Born: c. 190 B.C.
Died: 160 B.C. (killed in battle)
Best known as: The Jewish warrior who instituted Hanukkah
Judas Maccabeus led the Jewish people in recapturing their temple from Syrian occupying forces in 164 B.C., according to the ancient Greek books known as 1 and 2 Maccabees. The uprising was started in 167 B.C. by Judas's father, the priest Mattathias, against Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the Syrian ruler of what is now Israel-Palestine. Judas continued the revolt after Mattathias's death, eventually retaking the desecrated Jerusalem temple. After restoring and dedicating it, Judas "and all the assembly of Israel" decided the event should be remembered annually "with joy and gladness for eight days," now observed each December as Hanukkah (Hebrew for "to dedicate"). In the ensuing years, Judas fended off enemy attacks, liberated captive Jews in Galilee, evaded a kidnapping attempt, made an alliance with Rome, and died fighting Syrian forces.
Extra credit: The nickname "Maccabeus" probably meant "the hammerer." Judas is also sometimes called Judah Maccabee... The Maccabees, also known as Hasmoneans, included Mattathias and several generations of descendants, starting with Judas and his brothers, John, Simon, Eleazar and Jonathan. Their story is told in G.F. Handel's popular operatic oratorio, "Judas Maccabeus" (1746)... For complex reasons, the books 1 and 2 Maccabees appear in Catholic and Orthodox Christian bibles and the "Apocrypha" appended to some Protestant Christian bibles, but not in Jewish ones... Filmmaker Mel Gibson was rumored in 2004 to be considering a Maccabee movie in the wake of his successful The Passion of the Christ, but his next project turned out to be Apocalypto, set in the ancient Mayan civilization (scheduled release: December 2006).
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