2 Maccabees - Introduction
Second Maccabees narrates the story of the Maccabean revolt and is considered deuterocanonical by Roman Catholics and Orthodox Christians. Like 1 Maccabees and the book of Daniel, 2 Maccabees interprets the religious persecution suffered by the Jews under the Seleucid ruler Antiochus IV Epiphanes from 168 to 164 BCE. Each of the three books offers a different model of faithfulness in response to persecution as well as distinctive theological reflection on the sources of hope in times of crisis. First Maccabees highlights the military activity of the Maccabees and the subsequent establishment of the Hasmonean dynasty, taking the story down to the third generation in 134 BCE. Second Maccabees, in contrast, keeps its focus on the fate of the Temple in Jerusalem, ending its story when the Temple was secure in 161 BCE.
The literary style is lively, relying on dramatic narration and vivid portrayals of characters to evoke emotions in the reader. Following the conventions of Greek historians, the author composes lengthy speeches for his characters in order to entertain and instruct the reader. Written in Greek sometime between 124 and 63 BCE, the work skillfully combines Jewish theology with Greek stylistics. As in other Greek writings, the author's introduction ( 2.19–32 ) highlights his purposes and summarizes what is in store for the reader in the pages ahead. He reveals that his work is an epitome, a condensation of a five‐volume history written by Jason of Cyrene. The epitomist tells the reader that his story will be about Judas Maccabeus and his battles to regain the Temple from Antiochus, free Jerusalem, and restore Jewish law to Judea.
Prefixed to the introduction are two letters exhorting the Jews in Egypt to observe the new festival of Hanukkah, which had originated in Judea just over forty years earlier ( 1.1–2.18 ). The second letter is of particular interest because it includes stories about the prophet Jeremiah and the postexilic leader Nehemiah not found in the biblical books. Although it is not known how the letters came to be attached to 2 Maccabees, their focus on the purification of the Temple, like the introduction, helps prepare the reader for the story ahead.
The main body of the work (chs 3–15 ) recounts three successive attacks on the Temple, heroically repelled by brave Jewish fighters who were supported by heavenly warriors. Within this broad framework another, more explicitly theological structure unfolds. The epitomist has adopted the interpretation of history found in the biblical books of Judges, Samuel, and Kings, clearly laid out in Judg 2.6–23 . Israel's history is a recurring cycle of blessing, when the people are faithful to the Lord; sin, when they forsake the law of Moses; punishment, when foreign enemies oppress Israel; and deliverance, when they cry out and the Lord shows mercy by intervening to save them. In 2 Maccabees the history of the Temple, reflecting the fortunes of the Jewish people, follows this cycle.
The history begins with the blessings brought by the good high priest Onias (ch 3 ). The dramatic story of the attack on the Temple treasury by Heliodorus, a Seleucid official, and the angelic intervention that saved it highlights the importance of the Temple as the locus of the divine presence when the people are faithful. The sins of the people are ominously introduced in ch 4 with a description of the Hellenization that occurred under Jason, who bribed Antiochus to appoint him as high priest in place of his brother Onias. The rich details of this chapter provide a useful historical picture of the conflict in Jerusalem over accommodation to Greek culture, as well as the strife over the high priesthood, during the years before the persecutions of Antiochus. Modern historians have been guided by this nuanced account to view the Maccabean revolt as a mix of civil war and rebellion against a foreign tyrant. In chs 3 and 4 , as throughout the book, the epitomist shows that the attack of Seleucid kings on Jerusalem was precipitated by the intrigues of Hellenizers in Jerusalem.
