The Book of First Maccabees

For years I thought that the “silent” 400 years between the Old and New Testaments meant that during this time God did not act in any way for His people.  After reading First Maccabees, I realized that although God did not send prophets to speak His words to the Hebrews, He was acting in mighty ways to preserve and protect His people.  The “silent years” were not all that silent as I see it.

Here is a brief summation of the history of the Hebrews from the end of the Old Testament to the time of the Maccabees:  The exiled Hebrews, having been given permission by the Persians to return to and rebuild their land of Israel (Ezra 1), for the most part were those who were godly and wanted to worship YHWH.  They established synagogues and trained their children to fear the Lord as required in Deuteronomy 6. The Persians allowed Israel to pretty much be autonomous regarding their religion.  In 332 B.C.,
Alexander the Great, the most successful missionary (of Hellenism) in the world, conquered Judea-Samaria and according to Josephus, was shown the prophecies of Daniel in Jerusalem that he would conquer the world (Josephus, Jewish Antiquities, XI, 337 [viii, 5]).  Alexander was apparently pleased with this and pretty much left the Jews alone as he went on to conquer the rest of the world as Daniel predicted.

When Alexander died in 323 B.C., his kingdom was divided between four of his generals. The Ptolomies, based in Egypt, initially ruled over Judea and although ardent Hellenists like Alexander, they, also, were tolerant of the Hebrew religion. They
thought they could in subtle ways seduce the Jews into the glories of Hellenism by the arts, literature, and the gymnasium.
Then the Seleucids, at about 198 B.C., based in Syria, defeated the Ptolemies at Banias and took over the Judean-Samarian region.  The Seleucids were not tolerant of any “pagans” that did not accept the world’s greatest religion and philosophy—Hellenism—and
began to systematically destroy the people who worshiped the true God, YHWH.  In about 167 B.C., Antiochus Epiphany outlawed the Torah and Hebrew covenant rituals such as circumcision.  Syrian/Greek troops would go from town to town, and if they found a circumcised child, they would murder the whole family.  Having the Torah was punished by death.  All towns were required to sacrifice pigs to the emperor and to Greek gods.  The altar in the Temple in Jerusalem was desecrated with pig blood, entrails, and false idols. Thus begins the Book of First Maccabees.

Maccabees was written by a pious and patriotic Jew between 135 and 63 B.C. This is understood because the book mentions the rise of John Hyrcanus in 135 B.C. and spoke favorably about the Romans, including positive correspondence to the Romans in chapters 8 and 12 of the text. In 63 B.C., of course, Pompey
conquered Jerusalem and Judea and the Jews thereafter saw the Romans in a less favorable light.  First Maccabees was originally written in Hebrew, and then translated into Aramaic & Greek
afterward, according to the Jewish Encyclopedia.com.  The style of the writing closely resembles the writings of the Old Testament, especially Kings, Ezra, and Nehemiah.  When I first read this book, I thought I was reading a lost book of the Old Testament.

The book is generally considered historically accurate and was used by ancient writers and historians like Josephus.  Many early church fathers like Origen and Jerome were familiar with the Aramaic version of this book, according to Eusebius.  Its main criticism is that the writer was positive and perhaps biased toward the Jews. But doesn’t this fit the presentation of the whole Old Testament?
God is biased toward His people as were the writers of the Old
Testament.  Neil J. McEleney lists other complaints about the author of Maccabees not being familiar with other lands and cultures and in placing the death of Antiochus IV after the dedication of the Temple.

Consider that the historical events related to us by First Maccabees, which resulted in the re-dedication of the temple, established the Festival of Hanukkah that Jesus himself attended in Jerusalem.  Jesus did not question this festival, but honored it.

The original text was said to be written in Hebrew. The Jewish Encyclopedia provides proof of this assertion: “It is clear from the
Semitic idioms which occur throughout the work that it was composed in a Semitic language (see, for example, ii. 40, iv. 2), and certain passages indicate with great clearness that the original language was Hebrew (see ii. 39, iii. 19). To this fact Origen and Jerome also bear testimony, though it is possible that the version or paraphrase known to them was Aramaic” (Jewishenclyclopedia.com).

First Maccabees was never canonized by the Jews, which seems a bit of a mystery as it was originally written in Hebrew. Daniel
J. Harrington speculates on “earlyjewishwritings.com” that there was a Jewish reaction against the Maccabees and therefore it was deliberately pushed out of the sacred traditions of Judaism, perhaps due to “messianic” claims made about Judas Maccabees or one of his descendants. Some have suggested that this was due to political considerations; perhaps the Romans would not see this
canonization as politically correct, as it showed victory after victory of the Jews over a foreign invader.

Catholics, Greek Orthodox, and Russian Orthodox have First Maccabees in their canons. But Protestants have not accepted it into their canon, although it was part of the Protestant Bible until the 16th century and Luther included it in his Bible.

During the first century, Maccabees must have been popular among the Zealots and those who wanted freedom from Roman domination.  Ray Vander Laan suggests that certain people
of the crowds that threw palm branches before Jesus during His triumphal entrance into Jerusalem did so because palm branches were a symbol of the Hasmonian Dynasty.  Some thought that Jesus might be another Judas Maccabee who would fight the Romans with his “magical” powers.

A theological analysis would place Maccabees in a similar place as Esther. God is not mentioned by name but is referred to frequently as “Heaven” or by the pronoun “He.”  The events in Maccabees point to divine intervention and miraculous deliverance from vastly superior forces over and over, especially under Judas Maccabee.
Judas prayed before each battle and would read from the “Book of the Law.”  He and his men fasted and put on sackcloth, humbling themselves before the Lord. When faced with incredible forces and outnumbered, Judas would remind his men of the Torah:

But Judas said to the men who were with him, “Do not fear their numbers or be afraid when they charge. Remember how our fathers were saved at the Red Sea, when Pharaoh with his forces pursued them. And now let us cry to Heaven, to see whether he will favor us and remember his covenant with our fathers and crush this army before us today. Then all the Gentiles will know that there is one who redeems and saves Israel” (1 Maccabees 4:8-11).

