The Second Book of Maccabees is not a continuation of the First Book of Maccabees, but a completely independent work. It covers some of the same material as 1 Maccabees, but in a very different fashion. The story starts during the reign of Seleucus IV Philopator (187–175 bce) and ends with the defeat of Nicanor in 161 bce, providing much more detail than 1 Maccabees does about the parties and factions in Jerusalem prior to the persecution by Antiochus VI Epiphanes. The letters preserved in 2 Maccabees 11 are particularly important in reconstructing the events of this period. The book has a formal prologue and epilogue and is structured around three attacks on the Jerusalem Temple: (1) by Heliodorus under Seleucus IV (3:1–39); (2) under Antiochus IV Epiphanes (3:40–10:8); and (3) the final assault by Nicanor under Demetrius I (10:9–15:37).

Style. In contrast to 1 Maccabees, which was originally written in Hebrew and then translated into Greek, the bulk of 2 Maccabees (2:19–15:39, often referred to as the epitome) was written in the typical Greek style of the day. The prologue evidences knowledge of Hellenistic historiographical conventions, as do the reflections that the author (commonly called the epitomist) inserts into the narrative at 4:16–17; 5:17–20; 6:12–17. The narrative reveals an author who loves to indulge in metaphors and word play. The author also strives to heighten the emotional effect of the narrative on his readers or listeners, as in the scene of distress at Heliodorus’s approach to the Temple (3:15–22), the attention given to the mother and her seven sons (chap. 7), the emotional turnaround of Antiochus IV (chap. 9), and the distress of the priests at the insults of Nicanor (14:13–36). This emotional heightening is helped by the author’s focusing on individual confrontations—Heliodorus and the high priest, and Nicanor and Judas in the first battle (chap. 8).

The narrative also abounds in tales of the miraculous, as in the graphic descriptions of the epiphanies of God’s deliverance of the people at 3:24–28; 5:2–4; 10:29–30; 11:8–11. The presentation of these angelic helpers parallels the stories about divine helpers that one finds in Greco-Roman literature and is further evidence of the author’s acquaintance with Greek literature. One could argue, in fact, that the narrative of the epitome falls within the Greek literary genre of epiphanic collections, which tell of the way a god defends his or her temple.

Worldview. While the narrative shows the influence of Greco-Roman literary conventions, the author has used these conventions to portray a confrontation between Judaism (2:21; 8:1; 14:38) and Hellenism (4:13). As far as we know, this is the first appearance of the term "Judaism." For this author, the Jews are the civilized norm, whereas the Greeks are barbarians (2:21; 10:4). The Jewish scribe Eleazar, and not his opponents, is the one who acts nobly (6:18–31). This attitude of separation of Jews from non-Jews is particularly evident in the author’s discussion of the gymnasium in Jerusalem. For him, this change in educational system symbolizes the destruction of the Jewish ancestral religion, and he is particularly violent toward Jews participating in the gymnasium.

Although the author stresses that it is always non-Jews who instigate troubles against the Jews, who only defend themselves and their ancestral religion (10:12–14; 12:1–2), he goes out of his way to show that Jews and Gentiles can get along harmoniously. Non-Jews protest the execution of Onias (4:35) and the members of the Jewish council (4:49); the people of Scythopolis treat the Jews kindly during bad times (12:30–31). Even Antiochus IV claims that the Jews are good citizens and asks them to maintain their goodwill toward him and his son and heir (9:19–20, 26). Alcimus accuses the Jews under Judas of not being loyal citizens (14:6–10), but events prove him wrong as Judas makes an agreement with Nicanor and settles down to married life (14:20–25). What is striking about this narrative, in fact, is that the Jews are not portrayed as seeking to set up an independent realm. Rather, the story ends with the Jews able to celebrate their religion in peace, not with political independence. Judas seems quite happy to live a settled life under the Seleucids. This is in sharp contrast to the outlook of the author of 1 Maccabees, who views all Seleucids with suspicion.

The theology of the author has a distinctly deuteronomistic flavor about it. As long as the Jews obey the laws, God keeps them in peace, and they flourish. When they disobey, punishment comes (3:1; 4:16–17; 6:12–17). The author, therefore, shows Judas and his followers as strict observers of the sabbath (8:27) and other festivals (12:31) and links the Festival of Hanukkah to the older Feast of Tabernacles (10:6). The author is a strong believer in punishment fitting the crime, as seen in the fates of Jason and Menelaus, in the execution of Andronicus on the same spot where he had killed Onias (4:38), in the dismemberment of Nicanor (15:32–33), and in the providential care of God, who restores temple worship on the anniversary of the day that it had been profaned (10:5–6).

Date. The epitome of 2 Maccabees (2:19–15:39) is a shortened version of a no longer extant five-volume work by Jason of Cyrene. Scholars have speculated on how to reconstruct Jason’s work and when he might have written it. At present, no sure answers to these questions can be given because all we have is the work of the epitomist. Scholars have also tried to reconstruct a "life of Judas" from the events common to both 1 and 2 Maccabees. One can certainly plot out from both books a sequence of battles in which Judas had engaged. But each book has its distinctive way of describing events. The fact that one account is a Greek translation of an original Hebrew text, whereas the other was written originally in Greek, is further reason to make one feel less than sanguine that any source document, in a meaningful sense of the term, can be recovered.

Who, then, was the epitomist of 2 Maccabees, and when and where did he write? We have even fewer clues to go on than with 1 Maccabees. Dates range from the second century bce to the first century ce. Perhaps, since the text shows a friendly attitude toward the Romans, it might have been written before Pompey’s entry into Jerusalem in 63 bce. Momigliano has suggested that the epitome was written to accompany the first prefixed letter; therefore, the epitome would have been written in 124 bce. Yet, although one can make connections between the prefixed letters and the epitome, the author of the epitome makes no mention in his prologue that he was writing it to accompany a letter.

If there are no indications as to the date of the epitome, can one then suggest where it might have been written? Scholars have suggested, because it was written in Greek, that it must have come out of the diaspora, possibly from Alexandria, (given the great deal of literary activity by Jews there) or Antioch (since the Maccabean martyrs were celebrated there). The author’s knowledge of events affecting Jews in Babylonia (8:20) and the author’s polemic against Jews attending a gymnasium lend support to such a theory. Later inscriptional evidence from Cyrene shows that Jews did attend the gymnasium there. Therefore, one might conclude that the work was written by someone in the diaspora who was concerned that young Jewish men were beginning to attend the local gymnasium. The author wanted to write against that practice and yet still insist that Jews can be good and loyal residents wherever they live. But there is no reason why someone living in Jerusalem who was fluent in Greek could not have written it. The temptation to attend a gymnasium could be present anywhere in the Hellenistic world.


The position of the two letters at the beginning of 2 Maccabees is quite perplexing. What is their connection to the epitome? Why were they added? From where do they come? Since the two letters are addressed to Alexandrian Jews, were they part of some letter archive in Alexandria? Each letter is quite different from the other. Most scholars would see the first letter as authentic but have serious questions regarding the authenticity of the second one. While the first letter follows the conventions of letters written in Aramaic/Hebrew, the second does not and yet abounds in Semitisms. As mentioned above, Momigliano suggested that the epitome was written to accompany the first letter, but there is no explicit mention of this in either the letter or the prologue to the epitome. Also, the account of the death of Antiochus IV in the epitome cannot be reconciled with the account of his death in the second letter.

Yet connections can be seen between the letters and the epitome. While in 1 Maccabees Judas and his followers celebrate the purification of the Temple for eight days (1 Macc 5:56), only in the epitome and in the prefixed letters of 2 Maccabees is the festival explicitly connected with the Feast of Tabernacles (2 Macc 1:10, 18; 10:6). One might also note how both the first prefixed letter and the epitome use a Greek form—"to reconcile," "reconciliation" (καταλλάσσω katallassō; καταλλαγή katallagē)—which is very unusual in the LXX (2 Macc 1:5; 5:20; 7:33; 8:29). Finally, at the climactic battle against Nicanor, Judas’s mission is divinely sanctioned and approved through the figure of the prophet Jeremiah (15:14–16), and Jeremiah figures prominently in the second letter (2:1–8). One should note, of course, that in the epitome the figure of Jeremiah is used to connect Judas with Israel’s past, whereas in the letter Jeremiah’s hiding of the temple vessels speaks of a discontinuity with the First Temple.

What binds the letters to the epitome most strongly is the connection between the Festival of Hanukkah and the Feast of Tabernacles in Kislev. The second letter dates itself to the lifetime of Judas (between 164 and 160 bce), the first to 124 bce. Perhaps the letters were added to the epitome sometime after 124 bce, but exactly when is unknown. The most likely location of the writing, given the addressees of the letters, is Alexandria.

Finally, it is interesting to speculate whether the letters affect the message of the epitome. The addition of the first letter does not change the message much. The second letter, however, adds to the message of the epitome in several ways. Its emphasis on the continuity between the First and Second Temples and the connections it forges between Judas and Nehemiah underline God’s concern with the covenant people and for their following covenant laws. In addition, the second letter concludes with a prayer for the ingathering of God’s holy people (2 Macc 2:18). This prayer, which resonates with that of the priests at the miraculous rekindling of the temple fire (1:26–29), has eschatological overtones, especially given the concern that the Jews of the diaspora return to the holy land. The writer of the epitome, however, shows no concern for eschatology.

For more discussion of the historical background of 1 and 2 Maccabees, of the ethics of violence in both books, and of the place of 1 and 2 Maccabees in Jewish and Christian tradition, see the Introduction to 1 Maccabees. See also the annotated bibliography located there.

Outline of 2 Maccabees

I. 2 Maccabees 1:1–2:18, The Prefixed Letters

A. 1:1–9, The First Letter

B. 1:10–2:18, The Second Letter

1:10–17, The Letter to Aristobulus

1:18–2:18, The Holiness of the Second Temple

II. 2 Maccabees 2:19–32, The Prologue

III. 2 Maccabees 3:1–40, The First Crisis

A. 3:1–8, The Problem

B. 3:9–14a, The Attack on the Temple

C. 3:14b–21, The Cry for Help

D. 3:22–30, The Lord Defends His Temple

E. 3:31–40, The Effect on Heliodorus

IV. 2 Maccabees 4:1–10:8, The Second Attack on the Temple

A. 4:1–6:17, The Attack on the Traditional Way of Life

4:1–6, The Removal of Onias

4:7–22, The High Priesthood of Jason

4:23–50, Menelaus in Control

5:1–27, Antiochus Takes Control of Jerusalem

6:1–11, The Pagan Cult Imposed in Jerusalem

6:12–17, Punishment Seen as Discipline

B. 6:18–7:42, The Reaction to the Persecutions

6:18–31, Eleazar

7:1–42, The Mother and Her Seven Sons

C. 8:1–10:8, God’s Defense of the People

8:1–36, The First Victory

9:1–29, The Death of Antiochus IV

10:1–8, The Purification of the Temple

V. 2 Maccabees 10:9–15:36, The Third Act: Further Defense of the Temple

A. 10:9–13:26, The Attacks Under Antiochus V

10:9–13, Dynastic Changes

10:14–23, Campaigns in Idumea

10:24–38, The Defeat of Timothy

11:1–12, The Campaign of Lysias

11:13–38, Peace Negotiations

12:1–45, Further Local Hostilities

13:1–26, The Second Expedition of Lysias

B. 14:1–15:36, The Invasion by Nicanor

14:1–2, Demetrius Becomes King

14:3–25, Nicanor’s Expedition

14:26–36, The Change in Nicanor

14:37–46, The Razis Affair

15:1–36, The Victory over Nicanor

VI. 2 Maccabees 15:37–39, The Epilogue

2 MACCABEES 1:1–2:18

The Prefixed Letters


As mentioned in the Introduction, the epitome of events surrounding the successful rebellion of the Jews under Judas Maccabeus against their Seleucid overlords is preceded by two letters, 1:1–9 and 1:10–2:18. It is not known when or by whom these letters were prefixed, and so it is difficult to evaluate exactly what is the relationship between the letters and between the letters and the epitome. Some scholars have argued that the epitome was written to accompany the first letter; the Introduction suggests ways in which connections may be made between the language and themes of the letters and the epitome. But no explicit connection is made in the documents themselves, thus one could argue that the letters and the epitome circulated independently and that no intrinsic connection between the letters and the narrative should be sought.



1:1–6, Initial Greetings and Well Wishes. The first letter contains an initial indication of the addressees and the senders of the letter and greetings (v. 1), the well wishes (vv. 2–6), the body of the letter (vv. 7–9), and the concluding date (v. 10a), thus following the normal structure of a letter. The letter can be dated to the year 124 bce (v. 9), which had seen in Egypt an uneasy end to the bitter civil war between Ptolemy VIII Euergetes II and his sister/wife Cleopatra II.

1:1. Cleopatra may have been helped in her struggle by Jewish generals, as they played a role in earlier and later debates. But no mention is made of specific leaders in the letter, however, as the emphasis lies on strengthening the ties that bind all the Jews together; note in the initial greeting the repetition of "brothers" and "Jews," as the Jews in Egypt and in Judea are placed on an equal footing. The initial greeting formula "To X, Y," is often found in Aramaic letters. The present text of v. 1 has a double greeting—"greetings and true peace." The first is what one normally finds in Greek letters; the second is more Jewish.

1:2–6. Following this initial greeting is a long prayer of well wishing for the Egyptian Jews, similar to prayers in the openings of Pauline letters (see, e.g., Phil 1:9–11). The prayer is full of general wishes and hopes. The writers stress the covenant of God with the patriarchs as the common ground of their faith (v. 2). Just as God had heard the groaning of the Israelites while they were slaves in Egypt and had "remembered his covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob" and looked upon them to take notice of them (Exod 2:24–25 NRSV), so also the writers of this letter ask that God remember the covenant with the Egyptian Jews, a resonance no doubt that the Egyptian readers would have picked up on (cf. Exod 6:4–5; Lev 26:42; Ps 105:8–10; see also Deut 4:31). They ask that God give their brethren a "heart" (v. 3), i.e., understanding; the letter resonates with the language of Ezek 36:26–27 where God promises that, at the renewal of Israel, God will give the Israelites a new heart and spirit so that they will walk in God’s statutes and observe God’s ordinances (cf. Jer 31:33–34; Ezek 18:31). The Egyptian Jews are to serve God, whose will is known through Moses’ law (cf. Ps 103:7), wholeheartedly and willingly, a phrase similar to that in 1 Chr 28:9, where David instructs his son Solomon to serve God. In contrast to that passage, however, the emphasis in the prayer before us is all on God’s action. Verse 4 gives the same message as v. 3 but makes explicit the connection with the Torah and its ordinances; instead of God’s giving them a heart, God will open their hearts/minds, a phrase in Acts, when God "opened the heart" of Lydia to listen to what Paul had to say (Acts 16:14) and in Luke, when the risen Jesus is said to appear to his disciples and to open their minds to understand the scriptures (Luke 24:45). God is the one who grants peace.

The verb for "be reconciled" (καταλλάσσω katallassō, v. 5) is unusual in the rest of the LXX, but is used at 2 Macc 7:33 and 8:29 as God’s response to prayers. The same notion is found when Solomon, at the dedication of the Temple, prays that God will listen to the people’s prayers and forgive them (2 Chr 6:19). As in Ps 20:1–4, God is asked to answer on the day of trouble and to grant the heart’s desire and the plans of the one who prays. Sirach 51:10–12 states that Sirach himself prayed so that the Lord would not forsake him in his days of trouble; Sirach’s prayer was heard, and he was delivered from an evil time. Some scholars have seen in this verse an allusion to specific events in Egypt: the civil war between Ptolemy VIII Euergetes and Cleopatra II. Some have also proposed that the reference to reconciliation is an oblique reference to the Egyptians’ need for reconciliation because of the sin that Onias IV had committed in building a temple to Yahweh at Leontopolis in Egypt. Josephus, the Jewish historian of the first century ce, records that Onias IV, the son of Onias III, fled to Ptolemy Philometer for refuge after his uncle, the high priest Menelaus, was murdered. In Egypt Onias IV had requested permission from Ptolemy to build a temple in Egypt similar to that in Jerusalem, perhaps to fulfill the prophecy of Isa 19:19: "On that day there will be an altar to the Lord in the center of the land of Egypt" (NRSV). This temple, however, was set up for the Jewish military colony at Leontopolis under Onias IV.3 It is not likely that it was set up as a temple for Egyptian Jews to rival that in Jerusalem, as it has such a remote location and receives no attention in other writings of Egyptian Jews. Rather than an oblique reference to Onias’s temple the prayer should be viewed as expressing general wishes for the well-being of the Jews in Egypt. Nevertheless, general expressions could be given a specific meaning depending on the reader’s own life situation. What is particularly striking in this prayer is the sense of God as the primary agent. The Egyptian Jews are not asked to open their hearts; rather, God is the one who opens hearts. At v. 6, a well-known formula in Aramaic letters, "and now," is used to show the end of this prayer for well-being. The unity of brethren is especially evidenced in the unity of prayer.

