Archaeology History Mythology Religion

The Maccabees, a long-lost tomb and that curious Byzantine mosaic cross that adorns it.

Over the past few days I have been reading reports about what could quite possibly be the rediscovery of the long-lost tomb of the Maccabees. The famed Maccabees were rebels who fought against Seleucid religious oppression between 166-160 BC. They successfully employed guerilla tactics against their enemy and reclaimed Judea from Seleucid Greek rule, achieving autonomy and the right to worship freely. According to historical sources, Mattathias the Hasmonean instigated a revolt against the Seleucids by refusing to worship the Greek gods. He killed a Hellenistic Jew, who dared to offer a sacrifice to their gods and fled to Judea with his five sons. Upon his death, his eldest son Judah together with his brothers were responsible for returning Jewish order to Judea and re-dedicated the second Temple. The re-dedication of the temple of Jerusalem led to the celebration of the important Jewish festival of Hanukkah.

The Israeli Antiquities Authority, along with a group of volunteers, optimistically hold their breath that they may have unearthed the family tomb of the Maccabees at Modi’in. The tomb site in the proximity of ancient Modi’in – situated between Jersalem and Tel Aviv – was originally excavated 150 years ago, but abandoned promptly when a curious Byzantine mosaic cross was found on the tomb floor. It led prominent French archeologist, Charles Clermont-Ganneau, to assert that the site was Christian in nature. But now Israeli archeologists believe that the re-excavated tomb may still yet hold intriguing clues about the Maccabees, in spite of the fact that the tomb was robbed long ago and most of its stones were recycled elsewhere. As a very interested third party, I would love to know what these clues are too? In time, I guess we will all find out as further study and work is carried out.

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The tomb in Modi’in thought to have been built, after the death of Judas Maccabee in 160 BC, and described in two ancient books (Antiquities of the Jews’ and ‘The Book of the Maccabees’), appears to be in right location where it was said to overlook the sea. This is the most obvious clue that leads us to believe that it is the family tomb of the band of brothers led by Judah Maccabee. But what do we make of the curious Byzantine cross? It may not actually be a big mystery after all. The clue lies in Charles Clermont-Ganneau assessment of it. He noted that the Holy Maccabees, not the five brothers led by Judah, held a special place of honour for early Christians as prototypical martyrs, which may explain the adornment of the mosaic cross on the tomb. Therefore is it possible as Clermont-Ganneau claims, that the early Christians built the structure to commemorate them? It makes sense because the early Christians honoured the Holy Maccabees as early as the fourth century.

According to the Second Book of Maccabees (Ch.8-10) in the year 166 BC, the seven holy Maccabee brothers and their mother were put on trial in Antioch by the Seleucid king Antiochus Epiphanes. They refused to worship the Greek gods and eat pig’s flesh. One by one, they were all tortured because of their faithfulness to the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. Their martyrdom inspired Judah Maccabee, to lead a revolt with his four brothers against Antiochus Epiphanes. As I have already outlined, they went onto to take Judea and cleanse all the impurity from the (second) Temple of Jerusalem.

If early Christians did commemorate the tomb in Modi’in in the name of the Holy Maccabees, they likely built over the top of the lost tombs. It could be in fact, not only a funerary in the name of the Holy Maccabees, but a gesture or fitting tribute to Judah and his four brothers, given the fact that Judah was inspired by the Holy Maccabee Martyrs?

It is not surprising that first Jews venerated the memory of their own patriarchs, prophets or martyrs. Christians continued this practice for their own saints and even venerated Old Testament Jewish prophets and interestingly the Maccabees. How the early Christians came to venerate the Holy Maccabees is a complex story. In the early part of the fourth century, Antioch was a melting pot of religious turmoil. In-fighting in the Church caused many factions to push forward their preferred creed. In this environment of confusion it’s not hard to believe that many Antiochian looked beyond their own faith to venerate with other heroes associated with resurrection. With Nicenes, Arians and Jews all living side by side in Antioch, it is said that large numbers of Christians chose to venerate the Holy Maccabees in a shine in the city’s Jewish quarter. Antiochian Christians still went further, not only adopting Jewish religious practices, but calling on Jewish social institutions to assist them. For example Jewish doctors helped Christians cure their ailment and many Christians even had themselves circumcised in accordance with Jewish rite.


Hannah or Solomonia and her seven sons (The Holy Maccabees), as portrayed in this painting by Polish artist Wojciech Statter (1800-1875)

Fear amongst the city’s clergy soon spread because of emerging Judaizing practices of Antioch’s Christians. Something had to be done to steam the tide of Judaizing Christians. It was then late in the fourth century, under dominate figures like John Chrysostom and with the help of State institutions and strict anti-Jewish legislation that Jews lost their standing in the empire and importantly in Antioch, the centre of veneration of the Maccabees. What the church did next was astonishing! They simply usurped the site of the shine by placing a basilica in its place and re-dedicated the Maccbees as Christian martyrs. Pilgrimage was furthermore encouraged pushing the mutually shared attachment of the Maccabbees once shared by Christians and Jews to the side.

To early Christians, the Maccabees were extraordinary figures who opposed a ‘godless tyrant’ and died for their faith, a quintessential Christian symbol. John Chrysostom reiterates that point of view in his ‘Discourses Against Judaizing Christian’, by saying that the Maccabees martyrdom offered Christians a close analogy with the passions of other Christian martyrs. By getting back on topic in relation to Modi’in and the curious case of the Byzantine cross on the vault floor, on what is assumed to be Judah Maccabees family tomb, rededicating or commemorating the site in the name of the Holy Maccabees doesn’t seem far fetched? Appropriating religious sites and tombs was nothing new in the Mediterranean world. What is interesting or puzzling about the current archeological dig in Modi’in is that we cannot make heads or tales of what we are looking at. Israeli archeologists hope that it is the long-lost tomb of the Maccabee rebels. For all we know it might not be, but just simply a Christian basilica? But as my mind wanders at the possibility of the many clues yet uncovered and all its intrigue, its re-excavation has made at least an interesting talking point here, to share some thoughts on who were Maccabees rebels, the Holy Maccabees and their attachment to Byzantine and early Christian history.

The header image is a wood craving illustrates Judah Maccabee as a great hero (1860).

Notes and Further Reading

Shaye J. D. Cohen, From the Maccabees to the Mishnah, 3rd Edition, Westminister/John Knox Press, 2014.

St. John Chrysostom, Discourses against Judaizing Christians (The Fathers of the Church), translated by Paul W. Harkins, The Catholic University of America Press, 1979.

John D. Grainger, The Wars of the Maccabees, Pen & Sword Books, 2013.

SJ Daniel J. Harrington, First and Second Maccabees, 2012.

See the essays collected in Gabriela Signori, ed. Dying for the Faith, Killing for the Faith: Old-Testament Faith-Warriors (1 and 2 Maccabees) in Historical Perspective (Leiden: Brilll, 2010)

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2 comments on “The Maccabees, a long-lost tomb and that curious Byzantine mosaic cross that adorns it.

  1. I would hope that Claremont-Ganneau had more reason than just a mosaic cross to reach his conclusion. Many Jewish prophets are venerated in the Orthodox -think Byzantine- Church. Icons depicting Old Testament prophets and feast days to these saints eg Elijah, Noah, Abraham etc abound. It seems he jumped to his conclusion without much consideration, otherwise.

  2. Pingback: The Maccabees, a long-lost tomb and that curious Byzantine mosaic cross that adorns it. | Lenora's Culture Center and Foray into History

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