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2 Maccabees

The name of Second Maccabees, or more fully The Second Book of the Maccabees, derives from the probably secondary Greek title given to this book in the Septuagint codices Alexandrinus and Venetus (Makkabaiōn or Makabaiōn B). Manuscripts of the Old Latin translation convey similar titles (e.g. Liber secundus Macchabeorum). The name presupposes a collection of books that deal with “the Maccabees,” Jewish heroes who revolted against the Seleucid King Antiochus IV Epiphanes (175–164 B.C.E.) or who died as martyrs under him. First and Second Maccabees roughly deal with the same period and heroes of that era, either the sons of a priest from Modein named Mattathias (1 Maccabees), or one of these sons (Judas) as well as the martyrs who died during the persecution of Antiochus IV Epiphanes (2 Maccabees). Mattathias's oldest son Judas (originally “Judah”), had the epithet “the Maccabee” (Gk. ho Makkabaios), which may derive from Heb. maqqabi meaning “hammer” or “hammerer” (cf. Isa 44:12; m. Kelim 29:7). If this explanation is correct, it could refer to Judas's physical appearance or to his military success (for other proposals to explain this name, see Abel 1949, ii–iii). Judas the Maccabee is a key figure in both 1 and 2 Maccabees. Several early Christian authors refer to a collection of Maccabean books, although it is not always clear how many books are included in these references. Four Jewish books of the Maccabees have been transmitted in Greek and a fifth book, mainly a compilation of materials from 1 and 2 Maccabees as well as related passages in Josephus, survives in Arabic. The Christian author Hippolytus of Rome (ca. 170–236 C.E.) presupposes several Books of the Maccabees in a reference to 1 Maccabees in his Commentary on Dan. (4.3; also Origen, Exh. Mart. 23). The early church father Jerome, the translator of the Vulgate, explicitly mentions 1 and 2 Maccabees in his Prologus galeatus (“Helmeted Prologue,” 391 C.E.) to the Books of Samuel, noting that the First Book of Maccabees was written in Hebrew and the Second Book in Greek. The Christian historian Eusebius of Caesarea also mentions 2 Maccabees (Praep. ev. 8.9.38). Manuscripts of the Septuagint are inconsistent, including two, three, or four Maccabean books. The Codex Alexandrinus from the fifth century C.E. is the oldest biblical manuscript that contains all four books. The subtitles of 2 Maccabees in Codex Alexandrinus (“Letter about the Deeds of Judas the Maccabee”) and Codex Venetus (“Summary of the Deeds of Judas the Maccabee”) both focus on Judas Maccabeus as the book's main hero. Clement of Alexandria refers to the Second Book as “The Summary of the Maccabean Events” or “The Summary concerning the Maccabean Heroes.”

Canonical Status.

Second Maccabees is one of the books of the Greek Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Bible that is not a translation of a Hebrew (Aramaic) book belonging to this Bible. It was originally composed in Greek. Among Jews the book has become more or less obsolete, apart from the martyrdom story of CHAPTER 7, which is retold and referred to in rabbinic literatures (see below). As part of the Septuagint, however, the book was transmitted and read intensively by Christians. The New Testament Letter to the Hebrews (11:35–36) probably alludes to the martyrdoms in 2 Maccabees. Many church fathers quote passages from 2 Maccabees, sometimes assuming that the book belonged to scripture. Not only is Origen familiar with a collection of Maccabean books, but he also quotes extensively from the martyrdom reports in 2 Maccabees 6:18–7:42 in his Exhortation to Martyrdom, written in Caesarea Maritima during the brief persecution of Emperor Maximinus Thrax (235–238 C.E.). In his introduction to the story of the seven brothers (2 Macc 7), Origen notes that their death was described in the “(Books of the) Maccabees” (Exh. 23), and he also refers to “scripture” (graphē) in connection with a statement by one of the seven young martyrs. In a concluding note about the mother of the seven brothers he indicates that these Jewish heroes can be considered models for Christian martyrs, and he refers once again to “Scripture” in this connection: “I think that these passages, which I have summarized from Scripture, provide most valuable material for our purpose” (Exh. 27).

Nevertheless, neither 1 nor 2 Maccabees were always considered canonical in early Christianity. Jerome included both writings among the “books of the church” (libri ecclesiastici), which were edifying to read but distinguished from the Old Testament “canonical books” (libri canonici) written in Hebrew or Aramaic. Martin Luther followed this line of thought and included 1 and 2 Maccabees with four other Apocrypha in his German Bible Translation of 1534. Other Protestants often did not include the apocryphal Books in their translations of the Old Testament. The Roman Catholic Church, however, decided during the Council of Trent (1546) that 2 Maccabees, like most of the other apocryphal books, deserved canonical status, and it has since been considered one of the so-called Deuterocanonical books. One reason for this was that the book supports several issues of Christian doctrine, such as creation out of nothing (2 Macc 7:28), the resurrection of the righteous (2 Macc 7), and purgatory, the place where those who have died suffer temporarily for their sins (2 Macc 12:43–45). In most Eastern Orthodox churches, 2 Maccabees is canonical. The Anglican Church considers 2 Maccabees as useful for instruction, but not canonical scripture.


