plural noun Mac·ca·bees \ˈma-kə-(ˌ)bēz\

Definition of Maccabees

  1. 1 :  a priestly family leading a Jewish revolt begun in 168 b.c. against Hellenism and Syrian rule and reigning over Palestine from 142 b.c. to 63 b.c.

  2. 2 singular in construction :  either of two narrative and historical books included in the Roman Catholic canon of the Old Testament and in the Protestant Apocrypha — see bible table


play \ˌma-kə-ˈbē-ən\ adjective

Where does the word macabre come from?

We trace the origins of macabre to the name of the Book of Maccabees which is included in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox canons of the Old Testament and in the Protestant Apocrypha. Sections of this biblical text address both the deaths of faithful people asked to renounce their religion and the manner in which the dead should be properly commemorated. The latter includes a discussion of praying for the souls of the dead, which was important in the development of the notion of purgatory and a happy afterlife for those persecuted for their religion. In medieval France, representations of these passages were performed as a procession or dance which became known as the “dance of death” or “dance Maccabee,” which was spelled in several different ways, including danse macabre.

In English, macabre was originally used in reference to this “dance of death” and then gradually became used more broadly, referring to anything grim or gruesome. It has come to be used as a synonym of horrible or distressing, always with a connection to the physical aspects of death and suffering.

Origin and Etymology of maccabees

Greek Makkabaioi, from plural of Makkabaios, surname of Judas Maccabaeus 2nd century b.c. Jewish patriot

First Known Use: 15th century


biographical name Mac·ca·bees \ˈma-kə-ˌbēz\

Definition of Maccabees

  1. Judas or Judah died 161 b.c. surname Mac*ca*ba*eusplay \ˌma-kə-ˈbē-əs\ Jewish patriot

Learn More about maccabees

Seen and Heard

What made you want to look up Maccabees? Please tell us where you read or heard it (including the quote, if possible).


feeling or affected by lethargy

Get Word of the Day daily email!


Take a 3-minute break and test your skills!

  • ludwig-richter-spring-has-arrived
  • Which is a synonym of upbraid?
Name That Thing

Test your visual vocabulary with our 10-question challenge!


Test Your Knowledge - and learn some interesting things along the way.