In search of the Tombs of the Maccabees

Much attention has been given to speculation about the location of the graves of the Maccabees. The search is important to Jews because it is an important part of their history, leading to the overthrow of the Seleucid oppressors, and the cleansing of the temple. It is also important to the rest of us who study the Bible and understand the part the Maccabees played in the history of Israel.

At Modin, a village north-west of Jerusalem, on the way from Jerusalem to Lod, the Syrians tried to force an old priest by the name of Mattathias to offer a pagan sacrifice. The priest refused, but another Jew volunteered to offer the sacrifice. Mattathias killed his fellow Jew and the Syrian officer. As word spread, Mattathias became a national hero. He was of the family of Hasmon (or Asmoneus). Thus began the Hasmoneans.

Sign marking location of the possible Maccabean Graves at Modin. Photo by Ferrell Jenkins.

Location of the possible Maccabean Graves at Modin, 2005. Photo by Ferrell Jenkins.

The discovery of a burial cave at Modin thought to have been used by the Maccabees and/or their descendants was reported in November, 1995. There are Israeli scholars who have argued that this is not the true grave of the Maccabees. They say that it is the location of graves belonging to Christians and others during the Byzantine Period. An article in Haaretz back in 2011 quotes one of the Israeli archaeologists.

Amit Re’em, an archaeologist of the Israel Antiquities Authority says all the evidence points to the fact that these graves are of Christians and pagans and that this burial site actually belongs to an ancient monastery.

A news release issued Tuesday by the Israel Antiquities Authority, quoting the same scholar, states that these tombs may be the Tomb of the Maccabees, or at least tombs thought to be such by the Byzantine Christians.

According to Amit Re’em and Dan Shahar, excavation directors on behalf of the Israel Antiquities Authority, “There is no doubt that the structure that was uncovered is unusual. The descriptions from 150 years ago were revealed right here in front of our eyes, and we discovered the magnificent burial vaults, enormous pillars that apparently supported a second story, a forecourt that led to the tomb and other associated buildings. To our disappointment, the building seen by our predecessors had been robbed, and its stones were taken to construct settlements in the vicinity; nevertheless, the appearance of the place is impressive and stimulates the imagination. The archaeological evidence currently at hand is still insufficient to establish that this is the burial place of the Maccabees. If what we uncovered is not the Tomb of the Maccabees itself, then there is a high probability that this is the site that early Christianity identified as the royal funerary enclosure, and therefore, perhaps, erected the structure. Evidently one cannot rule out the assumptions of the past, but an excavation and a lot of hard work are still required in order to confirm that assumption unequivocally, and the riddle remains unsolved–the search for the elusive Tomb of the Maccabees continues”.

Archaeologists ponder whether these tombs actually belong to the Maccabeans. Photo by Israel Antiquities Authority.

Archaeologists ponder whether these tombs actually belong to the Maccabeans. Photo by Israel Antiquities Authority.

Of Interest to Christians. The Gospel of John records more visits to Jerusalem by Jesus than any other of the Gospels. John is the only one to record the visit during the Feast of Dedication.

At that time the Feast of Dedication took place at Jerusalem. It was winter,  and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the colonnade of Solomon. (John 10:22-23 ESV)

BDAG translates the Greek term egkainia as “festival of rededication.” The feast is also known as Hanukkah and the Feast of Lights.

What is the Feast of Dedication? This feast, observed on the 25th of Kislev (roughly our December), had its origin in the period between the testaments. The desecration of the temple by the Seleucid ruler Antiochus Epiphanes took place in 168 B.C. The climax of the Maccabean revolt was the removal of all evidences of pagan worship from the temple. An eight day feast of dedication was observed in 165 B.C., and continued to be observed annually by the Jews.

The current IAA news release may be read here.

One response to “In search of the Tombs of the Maccabees

  1. Pingback: Jesus in Jerusalem during Hanukkah | Ferrell's Travel Blog

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