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The Oxford Bible Commentary Line-by-line commentary for the New Revised Standard Version Bible.

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Commentary on 2 Maccabees

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The Prefixed Letters ( 1:1–2:18 )

( 1:1–10a ) The First Letter

The first letter follows the normal format of letters in the Hellenistic period as it first indicates who the recipients and senders of the letter are (v. 1 ), then follows this with good wishes for the recipients (vv. 2–6 ), the body of the letter (vv. 7–9 ), and closes with the date (v. 10a ). The letter was written in 124 BCE, a year in which a bitter civil war in Egypt had ended. The letter makes no reference to these events, however, nor does it refer to any specific individuals. Rather, it emphasizes that both recipients and senders are all brothers. A somewhat similar greeting is found in the letter of 419 BCE found in the Elephantine papyri (Cowley 1923: 60–5). One wonders who were the senders—John Hyrcanus the high priest and his council?—and who were the recipients—the Jewish community in Alexandria, or the military colony at Leontopolis? The greeting combines a Jewish formula—‘true peace’—and a Greek formula—‘greetings’.

The initial greetings are followed by a long prayer of blessing which emphasizes the common covenant with the patriarchs, and the role the Torah should play in their lives. Particularly interesting is the stress on God's active role in the following of the Torah. The Greek verb for ‘be reconciled’ at v. 5 (katallageiē) is unusual in the rest of the LXX. It is found with this meaning at 2 Macc 7:33; 8:29 , and this may constitute one piece of evidence for seeing a connection between the letter and the epitome. The same notion is found in the prayer of Solomon at the dedication of the first temple (2 Chr 6:19 ). Some scholars have found in v. 5 an allusion either to the civil war in Egypt or to the need for reconciliation because of the sin of Onias IV in building a temple at Leontopolis (Jos. Ant. 13.62–73). The terms are those used for general good wishes, however, and so such specificity need not be present.

The body of the letter contains a quotation of a previous letter. Since there are no quotation marks in Greek, where does the quotation begin? Does the ‘critical distress’ of v. 7 refer to the time of Demetrius II in 169 of the Seleucid Era, i.e. spring 143 to spring 142 BCE, the time when Jonathan was captured (1 Macc 12:48 )? If that were the case, why is Jonathan's capture not mentioned whereas an event over 20 years previously, the withdrawal of Jason, is? Would the body of the letter begin with a quotation of a letter with no indication of the fact? We should probably begin the letter at ‘In the critical distress…’ It is not exactly sure what event is being described as the time of distress. It is not Jason who is said to have burned the gates, but others (2 Macc 8:33; 1 Macc 1:31; 4:38 ). I suggest that the withdrawal, not revolt, of Jason is being referred to (2 Macc 5:1–9 ) and the subsequent destruction of the city by the Seleucids is described using the traditional figures of burnt gates and the shedding of innocent blood.

The end of the quotation is marked by the formula, ‘And now’. Only here and at 2 Macc 1:18 and 10:6 is the festival of Chislev connected with the Feast of Booths. The date is given at the end of the letter, as is usual.

( 1:10b–2:18 ) The Second Letter

The second letter bristles with problems. The first section ( 1:10b–18 ) speaks of the death of Antiochus IV and seems about to stop at 1:18 with an invitation to celebrate the festival of the purification of the temple, but then the letter continues on with a digression on the holiness of the second temple until the exhortation to celebrate the festival of Chislev is repeated at 2:16 . No date is given. While the first letter had as recipients and senders only the brothers in Judaea, Jerusalem, and Egypt, this letter provides a range of people with Judas and Aristobulus being specifically named. The reference would seem to be to Judas Maccabeus, the leader of the revolt in Judea, and possibly to the Aristobulus whose fragments are preserved by the later Christian bishop, Eusebius of Caesarea (Praep. Evang. 7.32. 16–18; 8.9.38–8.10.17; 13.12.1–16). Aristobulus is said to have presented a work to Ptolemy VI Philometor (180–145 BCE), whereas in this letter he is called the teacher of Ptolemy. Most scholars do not regard this letter as genuine. Rather it is creative historiography, wherein an author writes what should have been written. What is in evidence is the attempt to show a close connection between Jews in Egypt and in Judea.

The account of the death of Antiochus IV differs from that in Polybius, 31, and Appian, Syriaca, 66, and, more interestingly, from that in 1 Macc 6:16 and 2 Macc 9 . All these other sources agree that Antiochus IV did not die at the temple of Nanea. One cannot reconcile the death accounts in this letter and in the epitome, and one must conclude that they were written by different people.