Second Maccabees is a composite work, in which an anonymous editor has combined and edited several sources. The book's main section, a history of Judea's liberation from Greek oppression (CHAPTERS 3–15; see Structure), purports to be a summary or epitome of (the now lost) five books by Jason of Cyrene (2 Macc 2:23). Several authors have suggested that this note is fictitious (see Doran 1981, 81–83), but discrepancies between the prologue written by the epitomist (2:19–32) and the main narrative of the historical section (3:1–15:37) make the note credible. Jason's name suggests that his work derives from the Diaspora, but we know nothing further about him. He was likely a contemporary of Judas the Maccabee, the main hero of the historical section of CHAPTERS 3–15, but he may have outlived Judas for some time. The two festal letters at the beginning (1:1–2:18) focus on the invitation from Judean Jews to fellow Jews in Egypt to participate in the new festival of the purification of the Temple in Jerusalem (later known as the festival of Hanukkah, and commemorated differently). The festal letters, therefore, were most probably composed in Jerusalem. The first letter is anonymous (1:1); the second includes Judas the Maccabee among the senders (1:10), but most scholars assume that this detail as well as the rest of the letter is fictitious. The anonymous epitomist may have combined the historical narrative with the festal letters, perhaps in stages. The simplest explanation of the origin of the present composition is that the epitomist is responsible for the summary of Jason's books and the combination of the summary (and possibly other sources) with the festal letters, as well as the editing of the entire work. In other words, the epitomist is likely the author of 2 Maccabees in its current version (so, for example, van Henten 1997 and Schwartz 2008). The voice of the epitomist can be distilled from the tenor of the narrative as well as from the brief intermezzos where he comments upon the events narrated (4:17; 5:17–20; 6:12–17).

Setting of the Epitomist.

There is no consensus concerning the background of the epitomist. Several scholars have argued that 2 Maccabees represents views typical for Diaspora Jews (see especially Schwartz 2008, 38; 45–56); others point out that the work's focus on Jerusalem and the Temple suggests that the epitomist was a Judean (Doran 1981; van Henten 1997, pp. 50–56; Lichtenberger 2004). The vocabulary and style of 2 Maccabees most closely resemble those of Septuagint books that were originally written in Greek in the Diaspora, such as the Wisdom of Solomon and 4 Maccabees. The combination of history and festal letters makes sense both for the location of the senders (Judea) and the setting of the receivers (Diaspora-Jews in Egypt). If the epitomist lived in Judea, he most probably did not belong to the supporters of the Hasmoneans. Judas is the main hero of the book, but 2 Maccabees does not depict the Maccabees as a dynasty of Jewish leaders, as 1 Maccabees does. Second Maccabees does not even mention Mattathias, the father of the Maccabean brothers, and the brothers play a minor role in the book (cf. 2 Macc 8:22–23; and 14:17 about Simon). The focus on Jerusalem renders it unlikely that the epitomist belonged to the Essenes, who had hardly any influence in Jerusalem. The concept of resurrection (2 Macc 7; 12:42–45) and the references to the unwritten Torah (3:10–12, 15) do not match an origin in Sadducean circles. One of the passages about Judas the Maccabee provides, perhaps, a clue about the epitomist's affiliation. Second Maccabees 14:6 suggests that Judas was the leader of a group of Jews called the Hasideans (Gk. Hasidaioi). His unconditional faithfulness to God and Jewish practices is much more significant in the book than his military achievements. Thus, a connection with the Hasideans is possible but far from certain; in any case, we know little about this group.

Date and Historical Context.

The date of 2 Maccabees is debated (Williams 2003). The first festal letter (2 Macc 1:1–10) refers to two dates. Second Maccabees 1:7 mentions the year 169 and connects it with the reign of the Seleucid King Demetrius (Demetrius II, 145–139 B.C.E.). Second Maccabees 1:9 mentions the year 188 in connection with the celebration of the new festival of Tabernacles (i.e. Hanukkah). Both dates refer to the Seleucid era, which started in the spring of 311 B.C.E. This means that the year 169 = 143/142 B.C.E. and the year 188 = 125/124 B.C.E. The first letter is commonly accepted as authentic (with Bickermann 1933). The year 188 (2 Macc 1:9) is usually taken as the date of the first letter, which implies that 2 Maccabees must have been written no earlier than 125/124 B.C.E. (e.g. Bunge 1971, pp. 195–202; Habicht 1979, p. 174). It is likely that 2 Maccabees predates 63 B.C.E., the year of the Roman general Pompey's intervention in the power struggle between the sons of the Hasmonean King Alexander Janneus (103–76 B.C.E.). The Romans are mentioned several times in 2 Maccabees (4:11; 8:10, 36; 11:34–38), and they seem to be highly regarded. This very positive image of the Romans is apparent from the warm diplomatic relations according to the letter of the Romans in 2 Maccabees 11:34–38, and may have been inspired by the significant Roman triumph over the Seleucid King Antiochus III at the battle of Magnesia (190 B.C.E.), as well as by the impressive action of the Roman envoy C. Popillius Laenas against Antiochus IV in 168 B.C.E., which forced Antiochus to withdraw from Egypt. Second Maccabees 8 contains two references to the Seleucid tribute paid to the Romans after their defeat at Magnesia (8:10, 36). This positive view of the Romans does not fit the more negative one of Roman rule after 63 B.C.E., nor does the conclusion of the historical section mentioning Jewish autonomy in Jerusalem (15:37) match the situation in Judea after that date. Most scholars, therefore, think that 2 Maccabees was written between 125/4 and 63 B.C.E. Daniel Schwartz, however, has argued for an earlier date (Schwartz pp. 11–15; 139–40; 143–4; 519–29). He considers 165/164 B.C.E. as the year indicated in 2 Maccabees 1:9–10, reading “148” with minuscules 55 and 62 instead of “188.” He takes 1:7 (referring to the year 143/142) as the date of the first letter and assumes the entire book was completed by then. There are two difficulties with this date in 143/2 B.C.E.: (1) The most obvious reading of the date in 1:7 is that it concerns a reference to an earlier letter (see the perfect gegraphamen “we have (previously) written to you…”); (2) the reading “148” instead of “188” in the two minuscule manuscripts seems to be the easier reading, which can be explained as an attempt to clarify the date by linking it to the origin of the festival.

