The books of 1 and 2 Maccabees are early Jewish writings detailing the history of the Jews in the first century BC. Both books are part of the canon of Scripture in the Greek Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Coptic, and Russian Orthodox churches, but they are not recognized as canon by Protestants and Jews. The books outline the history of the Maccabees, Jewish leaders who led a rebellion of the Jews against the Seleucid Dynasty from 175 BC to 134 BC. The first book portrays the effort by the Jews to regain their cultural and religious independence from Antiochus IV Epiphanes after his desecration of the Jewish temple.
The book of 2 Maccabees consists of a Greek synopsis of a five-volume history of the Maccabean Revolt written by Jason of Cyrene. The authors of both books are unknown. The first book, although written from a biased perspective, does not directly mention God or divine intervention. The second book has a more theological slant, advancing several doctrines followed by the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches. The book of 1 Maccabees was written in Hebrew and later translated into Greek. Scholars believe that the author was a Palestinian Jew who was intimately familiar with the events described. The author opposed the Hellenization of the Jews and clearly supported and admired the Jewish revolutionaries led by Judas Maccabeus and his brothers.
In the second century BC, Judea existed between the Egyptian Ptolemaic Kingdom and the Syrian Seleucid Empire, kingdoms formed after the death of Alexander the Great. Judea fell under the control of the Seleucids in approximately 200 BC. During this time, many Jews began to adopt a Greek lifestyle and culture in order to gain economic and political influence. They avoided circumcision and advocated abolishing Jewish religious laws.
Antiochus IV Epiphanes became the ruler of the Seleucid Empire in 175 BC. He was inconsiderate of the views of the religious, traditional Jews in Israel. To Antiochus, the office of high priest was merely a local appointee within his realm, while to orthodox Jews the high priest was divinely appointed. Antiochus appointed a high priest named Jason, a Hellenized Jew, who promptly abolished the Jewish theocracy, followed by Menelaus, who had the rightful high priest, Onias, murdered. After Menelaus’ brother stole sacred articles from the temple, a civil war ensued between the Hellenized Jews and the religious Jews. Antiochus subsequently attacked Jerusalem, pillaged the temple, and killed or captured many of the women and children. He banned traditional Jewish religious practice, outlawing Jewish sacrifices, Sabbaths, feasts, and circumcision. He established altars to Greek gods upon which “unclean” animals were sacrificed. He desecrated the Jewish temple. Possession of Jewish Scriptures became a capital offence.
In a small, rural village called Modein, an elderly priest named Mattathias lived with his five sons—John, Simon, Judas, Eleazer, and Jonathan. Sometimes referred to as the Hasmoneans (a designation derived from Asmoneus, the name of one of their ancestors), this family more frequently has been called the Maccabeans (a nickname meaning “hammerer”). In 167 BC Antiochus sent some of his soldiers to Modein to compel the Jewish inhabitants to make sacrifices to the pagan gods. Mattathias, as a leader in the city, was commanded by the officers to be the first person to offer a sacrifice as an example to the rest of the people. He refused with a powerful speech (see 1 Maccabees 2:15–22).
Fearing violence against the people for Mattathias’ refusal, another Jew volunteered to offer the sacrifices to the pagan gods in the place of Mattathias, but Mattathias killed this Jewish man, as well as the soldiers of the king. He then destroyed the altar to the pagan gods, after which he, his sons, and a number of followers fled to the mountainous wilderness. These men formed a large, guerrilla warfare army and soon began to launch raids against the towns of the land, tearing down the pagan altars, killing the officials of Antiochus, and also executing those Jews who were worshiping the pagan gods.
Mattathias died in 166 BC, just as the revolt was gaining momentum, leaving his son Judas in charge of the rebel forces. Even though greatly outnumbered, Judas and his rebels defeated general after general in battle, winning decisive victories against overwhelming odds. The rebels even won a tremendous victory south of Mizpah against a combined army of 50,000 troops. The people of Israel gave Judas the nickname “Maccabeus” because of his success in “hammering” the enemy forces into the ground.
Antiochus, who had underestimated the scope of the revolt, now realized the serious nature of the rebellion in Israel. He dispatched Lysias, the commander-in-chief of the Seleucid army, along with 60,000 infantrymen and 5,000 cavalry, to utterly destroy the Jews. This vast army was additionally commanded by two generals serving under Lysias—Nicanor and Gorgias. This powerful army came against Judas, who fought with a force of only 10,000 poorly equipped rebels, in the town of Emmaus. He prayed to God for strength and deliverance (1 Maccabees 4:30–33), and God answered and they won a huge victory over the Seleucid army.
Subsequently, the Maccabees marched into Jerusalem, cleansed the temple, and resumed traditional Jewish religious practices. The festival of Hanukkah commemorates the cleansing and rededication of the Jewish temple. Judas’s brother Jonathan became the new high priest after the rededication of the temple and ultimately succeeded Judas as commander of the army. His brother Simon assumed control from 142 to 135 BC, followed by Simon’s son, John Hyrcanus. With the death of Simon, the last son of Mattathias, the Maccabean Revolt came to an end. The author concludes his narrative in 1 Maccabees with these events.
The Second Book of Maccabees was written in Koine Greek, most likely around 100 BC. This work coheres with 1 Maccabees, but it is written as a theological interpretation of the Maccabean Revolt. In addition to outlining the historical events, 2 Maccabees discusses several doctrinal issues, including prayers and sacrifices for the dead, intercession of the saints, and resurrection on Judgment Day. The Catholic Church has based the doctrines of purgatory and masses for the dead on this work. On the other hand, an important tenet of the Protestant Reformation (1517) was that scriptural translations should be derived from the original Hebrew and Aramaic texts for the Old Testament and Greek for the New Testament, rather than upon the Septuagint and Jerome’s Vulgate. Statements were included in the Protestant Bibles indicating that the Apocrypha was not to be placed on the same level as the other documents.