Welcome to first and
second Maccabees! These books are
considered historical, regardless of whether one considers them scriptural or
not. They were not included in the first
century AD list of recognized Jewish scripture due to the community having no
extant copies in Hebrew, and Martin Luther took this as a cue to cut them from
the Protestant Bible, but Catholic scholars point out that the books are
liberally laced with Hebrew idioms and Hebrew-style poetry that indicates that
they were indeed translated from an older Hebrew manuscript long since lost,
since somebody starting in Greek would have written them in a style more
natural to that language.
These are not among those found in the Dead Sea Scrolls, because the sect who
wrote and preserved those scrolls had specifically split off from mainstream
Judaism in protest against the Maccabean/Hasmodian lineage of High Priests,
which they considered illegitimate. The
same group also excluded Esther in its entirety, probably because of Esther’s
marriage to a Pagan king.
Technically, “maccabee” means “hammer” and refers to the tale’s hero: Judas the
Hammer. But “Maccabees” soon extended to
Judas’s brothers, and then to his allies, and eventually became a title
bestowed on Jewish heroes in general.
The author of 1 Maccabees, probably a Palestinian Jew, wrote this a mere
century before Christ, and might have played a role in these events in his
youth, himself. He had a scholar’s grasp
of Jewish history and had access to accounts of these events, covering roughly
175 to 134 BC. His account, while
identical in some places to 2 Maccabees, is the more conservative of the two,
offering no thoughts on any afterlife beyond one’s fame outliving oneself, nor
overt hope in a Messiah, although some interpret “the days of Simon” as
messianic. He espouses basic
conservative Jewish values on the importance of keeping God’s covenant if you
want to preserve the nation. (At this point
“preserving the nation” simply means keeping the right to follow one’s own
customs, as they’ve long since been conquered.)
1) After Alexander the Macedonian, Philip’s son, who came
from the land of Kittim, had defeated Darius, king of the Persians and Medes,
he became king in his place, having first ruled in Greece.
Kittim originally meant “People from Kiti”, the capital of Cyprus, then
it meant all Cypriots, and then all Greeks.
People in the ancient world often did that, named whole peoples after
parts of their communities, and not always even the most important parts, but
whichever part they came in contact with first.
This matters. A great source of
antisemitism today comes from all of the tense references to “The Jews” in the
New Testament, such as “They were in hiding for fear of The Jews” or, “And the
Jews cried, ‘Crucify him!’ “ But the
actual word was “Judeans”. Romans
considered “Judean” synonymous with “Jew”, but the writers of the Gospel knew
the distinction all too keenly. Jesus
and his disciples came out of Galilee, a Jewish community to the north of
Judea, with Samaria in between, and Judeans did not like Galileans.
Jesus was born in Judea, but great opportunities for
carpenters and other contractors opened up in Nazareth in Galilee, the bedroom
community for the reconstruction of Sepphoris (originally conquered by the
Maccabees along with the rest of Galilee) which had been trashed in Jesus’s
childhood by a later Judas in an uprising, who also slew King Herod and thereby
made it safe for the Holy Family’s return from Egypt. The son and new King, also named Herod, then
renamed the city Autocratus and proclaimed that he would rebuild it as “The
Ornament of Galilee.” Romanized Noveau
Riche friends of Herod, filling in the social gap opened up by his slaughter of
the original priestly aristocracy, eventually came there to play and posture,
hobnobbing with socialites from all over the Empire and experimenting with
alien customs or improvising new decadences.
“Decent folks” weren’t supposed to have anything to do with the place.
