Righteous Revolt: 1 Maccabees 2

Mattathias refuses participation in pagan worship and starts a revolt before dying and leaving his sons in charge. Plus, more canon fodder: Why did the rabbis reject the book?

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Canon Fodder

First Maccabees was written by Jews about Jews for Jews but was later rejected by Jews. Why? One argument is that the book was written to support the claim by the Hasmonean dynasty that they were the rightful rulers of the Jews—both at the court and the temple. More than one writer refers to the narrator as the “Hasmonean propagandist” (see Jason Staples, The Idea of Israel, p. 168).

That worked fine until the fortunes of the Hasmoneans declined. “After the demise of the Hasmonean state,” says The Jewish Annotated Apocrypha, “Jews had no interest in preserving a work that lionized the dynasty that had created, ruled, and lost it.”

Readers access the book today through the Greek Old Testament, the Septuagint, or subsequent translations of it. Still, because of its intended audience and date of composition (about 100 BC) most scholars assume it was originally written in Hebrew. What’s more, Origen and Jerome both claimed to have seen copies in Hebrew, though none survive today.

Another feature of the book is its biblical style and intentional echoes of Israel’s scriptures. It imitates the biblical historical style of Joshua, Judges, 1–2 Samuel, and 1–2 Kings (that is, 1–4 Kingdoms in the Greek) and even quotes from them. The heroes of the book are meant to remind the reader of figures like Moses, Joshua, and David.

First Maccabees does differ from biblical narratives in some key ways. Writing in The Oxford Handbook of the Apocrypha, Doron Mendels mentions four differences:

  • There’s little mention of the land’s borders; the action is limited to regaining control from the Seleucids of lands west of the Jordan.

  • There’s no problem with Jews living alongside nonbelievers, so long as Jews are free to follow the Torah.

  • There are no prophets like Samuel or Nathan running around.

  • There’s no focus on individual tribes or local shrines; it all comes down to one people, one shrine: the Jewish nation and the Jerusalem Temple.

Still, as biblical scholar David deSilva says, “the author uses biblical precedent and intertexture throughout the narrative as a means by which the Maccabean history can be made to grow out of and continue the sacred history of Israel.”

Christians certainly treated it like an additional chapter of biblical history. Christian leaders going back at least as far as Tertullian, Cyprian, Origen, and Augustine used and valued the book. Ancient synods and councils approved the book. And the biggest test of all: Christians kept copying, sharing, and consulting it. “It closely resembles the rest of the books of Holy Scripture, and would not have been unworthy to be reckoned among them,” the reformer Martin Luther said centuries later.

Not everyone accepted the book. Unique among ancient confessions, the Ethiopian Orthodox—Tawahedo—leave it out of their otherwise extra-long canon. What’s more, Ethiopian Orthodox also have their own, utterly unique versions of the Maccabean books: Josippon (written in the 10th century!) and 1–3 Meqabyan (late 14th or early 15th century!). As Brandon Hawk points out in his helpful book, Apocrypha for Beginners, these books contain different storylines and characters than our Maccabean books. Yet there they are.

Haile Selasse, emperor of Ethiopia until 1974, said this about Scripture

Today man sees all his hopes and aspirations crumbling before him. He is perplexed and knows not whither he is drifting. But he must realize that the Bible is his refuge, and the rallying point for all humanity. In it man will find the solution of his present difficulties and guidance for his future action, and unless he accepts with clear conscience the Bible and its great Message, he cannot hope for salvation. For my part I glory in the Bible.

All Christians can agree on that, more or less, even if we can’t always agree on what’s in the Bible and what isn’t.

Resistors: Mattathias and his Sons

The end of 1 Maccabees 1 says that “many in Israel stood firm.” They decided to resist the persecuting Seleucids. Now in chapter 2 we meet several of those resistors, starting with Mattathias. 

He is the son of a priestly family, mentioned in 1 Chronicles 9.10, and has moved from Jerusalem to Modein, presumably following the incursion by Antiochus and his followers. 

“Alas! Why was I born to see this,” he laments when we meet him, “the ruin of my people, the ruin of the holy city, and to live there when it was given over to the enemy, the sanctuary given over to aliens?”

Mattathias has five sons, listed by the narrator: “John surnamed Gaddi, Simon called Thassi, Judas called Maccabeus, Eleazar called Avaran, and Jonathan called Apphus.” According to a note in the Navarre Bible, 

The additional names or nicknames given his songs seem to say something about the character of each: Gaddi means lucky; Maccabeus, hammer; Thassi, zealous; Avaran, alert; and Apphus, cunning. 

Tradition stretches the name Maccabeus over the whole lot, and thus by extension the books that tells their story. And let’s just add: they’re going to need all that zeal, luck, and cunning as the story unfolds.

It all begins when Antiochus’ officers come through Modein to enforce sacrifice. Given his position of leadership, Mattathias is commanded to go first. “Now be the first to come and do what the king commands,” they say, “as all the Gentiles and the people of Judah and those that are left in Jerusalem have done. Then you and your sons will be numbered among the Friends of the king, and you and your sons will be honoured with silver and gold and many gifts.” 

