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An Introduction to the Apocrypha-Part Seven


by Doug Ward

As Christians, we often live in tension with the world around us. Belonging to a kingdom ``not of this world'' (John 18:36), we are sent into the world (Matt. 28:19-20; John 17:18) but are to remain unpolluted by it (James 1:27). We are obedient citizens of earthly governments (I Peter 2:13-17), yet at times we must choose to ``obey God rather than men'' (Acts 5:29; 4:19).

Because of such tensions, difficult questions arise. Is it better to stay largely separate from the surrounding culture, or can we somehow take advantage of that culture to further the work of the gospel? Should Christians ever go to war? If so, under what circumstances?

While grappling with questions like these, we can draw insight, strength and encouragement from the stories of God's people through the ages who have dealt with similar issues. In the current installment of our series on the Apocrypha we will consider one such story. It comes to us from the second century B.C., a time when faithful followers of God and his Torah faced severe persecution, and the future of the Jews as a distinct people seemingly hung in the balance. This story is recorded in the book of First Maccabees.

About the Book

First Maccabees covers a period of a little over forty years in Jewish history, beginning with the accession of King Antiochus IV to the Seleucid throne in 175 B.C. The book is a ``dynastic history'' that concentrates on the exploits of one priestly family-Mattathias; his sons Judas Maccabeus, Jonathan, Simon, John, and Eleazar; and Simon's son John Hyrcanus. Mattathias's sons, known collectively as the Maccabees, rescued the Jerusalem temple from pagan hands and eventually gained political independence for the Jews. They founded the Hasmonean dynasty1, which provided political and spiritual leadership for Israel for about a century.

First Maccabees was written by a supporter of the Hasmoneans. The book's ending implies that it was completed sometime after the end of John Hyrcanus's reign in 104 B.C. On the other hand, since it speaks of the Romans in favorable-even idealistic-terms (see I Macc. 8:1-16), it was certainly written before 63 B.C., when a Roman takeover of Jerusalem ended Hasmonean rule.

The author of First Maccabees probably lived in the Holy Land, since he was very familiar with the geography of the region and had access to official documents that would have been archived in Jerusalem. Although there are no surviving Hebrew manuscripts of the book, scholars agree that it was originally written in Hebrew and subsequently translated into Greek. 2 According to Dr. David A. deSilva [1, p. 247], ``Translating the book back into Hebrew offers relatively few challenges and has been used to clear up difficulties in the Greek text, a fact that weighs heavily in favor of a Hebrew original standing behind the Septuagint tradition.''

The book is our most important historical source for the period of Jewish history that it describes. Josephus3 considered it to be reliable; he paraphrased I Macc. 1:11-13:42 in books twelve and thirteen of his Antiquities of the Jews. With its extensive use of official documents and precise dates, I Maccabees purports to be an accurate account of the Maccabean revolt. At the same time, it has an unmistakable point of view. Written in the style of I and 2 Kings (see I Macc. 9:22; 16:23-24), it portrays the Maccabees as God's chosen instruments (5:62) and worthy successors of earlier kings and priests of Israel. As we discuss the narrative in more detail, we will note some of the connections the book makes between the Maccabees and these earlier heroes.

Background: The Challenge of Hellenism

First Maccabees begins with the rise to power of Alexander the Great, who conquered the empire of the Medes and Persians (including the land of Israel) and set up his own Graeco-Macedonian empire in its place (1:1-4; cf. Dan. 8:5-7, 20-21). Shortly before Alexander died in 323 B.C., he divided his vast territories among four of his ``most honored officers'' (1:6; Dan. 8:8, 22). One of those officers, Ptolemy, controlled Palestine. Ptolemy and his successors in Egypt ruled over the Jews until 198 B.C. After that, Israel came under the authority of the Syrian Seleucids, whose empire was headquartered at Antioch.