The historical context of 2 Maccabees has already emerged from the discussion of the book's date. The events of the letters and the historical section are mainly situated in Judea during the Seleucid Empire. Four Seleucid Kings are mentioned in the book: Seleucus IV (187–175 B.C.E.), Antiochus IV (175–164 B.C.E.), Antiochus V (164–162 B.C.E.) and Demetrius I (162–150 B.C.E.; 2 Macc 1:14–5; 2:20; 3:3; 4:7; 10:10; 14:1). Antiochus IV Epiphanes is highlighted as the wicked king who tried to abolish the Jewish religion and annihilate the Jewish people. This context overlaps to a great extent that of 1 Maccabees, but 2 Maccabees focuses much more on the earlier period, especially on the wicked high priests Jason and Menelaus, who brought about Antiochus IV's interventions in Jerusalem (Hengel 1974; Tcherikover 1979). The problems that provoked the persecution by Antiochus started when a certain Jason replaced the high priest Onias III. Jason took possession of the high priesthood by offering a high sum to King Antiochus IV. He ensured Greek forms of education by founding a gymnasium and ephebate (NRSV: “a body of youth”), an association of young men in training associated with the gymnasium. Jason's registration of the Jerusalemites as citizens of Antioch (2 Macc 4:9, 12, 19) implies his enlisting of subdivisions of the citizens of the Greek city (polis) of Jerusalem (Ameling 2003). The epitomist considers these measures a terrible betrayal of Jewish practices and condemns them. Menelaus then acquired the high priesthood by outbidding Jason. The struggle between Jason and Menelaus triggered the first invasion of Antiochus IV in Jerusalem, which caused eighty thousand victims within three days (2 Macc 5:14). Guided by Menelaus, Antiochus robbed the Temple of the holy vessels and eighteen hundred talents (169 B.C.E.; 2 Macc 5:15–16, 21). Antiochus's second intervention in 167 B.C.E. led to the total prohibition of the Jewish way of life, the enforcement of Greek practices, and the desecration of the Jerusalem Temple. The Temple became dedicated to the Greek god Zeus Olympios (2 Macc 6:1–11).

Structure and Contents.

1:1—2:18 festal letters

1:1—10a first festal letter to the Jews in Egypt

1:10b—2:18 second festal letter to the Jews in Egypt

2:19—15:39 history of liberation

2:19–32 prologue to the history

3:1—4:6 reign of Seleucus IV; Heliodorus's attempt to rob the Temple during Onias's high priesthood

4:7—10:8 reign of Antiochus IV

4:7—5:10 betrayal by high priests Jason and Menelaus

5:11—6:17 Seleucid oppression in Jerusalem, profanation of the Temple

6:18–31 martyrdom of Eleazar

7:1–42 martyrdom of the mother and her seven sons

8:1–36 Judas the Maccabee defeats the Seleucid commanders Nicanor, Timothy, and Bacchides

9:1–29 death of Antiochus IV

10:1–8 purification of the Temple, foundation of festival

10:9—13:26 reign of Antiochus V and his guardian Lysias

10:9—10:37 Judas the Maccabee defeats Timothy

11:1–38 Lysias besieges Beth–zur; peace settlement confirmed by four documents

12:1—12:45 military conflicts between Judas and neighboring people as well as Timothy

13:1–26 the invasion of Judea by Antiochus V and Lysias fails

14:1—15:37 reign of Demetrius I ending in Jewish autonomy

14:1–10 betrayal by high priest Alcimus

14:11–36 Nicanor turns against Judas the Maccabee and threatens God

14:37–46 self–sacrifice of Razis

15:1–35 Judas the Maccabee defeats Nicanor

15:36–37 foundation of the Day of Nicanor, end of history report

15:38–39 epilogue

The festal letters and the historical narrative are linked especially by the shared motif of festivals. The letters invite Egyptian Jews to celebrate in Jerusalem the festival of Tabernacles in the month Chislev (1:9), which is identical with the festival of the purification of the Temple (1:18; 2:16). The foundation of this new festival is described in the historical narrative in 10:1–8, which forms the concluding section of a narrative cycle starting in 4:7. Another narrative cycle (14:1—15:36) also concludes with the report about the foundation of a festival of commemoration, the Day of Nicanor, which is related to the events reported in 14:1—15:35 just as the purification festival is connected with the vents in 4:7—9:29. So, both sections, 2 Maccabees 4:7—10:8 (situated in the reign of Antiochus IV) and 14:1—15:36 (situated in the reign of Demetrius I), are structured according to a pattern ending with the foundation of a festival. The pattern consists of six narrative themes appearing in the same order in these sections:

  • (1) Betrayal of Jewish practices by Jews in leading positions, especially the high priests Jason, Menelaus, and Alcimus (4:7—5:10; 14:1–10; cf. 14:26).
  • (2) Attack on Jerusalem by the Seleucid king or his general (5:11—6:11; 14:11–36).
  • (3) Unconditional faithfulness to God and Jewish practices by individuals; self–sacrifice of the martyrs and Razis (6:18—7:42; 14:37–46).
  • (4) Deliverance of the Jewish state by Judas the Maccabee with the help of God (8:1–36; 15:1–28).
  • (5) Vengeance against the enemies of the Jews (9:1–29; 15:28–35).
  • (6) The founding of a festival to commemorate the deliverance and thank God, on Chislev 25 and Adar 13 respectively (10:5–8; 15:36).

