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The Maccabees

by Elizabeth McNamer

A week ago I had an early morning dental appointment. I usually read a chapter of Scripture early in the morning and the appointment was interfering with my schedule. I was reading the second book of Maccabees. —Never mind,— I said to myself, —they are bound to have a copy of the Bible at the dentist—s office and I can read while I wait.— Sure enough there was a copy of the Bible there, but no Maccabees. Protestant Bibles do not contain it. It was one of the seven books that Martin Luther considered of —dubious value— and it was not included in the Protestant canon. More on that later in the article.

Who Were the Maccabees?

Actually only one of the family was given the name Maccabee (the oldest son, Judas) but the name seems to have stuck to the rest of them. Maccabee means —hammer— and hammer they did—often at each other. Later they became known as the Hasmoneans. Whatever the name, it was they who challenged the rule of the Greeks in Israel some 200 years before Jesus, succeeded in ousting them and established autonomy for Israel for a brief period.

It all came about like this. When Alexander the Great died, having conquered the known world by the age of 33, his empire was divided between his generals Ptolemy and Seleucid. Palestine at first came under the jurisdiction of Ptolemy, who ruled Egypt, but in 223 b.c.e., after a battle between the Ptolomies and the Seleucids, it came within the orbit of Syria.

The Seleucid family had built themselves a magnificent city in Antioch and now, under the ruler Antiochus III, tried to fulfill Alexander—s dream of making the whole world Greek and forcing the conquered people to adopt Greek language, culture and religion. And why not? Surely these backwater people would be only too happy to convert to the superior Greek ways!

The section of the population that will follow anything that moves (and they have existed in all societies for all time) were only too happy to go along with him. They built a Greek gymnasium where men sported nude and —disguised their circumcision.— But the Greeks had not reckoned with the strength, tenacity and fervor of the majority of that small tribe who lived in Judea and who did not consider being Greek all that chic.

Antiochus IV succeeded his father in 175. He considered himself a god, Zeus, although conceding that there may be other gods as well. Political loyalty was shown by worshipping —Zeus— and submitting to his authority. Antiochus had not heard the first of the commandments of the Jewish people that there was but one God and his name was Yahweh.

Antiochus was constantly strapped for money. So he auctioned off the office of High Priest to the highest bidder. There were two buyers and Antiochus journeyed to Jerusalem where he discovered that the temple was full of treasures, which he appropriated and took back to Antioch after —he had spoken with great arrogance and shed much blood— (1 Macc 1:24). Two years later, he issued orders outlawing Jewish religion. Copies of the Torah were burnt, observance of the Sabbath was made a capital offense and mothers who circumcised their sons were put to death by being thrown down from the city walls.

A small section of the population again went along with the rules of Antiochus. But most resisted and went into hiding, where they continued to observe their ancient customs and laws.

The Hanukkah Connection

Then, —on the fifteenth day of the month of Chislev— this man from Antioch had a statue of Zeus erected in the temple in Jerusalem. Syrian soldiers went on a rampage, burning scrolls of the covenant, killing women and hanging their babies around their necks. On the altars in the temple, pigs were sacrificed to Zeus and Jews forced to partake in the sacrificial meal. The Jews could tolerate a lot, but being told what to eat was the last straw. Pigs were unclean animals. The second book of Maccabees tells us that one old man, Eleazer, refused his lunch and was sent to the torturer. The same book gives a vivid description of a mother who watched her seven sons killed rather than eat pork. Many fled the city and took refuge in the desert or in the mountains.

A clarion call came out of the woods: —Let everyone who is zealous for the law and who stands by the covenant follow me.— The voice of Mattathias was the spark needed to ignite the fire. By the hundreds they flocked to this brave man and his five strong sons and before the Greeks knew what was happening, Syrian soldiers were lying dead all over the countryside. As Mattathias lay dying he commissioned his son Judas to carry on. Within a relatively short time, Judas (—the hammer—) arrived in Jerusalem, reclaimed the Temple, threw out the statue of Zeus and rededicated the holy place. He found only enough oil for one day, but miraculously it lasted for the eight days of the rededication. The event is remembered every year with Hanukkah, the festival of lights.

The Maccabean Wars

The war continued under Judas, Jonathan and Simon and was extended into Galilee. At one point, Antiochus, who was vacationing in Persia, sent 32 elephants along with the army. The soldiers made them drunk on mulberry wine so that they would be all the more fierce! Perhaps on a battlefield the sight of drunken elephants might have caused panic, but the Maccabees were using guerrilla tactics and appearing now and then from the mountains and marshes.

They were not always the most admirable warriors. At one point they interrupted a wedding, killed the wedding party, made off with the wedding presents, and turned —their joyful music into funeral songs.— Their tactics paid off, though, and the Jews were able to establish a century of independence until the arrival of the Romans in 63 b.c.e.