Although Alexander's rule was shortlived (twelve years, according to I Macc. 1:7), policies that he set in motion had a profound effect on the world for centuries to come. A pupil of Aristotle and lover of Greek ways, Alexander hoped to use Greek language, learning, and culture to unite the empire. To this end, he founded Greek cities (poleis) throughout his territories. Dr. Oskar Skarsaune [5, p. 31] gives the following description of a typical polis:

``A polis contained some obligatory institutions: a public town center and marketplace (the square agora); a hall for the city council (the bouleuterion); baths; temples to the Greek (later Roman) gods; a theater; a gymnasium (a combined higher school and sports training ground); preferably a library and a sports stadium; and if a big city, also a hippodrome.''

By means of the poleis, Greek culture was introduced to surrounding areas and mingled with the native cultures of those regions, creating a cultural synthesis called Hellenism. Correspondingly, the spread of Greek language and customs was known as ``Hellenization'' (see 2 Macc. 4:13).

In their interactions with Greek culture, the various native cultures did not enjoy a ``level playing field.'' Although the Greeks had some admiration for the more ancient cultures of their empire ([5, pp. 29-30]), they were still the ones in charge. Skarsaune comments,

``Greek culture was the culture of the conquerors, the rulers, the armies and the new business elite. Greek was the language of government and administration, business and commerce. And Greek literature was taken as the supreme model for all kinds of literary production. In other words, Greek culture was the culture of the new era, and anyone who would belong to the new elite had to adopt it'' [5, p. 28].

The attractions of the dominant Greek culture thus created great pressure to Hellenize. As a result, a number of ancient cultures were swallowed up by Hellenism and essentially disappeared from history.

For the Jews, Hellenism offered both opportunities and temptations. On the one hand, Jewish thought ultimately was greatly enriched by certain Greek concepts. A prime example is the Greek idea that ``the hidden law governing the entire universe is divine reason, logos, and the moral task of humanity is to live a life of conformity to this divine reason, which is the law of ethics as well as the law of nature'' [5, p. 35]. Jewish thinkers, beginning with the author of Sirach in the early second century B.C., identified the underlying universal law as God's Torah (see especially Sirach 24, quoted in part one of this series). In this way, a Hellenistic concept led to the exaltation of the God of Israel and the promotion of his inspired word.

On the other hand, Hellenism created temptations for Jews to compromise the aspects of Torah-e.g., the Sabbath, circumcision, and dietary laws-that set them apart as a unique and distinct people. By remaining separate from the Gentiles, some reasoned, Jews were missing out on the wealth and prestige afforded by Hellenism.

By the time Antiochus IV, a greedy and power-hungry man, took over the Seleucid throne in 175 B.C. (I Macc. 1:10), there was apparently considerable controversy in Judea over Hellenism (vv. 11-15). One of those who favored Hellenization was Yeshua (a.k.a. Jason), the brother of Onias the high priest. Jason bribed the new king in order to seize control of the high priesthood from Onias.

As we saw in part two of this series, Jason set aside the authority of Torah and took steps to turn Jerusalem into a Greek polis (2 Macc. 4:9-17). I Maccabees 1:11-15 does not mention Jason's name explicitly, but he was certainly among the ``renegades'' referred to in those verses. Jason probably rationalized his corrupt actions by claiming that his Hellenization program was in the best interests of the people. Instead, his takeover of the high priesthood set in motion a sequence of events that led to one of the greatest crises in the history of Israel.

The Abomination of Desolation

Jason was not in power for long. Ironically, his subordinate Menelaus double-crossed him in much the same way that he had ousted Onias. When Jason sent Menelaus to Antiochus on official business in 172 B.C., Menelaus managed to grab the high priesthood for himself by offering a bribe higher than Jason's (2 Macc. 4:23-24).

Menelaus, another Hellenizer, seems to have been mainly concerned with staying in office and lining his own pockets. His acts of treachery included arranging for Onias to be murdered and plundering gold vessels from the temple (2 Macc. 4:25-34).