The pattern highlights the deeds of the narrative's key persons, who are clearly divided into two groups. It also puts emphasis on the pivotal passages that bring a turn for the better, especially the martyrdoms in 6:18—7:42 and Razis's self–sacrifice in 14:37–46.

The remaining narrative sections, 2 Maccabees 3:1—4:6 and 10:9—13:26, are less clearly structured, but they do fit the pattern of the other two sections. Second Maccabees 3:1—4:6, with Heliodorus's attempt to rob the Temple, functions as an overture to 4:7—15:36, introducing most of the motifs of the subsequent narrative with its focus upon the Temple as the central Jewish institution. The financial administrator Simon gives the impetus to Heliodorus's desecration of the Temple, the priests call upon God, and Heliodorus is punished by three messengers from God. Only the foundation of a festival is missing, but 2 Maccabees' message is already clear from this overture: Do not interfere with the affairs of the Jews, because nobody can stand up against their patron deity.

Second Maccabees 10:9—13:26 concerns the reign of Antiochus V and describes the conflicts between Judas the Maccabee and this Seleucid king and his generals as well as Judas's military activities against non-Jews in the neighborhood of Judea. Four documents in 11:16–38 form an intermezzo in the report of Judas's successful war of liberation and the legitimation of his recapture of Jerusalem and the Temple by the Seleucids and the Romans, the new allies of the Jews.

Literary History.

The current combination of the two festal letters (1:1—2:18) and the history of Judea's liberation from Greek oppression (3:1—15:37) with a prologue and epilogue (2:19–32) developed in several stages. Discrepancies and inconsistencies make it probable that several sources were combined and edited, although whether the original sources can be distinguished from the editorial changes and additions is debated (cf. Schunck 1954 and Schwartz, pp. 16–37 with Doran and van Henten 1997, pp. 17–57). In any case, it is likely that the work developed into the present book in a relatively short period, perhaps only a few decades.

The historical section purports to be a summary of five books by Jason of Cyrene (2:23; see above). The history is connected with the invitations to participate in the Jerusalem festival of the purification of the Temple (later known as Hanukkah) transmitted in the festal letters of 1:1–10 and 1:10—2:18. The final event of the narrative cycle in 4:7—10:9 concerns the institution of this new festival as annual commemoration of the victories of the Jews (10:1–8). There are various names for this new festival: 2 Maccabees 1:9–10 calls it “the days of Tabernacles of the month of Kislev,” 1:18 mentions “(the festival of) the purification of the Temple” as well as “(the holiday of) Tabernacles and fire,” and 10:5–6 refers to the date of the purification of the sanctuary and eight days of celebration in the style of Tabernacles. These all point to the same new festival. The combination of festal letters and history is known from practices of Hellenistic states concerning their celebrations of patriotic holidays with representatives from other states. Inscriptions attest that a state would send letters of invitation to other states, and sometimes a history report accompanied the festal letters to explain the origin and purpose of the festival (van Henten 2003). These conventions help to explain the combination of letters and history. Second Maccabees in its present version may either go back to a set of texts from Jerusalem intended to be sent out to Egyptian Jews, or be a document that derives from the Egyptian addressees. The information about the purification of the Temple and the foundation of a festival to commemorate this important event is reliable. It is confirmed by 1 Maccabees 4:36–61, although there is a difference concerning the founders of the festival: 1 Maccabees 4:59 mentions Judas and his brothers with the entire assembly of Israel, 2 Maccabees 10:1–8 leaves out Judas's brothers and refers to “Maccabaeus [i.e. Judas] and those who were with him.”

Various details suggest that sources other than Jason of Cyrene's work and the festal letters underlie 2 Maccabees. The letter of Antiochus IV in 9:19–27 may be authentic, as may several official documents in 2 Maccabees 11 (Habicht, pp. 179–85; 254–60). Several scholars have argued that the martyrdom story in 2 Macc 7 derives from a separate source (e.g., Habicht, p. 171; Bowersock 1995, pp. 9–13).

