Chapter 1

2 Maccabees 1

Letter 1: 124 B.C.

1)  The Jews in Jerusalem and in the land of Judea send greetings to their kindred, the Jews in Egypt, and wish them true peace!

COMMENTARY:  The date (added by later scholars, of course, and not an actual part of scripture) places this within the reign of King John Hyrcanus, Son of Simon Thassi.  It seems to have gone to Alexandria, where the largest Jewish community resided.

Who were these Egyptian Jews?  Primarily, they would have settled mainly in Alexandria, where they’d had a presence since the city’s founding under Alexander the Great.  After Alexander’s death, the first Ptolemy (one of Alexander’s favorite generals and rumored to be his half-brother) took ~120,000 Jewish captives there, but gave them their own section near to Alexandria, rich in fertile land, where they could maintain their own customs.  Soon after they received their freedom (I’m not sure of the politics as to why they were taken captive in the first place) but many elected to stay, and many more left Judea and Israel to join them.  On top of the high quality farmland and pasturage, they also enjoyed considerable freedom and were, throughout most of their history, well-treated.  Even under the Romans later, the Jewish community of Alexandra had more freedom and independence than Jews anywhere else, including in their homeland.  Mary and Joseph most likely fled with the baby Jesus to this community.

However, an even older Jewish presence in Egypt dated back to around 650 BC.  They practicing a synchretic religious mix with features of Babylonian polytheism, and were probably mixed Judeans and Samaritans.

During the Ptolemaic era Jews continued to emigrate from Judea to Egypt to join this community, many of them Hellenized.  It was Hellenized Jews who first translated the Old Testament into Greek here in 132 BC—a translation sometimes meeting with controversy to this day.  This translation became the basis for later Christian translations into Old Latin, Old Slavonic, Syriac, Old Armenian, Old Georgian and Coptic.

However, at the time of this letter the Egyptian laws concerning Jews had begun to become oppressive.  I can only wonder if the Maccabean Revolt had made other Jewish communities around the Mediterranean suspect to their overlords.  Naturally, if the citizens hadn’t been restless before, the crackdowns assured that they would be.



2)  May God do good to you and remember his covenant with his faithful servants, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob,

COMMENTARY:  A fitting greeting for a people unhappy enough to worry about whether God had forgotten them.



3)  give to all of you a heart to worship him and to do his will wholeheartedly and with a willing spirit, 4)  open your heart to his law and commandments and grant you peace,

COMMENTARY:  These had not been the most orthodox or devout of Jews, prior to the crackdown.  The purpose of the book which this letter introduces was to inspire them to return to the fold, and to fill in the gaps in the knowledge of this separated community.



5)  hear your prayers, and be reconciled to you, and never forsake you in time of adversity.

COMMENTARY:  “Be reconciled to you” is a telling phrase.  We’re talking about a community repenting having drifted away from the doctrines espoused by the Maccabees.  Evidently they also live in fear of adversity and hope to get back in God’s grace before too late.



6)  Even now we are praying for you here.

COMMENTARY:  Very reassuring to this community, as quite a number of them had fathers who’d fought against Judas Maccabee.  Now they’re stuck in the middle.



7) In the reign of Demetrius, the one hundred and sixty-ninth year, we Jews wrote to you during the height of the distress that overtook us in those years after Jason and his followers revolted against the holy land and the kingdom,

COMMENTARY:  That would be Demetrius II, and the year (as reckoned by the Seleucid calendar) 143 B.C.  This is the same Demetrius who wound up captured in battle three years later, in 1 Maccabees 14.  Anyway that’s not the date of this letter, but when this writer had penned a previous letter to the community in Alexandria. 


The “Jason” mentioned here is not the messenger sent to Rome in the last book, but somebody completely different who will be revealed later.  You will recall that 1 Maccabees began with “some people” becoming enamored of Greek ways  2 Maccabees names names and goes into details not covered in its predecessor.  Some of the people receiving this missive are in fact descendants of the followers of Jason, though not, of course, all.  This book (and apparently the previous letter) tells Judea’s side to people who have only heard the Hellenized version of events.



8) set fire to the gatehouse and shed innocent blood. But we prayed to the Lord, and our prayer was heard; we offered sacrifices and fine flour; we lighted the lamps and set out the loaves of bread.

COMMENTARY:  They mean the deliverance of the country from oppression, which this writer attributes to prayer and correct observation of ritual primarily.  He wants to impress on these people a practical side to maintaining ritual—the promise of gaining God’s mercy and aid against their enemies.



9)  We are now reminding you to celebrate the feast of Booths in the month of Kislev.

COMMENTARY:  This is not the original Feast of Booths, but the new holiday, in the month of Kislev (partially in our November and partially in our December) commemorating the rededication of the Temple, a feast now known as Hanukkah.  The writer urges these ex-pats to show their renunciation of their old Hellenized ways by celebrating the Maccabee Brothers’ defeat of Hellenized Jews in Judea, in order to get God back on their side.



