November 28, 2014

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Old Testament: The story of the Maccabees

John F. Fink(Forty-seventh in a series of columns)

The First and Second Books of Maccabees are not included in Jewish Bibles. Hebrew Bibles end with Chronicles even though the events in Ezra and Nehemiah happened later. However, the books were included in the Christian Old Testament when the Church selected the books in its canon, and St. Jerome translated them.

The events in Ezra and Nehemiah occurred from the sixth to the fourth centuries B.C. In Maccabees, we jump ahead to the second century B.C. Between those periods, the most important development was the conquering of most of the eastern Mediterranean and Middle East by Alexander the Great, and that’s where First Maccabees starts.

Unlike the two books of Samuel, Kings and Chronicles, the two books of Maccabees are not a continuous narrative. They are independent accounts of some of the same events. First Maccabees tells the Jewish history from 175 B.C. to 134 B.C., while Second Maccabees is from 180 B.C. to 161 B.C.

Alexander the Great’s successors took the culture of Greece to Jerusalem and its environs, prohibiting Jewish religious practices and turning the Temple into a shrine to Zeus. Some Jews eagerly went along, while others did not.

Eventually, practicing Jews were put to death. Chapter 6 of Second Maccabees tells the story of the martyrdom of an old man named Eleazar, killed for refusing to eat pork, and Chapter 7 tells the inspiring story of a mother and her seven sons who were cruelly tortured and martyred.

Finally, Mattathias, of the priestly Hasmonean family, became infuriated when he witnessed a Jew offering sacrifice to the Greek gods. He killed the man and the king’s messenger, and then rallied the people of Modein, where he lived, to follow him. They tore down pagan altars and forcibly circumcised any uncircumcised Jewish boys.

Mattathias died in 166 B.C. and was succeeded by his son Judas, called Maccabeus, derived from the Hebrew word for hammer. First Maccabees tells of his exploits in guerilla warfare, culminating in the purification of the Temple in Jerusalem, which Jews celebrate with the feast of Hanukkah.

The author makes it clear that Judas’ victories came because of divine help, as he prayed before battles and praised God when he celebrated his victories.

In Chapter 12 of Second Maccabees, Judas took up a collection that he sent to Jerusalem as an expiatory sacrifice for soldiers who died in battle while wearing amulets sacred to the idols of Jamnia. He did that “inasmuch as he had the resurrection of the dead in view” (2 Mc 12:43). “Thus he made atonement for the dead that they might be freed from this sin” (2 Mc 12:46). This serves as an Old Testament basis for the Catholic belief in purgatory.

After Judas was killed in battle, he was succeeded by his brother Jonathan. After Jonathan was assassinated, his brother Simon took over and became both secular leader and high priest. A period of peace ensued, but then the aged Simon was murdered along with two of his sons. Another son, John Hyrcanus, continued the line.

The Hasmonean dynasty lasted about 80 years until the Roman general Pompey conquered Jerusalem in 63 B.C. †

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