Musée Condé, Chantilly, France/Lauros/Giraudon/Bridgeman Art Library

The Seleucid monarch Antiochus, who ruled over Judea in the second century B.C.E., tortures and kills seven Jewish brothers who refuse to worship pagan idols, in this illustration from a 15th-century edition of Josephus’s Jewish War. At lower left, Antiochus (wearing a crown) approaches the brothers; at right they are forced to bow down before a Jerusalem building transformed into a pagan temple by the addition of pig statues to the façade. The seven refuse and are brutally slaughtered in the background. The imposition of Greek pagan religion on Jews in Israel in the second century B.C.E. sparked a grassroots rebellion by the Maccabees, who defeated the Seleucids, cleansed the Jerusalem Temple of pagan idols and created an independent Jewish kingdom that lasted until the arrival of the Romans in 63 B.C.E.

According to Josephus, some Maccabees also forcibly converted their non-Jewish subjects by circumcising them against their will. Many scholars have suggested that the tremendous growth in Judaism in this period must be the result of forced conversions or other, less aggressive methods of missionizing. In the accompanying article, however, Shaye Cohen argues that this brief period of active conversion is the exception, not the rule. Judaism spread in the days of the Maccabees—but not because of the work of missionaries.