1:7–9. The Body of the Letter. 1:7–8a. The body of the letter contains a quotation from a previous letter (v. 7). This letter had been written in the 169th year, according to the Seleucid Babylonian calendar—i.e., between spring 143 and spring 142 bce. According to 1 Maccabees, the Judean Jews had a checkered relationship with Demetrius II (145–140). After Demetrius came to power, Jonathan the Hasmonean was at first in alliance with him, but later was estranged from him and became a supporter of the young Antiochus VI (145–142). After the treachery of Antiochus’s general Trypho, Simon made peace with Demetrius (1 Macc 10:67–13:40). First Maccabees also states that in 170 by the Seleucid Babylonian calendar, Jews in Judea gave the date according to the year of Simon (1 Macc 13:42). The earlier letter, therefore, presumably preceded this lifting of the yoke of the Gentiles. But the text as we now have it is extremely difficult to translate. For example, it is not clear to what event the phrase "critical distress" refers. Since the letter was written in 143–142 bce, it may refer to the fact that Jonathan had been captured (1 Macc 12:48; 13:23). After the opening well wishes, then, the authors may immediately quote from another letter, with no indication that they were so doing. The NRSV translation, on the other hand, suggests that an introductory statement is made: "In the reign of Demetrius … we Jews wrote to you." But the question still remains as to when the quotation begins, since there are no quotation marks in Greek. The sentence may mean either "During the reign of Demetrius we wrote in the great distress," or "During the reign of Demetrius we wrote, ‘In the great distress that came upon us.…’ " If the distress had been caused by Jonathan’s death, why did the authors refer instead to Jason’s withdrawal, which had occurred more than twenty years earlier? Thus, along with the NRSV, the quotation begins "In the great distress.…"

Even after settling this issue, problems remain: Who had set fire to the gates and shed innocent blood (v. 8)? Commentators have normally seen the subject as Jason and his followers, since Jason is described in 2 Macc 4:10 as leading Jews away from their ancestral customs. The end of v. 7, therefore, is translated as referring to Jason’s revolt from the holy land and the kingdom (of God), with cross-reference to Jason’s attack on Menelaus, when Jason slaughtered his fellow citizens relentlessly (2 Macc 5:6). There are some problems with this interpretation, however, both historically and grammatically. The author of 2 Maccabees reports that the gates of Jerusalem were burned by someone other than Jason (2 Macc 8:33; cf. 1 Macc 1:31; 4:38). It is also difficult to say that someone "revolted from" a land and a kingdom; one usually revolts from a person. One of these difficulties would be solved if we understood the Greek verb ἀφίστημι (aphistēmi) not as "revolt," but with its basic geographical meaning "to withdraw from." While in the narrative of 2 Maccabees Jason institutes Greek customs, it is only after his withdrawal that Antiochus IV plunders the Temple and attempts to crush Jewish practices in Judea (2 Macc 5:7; 6:1–6). It is probably better, therefore, to understand the third-person plural verbs (ἐνεπύριοαν enepyrisan; ἐξεχεαν exechean), as frequently in Hellenistic Greek, in an impersonal sense: "the gate was burned and innocent blood shed." The reference would then be to the events of Antiochus IV’s persecution. Burnt gates traditionally indicate a defenseless, plundered city. However one translates the verse, it is striking that the writers of the letter presuppose that their addressees know who Jason was, a figure who had left the scene over twenty-five years before the letter was sent, and also that there is no need to mention the name of Antiochus IV. One could contrast this shorthand version of events with those in 1 Maccabees, where Jason is not named and Antiochus IV is the evil force behind the persecution.

1:8b. The tumultuous events of the Hasmonean revolt and the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem are summed up in this verse: We prayed. We were heard. We offered sacrifices. Once again the emphasis falls on God’s action. Later in the narrative, emphasis will be placed on the martyrdoms as bringing about God’s mercy. Here it is simply stated, "We prayed." The ritual actions referred to are the daily burnt offering (Exod 29:38–42), the continuously burning lamps (Exod 27:20–21), and the showbread, which was to be on the table before the Lord always (Exod 25:30; Lev 24:5–9). It is interesting that no mention is made of the daily offering of incense (Exod 30:7–8), whereas it is mentioned at the rededication of the Temple in 1 Macc 4:50 and 2 Macc 10:3 (Dan 11:31 mentions the suppression of the daily burnt offering by Antiochus IV).

1:9. The formula "and now" is used as at v. 6 as a dividing marker, here indicating the end of the quotation. The Feast of Booths (Sukkot) was celebrated in the seventh month of Tishri, not the ninth month of Chislev, as the author here states. Only here and at 2 Macc 1:18 and 10:6 is a connection made between the Feast of Booths and Hanukkah, the festival in Chislev to celebrate the rededication of the Temple. Hanukkah is said to last for eight days (2 Macc 10:6; cf. Lev 23:36; Num 29:35). According to 2 Chr 7:8–9, the dedication of Solomon’s Temple, celebrated in conjunction with Booths, followed this model (although in 1 Kgs 8:65–66 Solomon sends the people away on the eighth day). The returning exiles followed it also when they celebrated Booths (Neh 8:18). Sukkot reminds the people of the Israelites who lived in the wilderness during the exodus from Egypt (Lev 23:42–43), and likewise the festival in Chislev recalls how Judas and his followers lived away from civilization (2 Macc 10:6). All of these connotations combine to allow the feast in the ninth month (Chislev) to be called the Feast of Sukkot. The date is given at the end of the letter: 124 bce.


This letter as it now stands has a very cryptic quality. If we did not possess the narrative of 2 Maccabees, we would not know who Jason was, or what was meant by celebrating the Feast of Tabernacles in the ninth month. Would the addressees of this letter, written over forty years after Jason’s tenure as high priest, have had a clear grasp of what the letter was referring to? If they did, then we must presuppose a strongly held cultural tradition whereby the events of the Maccabean revolt were transmitted and kept alive. One can surmise that it was during the eight-day celebration of Hanukkah that the stories and traditions would have been related and retold. This context of community celebration and storytelling is not mentioned in our sources, but if we are to realize what life must have been like in the second century bce, we have to use our imaginations to reconstruct the scene. Parents must have told the traditional stories to their children time and again; the children must have heard and seen them reenacted at liturgical celebrations, and so it must have penetrated into their consciousness.

This living reality of how traditions and cultures are transmitted often eludes us, but it is going on day after day in the stories we tell to our children, in the way our children see us behave toward others. We must learn to value and to recognize the importance of this teaching and transmission of values, a family- and community-based teaching that takes place not in the classroom, but in daily living. We must also recognize that there are other means by which values are being imparted to our children and must strive to filter out what is good from what is bad.

The letter also forces us to reflect on how important liturgical activity is to preserving a sense of community between geographically distant groups. It is central to the forging of familial relations. Can one hope that different religious communities would learn to celebrate together? Would this not help to strengthen bonds across communities and to dispel prejudice? At the same time, the letter stresses that this liturgical activity is dependent on God’s action in moving human hearts and minds to action. This emphasis on God’s grace, on God’s being present in human affairs, is precious testimony to the strong belief of second-century bce Judaism in God’s gracious action. It should counterbalance any claim that Judaism before the time of Jesus was legalistic and barren. The belief in God’s grace and in God’s graciously covenanting with the Jews was still alive and strong.



While the length of the first letter is known from the initial greetings and the concluding date in 1:9, the extent of the second letter is quite problematic. At 1:18 the letter seems about to end with an exhortation to the addressees to celebrate the purification of the Temple on the twenty-fifth day of the month Chislev, but it then suddenly launches into an extended apologetic on the holiness of the Second Temple; at 2:16 one finds almost exactly the same phrase as at 1:18: "we shall celebrate the purification." No concluding date is given to the letter there. Should one consider the section 1:18–2:15 a digression or an insertion? Problems also arise concerning the authenticity of this letter. If it was written at the time of Judas Maccabeus and after the death of Antiochus IV, it must be dated between 164 bce (Antiochus’s death) and 160 bce (Judas’s death). Why, then, is no mention made of this letter by the writers of the first letter, written in 124 bce, who quote an otherwise unknown letter from 143 bce? More difficult to solve would be the chronology involved. If Antiochus IV died between November 20 and December 18, 164, near Isfahan, how could the news of his death have reached Jerusalem in time for the council to convene a meeting, draft this letter, and then send it to Egypt so that it would reach there before mid-December 164 (25 Chislev)? Even if one dates the events to 165 bce, the problem still remains. Scholars have attempted to solve this difficulty by suggesting that the letter was written so that the Egyptian Jews would celebrate the anniversary of the first feast of purification, but the language of 1:18, following on the account of Antiochus’s death, suggests rather a first celebration. The most likely solution is that this letter was not written by Judas and his followers, but is an attempt by some later writer to show that two well-known Jewish contemporaries, Judas Maccabeus and Aristobulus, had dealings with each other.

2 Maccabees 1:10–17, The Letter to Aristobulus


1:10. The initial greeting has the form: X to Y. In contrast to the first letter, the addressees are not called "brothers." A senate in Jerusalem is first mentioned during the time of Antiochus III.4 The chiastic structure of the greeting places Judas in contact with Aristobulus, the only person about whom further information is given. Fragments of the works of a Jewish author named Aristobulus, who presented a work to Ptolemy VI Philometer (180–145 bce), are known from the later Christian writer Eusebius. Aristobulus argued that Greek authors, like Homer and Hesiod, were dependent on the wisdom contained in the Torah. The author of this letter calls Aristobulus a tutor of the Ptolemaic king and an Aaronide (Exod 29:7, 29). The prestige of Judas is thus enhanced by connecting him with such a respected figure.

This formula "greetings and good health" is unusual. It appears in a letter from the fourth century bce and then disappears until the middle of the first century bce, and is then used only infrequently. This epigraphic silence, however, is not conclusive for dating the letter.

1:11–12. The account of the death of Antiochus is prefaced by a general statement about God’s care for Jerusalem; God is the one who always expels those who attack the holy city (cf. 2 Macc 3:39). Here as elsewhere in the Hebrew Scriptures, God fights for Israel as a divine warrior (see, e.g., Exod 14:25; Deut 3:22).

1:13–16. This account of the death of Antiochus IV differs from that found in other contemporary sources (and 1 Macc 6:16; 2 Maccabees 9) in that they all agree that Antiochus did not die at the temple of Nanea. The divergence here is similar to that of accounts of the death of Antiochus III. According to Diodorus Siculus, Antiochus III plundered a temple at Elymais and was later punished by the gods;7 Justin, however, reports that Antiochus III died with his whole army in his attack on the temple. The author of this account mentions the temple is that of Nanea, a goddess of fertility, which is similar to Polybius’s account. In Polybius’s version, Antiochus makes an expedition against the temple of Artemis in Elymais, but is foiled by the local tribes and dies while retreating. Polybius states that some say Antiochus was smitten with madness and that there were manifestations of divine displeasure at his attempt on the sanctuary.9 What is interesting is how different the account in this letter is from that in 2 Macc 9:19–27. In that chapter, the author describes Antiochus’s attempt to rob the temples in Persepolis. The people resist, and Antiochus retreats. At Ecbatana, Antiochus learns of Judas’s success, rushes to return to defeat the Jews, but dies on the journey when he is smitten by an incurable disease. One cannot reconcile these accounts. The places are different, the manner of death is different. One must conclude, therefore, that this letter and the epitome were produced independently of each other. This does not mean, however, that they do not have common themes which connect them as we shall see below.

Antiochus came to the temple of Nanea on the pretext of marrying the goddess. The marriage of a king to a goddess (v. 14) was an ancient ritual. Antiochus IV is elsewhere reported to have married Atargatis of Hierapolis-Bambyke in Syria and to have claimed as dowry the temple treasury. The priests of Nanea are portrayed as being particularly deceptive (vv. 15–16; cf. the hidden doors in Bel and the Dragon 21; Dan 14:21 LXX). The author seems to suggest ironically that the priests kill Antiochus IV with thunderbolts à la Zeus through a hidden door in the ceiling (the word translated "struck down" [συνεκεραύνωσαν sunekeraunōsan] literally means "strike with a thunderbolt"), and he enjoys recounting the grisly details. The author of the epitome will recount how Nicanor’s head was cut off and hung up on the citadel in Jerusalem (2 Macc 15:30–35). In a similar way, Judith is said to have cut off the head of the invading general Holofernes and had his head hung up on the wall of the city (Judith 13–14), and the people of Abel of Beth-maacah cut off the head of Sheba, son of Bichri, who rebelled against David, and tossed his head out to Joab (2 Sam 20:22). In the book of Daniel, King Nebuchadnezzar threatens dismemberment to any of his dream interpreters who cannot tell the king what he had dreamed and its interpretation (Dan 2:5).

1:17. This verse recalls Ahimaz’s report that the revolt of Absalom against David has been defeated (2 Sam 18:28). Does the impiety refer only to Antiochus’s attack on Israel and Jerusalem (1:11–12), or does it include his attack on other temples as well? Given the context, it seems that the author sees the attack on other temples as improper behavior.

2 Maccabees 1:18–2:18, The Holiness of the Second Temple


There are several components in this section: a discussion of fire at the time of Nehemiah (1:18–36); a section on Jeremiah (2:1–8); a comparison of Moses and Solomon (2:9–12); the founding of a library by Nehemiah and Judas’s imitation of this (2:13–15); and a conclusion (2:16–18).

1:18–36. The first section is concerned to show the continuity between the Temple of Nehemiah with that of Solomon. Verse 18 is very difficult to translate, as the Greek is very elliptical and requires that something be added to the text to make it intelligible. The author attempts to provide precedents for celebrating the purification of the Temple under Judas Maccabeus, and therefore connects it both to the Feast of Booths/Sukkot, during which Solomon dedicated the Temple (1 Kgs 8:1–2; cf. 2 Macc 1:9; 10:6), and to Nehemiah, during whose reign the festival was reinstituted (Neh 8:13–18). Three Nehemiahs are found in the Bible: (1) a leader of the Jewish community who returned to Judea with Zerubbabel at the end of the Babylonian exile, shortly after 538 bce (Ezra 2:2; Neh 7:7; 1 Esd 5:8); (2) a ruler around Beth-zur (Neh 3:16); and (3) Nehemiah, son of Hacaliah, the central figure in the book of Nehemiah, who began his reform activity in Jerusalem in 445 bce (Neh 1:1; 2:1–11) and who rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem. The reference here is to the person last mentioned, as 2 Macc 1:20 refers to his being commissioned by the king of the Persians (cf. Neh 2:6–8). However, this figure is to be conflated with the first Nehemiah, as 2 Macc 1:20 presumes the condition of the first exile. This conflation was probably helped by the opening scene in Neh 1:1–3 which, set in the month of Chislev, describes a destruction of Jerusalem. Noteworthy is the fact that Nehemiah is credited with restoring temple worship, and not Jeshua or Zerubbabel (Ezra 3–6; cf. Sir 49:12–13). The author of 2 Maccabees may have identified Nehemiah with Zerubbabel, who is said in 1 Esd 4:47 to be commissioned to build the Temple, but such motifs can easily cluster around important individuals. It is interesting that Nehemiah is stressed as well in 2 Macc 2:13–14. One might suggest that Nehemiah, as governor of Judea (Neh 5:14), provided a model for Judas.

