Reading and Enjoying the Apocrypha: 1 & 2 Maccabees

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This is the second part of Dr. Noll’s series, “Reading and Enjoying the Apocrypha.”


In my introductory article, “What is the Apocrypha and Why Should You Read It?” I suggested one practical reason for Anglicans to do so is that the Prayer Book lectionary prescribes selections from the Apocrypha. Now I’d like to up the ante and encourage you not to stop with these few lections but to read through the books as a whole—and enjoy doing so!

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“Those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it”—a saying attributed to the philosopher George Santayana—seems eerily relevant in today’s increasingly bleak political landscape. Is it a coincidence that we find ourselves at a time when history majors in college are a dwindling remnant and classics majors simply extinct? We may be at the crisis point of the age when “A.F.” replaces “B.C.” and “A.D.,” as described in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, with “After Ford” referring to Henry Ford’s apothegm, “History is bunk.”

Standing athwart Fordism is the Bible, God’s narrative moving mysteriously from creation to salvation, presented in a marvelous tapestry woven by dozens of witnesses writing “at many times and in many ways” and guided by the Spirit of Truth. Biblical historiography, or so I shall argue, continues in the books of the Apocrypha.

The Time of the Maccabees

I mentioned previously that the Apocrypha fills in a gap between Malachi and Matthew. It is a mistake to think nothing significant happened during this gap between the Testaments. The books of First and Second Maccabees address a crisis in the history of Judaism not unlike the Exile and Return of God’s people in the 6th century B.C. The crisis in the 2nd century B.C. came not from Assyrians, Babylonians, and Persians but from the Greek Hellenistic empire of Alexander the Great.

Cultural Threats

The threat this time was not only political—to be sure, a foreign king ruled the Jews—but cultural. Hellenism represented a quite different worldview from the former pagan empires. While it had its pantheons of gods and goddesses, it aggressively promoted a culture of skepticism and rationalism which St. Paul later described as “worship of the unknown god” (Acts 17:23). Read 1 Maccabees, chapter 1, to get the political and cultural frame for this crisis. It is hard not to think of our contemporary worldview crisis in Western society in this context, though some would say that it is the joint civilization of Athens and Jerusalem that is now under threat from postmodern nihilism.

The two books of Maccabees recount the history of this crisis from two differing perspectives. Both books agree that the crisis came to a head under the reign of the Hellenistic King Antiochus IV, called “Epiphanes” (God manifest), who attempted to snuff out the Jewish Law and turn the Temple in Jerusalem into a pagan shrine in 167 BC. They also agree that a rural priest, Mattathias the Hasmonean, and his sons instigated a revolt of the Jews that defeated Antiochus and his successors and generals, carried out through the leadership of one son Judas Maccabee (call him “Mack the Hammer”).

Diverging Themes of 1 and 2 Maccabees

Reasons for the Revolt

At this point the two Books of Maccabees part ways. First Maccabees continues the history of the “Hasmoneans” after Judas’ death with his brother Jonathan, who became high priest, and Simon, who won final independence for the Jewish nation. (The Hasmonean dynasty lasted about a century until the Romans overthrew it in 63 B.C.) For Second Maccabees, Judas Maccabee’s victory over two tyrants (Antiochus and his general Nicanor) was fundamentally religious, vindicating the God of Israel and restoring his sanctuary. This victory was commemorated in two festivals. Hannukah (which means “rededication”) is celebrated to this day in December; “Nicanor’s Day” never caught on.

Priesthood

Second Maccabees also has a different notion of the proper priesthood, believing that the high priest needed to come through the heirs of Zadok, David’s high priest (cf. Ezekiel 44:15). For Second Maccabees, the true exemplar of priesthood is Onias III, who served under Antiochus’ father but who was betrayed by a series of fraudulent high priests (Jason, Menelaus, Alcimus). The ghost of Onias appears to Judas right before the battle where Nicanor was defeated and killed (2 Maccabees 15:11-16).