This quote very much reflects the words David said just before defeating Goliath. “Then the whole world will know that there
is a God in Israel” (1 Samuel 17:46).

In 4:56, in the face of overwhelming enemies, Judas dismisses troops who are building houses or were about to be married or who were planting vineyards or were faint-hearted, according to Old Testament Law.

In 1 Maccabees 2:49-61, Mattathias’ speech to his sons before he died is very inspiring and makes many references to the Old Testament:

Now the days drew near for Mattathias to die, and he said to his sons: “Arrogance and reproach have now become strong; it is a time of ruin and furious anger. Now, my children, show zeal for the law, and give your lives for the covenant of our fathers. Remember the deeds of the fathers, which they did in their generations; and receive great honor and an everlasting name. Was not Abraham found faithful when tested, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness? Joseph in the time of his distress kept the commandment, and became lord of Egypt. Phinehas our father, because he was deeply zealous, received the covenant of everlasting
priesthood. Joshua, because he fulfilled the command, became a
judge in Israel. Caleb, because he testified in the assembly,
received an inheritance in the land. David, because he was
merciful, inherited the throne of the kingdom forever. Elijah
because of great zeal for the law was taken up into heaven. Hannaniah, Azariah, and Mishael believed and were saved from the flame. Daniel because of his innocence was delivered from the mouth of the lions. And so observe, from generation to generation, that none who put their trust in him will lack strength.

You can see from these verses that First Maccabees actually has more Old Testament references than Esther.  Maccabees shares with Esther the theology of providence.  It shows that God is with
His people to preserve and protect. Even when there are no prophets to speak for Him, God speaks through His might and miraculous acts.

Here is a brief summary of First Maccabees: The Syrian Greek troops were going from town to town in Israel to kill followers of
YHWH and to force everyone to sacrifice pigs to the emperor.  When they got to the town of Modein, an old priest named Mattathias of the Hasmonian family absolutely refused to sacrifice
a pig, even though he was offered riches and power if he did so.  The Hellenist authorities pulled him aside to be whipped to death later and a younger priest gave in and was about to sacrifice the pig when Mattathias wrestled lose from his captors and killed the
younger priest.  Mattathias called his five sons to him and called all who were faithful to God to run from the town into the mountains so that they could fight the Hellenists.  That started the great struggle for the faithful Jews to deliver the land from the Greek- Syrian forces.  The rag-tag rebels went from town to town
forcibly circumcising all the males and fought guerrilla warfare against the Hellenists. Mattathias died soon after but his five sons took over the fight.  Judas became known as “the hammer” because he hammered the superior Hellenistic forces to pieces time after time.  The Greeks sent all kinds of forces against Judas, including local tribes and mercenaries. In fact, they emptied their treasury to pay for all the armies they sent against Judas. Antiochus had to go on a “worldwide” tax-collecting tour to make up for it. The Greeks even sent 32 imported armored elephants surrounded by 1,000
men apiece, and the Maccabees still wiped them out.  There are heroic stories of how the Maccabees would bury themselves in the ground so that they could pop up underneath the elephants and drive a spear into the belly of the “tank.” The first three chapters are full of incredible battles of Old Testament proportions.  Finally, in chapter four, Judas recaptures the Temple, cleanses it, and rededicates it. He and his men lit the Menorah that only had one day’s supply of oil, but in a miracle, the Menorah stayed lit for
eight days; this was the origin of the Festival of Lights or Hanukkah
(re-dedication).

The Jews weren’t out of the woods yet, and many battles occurred until the emperor seemed to give in and allowed the Jews to worship as they wanted.  Unfortunately, this was only “politics,” and many enemies came against Judas, who was eventually
killed in battle.  His brother Jonathon took over at that point, and after a while he was killed by betrayal and his brother Simon took over. The later parts of First Maccabees are a bit hard to follow as
various kings, followed by their sons, and then their sons’ sons struggled for power and control over the Promised Land. Even the Egyptian Ptolemies get into the act, trying to win back the land taken from them by the Selucids. It’s “politics as usual” as many kings and armies befriend, ally, and then betray each other.  Out of all of the intrigue, however, God preserved the Jews and their land.  Simon eventually wrestled control of the area and the Hasmonian Dynasty was established with John Hyrcanus in 134 B.C. The Jews had a period of self-rule from that time until Jerusalem was conquered by the Romans under Pompey in 63 B.C.  The 16 chapters of First Maccabees are well worth reading to see how God protected and preserved His people during the “silent years” as the times became fulfilled for the appearance of the Messiah.

Bibliography

Bickerman, Elias. From Ezra to the Last of the Maccabees.
Schocken Books: New York, 1947.

Whiston, William, trans. Josephus’ Complete Work. Kregel
Publications: Grand Rapids, MI, 1960.

“First Maccabees.” http://www.earlyjewishwritings.com/1maccabees.html

“First Maccabees.” http://jewishencyclopedia.com

New Revised Standard Version of the Bible with Apocryphal/Deuterocanonical Books. Oxford
University Press: New York, Oxford. 1962.

http://www.preteristarchive.com/Books/pdf/1956_farmer_maccabees-zealots-josephus.pdfttp://www.livius.org/maa-mam/maccabees/1macc04.html

Vander Laan, Ray.  “The Land, the Culture, and the Book.” Tape
of lecture series given at Ridge Point Community Church in Holland, MI.

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