1:19–23. Fire is an important symbol of God’s power. God led the Israelites out of Egypt as a pillar of fire by night (Exod 13:21–22). When God acts as divine warrior and thunders from the heavens, God sends through the clouds hailstones and coals of fire (Ps 18:11–12) and flashes forth flames of fire (Ps 29:7). In Elijah’s competition with the priests of Baal, the god of fertility and rain, Elijah’s sacrifice is consumed by God’s fire from heaven, which shows that it is God who brings fertility to the land (1 Kings 18). The fire on God’s altar was never to go out (Lev 6:12–13), and the sacrifices offered at the inauguration of the public ritual were miraculously consumed by fire that "came out from the Lord" (Lev 9:24 NRSV). So to establish the holiness of the Second Temple, which some disputed (Ezra 3:12; 1 Enoch 89:73; 2 Bar 68:5–6; and frequently in the Qumran literature), it was important to establish the continuity of the eternal fire. The author uses the motif of the finding of a hidden sacred object, as in the story of the finding of the book of the law (2 Kgs 22:8). The author stresses that the exact place where the fire was hidden was unknown, so as to bring out the miraculous aspect of the event. The place of exile was Babylonia, not Persia (v. 19), but Babylon had later become part of the Persian Empire. The "thick liquid" (or naphtha; see 1:36), a kind of petroleum, was well known to Hellenistic scientists and geographers. A plausible etymology shows that the word derives from the Persian naft; "nephthar" (2 Macc 1:36) is an adaptation of the Hebrew word טהרה (ṭohŏrâ; cf. Lev 14:11). The ancients saw the nature of naphtha as to draw fire to itself. Plutarch, in his Life of Alexander the Great, tells the story of the boy Stephanus, who smeared himself with naphtha, caught fire, and barely escaped with his life. Plutarch comments: "This naphtha … is so liable to catch fire, that before it touches the flame it will kindle at the very light that surrounds it, and often inflame the intermediate air also." Naphtha is said to be able to draw fire from a distance as well.12 So in this story, the naphtha blazes from the very light at the sudden appearance of the previously hidden sun. The effect of this miraculous sprinkling of the thick liquid resonates with the story of Elijah, in which the wood was wet so that it would seem impossible to catch fire (1 Kgs 18:33–38); here the liquid used draws the fire of the sun to itself. This power to catch on fire is also noted in 2 Macc 1:32, where the light from the blazing altar causes the naphtha on the rocks to be consumed.

The reference to Jonathan (v. 23) may be to either the high priest named Jonathan mentioned at Neh 12:11 or to Mattaniah, "who was the leader to begin the thanksgiving in prayer" (Neh 11:17 NRSV), since both names mean "God’s gift" in Hebrew. But one cannot be certain about which Jonathan is intended.

1:24–29. Jonathan leads the people in a prayer that emphasizes God’s power and mercy (cf. Neh 9:31–32). Its repetition of "alone … alone … alone" highlights God’s singularity as creator. Its stress on God’s election of Israel (cf. Deut 14:2; Sir 36:13–19; Ps Sol 8:28), leads into a plea that the people, who are God’s own possession or "portion" (Deut 9:26; 32:9; 1 Kgs 8:53) might be consecrated and might return to the land (Deut 30:1–10; Isa 41:8–20; 49:7–26). They are to be replanted as God had first planted them on Mt. Zion (see Exod 15:17; 2 Sam 7:10; Amos 9:15), and the taunts of their enemies (Ps 42:3, 10; 79:10; 115:2; Joel 2:17; Mic 7:10) are to be answered. The image of God as the divine warrior runs throughout this prayer, as do the motifs of victory for the people and defeat of their enemies.

1:30–32. As when Zerubbabel and Jeshua laid the foundation of the Temple (Ezra 3:10–11), so now hymns are sung. The Greek of vv. 31–32 is difficult, but the meaning seems to be that, with the sacrifices resumed and the eternal fire burning again, the naphtha has served its purpose and is consumed.

1:33–36. The miracle is proclaimed, and the Persian king verifies and acknowledges its truth. Nehemiah then gives the liquid a name: "nephthar." Nehemiah is thus shown to be the discoverer of naphtha, and so the story must be classed with other stories of inventors of things beneficial to humans. It would be going too far to say that Nehemiah is described here as the founder of Persian religion, with its reverence for fire, but there is a hint of the derivation of Persian religion from Jewish temple worship.

2:1–8. Other stories are clustered around this one in an associative fashion. Verses 1–3 specify that Jeremiah had ordered that some of the fire be taken into exile by the priests and had admonished them not to forget the law. The exhortations against idolatry are similar to those found in the Letter of Jeremiah. A second story about Jeremiah (vv. 4–8) recounts how he saved the tabernacle and the ark from being captured. Eupolemus, a Jewish writer possibly sent on an embassy to Rome by Judas Maccabeus (1 Macc 8:17–18; 2 Macc 4:11), also states that Jeremiah preserved the ark and the tablets in it from being taken by the Babylonians. The mountain mentioned in v. 4 is Mt. Nebo. The tent and ark recall the whole exodus story as the ark and the tent of meeting are described and outfitted at Sinai (Exodus 36–40) and go before the Israelites on their journey through the desert (Num 10:33–36). Just as Moses never entered the promised land but could only see it from Mt. Nebo (Deut 32:48–52; 34:1–6), so also in this story these ritual items are returned to the desert wandering state, away from the land of Israel. In the wilderness of Moab, at Mt. Nebo, the author of this letter reports, the tent and the ark and the altar of incense have been placed in hiding until God gathers in the people and again sends the glory and the cloud (other constant components of the desert wandering [Exod 40:34–38]) to bring them back to the Temple when God restores the land fully (v. 8). Verse 5 mentions the incense altar for the first time. Since it stood in the holy place and was most holy to the Lord (Exod 30:1–10), it too must not be despoiled, and so it is taken back to the desert. The secrecy of the hiding place is emphasized (vv. 6–8). Just as the place where Moses was buried is unknown (Deut 34:6), so also now these ritual vessels are to be kept in an unknown place until there is a new entry into the promised land. The ingathering of the people repeats the prayer of 1:27. "The glory and the cloud" refer to the exodus story also, as at Exod 40:34–38, where God’s glory fills the tabernacle and the cloud leads the Israelites on their journey. When the priests brought the ark and its tablets into the Temple that Solomon built, a cloud filled the house of the Lord (1 Kgs 8:10). This story then stresses the continuity between the worship of Moses and that of the First Temple, but maintains a discontinuity between them; the tablets were not found. This story thus is in contrast with the previous story that emphasized the continuity between Solomon’s Temple and the Second Temple.

2:9–12. These verses further develop the continuity between Moses and Solomon. First it is recalled (v. 9) how Solomon was granted wisdom (1 Kgs 3:5–15) and how he sacrificed before and after the ark was taken into the Temple (1 Kgs 8:5, 62). When Aaron was being inaugurated into the priesthood, he laid out the purification offering for himself and for the people, the burnt offering and the sacrifice for well-being (Lev 9:1–22). Moses is not said to have prayed, but both he and Aaron entered the tent of meeting; when they came out, they blessed the people, and "fire came out from the Lord and consumed the burnt offering and the fat on the altar" (Lev 9:24 NRSV). Thus the priesthood of Aaron was legitimized, and proper sacrifice commenced. At 2 Chr 7:1, fire is said to come down after Solomon’s prayer and consume the burnt offering and the sacrifices. In this way, the chronicler legitimates sacrifice at Solomon’s Temple. The saying of Moses (v. 11) is not found elsewhere in the Hebrew Scriptures, but seems to derive from the scene in Lev 10:16–20, where Moses agrees that it was all right for Aaron not to eat the sin offering that time. After this saying, a reference to the command given to Moses at Lev 23:33–36 concerning the celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles for eight days may be missing. Solomon celebrated the dedication of the old Temple for eight days at this feast, according to 2 Chr 7:8–9, although the writer of 1 Kgs 8:65–66 states that Solomon sent the people away on the eighth day.

2:13–15. The mention of Solomon’s celebration leads back to the story of Nehemiah (1:18–32). The mention of the consumption of Solomon’s sacrifice (2:11) resonates with the account given earlier (1:31). In addition, Solomon’s celebration of the eight days (2:12) leads the author to allude again to a similar celebration by Nehemiah (v. 14; see 1:31), although no such celebration has been recorded. These references most likely refer to the celebration of the Feast of Booths under Jeshua and Zerubbabel (Ezra 3:1–4) or Ezra (Neh 8:13–18). The phrase "memoirs of Nehemiah" refers to Nehemiah 1–7; 11–13; these memoirs, however, do not refer to some of the events mentioned or alluded to in 2 Maccabees 1–2, such as the building of the Temple, the finding of the fire, or the construction of a library.

After Seleucus I founded the great library at Alexandria, other kings, particularly the Attalids at Pergamon, followed suit. The author is thus attributing to Nehemiah what one expected a ruler to do in Hellenistic times. The author places in Nehemiah’s library books about the kings and prophets, David’s works, and letters of kings about votive offerings. There has been much discussion about the precise reference here. Do books about the kings refer to 1 Samuel through 2 Kings, the prophets from Isaiah to Malachi (with the possible exception of Daniel), David’s works to the psalms, and the king’s letters to those contained in Ezra and Nehemiah? The finds at Qumran have shown us that such equations are not so neat and that many works were available in the second century about which we know little today. For example, Eupolemus tells us that Moses and Joshua were prophets and provides letters exchanged between Solomon and the king of Tyre and Sidon about supplies for building the Temple. Non-canonical psalms have been found at Qumran as well. So it is best not to make too precise an identification of what Nehemiah’s library contained. It is interesting to note that in 4 Ezra 14, Ezra is inspired to write the twenty-four public books, as well as seventy books that were to be shown only to the wise. A comparison of these accounts shows an emphasis on Nehemiah as ruler in the line of David, whereas Ezra’s role is placed among the wise teachers.

In 1 Macc 1:56–57, the author describes how books of the law were torn to pieces and burned if found, whereas here the author notes how some had been hidden away from the persecutors. Judas, therefore, is cast as restoring the work of Nehemiah, and so with the connection between Judas and Nehemiah we return to the theme started at 1:18. Does the author hint in v. 15 that the books in Jerusalem are in better shape than those in Alexandria? (Epistle of Aristeas 30 seems to refer to unreliable Hebrew manuscripts in Egypt. The prologue to Sirach also stresses the superiority of knowing the works in the original Hebrew language as opposed to translations.)

2:16–18. The author returns to his request of 1:18. God again is addressed as the savior of the people, as at 1:25, to whom God gave the land of Israel as an inheritance (Exod 15:17; Deut 2:12; 1 Kgs 8:36). The people also are God’s inheritance (Deut 9:26; 32:9; 1 Kgs 8:51–53). Once again the theme of ingathering appears (cf. 1:27–29; 2:7, following Deut 30:3–5). The repeated reference to all the people suggests hope for an end to the diaspora.

The end of v. 18 takes one back to the opening of this letter; recalling that God has rescued the people from great dangers (1:11) and has purified the Temple (1:18). No conclusion is given to the letter.


Throughout these two letters we see references to liturgical actions and, in particular, to prayers, hymns, and sacrifices. In the prayers, God’s gracious choosing of the people and care for them are stressed. What these letters bring before us is the vibrant faith and belief of their authors. The second letter shows that part of that faith was a keen hope that God would bring about a new beginning, a new return to the promised land when all would be well, an ingathering of all the Jewish people scattered over the world. This utopian desire was animated by a sense that life could be made better, and this hope should be ours as we fight to make living conditions for all better and more humane.

What is especially noteworthy in the second letter is the way the author is so concerned to relate present actions to earlier traditions. What is happening now continues on the line of tradition from Moses through Solomon and Nehemiah to Judas. We need to reflect on how our present religious and cultural communities maintain and cherish their own traditional values. Here the role of a vibrant community and family setting in which children are told the stories of their past is vital. We should encourage parents to talk to their children and grandparents to their grandchildren about their lives when they were young to keep alive an oral history so that each child can see and learn his or her roots. As a country built on immigration, the United States often saw the children of first-generation immigrants discarding their cultural traditions as inappropriate in their new homeland. How can we foster the maintenance of cultural traditions different from our own, and yet not fragment into a splintered society?

The debate over whether one language should be declared official is a classic case where proponents of both sides of the issue need to be sensitive to the proposals of the other side. It is important for children to learn, and that may require schooling in languages other than the one used by the majority. But if the ultimate goal of education is for a person to become a functioning member of society, then each student has to be able to communicate clearly and well in the nation’s predominant language. So the problem is to maintain traditions, and yet balance the claims of different traditions harmoniously within a single society.

Yet we also must be cautious, for sometimes traditions can become set in concrete. Traditions, if they are living, must grow. We also need to be alert to when traditions must be discarded. Traditions, like habits, can be good or bad. The authors of these letters, for example, maintain the image of the divine warrior, and so one sees the author caught in a war metaphor in which his side, to be victorious, must defeat and crush its enemies. Can we find another image to replace that of God the Warrior? Should we not ask for mutual understanding, instead of the annihilation of our enemies? Traditions should not close us in and keep others out, but we must learn to cherish traditions that are not exclusive.

2 MACCABEES 2:19–32

The Prologue


The author writes an elegant prologue to his work in which he states his source (v. 23), the contents (vv. 19–22), his aims (vv. 24–25), and his methods (vv. 26–31). He states that he is condensing into one volume the five-volume work of Jason of Cyrene (v. 23), of whom nothing else is known. A group of Jews was said to have been settled on the North African coast in Cyrenaica by Ptolemy I Lagus, and a large number of Jewish inscriptions, from a later date, have been found there. Josephus quotes Strabo as saying that at the time of Sulla (around 85 bce), the city of Cyrene had four components: citizens, farmers, resident aliens, and Jews. Jason would thus have been a Greek-speaking Jew from Cyrenaica, which was ruled by the Ptolemies.

Curiously the prologue does not mention Seleucus IV (2 Maccabees 3) or Demetrius I (2 Maccabees 14–15), both of whom are included in the later narrative. The word "appearance" (ἐπιφάνεια epiphaneia, v. 21) occurs, however, at 3:24; 14:15; and 15:27 and is a theme throughout the work. The author, who enjoys word plays, thus may have highlighted Antiochus Epiphanes in opposition to the epiphanies God had performed on behalf of the Jews. The author further contrasts Judaism with barbarism (v. 21). "Barbarian" (βάρβαρος barbaros) was the word Greeks used for non-Greeks; here the author turns the usage topsy-turvy and portrays the Greek Seleucids as barbarians. This is the first known occurrence of the word "Judaism," perhaps coined in opposition to Hellenism (2 Macc 4:13) and allophylism—foreign ways (2 Macc 4:13; 6:25). At 15:37, the author states that he ends his story where he does as the city has been in possession of the Hebrews since the defeat of Nicanor. The graciousness of the Lord is particularly shown at the turning point in the story, when the prayer for God’s graciousness/mercy by the youngest martyr (7:37) is answered by God’s turning from wrath to mercy (8:5).

The author describes his aims as pleasure and profit and ease for those who wish to memorize (v. 25). Memory is helped by clear organization, and so the history is structured around three important epiphanies. These aims are all rhetorical topoi for Hellenistic historians, and the author places himself squarely within this historiographical tradition. Sirach notes that the master of a feast should first take care of the guests before sitting down. "When you have fulfilled all your duties, take your place,/ so that you may be merry along with them/ and receive a wreath for your excellent leadership" (Sir 32:2 NRSV).

