We celebrate the holiday of Hanukkah by lighting candles for 8 nights. Why 8 nights? Some say because of the miracle of the oil – one day’s worth of oil lasted 8 days. This is actually a later tradition. Some say the miracle was associated with the winning of the battles fought by Judah Maccabeus and the Jews against the Greeks. But this didn’t happen in 8 days, rather the original Hanukkah – the recapture and re-dedication of the Temple and the restoration of Jewish rule took place over years. In this series, we focus on each of the 8 battles in the Hanukkah wars fought in the second century BCE.
The first battle is called the battle of Appolonius – interestingly the only battle named after the defeated Greek general and not the place in which the battle was fought. Maybe this is because the place of the battle is never specifically mentioned and there is much controversy over this detail.
So what do we know?
There are only a few verses in the Book of Maccabees and in Josephus which refer to this battle. Josephus clearly states that Appolonius is the general of the Samaritan forces – so he comes from Samaria/Sebastia, today called Shomron (the city, not the area). Samaria, in the area of Shchem/Nablus was built during the First Temple period as one of the capital cities of the Northern Kingdom Israel. After the exile of the Israelites, Samaritans moved into the area. The Samaritan city of Samaria was destroyed by Alexander the Great and subsequently rebuilt as an important Greek military garrison and even the capital of the area. From here, Appolonius gathers an army against Judah Maccabee.
Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the world’s first anti-Semite, placed decrees against practicing Judaism. Spearheaded by his father’s, Matityahu’s, refusal to stray from Jewish practice, Judah Maccabeus has been encouraging the Jewish population of Judea to stand against the Greeks. Judah becomes the military leader who encourages Jews to stay firm in their worship of God, and not give in to the Hellenistic influences. Appolonius and the Greeks want to maintain their hegemony and squash this little rebellion. How dare the Jews resist Hellenism, the most civilized society in history?!?
Judah Maccabeus hears of Appolonius’ plans to attack them and decides to take matters in his own hands. He wants to meet the highly regimented Greek army in a place where they will not be easily able to fight in the traditional, stylized Greek manner – in the hills over the road from Sebastia to the heartland of Judea – Jerusalem. This is why researchers place the battle site near present-day Maale Levona with a bird’s eye view over Route 60, the spine route running the length of Israel’s central mountain range.
The Judean army under Judah Maccabeus rout the Greek local garrison and Appolonius is killed. Not only is this victory a morale booster for the Judean ragtag army, it also provides them with much needed weapons. Judah Maccabeus himself kills Appolonius and takes his sword. The army gathers steam for its next battle which will occur in less than a year – the Battle of Beit Horon.
It’s worth a visit to see the remains of Sebastia/Shomron. Because of its proximity to Shchem, visits should be coordinated with the Shavei Shomron field school.