In 169 B.C., when a false rumor arose that Antiochus had been killed in battle in Egypt, Jason tried unsuccessfully to regain control of Jerusalem (2 Macc. 5:5-10). Antiochus then hurried to Jerusalem to put down the uprising. At Menelaus's invitation, the king raided the temple (I Macc. 1:20-28; 2 Macc. 5:11-16) before returning to Antioch.

Two years later, Antiochus sent his general Apollonius to Jerusalem with a large force to consolidate Seleucid control over Judea. Apollonius killed large numbers of Menelaus's opponents in a cruel attack that took place on the Sabbath day (I Macc. 1:29-32; 2 Macc. 5:24-26). He then expanded or rebuilt Akra, a fortress citadel located near the temple, where he stationed a garrison of Syrians and Hellenized Jews (I Macc. 1: 33-40).

These were only the beginning of Antiochus's repressive measures against the Jews. Apparently viewing any type of Jewish religious practice as a threat to his authority, he proceeded to outlaw temple sacrifices, circumcision, Sabbath and festival observance, and reading of the scriptures (I Macc. 1:41-61; 2 Macc.6:1-11). Worst of all, he established idolatrous pagan worship at the temple (2 Macc. 6:1-5). As I Macc. 1:54 puts it, the king's men ``erected a desolating sacrilege on the altar of burnt offering.'' This phrase identifies Antiochus's blasphemous sacrifices as the ``abomination of desolation'' prophesied in Daniel 11:31.

No one knows exactly why Antiochus IV persecuted the Jews so harshly. Certainly his judgment was impaired by greed and arrogance, an arrogance reflected in the name he gave himself-``Epiphanes,'' which means ``the manifest [one].'' (In other words, he claimed to be a god in human form.) Among the Jews he came to be known as Epimanes (``the madman''), a more fitting designation [4, p.465].

Mattathias Takes a Stand

A number of faithful Jews willingly became martyrs by refusing to submit to the king's demands that they abandon the commandments of God (1 Macc. 1:62-63; 2 Macc. 6-7). Others decided to fight back. The opposition began to form at Modein, a village about seventeen miles northwest of Jerusalem, where Mattathias the priest and his five sons had taken refuge (I Macc. 2:1-14). When representatives of the king arrived in Modein, they offered Mattathias status and wealth if he would lead the village in adopting the state-sponsored religious observances (vv. 15-18). Mattathias declined, saying, ``I and my sons and my brothers will continue to live by the covenant of our ancestors'' (v. 20). His declaration was reminiscent of the words of Joshua recorded in Joshua 24:15 (``but as for me and my household, we will serve the Lord'').

The priest backed up his speech with decisive action. When another man openly stepped forward to offer the sacrifice prescribed by the king, Mattathias quickly killed both the traitor and the king's officer and tore down the altar (2:23-26). The author compares the zeal of Mattathias to that of one of Israel's greatest priests, Phinehas the grandson of Aaron (Num. 25:1-15). Like Phinehas, he had taken forceful steps to stop the spread of idolatry among God's people.

Mattathias then called upon the inhabitants of Modein to join him in standing up for God and the covenant (2:27). His words are like the rallying cry that Moses gave in stopping Israel's worship of the golden calf (Exod. 32:26). Leaving their possessions behind, Mattathias and his family ``fled to the hills'' (2:28). Others soon joined them (vv. 42-43), much as a small army had formed around David when King Saul threatened his life (I Sam. 22:2).

In the wilderness, the guerilla army immediately faced some difficult choices. After a thousand Jews were slaughtered on the Sabbath by the king's forces (2:29-38), Mattathias and his men determined that they would fight on the Sabbath, if necessary, rather than passively accept martyrdom (vv. 39-41). They took the offensive, tearing down pagan altars, circumcizing the uncircumcized, and even killing countrymen who collaborated with the enemy (vv. 44-48).

Mattathias expended all of his strength in organizing and leading the Jewish opposition to Antiochus. It soon became clear to the elderly priest that he did not have much longer to live. Before his death, he urged his sons to carry on the cause, reminding them of the examples of great heroes of Israel like Joseph, Phinehas, Joshua and Caleb, Elijah, and Daniel and his three friends (vv. 51-60). He placed Judas in charge of the army and instructed his sons to heed the wise counsel of their brother Simeon (vv. 65-66). His death came in 166 B.C. (v. 70).

