The book of Maccabees is one of the apocryphal or deutero-canonical books of the Bible. It shouldn’t be confused with things like The Gospel of Judas, and the Gnostic writings. It dates from about the 2nd century BC, and was accepted as part of the Bible up until the Protestant Reformation. Proof texts for prayer for the dead and for a general resurrection on the last day are found in either 2 Maccabees, and the Biblical version of the foundation of Hanukkah is found in both 1 and 2 Maccabees.
There are two books 1 and 2 Maccabees that are accepted into the Catholic/Orthodox Bible, but there are others as well that are not accepted. We’re going to deal solely with 1 and 2 Maccabees.
1 Maccabees—This opens with the conquest of Israel by the Greeks under Alexander the Great. Under the Seleucid dynasty, specifically Antiochus Epiphanes, whom we met when we were doing Livy. Under Antiochus a set of renegades emerge who adopt Greek customs. This includes using a gymnasium. Modern people don’t wear much when working out in a gym, and some of the women’s outfits are extremely provocative, but in an ancient gym the outfits weren’t even there. Gymnos means naked. So in order to fit in the Hellenizing Jews “disguised their circumcision” (1:16). Presumably there was a bull market in fake foreskins.
Antiochus ransacked and defiled the temple, and persecuted the faithful Jews. He leaves, and two years later sends the mysarch, the commander of Mysian soldiers to Jerusalem. He attempts to enforce uniformity by demanding that the people give up their customs
In Chapter 2 Mattahias and his sons, the Maccabees, revolt against the king. Some of the devout were encamped in the desert when they were attacked by the king’s forces on the sabbath. Rather than fight, and break the sabbath, they die. This prompts Judas Maccabaeus to decide that if they are attacked on the sabbath, they will defend themselves. (Sidenote: In the movie Gods and Generals Stonewall Jackson is shown as having qualms about fighting on Sunday. Jackson was a Presbyterian who didn’t acknowledge the canonicity of Maccabees. Had he acknowledged it, he could have turned to its example for fighting on Sundays.)
Mattathias dies, and is succeeded by Judas Maccabaeus. Rather than going into a detailed exposition of both books, I’ll try very quickly to hit the highlights.
In Chapter 6 we get a description of elephants in warfare that is reminiscent of what we saw in Livy. He gives a more detailed description though. The elephants are distributed among the phalanxes. Each elephant has a thousand armored infantry assigned to it, and five hundred horsement. The cavalry works with the elephant and anticipates its moves. (1 Maccabees 6:34-8)
In chapter 8 we get a eulogy of the Romans. Judea was not yet a Roman province, In the old Douay-Rheims (17th century translation that was the Catholic counterpart to the Protestant King James version) Maccabees stood at the end of the OT. In newer translations, such as the Jerusalem Bible that I’m using, it’s in the middle.) In the older Bibles you would cover a period of almost 200 years when you turned from Maccabees to Matthew, and move from a world in which the Romans are the good guys to one in which they are the villains.
The result of the diplomacy with the Romans was that Israel was granted the status of Friend and Ally of the Roman people.
In Chapter 12 Jonathan, the successor of Judas, forms an alliance with the Spartans. The high priest Onias, 150 years earlier, had initiated relations with the Spartans, and maintained that they were brothers. I don’t think this is likely, at least as far as linguistics is any indication. Greek is an Indo-European language while Hebrew is a Semitic language. It is more likely that Jews have closer ties to Arabs than to Greeks.
Book 1 ends about 130 BC with the Jews free of foreign domination, and with John, the son of Simon as high priest.
II Maccabees is a different approach to the first part of I Maccabees. It was originally written in Greek, and the author seems to have a sense of humor. It opens with a letter to the Jews in Egypt, and gives thanks for the punishment of Antiochus. This author is quite bloodthirsty. Whenever a bad guy meets his end, the author can be counted on to say “Boy, did he ever deserve it.” 2:19 is the beginning of the compiler’s preface. He says “we have aimed at providing diversion for those who merely want something to read, a saving of labor for those who enjoy committing things to memory, and profit for each and all” (2:25).
Chapter 6 is about the imposition of the pagan cults, and the martyrdom of Eleazar. Chapter 7 is sometimes the OT reading in RC churches. (I forget the Sunday and the cycle year.) This concerns the martyrdom of the 7 brothers and their mother.
From 12:38-45 we get the story of the sacrifice for the fallen. The author contends that the sacrifice would have been ineffective if there were no resurrection from the dead. So here we have a reason to pray for the dead.
Chapter 15 sees the end of the conflict with Nicanor, and the end of this segment of history. The compiler notes “If it is well composed and to the point, that is just what I wanted. If it is trashy and mediocre, that is all I could manage” (15:37).
Both I and II Maccabees read more like modern books than parts of the Bible. That may be one reason that the reformers didn’t like them. I think they are rather breezy, and fun to read, not as funny as Jonah perhaps, but interesting.
In June I think I’ll do Thomas Merton’s Wisdom of the Desert. I’m getting flack from my POSSLQ about spending too much on books, so for the spiritual side of this blog I’ll do one or two that I already own.