An Introduction to the Apocrypha-Part Two
The Second Book of Maccabees
By Jared L. Olar
In the first installment of our series on the Apocrypha, we investigated The Wisdom of Ben-Sirach (also known as Ecclesiasticus). In this, the second installment, we will turn our attention to II Maccabees. As we study this book, I think that several things will become clear to us. For instance, as a primary source for the history of the Jews during the second century B.C., II Maccabees is absolutely invaluable. Again, for those who wish to have a better understanding of the development of traditional Jewish and Christian beliefs and practices, this book is indispensable. It can also be very exciting to see the manner in which God fulfilled the prophecies of Daniel (especially Dan. 8 and Dan. 11), which were given almost four centuries prior to the time of their fulfillment. And as an added bonus, II Maccabees was written in a very readable literary style. Finally, as I write these words, the traditional Christian season of Advent has begun, and the traditional Jewish festival of Hanukkah is approaching. In the course of this study it should become apparent that II Maccabees fits very well with the autumn and winter months of both the Jewish and Christian liturgical years.
Before we go any further, for the benefit of our readers I should probably explain why we are skipping over I Maccabees. One reason is practical: hopefully this issue of Grace and Knowledge should reach our readers not too long after Hanukkah. It therefore seemed fitting to write something about I or II Maccabees for this issue. As it might have unduly taxed the attention spans of our readers (not to mention my own intellectual stamina) to investigate both I and II Maccabees in the same issue, I thought it best that we study one of the books of the Maccabees first and postpone the other book until a later time.
I chose to write about II Maccabees rather than I Maccabees for two reasons. First, as I mentioned above, the subject matter of II Maccabees is very appropriate for the season. Second, though there is substantial overlap between I and II Maccabees (that is, the central events related in I and II Maccabees are the same), nevertheless the story that is told in II Maccabees both commences and concludes earlier in time than the story that is told in I Maccabees. II Maccabees is neither a sequel to nor a continuation of I Maccabees (unlike I and II Samuel, I and II Kings, and I and II Chronicles). Rather, it is a second book about the Maccabees, having been written somewhat later than I Maccabees was written. But since it begins the story at a point earlier in time than does I Maccabees, it is not inappropriate to study II Maccabees first.
Author, Genre, and Time of Composition:
Last time, we studied a book of wisdom written about 200 B.C. by a Jewish sage named Yeshua. II Maccabees is a book of history that was written about one hundred years after Ecclesiasticus-but the author's name is unknown. However, we can discern a few important facts about the author from the book itself. For instance, II Maccabees was written in Greek-unlike I Maccabees, which was written in Hebrew and translated into Greek. 1 Therefore the author must have been a Greek-speaking Jew. In order to write II Maccabees, he relied upon a five-volume history, long since lost, of the Maccabean uprising that was written in Greek by a Jewish historian named Jason of Cyrene (II Macc. 2:23). From that it seems that our unknown author was reasonably learned, and may well have lived-or at least studied-in the large Jewish community in Alexandria, Egypt. This is made all the more likely by the fact that II Maccabees begins with copies of two letters written from Jerusalem to the Jewish community of Egypt (II Macc. 1:1-36; 2:1-18). Finally, it is also apparent from the content of his book that the author held beliefs that are very similar if not identical to those of the Pharisees and the later rabbis of Orthodox Judaism-so he very likely was a Pharisee himself.
The Structure of the Book:
Though it may seem strange to say it, strictly speaking II Maccabees does not really start until II Macc. 2:19. Everything in the book prior to that verse is not actually a part of the author's historical narrative. Indeed, the first section of II Maccabees may not have been included in the book by the author himself. Some later editor could have been responsible for it. As I mentioned above, this first section consists of two letters written by the Jewish elders of Jerusalem to the Jews of Egypt. The first letter (II Macc. 1:1-10) was written in 124 B.C., and alluded to an earlier letter written from Jerusalem in 143 B.C. The purpose of this first letter was to remind the Egyptian Jews to celebrate the Feast of Hanukkah, which at that time had only appeared on the Jewish liturgical calendar for the past forty years. The second letter (II Macc. 1:10-36; 2:1-18) was written not too many years after the institution of the Feast of Hanukkah in 164 B.C. Like the letter of 124 B.C., this earlier one sought to encourage the Egyptian Jews to join with their Judaean brethren in celebrating the new festival. To provide justification for the introduction of Hanukkah, the author of the letter relates some fascinating traditions about Jeremiah the Prophet (586 B.C.) and Nehemiah the Governor (circa 440 B.C.).