As we have seen, the author of I Maccabees makes several connections between Mattathias and luminaries like Moses, David, and Phinehas. In part, these connections are intended to lend support to the proactive stance taken by Mattathias and his men. Just as Phinehas and other Levites in the days of Moses were forced to take the lives of some Israelites in order to combat idolatry (Exod. 32:25-29; Num. 25), so Mattathias-from the perspective of I Maccabees-was justified in attacking the enemies of Torah. Comparisons between Mattathias and earlier heroes of Israel also begin to lay the groundwork for the view that the Maccabees and their descendants were amply qualified to be both kings and priests. Further backing for this view is added as our story proceeds.

Judas Reclaims the Temple

Judas proved to be a valiant and successful commander of the Jewish resistance forces, living up to the expectations of his father. His exploits are celebrated in a poem, recorded in I Macc. 3:3-9, that links him to the patriarch Judah (v. 4; cf. Gen. 49:9) and also to Phinehas (v.8; cf. Num. 25:11).

Syrian generals soon found out that Judas was a formidable opponent. When Apollonius brought his forces against Judas's men, he lost the battle and his life. Judas came away from the battle with the sword of Apollonius (I Macc. 3:10-12), a detail that reminds us of David's victory over Goliath and subsequent use of Goliath's sword.

Judas followed up his initial victory by routing Syrian forces under Seron at Beth-horon, about twelve miles northwest of Jerusalem (3:13-26). The Jewish forces were badly outnumbered, but Judas inspired those under him with an unwavering faith. In a speech that recalls the words of Jonathan in I Sam 14:6, Judas reminded his comrades that ``strength comes from Heaven'' and that in God's sight, ``there is no difference between saving by many or by few'' (vv. 18-19).

Reports of the Jewish rebellion aroused the ire of Antiochus IV, whose efforts to expand his army were hampered by a depleted treasury. Antiochus headed to Persia to raise funds, leaving Lysias in charge of his affairs (3:27-37). Lysias then sent commanders Ptolemy, Nicanor, and Gorgias with forty thousand infantry and seven thousand cavalry to bring Judea into submission (vv. 35-36, 38-39).

Again facing an overwhelming disadvantage in numbers, Judas and his brothers refused to panic. Instead they led the Jews in fasting and prayer, beseeching the Creator of the Universe to intervene on behalf of his people and his holy temple (3:42-53). Judas then organized the Jewish forces into ``thousands and hundreds and fifties and tens,'' following the example of Moses (vv. 55; cf. Exod. 18). He was also careful to abide by the guidelines of Deut. 20:5-8 (v. 56). In the parlance of Gilbert and Sullivan, Judas Maccabeus was ``the very model of a Torah-observant general.''

Judas's faith and courage were soon rewarded. When Gorgias attempted a surprise night attack on the Jewish camp, the Judean forces cleverly evaded the enemy and launched a bold and successful counterstrike against the Seleucid camp (4:1-25). Judas encouraged his men by reminding them of God's deliverance of their ancestors from Pharaoh's army at the banks of the Red Sea (vv. 9-11). The following year, Lysias brought sixty five thousand troops against Judas, whose forces numbered only ten thousand. Gaining strength through prayer (vv. 30-33), Judas led his smaller army to another decisive victory and forced Lysias to depart and regroup (vv. 34-35).

These military triumphs gave the Jews an opportunity for which they had been waiting. With the enemy temporarily neutralized, they regained possession of the temple (4:36-37). Finding everything in great disrepair, Judas sent some men to keep the Akra garrison occupied while the sanctuary was cleansed and refurbished (vv. 41-51). On 25 Kislev in 164 B.C., three years to the day after the temple had been profaned, sacrifices were resumed and a joyous eight-day celebration followed (vv. 52-58). Ever since that time, the rededication of the temple has been commemorated annually at the festival of Hanukkah (v. 59).

