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The Catholic Study Bible A special version of the New American Bible, with a wealth of background information useful to Catholics.

Hellenization

Second Maccabees, like 1 Maccabees, reflects those circles in second‐century BC Judaism that rejected the program of enforced hellenization imposed by Antiochus. It offers the example of martyrs who died rather than abandon their ancestral religion (see 2 Mc 6, 18–7, 42 ). Despite this strong objection to Hellenism, even the most pious Jews could not avoid its influence completely.

Hellenism is a term that describes the culture, ideals, and institutions that reached their apex in fifth‐century BC Athens and that came to have a momentous influence throughout the eastern Mediterranean region. Until the time of Alexander the Great, this region was oriented culturally to the East. The two Israelite kingdoms were subject to the political, economic, and cultural sway of the eastern empires: Assyria, Babylon, and Persia. Alexander did more than bring Palestine into Greece's political orbit; he effected a genuine cultural reorientation. Until the Moslem conquest in the seventh century AD, the entire eastern Mediterranean region, including the territories of the former Israelite kingdoms, came under the cultural influence of the West.

The city or polis with its marketplace (agora), colonnaded streets, temples, theater, and gymnasium was the instrument of economic prosperity in the Near East and of the diffusion of Hellenism as well. Throughout Palestine the Greeks remade ancient cities. There was Ptolemais (Acco) along the Mediterranean in the north, Gaza along the Mediterranean in the south, Scythopolis (Bethshan) in the Jordan Valley, Marisa (Mareshah) in the south. Even Jerusalem was made over (1 Mc 1, 11–14 ).

It is not surprising that there was resistance among some Jews to hellenization. After all, the Jews had a very ancient culture and one that did not accept change very readily. There were, however, people—especially among the aristocratic stratum of Jewish society—that embraced the new cultural wave. At first, the Hellenism that the Jews faced was mild. From the time of Alexander's death in 332 BC to about 200 BC, the Ptolemies ruled Judah from Egypt. The Ptolemies were the least culturally aggressive of all the Hellenistic dynasties. Matters changed dramatically under the Seleucid king Antiochus IV, who imposed Hellenism upon the Jews. Antiochus's policies sparked the Maccabean revolt.

Like 1 Maccabees, this work is also opposed to the forced hellenization program of Antiochus. Second Maccabees is intensely devoted to the Torah. Death, even suicide (2 Mc 14, 37–46 ), is preferable to violating the Torah. The reward for such loyalty for the individual is resurrection, and for the community it is the possession of Jerusalem. Despite this opposition to hellenization, it is impossible to escape the influence of Hellenistic culture. Second Maccabees itself uses rhetorical forms that come from Greek literature. For example, 2 Maccabees appeals to the emotions of its readers. The work does not hesitate to describe the death of Jewish martyrs in vivid detail. This approach is typical of Hellenistic history writing. The same is true of appeals to the supernatural (for example, 2 Mc 3, 22–30 ). The miraculous episodes in 2 Maccabees are comparable to episodes in Greek histories. The author does not hesitate to employ these Greek rhetorical patterns because they help the book achieve its purpose: to move its readers to renewed commitment to their ancestral religious traditions.

As opposed as 2 Maccabees is to the growing influence of Greek culture over the Jews of Palestine, the book recognizes that some Greeks are sympathetic to the Jews and their religious traditions. It even has Antiochus convert to Judaism as he is dying ( 9, 11–18 ). The book implies that the Jews do not object to the rule of the Greeks as such and that Jews can be good citizens of the empire. What they do object to are the excesses that came with Antiochus.

There comes a point when the pious must choose. Antiochus made the choice unavoidable. With Hellenism there came a whole bevy of gods and goddesses. There were even deified kings. More subtle were the novelties in philosophy and ethics. For the pious Jew, Hellenism represented a religious ideology and practice that was quite unfamiliar. Jewish literature of the period shows an extreme distaste for non‐Israelite religion (Dn 3, 6; 1 Mc 1, 43; Wis 13, 10–19; 14, 12–21 ). But there was no escaping the influence of Greek culture at this time and on into the future. For example, almost seven hundred years later during the Byzantine Period (fourth to sixth centuries AD), there were a few synagogues in Palestine that had decorative motifs that included a zodiac complete with the god Helios in the center of a mosaic floor.

Second Maccabees represents the earlier view that rejected any compromise with Hellenism. There are absolute values that do not allow for any compromise. Even in the face of death, the righteous will chose fidelity to the Torah. Second Maccabees can be confident that such a choice is not in vain because of its belief in the resurrection.

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