After the two letters we find the Author's Preface in II Macc. 2:19-32, in which he explains what he is writing about, why he is writing, and where he got his information. As I mentioned above, II Maccabees itself does not start until this preface. The author assures his readers that the creation of his condensed and summarised version of Jason of Cyrene's five-volume history had cost him ``sweat and sleepless nights'' (2:26).
The author commences his narrative with the first verse of II Macc. 3. From that point in his book until II Macc. 4:38, the author relates the calamities that occurred under the high-priesthood of Onias III, who served as High Priest in Jerusalem from 196 B.C. to 175 B.C. Onias was the son and successor of Shimon the High-Priest, who (as we saw last time) was praised by Yeshua Ben-Sirach in Sirach 50:1-21. Both Shimon and his son Onias were beloved for their holiness and piety. However, Onias had the misfortune of quarreling with another important priest named Shimon (II Macc. 3:4). He unscrupulously slandered the High Priest before the Gentile king Seleucus IV Philopator, who then had control of the Holy Land. This set in motion a chain of events that led to the expulsion of Onias III in 175 B.C., when his younger brother Yeshua usurped the high-priesthood by the authority of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, younger brother of Seleucus IV. Yeshua obtained the high-priesthood through bribery (4:7-8). But Yeshua's treachery was not limited to plotting against his own brother. He was also guilty of treachery against God Himself, for he was a leading member of the Hellenising party within Judaism. In fact, Yeshua had even taken the Greek name of Jason-and it is significant that the author of II Maccabees never calls him by his Hebrew name, only by his Greek name. When Jason became High Priest, he began to introduce pagan Greek customs and institutions, and in a short time he and his allies had renounced the Law that God had given them through Moses (4:10-17).
But, in the usual manner of these things, it was not long before Jason himself was the victim of treachery. Just as he had cheated his own brother out of the high-priesthood, he was in turn supplanted about 172 B.C. by Menelaus (whose Hebrew name was Onias), younger brother of that Shimon who had started the whole mess by slandering Onias III. Menelaus was a Helleniser like Jason, but he outdid Jason in bribery (4:23-24). Then, in an attempt to secure his new office, in 171 B.C. Menelaus had the deposed High Priest Onias III murdered by one of his friends (4:30-38). Not long after that, Jason tried to regain the high-priesthood through force of arms, but was unsuccessful. Abhorred by his own people not only for his apostasy, but also for killing his fellow Jews in his attack on Jerusalem, Jason sought asylum with the Spartan Greeks, who were fellow descendants of Abraham and thus kinsmen and allies of the Jews (cf. I Macc. 12:5-23). There Jason died, unmourned, and alienated from his people (II Macc. 5:5-10).
Then in II Macc. 5-7, the author tells the miserable tale of Antiochus Epiphanes' attempt to wipe out all trace of Judaism, events in which the High Priest Menelaus played an active and very willing part. In 167 B.C., by decree of the Gentile king Antiochus Epiphanes, it was forbidden upon pain of death for anyone to observe even the least commandment of the Torah . The final insult came on 25 Kislev (December) in the year 167 B.C, when the Temple of God in Jerusalem was desecrated by the pagans and apostate Jews, chief among them the High Priest himself. The Temple was rededicated to Zeus Olympios, chief god of the Hellenistic Gentile world. What was once a place of solemn prayer and holy sacrifice to the One True God was transformed into a place of idolatry and sexual perversion (II Macc. 6:1-5).
