My Understanding of 2 Maccabees

Unlike 1 Maccabeees, 2 Maccabees does not attempt to provide a complete account of all the events of the second century BCE. 2 Maccabees covers only about twenty years, from the high priest Onias III and King Seleucus IV, around 180 BCE, to the defeat of Nicanor in 161 BCE. In general, the chronology of the book coheres with that of 1 Maccabees. However, it does not show any dependence on 1 Maccabees, or vice versa. Thus it has some historical value in supplementing 1 Maccabees, principally in providing a few apparent historical documents. This biblical author seems primarily interested in providing a theological interpretation of the events that led up to the independence of Jerusalem. God’s interventions direct the course of the events, punishing the wicked and restoring the Tempel to his people. Some of the numbers cited for the sizes of the armies appear to be exaggerated, but that was common throughout all the biblical works.

Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians regard 2 Maccabees as a canonical Biblical work because it was in the Septuagint. 2 Maccabees, along with 1 and 3 Maccabees, appeared in this Greek Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Bible completed in the 1st century BCE.  Jewish people and the 16th century Christian Reformers do not have this work in their Bible because it was not in the Hebrew Bible.

The Greek style of the writer is erudite, since he seems well-informed about Greek customs. The author of 2 Maccabees was not identified, but he claimed to be abridging a 5-volume work by Jason of Cyrein. This longer work has not been preserved. It is uncertain how much of the present text of 2 Maccabees is simply copied from that work. This Jewish author wrote in Greek, as there is no particular evidence of an earlier Hebrew version. A few sections of this book, such as the Preface, Epilogue, and some reflections on morality are generally assumed to come from the author, not from Jason. Jason’s work was apparently written sometime around 100 BCE and most likely ended with the defeat of Nicanor. However, that work is not available to us.

The action follows a very simple plan. After the death of King Antichous IV Epiphanes,  the feast of the Dedication of the Temple was instituted. The newly dedicated Temple was threatened by Governor and General Nicanor. After his death, the festivities for the dedication came to be a special day dedicated to commemorate the Jewish victory. Each year this feast was to be celebrated two days before “Mordecai Day” that came from the Book of Esther called Purim.

The beginning of this book includes two letters sent by the Jews in Jerusalem to the Jews of the Diaspora in Egypt concerning the feast day to celebrate the purification of the Temple and the feast to celebrate the defeat of Nicanor. If the author of the book inserted these letters, the book would have to have been written after 124 BCE, the date of the second letter. Some commentators hold that these letters were a later addition, while others consider them the basis for the work. Some scholars tend toward dating this in the last years of the 2nd century BCE, while the consensus among Jewish scholars place it in the second half of the 1st century BCE, so that somewhere between 104-63 BCE seems acceptable.

The first letter greeted and blessed the Jews in Egypt as they explained their situation in Jerusalem. The second letter, which was probably the first sent, addressed the Jews of Egypt also. They gave thanksgiving for the punishment that King Antiochus IV suffered with his death. They wanted a festival of fire as there was a stress on the importance of fire, including a prayer to God over the fire. Somehow naphtha had become sacred. The Jerusalem Jews reminded the Egyptian Jews of the admonition of the prophet Jeremiah and how he had hidden religious cult materials. This letter pointed out the importance of fire to Moses and Solomon, as well as the library of Nehemiah. They were inviting the Egyptian Jews to celebrate this dedication festival.

This biblical author had a preface to his story about Judas Maccabeus. This was only about Judas Maccabeus, not about all his father and brothers as in 1 Maccabees. He maintained that he was presenting a condensed story of a larger work. He considered that the role of a historian was to tell a story. In the epilogue he even used the first person “I” which was rare, while here he used the plural first person, “we.”

This author talked about the good old days before Simon went to Apollonius of Tarsus. Thus Heliodorus came to Jerusalem to inspect the situation and usage of the Temple funds. This distressed the priests in Jerusalem and the women of Jerusalem. However, the divine punishment of Heliodorus left him nearly dead. There was a prayer of thanksgiving, as the high priest Onias prayed for the life of Heliodorus, who then had a conversion.

There was more intrigue between Simon and the high priest Onias as Jason, the high priest took over. He sent representatives to the king at the Olympics in Tyre. King Antiochus IV was welcomed at Jerusalem as Menelaus became the high priest. The murder of the high priest Onias also led to the death of Andronicus. Lysimachus was convicted and killed, while Menelaus was acquitted of this murder.

There was some kind of apparition over Jerusalem. Then the deposed high priest Jason led an unsuccessful uprising. At that point, King Antiochus IV despoiled the Temple. King Antiochus IV thought that he was on top of the world as he set up governors to rule the various provinces. There was a second attack on Jerusalem, but Judas Maccabeus escaped.

This time King Antiochus IV introduced the Greek god Zeus into Jerusalem as the gentiles were in charge of the Jewish Temple. They installed the various pagan cults. They punished those who were circumcising and the keeping the Sabbath. God seemed to allow this persecution because of the sins of the people of Jerusalem.

