plural noun

Mac·​ca·​bees ˈma-kə-(ˌ)bēz How to pronounce Maccabees (audio)
: 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.
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
Maccabean adjective

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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.

Examples of Maccabees in a Sentence

Recent Examples on the Web The Jewish festival celebrates the revolt of the Maccabees against Greek rule. Loveday Morris, Washington Post, 16 Dec. 2023 But the more historic recounting of the Hanukkah story is told in the Book of Maccabees. TIME, 11 Dec. 2023 After the Maccabees recaptured ancient Jerusalem, the lamp in the temple only had enough oil for one night, yet miraculously burned for eight nights. Amanda Ogle, Southern Living, 22 Nov. 2023 Advertisement Hanukkah, which is Dec. 7 to 15 this year, commemorates the victory of a small Judean army called Maccabees over the ancient Greeks, and the rededication of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. Leah Koenig, Los Angeles Times, 22 Nov. 2023 Former The Maccabees frontman Orlando Weeks’ could nab a solo top 40 appearance with The Gritterman (Blood), the original soundtrack to his debut book of the same name. Lars Brandle, Billboard, 10 Jan. 2023 Hanukkah, or the Festival of Lights, celebrates the victory of the Jewish Maccabees over Syria's brutally repressive Seleucid Empire in the 2nd century. Justin Klawans, The Week, 18 Dec. 2022 The eight-day Jewish holiday, also known as the Festival of Lights, commemorates the historic victory of the Hebrew Maccabees over the Syrian Greek army and the subsequent miracle of an oil lamp that remained lit for eight days in Jerusalem’s holy temple. Peggy Fletcher Stack, The Salt Lake Tribune, 17 Dec. 2022 Their victory is documented in the First and Second Book of Maccabees. Leah Silverman, Town & Country, 15 Dec. 2022 See More

These examples are programmatically compiled from various online sources to illustrate current usage of the word 'Maccabees.' Any opinions expressed in the examples do not represent those of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback about these examples.

Word History


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

First Known Use

1702, in the meaning defined at sense 1

Time Traveler
The first known use of Maccabees was in 1702

Dictionary Entries Near Maccabees

Cite this Entry

“Maccabees.” Dictionary, Merriam-Webster, Accessed 22 Feb. 2024.

Kids Definition


Mac·​ca·​bees ˈmak-ə-bēz How to pronounce Maccabees (audio)
: either of two narrative and historical books included in the Roman Catholic canon of the Old Testament and in the Protestant Apocrypha see bible

Biographical Definition


biographical name

Mac·​ca·​bees ˈma-kə-ˌbēz How to pronounce Maccabees (audio)
Judas or Judah died 161 b.c. surname Maccabaeus ˌma-kə-ˈbē-əs How to pronounce Maccabees (audio) Jewish patriot

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