The discrepancy between the invitation to one particular festival in the festal letters (the new Tabernacles or the festival of the purification of the Temple) and the two new festivals as final events of the narrative cycles in 4:7—10:9 and 10:10—15:37 (the purification festival in 10:1–8 and the Day of Nicanor in 15:36) also points to a growth of 2 Maccabees in several phases. Nevertheless, most contemporary scholars consider the historical section in CHAPTERS 3–15 to be a coherent work, assuming that the epitomist or another redactor put considerable effort into turning the various documents into a consistent and readable book. Schwartz has challenged this trend by analyzing the lack of cohesion and the discrepancies within the narrative, as well as the differences of the vocabulary in the various sections. He argues that a report about the wicked high priests and the conflict between Judas the Maccabee and the Seleucid commander Nicanor that ends with the foundation of the Day of Nicanor on Adar 13 (CHS. 3–5, 8 and 14–15, all deriving from Jason of Cyrene) were expanded by the epitomist with the martyrdom reports (6:18—7:42) and the prologue and epilogue (2:19–32 and 15:38–39). The epitomist also added most of the materials transmitted in CHAPTERS 9–13, but he changed the order of the events in an attempt to harmonize conflicting information about Antiochus IV's death and his successor Antiochus V. In 143/142 B.C.E. the Hasmonean authorities added the material connected with the other festival, later called Hanukkah (1:1—2:18 and 10:1–8) and sent the work out to the Jews in Egypt. Schwartz's hypothesis is an ingenious attempt to explain the chronological inconsistencies within the narrative. The rearrangement and changes of the source materials in the historical section may also, at least partly, be explained by the work's narrative structure, which presents the events in various analogous cycles. This implies that 2 Maccabees is a mixed bag from the perspective of historicity. The epitomist has combined summaries of Jason's work with reliable documents as well as more legendary materials. The epitomist also changed the chronological order of some of the events by subordinating his source materials to his narrative cycle (below) and by focusing upon wicked as well as model persons.


The prologue characterizes the narrative section (2:19—15:39) not only as a history (historia, a written report of certain events, 2:32), but also as a specific type of history, namely a readable and useful set of information (2:23). It should be easy to read and be memorized, and aims at entertaining and educating the reader at the same time (2:25). From the book's structure it is apparent that 2 Maccabees 2:19—15:39 is a narrative of the liberation of the Temple State in Judea from Seleucid foreign rule. The festal letters (1:1—2:18) focus on the commemoration of this liberation. They also contribute to the legitimacy of the recaptured and purified Temple by drawing analogies with Solomon's and Nehemiah's previous building and dedication of the Temple (1:18—2:12), highlighting God's consent in this way. The history describes the liberation of Judea from foreign oppression during the reigns of the Seleucid Kings Antiochus IV, Antiochus V, and Demetrius I, ending with Judas the Maccabee's victory over the Greek commander Nicanor in 161 B.C.E. (2 Macc 15). This implies that 2 Maccabees roughly describes the same events as those told in 1 Maccabees 1–7. The verse that precedes the epilogue in 2 Maccabees 15:38–39 indicates that from that time Jerusalem “was in the possession of the Hebrews” (15:37). This implies that the ideal situation during the high priesthood of Onias, which forms the starting point of the narrative in 3:1, is restored at the end of the book, with one principal difference: in 3:1 there is still a Seleucid overlord, but 15:37 implies that the Jews had managed to attain autonomy. Second Maccabees, therefore, depicts how an independent Jewish state came into being, with its own territory and Jerusalem as its religious and administrative center.

The Temple is the central institution of this state, which had its own ancestral laws, practices, festivals, day of rest (the Sabbath), and language (7:8, 21, 27; 12:37; 15:29). The epitomist focuses on the key persons in the narrative, either villains or heroes. He highlights the prehistory of Antiochus IV's oppression by focusing upon the wicked high priests Jason and Menelaus and their introduction of Greek cultural practices (4:1—5:10). The most important hero in the book is Judas the Maccabee, who is briefly mentioned in 1:10 and 5:27 and leads the liberation struggle from 8:1 onward. Judas the Maccabee is the only son of Mattathias who is important in the narrative, and 2 Maccabees highlights his faithfulness to God and Jewish practices more than his achievements in battle. Other heroes in the book include the high priest Onias (3:1—4:6; 4:30–34; 15:12–16), the Maccabean martyrs (6:18—7:42), and Razis (14:37–46). The martyrs and Razis function as model citizens and their self–sacrifice anticipates the deliverance of the Jews. The comments of the epitomist (e.g., 4:16–17; 5:17–20; 6:12–17) explain to the readers why events developed the way they did and imply that God determines the course of history according to the behavior of the people involved.

Second Maccabees includes many fewer quotations from and allusions to passages from Hebrew Scripture than First Maccabees. In 2 Maccabees 8:19 and 15:22 Judas prays before he engages in battle and refers to God's support to Hezekiah during the attack of the Assyrian king Sennacherib, when 185,000 enemy soldiers were killed (see 2 Kgs 19:35–36; 2 Chr 32:20–22; Isa 37:36–37). The allusion highlights that God's help is crucial for the Jews being victorious. Second Maccabees 7:6 alludes to the Song of Moses (Deut 32) and includes a brief quotation of Deut. 32:36: “And he [God] will reconcile himself with his servants” anticipating the deliverance of the Jews as well as the vindication of the martyrs. Second Maccabees 7:22, 28 allude to the creation of the world and humankind described in Genesis 1–2. These allusions in the context of 2 Maccabees 7 emphasize that God will be capable to re-create the martyrs after their death even when their bodies were cut in pieces and burned.

The purpose of the work is to inspire the reader by the exemplary behavior and the values of the Jewish heroes highlighted by the narrative. This explains why the actions of individuals are so important in this work. Second Maccabees suggests that God intervenes in human history in very specific ways, depending on one's deeds. In this way, the history also implies that whoever follows the guidelines set out in this book may enjoy divine support.

Jewish and Christian Reinterpretations.