Rebuilding the city was honest work, and a lot
steadier than carpenters were used to, and it enabled Joseph’s family to settle
down, but to the Judeans such work had a whiff of collaboration about it. They regarded all Galileans in general as
suspect (recognizing them by their accent) and dished out the same sort of
discrimination you can find anywhere in the world against the local designated
scapegoats. They weren’t as hated as the
Samaritans, who were not considered Jews at all (although the Samaritans
disagreed) and they weren’t branded as unclean, but still regarded as
So yeah, the Disciples of Christ, stranded in
Jerusalem after the crucifixion, hid out for fear of the Judeans. They knew that, whatever accusations might
arise against them, they wouldn’t get a fair trial the minute they opened their
mouths and a Galilean accent spilled out.
But this was a local dispute, not a justification for bigotry thousands
of years and miles later with people who don’t even know today whether they’re
descended of Judeans or Galileans.
Okay, so that was a total major digression spun off from explaining
“Kitim”. But it still matters.
2) He fought many battles, captured fortresses, and put
the kings of the earth to death.
to fighting battles and capturing fortresses, but most of the time he didn’t
kill off kings. He preferred to
negotiate and make existing kings his satraps, thereby keeping the gears of
bureaucracy running smoothly. And he
didn’t kill Darius, the Emperor of Persia; Persian traitors did that, and
Alexander ordered the traitors executed
(after a “crucifixion” that in those days simply meant exposing the Pretender
to the Throne naked for ridicule) for cheating him of any chance for a
diplomatic end to hostilities.
(Warning: I am an Alexander
3) He advanced to the ends of the earth,
gathering plunder from many nations; the earth fell silent before him, and his
heart became proud and arrogant. 4) He
collected a very strong army and won dominion over provinces, nations, and
rulers, and they paid him tribute.
Okay, that much I’ll grant, although the arrogance was mixed with
curious bouts of humility, whichever would win him the most popularity at the
time. At least he advanced to the ends
of the world that the author knew about.
(I’m kind of glad this stayed out of the Protestant Bible; otherwise
there’d be people trying to cite it as Biblical proof that Alexander reached
5) But after all this he took to his bed, realizing that
he was going to die.
Some say he died of a fever, some of drink, some of poison, some of a
broken heart. Since contemporaries had
hinted, “The poison was water” all four might be true. Even then people knew that some wells were
fit only to wash clothes in but not to drink.
One of his many enemies could have slipped disease-ridden water into the
glass that he’d be thirsty for after the frequent drinking-bouts that he
engaged in after the death of his boyfriend Hephastion some months before. Whatever the case, he lingered with a high
fever for some time, wandering in and out of delirium—a matter of historical
importance, as you will see.
6) So he summoned his noblest officers, who had been
brought up with him from his youth, and divided his kingdom among them while he
was still alive.
to summoning the officers whom he’d known since childhood. But divide the kingdom? Not quite.
Legend has it that in his last words he left the kingdom “to the
strongest”, thereby giving his successors an excuse to tear his empire apart
with wars over who’d get what tidbit.
Some historians, however, have said that the name of his regent in
Macedonia, Antipater, resembles a Greek word that could be construed as “the strongest”
if one were to mumble it in a fever. I
haven’t been able to track down that word, though. In any case he could hardly speak; nobody can
say for sure what he intended to say. So
the empire was never tidily divided, but rather ripped at swordpoint and
constantly disputed. This matters to the
rest of the Books of Maccabees.
7Alexander had reigned twelve years when he died.
Depends on your reckoning. He
reigned from 336 to 323 BC. The dust
settled after “the strongest” duked it out roughly around 300-305 BC, and even afterwards
borders shifted around in various political earthquakes.
8) So his officers took over his kingdom,
each in his own territory, 9)
and after his death they all put on diadems, and so did their sons after them for many years,
multiplying evils on the earth.
Most of them made short shrift of Alexander’s principles of tolerance
and local rule, revoking all of his most liberal laws and becoming petty
tyrants. In contrast, the Ptolemies,
founded by Alexander’s older half-brother Ptolemy I, held to these principles,
more or less. Ptolemy I quietly took
over Egypt without much fight and waited patiently for the rest of “The
Successors” to knock themselves out. He
and his heirs respected local custom (perhaps a bit too much when they embraced
dynastic incest along with the title of Pharaoh) and pretty much let people
live according to their own ways. But
the rest of the Successors were bent on proving Greek superiority in all
things, and called their subjects barbarians.
