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
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
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
open your heart to his law and commandments and grant
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
blessed be our God, who has thus punished the impious!
COMMENTARY: Hint to the Hellenized
Alexandrians: don’t be impious.
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
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
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
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
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.
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.