To achieve his aims, the author is going to epitomize the five books of Jason of Cyrene (v. 23). The motif of hard work willingly undertaken for one’s readers’ benefit (vv. 25–26) is a standard ploy to gain the readers’ sympathetic hearing. "Flood of statistics" (τὸ χύμα τῶν ἀριθμῶν to chyma tōn arithmōn, v. 24) should be translated "large number of lines." The length of books was counted in terms of written lines, and the number of written lines given at the end of the papyrus roll as a comprehensive number. The author is saying that Jason’s book had too many pages. Hellenistic historians tried various analogies to explain how their work differed from other writings. Lucian of Samosata, a writer of the second century ce, held that the historian works like a sculptor on raw material; a bare record of events was not enough, but one had to write them up in as fine a style as possible. The Greek historian Timaeus (c. 356–260 bce), to show that collecting the data required for writing history was a more serious task than declamatory writing, used the analogy of the difference between real buildings or furniture and the views seen in scene paintings. Polybius (c. 200–after 188 bce) states that "the difference between real buildings and scene paintings or between history and declamatory speech-making is not so great as is, in the case of all works, the difference between an account founded on participation, active or passive, in the occurrences and one composed from report and the narratives of others." The author of 2 Maccabees, however, is not contrasting two different crafts—for example, unfinished and finished products—but rather contrasts two functions within the same craft—one that deals with the whole project and one that is more specialized, contrasting a full exposition versus a selective presentation. Plutarch had also used the image of a portrait painter capturing a subject’s character through few select strokes versus an exhaustive model.22

2 MACCABEES 3:1–40

The First Crisis


This scene is complete in itself as shown by v. 40. It describes the first attack on the Temple during the time of Seleucus IV Philopator, who succeeded Antiochus III and ruled from 187–175 bce. This is the first of the epiphanies of God related in the epitome. It is placed as an anti-type to what is to happen under Antiochus IV, when the high priests and the people are entangled in sin (5:18). The story has all the characteristics of accounts written in praise of a deity who defends his or her temple: attackers approach, the defenders ask for help from the deity, the deity responds, the attackers are repulsed, and the defenders rejoice. Within the biblical tradition, one has the repulsion of Sennacherib from Jerusalem (2 Chr 32:1–22; 2 Kgs 18:17–19:36). In 701 bce, King Sennacherib of Assyria invaded Judea in retaliation for the revolt of King Hezekiah against him. Hezekiah set about strengthening the walls, but the chronicler also portrays him as exhorting the people to trust in God, who would defend them. Envoys from Sennacherib came to Jerusalem and taunted the king, saying, "Who among all the gods of those nations that my ancestors utterly destroyed was able to save his people from my hand, that your God should be able to save you from my hand?" (2 Chr 32:14 NRSV). Such contempt of God, speaking as if the God of Israel were like other gods, brought swift retribution as the Lord sent an angel into the Assyrians’ camp to destroy the mighty warriors of the Assyrians; the king has to return to Assyria in disgrace, where he is then assassinated. The God of Israel has defended the Temple and Jerusalem, God’s city, from the boastful attack of its adversaries. Within the Greek tradition, Herodotus describes how the temple of Apollo was preserved from the army of Xerxes in 480 bce, while Apollo is celebrated for repulsing the Gauls from Delphi in 179 bce. At Nippur, around the sixth century bce, Enlil and the other gods saved the Ekur temple from Kuturnaḥḥunte, king of Elam. The general pattern is widespread.



3:1–3. The author portrays the city as being idyllically at peace (v. 1). Such a utopian picture is credited by the author to the piety and hatred of wickedness of the high priest, Onias III, son of the high priest Simon. Note that the peace of the land depends on the leader, a theme that is found earlier in God’s warning to Solomon to follow God’s commandments. If Solomon and his descendants did not keep God’s statutes, God would cast the Temple down (1 Kgs 9:1–9). The thrust ultimately becomes the explanation for the destruction of the northern kingdom (2 Kgs 17:7–8), the fall of Jerusalem, and the exile (2 Kgs 21:11–15). The piety of Onias will contrast sharply with that of his rivals and successors—Jason, Menelaus, and Alcimus—who all bring ruin upon the Temple. The author states his belief clearly at 5:19: The Lord did not choose the nation for the sake of the holy place, but the holy place for the sake of the nation. The well-being of the Temple depends on the holiness of the people, as stated so forcibly by the prophets (e.g., Jeremiah 19). The utopian quality of the description is at variance with the description of conflict and division that one finds in 1 Enoch 1–11 and in the history of the Qumran covenanters (CD 1). In these works, Israel is described as being divided between the elect and the ungodly, between the faithful remnant and those who forsake the covenant.

The idyllic picture is enhanced by the author’s recounting the preferable treatment and lavish gifts that Jerusalem and the Temple had received (vv. 2–3). Antiochus III, when he had recaptured Judea and Coelesyria from the Ptolemies (198 bce), had bestowed tax exemptions and privileges on Jerusalem. In this action, he was following what the Ptolemies had done. Before that, the Persian kings had provided for the sacrificial cult (Ezra 6:9–10; 7:20–23). Antiochus’s generosity is said by the author to have continued under his son Seleucus IV Philopator. Note that Seleucus defrays expenses for the sacrifices; this will be the bone of contention in the following verse.

3:4–8. Just as Satan enters to destroy the pretty picture in Job 1:6, so also here a troublemaker comes on the scene. Simon probably belonged to one of the priestly families in Jerusalem, from the clan of Bilgah (Neh 12:5, 18; 1 Chr 24:14), following the Latin and Armenian translations, not of the tribe of Benjamin (so the Greek). His brothers were Menelaus and Lysimachus. Simon’s exact position is not known, as the term for "captain" (προστάτις prostatis) can encompass civil and military as well as religious affairs. Nor do we know by whom he was appointed—whether by the high priest or by the Seleucid governor. He was certainly an important person.

The author does not specify what caused the disagreement between Simon and Onias. Perhaps Simon wanted to install one of his own followers as clerk of the city market to supervise all aspects of buying and selling. Perhaps Onias disagreed with Simon as to what precisely the duties of the market supervisor should be. Or perhaps it involved the interpretation of purity rules for the market. The Temple Scroll stipulates that the only animal hides allowed in Jerusalem were those from animals sacrificed in Jerusalem, a much tighter restriction than that found in the decree of Antiochus III, where only the skins of unclean animals were forbidden.27 Such a restriction obviously had economic repercussions. More likely, the disagreement reflected a power play between two factions in the small city-state. The historical romance of the Tobiads suggests that earlier in the Ptolemaic period there had been a division of powers among important families in Jerusalem. In any case, Simon went over Onias’s head to the governor of Coelesyria and Phoenicia (vv. 5–6), the region between the Euphrates and Egypt (see 1 Macc 7:8). The governor, Apollonius son of Tharseas, was most likely a brother or relative of the holder of the same office from 201 to 195 bce under Antiochus III. Since the Seleucids had capitulated to the Romans and a huge indemnity had been placed on them at the Peace of Apamea in 188 bce, they had been short of funds. Simon, therefore, cleverly plays on their need by telling Apollonius about the large sums of money available that the king could seize (v. 6). Simon clearly does not want to infringe on the sacrificial cult in Jerusalem, but simply to undermine the position of Onias III. Apollonius was not about to interfere in temple affairs on his own initiative, and so he relayed the information to the king (v. 7). Seleucus approved of the suggestion, since it did not involve any sacrilege as the money dedicated to the temple cult was not involved. He appoints Heliodorus to seize the money. Heliodorus, brought up with the king, was chancellor of the realm. Later he had the king assassinated on September 3, 175.

The author sees all events as revolving around the Temple, so while Heliodorus may have been inspecting the province, this inspection is simply seen as subterfuge.



3:9–10. The author insists on the friendly attitude of the high priest and the whole city toward the Seleucid minister. The attack on the Temple, therefore, is something quite unexpected. The author has the high priest cleverly respond to Heliodorus by showing how heinous it would be to take the money of the most defenseless in the kingdom: widows and orphans, who are especially protected by God (Ps 146:9); whoever attacks them is cursed and will be punished (Deut 27:19; Isa 1:23; Ezek 22:7). Deposits in temples should not be violated. The combination "widows and orphans" may suggest that the author is referring here to the tithes set aside for them (Deut 14:28–29; 16:11–14; cf. Tob 1:8).

3:11. The mention of Hyrcanus, son of Tobias, has raised many questions. Josephus relates the history of the family of the Tobiads that shows them as closely allied with the Ptolemies. The youngest son, Hyrcanus, son of Joseph, son of Tobias, was forced by his brothers to flee Jerusalem; he escaped to the Transjordan, where he is said to have committed suicide when he realized he could not escape the clutches of Antiochus IV. Many scholars believe that the fact that Onias III has deposits in his temple of a pro-Ptolemaic, anti-Seleucid Hyrcanus shows the pro-Ptolemaic leanings of the high priest and thus that the debate between Onias and Simon was really between parties sympathetic to the Ptolemies and the Seleucids respectively. Such an analysis reads a great deal into one brief mention in a dramatically composed speech. Thucydides (c. 460–400 bce), the great historian of the Peloponnesian war, laid down the rule that, as it was difficult to remember the exact words a speaker used, the writer should make the speakers say what was appropriate for each occasion. It seems totally out of place that the high priest, when wanting to appease the Seleucids so the temple treasury would not be confiscated, would suddenly flaunt his anti-Seleucid leanings to the Seleucid chancellor. More likely, Hyrcanus, a Tobiad, is mentioned simply as an important person. The reader should not too hastily identify him with the romantic brigand of the Tobiad romance.

3:12. On the general rule for deposits, see Exod 22:7–15. Deposits at the Lord’s Temple are doubly inviolate.



The author uses highly emotional language to describe the reaction to Heliodorus’s decision to carry on with the confiscation. The taking of the deposits would not profane the Temple, but it would be an insult—a dishonor (3:18). The word for "distress" (ἀγωνία agōnia, v. 14b) is repeated as "anguish" at v. 16 (it can also mean "pain"), and the verb form is found at v. 21: "in great anguish." The emphasis throughout is focused on the way the agony of the high priest mirrors that of the whole populace. Even married women, who are normally excluded from public affairs and restricted to the household, now appear in the streets in mourning. Sackcloth, from which shrouds were made, is the classic symbol of mourning (Neh 9:1; Jonah 3:6; Esth 4:1). Even the unmarried women, kept hidden in the household, are mentioned to show how all the people were involved.



Verses 22–23 recapitulate vv. 12–14 and set off the description of the people’s distress. The author employs a wide variety of words to describe God—the word "Sovereign" (δυνάστης dynastēs, v. 24) is used also at 12:15, 28; 15:4–5, 23, 29; and is picked up at v. 28 in "the sovereign power." (It is found also in 3 Macc 2:3; 6:39; 1 Tim 6:15 and in the context of an epiphany in 1 Tim 6:14.) In Greek, the same word means both "spirit" and "wind" (πνεῦμα pneuma). The title "Sovereign of spirits" is similar to the way Heb 1:7, interpreting Ps 104:4, states that God makes angels winds/spirits, and the Wisdom of Solomon says that God knows the powers of spirits/winds (7:20).

This is the first epiphany in the narrative. Some scholars have divided the narrative into two accounts, one with a horseman (vv. 24–25, 27–28, 30) and the other with two young men (vv. 26, 29, 31–34). But the author may also be displaying the power of God through various agents. The description of the avenging figures has all the usual traits of divine interventions in Hellenistic literature: golden armor, handsome young men (see the description in 5:2–3; 10:29; 11:8). To be flogged was humiliating. As the book of Proverbs states, "A whip for the horse, a bridle for the donkey,/ and a rod for the back of fools" (Prov 26:3 NRSV). Flogging was a punishment for wrongdoing, and Jewish law stipulated that no more than forty lashes should be given, for otherwise the person flogged would be degraded (Deut 25:1–3). This punishment could be administered more "mildly," as when the authorities in Caesarea tried to stifle the fights between the Jews and the Greeks in the town by the use of scourges and imprisonment. Paul underwent such punishment at the hands of Jewish and Roman authorities (Acts 16:22–25; 21:24; 2 Cor 11:24–25). A more severe beating could be administered for other crimes, and could sometimes lead to the death of the condemned person. Heliodorus is said to have been flogged continually until he fainted, which suggests the more severe punishment. That someone of his high rank should be subjected to the punishment for criminals would be seen as especially degrading to him. Darkness is often a sign of destruction, as in the ninth plague (Exod 10:21) and for Saul as he was dying (2 Sam 1:9 LXX). The day of the Lord is to be a day of darkness (Amos 5:18; Joel 2:2, 31). The contrast of vv. 22–23 is now reversed in the contrast of vv. 29–30.



In contrast to the story in 3 Maccabees 1–2, where Ptolemy IV Philopator attempts to enter the holy of holies and is punished but does not repent, here Heliodorus recognizes the power of the deity. Such recognition of divine power by a former enemy is also found in Greek literature as, for example, in the Lindos Chronicle, which portrays how, before the battle of Marathon, the Persian commander Dates was forced to proclaim the greatness of the goddess Athena through a miraculous thirst she sent on his forces as they besieged the isle of Lindos.

The author emphasizes that this miracle was no tricky ambush played on Heliodorus but the work of God by asserting that the high priest prayed for Heliodorus to assure that the king would not get the wrong impression about what had happened. The text does not specify what kind of sacrifice was offered, but possibly it was an offering concerning deposits (Lev 6:1–7; Num 5:5–10). The importance of the sacrificial cult is underscored as bringing forgiveness to a Gentile and the holiness of the high priest is stressed. Gentiles were healed by Moses (Exod 8:28–29) and Elisha (2 Kgs 5:1–19), and Josephus reports that later sacrifices were offered daily for the emperors. Heliodorus in his turn offered sacrifice, presumably a sacrifice of well-being (Lev 7:11–18; 22:21–25). This witness of Heliodorus to the power of God does not mean that Heliodorus has converted, but that he recognizes the power of the deity who resides in Jerusalem. The confession emphasizes the supreme position of the God of Israel. One important theme of the epitome is that Jews and Gentiles can live on good terms with one another (see Introduction); this theme is shown here in the healing of Heliodorus and in his respect for the Jews.


This narrative recalls that the relationship between God and the people is a reciprocal relationship. If the people obey God’s laws, God will help them; but if they disobey, God will punish them. Such a relationship demands that each person in the community strive to his or her utmost. The narrative also stresses how one is to combat attacks on the community: The whole community is to be united in its steadfastness. The attack from outside only occurs because of an internal breakdown, a power struggle between community leaders. Envy is a tumor that can eat away, and the desire for personal status must be resisted.

In the political realm, we often see the struggle between what one should do as a partisan politician and what one should do for the well-being of the nation. So it is in the sphere of organized religion as well. Responsible leaders will always opt for what is best for the community. One recalls the response of Jesus to debates among his followers; the true leader is the one who serves (Mark 10:41–45). Paul shamed Corinthian Christians who were so concerned about their status that they began to take one another to court (1 Cor 6:1–11). Placing self before the welfare of the community must be resisted.

What is also striking about the resistance of the community to Heliodorus is that it is a passive resistance, with no attempt to take up arms. Later in the narrative, the author will argue that the Macceabeans’ success came through the martyrdoms of Eleazar and the mother and her seven sons. Such a position recalls that of the chronicler as outlined by Susan Niditch. She notes how the authors of 1 and 2 Chronicles are especially fond of having weak and humbled Israelites call upon God for help (e.g., 2 Chr 14:9–15). This theme, as Niditch points out, is at the heart of the exodus tradition. In Chronicles, this theme reemerges in full force alongside a stress on the power of God and the helplessness of human fighters, particularly in the narrative of 2 Chronicles 20. When a great multitude is about to attack Judea, King Jehoshaphat prays, "We are powerless before this vast multitude that comes against us. We are at a loss what to do, hence our eyes are turned toward you" (2 Chr 20:12 NAB). Without any fighting, God delivers the people. The chronicler certainly revels in the death of Israel’s enemies, but there are hints that he does not want the Israelites to take part in war but to leave it all up to God. The book of Daniel also stresses the defeat of oppressors by supernatural means. In Daniel 2, the great statue that represents various kingdoms is broken into pieces by a stone not cut by human hands (Dan 2:34). The arrogant beast of Daniel 7 falls under divine judgment and is put to death (Dan 7:11), and the king of Daniel 8 is broken, but not by human hands (Dan 8:25). In Daniel 11, the king simply comes to an end, with no one to help him (Dan 11:45).

This same idea of divine intervention is present in this narrative in 2 Maccabees 3. It is also reminiscent of Paul’s advice to never avenge oneself, but to leave room for the wrath of God (Rom 12:19). This ideology of non-participation, to use Niditch’s phrase, gives the narrative of 2 Maccabees a pacifist tinge unlike 1 Maccabees. The emphasis on confronting evil with defiant passivity rather than with arms, an emphasis that people like Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr., evidenced in their lives, is important. Recourse to violence should always be the last resort after all else has failed. We, too, must be willing to follow humbly but persistently what we hold to be right. We will not expect angels to come to our aid, but we must believe that right will win out in the end if we pursue our goals with integrity.

