Reading the Book
Setting the Scene
The story told in this book is a small part of a much larger story: hellenization, which was the shifting of cultural orientation from East to West, in the eastern Mediterranean region. Alexander conquered this area in the fourth century BC. It was his dream to take the culture of Greece and wed it to the cultures of the ancient Near East so that people could benefit from the best of each.
Alexander's premature death in 323 BC prevented him from fulfilling that dream. Alexander's generals divided his empire among themselves. The area of the former Israelite kingdoms came under the control of Ptolemy, who ruled from Egypt. Ptolemy permitted the Jews to practice their ancestral religion without much interference. The process of hellenization proceeded in the cultural, political, and economic spheres. The response of the Jewish community to Hellenism was equivocal: some Jews resisted hellenization; others eagerly accepted the new wave that was sweeping the world.
The region of the ancient Mesopotamian empires fell to another of Alexander's generals: Seleucus. He thought that the territory of the old Judahite and Israelite kingdoms rightfully belonged to him. The Ptolemies and Seleucids fought over this region until it passed into the hands of the Seleucids in 200 BC. At first they allowed the Jews to practice their ancestral religion without interference. But circumstances changed in 168 BC when the Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes seized upon the opportunity provided by divisions within the Jewish community. Antiochus obviously favored the hellenizers in that community because they gave him financial support. To insure the victory of the Jewish hellenizers, Antiochus forbade the practice of the Jewish religion.
Mattathias (1 Mc 1, 1–2, 70 )
The first chapter sets the scene for the bloody confrontation between the Jews and the Seleucids. It describes the hellenization of Jerusalem (1 Mc 1, 11–15 ), the military attacks on the city by two Seleucid armies (1 Mc 1, 16–40 ), and the prohibition of Jewish religious practices (1 Mc 1, 41–61 ). Antiochus's efforts at obliterating the Jewish religion culminated with the construction of an altar dedicated to Zeus Olympus upon the altar of holocausts, the holy place in the Temple where burnt offerings were made. This effectively transformed the Temple of Jerusalem into a shrine to Zeus (1 Mc 1, 54 ). Tradition remembered this act as the “horrible abomination” (Dn 11, 31; 12, 11 ). But the book asserts that there was opposition to the royal decrees (1 Mc 1, 62f ).
The second chapter is important because it describes the specific type of opposition that the Maccabees and their followers were mounting against the hellenization of Antiochus and his Jewish collaborators. Though there were many Jews who opposed Antiochus, their responses were not always the same. For example, the book of Daniel inculcates a type of passive resistance to the Seleucid program of forced hellenization. The response of the Maccabees in the person of Mattathias is militant opposition. A key text is 2, 23–46 , which describes Mattathias's fury at the prospect of Jewish apostasy. The author editorializes as he compares Mattathias's response with that of Phinehas (see Nm 25, 6–14 ). With this comparison, the author implies that Mattathias's action prevented God's anger from consuming the Jews because of the apostasy of some, and that this zealous action merited the high‐priestly office for the Hasmoneans as the high priesthood was the reward for Phinehas's zeal against idolatry (Nm 25, 13 ). Besides Numbers 25, other examples of zealous action leading to priestly credentials include Exodus 32, 25–29 . Mattathias became the leader of a large guerrilla force whose aim was to end Seleucid military domination of the Jews and the proscription of their religion.
The Militancy of 1 Maccabees
The response of Mattathias to the proscription of his ancestral religion was militant: he and his followers took up arms against the Seleucids and their Jewish collaborators. The United States Bishops' Pastoral, The Challenge of Peace, asserts the “the sacred scriptures provide the foundation for confronting war and peace today” (#27). In trying to formulate a Christian response to these issues, one has to face the militancy of 1 Maccabees. Mattathias and his sons responded to the Seleucid persecution with armed resistance. Their theological support for such a response was taken from the religious traditions of ancient Israel (see Dt 20 ).
It is also important to remember that the response of 1 Maccabees to the threat posed by Antiochus was not the only one among religious Jews in Palestine. Though there was agreement among religious Jews that they ought to resist Antiochus, there was a variety of viewpoints on how resistance ought to proceed. First Maccabees reflects the view of those who insisted on armed resistance. There were others who opted for martyrdom, nonviolent resistance, and even pacifism in the face of the threat posed by Antiochus's anti‐Jewish laws.
While 2 Maccabees shares the militancy of 1 Maccabees, it looks at the revolution against the Seleucids from a somewhat different perspective. While it recognized the traditions associated with the wars of the Lord (see Dt 20 ), it also saw martyrdom as a way the faithful might contribute to the final victory over their enemies. Military prowess is not the only way. The blood of martyrs who died rather than violate the Torah cries out to God for vengeance and thereby seals the victory for the Jews.
The book of Daniel likewise describes a war between the forces of good and evil, but it believes that the real conflict takes place not on earth but in heaven, where God will be victorious over the powers of evil. Antiochus will fall, but not by human hands (Dn 8, 25 ). The book of Daniel holds that resistance is necessary but is nonviolent. It expresses itself in willingness to undergo suffering and even death for the sake of the Torah. Daniel can offer nonviolent resistance as an option because of its confidence in the resurrection of the faithful (Dn 12, 2f ). The warfare against the forces of evil is left to God and Michael (Dn 12, 1 ) so the faithful do not need to fight against Antiochus since God has sealed his fate already (Dn 7, 26f ). All the faithful need do is to stand up to the king by not complying with his orders to abandon their ancestral religion. The book of Daniel gives the whole credit for the inevitable victory over Antiochus to God's initiative. Daniel gives no credit to the contributions of the Maccabees at all.