Second Maccabees was written for Jews, as the festal letters at its beginning clearly indicate. However, apart from 4 Maccabees, there is no substantial evidence that Jewish readers during the early Roman Empire were interested in the book. The Jewish and Christian reinterpretations that survive from antiquity focus on the martyr stories in 2 Maccabees. Fourth Maccabees, the oldest Jewish writing entirely devoted to martyrdom, reinterprets the stories of 2 Maccabees 6:18—7:42 by connecting them with a philosophical argument. It is a philosophical treatise on the autonomy of devout reason as well as a eulogy of the Maccabean martyrs (Van Henten 1997, pp. 58–82; deSilva 2006). The author of this Diaspora work from Syria or Asia Minor, dating from ca. 100 C.E., used the martyrdoms as well as their prehistory in 2 Maccabees—6:17 as his main source, as close correspondences between the setting of the martyrdoms and the vocabulary used make clear. The author of 4 Maccabees reinterprets the martyrdoms in several ways. He pays much more attention to the role of the mother of the seven brothers than does 2 Maccabees, and elaborates the description of her feelings as a mother as well as praise for her. The detailed descriptions of the martyrs' tortures substantiate 4 Maccabees' philosophical proposition about the autonomy of devout reason. The martyrs' endurance of the sufferings until death leads to the tyrant's defeat, and, as a consequence, to the reestablishment of the Jewish way of life and the restoration of the Jewish polity. Fourth Maccabees narrows the conflict between Antiochus IV and the Jewish people to a competition between the martyrs and the king. There are no military battles and Judas the Maccabee does not figure in the book. The martyrs' steadfastness, personal conviction, and deeds alone bring about the defeat of the tyrant. In this way, 4 Maccabees shows important correspondences with depictions of martyrdom in Christian documents.

There is no evidence that the Rabbis were familiar with 2 Maccabees, which had lost most of its relevance anyway after the destruction of the Temple. Rabbinic references to the foundation of Hanukkah show no familiarity with 2 Maccabees. The relevant passage in the Babylonian Talmud (b. Sanh. 21b) refers to the Maccabean family as founders of the festival (cf. 1 Macc 4:59) and relates a miracle concerning the oil of the Menorah. It notes that after the defeat of the Greeks only a single cruse of undefiled oil remained, which was sufficient for only one day, but the oil burned eight days (cf. the different miracle concerning “thick water” and the spontaneous combustion of the altar after its purification described in 2 Macc 1:20–36). There are several retellings of the story of the martyrdom of the mother and her seven sons in rabbinic literature (b. Giṭ. 57b, Midr. Lam. Rab. 1.16), but it is far from certain whether these passages are based on 2 Maccabees 7. The mother is given the name Hannah in some of the rabbinic traditions.

The Maccabean martyrdom stories were very popular among Christians, who referred to these martyrdoms in many ways (van Henten 1993; Rouwhorst 2004; Ziadé 2007). The Christian reinterpretation of the martyrdoms is already apparent from short quotations and allusions as well as more elaborate quotes and paraphrases, beginning with Hebrews 11. The author lists in Hebrews 11:32–38 a final series of anonymous models of trust (Gk. pistis, NRSV “faith”), suggesting that the community addressed can find encouragement in the innumerable number of witnesses of trust. The list of models triggers associations with traditions about well-known prophets and other heroes who suffered or even died because of their faith. Hebrews 11:35 paraphrases 2 Maccabees 6:18–31 and probably combines Eleazar's martyrdom with that of the mother and her seven sons, focusing upon the resurrection. Hebrews 11:36 alludes, perhaps, to the scourging and mocking of the martyrs in 2 Maccabees 7. The reinterpretation of the martyrdoms in Hebrews 11 focuses not only on the suffering of the heroes but also on their reward, the resurrection in the end time, as Hebrews 11:35 indicates. Accounts of North African martyrdoms dating from before 310 C.E. also allude to the Maccabean martyrs. The Passio of Montanus and Lucius includes a comparison of the martyr Flavianus's mother with the mother of the Maccabean martyrs. Flavianus's mother is called “Maccabean mother” (Machabaeica mater; Pas. Mont. 16.4) as well as “daughter of Abraham” (Abrahae fili; 16.3; cf. 4 Macc 14:20; 15:28 and 18:20; see also Pass. Mar. 13).

Origen quotes and paraphrases sections from 2 Maccabees 6:18—7:42 in Exhortation 22–27 (ca. 235 C.E.), and he was probably also familiar with 4 Maccabees. Origen associates the situation of his intended audience, his fellow-Christians Ambrose and Prototectus, with that of the Maccabean martyrs. He suggests in this way that they should behave in a way analogous to Eleazar and the mother with her seven sons. By selective use of 2 Maccabees 6:18—7:42, Origen elaborates the praise for the mother, and highlights the voluntary nature of the Maccabean martyrdoms, who die for proper worship (Gk. eusebeia) and love of God (Exh. 27), both interpreted from a Christian perspective. Origen also reinterprets the vindication of the martyrs by presenting martyrdom as the best way to achieve an afterlife close to God and in unity with Jesus Christ. Origen restricts the beneficiary effect of the martyrs' death to their personal fate; the martyrs themselves are purified by their sufferings. Origen leaves out most of the factual information about the martyrs and their arrest, and also largely ignores their Jewish identity by omitting references to the markers of this identity. Origen thus Christianized the Maccabean martyrs as models for Christian martyrs. Similar Christian reinterpretations can be found in other Christian writings from the third century onward, including sermons, homilies, and panegyric discourses. Gregory of Nazianzus and John Chrysostom, for example, composed homilies that pay tribute to the Maccabean martyrs (MPG 35.912–33; 50.616–28; discussion in Ziadé 2007).

