Catholic Culture Resources
Catholic Culture Resources

The MOST Theological Collection: Basic Scripture

"Chapter 19: The Two Books of Maccabees"


Browse by Title
New Search
Table of Contents for this Work

Both books are named after Judas Maccabeus, the third son of the priest Mattathias who began the revolt against Antiochus IV in 167. Antiochus, as a means of unifying his sprawling empire, tried to spread Greek culture. This entailed, for the Jews, apostasy from their faith. Many Jews did give up their faith and took up Greek ways, even building a gymnasium in Jerusalem; many became martyrs, but many others, led by the Maccabees, resisted with an army, and made possible the survival of Judaism until the time of Christ, being the root of the Hasmonean dynasty (which later proved that power corrupts).

Mattathias was so bold as to kill the king's agent who came to force Jews to sacrifice to the gods in Modein, his city. Then they fled to the hills, and other loyal Jews joined them (1 Macc 2:1- 28).

Second Maccabees is not a continuation of First Maccabees. Both cover much of the same period. First Maccabees tells the history, beginning with Alexander the Great, and from the accession of Antiochus IV in 175, to the death of Simon Maccabeus in 134.

Second Maccabees covers the same period, but closes with a crucial victory won by Judas in 165.

First Maccabees relies at least in part on the recollections of those who had been witnesses of the events. The idea of the genre of history seen in it is closer to ours than are the books of Samuel, Kings and Chronicles. Its message is that keeping the law brings blessings and divine support.

Second Maccabees, after an introduction by the author, explicitly says that it is summarizing a five volume work of Jason of Cyrene (mentioned in 2:23). The author refers us to the fuller work of Jason for more details (2:28). Here the genre is also history, but closer to the rhetorical type of history which permits perhaps a bit of freedom at times.

First Maccabees was originally written in Hebrew, and shows Hebrew style by the frequent use of "and" to connect sentences. We have only the Greek text. The Hebrew was probably written near the start of the first century B.C. Second Maccabees is earlier, probably written in Egypt, most likely around the end of the second century B.C. Its Greek is of good literary quality.

Second Maccabees shows a deep religious spirit. God is given all the titles form the older books of the Old Testament, with the addition of ho epiphanes kyrios - the Lord who appears - in contrast to Antiochus Epiphanes.

A belief in the future life, or at least, resurrection, is entirely clear, especially in chapter 7, in the narrative of the martyrdom of the mother and her seven sons, and also in 14:46.

There is more testimony to the same belief in the account in 12:38-46, of the fallen Jewish soldiers who had pagan amulets on them. Judas took up a collection to have sacrifice offered in the Temple for their souls - thus giving a testimony to a belief in purgatory.

In the same spirit, we see the dream of Maccabeus showing that the deceased Jeremiah and Onias were praying for the living: 15:11-16.

Of especial interest is the account in 2:1-8 of Jeremiah hiding the ark, and telling his followers later it was to be hidden until God gathers his people together again and shows mercy. (Let us recall the translation we proposed above for Daniel 12:7). But we must not overlook the fact that 2:1 says we will "find this incident in the records". So inspiration merely guarantees that the story was in some records - it does not guarantee that the episode is true in itself.

The death of Antiochus is told in chapter 9, out of sequence, for the sake of grouping of material.

Finally in 6:13-16 we read the fullest account of the frequent Scriptural theme of filling up the measure of sins. The author is meditating on the fact that they are so afflicted by the persecution, and says: "It is a sign of great kindness not to let the irreverent run a long time, but to punish them at once. In handling other peoples, the Lord in long-suffering waits until they reach the full measure of their sins before He punishes them. But with us He acts differently, so that He may not have to punish us more severely later when our sins would reach their fullness". This same theme appears many other times in Scripture: cf. Genesis 15:16; Mt. 24:12; 1 Cor 11:32; 1 Ths 2:15-16.

To Most Collection home page