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The Oxford Handbook of Biblical Studies Provides a comprehensive survey of Biblical scholarship in a variety of disciplines.

Books of the Maccabees

Although the Maccabean Revolt (166–160 BCE) falls outside the explicit historical scope of both Old and New Testaments, it was a defining period for the Jewish religion and nation. The book of Daniel, which most scholars believe to be contemporaneous with it, alludes to the crisis over Hellenization in the revelations given to Daniel in chapters 7–12. In 169 BCE the Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes plundered the Temple in Jerusalem, and subsequently attempted to force Greek customs on Judaea. Many Jews supported him (cf. 1 Macc. 1: 11–15, 43; 6: 21–7), but others resisted, under the leadership of Judas Maccabaeus. The resulting Hasmonaean dynasty ruled Judaea from 142 to 63 BCE. The story in its various forms was popular with both Jews and Christians for its portrayal of faith resisting tyranny. The origins of the Jewish celebration of Hanukkah, the festival of the rededication of the Temple by Judas Maccabaeus, can be seen in the accounts in 1 Macc. 4: 42 ff. and 2 Macc. 10: 1 ff., etc.

1 Maccabees

The book covers events between 176 and 135 BCE. It describes how King Antiochus IV Epiphanes desecrates the Temple and forces the Jews to abandon their religious practices on pain of death. Out of zeal for the Law, Mattathias of Modein and his five sons refuse to yield and organize resistance. On his father's death, his third son, Judas Maccabaeus, takes command and defeats Antiochus's army. Judas is able to cleanse and rededicate the Temple, and fortify Mount Zion, before embarking on a number of successful military campaigns against the surrounding peoples. Internal dissent among the Seleucids following the death of Antiochus leads the Syrian commander to withdraw from battle with the Jews, and to make peace with them. Over the next few years there is a protracted power struggle in Judaea between the party of the Hellenizing ‘renegades’, represented by the high priest Alcimus, and the followers of Judas Maccabaeus. When Judas dies in battle, his youngest brother Jonathan takes over as leader and becomes high priest. He takes advantage of further internal Seleucid rivalries to strengthen his position against his Jewish opponents, to renew an old alliance with the Romans, and a new one with the Spartans. On his death, his brother Simon becomes commander, ethnarch, and high priest of the Jews, but he is treacherously slain, and is succeeded by his son John (Hyrcanus).

Though the book is often biblical in style, God plays no direct part in 1 Maccabees. Rather, the book glorifies the deeds of the family of Mattathias against the backdrop of contemporary Near Eastern politics, possibly as a reaction to criticism of the Hasmonaean dynasty during the reign of John Hyrcanus and Alexander Jannaeus. Yet no figure, however heroic, is portrayed in messianic terms; nor are the events seen in an apocalyptic light, leading some to conclude that the book is a reaction to the way the crisis is depicted in the book of Daniel (Goldstein 1976: 42–54; Goldstein, in Neusner et al. 1987: 69–96). Martyrdom (as in 1 Macc. 1: 29–38) is not applauded, and this may be related to the author's apparent lack of belief in an afterlife (for this reason some have suggested that the author was a Sadducee: Bartlett 1998: 28–34). There is considerable hostility towards foreigners, especially the local Semitic peoples, but on the other hand, the Maccabeans are shown as happy to make alliances with powerful nations who will support them (Schwartz 1991).

The extent to which the author depended on outside sources, including Seleucid ones, or wrote independently, is still debated. He must have completed his work between the reign of John Hyrcanus and before the Roman invasion of Judaea in 63 BCE (which is not mentioned), and a date towards the end of the second century BCE is most likely. The testimony of both Origen and Jerome suggests that the book was originally written in Hebrew, and it is certainly both Semitic and biblical in style. It was then translated into Greek, and from Greek into Syriac, Latin, and Armenian. The Jewish historian Flavius Josephus used 1 Maccabees as a source for his Jewish Antiquities (93–4 CE).

2 Maccabees

This book covers roughly the same period and events as 1 Maccabees, and was written at about the same time. However, it is difficult to harmonize the chronologies of the two books (Bartlett 1998: 44–5), and their interpretation of history differs sharply. 1 Maccabees is strongly biased towards the entire Maccabean family, depicted as saviours of Israel, and the Hasmonaean dynasty that followed. 2 Maccabees focuses on Judas Maccabaeus, alone of his family, and Temple matters (van Henten 1997: 54–5).

There are two quite separate parts of 2 Maccabees. The opening of the book, 1: 1–2: 18, takes the form of letters sent by the Jews in Jerusalem and Judaea to those in Egypt, apparently in 124 BCE (2 Macc. 1: 9), concerning the celebration of a Feast of Booths and another of the rededication of the Temple under Nehemiah. The rest of the book claims to condense the longer account of the Maccabees written by Jason of Cyrene, and is therefore known as the Epitome. It starts at an earlier point than 1 Maccabees, with Heliodorus's demand for the money deposited in the Temple, and ends with the death of the enemy general, Nicanor.

In contrast to the perspective of 1 Maccabees, the author of 2 Maccabees attributes the deliverance of Israel not to human bravery but to divine intervention and the faith of the Jewish martyrs. Both the miracles and the martyrdoms are described in detail, and reveal the purpose of the work to be primarily didactic rather than historiographical. The theology is Deuteronomistic: the people of Israel are chastened by God for their sins, but will be rewarded for their faithfulness (2 Macc. 6: 12–16; 7: 32–3), and the nations who oppose God will be punished. There are also several clear references to a belief in the afterlife (e.g. 7: 9, 14) and bodily resurrection (7: 11; 14: 46).