The Struggle Continues

In regaining and rededicating the temple, Judas and his brothers had achieved a tremendous victory. Their work had only just begun, however. When reports arrived that Israelites were under attack in Gilead, the Galilee, and other areas, the Maccabees traveled in all directions to defend their countrymen (I Macc. 5). The situation was analogous to that faced by King David centuries before. After David had captured Jerusalem and established the worship of God there, he still faced the task of bringing peace to the land of Israel. Like David, Judas and his brothers were very successful in their military efforts (compare I Macc. 5 with 2 Sam. 8, 10).

The only Jewish defeat mentioned in I Macc. 5 did not involve the Maccabees. Before leaving for a military campaign in Gilead, Judas instructed two men named Joseph and Azariah to take charge of the soldiers in Judea but to refrain from battle until his return (vv. 17-19). Unfortunately, Joseph and Azariah disobeyed orders and were routed in an attack on Syrian troops at Jamnia (vv. 55-61). The author of I Maccabees reports this defeat as evidence that it was the Maccabees, not others, who were God's chosen instruments for the deliverance of Israel (v. 62).

While the Jewish forces continued to enjoy success, Antiochus IV was in pursuit of further riches in Persia. Hearing about the splendor of a temple in Elymais, the king attacked this city. He met stiff resistance, however, and was forced to retreat to Babylon (I Macc. 6:1-4). There he received a second disappointment, the news of the series of defeats suffered by his armies in Judea. Wracked with disappointment over his misfortunes and filled with guilt because of his mistreatment of the Jews, Antiochus soon became gravely ill. He died in 163 B.C. and was succeeded by his son, Antiochus V Eupator (vv. 5-17).

I Maccabees 6 gives one of several ancient accounts of the death of Antiochus IV (see 2 Macc. 1:13-17; 9; [2, pp. 98-102]). These accounts differ on a number of details, but all agree that his demise was precipitated by an ill-advised raid on a Persian temple. Fittingly, the haughty king's hubris and greed, as exhibited in his plundering of temples, proved to be his downfall.

Back in Jerusalem, the garrison at Akra continued to harass those who guarded the temple of God (6:18). Judas placed the citadel under siege in 162 B.C., hoping to remove this thorn from his side (vv. 20-21). However, he was forced to abandon the siege when Antiochus V came against Judea with a huge army of 120,000, including infantry, cavalry, and elephants (v. 30). In a battle at Beth-zechariah, Judas's brother Eleazar spotted one elephant that was ``equipped with royal armor'' and ``taller than all the others'' (vv. 43-44). Guessing that the king was on this animal, Eleazar sacrificed his life by killing the elephant, which crushed him to death as it fell. Unfortunately, Eleazar had guessed incorrectly, and the Jewish forces were forced to retreat in the face of the overwhelming numbers of the enemy (vv. 45-47).

In trying to withstand the king's more numerous forces, the Judeans faced an additional disadvantage: it was a sabbatical year, and food supplies were running low. As a result, Antiochus V easily took Beth-zur and prepared to besiege Jerusalem (6:48-54). Fortunately, the Jews received a reprieve when news came that from Antioch that Philip, a rival of the king, was trying to seize control of the government. Antiochus V then quickly came to terms with the Jews and returned home to put a stop to the threat (vv. 55-63). This was one of a number of times when infighting among the Seleucids worked to the advantage of the Maccabees.

Judas's Final Victory

Antiochus was soon displaced as king by his cousin Demetrius (I Macc. 7:1-4), who continued to support the Hellenists in Judea by appointing a man named Alcimus as high priest (vv. 5-11). Although Alcimus was of proper priestly lineage (v. 14), he soon demonstrated himself to be unfit for the position. When a delegation of Judas's supporters sought to negotiate for peace with Alcimus, the new high priest initially promised not to harm them but then had sixty murdered (vv. 12-16). The author of I Maccabees identifies this massacre as a fulfillment of Ps. 79:2-3 (v. 17).

