Leslie J. Hoppe
The word Maccabee derives from the Hebrew word for hammer and was a nickname for Judas, a leader in the Jewish revolt against the Seleucid ruler, Antiochus Epiphanes (175–164 BC). (Seleucid is the name of the Greek dynasty that ruled in Syria following the death of Alexander the Great. It is derived from the name of Seleucus, one of Alexander's generals.) The nickname Maccabee later became a designation for other members of Judas's family who succeeded him as leaders in the revolt. Thus, Judas and his brothers came to be known as “the Maccabees.” The term Maccabean came to designate the period of Jewish history that witnessed the successful revolt against the Seleucid empire.
After the revolt, the descendants of the Maccabees assumed religious and later political leadership of the Jewish community in Palestine. They ruled an independent Judah from 135 BC until Pompey conquered Palestine for Rome in 63 BC. The name given to this dynasty, the post‐Maccabean generation of high priests and kings, was the “Hasmonean” dynasty. That name derives from the ancestor Asamonaeus whom Josephus (a first‐century AD Jewish historian and apologist) identifies as the father of Mattathias, who was himself the father of Judas and his brothers. It was Mattathias who started the revolt against Antiochus (1 Mc 2, 15–30 ).
The Maccabean Literature
There are four books “of the Maccabees” that have survived from early Judaism. None of the four are in the Hebrew Bible and therefore are not in Jewish or Protestant Bibles. Jerome included the first two books of the Maccabees in the Vulgate (his translation of the Bible into Latin), so those two books became part of the Roman Catholic canon. Third Maccabees has canonical status in Eastern Christianity. No Christian tradition accepts the fourth book of Maccabees as divinely inspired, though some Eastern churches include it as an appendix to their Bibles. Because of its focus on martyrdom, Fourth Maccabees has influenced Eastern spirituality.
The four books of the Maccabees do not form a continuous narrative like the story of Israel in its land as found in the books of Joshua to 2 Kings. First Maccabees is a historical narrative of events in the life of the Jewish community in and around Jerusalem from the reign of the Greek Seleucus IV (175–164 BC) to the accession of the Jewish ruler, John Hyrcanus (134–104 BC). Second Maccabees is an abridgement of a five‐volume history of the Maccabees that no longer exists. It covers the period of Jewish history in Palestine from the time of the high priest Onias III (180 BC) to the victory of Judas Maccabee over the Greeks in 161 BC. Third Maccabees is a misnomer. It has nothing to do with the exploits of the Maccabees. The book is a first‐century BC work that describes the persecution of the Jews in Egypt under Ptolemy IV (221–203 BC). Fourth Maccabees is a first‐century AD discourse on religious reason as exemplified by Jewish martyrs during the Maccabean revolt.
History and Theology in 1 Maccabees
Unlike the books of Tobit, Judith, and Esther that use historical events and persons as a backdrop for what are fictional tales, 1 Maccabees is a historical narrative that is one of the main sources for reconstructing the history of the Jews in Palestine during the middle of the second century BC. This book, however, is more than a catalogue of events. Its author tries to show the significance of those events. The purpose of the work was to assert the legitimacy of the Hasmonean high‐priestly dynasty. The book implies that the right of the Hasmoneans to rule is clear from the achievements of their ancestors: (1) the Maccabees saved the Jews from persecution; (2) they restored observance of the Torah; and (3) they inaugurated an era of peace and prosperity. The author of this book believed that God willed that the Hasmoneans assume the mantle of leadership over the Jews of Palestine.