10)  Dated in the one hundred and eighty-eighth year.

COMMENTARY:  That’s 124 BC to us.  This gets rather confusing, because this date pertains to the last letter, but it’s in a verse that starts a second letter.



(Continuing verse 10)


Letter 2: 164 B.C.

The people of Jerusalem and Judea, the senate, and Judas send greetings and good wishes to Aristobulus, teacher of King Ptolemy and member of the family of the anointed priests, and to the Jews in Egypt.

COMMENTARY:  Jews had a well-earned reputation for scholarship throughout the Mediterranean cultures.  It does not surprise me that Aristobulus would tutor the King of Egypt.



11) Since we have been saved by God from grave dangers, we give him great thanks as befits those who fought against the king;

COMMENTARY:  That would be Antiochus IV of Syria, who started the whole mess by persecuting Judaism.



12) for it was God who drove out those who fought against the holy city.

COMMENTARY:  Reminding the Egyptian Jews who to turn to for aid.



13) When their leader arrived in Persia with his seemingly irresistible army, they were cut to pieces in the temple of the goddess Nanea* through a deceitful stratagem employed by Nanea’s priests.

COMMENTARY:  Nanea was the local name (in the city of Elymas) for the Goddess of the Moon.  Antiochus had heard that Alexander the Great had left, as tribute, golden shields, weapons, and breastplates at her temple; Alexander in fact made a point of being generous with the deities of every land he conquered, both out of the cynical understanding that it would make the people more pliable, and a genuine belief that getting local deities on his side was a good strategic move.  Anyway, Antiochus was not cut of the same cloth; he wanted to plunder the temple treasury.



14) On the pretext of marrying the goddess, Antiochus with his Friends had come to the place to get its great treasures as a dowry.

COMMENTARY:  The ceremonial marriage would have, they’d hoped, provided a figleaf of respectability and custom to the offensive thing which they had proposed.



15) When the priests of Nanea’s temple had displayed the treasures and Antiochus with a few attendants had come inside the wall of the temple precincts, the priests locked the temple as soon as he entered.

COMMENTARY:  Yeah, they’re not stupid.  Antiochus had already desecrated the Jewish temple—why should the Persians expect good intentions for Nanea’s temple?



16) Then they opened a hidden trapdoor in the ceiling, and hurling stones at the leader and his companions, struck them down. They dismembered the bodies, cut off their heads and tossed them to the people outside.

COMMENTARY:  1 Maccabees has a somewhat different account.  It mentions a popular uprising against Antiochus, but doesn’t give the specifics of it starting in the Temple or the matter of chopped body parts thrown to the crowd. 


In the 1 Maccabees version, the King does escape, only to die later, suddenly struck down by excruciating bowel pain, not an uncommon way to die in those days without an understanding of germs and sanitation.  (In most wars right up to and including WWI, disease killed more soldiers than weaponry.  Jews had an advantage in that, however, not only because of their dietary laws, but also because the Bible commanded that each soldier be equipped with a small shovel with which to dig latrines and cover up his dung.)  However, I’m a firm believer that God prefers to use natural phenomenon whenever available for His purposes; inventors have a certain fondness for their own inventions.

The writers can only tell the versions that they’ve heard.  (As rumors go, this is certainly a colorful variation!)  This leads scholars to believe that this second letter went out earlier than the first, soon after Antiochus’s death, when rumors abounded as to how, precisely, it happened.



17)  Forever blessed be our God, who has thus punished the impious!

COMMENTARY:  Hint to the Hellenized Alexandrians: don’t be impious.



18) Since we shall be celebrating the purification of the temple on the twenty-fifth day of the month Kislev, we thought it right to inform you, that you too may celebrate the feast of Booths and of the fire that appeared when Nehemiah, the rebuilder of the temple and the altar, offered sacrifices.

COMMENTARY:  Technically, Zerubbabel rebuilt the temple a century before.  Nehemiah repaired the walls of the still-standing temple, as well as the walls around Jerusalem.  But he still gets credit for that.  And now you will finally get to hear the story of why Jews light candles for Hanukkah.



19) For when our ancestors were being led into captivity in Persia, devout priests at the time took some of the fire from the altar and hid it secretly in the hollow of a dry cistern, making sure that the place would be unknown to anyone.

COMMENTARY:  Well, technically they were led into captivity in Babylon, but since it later got conquered in its turn and became part of the Persian Empire, it amounts to the same thing in the eyes of the letters’ original recipients.

As for hiding the fire in a dry cistern, that sounds like an odd thing to do, especially since the care and maintenance of fire has been a basis of technology since prehistoric times, and they must have known that nobody could stay to maintain it.  But when one hopes in miracles, anything can happen.



20) Many years later, when it so pleased God, Nehemiah, commissioned by the king of Persia, sent the descendants of the priests who had hidden the fire to look for it.

COMMENTARY:  This would seem like a really strange quest!  It would take a lot of faith, and probably a lot of doubt and despair visited them now and then.