At the request of Alcimus, Demetrius sent an army under the command of Nicanor to bring Judea under control (7:25-26). The book of 2 Maccabees describes an initial period of friendly relations between Nicanor and Judas (2 Macc. 14:18-25). The machinations of Alcimus brought an end to the truce (2 Macc. 14:26-27), however, and Nicanor soon threatened to burn down the temple if Judas and the Jewish forces were not turned over to him (I Macc. 7:33-35). Judas responded by praying for deliverance (vv. 40-42), following the example of righteous King Hezekiah (2 Kings 19:14-19), and his prayers were answered. Nicanor's forces were decisively defeated, leading to great rejoicing in the land of Judah (vv. 43-50).

Even after this great victory, the Jews continued to face the grim reality that they were opposed by a powerful empire. When yet another large Syrian army arrived in Judea, Judas's men finally lost heart. Many fled in fear, while others, including Judas himself, died in battle (I Macc. 9:1-18).

In just a few years, the faithful and courageous Judas Maccabeus had fought overwhelming odds to rescue the temple of God and win a measure of freedom for the Jewish people. Mourners of his death in 160 B.C. recalled the words that King David had used centuries earlier in lamenting the deaths of Saul and Jonathan (v. 21; cf. 2 Sam. 1:19). The style of I Macc. 9:22, reminiscent of the books of I and 2 Kings, implicitly compares Judas to the great kings of Israel. His brother Jonathan, who was chosen to succeed him (vv. 28-31), clearly had a tough act to follow.

Jonathan's Masterful Diplomacy

Jonathan immediately faced some formidable difficulties, including famine, betrayal by countrymen and former allies, and continuing attacks from the Syrian commander Bacchides (9:23-53). In the midst of these challenges, he received yet another blow-the death of his brother John (vv. 35-38). Now Jonathan and Simon were the only remaining sons of Mattathias. With no time to mourn, the two brothers doggedly continued the fight for their lives and their people.

Like Judas, Jonathan possessed considerable prowess on the battlefield. Even more important, though, were his skills as a diplomat and statesman. After the death of Alcimus in 159 B.C. (vv. 54-56), Jonathan was the leading figure in Judea. He began to take advantage of this position by negotiating a settlement with Bacchides, who had grown tired of protracted conflict with the determined Jewish guerilla army (vv. 58-73).

Several years later a power struggle for the Seleucid throne arose between Demetrius and Alexander (the brother of Antiochus V), bringing opportunities for further diplomatic progress. Jonathan was able to play the two off against each other, gaining key concessions from both of them (10:1-21). Moreover, he correctly discerned that a lavish offer from Demetrius was actually too good to be true (vv. 22-47). As it turned out, Alexander defeated Demetrius and became the new king (vv. 48-50) in about 150 B.C. Jonathan, who had been made high priest in 152 B.C. (vv. 18-21), emerged from the struggle with the additional title of ``general and governor of the province'' (v. 65). At one time Mattathias had turned down the chance to become a ``friend of the king'' in order to remain faithful to God (2:18-22). Now Jonathan, by following in his father's footsteps, had attained the status of ``chief friend of the king'' (v. 65).

As battles continued between rival claimants to rulership, Jonathan and Simon gradually expanded their territories and strengthened their position as leaders of the Jewish people (10:67-89). In 145 B.C., Demetrius II replaced Alexander as king (11:19). The new king granted Jonathan some parts of Samaria along with the promise of tax relief (11:30-37). However, Demetrius broke an agreement to remove Syrian troops from the Akra citadel, even after Jonathan gave him extensive military assistance (11:41-53).

Jonathan's favor with the Seleucids continued after Antiochus VI, the youthful son of Alexander, was placed on the throne at Antioch. Antiochus confirmed the status of Jonathan as high priest, governor, and ``Friend of the king,'' and he made Simon governor of territory on the Mediterranean coast ``from the Ladder of Tyre to the borders of Egypt'' (11:57-59). With his position solidified, Jonathan then took the opportunity to renew an alliance with Rome that had been established earlier by Judas (I Macc. 8; 12:1-4). In addition, he renewed contact with the people of Sparta, who considered themselves to be fellow descendants of Abraham (12:5-23).

