July 6, 2007

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

The First and Second Books of Maccabees

John F. Fink(Twelfth in a series of columns)

Last week, I wrote about the four books of fiction in the Old Testament. Three of them—Tobit, Judith and Esther—are placed with the historical books in the Christian Old Testament, while Jonah is placed with the prophetic books.

The Catholic Bible follows the Book of Esther with the final two historical books, the First Book of Maccabees and the Second Book of Maccabees.

Neither book is included in the Jewish Scriptures or Protestant Bibles. By the time they were written, Greek was the language spoken and written by the inhabitants of Palestine and these two books were written in Greek.

As I said in the second column in this series, when the Jews selected the canon of their Scriptures in the year 90 A.D., they included only the books that were written in Hebrew. Then when the King James version of the Bible, favored by most Protestants, was published in 1611, its team of translators decided to accept in its Old Testament only the books in the Jewish Scriptures.

The Second Book of Maccabees is not a continuation of the history as are the First and Second Books of Samuel or the First and Second Books of Kings. Rather, it’s a retelling of the history, an abridgement of a five-volume history that no longer exists.

The word “Maccabee” comes from the Hebrew word for hammer and was the nickname for Judas Maccabeus, leader of the Jewish revolt against the rulers of Palestine in the second century B.C.

The First Book of Maccabees begins with the conquest of Palestine by Alexander the Great in 332 B.C. After his death, his empire was divided among his generals and Palestine became part of Syria. Greek customs were imposed on the Jews. They were forced to worship the Greek gods. Women who had their sons circumcised were put to death, as were Jews who refused to eat pork.

The Jews, led by Mattathias and his sons, revolted in the year 145 of the Syrian calendar, which corresponds to 167 B.C. Mattathias died a year later, and his sons continued the revolt. Judas led the army of men who rallied to their support. After numerous successful battles, Judas conquered Jerusalem in 164 B.C., and purified and reconsecrated the temple there. This is the event the Jews celebrate on the feast of Hanukkah.

Judas was killed in battle in 160 B.C. and was succeeded by his brother, Jonathan. He was the first member of the Hasmoneans, the name for the Maccabees, to assume the office of high priest.

Jonathan was succeeded by Simon and then by Simon’s son John Hyrcanus. The First Book of Maccabees ends with his rein as both governor and high priest in the year 134 B.C. He ruled until his death in 104 B.C.

The Hasmoneans continued to rule Judea, sometimes ruthlessly, until the Roman general Pompey captured Jerusalem in 63 B.C. The Hasmonean empire was broken up. Judea came to be ruled by Antipater—the father of Herod the Great. †

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