Later Reception History.

Second Maccabees was a popular book among Christians in the Middle Ages, as the Maccabean martyrs continued to be interpreted as models for Christians (Dunbabin 1985). Various scenes from 2 Maccabees are depicted in illustrated versions of the Bible from the Middle Ages onward. The German painter Hans Mielich (1516–1573) contributed to a manuscript with Orlando di Lasso's musical notations for a collection of Psalms, prepared for Duke Albrecht V of Bavaria (1565; Bayerische Staatsbibliothek, Munich, Germany). Mielich's illustrations that accompany VERSE 2 of the penitential Psalm 102, a call for unconditional trust in the Lord, combine several biblical scenes, including the martyrdom of Eleazar. Eleazar clearly functions as a model for the attitude that Psalm 102 supposedly requires from the believers. So-called History Bibles contained translations of the historical books of the Bible, in prose or poetry, in one of the vernacular languages. They were composed for educational purposes and were often illustrated. Second Maccabees was sometimes included in these Bibles. The Dutch illustrator Claes Brouwer, for example, illuminated a History Bible from ca. 1430 with colorful illustrations of Onias's murder by Andronicus (2 Macc 4:30–34), Antiochus IV's fall from his chariot (2 Macc 9:7), and Jeremiah handing over the golden sword to Judas the Maccabee (2 Macc 15:15–16; Royal Library, The Hague, KB, 78 D 38 II Fol. 85v; 90r; 107r). Another type of Bible, the Pictorial Bible, also reinterprets 2 Maccabees by representing the most important events as a pictorial story. The Dutch painter, etcher, and poet Jan Luyken, for example, published his Schriftuurlijke Geschiedenissen en Gelykenissen in konstplaten en rijmen vertoond [Scriptural Histories and Parables represented in Plates and Verse] in Amsterdam in 1712. This work includes several etchings of scenes from 2 Maccabees, including Heliodorus's punishment (2 Macc 3:25), the martyrdom of the mother and her seven sons (2 Macc 7), and Antiochus IV's punishment (2 Macc 9).

The decision of the Council of Trent in 1546 that 2 Maccabees deserved canonical status cannot be detached from the book's popularity in the late Middle Ages, but it was also informed by the conviction that the book supported important issues of Christian doctrine. Second Maccabees 7 and 12:43–45 imply that the righteous will be resurrected. The church fathers had already used the passages about the resurrection of the martyrs in order to prove their argument that the resurrected body is identical with the earthly body. Second Maccabees 12:43–45 is also the proof text for the significance of prayers for the dead and the existence of purgatory, where those who have died for the love of Christ suffer temporarily for the sins that still attach to them. A painting by Peter Paul Rubens from 1618–1620 highlights the scene of Judas the Maccabee praying for his deceased soldiers (Musée des Beaux-Artes, Nantes, France). Because of their references to purgatory and resurrection, 2 Maccabees 6:18–31; 7; and 12:43–45 were included among the passages from scripture read during Mass or special liturgical celebrations by Roman Catholics as well as other Christian denominations. The Second Vatican Council of the mid-twentieth century also referred to the tradition of praying for the dead in order that they may be loosed from their sins with a quotation of 2 Maccabees 12:45, and suggested that the saints in heaven also serve as models for Christian life on earth (Lumen Gentium 50).

The reinterpretation of the Maccabean martyrs as forerunners of martyrs within Christianity is a longstanding and important aspect of the reception of 2 Maccabees. This reinterpretation in theological and liturgical passages was coupled with a devotion to these martyrs at various places. In Antioch in Syria, the martyrs had their own basilica (Augustine, Homily 300; MPL 38 1379). The Martyrologium of Edessa (411–412 C.E.) mentions the celebration of the festival of the Maccabees on August 1 in Antioch. This date, also attested in other sources, became the anniversary of the Maccabean martyrdoms in the official martyrology of the Roman Catholic Church. The beginning of John Chrysostom's first Homily on the Maccabees refers to the corpses of the martyrs, which may imply that the homily was presented at the martyrs' tomb in Antioch, possibly at the Church of the Maccabees in the Kerateion, mentioned in the Martyrologium of Edessa. Several scholars have argued that a church of the Maccabean martyrs replaced a synagogue connected with them, but there is no clear evidence for a Jewish martyr cult and such veneration is unlikely (Rouwhorst). Afterward, the remains of the martyrs are said to have been moved to Constantinople, Rome, and Cologne. The remains of the seven brothers are believed to be in a marble sarcophagus in the Church of St. Peter in Chains at Rome. Those of the mother are allegedly kept in the Church of Agios Georgios of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate at Istanbul. Thus, there are several competing traditions concerning the remains of the Maccabean martyrs, which indicates that the possession of the relics of martyrs enhanced the status of a Christian community. Devotion to the Maccabean martyrs is also found at Nea Paphos, on the island of Cyprus, where the Maccabean mother received the name Agia Solomoni. Her supposed tomb has running water and a miracle tree, and it offers the visitor the possibility of cures for eye ailments. St. Andrew's Church in Cologne contains a beautiful golden miniature shrine built in 1527 by the goldsmith Peter Hanemann, which the community claims contains the remains of the Maccabean martyrs. Allegedly, Cologne's Archbishop Reinald von Dassel brought these remains in 1164 from Milan to Cologne, together with the remains of the Three Wise Men who venerated Jesus. The relief on this shrine juxtaposes the sufferings of the seven Maccabean brothers, depicted on the lower section, with the sufferings of Christ, depicted on the upper part. The monument constructs an intriguing analogy between the mother of the Maccabean brothers and Mary, the mother of Jesus. The Maccabean mother watches as her sons suffer and die; Mary beholds Christ's sufferings. The shrine shows once again that the story of 2 Maccabees 7 became fully integrated in Christian religious contexts.