Jonathan governed in Jerusalem until 142 B.C., when he made a fatal error in judgment. Trypho, a Syrian commander who had been responsible for placing Antiochus VI in power, hoped to overthrow his former protege but feared that Jonathan would stand in his way (12:39-40). So Trypho set a trap for the Israelite leader. He invited Jonathan to a meeting at Ptolemais for the alleged purpose of relinquishing that city to the Jews. When Jonathan arrived at Ptolemais, however, he and his men met an ambush (vv. 44-48). Trypho had Jonathan put to death after holding him hostage for a short time (13:12-24). He was buried back in Modein, where a special memorial for the family was built under Simon's supervision (vv. 25-30).

Perseverance Rewarded

Mattathias and his five sons had begun their struggle with the goals of rescuing the temple and defending the cause of God and his Torah. Twenty-five years later, their faithful efforts had brought them close to a remarkable result-political independence for the Jewish people! It remained for Simon, whom Mattathias had recognized to be the wisest of his sons (2:65), to finish the job.

Simon began by acting decisively to strengthen the nation's defenses. Along with Joppa, which he had captured before Jonathan's death (12:33-34), Simon took Gaza and established residence there (13:43-48). And finally, amidst great celebration, he liberated the Akra citadel in 141 B.C. (vv. 49-52).

With the expulsion of the Syrian garrison from Akra, the last bastion of Syrian military presence had finally been removed from Jerusalem. The success of the Maccabean revolt is proudly proclaimed in I Macc. 13:41-42:

``In the one hundred seventieth year the yoke of the Gentiles was removed from Israel, and the people began to write in their documents and contracts, `In the first year of Simon the great high priest and commander and leader of the Jews.'''

A song of victory and rejoicing is recorded in I Macc. 14:4-15. It begins with the sentence, ``The land had rest all the days of Simon.'' These words compare Simon with the great judges and kings of Israel (see Joshua 14:15; Judges 3:11, 13; 5:31; 2 Chron. 14:6-7). The song also pictures the time of Simon's rule as a precursor of the future messianic kingdom. For instance, v. 9a (``Old men sat in the streets'') is reminiscent of Zech. 8:3-5. Further allusions are evident in verse 12: ``All the people sat under their own vines and fig trees, and there was none to make them afraid.'' This verse points back to the days of Solomon (I Kings 4:25) and ahead to times of messianic deliverance and utopian conditions (Micah 4:4; Zech. 3:10; Jer. 46:27).

However, the book of I Maccabees concludes with the message that Simon's time of peace and contentment would be an all-too-brief respite in the midst of a continuing struggle. Simon's son John Hyrcanus, who was given command of the Jewish military forces (13:53) and later succeeded his father as high priest (16:24), would still have to contend with the Seleucids (16:4-10). Moreover, Simon's family would not be spared from the kinds of intrigue and infighting that plagued the families of Gentile rulers. The lives of Simon and two of his sons were cut short in 134 B.C. by a scheming son-in-law named Ptolemy (16:11-18).


Descendants of John Hyrcanus went on to rule in Jerusalem as high priests and princes for several generations, gradually expanding their territory and even assuming the title of ``king.'' To many, like the author of I Maccabees, the Hasmoneans were heroes. Through this family, God had preserved the temple and Torah. While a number of cultures faded away during the Hellenistic period, a dynamic Jewish culture thrived and optimistically faced the future. To some others, like the ascetic community that formed at Qumran, the Hasmoneans were presumptuous pretenders, ``kings'' who were not from the rightful Davidic line and ``priests'' who were not descendants of Zadok.

