The Death of Elazar in the Battle of Beit Zekharia

Meir Bar-Ilan

The death of Elazar the Hashmonaite under the elephant in the battle of Beit Zekharia, as is described in Mac I 6:28-47, is one of the most famous heroic scenes in the history of the Jews of the Second Commonwealth. Lately some doubts concerning the way Elazar got killed have been rised by B. Bar-Kokhba. Though the source was credited in principle, it was argued that there are few details because of the 'mist of the battle'.

The discussion hereafter shows a 'new' source concerning the Maccabees: the Scroll of Antiochus, a small Aramaic book, composed in the Land of Israel in one of the early centuries of this era. According to this source, Elazar did not die heroically in killing an elephant but rather was drowned in elephants' sewage.

The paper aims to analyze which of the testimonies is historically authentic by using uniform parameters. These parameters are as follows: the source of the testimony, its tendentiousness, its possibility, its existence as a literary motif, and even its length. A detailed analysis of the two testimonies leads to the conclusion that only the source from the Scroll of Antiochus reflects historical reality while the well-known heroic story reflects the tendency of heroization of the Maccabees, a story that was composed by a 'formal' writer who was close to the Maccabees' regime.

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last updated: September 22, 1997