But just when everything seemed hopeless for God's Chosen People, the author of II Maccabees gave his readers a ray of hope: ``Judas Maccabaeus with about nine others withdrew to the wilderness where he and his companions lived like wild animals in the hills, continuing to eat what grew wild to avoid sharing the defilement'' (II Macc. 5:27). So famous and beloved was Judas Maccabaeus (``Judah the Hammerer'') that the author does not find it necessary to explain who he was. For the benefit of our readers, Judas and his brothers were priests, descendants of Aaron like the apostate High Priest Menelaus, but unlike him in every other way. 2 They and many other Jews refused to submit to the tyranny of Antiochus Epiphanes. In chapters six and seven of his book, the author tells the story of the Maccabean Martyrs (known in Christian tradition as the Holy Maccabees), devout Jews who refused to renounce God's Covenant. Because they remained faithful to God's commandments, they were subjected to sickeningly inhuman tortures by the Gentiles and the apostate Jews. But even torture could not weaken their dedication to God's Ways, so they willingly suffered excruciatingly painful deaths.
In II Macc. 8-9, the author summarises the story of the uprising of Judas Maccabaeus, and also relates the miserable end of the tyrant Antiochus Epiphanes in the early winter of 164 B.C. (II. Macc. 9). Against overwhelming odds, Judas successfully rallied the faithful Jews to defend the Law of God from the assaults of the pagans and the apostates. After many divine miracles, at long last Judas and his friends cleansed the Temple and rededicated it to God, thereby instituting the Festival of Hanukkah (Dedication). It was 25 Kislev (December) 164 B.C., three years (the author mistakenly says two years, unless that is a copyist's error) to the very day since the Temple was desecrated. In the words of the author of II Maccabees:
From II Macc. 10:9 until the end of his book in II Macc. 15:36, the author relates several more inspiring episodes of renewed persecution of the Jews and Judas Maccabaeus' continuing efforts to free his people from Gentile oppression. Along the way the author tells the story of the execution of the apostate High Priest Menelaus in 162 B.C. The Gentiles had come to realise that their unending troubles with the Jews started when Menelaus befriended them, so they wisely chose to rid themselves of so pernicious an individual (13:3-8), replacing him with another apostate priest named Eliakim or Alcimus (14:3). The author brought his story to a close with the defeat and execution of the Gentile commander Nicanor by Judas Maccabaeus on 13 Adar (27 March) 160 B.C., the day before the Feast of Purim.
Thus, the events that are recounted in II Maccabees span a twenty-year period, from about 180 B.C. to 160 B.C., although the second Hanukkah letter attached to the beginning of the book also refers to certain events that would have taken place in 586 B.C. and the 440s B.C. 3 It is notable that the author of II Maccabees concluded his story with Nicanor's death, that ensured the future safety of the Jews, and omitted the fall of Judas Maccabaeus that happened only about a month or two later. In all likelihood the author left out the death of Judas because he wanted to end his story on a note of victory. The common human desire to give a tale a happy ending was perhaps a normal instinct with the author, as might become evident from an examination of his theology.
The Theology of II Maccabees:
In retelling the story of the heroic struggle of the Jews to preserve the Law of God, the author of II Maccabees matter-of-factly mentions several instances of divine intervention on behalf of His faithful servants. Supernatural events and miracles are a normal part of the author's everyday experience. Indeed, God plays a very active role in the events of II Maccabees, granting victories to the outnumbered Jews (15:27), and sending His People miraculous signs (5:2-4) and encouraging visions (15:12-16). For instance, when a Gentile named Heliodorus was sent by King Seleucus IV to steal the tithes in the Temple treasury that were set aside to care for widows and orphans, God Himself appeared before the treasury in the form of a knight clad from head to toe in shining golden armor, riding a fierce war horse, and accompanied by two angels in the form of dazzlingly beautiful young men (II Macc. 3:22-26). God and His two angels rode down the impious Gentile, who was beaten senseless by the angels. The High Priest Onias III offered a sacrifice to God in order to atone for the sin of Heliodorus and save him from divine wrath, at which point the two angels appeared to Heliodorus and told him that God had heard Onias' prayers-God would spare his life (3:26-34). His mission unaccomplished, Heliodorus returned to King Seleucus IV, who asked him whom he should send to Jerusalem in his place. Heliodorus replied:
That episode at the beginning of the book sets the tone and lays out the theology for the remainder of the book. The God of the author of II Maccabees is a God who defends His holy People and His holy Place. However, His love for His People is more important than His love for His Temple, as the author explains in a very important passage (emphasis added):
Thus, to the author of II Maccabees, the spiritual welfare of Israel was more important to God than the inviolability of the Temple (in some ways anticipating Jesus' words in John 4:21-23). Throughout his book the author shows an intense interest in spiritual wellbeing, in human sin and human righteousness. In II Maccabees God makes sure that Jews and Gentiles who are guilty of extreme wickedness meet with fittingly shameful deaths. We see that pattern throughout the book: Jason (II Macc. 5:8-10), Menelaus (13:4-8), Andronicus (4:38), Callisthenes (8:33), Nicanor (15:25-35), and especially Antiochus Epiphanes himself (9:4-6, 28).