What started out with such hope, pride and courage soon deteriorated. It has been said, —All power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.— The first generation of the family met violent deaths. Their progeny were to be a blight on the landscape of Judaism. They established themselves as kings, claimed for themselves the high priesthood, and —wore purple robes and crowns of gold.— Infighting among them was constant and bitter. Temple worship deteriorated so that it was no longer considered legitimate by many. The disappointed Jews divided into sects siding with or against the rulers: the Sadducees and Pharisees, and the Essenes. The unity that they had fought for so fiercely no longer mattered.

Religious Diversity

The Sadducees were the priestly aristocracy who were inclined to support the status quo. They traced their family to the Zadok high priests of David and Solomon. Sadducees were inclined to embrace Greek ways of dressing and speaking. They accepted the authority of the written law, but rejected the oral traditions and the books of the prophets. They did not believe in a resurrection or in reward or punishment after death.

Josephus says of them: —They take away fate entirely and say that all our actions are in our own hands, that we are ourselves the cause of what is good and receive what is evil from our own folly.—

Their views and practices often contradicted those of the Pharisees, who were lay teachers, experts in the law, who accepted and expanded the oral traditions. They developed a system of how every commandment should be observed that was much more demanding than the law itself. For example —thou shalt keep holy the Sabbath day— meant only walking two-thirds of a mile and refraining from all exertion. They regarded the Hasmoneans as not qualified to offer sacrifice in the temple and they made their stand known. On one occasion they incited the crowd to pelt Alexander Jannaeus with lemons that they had brought for a festival. They believed in fate and in resurrection.

The Essenes, under their leader, —the Teacher of Righteousness,— formed their own communities mainly in the wilderness. We know from the Dead Sea Scrolls (which they authored) that they did not regard the sacrifices offered in the temple as legitimate and they replaced sacrifice with ritual bathing several times a day. They shared their possessions, were mostly celibate and were strict interpreters of the law. The Essenes indeed believed in fate and in themselves being chosen as the —sons of light— to fight against the —sons of darkness.— Their canon of Scripture included the Torah, the Prophets and the writings.

At that stage in their history, the canon was still open and one was free to pick and choose. It would not be closed by the Jews until 90 c.e. at Jamnia ,when 39 books were regarded as authoritative. Jews who lived outside Palestine would pick and choose the books they wanted to include and there were 46 in their canon (known as the Alexandrian canon).

The Christian Canon

When Christianity came on the scene they chose 27 books for inclusion in the New Testament. Jerome, when he translated everything into Latin, used the Alexandrian canon. The version he compiled, the Vulgate, had 73 books. The Vulgate was the version of the Bible used by Christians for over a thousand years.

When Protestantism hit the scene in the 16th century, selection again became the order of the day. The books of Maccabees were not accepted by Luther, who may have used the Jamnian canon. Some suspect that Luther, who questioned indulgences and could not accept the doctrine of purgatory, did not like what he read in the second book of Maccabees—that it was judicious to pray for the dead that they may be freed from their sins.

When Luther claimed that Scripture alone should be referred to in formulating doctrine, he forgot for a moment that this was also the case with Catholics. Catholic theologians consult Scripture as well as Church tradition before coming up with a doctrine. The early Church fathers had worked out a teaching of purification for each individual and thus had set the seed for the doctrine of purgatory. It had been built on over the centuries and had officially been defined at the Council of Lyons in 1274. The scriptural passage for it is taken from the second book of Maccabees (12:42-45). Judas Maccabee had prayed for the dead: —He made provision for a sin offering to set free from their sin those who had died.—

Indulgences were of course another matter. At the time of the Crusades, when Christian knights were going off to fight the Muslims, who were promised heaven if killed in a holy war, the pope had promised an indulgence bypassing purgatory to those who died in the war for the Holy Places. In later times, indulgences were granted for saying certain prayers or doing certain acts. This left things wide open to abuse. When St. Peter—s was being built in Rome, indulgences were given to those who contributed money. This practice enraged many, including Luther. It certainly influenced him in his denial of purgatory.

The books of the Maccabees, often overlooked, teach us many other lessons. From them, we learn of the continuing care God had for his people Israel. The Maccabees did not give in to pagan oppressors. Other themes include life after death, the sanctity of the Temple and the importance of adherence to the law.

Without the Maccabee family, what would have become of Judaism? One can only speculate. Recently the Catholic Church has been commended by the Jews for saving an important part of its history from oblivion by retaining these books in the canon of Scripture.

Elizabeth McNamer, one of the general editors of Scripture From Scratch and a frequent contributor, has an M.A. in religious studies from Gonzaga University and a Ph.D. from Montana State University. She teaches at Rocky Mountain College in Billings.

Next: The Promise to David (by Virginia Smith)


Praying With Scripture

Read 2 Macc 1:24-29. Pray for all those who are suffering from religious or ethnic oppression.

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