2 MACCABEES 4:1–10:8

The Second Attack on the Temple


The second attack on the Temple in Jerusalem follows the same basic pattern as the attack described in 3:1–40: the attack against Jerusalem and the people’s traditional way of life (4:6–6:17); the cry for help (6:18–7:42); God’s response (chaps. 8–9); the purification of the Temple (10:1–8).



The attack on Jerusalem comes from both internal and external forces. The internal forces were the removal of Onias from Jerusalem (4:16), which brought changes under the new high priest, Jason (4:7–22), and the events under his replacement, Menelaus (4:23–5:10). The external attack came from Antiochus IV (5:11–6:11). Throughout this section the author reflects on the significance of these events (4:16–17; 5:17–20; 6:12–17). These reflections are important indicators of the worldview of the author—his belief in the election of Israel by God and the necessity that Jews live according to God’s covenantal laws.

2 Maccabees 4:1–6, The Removal of Onias


The author had insisted that the piety of the high priest Onias was the reason for the well-being of the holy city (3:1), and so, it is an ominous sign if, because of slander, Onias has to leave Jerusalem. In 2 Baruch, a pseudepigraphical work usually dated to around the beginning of the second century ce, Baruch is told by God to tell Jeremiah and all like-minded people to leave Jerusalem, for their works had become a firm pillar for the city and their prayers a strong wall (2 Baruch 2). Then the city will be handed over to be captured. One might also note how the prophet Ezekiel witnesses the departure of the glory of the Lord from Jerusalem before its destruction (Ezekiel 10).

There are close grammatical links between 3:39 and 4:1; 3:39 sums up the events in chapter 3, but 4:1 shows how the underlying problem in chapter 3, the rivalry among the families of the ruling elite, still continues. The concern of Onias that Seleucus not get the wrong idea that the Jews had committed "foul play" (3:32) is shown to be justified as Simon slanders the high priest about this event. The breakdown of civility in the city is dramatically shown by the increase of violence. Simon is shown to be the opposite of Onias, as he instigates murder (v. 3), which goes against the commands of God (Exod 20:13; 21:12; Num 35:30–34). The local rivalry takes on larger dimensions, however, as the Seleucid authorities become involved. The new governor of Coelesyria and Phoenicia does not assume the passive attitude of the previous governor (3:7) but actively supports Simon (4:4). It is not known why, or what benefit a governor might gain from fomenting civil unrest. Whatever the reason, the high priest decides to go over the governor’s authority by petitioning the king to decide the case at the royal court at Antioch (v. 5; see also v. 33). Such an appeal could be construed as playing party politics. The author of 2 Maccabees instead insists on Simon’s selfishness and on Onias’s selflessness. Such concern on Onias’s part, not for his own good but for that of the nation, also contrasts with the power-hungry desire the author says drove Menelaus (13:3) and Alcimus (14:3). The section ends with Onias seeking to restore the peace (vv. 5–6) with which the narrative began (3:1).

2 Maccabees 4:7–22, The High Priesthood of Jason


4:7–17, Jason’s Rise to Power. The author quickly passes over the events of the end of Seleucus’s reign on September 3, 175—his assassination by Heliodorus, the installation of Seleucus’s young son, and the usurpation of the throne by Seleucus’s brother, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, who returned from being held hostage in Rome (cf. Dan 11:20–21; Appian Syriaca 45). The author uses a standard formula to describe Seleucus’s death (cf. 11:23). At his or her accession a new monarch would appoint or confirm rulers in their position (cf. 1 Macc 11:24–27, 57–58). Jason seizes the opportunity afforded by Antiochus’s accession to seek the position of high priest by playing on the need of the Seleucids for money to pay the indemnity to Rome. All in all, Jason promises 590 talents of silver, quite a sizable amount for a small country like Judea. The annual payment imposed by the Romans as a heavy indemnity on the Seleucids was 1,000 talents of silver, and so this extra money is a significant amount. The last installment of the indemnity was to be paid in 173 bce.

Besides becoming high priest, what Jason asked for in exchange for the money has been the subject of long scholarly debate. The gymnasium was a unique feature of Greek life. Originally designed for athletic activity, it usually consisted of a running track and a wrestling area with perhaps jumping pits and areas for throwing the javelin or discus. Adjacent would be buildings for dressing, bathing, storing oil, etc. Later, gymnasia became centers of both physical and intellectual training, with halls for lectures on music, literature, and philosophy. The exact chronology of this development, however, is unclear, and it is unknown how much of such intellectual training would have been connected with a gymnasium in a city like Jerusalem in the early second century bce. The same uncertainty surrounds the word translated "body of youth" in the NRSV (ἐφηβεῖον ephēbeion). These were boys who had reached the age of puberty. At Athens, for a short period of time in the late fourth century, all young men aged eighteen to twenty, the ephebes, underwent a two-year compulsory military training. Such military exercises as archery and the use of siege engines were still being done by ephebes in the late second century. But few families could afford their sons’ not working for two years, so this training period, like most education, was primarily for the sons of rich families. The ephebes, through their training, became involved in the public life of a city, its religious festivals and processions. The reader needs to keep in mind that there was no core curriculum for education in the Hellenistic world, and education was primarily preparation to be a citizen of a particular city with all its particular religious and community responsibilities. The physical exercises, of course, would be common to all, and so cities could compete against each other in games (see 4:18–20). While we cannot be sure what intellectual training took place at the gymnasium in Jerusalem, except no doubt that Greek was taught, the physical training already showed that the people desired to be part of a wider world. Outfitting and maintaining such an athletic facility would have been expensive, and thus one gets a sense of the wealth of the high priestly families. The exact location of the gymnasium is unknown. According to 4:12, the gymnasium lay right under the citadel. If one locates the citadel on the southeastern hill, then the gymnasium would have been either between the city of David and the Temple or in a broad ravine, the Tyropoion, which separated the Lower City from the Upper City.

Besides a gymnasium, Jason also asked for some sort of concession for citizens of Jerusalem (4:9b). The verse has been variously translated: to enroll the people of Jerusalem as Antiochians, i.e., citizens of Antioch; to enroll the Antiochenes in Jerusalem. Who and what are these Antiochenes? Four possibilities have been suggested: that the Hellenized Jews would be made citizens of Antioch in Syria; that Antiochus IV had set up a new republic like the Roman one and that its citizens were to be called Antiochenes; that a Hellenistic corporation would have been set up within Jerusalem and its members called Antiochenes;38 that Jerusalem itself would now be called Antioch-in-Jerusalem and its citizens called Antiochenes. The first three are unlikely. As regards the first proposition, even the king could not force a city to give citizenship en bloc to citizens of another city. As for the second option, the evidence we do have suggests that Antiochus IV supported local traditions and not that he sought to make a republic. Against the third position, "Antiochene" never refers to a corporation, but to citizenship. Even the last suggestion has its problems; 1 Maccabees does not mention such a change in name and status, nor does the author of 2 Maccabees, even though he knows how to protest a name change (6:2–3), complain openly about it. Nevertheless, many ancient cities received new Greek names, and this seems to be the best explanation of this verse. Did this name change have juridical or constitutional implications? Tcherikover argues that only those who received ephebic training could become citizens and that since Jason controlled the enrollment of the gymnasium, he would now be able to decide who became a citizen of his city. Yet we have no evidence that in the Hellenistic period a city’s name change meant constitutional change as well, or that undergoing ephebic training was the only way to become a citizen. Perhaps all one should say is that "to enroll the people of Jerusalem as Antiochenes" means simply that the name of the city was henceforth to be Antioch-in-Jerusalem, and that this does not imply either Jason’s control of who was a citizen or a constitutional change in Jerusalem.

However, it is likely that Jason controlled who was enrolled in the gymnasium. And since this educational training would have tracked its students for entrance into higher governmental and diplomatic posts, Jason would have been able to manipulate who would receive this favored treatment as well. This was patronage with a vengeance.

The change of Jerusalem into a Greek city also implies that Jason wanted to integrate Jerusalem into the Seleucid Empire, particularly since his position depended on Antiochus IV’s favor. Why would Antiochus have so readily granted the request? He always needed the money for lavish expenditures, but, perhaps just as important, it strengthened his southern region near the border with Egypt at a time of increasing tension.

The author of 2 Maccabees sees what Jason did as the abandonment of traditional Jewish religion (vv. 11, 17). He refers in particular to the privileges bestowed by Antiochus III through the father of Eupolemus, the Jewish ambassador to Rome under Judas Maccabeus (1 Macc 8:17). The author contrasts what is lawful with what is unlawful and uses the word "Hellenization" (v. 13), which formerly meant the use of a pure Greek style of speech, in a new way as the opposite of Judaism (see also 2:21; 8:1; 14:38). The author mocks those concerned with physical exercises rather than spiritual pursuits. Since education in the ancient world was so intimately tied to training for citizenship, one can see how the author understands Jason’s educational reforms as a denial of Jewish traditions. The athletes wore the Greek-style hat (v. 12), which was a broad-brimmed hat worn to protect them from the sun; it was said to have been similar to the hat worn by Hermes, the god of athletics. The signal (v. 14) was typically to start activity in the gymnasium, not specifically for discus throwing. At vv. 16–17, the author reflects on what was taking place and points forward to the persecutions that will soon happen. The author also introduces his motif of just deserts—punishment meted out is appropriate to the crime committed (see 4:26, 32–33, 38; 5:9–10; 13:8).

4:18–22, Jason’s Further Tenure. Every four years games were held at Tyre in honor of the God Melgart/Heracles. Following his capture of Tyre after a long siege in 332 bce, Alexander celebrated games to Heracles in the spring of 331 bce. These quadrennial games may have followed that precedent. Antiochus IV, as a supporter of local traditions, was present at these games (v. 18). The envoys sent by Jason (v. 19) were official representatives at another city’s festivals. The corollary of Jason’s founding a gymnasium is clearly seen here as Antioch-in-Jerusalem now interacts openly with other cities. At the festivals, "sacred envoys" (θεωροί theōroi) normally offered sacrifices in the name of their cities. The author sees Jason, the "vile" Jason, as again apostatizing when he sends envoys with three hundred silver drachmas, the price of a sacrificial ox, to offer in sacrifice to the Greek god. Those envoys, however, "thought best not to use it for sacrifice" (v. 19), but use the money to pay for the outfitting of triremes, Greek ships with three rows of oars on each side.

Here again surfaces the issue of self-definition: How were Jews who lived in Greek cities and who interacted with the citizens of these cities to behave toward the deities of those cities? How was Jason, as the leader of the Greek city Antioch-at-Jerusalem, to behave toward his counterparts? Would Jason have insulted other leaders by not recognizing in some way the fact that they paid homage to their patron deity? Jason presumably thought it consistent with Judaism as he understood it to offer such a sacrifice, but his envoys did not.

A similar divergence of opinion emerges in the fragments attributed to the Jewish author Eupolemus, usually identified with the ambassador of Judas Maccabeus to Rome (1 Macc 8:17; 2 Macc 4:11), who wrote that Solomon sent to Souron (i.e., Hiram), king of Tyre, as a gift for his help in building the Temple in Jerusalem "the golden column, which is set up in Tyre in the temple of Zeus." Eupolemus attempted to identify Solomon as the origin of the well-known pillar in Tyre, mentioned by the Greek historian Herodotus as being in a temple to Heracles.43 Eupolemus thus connects Solomon with votive offerings in a temple of Zeus. Immediately following this fragment of Eupolemus’s work in Eusebius is a fragment from another Jewish author, Theophilus, who insists that Solomon simply sent the remaining gold back to Souron. Souron then commissioned a full-length gold statue of his daughter and placed the golden pillar near it as a covering for the statue. We know nothing about Theophilus except that he wrote this fragment. We do not know when or where Theophilus wrote, or whether he wrote in conscious opposition to Eupolemus. We do see him, however, as trying to distance Solomon from any connection with a foreign cult, while that is less of a problem for Eupolemus.

It is also interesting to note how the LXX translates Exod 22:28 as "You shall not revile God." The Hebrew term for "God" (אלהים ʾĕlōhîm) is a plural noun, and the Greek translator has translated it as plural: "You shall not revile the gods." Does this translation imply that the gods of other nations could be honored, but only as subordinate to the supreme God, the God of Israel?

We do not know for precisely what action Apollonius son of Menestheus (4:4) went to Egypt as an envoy of the Seleucids (v. 21). Perhaps it was the first time the young king had presided at a state banquet. Ptolemy VI Philometor, after the death of his father, Ptolemy V Epiphanes, in 181/180, had been under the control first of his mother, Cleopatra I, who died in 176, and then of guardians; he proclaimed himself to be of age in 170. The event recorded here seems to take place around 172 bce, and tension had been building for a long time. Ptolemy V Epiphanes might possibly have gone to war with the Seleucids if he had not been assassinated. Antiochus IV, to forestall any invasion, made a tour of his southern areas. Joppa (v. 21) lay on the coast to the northwest of Jerusalem. The language used to describe Antiochus’s welcome to Jerusalem (v. 22) is that of the ceremonial reception for Hellenistic kings. One might compare it with the narrative of the arrival of Alexander the Great in Jerusalem, a narrative that also emphasizes the friendly relations between Jews and the Greek rulers.


This section raises in heightened fashion the question of how a religious community is to identify itself and maintain that identity. What boundaries must one not cross if one is to remain part of that community and true to its traditions? The author of the epitome clearly sees Jason as overstepping the boundaries of Jewish identity as the author defines it. Jews, for him, should not participate in the education in gymnasia or have anything to do with the religious activities associated with Greek festivals. Jason thought differently.

We face similar questions about identity and boundaries in contemporary society. Should Christians send their children to public schools, or should they have their own schools to instill their own sense of Christian values? How much television should we expose our children to? Should one study Scripture only within the confines of one’s own religious tradition, or does one need to be open to the insights of scholars from differing religious traditions who read it from a very different perspective? How is one to respect other religious traditions, to show respect for the festivals of Islam, of Hinduism, of Buddhism, of Native American religious traditions? How do we maintain our belief in the privileged position of our own religious tradition when we are faced with the idea that people do not come to the knowledge of God by one way alone? These questions come to the surface as we see the Jews of the second century bce struggling with diverse cultural values. If a multi-cultural society is to survive, the various subgroups that populate it must learn to respect one another’s traditions and cultures. This is easy to say, but hard to do. If religion is thought of as something individual, private, that each person has the right to do in his or her own private way, then a simple solution seems attainable. Everyone will be able to worship in his or her own way, but the individual’s religion will not impinge on society as a whole. But religious beliefs do have social consequences. The debate over abortion has clearly shown that. The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries also saw surface a conflict between those who held that following the gospel precepts would bring prosperity and that the poor were therefore lazy sinners, and those who held that the gospel required concern and help for the poor. Religious beliefs do have social consequences, and so the task of forming a viable society out of many belief systems requires all of us to work hard at empathizing with those of other faiths.

2 Maccabees 4:23–50, Menelaus in Control


4:23–29, Menelaus Gains the High Priesthood. Jason, although a usurper, was of the Oniad family and thus a Zadokite. He is replaced by Menelaus, a brother of Simon and member of the clan of Bilgah (3:4), and thus not a member of the priestly family. Just as Jason had gained the high priesthood by offering money, so also Menelaus, while delivering the annual tribute, promises an annual tribute of six hundred talents of silver (v. 24), which he is unable to deliver (v. 27). The author dehumanizes Menelaus and suggests by the use of the term "orders," or "instructions" (ἐντολή entolē), that Menelaus is but a puppet of the king (v. 25). Jason flees across the Jordan (v. 26); the Tobiad Hyrcanus had previously fled there to Araq-el-Emir, about twelve miles east of the Jordan and ten miles northwest of Heshbon.

The author now informs us that there was a Seleucid garrison in the city (v. 28; according to 1 Maccabees, the citadel had not yet been built). Antiochus III had spoken of the expulsion of a Ptolemaic garrison from the citadel in Jerusalem, but this is the first time the reader learns of a Seleucid garrison in Jerusalem. Perhaps it was stationed there in response to the Ptolemaic threat. Since one of Sostratus’s duties was to collect revenues, there must have been some division of authority within Jerusalem, with a regular royal functionary operating within and above the city’s political structure. Sostratus and Menelaus are summoned by the king to Antioch to resolve the matter (v. 28). Cyprus was at this time a Ptolemaic possession, so Cyprian troops (v. 29) must have been mercenaries.