The wrenching stories of the persecutions endured when Antiochus IV swept into Jerusalem to quell civil unrest occupy chs 5–8 , the centerpiece of the book. So skilled a historian is the epitomist that the reader understands the actions of Antiochus to be both politically inevitable ( 5.11–14 ) and theologically predictable ( 4.16–17; 5.18–20 ). Antiochus occupied Jerusalem in order to eliminate the religious traditions of the Jews and to force assimilation to Greek ways. He prohibited the Jews from keeping the sabbath, observing their laws of purity, and circumcising their sons. Historians believe he was attempting to remove what he saw as the cause of political disturbances in Judea. In this context the author tells the dramatic stories of the first martyrs. The old man Eleazar chose to die rather than eat pork, which is forbidden by the Torah. Like Socrates before his death, Eleazar delivered an eloquent speech describing his desire to leave a noble example to the young. The longest and most memorable story is the martyrdom of the mother and her seven sons. In the dramatic speeches made as the brothers go one by one to their deaths, the author articulates some of the most profound and influential religious ideas of the book.
These stories of Jewish faithfulness are set in bold relief against the impious deeds of the Hellenizers. As their abandoning the law of Moses for Greek culture brought on the desecration of the Temple, so the prayers of the martyrs make possible the next part of the epitomist's story, the purification of the Temple. The book's theology is expressed in the last words of the seventh brother ( 7.37–38 ) as he goes willingly to his death “to bring to an end the wrath of the Almighty that has justly fallen on our whole nation.” The introduction of Judas Maccabeus is the sign that God has heard the prayer of the martyrs and has seen their faithfulness. The dramatic account of Judas's revolt, his victory over Antiochus, and his purification of the Temple ( 8.1–10.9 ) weaves military history together with the language of theology.
The final section makes use of diplomatic correspondence and historical records to tell the history of Judea from 164 to 161 BCE under the Seleucid kings Antiochus V Eupator and Demetrius I. In spite of royal permission for the Jews to live in peace according to their own laws, local rulers of neighboring regions were constantly stirring up conflict. As in earlier parts of the book, the epitomist frequently alludes to Hellenizers as the initiators of the trouble. Interspersed in these accounts are the prayers of Judas and the people. The vivid accounts of three heavenly rescues signal to the reader that God heard the prayers of the faithful and was acting through Judas Maccabeus ( 10.29–31; 12.22; 15.12–16 ).
A number of important theological ideas not found in the Hebrew scriptures but important in Judaism and Christianity appear in 2 Maccabees. Among these are the related ideas of the creation of the world out of nothing ( 7.28 ) and the resurrection of the dead (hinted at in Dan 12.2 but explicitly stated in 2 Macc 7 ). The relation between these two beliefs is clearly articulated in the speeches of the mother and her seven sons (ch 7 ), which provide the most closely reasoned arguments in the Bible about resurrection of the dead. This story of the mother encouraging her seven sons to die for their faith in certain hope of resurrection, together with the companion story of the aged Eleazar going willingly to his death rather than eat food forbidden by the law of Moses (ch 6 ), became models for later writers about Jewish and Christian martyrs. The intrinsic link between the ideas of resurrection and martyrdom is evident as well in the story of Razis ( 14.37–45 ).
The belief in resurrection gives rise to the practice of praying for the dead. When Judas Maccabeus discovered that his fallen companions were wearing sacred amulets of the idols of Jamnia, he made a sin offering and prayed that their sin might be blotted out ( 12.39–43a ). The epitomist interprets this as a prayer on behalf of the dead, justified by the hope of the resurrection ( 12.43b–45 ). Related to the idea of resurrection is the certainty that God's justice will punish the wicked as it rewards the righteous ( 3.27–28; 9.28; 13.8; 15.32–33 ), as the deaths of Andronicus ( 4.30–38 ), Menelaus ( 13.1–8 ), and Nicanor ( 15.1–28 ) explicitly demonstrate. The story of the death of Antiochus (ch 9 ), borrowing themes from Isa 14 , provides the most dramatic teaching of this principle.
The theological idea that dominates the book is the assurance that both the history of Antiochus IV's persecution and the revolt of the Maccabees reveal God's care for his people and the holy Temple. Through engaging storytelling and instructive speeches by the characters, the author guides the reader to see the events of this history with the eyes of faith.