Mattathias flatly refuses. “I and my sons and my brothers will continue to live by the covenant of our ancestors,” he says. “Far be it from us to desert the law and the ordinances. We will not obey the king’s words by turning aside from our religion to the right hand or to the left.” The narrator is here intentionally echoing both Moses (Deuteronomy 5.32–33) and Joshua (24.15).

Not all of Mattathias’ neighbors agree. One approaches the altar to betray the covenant. But Mattathias, “burn[ing] with zeal,” attacks and kills him on the altar, an act the narrator ties to the zeal of another Old Testament hero, Phinehas. Then he and his sons escape town and invite anyone who might join them to follow.

Leaving town to avoid Seleucid enforcers was common. Jews committed to the covenant would find refuge in the wilderness. Unfortunately, Antiochus’ men could pursue them there, and the narrator relates one atrocity wreaked upon these faithful believers.

Surrounded by the enemy on the Sabbath, the day of rest, the Jews decide against fighting. “So they [the Seleucids] attacked them on the sabbath,” says the narrator, “and they died, with their wives and children and livestock, to the number of a thousand people.” It was a massacre of unarmed noncombatants.

Mattathias and his band mourn the deaths and make a decision to resist, even on the Sabbath. “Let us fight against anyone who comes to attack us on the sabbath day,” they say; “let us not all die as our kindred died in their hiding-places.” And the enemy soon feels the result of their determination.

Resistors and refugees pour into the ranks of Mattathias’ ragtag army, known as the hasidim or “pious.” Facing extermination, the insurgents rally and begin turning the tide. They tear down altars and put their foes to flight. “They hunted down the arrogant,” says the narrator, “and the work prospered in their hands. They rescued the law out of the hands of the Gentiles and kings, and they never let the sinner gain the upper hand.”

But nothing lasts forever.

Passing the Torch

The narrator presents us with a direct comparison between Alexander the Great and Mattathias. Both leaders, both the soldiers. But whereas Alexander the Great was arrogant, Mattathias was zealous for the Torah. Alexander elevated himself above all constraints; Mattathias subjected himself to the constraints of the covenant.

As it says in chapter 1, Alexander’s “heart was lifted up.” Meanwhile, Mattathias lived under the law—that is, until he died. Says the narrator, placing this contrast between arrogance and zeal front and center,

Now the days drew near for Mattathias to die, and he said to his sons: “Arrogance and scorn have now become strong; it is a time of ruin and furious anger. Now, my children, show zeal for the law, and give your lives for the covenant of our ancestors.”

Mattathias then runs down a litany of those ancestors. Christians will notice the resemblance with the so-called Faith Hall of Fame from the Letter to the Hebrews (chapter 11) or Sirach’s lengthy passage following his well-known phrase, “Now let us praise famous men” (44.1). Other comparisons present themselves as well. As Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible points out, “Similar speeches are credited to famous Israelites like Jacob (Genesis 49), Moses (Deuteronomy 33), and Samuel (1 Samuel 12).” 

Many Old Testament favorites get billing in the passage: Abraham, Joseph, Joshua, Caleb, David, Elijah, and the three youths, Hananiah, Azariah, and Mishael. Interestingly, Daniel is mentioned specifically because of his innocence, but also because God delivered Daniel, not he himself. Mattathias knows they won’t win on their own steam. They need God’s deliverance.

Another interesting inclusion is Phinehas. Why? Not only for his zeal, but also because “he . . . received the covenant of everlasting priesthood.” Recall that Mattathias was from a priestly family. The narrator is building a subtle—or maybe not so subtle—argument here, which we’ll see developed later in the book.

“My children,” Mattathias says as he prepares to die, “be courageous and grow strong in the law, for by it you will gain honor.” He then entrusts his son Simeon to lead and gives command of the army to Judas “the Hammer.” He concludes, “You shall rally around you all who observe the law, and avenge the wrong done to your people. Pay back the Gentiles in full, and obey the commands of the law.”

“All Israel mourned” his passing, the narrator tells us. But of course the narrator is just getting started. Next week, we’ll dive headfirst into the military adventures and victories of Judas.

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John R. Bartlett, 1 Maccabees (Sheffield Academic, 1998). 
David A. deSilva, Introducing the Apocrypha (Baker Academic, 2018).
James D. G. Dunn and John W. Rogerson, eds., Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible (Eerdmans, 2003).
Daniel J. Harrington, First and Second Maccabees (Liturgical Press, 2012).
Brandon W. Hawk, Apocrypha for Beginners (Rockridge Press, 2021).
Leander E. Keck, ed., New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary Vol. 6 (Abingdon, 2015).
Jonathan Klawans and Lawrence M. Wills, eds., The Jewish Annotated Apocrypha (Oxford University Press, 2020).
Doron Mendels, “1 Maccabees,” in The Oxford Handbook of the Apocrypha, ed. Gerbern S. Oegema (Oxford University Press, 2021).
Bruce Metzger, An Introduction to the Apocrypha (Oxford University Press, 1977).
Navarre Bible: Chronicles–Maccabees (Scepter Publishers, 2003).
Mark Russell, Apocrypha Now! (Top Shelf Productions, 2016).
Jason A. Staples, The Idea of Israel (Cambridge University Press, 2021).