4:30–38, The Murder of Onias. When Sostratus and Menelaus arrive in Antioch, Antiochus IV is away from Antioch, settling an uprising in the Cilician towns of Tarsus and Mallus caused by an affront to their standing as independent cities (v. 30). The authority of the king in Greek cities, particularly those in strategic Asia Minor, varied from city to city, but in general the Seleucids showed a certain respect for the independence of these cities. For Antiochus to summarily hand them over to his concubine would have been seen as disrespectful.

In the king’s absence, Menelaus gives some golden vessels stolen from the Temple to Andronichus, Antiochus’s deputy, either as payment of the overdue tribute or as a bribe to have Onias murdered (v. 32). This narrative is quite intriguing. Menelaus, we learn, has been selling temple vessels in Tyre and neighboring cities, perhaps due to his need for cash (v. 27). One might recall how the pious king Hezekiah had paid off Sennacherib with temple silver and gold (2 Kgs 18:13–16; an incident not repeated in the parallel account in 2 Chronicles 32). Menelaus, therefore, may have thought it proper to use the temple furnishings as payment to the king, although he could not have thought that it was right to use the temple treasures to bribe Andronicus. Clearly Onias III, as well as the author, thought Menelaus did not have the authority to sell temple vessels (v. 33). What is intriguing is that, once he has exposed Menelaus’s actions, the pious Onias III (3:1) is pictured as taking asylum in the famous temple of Apollo and Artemis in Daphne. What, then, is Onias’s view of the power of the Greek gods? Here surfaces another of the motifs of 2 Maccabees: Jews and Gentiles can live in peace together (12:30–31). Andronicus, by murdering Onias (v. 34), is shown as utterly treacherous, a treachery resented even by non-Jews (v. 35). Someone named Andronicus is said by Hellenistic historians to have murdered the son of Seleucus IV, who seems to have been co-regent with Antiochus IV prior to Antiochus’s rise to power. (The death of Seleucus’s son is dated to July/August 170 bce from the Babylonian kinglist.) It seems likely that the same Andronicus is meant in both cases. Perhaps Antiochus IV took the opportunity of Onias’s murder to do away with an embarrassing accomplice, although Antiochus IV is shown by the author as being concerned only with the death of Onias, and as extremely moved by it (v. 37). Andronicus is stripped of the purple robe, symbol of the order of the Friends of the King (v. 38; see 1 Macc 10:20), and is publicly humiliated. The motif of one’s getting one’s just deserts thus appears again, while the king does not take action with regard to Menelaus’s role in the death.

4:39–50, Further Charges Against Menelaus. The sacrilegious actions of the Bilgah clan result in rioting against Lysimachus. The attack against Lysimachus, Menelaus’s brother (vv. 39–42), seems to take place while Menelaus is at Antioch and Lysimachus is in charge in Jerusalem (v. 29). The events narrated here stand in sharp contrast to what occurred earlier (2 Maccabees 3). Onias had protected the money deposited in the Temple, but Lysimachus sells the temple vessels. The people had gathered around the high priest Onias in sympathy; here they accuse Lysimachus. Earlier the action was against outsiders; now it is an internal conflict. Lysimachus resorts to violence (v. 40), just as his brother Simon had done (4:3). The reader may wonder what the Seleucid garrison (4:29) was doing during this confrontation and how Lysimachus could so easily procure arms for three thousand men, a small militia in itself. Lysimachus is supported by an otherwise unknown figure, Auranus, whose description contrasts markedly with that of a later, older man, Eleazar, who suffers martyrdom rather than breach the law (6:18). The author intimates divine help in that an unarmed group puts the three thousand armed men to flight and that Lysimachus dies at the very place he was robbing (v. 42), just as Andronicus was killed on the very spot where he had killed Onias (v. 38).

We do not know how the report about the selling of the temple vessels spread (v. 39), but we can see how the factions mentioned in 4:1–6 still exist. Now, as Onias III had done, the three members of the Jerusalem council (v. 44), a body known from a letter of Antiochus III but whose exact function and responsibilities are unknown, go to the king for justice. We are not told who is in charge of Jerusalem or the outcome of the uprising against Lysimachus. The author insists that the uprising was blamed on Menelaus (c. 43 bce), but the three high-ranking councilors may have been called to answer questions about the incident. Ptolemy, son of Dorymenes, may already have held the office of governor of Coelesyria and Phoenicia (1 Macc 3:38; 2 Macc 8:8) and may have been present there for the trial. As the previous governor had favored Simon, Menelaus’s brother (4:4), and as bribery had won the day before (4:32), so now the author shows the same factors at work. Justice, in the opinion of the author of 1 Maccabees, is perverted (vv. 45–48). The Scythians were a byword for irrational cruelty. As at the murder of Onias, the author depicts here some non-Jews sympathetic to the fate of the executed councilors (v. 49). Once again the contrast with Onias III stands out: Whereas Onias was not an accuser of his compatriots but only sought their welfare, Menelaus is the chief plotter against his compatriots.


This section details the intrigues and plots and the breakdown of civility within the Jewish polity. Menelaus uses every means in his power to remain in power: illicitly drawing upon funds that do not belong to him; resorting to violence to quell discontent; silencing the opposition by murder. The story reads almost like the plot for a movie: a politician who steals public monies and then uses his position of power to threaten and get rid of opponents in whatever way is necessary. Unfortunately, art sometimes copies life, and the number of politicians and religious leaders who have been indicted for abuse of trust seems to grow every year. The public figure who can be bribed, like Andronicus, also stands as a warning. Politicians need to be extremely sensitive to even the appearance of a conflict of interest. It does not seem right, for instance, that a senator or member of Congress who owns stocks and shares in oil or gas companies should sit on the committees determining energy policy.

The contrast between the desire for private, short-term gain at the expense of the long-term common welfare of the community is striking in this narrative. It is a contrast each society and each community knows and must deal with. The narrative reminds us of the truth of the maxim cited in 1 Tim 6:10: "The love of money is a root of all kinds of evil" (NRSV). Money donated to charitable works and missions needs to be carefully administered and not squandered on personal affairs or self-aggradizement. Religious leaders should lead lives of simplicity, and not lord it over their flock. As Jesus said, "You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant" (Mark 10:42–43 NRSV). We should not muzzle the ox while it is treading out the grain (1 Cor 9:8–12), but the ox should not become fat either.

2 Maccabees 5:1–27, Antiochus Takes Control of Jerusalem


5:1–10, The Occasion for the Attack on the Temple. The author of 1 Maccabees locates Antiochus IV’s attack on the Temple after his second invasion of Egypt (168 bce), while 2 Maccabees places it after his first invasion of Egypt (170–169 bce). Daniel 11:28–30 speaks of two invasions of Egypt and two attacks against the Temple, but does not explicitly imply that Antiochus IV entered Jerusalem in person on the second attack. In this case, the chronology of 1 Maccabees is to be preferred (1 Macc 1:20–35). Most likely the epitomist has conflated the pillaging of the Temple after the first invasion of Egypt with an armed attack on Jerusalem by the Seleucid Apollonius, captain of the Mysians (1 Macc 1:29; 2 Macc 5:24; note how 1 Maccabees gives a precise date for this attack, "two years later," while 2 Maccabees does not).

5:1–4. Portents or signs in the heavens before a momentous event are frequently reported in Jewish and non-Jewish literature (see esp. Tacitus, the Roman historian [c. 56–115 ce], Pliny the Elder, a Roman writer of the first century ce, and Josephus, the first-century ce Jewish historian). Such portents could, of course, be variously interpreted, and they heightened the narrative tension as to what is in fact to happen (v. 4).

5:5–10. The outcome of battles was always questionable, and so rumors of defeats could easily circulate. The rebuff of Antiochus IV by the Romans after his second invasion of Egypt in 168 bce would be an appropriate occasion for the rise of such a rumor (v. 5). Lysimachus had been able to muster three thousand men (4:40), but now Jason, with only a thousand men, successfully makes an unexpected attack on Jerusalem and forces Menelaus to take refuge in the citadel, presumably with the Seleucid garrison. Jason must have hoped that, with Menelaus defeated, the successor of Antiochus IV would see him as the strong man of Judea, just as Menelaus had gained the high priesthood by presenting himself as powerful (v. 24). Jason, like Menelaus, attacks his compatriots (v. 6). The author does not tell us why Jason failed in his attempt to gain control (v. 7). Some scholars have suggested that a third force, neither Jason nor Menelaus, but the crowds (see 4:40), rose up in a popular uprising. It is more likely, however, that the citadel was well stocked and ably defended by the Seleucid garrison and could hold out against Jason while waiting for reinforcements. Possibly Jason fled in the face of a Seleucid force sent to reestablish order. The author is only concerned to draw out the moral of the story, and not to provide the details. Jason is forced to return to Ammon (4:26). That Jason fled to Egypt presumes that Egypt was no longer under Seleucid control, but these events may have taken place either just before or after Antiochus IV’s second invasion of Egypt. The author indulges in a series of contrasts to show how God brings just deserts upon sinners.

The fictive kinship of the Jews with the Lacedaemonians, or Spartans (v. 9), found also in the exchange of letters cited at 1 Macc 12:6, 18, 20–23, parallels the attempt of many Hellenistic cities to attach themselves to famous events and cities from the Golden Age of Greece (e.g., the Romans traced their origins to Aeneas the Trojan). The Spartans were legendary for their austere way of life and for their military prowess, particularly as exhibited in the wars against the invading Persian army of Xerxes in 480 bce. The Spartan way of life and educational system were quite different from that of other Greek cities, particularly Athens. Hecataeus of Abdera, a Greek historian (c. 300 bce), wrote that in ancient times foreigners dwelling among the Egyptians were driven out because it was thought that the strangers had disrupted the traditional services to the Egyptian gods. Among those driven out, some went to Greece, while most went to Judea under Moses. So some connection was being made between the Greeks and the Jews—although very slight. A more direct connection between the Jews and the Spartans may be through the legendary hero Heracles, to whom Spartan kings traced their ancestry. The Hellenistic-Jewish writer Cleodemus Malchus stated that Afera and Iafra, sons of Abraham through Keturah (Gen 25:4, Ephah and Epher), fought alongside Heracles in his campaign against Antaios and that Africa was named after them. Heracles is said to have married one of the daughters of Afera. This makes a closer connection between the Spartans and the Jews, but does not explain why the Jews and the Spartans were thought to be kin. Perhaps the separation of the Spartans from the rest of the Greeks in their way of life and educational system allowed for a similarity to be drawn between them and the Jews, who were also distinctive in their way of life.

To die far from one’s ancestral tomb (v. 10) was a heavy punishment. When a prophet was tricked into disobeying the command that God had laid on him not to eat or drink, he was told that he would not come to his ancestral tomb (1 Kgs 13:22). When Saul’s and his sons’ bodies were ignominiously displayed on the walls of Beth-shan, the people of Jabesh-Gilead took them down (1 Sam 31:10–13), and later David transferred the bones of Saul and his son Jonathan back to Saul’s father’s tomb in the land of Benjamin (2 Sam 21:10–14).

5:11–16, The Attack. The narrative parallels 1 Macc 1:20–24. Here, in contrast to 1 Maccabees, Antiochus acts to suppress a revolt. As mentioned earlier, according to 1 Macc 1:20, Antiochus plundered the Temple in Jerusalem after his first invasion of Egypt. The author of 2 Maccabees, however, places the plunder of the Temple after the second invasion in 168 bce, when Antiochus was forced to leave Egypt at the intervention of the Romans. In addition, the author of 2 Maccabees makes no mention of the reversal Antiochus had suffered at the hands of the Romans, but implies that the only reason why Antiochus left Egypt was to put down the revolt in Jerusalem. The problem of determining in exactly what order the events occurred is further complicated by the version in Dan 11:28–31:

"He [Antiochus IV] shall return to his land with great wealth, but his heart shall be set against the holy covenant. He shall work his will, and return to his own land. At the time appointed he shall return and come into the south, but this time it shall not be as it was before. For ships of Kittim shall come against him, and he shall lose heart and withdraw. He shall be enraged and take action against the holy covenant. He shall turn back and pay heed to those who forsake the holy covenant. Forces sent by him shall occupy and profane the temple and fortress." (NRSV)

Here in cryptic form are outlined the first and second invasions of Antiochus IV against Egypt. That he "works his will" seems to refer to the plundering of the Temple. After his aborted second invasion, Antiochus is enraged and sends forces to despoil the Temple. This chronology seems to be the same as that of 1 Macc 1:20–35, which speaks of the plunder of the Temple after the first invasion of Egypt in 169 bce and then reports that two years later, in 167, Antiochus sent forces against Jerusalem, although 1 Maccabees does not speak of the second invasion of Egypt by Antiochus or of his rebuff by the Romans (i.e., the Kittim). The author of 2 Maccabees thus seems to have run together two events: the plunder of the Temple after the first invasion and the second Syrian attack on the Temple.

There is also a problem with the first invasion of Egypt. We do not know why Antiochus IV withdrew from Egypt. He had not captured Alexandria, but had set up a protectorate of sorts with himself as guardian of his nephew, Ptolemy VI Philometor. Some scholars have suggested that Antiochus withdrew to garner more forces, but a Babylonian text records that he celebrated his victory in Egypt with a great festival in August/September 169 bce. Here again a chronological problem surfaces. The Greek historian Polybius speaks of a great festival held by Antiochus IV, the Festival of Daphnae, but this is usually dated to 166 bce. The problem arises as to whether Antiochus would have celebrated two festivals for his victories in Egypt. The triumphal festival recorded in the Babylonian diaries appears to be the act of someone satisfied with the results of his invasion, or at least of someone who wants to appear satisfied with the results, since we do not know why he left Egypt. Perhaps Antiochus left because he had settled for a divided, and therefore weakened, Ptolemaic Empire.

The account in 2 Maccabees suggests that the only reason why Antiochus IV left Egypt was to put down the revolt in Jerusalem (v. 11). He is portrayed as being furious that someone should revolt against him. Once again the author of 2 Maccabees dehumanizes the enemy of the Jews by using bestial descriptions—"inwardly raging" is literally "wild beast-like in soul" (τεθηριωμένος τῇ ψυχῇ tethēriōmenos tē psychē). Such descriptions show that Antiochus is not in control of himself, not properly human. The author is not concerned with exact chronology so much as with rhetorical flourish. The numbers of those slaughtered and enslaved are exaggerated (v. 14). The text of Dan 11:30 also describes Antiochus as enraged, but there his rage seems rather the result of being humiliated by the Romans. Scholars sometimes explain the harsh treatment of Jerusalem at the hands of Antiochus as a response to his humiliation by the Romans in Egypt in 168 bce and his wanting to show that he was still a force to be reckoned with. The same motivation would lie behind his ostentatious festival of Daphnae if it is dated to 166 bce. But Antiochus did not plunder the Temple out of rage after the success of his first invasion of Egypt. Rather, at about the same time in 169 bce, he was forcibly extracting treasures from the temple in Babylon, so his plunder of the Jerusalem Temple should not be seen as a special case. If his rage at his humiliation by the Romans is seen as a motivating factor for his subsequent actions, it is a rather delayed reaction for the festival—which, if dated to 166 bce, took place two years later—and also for the persecution of the Jews, which occurred almost a year after Antiochus’s rebuff by the Romans. No doubt Antiochus smarted at the humiliation, but this still does not seem a sufficient reason for the slow buildup of measures against the Jews, which culminated in the attempted suppression of their cultural and religious traditions.

After plundering Egypt (1 Macc 1:19), Antiochus must have thought Jerusalem was small pickings. Antiochus’s liberal gifts to Greek cities, particularly Athens, where he wished to complete the magnificent temple of Olympian Zeus, made him always glad of further revenue. In contrast to Onias III, whose piety brought it about that kings honored and glorified the Temple (3:1–2), Menelaus now helps Antiochus despoil the Temple. The role of Menelaus is not mentioned in the parallel account in 1 Maccabees.

