1 Maccabees - Introduction
Set in the tumultuous years of 175–143 BCE, 1 Maccabees narrates the history of the revolt against Seleucid rule in Judea led by Judas Maccabeus and his brothers. Although the book opens with a summary of events leading up to the revolt, a word of background will be helpful. The conquest of the Persian empire by Alexander the Great (ruled 336‐323) had great consequences for Judea and for Jews in the Diaspora. The war of succession following his death caused over twenty years of violence. Then, from 301 to 198 BCE Judea was ruled by the Egypt‐based Ptolemaic empire, which focused on extracting the maximum economic value from its provinces. During this time Hellenism, a mixture of Greek and Semitic cultures, influenced Jews throughout the ancient world. In Alexandria the Hebrew Scriptures were translated into Greek (the Septuagint). Hellenism also influenced the Jewish upper classes in Palestine and in the eastern regions of the Seleucid empire, the successors to Alexander's rule in Mesopotamia and Syria. When Judea came under the control of the Seleucid empire in 198, most members of the Judean upper classes supported the adaptation of Greek cultural practices, while the poorer people of the rural areas tended to cling to the customs of their ancestors. This conflict is evident at the beginning of 1 Maccabees and is present throughout the book. In all likelihood, the social and cultural conflict was more complex than it is portrayed in 1 Maccabees. In this situation of religious, economic, and political tensions, the actions of the Seleucid ruler Antiochus IV were a match in a tinderbox. He tried to eradicate the distinctive identity of the Jews. By plundering the Temple and outlawing religious practices, Antiochus sparked the first Jewish war of independence as well as the first Jewish martyrdoms. The opening chapters of 1 Maccabees describe this edict and its immediate consequences. Jews were prohibited from making daily offerings in the Temple, keeping the sabbath, and circumcising their sons, and were required to make sacrifices to other gods. Those who obeyed the Torah rather than the king were publicly put to death, and those who had withdrawn to the wilderness were slaughtered on the sabbath, when they would not fight.
Into this crisis the author introduces as the deliverers of Judea the priestly family of Mattathias and his sons Judas (whose epithet Maccabeus, “the hammer,” gives rise to the name Maccabees), Jonathan, and Simon. Fearing that the Seleucids would kill all observant Jews and the Hellenizers would destroy Judaism, Judas Maccabeus and his men mounted a campaign against both enemies. Using a combination of guerrilla warfare and diplomacy, they succeeded in recovering and purifying the Temple after Antiochus had defiled it, fortifying Jerusalem and securing a measure of independence for Judea. The book is organized into sections that recount the history of each hero: Mattathias (ch 2 ); Judas Maccabeus ( 3.1–9.22 ); Jonathan ( 9.23–12.53 ); Simon ( 13.1–15.41 ); and Simon's son John Hyrcanus ( 16.1–24 ). By the end of the book three generations of Mattathias's family have fought for Judea's independence from the Seleucids. The dynasty they established (called Hasmonean after their ancestor; See 2.1n .) would remain in power until the Roman occupation in 63 BCE.
First Maccabees is written in the straightforward style of historical narrative filled with realistic detail. Scholars consider it the most reliable historical resource for the study of the Maccabean revolt. The author used both Jerusalem archives and Seleucid annals; diplomatic correspondence and royal edicts are cited fourteen times in the book. Oral traditions of Jewish history probably supplemented these written sources. Following the conventions of both biblical and Hellenistic historiography, the author placed eloquent speeches on the lips of major characters at critical points in the narrative. These compositions provide clues to some of the important religious themes in the book. The author used the Jewish scriptures as a literary model for his story. The book is organized in the manner of the historical books of the Hebrew Bible, which tend to mark periods in Israel's history by the deaths of divinely appointed deliverers (Josh 1.1; Judg 1.1; 2 Sam 1.17; 1 Kings 11.41–43 ). In 1 Maccabees the reader is clearly guided by refrains signaling the peaceful passing of leadership from one member of the Hasmonean family to the next ( 2.69–70; 9.19–22; 13.25–30 ). There are no accounts of miraculous interventions, but the author believes that God was working through the Maccabees, as he did through the deliverers in Israel ( 5.62; cf. Judg 2.16; 6.14 ).
Frequent allusions to Israel's history and the use of biblical vocabulary guide the reader to see Mattathias and his sons as heirs of biblical heroes. Mattathias is portrayed in language that evokes the stories of Phinehas ( 2.23–26; Num 25.6–9 ) and Jacob ( 2.49–70; Gen 49 ), while Judas is likened to Jonathan son of Saul ( 3.16–22; 1 Sam 14.6 ) and to Solomon ( 4.52–58; 1 Kings 8 ). Even a simple phrase like “he tore down their altars” ( 5.68 ) evokes the story of Gideon (Judg 6.25 ) and the commands of Moses (Deut 7.5; 12.3 ). The use of anachronistic terms like “Philistines” and “Israel” link the Maccabean battles with the times of Joshua and David. The most overt guides for the reader are the ten poetic pieces scattered throughout the narrative. Their vocabulary and style evoke the poetry of ancient Israel, especially the Psalms, and their allusions often bring to mind the destruction of Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 586 BCE. Like several poems embedded in narratives of the Hebrew Bible (for example, Ex 15; 1 Sam 2; 2 Sam 1; 22 ), they provide the reader with theological commentary on the action of the story. In short, the author has interpreted the history of the Maccabean revolt as corresponding to earlier biblical models.
The work was written between the rule of John Hyrcanus I (134–104 BCE), the son of Simon, introduced at the end of the book ( 13.53; 16.1–24 ), and the conquest of Jerusalem in 63 BCE by the Roman general Pompey. The earliest known manuscripts are from the fourth and fifth centuries CE in Greek and Latin. Scholars since the fifth century have noticed that the Greek of 1 Maccabees reads like a translation from Hebrew, almost certainly the book's original language. The book is considered canonical by Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians, but is listed among the Apocrypha by Protestants. Although it is also not part of the Jewish canon, it is an important religious text describing the origin of the festival of Hanukkah, the rededication of the Temple in 164 BCE.