1 Maccabees: A shift in understanding salvation history

By Dr. Jeff Mirus (bio - articles - email) | Mar 19, 2019

The two books that close the Old Testament, 1 and 2 Maccabees, are among the most enjoyable to read and the most difficult from which to draw lessons. They are enjoyable because they are all action adventure, covering the remarkable exploits of a priest named Mattathias, along with his sons and grandsons, who led the military resistance of the Jews to the tyranny of a series of Greek and “Asian” (to us, near Eastern) kings who dominated the region. It was Mattathias’s son Judas who was called “Maccabeus” (1 Mac 2:4), but all of Mattathias’ descendents are now known collectively as “the Maccabees”.

Apart from the obvious lessons of zeal for the Lord and the Law, tremendous courage, and the favor God showed the men He had chosen to defend Israel, it is hard to discern a deeper meaning in the books of Maccabees for the larger Old Testament history of salvation. I’ll turn to my own theory about this in a moment, but first I should provide an overview. The two books were written about 100 years before Christ. They cover the period from 174 to 134 BC when the Jews—were it not for the Maccabees—would have been utterly at the mercy of the various kings unleased on that region by the conquests of Alexander the Great.

1 Maccabees covers this entire 40-year period. 2 Maccabees, instead of covering later years, shines a microscope on the first fifteen years of the same period, drawing its own lessons (which I will address in the next installment). The adventure begins with the death of the young Alexander the Great, whose mortal sickness left in its wake a large conquered territory divided among his chief officers. These typically called themselves “kings” but ruled as petty despots—constantly vying for power and wealth from those they ruled and from one another.

Central Dilemma

These Greek despots insisted on imposing their religious and secular customs on the people they conquered, including the Jews, desecrating the Temple, and forcing them to worship pagan gods. Many of the Jews welcomed Greek ways and were only too willing to accommodate their masters, but the imposition of the Greek cults included many horrors, such as the slaughter of mothers who had their children circumcised, along with the babies themselves, who were hung around their mothers’ necks. Around 167 BC, the priest Mattathias defied the Greek officials who came to his town of Modein to impose idol worship. Instead, he denounced this practice and killed the first Jew who came forward to offer sacrifice.

Mattathias fled with his family and others rallied to him. There followed over twenty years of warfare in which, as each “Maccabee” was killed despite numerous important victories, the next brother or son took over: Mattathias, Judas (son), Jonathan (brother), Simon (brother), and John (son). Each of these in turn served not only as military commander but as high priest. Though the book does not extend beyond 134 BC, Mattathias’ heirs continued in power until the time of Herod (37 BC). As I indicated, the result is an adventure story which must be read to be believed.

But we can grasp immediately the dilemma with which the book opens. The Jews are being forced to abandon the Covenant. Moreover, Mattathias begins the rebellion by killing the first Jew in his town who was willing to comply. This is a challenge that boggles the modern mind. We can understand being enticed or even forced to abandon the God we are bound to serve. After all, we experience these temptations daily and are historically familiar with efforts under modern ideological regimes to enforce apostasy with the utmost brutality. But we find it difficult to regard Mattathias’ assault on the first eager convert as anything other than murder.

Still, we must not be hasty in our judgments. At some point, had we a possibility of success, we would be bound to draw a line and threaten combative force rather than allow others to stamp out the Church of Christ, brainwash our children, and kill our wives and babies. Mattathias had considerable authority as a priest, and he had just publicly refused in the name of his family to participate in the Greek rites. Perhaps a proper warning should have been given to the Jews under his legitimate religious authority. But that warning may well have been given.

Even with the Christian grasp of the redemptive value of suffering, the Church today understands that armed resistance and war can be just responses under the right conditions, within the right moral framework, and with at least a reasonable prospect of success—a calculation which is decidedly comparative, depending in part on the severity of the atrocities which are regularly imposed upon the persecuted community. But what the books of Maccabees force us to confront is the question of spiritual atrocities, atrocities which might well rob our neighbors and our children of eternal life.

It may be prudent but it is also sad that we are scarcely even willing to engage in such a calculation today. While I do not see a possibility for armed resistance under our particular circumstances, neither do I think we should be quick to dismiss Mattathias, under his particular circumstances, as an amoral fanatic.

Importance of 1 Maccabees?

In addition to the sober reflection the book may prompt about supernatural goods truly worth our sacrifices, however, I think there is another reason God may have inspired this particular conclusion to the Old Testament. For it is the two books of Maccabees which connect for us the remote and nearly unimaginable history of the Jews in all the other books with the situation of the Jews at the time of Christ, the situation in which the Messiah came and out of which the Church was born.

I say this because, despite the reluctance over the last generation or so to preserve the classical tradition in the West, most of us still know something about Greece and Rome and see their connections with our own history and our own cultural achievements. The names of the kings and dynasties with which the Jews interacted throughout most of the Old Testament are lost to us in a haze of mythic incomprehensibility. But when we hear of Alexander the Great we are suddenly on more secure ground. And it was Alexander the Great, that brilliant young commander who brought the power and glory of Greece into the East, who suddenly snatched the Jews out of (to us) geographical and historical obscurity and placed them firmly within the landscape of the rising West.

Thus, as the Maccabees learned to become diplomats as well as soldiers, they made important alliances in what we now consider the West, not only with Sparta among the Greeks, but above all with Rome:

Now Judas heard of the fame of the Romans, that they were very strong and were well-disposed toward all who made an alliance with them, that they pledged friendship to those who came to them, and that they were very strong…. Philip, and Perseus king of the Macedonians, and the others who rose up against them, they crushed in battle and conquered…. Those whom they wish to help and to make kings, they make kings…yet for all this not one of them has put on a crown or worn purple as a mark of pride…. [1 Mac 8:1-16]

So Judas made an alliance with Rome around 160 BC, and Jonathan renewed it in the 140s. In response, Rome did indeed notify other rulers in the region that they were to leave the Jews alone, which appears to have been at least somewhat helpful. But of course it was this history of the relationship of the Jews with the Romans which eventually developed into a relatively peaceful occupation of Judea by the Romans during the time of Herod, and during the time of Christ.

The Maccabees played the key role of drawing Israel into the orbit of Rome. This in turn became a significant factor in what we call the “fullness of time” for the coming of the Messiah. It made a remarkable difference to the rapid growth and spread of the disciples of Jesus Christ. It made possible that unique blend of faith and reason which is the hallmark of Christianity. And it has colored the whole history and prominence of the Catholic Church.

It is a shame, of course, that the whole of salvation history from the beginning is not as real and present to us today, and surely this Roman perspective is not the only value of the book. After all, it is not Rome but Christ who fulfills the law and the prophets. I emphasize the link of the Macabees with Rome only because, here at the end, we suddenly feel ourselves on familiar ground. We understand Rome-and-Israel. And so we begin to grasp the providential character of the new genesis, the genesis of the new Adam, and the genesis of His mystical body. We begin, here at the end of the Old Testament, to discern the providential history of the new Israel that is the Roman Catholic Church.


Scripture Series
Previous: Four late minor prophets, plus Jonah as a bonus
Next: 2 Maccabees: Judaism in readiness

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and CatholicCulture.org. See full bio.

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