Chapter 1

1 Maccabees 1

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.

COMMENTARY:  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 less-than.


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.

COMMENTARY:  Yes 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 Nerd.)



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.


COMMENTARY:  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 the Americas.)



5) But after all this he took to his bed, realizing that he was going to die.

COMMENTARY:  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.

COMMENTARY:  Yes 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.


COMMENTARY:  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.


COMMENTARY:  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 unmolested.

“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.


(It wasn’t 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.)


For the 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 us.”


COMMENTARY:  The 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 Gentiles.


COMMENTARY:  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.


But you 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.


A 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 somewhere.

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 wrongdoing.


COMMENTARY:  Yes, 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.



16) When his kingdom seemed secure, Antiochus undertook to become king of the land of Egypt and to rule over both kingdoms.


COMMENTARY:  And 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.


As for 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.


COMMENTARY:  And thus Israel and Judea also fell into his hands.  In those days the Jewish nations belonged to whoever conquered their conquerors.



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.


COMMENTARY:  2 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 languished,

and the beauty of the women faded.

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.


COMMENTARY:  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 manuscript.



29) Two years later, the king sent the Mysian commander to the cities of Judah, and he came to Jerusalem with a strong force.


COMMENTARY:  In 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.


COMMENTARY:  The 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.


COMMENTARY:  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.


COMMENTARY:  “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 Seleucid rule.



35) They stored up weapons and provisions, depositing there the plunder they had collected from Jerusalem, and they became a great snare.

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 sanctuary.

38) Because of them the inhabitants of Jerusalem fled away,

she became the abode of strangers.

She became a stranger to her own offspring,

and her children forsook her.

39) Her sanctuary became desolate as a wilderness;

her feasts were turned into mourning,

Her sabbaths to shame,

her honor to contempt.

40) As her glory had been, so great was her dishonor:

her exaltation was turned into mourning.


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.


COMMENTARY:  The 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.


COMMENTARY:  In 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.


COMMENTARY:  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 pagan altars.


COMMENTARY:  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.


COMMENTARY:  I’m 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.


COMMENTARY:  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.


COMMENTARY:  A 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.


COMMENTARY:  So 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.


COMMENTARY:  Is 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.

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