throne of the kingdom forever. Elijah, because of great zeal for the law, was taken up into heaven. Hananiah, Azariah, and Mishael believed and were saved from the flame. Daniel, because of his innocence, was delivered from the mouth of the lions. And so observe, from generation to generation, that none of those who put their trust in him will lack strength. Do not fear the words of sinners, for their splendor will turn into dung and worms. Today they will be exalted, but tomorrow they will not be found, because they will have returned to the dust, and their plans will have perished. My children, be courageous and grow strong in the law, for by it you will gain honor.”


This is the copy of the Apocrypha that I own, the NRSV Version

The books known as the Apocrypha, a word which means “things hidden away,” are also called the Deuterocanonical books of the Old Testament. These books were written during what is known as the Intertestamental Period, or the time between the end of Malachi’s prophecy in the OT and the birth of Jesus. The OT Apocrypha contains the four books of the Maccabees, Tobit, the Wisdom of Solomon, Esdras, Ecclesiasticus, (also called Ben Sira or Son of Sirach), additions to the books of Esther and Daniel, a 151st Psalm, and several others.

Many leaders of the Apostolic Church considered these books to be Scripture. The Roman Catholic Church utilized parts of the Apocrypha and many Catholic Bibles still contain these books. While much of the Apocrypha is true, there are just too many parts that are unreliable and inconsistent with the bulk of Scripture. The Catholic Church even began to avoid these books until they became at odds with the Protestants. During the Reformation, Protestants discarded the OT Apocrypha, making it all the more attractive to Catholics. There are also several books that make up the Apocryphal works of the New Testament, which are sure to be discussed sometime soon!


The most famous personality of what is commonly called the Maccabean Revolt was Mattathias’ third son named Judas Maccabeus (led revolt from 167-160 BC), also known as Hammer.”After Mattathias’ death, Judas became the military leader of the remaining Jewish people. Whereas Mattathias tactics were more along the lines of guerilla warfare, Judas would lead large-scale military campaigns of diplomacy. When Judas was at the height of his power, the Jews were no longer being pushed around. Make no mistake, the Maccabees were no longer victims at the end of their dynasty. They were conquerors; early crusaders bent on recapturing the Holy Land. And they did.

CHECK OUT THE ELEPHANTS! Gustave Doré, Judas Maccabeus before the Army of Nicanor

3 thoughts on “The last words of Mattathias, the man who saved Judaism

  1. Eric,

    Thank you for this…keep spreading the word. I have a book coming out in the fall that is a small introduction to the “Greek” books. Athanasius called them the Readables and several early Christian communities used them to teach new Christians how to live virtuous lives. I especially love Sirach (Proverbs on steroids).

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