However, lest anyone jump to the conclusion that the author held to the simplistic notion (put forward by Job's friends, and criticised by Jesus in Luke 13:1-5) that calamities and troubles in one's life ought to be interpreted as indications of personal wickedness, consider the stories of the Jewish martyrs. The Maccabean Martyrs willingly underwent gruesome deaths rather than violate even one of the commandments of the Torah . Rather than being a sign of God's displeasure, their martyrdoms guaranteed them a place in the resurrection of the just (6:18-31; 7:1-41; 14:37-46).
The Eschatology of II Maccabees:
As was mentioned earlier, the author of II Maccabees held eschatological beliefs (i.e., beliefs about the World to Come and the afterlife) that are for all intents and purposes identical to those of the Pharisees, of the later Orthodox Jewish rabbis, and also of the majority of Christians in every era. In the accounts of the Maccabean Martyrs, and elsewhere in his book, the author mentions the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead. In the New Testament we find that there was a sharp disagreement between the Sadducees on the one hand, who did not believe in the resurrection, and the Pharisees and Christians on the other, who both held to the views on the resurrection that are found in II Maccabees. One of the reasons the Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection is that it is a doctrine that is at best only implied in the Pentateuch, being more clearly taught by later prophets such as Isaiah, Ezekiel, and Daniel. But II Maccabees shows that disbelief in the resurrection has always been a heretical minority opinion in the Judaeo-Christian tradition. In contrast, the majority of Jews prior to the birth of Jesus Christ believed in a future resurrection of the dead, as these relevant passages demonstrate:
Furthermore, according to the author of II Maccabees, the majority of Jews of those days believed in a bodily resurrection, not merely a transformation into an incorporeal or immaterial state of existence. 4 This is shown from these two passages:
Not only did the author of II Maccabees agree with the Pharisees and the disciples of Jesus Christ about the resurrection of the body. He also agreed with the Pharisees and the overwhelming majority of Christians that the souls of the dead remain in a conscious state following death, undergoing judgement from God, and then in a conscious but bodiless state awaiting the time of the resurrection. In the meantime, the souls of the righteous enjoy peaceful rest, whereas the souls of the wicked endure torment. 5 This is shown from passages such as these:
II Maccabees and the Early Church:
Although this book was excluded by the rabbis from the canon of Hebrew Scriptures-apparently for the simple reason that it was written in Greek-it was included in the Greek translation of the Old Testament known as the Septuagint. The early Christians used the Septuagint to preach the Gospel throughout the Roman Empire, where Greek was the lingua franca. As has already been mentioned above, there are many theological and eschatological points of contact between II Maccabees and the beliefs of the early Christians. The early Church could point to II Macc. 5:19 as support for their belief that the Temple had been superceded by the risen Messiah. They could also see the close resemblance between the words of the Maccabean Martyrs in II Macc. 7 and the words of Jesus in Matt. 10:28.
Another point of contact between II Maccabees and Christianity is the practice of offering sacrifices for, praying for, and willingly submitting to suffering on behalf of sinners-both for sinners who are still alive and for sinners who are already dead. This practice (having roots in the days of Abraham, as we see in Gen. 18:23-32 and Gen. 20:7) is mentioned with approval in II Macc.3:31-33; 7:38; and 12:40-46, and may be found even today in Orthodox Judaism and much of Christianity. The Apostle Paul also seems to allude to it in I Cor. 15:29, where he mentions Christians undergoing penitential ``baptisms'' (apparently in the sense of Mark 10:38, meaning ``suffering,'' rather than literal baptisms) on behalf of the dead. 6
But it was perhaps the story of the Maccabean Martyrs that resonated the most with the early Christians, who saw in their faithfulness to God even unto death a perfect model for their own painful experiences, first at the hands of their Jewish brethren, and later at the hands of the pagan Roman government. In fact the story of the Maccabean Martyrs is even mentioned in Hebrews 11:35. The author of II Maccabees is responsible for the birth of a whole literary genre, known as ``martyrology''-detailed narratives of men and women being tortured and murdered for their faith. That genre quite naturally became especially popular in the Church starting in the second century A.D. There can be little doubt that the martyrlogies of II Maccabees inform Jesus Christ's own frequent encouragement to His disciples to remain faithful in the face of persecution and martyrdom. ``Blessed are you,'' He said, ``when they insult you and persecute you and utter every kind of evil against you falsely because of Me. Rejoice and be glad, for great is your reward in Heaven'' (Matt. 5:11).
