Maccabees, the name of a family of Jewish patriots. They established the Maccabaean, or Hasmonaean, dynasty that ruled Judah (part of Palestine) during the second and first centuries B.C. Their heroic struggle for religious freedom is told in I Maccabees and II Maccabees, books of the Catholic Bible and the Protestant Apocrypha.

In 167 B.C. the Syrian-Greek ruler of the Jews, King Antiochus IV Epiphanes, forcibly established an idol in the Temple at Jerusalem and ordered the building of altars throughout Palestine for the compulsory worship of heathen gods. Mattathias, a Jewish priest of Modin, a little town near Jerusalem, killed the first Jew to approach the local altar. He and his five sons then fled to the mountains to take up arms.

On his death in 166 B.C., Mattathias was succeeded by his son Judas. An outstanding leader, Judas defeated several Syrian armies, entered Jerusalem in 165, and rededicated the Temple. This act is commemorated by the Jewish feast of Hanukkah. Judas received the surname Maccabaeus (“the hammerer”).

After Judas' death in battle in 160 B.C. the fight for independence from Syria was continued by his brother Jonathan. Another brother, Simon, succeeded Jonathan in 143 B.C. and won independence for Judah the next year. The rank of high priest—political and religious head of state—was given to Simon and his descendants. The dynasty ended in 37 B.C. during Roman rule.