The author ends the story here and makes no mention of Judas’s brothers, who later became high priests of the Hasmonean dynasty. This probably signals a dispute among Jewish “parties” (the secular Sadducees and the spiritual Pharisees). This was also the time that one group of purists (“Hasidim”) went into exile near the Dead Sea and wrote scrolls condemning the “Wicked Priest” in Jerusalem. These Dead Sea Scrolls were famously rediscovered in 1947.

Martyrdom

Both books of Maccabees see the events of this period as continuing the twin accounts in Scripture—the prophetic history (Joshua through Kings) and the priestly history (Chronicles, Ezra, and Nehemiah)—which see the hand of God at work in punishing and delivering the nation. Both books include prayers and hymns of deliverance. While First Maccabees exalts the militancy of the Jewish rebels, Second Maccabees introduces a new theme, that of martyrdom. The story of Eleazar and the mother with her seven sons whom Antiochus brutally murders is the centerpiece of the book (chapters 6-7), with the author making a specific explanation about the redeeming role of suffering (6:12-17).

Resurrection

Accompanying this understanding of martyrdom is the belief in a personal resurrection from the dead. While there are hints of personal immortality in the Old Testament (e.g., Psalm 16:9-11; Job 19:25-26), Second Maccabees is quite clear on the subject, as found in the brave words of the martyr mother to her sons:

Filled with a noble spirit, she fired her woman’s reasoning with a man’s courage. She said to them, “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 mankind 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 7:21-23).

The issue of personal resurrection from the dead had become a contentious issue between the Sadducees and the Pharisees. Martha of Bethany’s words to Jesus concerning Lazarus reflect this: “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day” (John 11:24).

Morality Tale

Second Maccabees, chapters 6-7, are an exemplum, a morality tale to stir up in ordinary folk the same “zeal of Phineas” that the Maccabee family exhibited by refusing to bow the knee to the pagan rulers (1 Maccabees 2:54; cf. Numbers 25:7-11). Stories like this occur in a number of books in the Apocrypha, e.g., the Book of Judith, as well as in the canonical book of Daniel.

Speaking of Daniel, many interpreters see Daniel’s dream in chapter 7 as referring to Antiochus—“the little horn with eyes like the eyes of a man, and a mouth speaking great things”—whose attack on the Temple triggered the Coming of the Ancient of the Days and the Son of Man to establish a final Kingdom. Daniel also refers to war in heaven between the archangel Michael and the Beast, which leads to the Resurrection of the martyrs  (Daniel 12:1-3). The Book of Revelation later picks up this theme (Revelation 12:1-9).

The courage and hope of the Maccabees inspired the disastrous messianic uprisings of Jews in the first two centuries A.D., as well as in the 20th century, with the restoration of the state of Israel. What the heirs of the Maccabees missed, sadly, was an even more radical intervention of the One who said, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he dies, yet shall he live.”

Enjoying the Maccabees

Is it possible to enjoy reading books like First and Second Maccabees? I suppose that depends on whether you generally enjoy history. Many Americans know the stories of our national founding and the crisis of the house divided fourscore and seven years later. As heirs of God’s people Israel, we might add to our repertory familiarity with the patriots of this period between the Testaments. At the same time, we might ponder the signs of our time in the light of the threats to biblical faith and the Christian Church posed by the postmodern beast, who, “its hour come round at last,” the poet William Butler Yeats writes, “slouches towards Bethlehem to be born.”

Next month, Dr. Noll will post an article on Sirach, also known as Ecclesiasticus. Need a copy of the Apocrypha? Check out the ESV Bible with Apocrypha from Anglican House Publishers.


Image: The Triumph of Judas Maccabeus by Peter Paul Reubens (ca. 1636). Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Published on

September 26, 2023

Author

Stephen Noll

The Rev. Dr. Stephen Noll is Professor Emeritus of Biblical Studies at Trinity School for Ministry.

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