On Chanuka We Ask: What is the difference between first and second Maccabees?

For Chanuka I reread the two books of the Maccabees. Here are my notes. For those of you studying ancient Jewish history, this might be useful. Enjoy.

What is the difference between first and second Maccabees?

Form, Focus & Fight. Beginning with I Mac: The book begins with Alexander the Great and ends with the death of Simon and the ascension of John Hyrcanus. It’s years of focus are 170 to 134 BCE. It’s style (Form) is reminiscent of biblical history or Deuteronomic history. The author’s main concern (Focus) is the legitimacy and greatness of the Hasmonean dynasty. In the text, the central battle (fight) is between law abiding Jews and Antiochus IV, as opposed to a battle between traditional Jews and hellenized Jews.

Let me unpack these statements. What do I mean by the style of the text resembling Deuteronomic history? Sparing style, poetic interjections and formulaic phrases. On the latter point, after the Macs are victorious, we read that the “land rested” for an amount of time (Judges), or after Judah dies the lament over his death recalls David’s lament for Saul and Jonathan, his title ‘savior of Israel is reminiscent of Judges, and the concluding reference to “the rest of the acts of Judah” copies a formula of the book of kings. That formula is also copied concerning the rest of the acts of John Hyrcanus at the end of Mac I.

What do I mean by the author main focus is on the legitimacy and greatness of the Hasmonean dynasty? Let’s begin with greatness. The author of I Mac describes the family as the chosen family for the salvation of Israel: When other Jews attempt to rest control of the rebellion they fail to do so due to the fact that they “did not belong to the family of those men through whom deliverance was given to Israel” [5:62] The Hasmonean choseness is expressed through their improbable victories in the battle field and their ushering a massianic-like era of independence and prosperity.

The issue of legitimacy is an interesting one. The author gives the family legitimacy in the following ways:

1) Their priestly linage is stressed at the outset of the narrative with the introduction to Mattathias. In addition, Mattathias’ zeal is compared to that Phineas – it’s recalled the Phineas killed Zimiri when he brought a non-Jew into the community and was rewarded by God with perpetual priesthood. The author(s) is therefore saying that just like Phineas, Mattathias needs to be rewarded for his zeal with the line of High Priesthood.

2) Throughout the narrative the Hasmonean are portrayed as followers of the Law. In the words of Mattathias: “Even if all the nations that live under the rule of the king obey him….I and my son and my brothers will live by the covenant of our fathers. Far be it from us to desert the law and the ordinances.” An example of this is when Judah was preparing his soldiers for battle he gave, following the laws of Moses (see Deut 20:5-8), those who were building a house, planting a garden, betrothed, or faint hearted a chance to go home. The author is stressing this even though it would seem from a military perspective something completely disadvantageous. When you are a small army facing an insurmountable foe, how can you afford to let your men go home? Yet the point is that it is exactly because Judah followed the law that his small army was able to defeat the big and professional Syrian enemy. At the same time we also need to point out that when necessity dictated it, the author of the I Mac let us know that the Hasmonean were ready to compromise on Jewish law in order to save the Law and the people (see example of Sabbath observance.)

3) The Hasmonean family is granted authority from both secular powers and the people at large. Ever since the erection of the second Temple, it was traditional for the High Priest to be appointed by gentile powers. If I recall correctly, Jonathan is first appointed High Priest by Alexander Balas, and Simon is appointed high priest by ?//? and recognized as such by the people.[14:35-43]

4) Their success as proof of their legitimacy.

Finally, what do I mean by that the central battle in Mac I is between law abiding Jews and Antiochus IV, as opposed to a battle between traditional Jews and hellenized Jews? While I Mac mentions those “Certain renegades” who got permission from the king to follow the gentile way of life, built a gymnasium, and uncircumcised themselves, the text does not pay a lot of attention to these people. Their beef is with Antiochus and his outlawing of Judaism and desecration of the Temple. Mac II seems to focus on the conflict of Hellenism a lot more. (This needs to be thought out more.)

In short, these are the three main unique characteristics of I Mac; a focus on the greatness and legitimacy of the Hasmonean dynasty; framing the conflict as that between Judaism and Antiochus’ persecutions; and a style reminiscent of deuteronomic history.

Turning to Mac II. The book turns its attention to the events from 175 to 161 BCE. Its Form is more emotional and lively. Its Focus is with piety and the Temple. Its Fight is that between Hellenism and Judaism. Additional characteristics include: martyrology, resurrection of the dead and supernaturalism.

Lets unpack these statements. The structure of the book is as follows: Events leading to the persecutions; the persecutions; Revolt down to victory over Nicanor in 161 BCE. In this version of the story Judah is alive and his brothers are not mentioned as rulers. Moreover, his father Mattathias is not mention at all. The story of the revolt is seen as a success story.

The style of writing, in contrast to I Mac, is lively and evokes the emotions. The author is telling us about courageous acts of faith and gruesome acts of murder, in order to bring out an emotive response from us.

The focus is on piety and the Temple. This is important. While I Mac turned its attention on the election of the Hasmonian dynasty, II mac concentrates on piety of individuals and the Temple. Piety: The issue of piety is there from the beginning. First, we have the High Priest. When Onias III was in power we learn that it was a period of unbroken piece. The reason for this is that he was a pious man. When Jason takes his place and when Menalus takes his place then things fall apart for the Jews. Second, we have the martyrs. Their piety seems to bring an end to God wrath. Finally, we have Judah. Throughout the text, Judah is portrayed as a God fearing man. Temple: The temple is a clear sacred place. It is protected by God against intruders (Heliodorus episode). It is the main focus of the revolt and its rededication (Hanukah) is turned into an official festival.

The author of II Mac sees the main conflict as that between Hellenism (a word he seems to have coined) and Judaism. Unlike I Mac, where the issue of the “lawless” Jews is quickly skimmed over, II Mac spend a lot of attention on Jason’s reforms. According to the view point of the author, it is because of these reforms that Jews ended up being persecuted by God using Antiochus as His agent). In the words of the author:

“There was such an extreme of Hellenization and increase in the adoption of foreign ways because of the surpassing wickedness of Jason, who was ungodly and no high priest, that the priests were no longer intent upon their service at the altar. Despising the sanctuary and neglecting the sacrifices, they hastened to take part in the unlawful proceeding in the wrestling arena after the call to discus, disdaining the honors prized by their fathers and putting the highest value upon Greek form of prestige. For this reason heavy disaster overtook them, and those whose ways of living they admired and wanted to imitate completely became their enemies and punished them.” 4:1-16.

It is interesting to note that no opposition to Jason’s reform is actually cited in the text.

Question to consider: According to II Mac what were Jason reforms? How does I mac portray those reforms?

Other defining characteristic include the Martyrs, resurrection of the dead, and supernaturalism. There are two accounts of martyrdom. The first is that of old-man Elezar and the second is that of the mother and her seven sons. For them there is no compromise on Jewish law. It is not that I Mac did not have martyrs, remember the the pious Jews who refused to fight on the sabbath, it is just that this text emphasis them and imbues them with significance. The martyred sons speak of resurrection of the dead. Yet their is no mention of soul. They say that their bodies would be resurrected in the after life. The author also attributes to Judah the belief in the resurrection of the dead. When Judah makes an offering on behalf of his fallen soliders, the author mention that he did so because he wanted them to be resurrected. Finally the supernatural or the miracles. Heliodorus is attacked by an apparition in the Temple, and Judah army is aided in battle by five angels. In I mac, while governed by God, the events are the fruit of human action.


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