In spite of the book's anti-Hellenism, it was written originally in Greek, not Hebrew, and so could not be included in the rabbinic Jewish canon. However, the content of the book has had an influence on the celebration of Hanukkah, which commemorates Judas Maccabaeus's rededication of the Temple. Early Christian martyr Acts show strong influence from the accounts of the martyrdoms of Eleazar and the woman and her seven sons (2 Macc. 6: 18–7: 42).

3 Maccabees

3 Maccabees has no relation to the other books of Maccabees except for the theme of foreign threats to the people and religion of Israel. Its setting is Egyptian, and the wicked king is Ptolemy IV Philopator, who reigned half a century before the Maccabean Revolt. The style of the book is vivid and effective (Alexander 2001: 326). When Ptolemy tries to enter the sanctuary in Jerusalem, God sends physical affliction on him. On his return to Egypt, he decides that the Jews there can only be citizens if they accept Greek religion. Those who refuse will be reduced to the status of slaves, and those who resist will be killed. Though some Jews betray their faith, the majority stand firm, but this infuriates the king, who arranges for all of them to be rounded up and trampled to death by drugcrazed elephants. As they face certain death, the elderly priest Eleazar beseeches the Lord for them, and the elephants turn on Ptolemy's soldiers instead. The king repents, and blames his counsellors for what has happened. He institutes a seven-day feast for the Jews, who purge the apostates from their midst. It may be that the book originated as an explanation for the origins of this feast in a deliverance of Jews from tyranny, as a rival to the feast of Purim in the book of Esther, and is an attempt to reconcile and interpret various local sources (Alexander 2001: 327–35).

3 Maccabees shares with 2 Maccabees a strong interest in the sanctity of the Temple, in supernatural intervention as a response to prayer, and in the idea that those who devise cruelty against the Jews will be punished by God. Alexander (2001: 332–3) believes that 3 Maccabees may be an Egyptian attempt to emulate the Palestinian 2 Maccabees. However, there are no martyrdoms in 3 Maccabees, and no mention of an afterlife. 1 and 2 Maccabees detail the horrors of Hellenization (1 Macc. 1: 11–15, 41–50; 2 Macc. 4: 11–17), while 3 Maccabees emphasizes foreign hostility to Jewish worship and dietary restrictions (3 Macc. 3: 1–7), which was something of a topos in anti-Jewish polemic, particularly in the volatile political and ethnic atmosphere of Ptolemaic Egypt (deSilva 2002: 315–20). The tone of the book is often said to be anti-Gentile (e.g. 3 Macc. 4: 1), yet it is certainly positive towards the Greeks who are favourably disposed towards the Jews (3 Macc. 3: 8–10; deSilva 2002: 318).

The date of the book is hard to ascertain. Some believe that it points to actual historical events, Modrzejewski (1995: 141–57) to a possible census under Ptolemy Philopator, Collins (2000: 126) to the reign of Caligula. However, the reference to a detail of a Greek addition to the book of Daniel (3 Macc. 6: 6: Azariah and the Three, v. 27) places the composition in the late second century CE at the earliest. There are similarities to 2 Maccabees in vocabulary as well as in style and outlook, and also to the Letter of Aristeas and the Greek additions to Esther.

4 Maccabees

Like 2 Maccabees, on which it probably depends, 4 Maccabees describes the martyrdoms of Eleazar and the mother and her seven sons, for refusing to renounce their Jewish faith by eating pork. However, the narrative takes the form of a eulogy of the martyrs, and is placed within the framework of a philosophical discourse (Greek diatribe) on reason and the mastery of the emotions. Judaism is portrayed not as a religion in the cultic sense but as a philosophy expressed in self-restraint. Its dietary restrictions teach restraint of the appetite (4 Macc. 1: 34), and the heroes of Scripture are examples of self-control in the face of temptations to lust and anger (chs. 2–3). This introduces the narrative itself, prefaced by the description in chapter 4 of the attempt to seize the monies in the Temple deposit, the removal of Onias as high priest, and the forced Hellenization programme. The martyrdoms are a demonstration of ‘temperate reason’ (4 Macc. 3: 19), and though the descriptions are close to those in 2 Maccabees, there is more gore and more philosophy. A new element is the atoning value of the deaths for the Jewish people (4 Macc. 6: 28–9, spoken by Eleazar, and 17: 21: see van Henten 1997: 150–2, 156–63), and a eulogy of the mother, who is said to be more noble and courageous than men for her willingness to let her sons die and to watch their torture before throwing herself into the fire (Moore and Anderson 1998). The martyrdom is described as a contest, and the martyrs as athletes (4 Macc. 11: 20; 12: 14; 16: 16; 17: 15–16), who win the prize of immortality (4 Macc. 17: 12; 18: 23), though unlike 2 Maccabees, this may involve a spiritual rather than a bodily resurrection.

The book was written in Greek for a Jewish readership (4 Macc. 18: 1–2), and its late vocabulary and apparent dependence on 2 Maccabees place it at least in the first century CE. Some have even suggested a connection to the Jewish revolt in the Diaspora against the Emperor Trajan in 115–17 CE, or to the Hadrianic persecution and Second Jewish Revolt in 130–5 CE. It may originate in the area of Antioch, where the cult of the Maccabean martyrs was strong, or in Cilicia, because of similarities with Jewish funerary inscriptions (van Henten 1997: 79–81).

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