Four books recording the struggle of loyalist Jews against the forces of Hellenist absorption in the 2nd cent. BCE. Of these 1 and 2 Macc. (there is considerable overlap in telling the history) exist only in the Greek of the LXX, but were incorporated into the Vulgate and are reckoned by the Roman Catholic Church to be deuterocanonical and having the authority of scripture. They are placed in the Apocrypha by Reformed Churches.
The Greek OT includes 3 Macc., which is inappropriately named, since it is not concerned with the Maccabees but is a fictitious work compiled by a Jew in Alexandria at about the turn of the eras concerning the triumphs of Jews over their enemies about 220 BCE.
Also written about the time of Jesus, 4 Macc. is attached to the LXX as an appendix and enlarges on the sufferings of the Jews in the Maccabean period.
Access to historical records in Jerusalem about its political fortunes seems to be shown in 2 Macc., but only 1 Macc. contains reliable history of the Jewish opposition to the attempt by the kings of Syria to bring about religious unity in their empire by imposing Hellenistic religion and culture which had made much progress during and after the campaign of Alexander the Great, affecting Israel’s architectural and literary styles. But there was popular anger when the Seleucid rulers promoted Jews who had adopted the new fashions, and religious fervour boiled over when Torah scrolls were burnt under orders from Antiochus IV; though foreign alliances were not out of the question when they were expedient. The author maintains that the ultimate direction of history was God’s. The story begins in 167 BCE when Mattathias and his sons, who were members of a priestly family in the village of Modein, raised the flag of insurrection. The military leadership soon passed to the son Judas, who had the surname ‘Maccabaeus’, meaning a ‘hammer’, who launched a guerrilla campaign, recaptured Jerusalem, and rededicated the Temple (164 BCE), which the Syrians had defiled. After Judas was killed, the war was continued by his brothers Jonathan and Simon. The latter obtained some recognition by the Syrians but was murdered in 134 BCE, to be succeeded by his son, John Hyrcanus, who survived for twenty years and was both ruler and high priest. Under him the Hasmonean state (Hasmonean was the name of the Maccabean dynasty) flourished and expanded.
The purpose of 1 Macc. seems to be to justify the military adventures on the ground that political freedom was essential for Jewish religious freedom. There is no reference to a future life after death, but importance is attached to human values of courage and wisdom as displayed by the heroes of Mattathias’ family. The purpose of 2 Macc. is to assert the importance of the Temple and the Law. Advice is given in 3 Macc. to Jews in the Dispersion when they are persecuted (3: 3), but 4 Macc. extols the sufferings of Jewish martyrs as being atoning sacrifices for the whole nation (6: 28–9). Cf. Heb. 12: 1–2.