However, there were a few people who refused to eat the unclean swine food. The old man Eleazar was urged to eat this unclean meat or at least pretend to do so. He replied that he could not even give a hint that he was worshiping false gods. He then gave an inspirational speech that also turned out to be his last words before he was killed.

The more interesting story is the mother with her seven sons who refused to eat unclean meat and worship Zeus or the other gods. All of them were arrested. First the king mutilated and killed the spokesman for theses seven sons. Then one after another, they mutilated and killed each one of the sons, but not before each one was able to give a last minute testimony to their faith in the God of Israel. Finally the mother of the seven was also killed after encouraging her sons to stand up to the wicked men of the king.

In particular, the long descriptions of the martyrdoms of Eleazar and of a mother with her seven sons caught the imagination of medieval Christians. Several churches were dedicated to these Maccabeean martyrs. They were among the few pre-Christian figures to appear in the Roman Catholic calendar of saints’ days. This section of the book of 1 Maccabees was considered a model for the medieval stories about martyrs and saints.

Then Judas Maccabeus with his men took center stage. They prayed to God as they created an army to fight against the Jewish persecution. King Antiochus IV had decided to wipe out the Jews. However, Judas Maccabeus heard about the invasion and rallied his troops. He told them to remember their ancestors and how God had helped them. Then he divided his army into four with each one of his brothers in charge of a quarter of the troops.

This army of Judas Maccabeus was extremely successful against the armies of Nicanor, Timothy, and Bacchides. Nicanor fled to Antioch like a runaway slave. When King Antiochus IV heard about this news, he was very angry. He wanted to wipe out the Jews. However, he was struck with a cruel painful illness. Then he accepted God and reversed his position about the Jews. King Antiochus IV sent a letter to the Jews where he appointed his son King Antiochus V as his successor before he died. Judas Maccabeus, in the meantime, set about to purify the Temple. When he had completed the job two years after its desecration, there was a big celebration in Jerusalem.

King Antiochus V, known as the Eupator was only nine years old when he took over as king. Meanwhile a man named Ptolemy who had been kind to the Jews took poison to kill himself after he was accused of being a traitor. After this disgrace, Gorgias succeeded Ptolemy. Judas Maccabeus had a war with the southern Idumeans also. However, some of the forces of his brother Simon took bribes to let several of the enemy people get away. Judas Maccabeus then prayed for success against Timothy since he had always relied on the Lord. Heavenly horsemen came to help him bring about the death of Timothy.

Then he began the campaign against Lysias, who was the guardian of the young King Antiochus V in charge of the government. Once again there was a divine intervention at Beth-zur. Finally there was a peace treaty with Lysias, who sent a letter to the Jews. King Antiochus V then sent letters to Lysias and to the Jewish senate. Finally there was a letter of the Romans to the Jews confirming this peace treaty.

The Jews had other problems. The people at Joppa drowned some Jews so that Judas Maccabeus attacked both Joppa and Jamnia along the seacoast. Then he had a run in with some nomads which led to the attack of Judas Maccabeus on Caspin. There was a battle at Carnaim with the guileful Timothy, who got away. Judas Maccabeus then took the temple at Carnaim and had a battle at Ephron. However, there was a happy visit to Scythopolis, where the Jews were treated well.

The campaign against Gorgias led to his defeat. Judas Maccabeus and his troops kept the Sabbath at Adullam. After a battle, they found out that all the dead Jewish soldiers were idolaters wearing token idols. However, Judas and his troops made a sacrifice for the dead in the hope of their resurrection.

King Antiochus V and Lysias with their army again came after Judas Maccabeus. However, they realized that part of the cause of the problem was the high priest Menelaus, so that he was killed. Judas Maccabeus asked for prayers before God’s victory at Modein. Once again, King Antiochus V attacked the Jews. However, they came to a stand-off so that they had a strange peace treaty with Lysias who defended this peace treaty in Ptolemais.

Then King Demetrius I showed up as the king since he was the uncle of King Antiochus V. He eliminated his nephew. The high priest Alcimus gave a speech before King Demetrius I. The king then made Nicanor the governor of Judea. There was a battle with Nicanor and Judas Maccabeus that came to a standstill. Nicanor sent friendly emissaries so that they ended up with a peace treaty again. After the consultation of Judas Maccabeus and Nicanor, they became friends. Then Alcimus claimed that Nicanor was disloyal to the king that led to the split between Nicanor and Judas Maccabeus.

The priests in Jerusalem prayed that the temple would be safe. Then there was the strange tragic suicide death of Razis. Nicanor planned to attack Judas Maccabeus who also prepared to attack also. Judas had a dream about Onias the high priest and Jeremiah the prophet. The people and Judas Maccabeus made final preparations for the battle. The prayer of Judas Maccabeus asked for God to send an angel of God to protect him. They were successful as Nicanor died. They cut off his head, his arm, and his tongue at a big celebration in Jerusalem. This victory celebration was to be commemorated yearly near the time of Purim. So the story ended at this point.

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