Primary Sources

  • De Bruyne, Donatien. Les anciennes traductions latines des Machabées. Anecdota Maredsolana 4; Brugge: Abbaye de Maredsous, 1932.
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Secondary Literature

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  • Dunbabin, Jean. “The Maccabees as Exemplars in the Tenth and Eleventh Centuries.” In The Bible in the Medieval World: Essays in Memory of Beryl Smalley, edited by K. Walsh and D. Wood, pp. 31–41, Oxford: Blackwell, 1985.
  • Gera, Dov. Judaea and Mediterranean Politics, 219 to 161 B.C.E. Brill's Series in Jewish Studies 8. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 1998.
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  • Goldstein, Jonathan. II Maccabees: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. The Anchor Bible 41a. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1983.
  • Grimm, Carolo L. W., Kurzgefasstes exegetisches Handbuch zu den Apokryphen des Alten Testaments.Vol. 4. Das zweite, dritte und vierte Buch der Maccabäer. Leipzig, Germany: Hirzel, 1857.
  • Habicht, Christian. 2. Makkabäerbuch. Jüdische Schriften aus hellenistisch–römischer Zeit 1.3. Gütersloh, Germany: Gütersloher Verlagshaus, 1979.
  • Hengel, Martin. Judaism and Hellenism: Studies in Their Encounter in Palestine during the Early Hellenistic Period. 2 vols. London: SCM Press, 1974.
  • Henten, Jan Willem van. The Maccabean Martyrs as Saviours of the Jewish People: A Study of 2 and 4 Maccabees. Supplements to the Journal for the Study of Judaism 57. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 1997.
  • Henten, Jan Willem van. “2 Maccabees as a History of Liberation.” In Jews and Gentiles in the Holy Land in the Days of the Second Temple, the Mishnah and the Talmud: A Collection of Articles, edited by Menahem Mor, Aharon Oppenheimer, Jack Pastor and Daniel R. Schwartz, pp. 62–86. Jerusalem: Yad Ben–Zvi Press, 2003.
  • Henten, Jan Willem van, “Zum Einfluß jüdischer Martyrien auf die Literatur des frühen Christentums (2: Die Apostolischen Väter).” In Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt, edited by W. Haase & H. Temporini, vol. II.27/1, pp. 700–23. Berlin: De Gruyter, 1993.
  • Herkenne, Heinrich. Die Briefe zu Beginn des zweiten Makkabäerbuches (1,1—2,18). Biblische Studien 8.4. Freiburg: Herder, 1904.
  • Lichtenberger, Hermann. “Gottes Nahe in einer Zeit ohne Gebet.” In Gottes Nahe im Alten Testament, edited by G. Eberhardt and K. Liess, pp. 135–149. Stuttgart: Katholisches Bibelwerk, 2004.
  • Mittmann–Richert, Ulrike. Einführung zu den historischen und legendarischen Erzählungen. Jüdische Schriften aus hellenistisch–römischer Zeit 6.1.1. Gütersloh, Germany: Gütersloher Verlagshaus, 2000.
  • Momigliano, Arnaldo. “The Second Book of Maccabees.” Classical Philology 70 (1975): 81–88.
  • Rouwhorst, Gerard, “The Cult of the Seven Maccabean Martyrs and their Mother in Christian Tradition.” In Saints and Role Models in Judaism and Christianity, edited by Joshua Schwartz and Marcel Poorthuis, pp. 183–205. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2004.
  • Schunck, Klaus–Dietrich. Die Quellen des I. und II. Makkabäerbuches. Halle: M. Niemeyer, 1954.
  • Schwartz, Daniel R. 2 Maccabees. Commentaries on Early Jewish Literature. Berlin: De Gruyter, 2008.
  • Tcherikover, Victor. Hellenistic Civilization and the Jews. New York: Athenaeum, 1970.
  • Tedesche, Sidney and Solomon Zeitlin. The Second Book of Maccabees. New York: Harper, 1953.
  • Wacholder, Ben Z. “The Letter from Judah Maccabee to Aristobulus: Is 2 Maccabees 1:10B—2:18 Authentic?” Hebrew Union College Annual 49 (1978): 89–133.
  • Williams, David S. “Recent Research in 2 Maccabees.” Currents in Biblical Research 2 (2003): 69–83.
  • Ziadé. Raphaëlle, Les martyrs Maccabées: de l'histoire juive au culte chrétien: Les homélies de Grégoire de Nazianze et de Jean Chrysostome. Supplements to Vigiliae Christianae 80. Leiden, Netherlands and Boston: Brill, 2007.

Jan Willem van Henten

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