This matters because for many years Israel and Judea fell under the
jurisdiction of Egypt and enjoyed the freedom to practice their Jewishness
“Diadems” refer to decorated white cloth headbands denoting kingship, not the
lacy metallic hair ornaments of little girls playing princess. Although that does make for a cute picture.
10) There sprang from these a sinful
offshoot, Antiochus Epiphanes, son of King Antiochus, once a hostage at Rome.
He became king in the one hundred and thirty-seventh year of the kingdom of the Greeks.
COMMENTARY: In those days rulers would cool down tensions
between nations or states by swapping their children. This way neither side would dare attack the
other for fear of hurting their own kids; it confronted them with the awfulness
of “collateral damage” up close and personal.
These “hostages” would live by the customs of their host country and
often receive a full education in all the arts necessary for a monarch-to-be,
as understood from the perspective of the host country. The point was that Antiochus was not just
Greek, but a seriously Romanized Greek.
always this pleasant to be a hostage.
Vlad the Impaler, AKA Dracula, spent his days as a Turkish hostage
imprisoned in the dark, allegedly for not being as cooperative when sodomized
as his brother. Hence both his
reputation for sensitivity to light and his penchant for impaling Turks and
eventually anybody who crossed him.)
record, you will find a different year given in 2 Maccabees. That’s because this reckoning goes by the
Antiochan/Syrian calendar, used in everyday business, but in 2 Maccabees they
use the Temple calendar, used for religious events.
11) In those days there appeared in Israel transgressors
of the law who seduced many, saying: “Let us go and make a covenant with the
Gentiles all around us; since we separated from them, many evils have come upon
theme running throughout the Deuterocanonical books is “many evils have come
upon us from letting go of our Jewish roots” but they wouldn’t have felt moved
to say so if nobody had ever said the opposite.
12) The proposal was agreeable; 13) some from among the people promptly went
to the king, and he authorized them to introduce the ordinances of the
Consistently the authors of the Maccabees puts more blame on apostate
Jews than on Greeks whom they could presume to not know any better.
14) Thereupon they built a gymnasium in Jerusalem according to the Gentile custom.
COMMENTARY: The gymnasium became the center of Greek
culture wherever they colonized. Not
only was it where sports took place (luring in the youth) but also
philosophical discussions, training in citizenship, and military drill.
had to let go of your old customs as the price of admission, starting with your
clothes. “gymnasium” literally means
“naked place”, as athletes performed their sports in the nude. (Males did.
In the rare gymnasiums that admitted females, they wore skimpy garments
remarkably like bikinis.) Near
Easterners considered nudity a great disgrace, reserved for convicts, slaves
and fishermen. But at the gymnasium you
not only stripped naked in public, wrestled naked, and performed various
athletic feats naked, you also afterwards oiled each other’s naked bodies and
scraped them clean again, which would be disorienting by itself to a culture
that prized bodily privacy.
difference in societal sexual expectations upped the ante even further. Gymnasiums were also same-sex pick-up parlors,
specifically where adults went looking for minors, as part of a youth’s
training for adulthood. In its own
cultural context, back in Greece, it might not have done harm, but imposed on a
different culture with different mores it could devastate a boy who found out
too late exactly what he’d signed up for.
It wasn’t simply an accepted alternative for the 2-10% of the population
naturally inclined that way, but an expected norm for all boys, with
considerable societal pressure to conform within the gymnasium, and equally
considerable social pressure to do no such thing in the surrounding Jewish
culture. A split had to happen
As mentioned before, philosophers hung out in gymnasiums, teaching the young
boys the values of Greece. Doubtless
much of it did them good—anybody can use a solid grounding in logic, for
instance. But the discussions also
included a good deal of Paganism, and many Jewish boys became converts to the
worship of various Greek deities. It
also included misogyny, a harsher concept of slavery, admiration for skill at
deceit, a mind/body split, the idea that pity was the basest of emotions, and
many other concepts alarming to Jewish parents.
