15 Aug 2011

Book of First Maccabees: God’s Family of Deliverance

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Apocrypha, Bible, Jewish Backgrounds, King James Version

I continue in this post with our journey through the Ancestry of the King James Version with a look at another of those books in its table of contents that never appeared in a New American Standard or NIV. I hope you enjoy it.

First Maccabees recounts how those doughty defenders of God’s People, Mattathias and his five sons, delivered Israel from Antiochus IV and the “renegade Jews” resulting in political freedom for Israel first time in four centuries. The author, whose name has not been preserved, gives us with a carefully crafted history showing Judas and his brothers to be the divinely appointed agents of salvation for Israel. The ideology of 1 Maccabees would shape Jewish nationalism and messianic hopes for the next three centuries and has tremendous value in understanding the hope of Israel in the time of Jesus. The love and respect for Judas is seen when he passes in these words, “How the mighty is fallen, the savior of Israel!”

Introductory Matters

First Maccabees was written shortly after 134 BC in the Hebrew language. The book, however, survives in Greek, Syriac, Old Latin, Vulgate and Armenian translations. The early church father, Origen, seems to have known the book in its Hebrew version (cf. Eusebius, Ecclesiastical Histories, 6.25) but was known as “The Book of the House of the Hasmoneans” or “The Book of the House of the Princes of God.”

The story of 1 Maccabees divides neatly into three main parts: The Crises and Mattathias response to it (1.1-2.70), the exploits of Judas (3.1-9.22), and the exploits of Jonathan and Simon (9.23-12.53; 13.1-16.24).

Luther on First Maccabees

We have seen that Luther, though rejecting the canonical status of Apocryphal books, held most of these books in very high regard. Likewise, 1 Maccabees was a great book in Luther’s eyes. He translated the book for his German Bible in 1533, here are a few words from his Preface to the First Book of Maccabees:

This is another book not to be found in the Hebrew Bible. Yet its words and speech adhere to the same style as the other books of sacred scripture. This book would not have been unworthy of a place among them, because it is very necessary and helpful for an understanding of chapter 11 of the prophet Daniel. For the fulfillment of Daniel’s prophecy in the chapter, about the abomination and misfortune which was going to befall the people of Israel, is here described – namely, Antiochus Epiphanes – and in much the same way that Daniel [11.29-35] speaks of it . . . This [among other reasons] is why the book is good for us Christians to read and to know. (Luther’s Works, vol. 35,pp. 350-352).

The massive Selucid Empire. Palestine is the bridge between the Ptolemy’s and Selucids.

The Crises of the Maccabees

The “crises” of Maccabees was that of Hellenization. God’s People had existed peacefully under other Greek rulers like Alexander and the Ptolemies of Egypt. However, there arose a “sinful root” (1.10) known in 1 Maccabees as Antiochus Epiphanes the ruler of the Seleucid Empire. As the author of 1 Maccabees makes clear the problem is not only Antiochus but renegade Jews who wish to undermine the law of God:

In those days lawless men came forth from Israel, and misled many saying, ‘Let us go and make a covenant with the Gentiles round about us, for since we separated from them many evils have come upon us.’ This proposal pleased them, and some of the people eagerly went to the king. He authorized them to observe the ordinances of the Gentiles. So they built a gymnasium in Jerusalem, according to Gentile custom, and removed the marks of circumcision, and abandoned the holy covenant. They joined with the Gentiles and sold themselves to do evil (1.11-15, RSV).

Soon things went from bad to worse. Antiochus invaded Egypt defeating their armies and for good measure decided to “enter the sanctuary” and loot the temple (1.21-24). He soon stationed troops in the city and began a zealous program of converting the Jews to enlightened paganism. He demanded that “alters and sacred precincts and shrines for idols, to sacrifice swine and unclean animals and to leave their sons uncircumcised” (1.47-48). The Torah was confiscated and burned. In a very moving passage we read about the courageous faith of certain Jewish women,

According to the decree, they put to death the women who had their children circumcised, and their families and those who circumcised them; and they hung the infants from their mothers’ necks. But many in Israel stood firm and were resolved in their hearts not to eat unclean food. They chose to die rather than be defiled by food or to profane the holy covenant; and they did die. And very great wrath came upon Israel (1.60-64).