Some Jews chose pacifism as a response to Antiochus's policies. This is evident from reading the Testament of Moses, a noncanonical work, portions of which were written about the same time as 1 Maccabees. The Testament of Moses has no room for the militancy of 1 Maccabees. It expected deliverance to come by direct divine intervention. The catalyst for the deliverance of the Jews is the death of those who have remained faithful to God and the Torah. The result of this deliverance will not be a Jewish state but Israel's separation from the nations and its exaltation in the heavens.
The militancy of 1 Maccabees represents just one response to the problems that the Jewish community in Palestine had because of Antiochus's persecution. The Bible and noncanonical Jewish literature offer others. In their pastoral letter, the bishops recognize that the Scriptures reflect many varied historical situations (#28). They could also have noted that the Scriptures reflect varied responses to the same historical circumstances. While we can understand the militancy of the Maccabees, such a response makes little sense in a nuclear age. There is no comparison between warfare of the second century BC and warfare today. That is precisely why the bishops of the United States spent so much time dealing with this issue and why they join recent popes in calling for nuclear disarmament.
Chapter 2 concludes with Mattathias's testament (vv. 49–62 ) in which he consigns his military authority to his sons (vv. 65–66 ). Before doing that, he commends the example of Israelite heroes of the past (vv. 51–60 ) to his sons in order to support his militant ideology (vv. 50.66–68 ). He is certain that Antiochus will fall, and the suppression of Jewish religion will end with him (vv. 61–63 ).
Judas (1 Mc 3, 1–9, 22 )
About 40 percent of the story in 1 Maccabees centers on the exploits of Judas, who succeeded his father as leader of the Jewish guerilla forces. Though the text acclaims Judas's exploits and applauds his bravery ( 3, 3–9; 9, 22 ), the author is very careful to imply that Judas's victories came about because of divine help. Judas prays before he begins any battle ( 3, 46; 4, 30–33; 5, 33; 7, 40–42 ). He boosts the morale of his army by reminding his men of how God has helped their ancestors in the face of overwhelming odds ( 4, 8f; 7, 41 ). Judas's preparations for battle ( 3, 47–49 ), his dismissal of those whom Deuteronomy exempts from war ( 3, 56, see Dt 20, 5–8 ), and the way he deals with the defeated enemy and the spoils of war ( 5, 28.35.51 ) all exemplify the beliefs of a man who is certain that he is fighting in accord with a divine command. Finally Judas praises God when he celebrates his victories ( 4, 24.33.55 ).
Hanukkah, or the Feast of the Dedication
Hanukkah is a Jewish feast celebrating the rededication of the Second Temple during the Maccabean revolt (the Hebrew word hanukkah means “dedication”). It was Judas Maccabee who mandated the observance of this festival (1 Mc 4, 59 ). Antiochus polluted the altar of the Temple (1 Mc 1, 54 ). This was probably the “horrible abomination” of Daniel 9, 27 . When the Maccabees gained control of the area of the Temple, they purified the Temple and rebuilt the altar three years to the day of Antiochus's desecration (1 Mc 4, 36–58 ).
Josephus calls this festival “the feast of lights” (Antiquities 12:7:7) because the rededication of the Temple also involved rekindling the Temple's menorah (a lampstand with seven branches). Jews observe this festival at home by lighting one candle on a special Hanukkah menorah each night. The Talmud relates the story of how one day's supply of holy oil lasted for the full eight days of the original festival until the priests could obtain more oil for the menorah in the Temple. The significance of Hanukkah lies in its glorification of the deeds of those who refused to acquiesce in the proscription of their ancestral religion. They took up arms and won their freedom. The victory of the Maccabees over Antiochus undoubtedly enabled Judaism to survive.
Jonathan (1 Mc 9, 23–12, 54 )
Judas died in battle, and his brother Jonathan succeeded him. While the text hails Jonathan's military exploits, of particular importance is his acceptance of the appointment as high priest from the Seleucid king Alexander who succeeded Antiochus ( 10, 20f ).
Simon (1 Mc 13, 1–16, 24 )
After the followers of Trypho, a pretender to the Seleucid throne, assassinated Jonathan, the leadership of the Jewish community passed to his brother Simon. Simon's stirring speech ( 13, 3–6 ) moved the people to acclaim him as their ruler ( 13, 8f ). Later, a formal assembly composed of priests, elders, and leaders of the people ratified this popular action (1 Mc 14, 41 ). First Maccabees reaches its climax with the accession of Simon as leader and high priest. The purpose of the book is to present the establishment of the Hasmonean house as the legitimate political and religious dynasty for the Jews of Palestine.
The poem in 14, 4–15 is an amalgam of biblical motifs suggesting that with Simon a state of peace and prosperity has come to the Jews, the likes of which had not been seen since the days of David and Solomon. With Simon a new “golden age” has dawned. The change effected by the rule of the Hasmoneans over the thirty years since Mattathias's revolt began is dramatic. For the sake of its religion, a beleaguered minority within the Jewish community stood up to a powerful empire and prevailed. The author of 1 Maccabees considered the defeat of the Seleucids to be clear evidence that God was working through the Hasmoneans to save the Jewish community and religion.
The book, however, closes on a tragic note. After an aged Simon appointed his two eldest sons, Judas and John, as his successors, a political rival murdered Simon along with Judas and another one of his sons, Mattathias. John captured the assassin and had him executed. The succession was safe and another Hasmonean, John Hyrcanus continued the line of those “men to whom it was granted to achieve Israel's salvation” ( 5, 62 ). John ruled the Jewish community in Palestine as high priest and ethnarch, a title whose Greek etymology means “ruler of a people.”