WHEN WE READ THE GOSPELS we regularly come across stories of the Lord Jesus contesting with the Pharisees about observance of the Sabbath and other precepts of the Law. What we may not know is that the Jews themselves had come close to abolishing the Law themselves in favor of adopting Greek culture.
By the second century BC the Jerusalem elite had become extremely Hellenized. They had adopted many Greek practices and looked unfavorably on many aspects of their own tradition. This is described at the beginning of the First Book of Maccabees: “In those days lawless men came forth from Israel, and misled many, saying, ‘Let us go and make a covenant with the Gentiles round about us, for since we separated from them many evils have come upon us.’ This proposal pleased them, and some of the people eagerly went to the king. He authorized them to observe the ordinances of the Gentiles. So they built a gymnasium in Jerusalem, according to Gentile custom, and removed the marks of circumcision, and abandoned the holy covenant. They joined with the Gentiles and sold themselves to do evil” (1 Maccabees 1:11-15).
This development was opposed by Jewish traditionalists who upheld the Torah and its practices such as circumcision. The conflict became so pronounced that it amounted to a civil war.
At that time the Jewish kingdom was a vassal state of the Greek Seleucid Empire. Its king, Antiochus IV sided with the elite and entered the conflict. He had successfully pursued Hellenizing policies in Syria and Phoenicia and thought to do the same in Jerusalem. “After subduing Egypt, Antiochus returned in the one hundred and forty-third year. He went up against Israel and came to Jerusalem with a strong force. He arrogantly entered the sanctuary and took the golden altar, the lampstand for the light, and all its utensils. He took also the table for the bread of the Presence, the cups for drink offerings, the bowls, the golden censers, the curtain, the crowns, and the gold decoration on the front of the temple; he stripped it all off. He took the silver and the gold, and the costly vessels; he took also the hidden treasures which he found. Taking them all, he departed to his own land” (1 Maccabees 1:20-24).
Judas and the Maccabees
Resistance to the Hellenizers was strongest in areas outside of Jerusalem. In the town of Modi’im near the Jordan the sons of the priest Mattathias sparked a revolt against Antiochus and the Jerusalem elite. In 166 BC his son Judas – called the “Maccabee” (Hammer) – led a kind of guerrilla war against the Seleucids. He was ultimately victorious, and his brother Jonathan became High Priest. The temple was rededicated, accompanied by a miracle which Jews today celebrate at the Feast of Hanukkah. The Maccabees could only find one small jug of uncontaminated oil for lighting the Menorah: enough to last one day. Miraculously the Menorah remained lit for eight days when further oil could be obtained.
One of the incidents which sparked the revolt is described in the Second Book of Maccabees: “It happened also that seven brothers and their mother were arrested and were being compelled by the king, under torture with whips and cords, to partake of unlawful swine’s flesh. One of them, acting as their spokesman, said, ‘What do you intend to ask and learn from us? For we are ready to die rather than transgress the laws of our fathers’” (2 Maccabees 7:1-2).
One after the other, each of the seven brothers were tortured and killed before the eyes of their mother. We read that they “…encouraged one another to die nobly, saying, ‘The Lord God is watching over us and in truth has compassion on us, as Moses declared in his song which bore witness against the people to their faces, when he said, He will have compassion on His servants’” (2 Maccabees 7:5-6).
Their mother encourages her sons to remain faithful, knowing that God would reward them in the life to come: “I do not know how you came into being in my womb. It was not I who gave you life and breath, nor I who set in order the elements within each of you. Therefore the Creator of the world, who shaped the beginning of man and devised the origin of all things, will in his mercy give life and breath back to you again, since you now forget yourselves for the sake of his laws” (2 Maccabees 7:22-23). After seeing her seven sons die rather than violate the Law, the mother was also killed.
This family is remembered on August 1 in both the Greek and Latin Churches (older form) as the Holy Maccabees although they were not, in fact, members of that family. They are not named in 2 Maccabees but are traditionally known as Solomonia and her sons Habim, Antonin, Guriah, Eleazar, Eusebon, Hadim (or Halim), and Marcellus. Also commemorated is their teacher Eleazar (mentioned in 2 Maccabees 6:18-31).
The Books of Maccabees
Although the story of the Maccabee family and of these martyrs is well known in Jewish lore and is written in the Talmud, the Books of the Maccabees are not found in the Hebrew Bible. The Hebrew original of 1 Maccabees has been lost and it only survives in a Greek translation found in the Septuagint. The other books with this name were all written in Greek.
All told, there are four Books of the Maccabees in existence. The first three are found in the Septuagint, the Bible of the Greek-speaking Jews of Alexandria. As such they are found in the canon of most Eastern Churches. The fourth book is generally found in the appendix.
The Latin Vulgate, official translation used by Roman Catholics, included only the first two Books of Maccabees. The other books are considered apocryphal. Protestant Bibles, based on the Hebrew, do not contain these books. Martin Luther reportedly said, “I am so great an enemy to the second book of the Maccabees, and to Esther, that I wish they had not come to us at all.” His objections were doctrinal as this book illustrates the value of prayer for the dead (2 Maccabees 12:42-46) and of the intercession of the saints (2 Maccabees 15:11–17).
The souls of the righteous are in the hands of the Lord: Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the forefathers before the Law was given. These are the ancestors of the Maccabees whom we now praise. For, as descendants of Abraham, mighty in soul and zealous for the faith of their forefather Abraham, they struggled lawfully even unto death for piety. Having been raised in piety, in suffering lawfully they denounced the ungodliness of the prideful Antiochus, and in valuing this transitory life as nothing for the sake of that which is everlasting, they offered all to God: their souls, courage, understanding, their tender bodies, and their rewards for having been raised in purity. Oh the pious root from whom you sprang forth, Oh Maccabees! Oh your holy mother, who gave birth to sons equal in number to the days of the week! Pray for us, together with your mother Solomonia and the wise priest Eleazar, O Maccabees, when you stand before Christ God, for whose sake you labored to receive from Him the fruits of your labors, and earnestly entreat for mankind; for whatsoever He desires He does, fulfilling the desires of you who fear Him.