The Maccabaean Response

The revolt against the Seleucid king began in a small town named Modein. The king’s representative set up an alter and called the people to come and sacrifice on it. Mattathias’ was encouraged to take the lead in this activity but refused.

Even if all the nations that live under the rule of the king obey him, and have chosen to obey his commandments, everyone of them abandoning the religion of their ancestors, I and my sons and my brothers will continue to live by the covenant of our ancestors (2.19b-20).

However, when a “lawless” Jew stepped forward to comply, Mattathias killed him and the king’s men. The author explicitly links the “burning” zeal of Mattathias to that of Phinehas (2.26, cf. Numbers 25.6-15). Mattathias soon dies and leadership passes to his son Judas.

One of the moving testimonies to the faith of Judas comes in chapter 3 when he has to face the massively superior force of Seron, commander of the Seleucid army. His men are faint with fear. Judas exhorts his troops with a faith building speech,

It is easy for many to be hemmed in by few, for in the sight of Heaven there is no difference between saving by many or by few. It is not on the size of the army that victory depends, but strength comes from Heaven. They come against us in great insolence and lawlessness to destroy us and our wives and our children, and to despoil us; but we fight for our lives and our laws. He himself will crush them before us; as for you, do not be afraid of them. (3.18-22).

The “Abomination of Desolation”

One of the major issues in 1 Maccabees relates to Daniel 11.31. Following the decree of Antiochus a series of provocative acts were made against the faith of Israel: the desecration of the alter of burnt offering outside the temple; the building of alters through-out Judea; the destruction of the books of Torah; and finally, the ultimate, the offering of illegal sacrifice “on the alter which was upon the alter of burnt offering (1.54-59). The dates of the 15th and 25th of Kislev in 168 B.C. are clearly remembered as the ultimate sacrilege.

First Maccabees speaks of the erection of a bdelugma eremoseos, a “desolating sacrilege” or “abomination of desolation” upon the alter of burnt offering (cf. Daniel 11.31 and a variants of the phrase in 8.13; 9.27; 12.11). This phrase is picked up in the New Testament in Mark 13.14 and Matthew 24.15. The question is what does the phrase mean to our author? Most scholars think it refers to a derogatory parody of the Syrian god, Ba’al Samen (“Lord of Heaven”). This god of heaven is then related to Zeus Olympios (cf. 2 Macc. 6.1) in whose name the temple was rededicated. Thus Antiochus wants the Jews to worship an alternative god with unclean sacrifices (for more details see John R. Bartlett, 1 Maccabees in the Guides to Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha Series, pp. 64-65).

First Maccabees in the King James Version

Influence of 1 Maccabees

First Maccabees is an invaluable work for understanding the social situation of Jesus and his early disciples. The Maccabees shaped the political ideology that would fuel messianic movements in Judaism for centuries. The beliefs that God would grant victories in the face of overwhelming odds would motivate all would be liberators of Israel in the Roman period.

The model of a military messiah comes shining through the pages of the NT. For example John and James are portrayed as regarding their association with Jesus as a chance to gain temporal power after a revolution (Mark 10.35-45). The messiah figure of Judas Maccabeus certainly is in their minds. In the trial of Jesus, the Jewish and Roman accusers assume a connection between messianic claims and political subversion. In Acts 1.6 the disciples are still searching for a (seemingly) political restoration of the kingdom of Israel.

First Maccabees equates “zeal for the law” with violent action against renegade or apostate Jews (as well as Gentiles). This notion permeates the Zealots and Sicarii assaults on Jewish collaborators, and it also sheds considerable light on Paul’s own zeal to destroy those whom he imagined to be apostates.

The continuing influence of 1 Maccabees is seen in the celebration of Hanukkah (See Jesus the Jew and Hanukkah). The rabbis were quite familiar with the story of Maccabees and we have seen that Josephus used 1 Maccabees 1-13 in writing his history of the Jews. The book enjoyed popularity in the early church as well. But as we will see 2 Maccabees left a larger impression because of its glorification of martyrdom. The Hebrew Preacher lauds the Maccabees in his Hall of Fame of Faith (See Jewish Traditions in Hebrews 11).

2 Responses to “Book of First Maccabees: God’s Family of Deliverance”

  1. Randall Says:

    Thanks Bobby. I’m looking forward to part II.
    Hesed,
    Randall

  2. preacherman Says:

    Makes we want to go back and read this book again. Thanks.

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