Each issue carries an
Archdiocese of Cincinnati.
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
Next: The Promise to David (by Virginia Smith)