So “building a gymnasium” meant a whole lot more to this community than, say,
building a local “Boys and Girl’s Club” would mean to us. People felt that their children were being
taken away from them. Teenagers, caught
at the age most mistrustful of parents anyway, felt that they had to choose
between hating everything their parents stood for or becoming social outcasts.
15) They disguised their circumcision and abandoned the
holy covenant; they allied themselves with the Gentiles and sold themselves to
they did have plastic surgery to make a penis appear uncircumcised—important
for boys wanting to appear Greek in the naked place. As for “sold themselves to wrongdoing” that’s
literal; male prostitution also sometimes took place at gymnasiums. It was, among other things, one way to get
the cash for plastic surgery.
his kingdom seemed secure, Antiochus undertook to become king of the land of
Egypt and to rule over both kingdoms.
here we get to the turning point. The
Ptolemies would build a gymnasium if you asked for one, but wouldn’t force
anybody to go there. Antiochus and the
other Seleucids, on the other hand, had a more aggressive attitude about spreading
“superior” Greek culture.
17) He invaded Egypt with a strong force,
with chariots, elephants and
cavalry, and with a large fleet, 18to
make war on Ptolemy, king of Egypt. Ptolemy was frightened at his presence
and fled, and many were wounded and fell dead.
COMMENTARY: Elephants made a huge strategic advantage;
primarily in psychological warfare. (The
first time Alexander the Great faced a battle against elephants he made a
sacrifice to Phobos, Greek God of Fear, lest his men panic on the battlefield
at their first sight of the beasts of war.
He got better than he bargained for when King Darius fled in blind panic
before him.) Few armies had them and
most soldiers went their whole lives without ever seeing one, though they’d
heard of them. Pictures of elephants in
lands without them usually depicted them about the size of large cattle and
that seemed fearsome enough, especially with great tusks coming out of their
mouths. The direct confrontation, from a
position of ignorance, could drive men mad with fear.
Egypt, they regularly saw the tusks imported from more southern parts of
Africa, and those alone looked frightening enough, but nobody had succeeded in
domesticating African elephants. Small
wonder then that this particular Ptolemy disgraced his office and his much
braver ancestor (who did ride against Elephants under Alexander and acquitted
himself well) by fleeing in panic. We’re
so used to seeing photos and films of things that we will never lay eyes on
personally that we can hardly imagine the shock of seeing something that
different from one’s limited experience.
For the record, practically every Greek ruler in Egypt was named either Ptolemy
or Cleopatra, depending on gender.
Interestingly, this Ptolemy (Ptolomy IV Philometer) happened to also be
the nephew of Antiochus.
19) The fortified cities in the land of Egypt were
captured, and Antiochus plundered the land of Egypt.
thus Israel and Judea also fell into his hands.
In those days the Jewish nations belonged to whoever conquered their
20 After Antiochus had defeated Egypt in the one hundred
and forty-third year, he returned and went up against Israel and against
Jerusalem with a strong force.
Maccabees mentions that it took two expeditions to defeat Egypt first. 1 Maccabees just cuts to the chase. In this case Israel and Jerusalem (more
specifically Israel and her rival Judea which holds Jerusalem) fight not as
sovereign nations but as a surviving outpost of the Egyptian empire.
21) He insolently entered the sanctuary and took away the golden altar, the lampstand for the
light with all its utensils, 22) the
offering table, the cups and bowls, the golden censers, and the curtain. The
cornices and the golden ornament on the facade of the temple—he stripped it all
off. 23) And he took away the
silver and gold and the precious vessels; he also took all the hidden treasures
he could find. 24) Taking all this, he went back to
his own country. He shed much blood and spoke with great arrogance.