21) When they informed us that they could not find any fire, but only a thick liquid, he ordered them to scoop some out and bring it. After the material for the sacrifices had been prepared, Nehemiah ordered the priests to sprinkle the wood and what lay on it with the liquid.

COMMENTARY:  And thus they became the only Jews in the History of the Nation of Israel to strike oil in the Holy Land!  Golda Meir once cried out to God asking why He made His people wander in the desert for forty years only to finally ensconce them in the only real estate in the Middle East without oil fields, so this wasn’t something that anyone could reasonably expect to crop up in the nearest available dry cistern. 

Is this still a miracle?  Yes.  There’s such a thing as the miracle of knowing about something with no earthly explanation as to how one could know it.  No one would have a reason to look for a tiny pocket of petroleum under Jerusalem itself.



22) This was done, and when at length the sun, which had been clouded over, began to shine, a great fire blazed up, so that everyone marveled.

COMMENTARY:  Spontaneous combustion.  That’s why you must never store oily rags anywhere that could get overly warm.  (Technically, you’re not even supposed to throw an apron into the dryer if it once had cooking oil spilled on it, even after laundering—you could burn down your house!  Our dryer has a warning on it, in fine print, to that effect.)



23) While the sacrifice was being burned, the priests recited a prayer, and all present joined in with them. Jonathan led and the rest responded with Nehemiah.

COMMENTARY:  As you’ll recall, Jonathan was then high priest, under his brother Judas as ruler.



24)  The prayer was as follows: “Lord, Lord God, creator of all things, awesome and strong, just and merciful, the only king and benefactor,

COMMENTARY:  Typical of any prayer, in any religion, until you get to “the only king and benefactor”.  Pagans didn’t say this, and usually Jews thought it self-evident.  But in the face of Hellenization, Jonathan felt a need to reaffirm monotheism.  And the writer of this letter would additionally feel the need to underline this theology to the Egyptian Jewish community, who had some polytheists on the fringes.



25)  who alone are gracious, just, almighty, and eternal, Israel’s savior from all evil, who chose our ancestors and sanctified them:

COMMENTARY:  Reaffirming a long-lost faith in Jewish exceptionalism, after generations of subjugation and the complacency of learned helplessness.



26) accept this sacrifice on behalf of all your people Israel and guard and sanctify your portion.

COMMENTARY:  The Jewish community rediscovers the concept that they don’t belong to Syria or Egypt, Persia or Babylon, Greece or Rome, but to the God of Israel, as His “portion”.



27)  Gather together our scattered people, free those who are slaves among the Gentiles, look kindly on those who are despised and detested, and let the Gentiles know that you are our God.

COMMENTARY:  This would particularly resonate with the Egyptian Jews, who might have felt that the events in Judea didn’t include them.



28)  Punish those who lord it over us and in their arrogance oppress us.

COMMENTARY:  As was currently happening to Alexandrian Jewry, after years of tolerance.



29)  Plant your people in your holy place, as Moses said.”

COMMENTARY:  I can only imagine how the descendants of those who left the Promised land for Egypt voluntarily, or those who voluntarily decided to stay on after captivity, received this part.



30) Then the priests sang hymns.

COMMENTARY:  I have no idea why this afterthought is there, or why it deserves its own separate verse.  Out of all of the rituals surrounding the sacrifice, why single this one out for mention?  Perhaps because the Egyptians didn’t have the means for a full-blown ceremony, not having the Temple, but they did have their voices.



31)  After the sacrifice was consumed, Nehemiah ordered the rest of the liquid to be poured upon large stones. 32)  As soon as this was done, a flame blazed up, but its light was lost in the brilliance coming from the altar.

COMMENTARY:  Heated rocks would ignite petroleum.  The light of the altar is not so easily explained.



33)  When the event became known and the king of the Persians was told that, in the very place where the exiled priests had hidden the fire, a liquid was found with which Nehemiah and his people had burned the sacrifices, 34)  the king, after verifying the fact, fenced the place off and declared it sacred.

COMMENTARY:  This was the same king who considered it important that the Jewish people rebuild the temple and offer sacrifices there.  This would fit with the tradition of the “Righteous Gentile” in Jewish culture—people who are not Jews but who defend Jewish rights and/or lives and support their practice of Judaism.


This would remind the Egyptian Jews that not all of their non-Jewish neighbors were their enemies—only the ones trying to take away their rights and/or their religion.



35)  To those whom the king favored, he distributed many benefits he received.

COMMENTARY:  Why mention this here?  To say that good kings may be obeyed without disloyalty to one’s own ethnicity.  The Egyptian Jews would not be seen as traitors for following prior or subsequent good kings who distributed benefits to them.



36)  Nehemiah and his companions called the liquid nephthar, meaning purification, but most people named it naphtha.


COMMENTARY:  This is a cross-language pun.  Nephthar, in Semitic languages, is believed to mean “loosened” which, by applying it to loosening dirt or stains, could mean purification.  Naphtha is the Greek word for petroleum.  So they identify the mysterious liquid right here, plainly enough.

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