( 1:19–36 ) The Miraculous Fire

At 1:18 , the text unexpectedly speaks of a festival of fire at the time of Nehemiah. The author has this Nehemiah commissioned by the Persian king ( 1:20 ), and seems to refer to the Nehemiah who is the central figure of the book of Nehemiah. However, he sets the scene at the end of the Babylonian exile, when another Nehemiah accompanied Zerubbabel back to Judea (Ezra 2:2; Neh 7:7; 1 Esd 5:8 ), and so has conflated the two figures. Here Nehemiah, not Jeshua and Zerubbabel (Ezra 3–6 ), is credited with the restoration of temple worship. Nehemiah is also important at 2 Macc 2:13–14 ; perhaps his role as governor and temple restorer provided a model for the activity of Judas. The fire on the altar was never to go out (Lev 6:12–13 ) and so its miraculous preservation emphasizes the continuity between the first and second temple, which some had questioned (Ezra 3:12 ; 1 Enoch 89:73 ; 2 Apoc. Bar. 68:5–6 ).

The prayer of the priests stresses God's election of Israel, and his role as the Divine Warrior who fights for his people and leads them to their home, as in the hymn in Ex 15 . The miracle of the fire is verified and acknowledged by the Persian king, and Nehemiah is recognized as the discoverer of naphtha, a kind of petroleum well known to Hellenistic scientists and geographers (Dioscorides, De materia medica, 1.73; Strabo, Geog. 15.3.15; 16.1.15). He is thus ranked with other ‘inventors’ of benefits to mankind, as Dionysos of wine and Demeter of grain. Among Jewish Hellenistic authors, Abraham was said to be the inventor of astrology and mathematics (Eus. Praep. Evang. 9.17.3) and Moses the discoverer of ships, weapons of war, and Egyptian religion (ibid. 9.27.4–6).

( 2:1–15 ) The Temple and Earlier Traditions

The narrative now answers the question of who had ordered the sacred fire to be taken to Babylonia, and the answer is Jeremiah. While that story shows the continuity between the first temple and the second, the hiding of the sacred vessels on Mt. Nebo shows the discontinuity. The sacred vessels are returned to God's mountain until the ingathering of the people when, as during the Exodus (Ex 40:34–8 ) and at the dedication of the first temple by Solomon (1 Kings 8:10 ), God's glory will appear again.

v. 4 , many traditions clustered around the figure of Jeremiah. He will appear again as an intercessor for his people at 2 Macc 15:14–16 . Eupolemus, perhaps the ambassador of Judas Maccabeus, stated that Jeremiah preserved the ark and the tablets from the Babylonians (Eus. Praep. Evang. 9.39.5) and the Letter of Jeremiah similarly exhorts the exiles to refrain from idolatry.

vv. 9–12 , the reference to Moses and Solomon in v. 8 is further developed. There is no mention of Moses' praying at Lev 9:23–4 when fire consumes the burnt offering, although at Solomon's prayer fire came down (2 Chr 7:1 ). The saying of Moses in v. 11 is not found in the HB although the event referred to derives from Lev 10:16–20 . The command to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles for eight days given at Lev 23:33–6 seems to be missing before v. 12 . These stories all testify to the lively narrative world of Second-Temple Judaism as the traditional stories were told and retold with creative nuances.

vv. 13–15 , after discussing the divine fire at the time of Moses and Solomon, the author returns to Nehemiah and his fire exploits. Interesting is the reference to Nehemiah's founding a library and collecting books. After Ptolemy I founded the great library at Alexandria, others imitated him as did the Attalid kings of Pergamum in Asia Minor. Nehemiah is being put in good company! Scholars have puzzled over exactly what is referred to in the list of books. Rather than attempting to align this list neatly with specific books of the canonical HB, one should recognize that, as the finds at Qumran are showing us, Judean society was filled with many more stories, hymns, and retellings of traditional narratives than are extant today. 1 Macc 1:56–7 relates how the books of the law were ripped apart and burnt if found. Judas is said to act similarly to Nehemiah, and so another element of the comparison made at 2 Macc 1:18 is introduced. Does v. 15 suggest a superiority of the library at Jerusalem as regards Jewish books to the one in Alexandria?

( 2:16–18 ) Conclusion

The request of 1:18 is repeated here, and interwoven with the themes of God as Divine Warrior ( 1:25 ), of the people as God's inheritance ( 1:26–7 ), and of the ingathering of the people ( 1:27–9; 2:3 ). The reference in v. 18 to God's rescue of his people and his purification of the place provides the appropriate introduction to the epitome. As mentioned in the introduction, we do not know what exactly the relationship is between the two prefixed letters and the epitome. One can suggest corresponding themes, but there is no intrinsic connection.

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