5:17–20, The Author’s Reflections. At this disastrous turn of events the author feels compelled to comment. He stresses the dichotomy between what Antiochus thinks and what God proposes. Antiochus is "puffed up in spirit," an attitude against which he will be warned in 7:34, and thinks he is special (cf. 5:21; 9:8, 10), whereas God is using Antiochus as the instrument of God’s anger. This misperception of one’s role is also ascribed to the king of Assyria at Isa 10:5–15. In addition, the author has the same theology that is found in Deuteronomy, where, if the people disobey God’s laws, they will be punished (Deut 11:13–17, 28; cf. 2 Macc 6:12–17). The author stresses that the welfare of Jerusalem, the place God chose (Deut 12:5–7), depends on the people’s keeping the covenant with its blessings and curses. The author, in v. 20, looks forward to the turnaround of the misfortune of the people, which will take place in chapter 8, and reflects on the prayer of Solomon at the dedication of the Temple (1 Kgs 8:46–53; 2 Chr 7:12–22; see also Isa 54:7–8; Jer 7:3–15; Zech 1:12–17 for examples of God’s anger turning to compassion).

5:21–26, Antiochus’s Measures in Jerusalem. In his arrogance (stressed in 1 Maccabees also; see 1 Macc 1:21), Antiochus carries off 1,800 talents from the Temple, quite a large sum. The way the king is described calls to mind the Persian king Xerxes, who dared to bridge the Hellespont and cut a canal through Mt. Athos. Antiochus is being depicted as someone who fights against God (see 7:19).

Philip (who appears again in 6:11 and 8:8), a Phrygian (in Asia Minor), possibly was in charge of the Seleucid garrison in Jerusalem, from which he could make forays into the countryside. Again, note how this enemy of the Jews is described: "more barbarous than the man who appointed him" (v. 22). The Greek official is termed a barbarian, the exact reversal of normal Greek usage, in which non-Greeks are the barbarians (cf. 2:21). Andronicus was left in charge of Gerizim, the center of Samaria. Note how the Samaritans are included in "the race"/"people" (v. 22; 6:2). The author does not see any conflict between the Jews and the Samaritans. Andronicus, a Mysian (in northwestern Asia Minor), was perhaps the predecessor of Apollonius in Samaria (1 Macc 3:10). Menelaus remains high priest and is described as being even worse than these non-Jewish officials. The description of Apollonius’s attack parallels that of 1 Macc 1:29–40, although the author here states that the attack took place on the sabbath, thereby heightening the offense. An army of 22,000 seems much too large for an attack force against unarmed Jerusalem. The purpose of the attack, to kill all the men and sell the women and children as slaves, appears to replicate what Antiochus had already done (5:13–14). The attack of Apollonius, as narrated by the epitomist, appears completely unprovoked and a senseless act of cruelty. The parallel account in 1 Maccabees provides the purpose for Apollonius’s attack: to install and fortify a strong Seleucid garrison in the city. As the author of 1 Maccabees dates the event to two years after Antiochus’s first invasion of Egypt (i.e., 167 bce), he thus locates it not long after Antiochus’s humiliation at the hands of the Romans in Egypt. So the reader might see these reinforced fortifications as part of an attempt to strengthen the Seleucid Empire’s southern border. Throughout all this activity, where was Menelaus? Was he away from the city at Antioch, or was he a witness to the power of the Seleucid army?

5:27. In the midst of this destruction, the author again sounds a hopeful note: Judas Maccabeus appears on the scene (v. 27). The author of 2 Maccabees makes no mention of Mattathias, although, like the author of 1 Maccabees, he has the Hasmoneans first living in Jerusalem (1 Macc 2:1). The author of 1 Maccabees has placed the exit from Jerusalem of Mattathias and his family after the narrative of the religious persecution (1 Macc 1:41–62), whereas the author of 2 Maccabees places Judas’s exit before the persecution (2 Macc 6:1–11). However, these differences can perhaps be accounted for by the goals of the two authors. The author of 1 Maccabees introduces his account with the vague phrase "in those days," so an exact chronology cannot be determined. Since the purpose of this author is to concentrate on the reaction to the persecution in Mattathias and his sons, he accentuates Mattathias’s grief by including a lament (2:7–13), while giving little space to the martyrdoms (1 Macc 1:60–63). The author of 2 Maccabees, on the other hand, emphasizes martyrdom as the appropriate reaction to persecution (6:10–7:42), and for him it is the martyrdoms that bring God’s mercy (7:38; 8:5). Therefore, he places the story of Judas’s exit from Jerusalem so as to offer the reader a glimpse of hope. The wilderness was a traditional place of refuge, where Moses had fled from Pharaoh (Exod 3:1), David had fled from Saul (1 Sam 23:14), and Elijah had fled from Jezebel (1 Kgs 19:1–9). Judas escapes from the pollution of the city life into the more natural life in the mountains (cf. Hos 2:14–15; Mark 1:12). The final clause of v. 27, "so that they might not share in the defilement," qualifies their living apart from the city as escaping evil influences and not simply eating "what grew wild."


The author of 2 Maccabees, as noted, provides his own comments on what was happening in Jerusalem (5:17–20) and in the way he portrays the just deserts meted out to Jason. What the reader might ponder here is that so often we are caught up in the leading personalities of the conflict. How terrible were Jason and Menelaus? How arrogant was Antiochus? What we sometimes forget is the fate of those slaughtered and enslaved, however inaccurate the figures might be (80,000, 5:14; "great numbers," 5:26). These are the ordinary people who so often bear the brunt of their leaders’ pride and ambition. Even in an age when missiles can be targeted with pinpoint accuracy, it is still so often the civilian population that suffers. Here the problem of what constitutes a just war arises again. Can the slaughter of civilians ever be tolerated, however accidental? What level of killing can be tolerated in the prosecution of a war? Can there ever be a just nuclear war? These horrific war stories from the second century bce should make us reflect on the equally horrible atrocities of our age.

2 Maccabees 6:1–11, The Pagan Cult Imposed in Jerusalem


Antiochus IV now takes further measures against the Jews in Jerusalem. As noted in the Introduction, the motives behind this action remain unknown, although many theories abound. What one notes is that these measures are the final step in a process of attempting to control what was going on in Jerusalem and presumably to stabilize conditions in this southern region of the kingdom. The measures against Judaism were directed at Jews in Judea, and not empire-wide. For some reason, Antiochus must have considered the Jewish cult in Judea, centered around the Temple, to be a focal point of resistance to the smooth running of the Seleucid administration of the city, even though his friend Menelaus was high priest. Were opposition and resistance to the Seleucid government and the regime of Menelaus already growing before the rise of the Maccabees? The parallel account in 1 Macc 1:41–64 stresses the megalomania of the king, but, since the decree mentioned at 1 Macc 1:41 is not confirmed by other evidence, one should try to find an explanation that fits the particular situation in Judea. What is intriguing is the silence about the role of Menelaus. Some scholars have suggested that he instigated the persecution. As will be noted later on, the reference to Menelaus in the letter of Antiochus IV, which repeals the persecution (11:27–33), could be taken to mean that Menelaus was instrumental in the repeal of the persecution. He, therefore, may have been overruled when the king decided, for whatever reasons and prompted by whatever advisers, to suppress Judaism in Judea and install paganism. (See also Commentary on 2 Maccabees 11.)

6:1–2. The king’s agent is named Geron the Athenian. The Jews are no longer to follow the religious customs of their ancestors. Such a decree might indicate that the Jews could not follow them in public but possibly could in private. However, the instances of people’s ignoring the ban show that private observance was also forbidden. The first change is one of nomenclature: the temples in Jerusalem and Gerizim are given new names, Zeus Olympios and Zeus Xenios respectively (i.e., friend of strangers). Olympios and Xenios were both common epithets for Zeus (Antiochus IV had undertaken to complete the temple in Athens dedicated to Zeus Olympios). The author gives a reason for the change to Zeus Xenios at Gerizim, but the meaning is uncertain. Scholars frequently emend the text to bring it into line with a petition from some Samaritans to Antiochus IV requesting that their temple be renamed Zeus Hellenios and translate v. 2b as in the NAB: "as the inhabitants of the place requested."59 However, since the author has previously linked what happens at Jerusalem with what happens at Gerizim (5:22–23) and seems to hold no antipathy to the Samaritans, one might keep the text as is and translate "as those who live there are, i.e., hospitable." A Hellenistic-Jewish writer, in retelling Genesis 14, describes how Abraham was "hospitably received" (ξενίζω xenizō) by the city at the temple of Gerizim, and this may reflect a positive view of the Samaritans.

6:3–6. The author offers a description of the imposed cult that is not found in other contemporary sources. Cult prostitution was prohibited in Israelite religion (Deut 23:17), and various kings were praised for ridding the land of cult prostitutes (1 Kgs 15:12; 22:46; 2 Kgs 23:7), and the presence of cult prostitutes is a sign of the evil reign of Rehoboam (1 Kgs 14:24). The author of 2 Maccabees is using stereotypical accusations to show that what the Gentiles were doing was barbaric. While Antiochus III had issued a proclamation forbidding improper sacrificial animals to be brought to the city and allowed only the sacrificial animals known to their ancestors, now unfit sacrificial offerings are introduced. What is noteworthy is that the author does not mention the desolating sacrilege of Dan 11:31; 1 Macc 1:54. Also, it is unclear what exactly is meant by "nor even admit that he was a Jew" (v. 6). Does the term "Jew" here have simply a geographical designation so that people who used to live in or originate from Judea were called Jews, but now were going to be called after the new name for the area, a name derived from the name change of Jerusalem to Antioch-in-Jerusalem (2 Macc 4:9, 19)? Would such a geographical name change be applied even to those people originally from Judea who were living outside Judea, or only to those living in Judea? Or does "Jew" here mean more than a geographical designation—i.e., one who follows the Torah? Given the context of the suppression of distinctive religious and cultural traditions derived from the Torah, probably it means the latter. When discussing Exod 20:6, which speaks of those who love God and keep the commandments, a rabbinic commentator writes: "Rabbi Nathan says: ‘Of them that love me and keep my commandments’ refers to those who dwell in the land of Israel and risk their lives for the sake of the commandments."

6:7–9. The cult imposed was not for one particular divinity, but responded to paganism in general, here to the cult of the king and to the cult of Dionysus, the Greek god of wine and harvest. The author insists that the Jews were forced to take part in these festivals, but 1 Macc 1:52 suggests that many were eager to follow the new practices. The monthly celebration of Antiochus IV’s birthday, was on the twenty-fifth of the month (1 Macc 1:58–59). The persecution, or attempt to force neighboring Jews to follow Greek ways, is extended to neighboring cities, most probably those immediately bordering on Judea so that the Judeans could not easily cross the border to practice their religion. The translation of v. 8 is difficult; the verb can mean either "suggest" or, more strongly, "enjoin," and the manuscripts read both "of Ptolemy" (i.e., Ptolemy son of Dorymenes the governor of Coelesyria and Phoenicia; 4:45; 8:8) and "of Ptolemais" (i.e., the coastal city in Phoenicia also known as Acco). Ptolemais seems a good distance from the borders of Judea, as it lies near Galilee. However, 1 Macc 5:15 reports that the people of Ptolemais and Tyre and Sidon and all Galilee of the Gentiles had gathered together against the Jews. Only one decree is said to be issued, whereas each Greek city should pass its own vote. We must imagine, therefore, either that Ptolemy, hostile to the Jews in 2 Macc 4:45; 8:8, strongly recommended to the cities around Judea that they persecute the Jews, or that the citizens of Ptolemais so acted on their own accord and induced other cities to follow their lead. The latter reading makes the persecution a more "grassroots" movement than does the former.

6:10–11. Two examples of the suffering imposed are then adduced (cf. 1 Macc 1:60–61; 2:31–38). Note the use of political language: the women are led publicly through the "city" (πόλις polis) and thrown down from the wall (which protects the city). The victims are described as women with babies at their breasts—here women and their babies, the basis for the continued growth and prosperity of any city, are paraded as antithetical to the city values Antiochus IV is espousing.

Immediately following the execution of the women and their babies is an account of some men who were meeting outside the city, out of sight, to "observe the sabbath day" (v. 11). Yet they are betrayed to Philip and are burned to death. Their actions are depicted as anti-social and anti-polis. Plato had argued that no one should possess shrines in private houses and that anyone who disobeyed was to be executed. The rites of Dionysus were suppressed in Rome in 186 bce because, as the Roman historian Livy states, they are secret/hidden rites performed at night. They are alien rites. So here the rituals of the Jews are attacked as anti-polis, as a threat to the state and as if they were foreign, and yet the reader knows that the observance of the sabbath, the most holy day, is part and parcel of ancestral Jewish tradition and that Philip, a Phrygian (2 Macc 5:22), is the foreigner.

2 Maccabees 6:12–17, Punishment Seen as Discipline


The author interprets the persecution against the Jews as God’s training/education of the people. As a parent disciplines a child, so God disciplines Israel (Deut 8:5). God regards Israel as a mother nursing her child (Isa 49:14–16); God may be angry, but God’s love is everlasting (Isa 54:7–8). Israel is God’s chosen people, treated differently from the way other nations are treated.

Such a reflection is in line with later rabbinic teaching on the goodness of suffering.

"Rabbi Akiba says: "You shall not do with me" (Exod 20:20). You shall not behave towards Me in the manner in which others behave towards their deities. When good comes to them they honor their gods, as it is said: "Therefore they sacrifice unto their net," etc. (Hab 1:16). But when evil comes to them they curse their gods, as it is said: "And it shall come to pass that when they shall be hungry they shall fret themselves and curse their king and their god" (Isa 8:21). But you, if I bring good upon you, give thanks, and when I bring suffering upon you, give thanks.… Furthermore, a man should even rejoice when in adversity more than when in prosperity. For even if a man lives in prosperity all his life, it does not mean that his sins have been forgiven him. But what is it that does bring a man forgiveness? You must say, suffering. Rabbi Eliezer the son of Jacob says: Behold it says: "My son, despise not the chastening of the Lord" (Prov 3:11). Why? "For whom the Lord loves He corrects," etc. You must reason: Go out and see what was it that made this son a delight to his father? You must say, suffering … Rabbi Jose the son of Rabbi Judah says: Precious are chastisements, for the name of God rests upon him to whom chastisements come.

In some ways the teaching here differs from that in Sirach, which emphasizes how slow to anger the Lord is and warns against counting on God’s indulgence (Sir 5:4–9; cf. 18:10–14). The Wisdom of Solomon also teaches that the righteous receive benefit through punishments (Wis 11:1–14), but it also speaks of God’s allowing other nations time to repent: "Though you were not unable to/ give the ungodly into the/ hands of the righteous in battle,/ or to destroy them at one blow by/ dread wild animals or your stern word,/ But judging them little by little/ you gave them an/ opportunity to repent" (Wis 12:9–10 NRSV; cf. 12:20).


2 Maccabees 6:18–31, Eleazar


The story of Eleazar is retold in greater detail in 4 Maccabees 5–7, where he is called a priest (4 Macc 5:4). The word translated "scribe" (γραμματεύς grammateus) often in the OT refers to officers of the people (e.g., Num 11:16; Josh 8:33; 23:2; 24:1; 1 Chr 23:4 LXX), so one should see him as a leading official. Since he is said to be well known to those in charge of the unlawful sacrifice, are these officials Jews or non-Jews? Like all heroes, Eleazar is described as being handsome. He is also dignified and from a noble family (v. 23). The author relates that Eleazar was forced to violate the Torah prohibition of eating pork (Lev 11:7–8; Deut 14:8; cf. 1 Macc 1:47, 62–63). But when he refuses to eat the pork, "welcoming death with honor rather than life with pollution" (v. 19), he is sentenced to be tortured on the rack (so the NRSV). Exactly what the torture was is unclear; the Greek word (τύμπανον tympanon, v. 19) can be translated "drum," "stick," or "wagon wheel," and so it connotes something turning around—i.e., a rack. Eleazar refuses to act ignobly, for he knows that God knows all things (v. 30). The narrative, in fact, is full of fine rhetorical passages that are common in Greek literature, in which the person’s last words before dying bravely are designed to arouse emotion in the reader. But the narrative also resonates with the contrasts, also common in Greek literature, of honor and dishonor (vv. 19, 25). Eleazar eschews any contradiction between his private and his public behavior. His life is to be marked with consistency, not hypocrisy, an example of nobility, a memorial or ἀρετή (aretē, "virtue"/"valor"/"excellence"). To die well is the better part of aretē. This classical virtue is found in this narrative in a Jew rather than in the officials who counsel pretense to prolong life. Eleazar is not victimized; rather he willingly chooses honor. There is no mention of restoration to life, only to the bleak world of Hades/Sheol. Eleazar, however, is not seeking a reward, only to live nobly.