COMMENTARY: He felt that he had to loot anything he could
grab, to pay off his soldiers after such an expensive and far-flung
enterprise. But Alexander never took
temple goods, no matter where he went, amid much criticism back in Greece for
his “superstitiousness”. He took pains
not to offend local deities, no matter how strange to him. So this looting wasn’t something the
community felt psychologically prepared for, even though something similar had
happened in the distant past.
25) And there was great mourning throughout all Israel,
26) and the rulers and the elders groaned.
Young women and men
and the beauty of the
27) Every bridegroom took up lamentation,
while the bride sitting in
her chamber mourned,
28) And the land quaked on account of its inhabitants,
and all the house of Jacob
was clothed with shame.
Here we have one of those songs in the Jewish style that leads Catholic
scholars to believe that 1 Maccabees is a Greek translation of an older Jewish
years later, the king sent the Mysian commander to the cities of Judah, and he
came to Jerusalem with a strong force.
2 Maccabees he is identified as “Apollonius, commander of the Mysians” (Mysians
being mercenaries of Asia Minor) and so that impacted translating this passage
in 1 Maccabees into English, calling him a commander here as well. The original Greek said “chief collector of
tribute” which scholars believe to be a mistranslation of the most likely
Hebrew words in the hypothetical original.
30) He spoke to them deceitfully in
peaceful terms, and they believed him. Then he attacked the city suddenly, in a
great onslaught, and destroyed many of the people in Israel.
Greeks admired skill at lying, and prowess at catching liars in the act. But the Jews did not respect it and had less
experience with it.
31) He plundered the city and set fire to
it, demolished its houses and its surrounding walls. 32) And they took captive the women and
children, and seized the animals.
Another departure from the ways of Alexander, who forbade enslaving
noncombatants, executed any soldier who raped an enemy woman, and paid a
handsome dowry to any soldier who would marry his foreign camp-follower (most
of these got divorced while the generals were still fighting—literally—over
Alexander’s cooling corpse.) (For the
record, Ptolemy the First got the body, mummified it, and took it with great
ceremony to Alexandria in Egypt. It is
suspected to have eventually wound up jumbled in with a bunch of Coptic monk
bones to keep it from being destroyed by later generations with a bone to pick
with his legacy, if you’ll pardon the pun.)
Remembering Esther’s distress at being forced into marriage even with a
king, the community saw the taking of the women as an enormous tragedy.
33) Then they built up the City of David
with a high, strong wall and strong towers, and it became their citadel.
“Fortress” might be a more accurate translation. This is where not only Seleucid Greeks and foreign
mercenaries made their stand, but also renegade Jewish allies.
34) There they installed a sinful race,
transgressors of the law, who fortified themselves inside it.
COMMENTARY: He’s referring to those Jews who favored
35) They stored up weapons and provisions, depositing
there the plunder they had collected from Jerusalem, and they became a great
36) The citadel became an ambush against the sanctuary,
and a wicked adversary to
Israel at all times.
37) They shed innocent blood around the sanctuary;
they defiled the
38) Because of them the inhabitants of Jerusalem fled
she became the abode of
She became a stranger to
her own offspring,
and her children forsook
39) Her sanctuary became desolate as a wilderness;
her feasts were turned
Her sabbaths to shame,
her honor to contempt.
40) As her glory had been, so great was her dishonor:
her exaltation was turned
COMMENTARY: As you can see, the text slips into classic
Jewish poetry mode again. As to what it
refers to, archaeology shows the “citadel”
ruins disturbingly close to those of the temple. It would have loomed over any Jewish pilgrim
trying to sneak in to perform sacrifice in the only approved location.
41) Then the king wrote to his whole kingdom that all
should be one people, 42) and abandon
their particular customs. All the Gentiles conformed to the command of the
king, 43) and many Israelites delighted in his
religion; they sacrificed to idols and profaned the sabbath.
age of Ptolemaic tolerance is over. And
the graduates of the gymnasium couldn’t be happier.