A Few Practical Lessons for Today:
For over two millennia both Jews and Christians have drawn inspiration from the stories related in II Maccabees. We have already seen some of the ways that Christians have been edified by this book. For Jews, of course, this book is one of the important sources of their beloved Hanukkah story. Growing up in the Worldwide Church of God, I was for many years utterly ignorant of the Hanukkah story. Perhaps like many Gentiles in America, I foolishly assumed that Hanukkah was merely a Jewish imitation of Christmas. Only later did I learn that Hanukkah was far older than Christmas, and really had nothing to do with the Christian celebration of the birth of the Jewish Messiah.
Well, not really nothing . . . . Granted, it is assimilationist pressure from the Gentile world that influenced many Jews in the Western World to turn Hanukkah into a Jewish version of the over-commercialised and secularised American observance of Christmas. But those similarities are very recent and entirely superficial. Surprisingly, there are a few other similarities that are quite ancient. The most obvious similarity is that Hanukkah begins on 25 Kislev, whereas Christmas falls on 25 December-Kislev and December usually overlap on the Jewish and Gregorian calendars. The reason for this similarity may be mere coincidence, or accident of history. Apparently Antiochus Epiphanes chose to defile the Temple on 25 Kislev because that was the date of an important pagan observance, the winter solstice-25 December on the pagan Roman calendar. The Jewish festival of Hanukkah commences on 25 Kislev not to celebrate a pagan festival, but in order to wash away all trace of the defilement of the Temple. Moving forward about four centuries, we find the first historical reference to the celebration of Christmas on 25 December. A great many scholars believe that the Christians began to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ on that date as a means of supplanting the pagan celebration of the winter solstice. Thus, it is possible that, in different ways, both the Jewish and the Christian festivals originated out of opposition to the perverted religious practices associated with the celebration of the winter solstice.
But there could be another similarity that is not immediately apparent. In four different passages of II Maccabees (1:9, 18; 2:9-12; 10:6-7) , there is terminology that associates Hanukkah with Sukkot, the Festival of Tabernacles or Booths (e.g. ``the Feast of Booths in the month of Kislev''). As we saw above, at the very first Hanukkah ever celebrated, the Jews wished to observe eight days of holy celebration to make up for the eight days of Tabernacles that Gentile persecution had stolen from them that year. They therefore used various Tabernacles customs and rituals at their Hanukkah celebration. It seems that Hanukkah started out as something like a second, lesser Feast of Tabernacles.
As has been mentioned before in the pages of Grace and Knowledge 7, many believe that Jesus Christ was born in the autumn, at or about the time of the celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles. Thus, it is possible that ``the Word was made flesh and set up His tabernacle in our midst'' during the very season of Tabernacles. However, when one considers the connection that exists between Tabernacles and Hanukkah, it is very interesting that in the latter half of the 300s A.D. the great Christian theologian St. Gregory of Nyssa delivered a Christmas homily that identified Christmas as ``the true Feast of Tabernacles'' in which ``our tabernacles, which were struck down by death, are raised up again by Him Who built our dwelling from the beginning.''
Thus, however remote the possibility, it may well be that, whenever Jesus was really born, the selection of 25 December for the annual commemoration of His birth could have been due to influence from the Festival of Hanukkah rather than influence from pagan worship of the sun god during the winter solstice. Or perhaps there was both Jewish and pagan influence behind the institution of the Feast of the Nativity of our Lord on 25 December. As a youth I once believed that Hanukkah was a Jewish imitation of Christmas. It is fascinating that Christmas could be, at least in part, a Christian version of Hanukkah. In this light, I would suggest that reading II Maccabees can enhance our Christian celebrations of the first and second advents of Jesus Christ. Certainly Christians should be able to appreciate how Jesus fulfilled the Feast of Hanukkah by giving His life at Golgotha-for that sacrificial act was the rededication of a purified heavenly Temple and Altar for His People Israel, as we read in the Letter to the Hebrews.