The dynasty came to an end in 63 B.C. That spring, three Jewish delegations journeyed to Damascus to seek assistance from the Roman general Pompey. Two of the delegations represented Hyrcanus and Aristobulus, brothers who each claimed the Hasmonean throne. The third delegation represented Jews who were tired of Hasmonean domination. Instead, they favored the rule of a legitimate high priest under the auspices of Rome. Later that year, Pompey invaded Jerusalem and took control of the city for the Romans, basically siding with this third group [5, pp. 47-50]. The alliance with Rome that the Maccabees had carefully cultivated a century before ultimately backfired on their successors.

Over the next two centuries, there were a number of false messiahs who tried to emulate the Maccabees by rebelling against the Romans (see e.g. Acts 5:36-37). Jesus cautioned his disciples against following such men (Matt. 24:5, 23-26), and the wisdom of his advice was borne out when two Jewish revolts-one in A.D. 66-70, the other in A.D. 132-135-ended with disastrous results. Scholar Daniel J. Harrington [3] speculates that the failure of these revolts may help explain why the book of I Maccabees was excluded from the Hebrew canon of scripture. In the aftermath of the Bar Kochba rebellion, the rabbis may have felt that it would be dangerous to overemphasize the example of the Maccabees.

In the modern state of Israel, there has been a revival of interest in the Maccabees as role models. Even so, Hanukkah remains a relatively minor event in Jewish communities outside of North America (where it serves as a rival for Christmas).


The remarkable story of the Maccabees, as recorded in the book of I Maccabees, can still provide inspiration for us today. Relying on God and drawing strength from the scriptures, Mattathias and his sons prevailed against a powerful empire. The Maccabees and their followers show us what it means to ``walk by faith, not by sight'' (2 Cor. 5:7). They demonstrate that faith can indeed move mountains and make all things possible (Matt. 17:20; 21:21-22).

The book of I Maccabees is also important background reading for students of the New Testament. With a knowledge of Maccabean history, one can better understand the tense political climate that surrounded the earthly ministry of Jesus. Many Jews in Jesus' day, remembering the success of Judas and his brothers, longed for a political and military messiah who would overthrow the Romans. Others, like the wealthy Sadducees and Herodians, hoped to preserve the status quo and did not want another revolution to occur. In light of this background, the drama behind incidents like the question about Caesar's coin (Luke 20:20-26) or Jesus' Hanukkah confrontation in the temple (John 10:22-42) can be more fully appreciated. 4

Finally, what can the example of the Maccabees tell us about the nature and extent of our involvement in ``this present evil world''? On one hand, the events of the Maccabean revolution indicate that much good can be accomplished through the ``activist'' approach of Judas and his brothers. On the other hand, events from the aftermath of that revolution show that action divorced from divine guidance can lead to failure and even disaster. To be effective, our actions must be directed by the true Messiah and light of the world.


1. David A. deSilva, Introducing the Apocrypha, Baker Academic, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2002.
2. Daniel J. Harrington, The Maccabean Revolt: Anatomy of a Biblical Revolution, Michael Glazier, Wilmington, Delaware, 1988.
3. Daniel J. Harrington, Invitation to the Apocrypha, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 1999.
4. Walter C. Kaiser, Jr., A History of Israel: From the Bronze Age through the Jewish Wars, Broadman & Holman, Nashville, 1998.
5. Oskar Skarsaune, In the Shadow of the Temple: Jewish Influences on Early Christianity, InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, Illinois, 2002.


1So named from Mattathias' ancestor Chasmonai, a priest of the division of Jehoiarib.

2In a comment in his Commentary on Psalm 1, Origen in the second century A.D. indicated that the original Hebrew of I Maccabees was still extant in his day. According to Origen, the title of the book in Hebrew was Sarbeth Sabanaiel. See Eusebius-The History of the Church from Christ to Constantine, transl. by G. A. Williamson, Penguin Books, 1965, 1989, p. 201.

3Himself a descendant of a daughter of the Hasmonaean high priest Jonathan, younger brother of Judas Maccabaeus.

4For a discussion of the meaning of Jesus' response to the question, see the article ``Jesus the Master Teacher'' in Issue 3 of Grace & Knowledge.

Aprocrypha Series

Issue 14


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