44) The king sent letters by messenger to
Jerusalem and to the cities of Judah, ordering them to follow customs foreign
to their land; 45) to prohibit burnt
offerings, sacrifices, and libations in the sanctuary, to profane the sabbaths
and feast days, 46) to desecrate the
sanctuary and the sacred ministers, 47)
to build pagan altars and temples and shrines, to
sacrifice swine and unclean animals, 48)
to leave their sons uncircumcised, and to defile
themselves with every kind of impurity and abomination; 49) so that they might forget the law and
change all its ordinances. 50)
Whoever refused to act according to the command of the
king was to be put to death.
other words, they were colonized. You
can’t completely defeat a people until you obliterate their culture. But this can have unforeseen
consequences. Alcoholism and other
substance problems proliferate most widely, throughout the world, wherever you
find religious/cultural suppression, from Ireland to Australia. Not that this comes up in these books, but it
shows the deep impact.
51) In words such as these he wrote to his
whole kingdom. He appointed inspectors over all the people, and he ordered the
cities of Judah to offer sacrifices, each city in turn. 52) Many of the people, those who
abandoned the law, joined them and committed evil in the land. 53) They drove Israel into hiding, wherever places of
refuge could be found.
Again the author emphasizes that the people did this to their own. When we think of the sort of aggression that
in its larval form manifests as schoolyard bullying, we think of the bullies
and the victims, but we often overlook a significant third group: the kids who
cheer the bully on and back him up, out of fear of being the victim, or
sadistic delight in having somebody act out their aggressions for them.
This carries on into adulthood. No
tyrant anywhere can hold sway all by himself.
In addition to a dedicated band of fellow bullies, he also needs a large
body of people who let him get away with it.
54) On the fifteenth day of the month
Kislev, in the year one hundred and forty-five, the king erected the desolating abomination upon the
altar of burnt offerings, and in the surrounding cities of Judah they built
That would be December 6, 167 BC.
In Hebrew, “Desolating Abomination” would be a pun on “Lord of Heaven” a
common title for supreme deities, in this case most likely Zeus. (More evidence of an original Hebrew
manuscript, since the pun doesn’t work in Greek.) Most likely Antiochus placed a statue of Zeus
in the sanctuary. And yes, he did
sacrifice a pig on the burnt-offering altar formerly consecrated to the God of
Israel who forbade pork.
55) They also burned incense at the doors
of houses and in the streets.
not sure what this is about. I do know
that there is a recipe in the Bible for a specific incense that must only be
burnt in the temple. I wonder if that’s
what they burned in any old place. Or
maybe it was a Pagan ritual that I’ve never heard of, which would pretty much
cover most of them.
56) Any scrolls of the law that they found they tore up and burned.
That would be one or more of the first books of the Old Testament, the
foundation of the Jewish religion and the source of all its rules. All else is elaboration.
57) Whoever was found with a scroll of the
covenant, and whoever observed the law, was condemned to death by royal decree.
far cry from enticing youths to play in the gymnasium.
58) So they used their power against
Israel, against those who were caught, each month, in the cities. 59) On the twenty-fifth day of each month
they sacrificed on the pagan altar that was over the altar of burnt offerings. 60) In keeping with the decree, they put
to death women who had their children circumcised, 61) and they hung their babies from their necks; their
families also and those who had circumcised them were killed.
persecution of dissenters became part of the regular sacred ritual. That would make it harder to break free,
tangling it with spiritual guilt if you didn’t comply.
62) But many in Israel were determined and
resolved in their hearts not to eat anything unclean; 63) they preferred to die rather than to
be defiled with food or to profane the holy covenant; and they did die.
there a principle that you would rather die than violate?
64)And very great wrath came upon Israel.
COMMENTARY: Well, yeah, I’d be angry, too.