But even apart from such considerations as I have mentioned above, it should now be apparent just how fitting it is for us to study II Maccabees during the autumn and winter months of the year. The Jewish autumn festivals point forward to various eschatological themes, such as the coming of the Messiah, the Messianic Kingdom, and the resurrection of the dead. As we have seen, the Hanukkah story as told in II Maccabees focuses on several eschatological themes, especially the resurrection of the dead. Finally, the traditional Christian Advent season, coinciding with the Jewish festival of Hanukkah, bears close resemblance to traditional aspects of the Jewish fall festivals. As the year draws to an end, it is appropriate that we disciples of Jesus Christ turn our thoughts to the time of the end, that longed-for day when He will return and raise us from the dead. By God's grace may we be found ready and watching, so that day does not catch us unprepared to meet Him when He comes. As an aid in our preparations for His return, the narrative of II Maccabees can teach us to trust in God above no matter what our circumstances, be they good or evil. Reading the martyrologies can also help to put the personal problems that we Western Christians must endure into proper perspective-because few of us today are threatened with martyrdom. For those who do face persecution, the story of Hanukkah shows us how to resist and fight back against godless tyranny, which sometimes seems to be advancing on all fronts. But by trusting steadfastly in Him like the faithful Jews of the time of Judas Maccabaeus, we too can have hope in His Promises, so that, with all of those godly heroes of the House of Judah who put their lives on the line to save the Chosen People in one of their darkest hours, He might bring us to the Resurrection unto Life.
1The fact that II Maccabees was written in Greek seems to have been the main reason why the early rabbis did not include this book in their approved canon of scripture.
2Judas and his brothers belonged to the priestly division of Jehoiarib, which was the first and highest-ranking of the twenty-four priestly divisions (I Chron. 24:7; Neh. 12:19; I Macc. 2:1-5). The family of Jehoiarib were descendants of Phinehas, son of Eleazar, son of Aaron (I Macc. 2:54; cf. I Chron. 24:6). In contrast, the apostate High Priest Menelaus and his brother Shimon belonged to the family of Bilgah, fifteenth of the twenty-four priestly divisions (I Chron. 24:14; Neh. 12:18; II Macc. 3:4). The division of Bilgah were descendants of Ithamar, younger brother of Eleazar, son of Aaron (I Chron. 24:6). In terms of rank and precedence, Jehoiarib was next after the High Priests, whereas Bilgah was much the junior of Jehoiarib-though Menelaus seems to have been closely related by marriage to the family of Onias III. Considering these things, it is most appropriate that, following the expulsion and exile of the legitimate high priestly line circa 172 B.C., the high priesthood would eventually come to Jehoiarib's family rather than the upstart and faithless family of Bilgah.
3In fact that letter also alludes to events in the days of Moses and Solomon.
4The early Fathers of the Christian Church unanimously held to the same belief, as do the Orthodox Jews even today.
5The views of the author of II Maccabees concerning the fate of the wicked are admittedly more difficult to ascertain than his views concerning the fate of the blessed.
6It is also very noteworthy that, as we saw in the story of Judas' vision of Onias and Jeremiah, the author of II Maccabees refers to the souls of departed saints offering prayers of intercession for their brethren here on earth. For many Protestant Christians, the references in II Maccabees to the intercession of the saints, and to sacrifices for the souls of the dead, are viewed as contrary to Lutheran and Reformed Theology. In the eyes of the first Protestants those references were enough to condemn the whole book. Another factor was Martin Luther's intense and venomous hatred of Jews and Judaism-II Maccabees is nothing if not pro-Jewish. They therefore removed it from their canon of scripture.
7See Issue 1, pp.2-7; and Issue 2, pp.15-19, 38-47. The ideas that I suggest here are a re-thinking of certain opinions that I expressed in Issue 2, pp.38-47.
Part 3 of this series
File translated from T EX by T TH, version 2.79. On 29 Jan 2001, 18:00.