1 and 2 Maccabees are set during the reign of the Seleucid Greek empire (the part of the Greek empire that found its roots in Syria). It tells the story of how the Greek ruler Antiochus IV Epiphanes attempted to suppress Temple worship and to destroy the practice of Jewish law. This caused the Maccabean revolt, led by Mattathias and his sons. As a part of the revolt, the Temple was freed from the control of the Greek empire and rededicated (an act that is still commemorated yearly in the festival of Hanukkah). The Maccabees then ruled over Israel, first as High Priests and then as High Priests and Princes of Israel.
1 Maccabees follows this story until the death of Simon (the third son of Mattathias to rule over Israel) at the hands of the some Egyptian Greeks (from about 175-134 bc).
2 Maccabees recaps some of the story (until the events of 161 bc) and adds in details about God’s intervention into the events reports.
62 Do not fear the words of sinners, for their splendour will turn into dung and worms. 63 Today they will be exalted, but tomorrow they will not be found, because they will have returned to the dust, and their plans will have perished. 64 My children, be courageous and grow strong in the law, for by it you will gain honour. (1 Maccabees 2.62-64)
Nothing is known about the author of 1 Maccabees other than that the attention to detail and knowledge of events suggests that he was an eye witness or had access to eyewitness accounts. A supporter of the Hasmonean dynasty. It is probably a Greek translation of a Hebrew account of Israel's independence struggle between 174 and 134 bc.
Similarly little is known about the author of 2 Maccabees, although it is clear that he was not the same person as the author of 1 Maccabees. He claims to have used and condensed a five-volume work by someone called Jason of Cyrene (which no longer exists) and appears to have introduced theological reflections onto the events as he went.
Although 1 Maccabees was originally written in Hebrew (some you can tell from the sentence structure) it exists now only in Greek. It was probably written sometime in the second century bc, in other words very shortly after the events it described.
2 Maccabees is harder to date but many scholars locate it in the early first century bc.
The big question from this period is the question of self-definition. What did it mean to be Jewish in a predominantly Greek culture? 1 and 2 Maccabees reflect on this question in slightly different ways.
1 Maccabees is a historical book, concerned to relay the events of the period as closely as possible.
2 Maccabees falls more into theological history, in other words the attempt to reflect on God’s role in the events described. It gives detailed accounts of the Maccabean revolt led by Judas Maccabeus, as well as the martyrdoms of Eleazar and seven brothers.
It promotes commitment to God’s covenant as the path to prosperity, and the doctrine of the resurrection of the body. Hope for life beyond death enabled the people of God to commit their lives fully to the God who had called them, even when this seemed of no benefit in worldly terms.
1.1–2.70 The rise of Antiochus IV Epiphanes and subsequent crisis
3.1–9.22 The leadership of Judas Maccabeus in the revolt against the Greeks
9.23–12.53 The leadership of Jonathan (Judas’ brother)
13.1–16.24 The leadership and subsequent assignation of Simon (also a brother of Judas)
1.1–2.32 Letters from Jews in Jerusalem to those in Egypt
3.1–6.31 The conquest of Jerusalem by Antiochus IV Epiphanes
7.1-42 The torture and murder of seven brothers and their mother
8.1–9.29 The victory of Judas Maccabeus over the Greeks
10.1-38 The purification of the Temple
11.1–15.39 Ongoing conflict and the eventual victory of Judas
1 and 2 Maccabees tell the same story in two different ways. Look out for the similarities and differences between the two.
These two books tell you a lot about Jewish self-definition in the second and first century bc. Look out for what you might learn about the Judaism of the period from the story.
1 and 2 Maccabees are stories that reflect on oppression and resistance. Reflect on whether you think that Mattathias and his sons were right to rebel against their Greek oppressors.
We are challenged about how we should behave towards our ‘enemies’ and how we should act as God’s agents, wherever we live in the world.