2 Maccabees 7:1–42, The Mother and Her Seven Sons


After the noble death of an honorable man comes the emotionally charged story of a mother and her seven sons who are martyred for their faith. Such stories of whole families perishing under attack are found both in Jewish and Greek literature. The particular motif of a mother’s dying with her seven sons was a favorite one in later Jewish literature, where the event takes place either before a Roman emperor68 or "in the days of persecution." The folktale motif of the youngest son’s being the most important is also present, as we see the tortures crescendo until finally the seventh son gives the longest and most effective speech and undergoes the worst torture. This suggests a more popular type of narrative. Some scholars have suggested that the story originally circulated independent of 2 Maccabees and was inserted into the narrative. However, the closing sentence of the chapter (7:42) links the stories of Eleazar and the mother under the rubrics of "eating of sacrifices" (6:18) and extreme tortures (7:1, 13, 15). The pattern of a mother and her seven sons dying may be traditional and have existed independently, but the author of 2 Maccabees has skillfully woven it into his narrative.

Although there is no indication of a change of scene from the previous story, scholars have speculated as to where these events took place. Later tradition, both Christian and Jewish, located them at Antioch, where Antiochus would have held court, since there is no indication that Antiochus ever visited Jerusalem again. The traditional folktale, in which a ruler is bested by a wiser subject, seems to spotlight the evil character of Antiochus. Throughout the scene, the martyrs respond calmly while the king loses control (7:3, 39).

7:1–6. Like Eleazar, the mother and her sons are arrested and ordered to eat pork (v. 1). The first son, who expresses the family’s willingness to suffer martyrdom rather than disobey the law (v. 2), is forced to suffer dehumanizing torture by order of the king (vv. 3–5). His tongue, the instrument of speech and of human communication, his hands, and his feet are cut off, and he is scalped. Pans and caldrons are heated, and he is placed inside one to fry as one would cook animal flesh. Thus he is completely dehumanized. Each son, in turn, will suffer the same fate.

As they look on, the mother and the other sons confess that God also is watching (v. 6), and that God "has compassion" (παρακαλέω parakaleō). They allude to Moses’ declaration that his song will comfort the people as a witness when terrible troubles come upon them (Deut 32:21). The quotation is from the Song of Moses (Deut 32:36), in which God, after chastising the people for their apostasy, begins to take vengeance on his instruments of anger who overstep the mark.

7:7–9. The second son is even more painfully scalped. The contrast between the torturers and the tortured person is further brought out by his responding to the torturers in Hebrew, the ancestral language (v. 8; see also vv. 21–27). He tells them that God will "raise us up to an everlasting renewal of life, because we have died for his laws" (v. 9) The title he uses for God, "King of the universe," clearly contrasts with the limited power of the earthly king Antiochus.

The confident reliance upon God demonstrated by this son evidences that the persecution of Antiochus Epiphanes gave impetus to the development of a belief in resurrection and judgment after death. The story of Eleazar reflected the traditional belief in a shade-like existence in Sheol/Hades (v. 23; see Pss 6:5; 30:9; 88:11–12; 115:16–17; Eccl 3:21; Sir 17:27–28; 41:4). In that story, the author had been concerned to emphasize the nobility and dignity of Eleazar as he underwent torture, so there is no discussion of afterlife. In the story of the mother and her seven sons, however, the author concentrates on contrasting the fate of the martyrs with the eventual fate of the king. Drawing on the notion of a life for the righteous after this life, the author highlights the paradox that the dying martyrs are in fact happier than the supposedly successful king.

There are passages in the OT, particularly in Psalms (Pss 16:9–11; 73:23–26; 84:10), in which the faithful practically long for a continued enjoyment of God, and passages that speak of resurrection in the context of national restoration (Isa 26:19; Ezekiel 37; Hos 6:2). The first Jewish discussion of an after-death judgment is found in the earliest parts of 1 Enoch (1 Enoch 22:27; 90:33; 91:10; 93:2; 104:1–6). And Dan 12:2–3 is a clear expression of a belief in resurrection. One should also note how the Greek translators of passages like Isa 26:19; Job 19:24–26, and Job 14:14 had great difficulty and seem to move toward a sense of individual renewal. So the belief in resurrection pre-dates the persecution of Antiochus. The author of 2 Maccabees, with his threefold repetition of the first-person plural in v. 9, shows that he is speaking of individual resurrection. The language is similar to, though not identical with, Dan 12:2.

The belief portrayed in 2 Maccabees 7 should be distinguished from the earlier tradition about the shades in Sheol, of which a hint is preserved in Isa 14:9–22. The burial customs unearthed by archaeologists suggest a widespread cult of the dead. It was thought that sometimes these shades could be brought back from Sheol, where they may be called divine beings, but they do not like to be disturbed (1 Sam 28:8–19). It is a different kind of existence from this present life, however, and the shades do not return (Job 14:7–22). What v. 9 asserts is that the dead will be given life again, presumably life on this earth as it is described at v. 23 in language resonating with the creation of the first human (Gen 2:7). This hope of the return of a bodily existence should be distinguished from the hope expressed by an author like that of the Wisdom of Solomon. For that author, in human existence "a perishable body weighs down the soul, and this earthly tent burdens the thoughtful mind" (Wis 9:14–15). The author of the Wisdom of Solomon betrays here how he has been influenced by Platonic philosophy with its distinction between the body and the soul. For such an author, "the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment will ever touch them" (Wis 3:1). The author is looking forward to a renewed bodily existence, not the continued existence of an immortal soul.

7:10–12. The third son also meets his fate courageously, again expressing a belief in bodily resurrection. "Heaven" here is an epithet for God. The amazement of onlookers at the endurance of suffering was a common topos in Hellenistic literature. Hecataeus of Abdera stated that the Jews deserve admiration because of their willingness to undergo any torture rather than transgress their ancestral laws,71 and in the story of Aristeas the Exegete, God is amazed at Job’s courage. Recall also the amazement of kings at the suffering servant (Isa 52:15).

7:13–14. The fourth son’s dying words deny Antiochus the opportunity of resurrection. For the first time, Antiochus is threatened with punishment. Given the belief in the divinity of kings, this statement is quite radical (cf. the end of the ungodly in Wis 3:10–13, 16–19).

7:15–17. The fifth son warns Antiochus that his authority and power are not due to the abandonment of Israel by God. Punishment is now threatened not only on Antiochus but on his descendants as well.

7:18–19. The sixth son warns Antiochus that, even though God is using Antiochus to punish the people, Antiochus should not be arrogant. Israel’s sins have brought this punishment. The Lord promised Solomon that if the people did not keep the commandments, Israel would become a taunt among the nations, and they would conclude that Judea was ruined because the people had forsaken the Lord (1 Kgs 9:6–9). Deutero-Isaiah promised that Zion would no longer be called "Forsaken" (Isa 62:4, 12; cf. Isa 49:14–15; 54:5–6; 60:14–15). Anyone who fights against God is sure to lose.

7:20–23. This story of the mother, as noted above, was retold in rabbinic literature. In Midrash Lamentations 1:16, the mother of seven tells her youngest son to tell Abraham not to be proud because he had offered only one son as a test while she offered her seven sons indeed. Here her attachment to ancestral traditions is stressed through her use of the ancestral language, Hebrew. In a patriarchal culture, her nobility is shown through her possessing "a man’s courage" (v. 21). The origin of human life is unknown (Ps 139:13–16; Eccl 11:5), but the author plays on the language of Gen 2:7 to explain how God will recreate her sons: God, the creator of the world, forms humans by breathing into their nostrils the breath of life.

7:24–29. Often in traditional literature, when dealing with a powerful opponent the hero or heroine resorts to trickery to outsmart the official. Antiochus does not know what the mother says in Hebrew, but he catches the tone (v. 24). He resorts to bribing the youngest son to change his mind, even offering to make him a Friend, the official title of the king’s advisers (1 Maccabees records that such an offer was made to Mattathias [1 Macc 2:18]). The young man’s refusal is symbolized by his not even listening to the king (v. 25). The king tries to make the mother act as his advocate, but she cleverly agrees to persuade her son, but does not specify what she will persuade him to do (v. 26). Her "manly" courage (vv. 20–21) is shown as she asks her son to show her pity, not by sparing himself, but by suffering cruel torments and death. The mother refers, as before (vv. 22–23), to God’s creating power (v. 28). She states that God did not create from what previously existed—i.e., as properly formed—but that God shaped the unformed world (see Gen 1:2, especially in the LXX). Christian writers and the Latin translator of 2 Maccabees took this to mean that God had created everything out of nothing (ex nihilo). The mother further insults the king by calling him a public executioner (v. 29), a job usually performed by slaves.

7:30–38. The last and most impressive speech is given to the youngest son; in traditional literature, the youngest son is always the most important. His speech rehearses the themes met before: The Hebrews suffer because of their sins, as God disciplines them (vv. 32–33; see 5:17–20; 6:12–17); the king should not be elated or arrogant (v. 34; see 4:17, 21; 7:15); God will surely punish Antiochus (vv. 31, 35; see 7:14–19). The sons’ discipline at the hands of Antiochus is short, but Antiochus’s punishment will be long (v. 36; see 6:12–17). Note how the Jews are called "the heavenly children" (v. 34; "heaven" was used as an epithet for God at v. 11), and so Antiochus is again accused of fighting against God (v. 19). The text of v. 36 is difficult to translate; it may be read either as "endured a brief suffering in exchange for everlasting life and have fallen under God’s covenant" or "endured a brief suffering and have fallen to everlasting life under God’s covenant." The meaning reflects their earlier statements that God will renew their life because they have followed God’s laws (7:9, 23). The youngest son ends his speech by foretelling what the following narrative will show (vv. 37–38): God’s just anger does turn to mercy (8:5, 27; cf. 2:22). Antiochus will learn through sickness to confess the power of God (9:5–18).

7:39–41. The king again rages as he had done at the beginning of the chapter. The last son is said to die "pure" (καθαρός katharos), perhaps suggesting not only the separation from the unclean Gentiles, but also the purification of the Temple, which will occur soon (10:3–7). Here the mother is said to die, but we are not told how—a classic example of patriarchal neglect. Throughout the story, the reader may wonder where the woman’s husband is, but the author omits all reference to him to focus the reader’s attention on the maternal role of the woman.

7:42. This verse sums up the martyrdoms of both Eleazar and the seven sons by the use of the phrase "eating of sacrifices" (σπλαγχνισμός splagchnismos), a term found only in the account of Eleazar’s martyrdom (6:7–8, 21), and "tortures" (αἰκίαι aikiai), a word whose root is found in the account of the mother and her seven sons (7:1, 13, 15).


Martyr stories are filled with highly charged emotional rhetoric in which the opposition between the martyrs and their opponents is driven home again and again. The author presents the reader with a public, well-born official and a private family forced into the spotlight. All sectors of society are represented and thus symbolize the attempted destruction of the city and its culture. Eleazar presents the picture of a person choosing death because it is the right and honorable thing to do; the family chooses death because God will reward them with life. But God will also have compassion on the nation because of its suffering. The motif of suffering’s bringing salvation has a long history. In Judges 11, Jepthah vows that, if the Lord would give the enemy into his hands, he would offer up as a burnt offering to the Lord whoever came out of the doors of his house to meet him (Judg 11:30–31). Jepthah is victorious, but it is his daughter who first greets him and whom Jepthah has to sacrifice. Victory came at the price of her suffering. In the Suffering Servant song of Isa 52:13–53:12, the suffering servant "was wounded for our transgressions,/ crushed for our iniquities;/ upon him was the punishment that made us whole,/ and by his bruises we are healed" (Isa 53:5 NRSV). In the Council of the Community at Qumran there were to be twelve men and three priests who would atone for sin by practicing justice and by suffering the sorrows of affliction.74 Similarly, when the Moabites were being defeated by the Israelites, the king of Moab "took his firstborn son who was to succeed him, and offered him as a burnt offering on the wall. And great wrath came upon Israel, so they withdrew from him and returned to their own land" (2 Kgs 3:27 NRSV). The same motif is found in Greek literature also, for example, in the story of Iphigenia in Aeschylus’s tragedy Agamemnon. In this drama, Agamemnon angers the goddess Artemis, who delays the sailing of the Greek fleet against Troy until his daughter Iphigenia is sacrificed. Such stories, of course, have disturbing overtones, for they carry the notion of the efficacy of human sacrifice in appeasing an angry God. Is that an image of God we can be comfortable with today?

Yet these stories of heroic endurance and constancy of faith were extremely influential in Christian tradition. The author of the pseudepigraphical book of 4 Maccabees, writing possibly in the first century ce, uses the martyrdoms as prime examples of how devout reason can master the passions. A tradition grew that the martyrdoms occurred in the city of Antioch, and already in pre-Constantinian times there was a grave associated with the martyrs near the synagogue in a suburb of Antioch. Sometime before 386 ce this synagogue had been taken over by Christians, for John Chrysostom preached four homilies on the Maccabean martyrs and implied Christian possession of their relics. Ambrose and Augustine both record the influence of the stories of the Maccabean martyrs. Bishop Gregory of Nazianzos (c. 329–390), in his 26th Oration "On the Maccabees," defends their veneration against some members of his congregation who opposed it because the Maccabees were not Christians. Gregory argued that those who gained perfection before the coming of Christ did so through faith in Christ. Within Syrian Christianity, the mother was called "Shmuni," first attested in the Christian writer Aphrahat in his Fifth Demonstration, while a fresco (c. 650 ce) in the church of Santa Maria Antiqua in Rome gives her name as "Salomone." Their festival was celebrated usually on August 1.

The stories also stress the clash of traditions. All of us hope that if we were placed in a situation as unambiguous as these martyrs were, we would choose death rather than capitulation. We, too, are confronted not only with the question of what we would be willing to die for but also with what we consider so central to our own religious tradition and culture that to do away with it would be to lose our self-identity. Living in a multi-cultural society, we have to decide when to draw the line. Most likely, the decision will be in a situation not quite so unambiguous as eating pork sacrificed to idols. What is also interesting about these stories is that both Eleazar and the family do not come forward on their own accord but that the confrontation is forced upon them. In early Christianity, church leaders often had to warn against Christians’ volunteering for martyrdom and asking Roman governors to kill them. Can we maintain our traditions and values without forcing a confrontation?



After describing the disasters that came upon the people after they abandoned their ancestral laws (chaps. 4–7), the author now describes how, following the covenantal obedience of the martyrs, God helps the people (chap. 8), afflicts the archenemy Antiochus IV (chap. 9), and regains and purifies the Temple (10:1–8).

2 Maccabees 8:1–36, The First Victory


To present dramatically how God’s anger has changed to mercy, the author singles out one battle and one opponent. The dramatization can easily be seen by comparing this account with that in 1 Maccabees. After describing the onset of Judas’s guerrilla tactics, 1 Maccabees describes two battles, one against Apollonius (1 Macc 3:10–12) and one against Seron (1 Macc 3:13–26), before the account most like that of 2 Maccabees 8 (cf. 1 Macc 3:38–4:25). In particular, 1 Maccabees emphasizes the tactical maneuvers: a surprise attack by Gorgias, Judas’s escape and his surprise attack on Gorgias’s camp, and the subsequent flight of Gorgias (1 Macc 4:1–25). In 2 Maccabees, there are no such maneuvers, but one pitched battle decides all. The battles with Apollonius and Seron receive only the vaguest mention; Judas "captured strategic positions and put to flight not a few of the enemy" (8:6). In addition, although 1 Maccabees reports that Lysias sent Ptolemy, Nicanor, and Gorgias (1 Macc 3:38), with the main villain being Gorgias, in 2 Maccabees Ptolemy sends Nicanor and Gorgias, and Nicanor is the main villain. The author may have highlighted this name to balance and reflect the Nicanor in chaps. 14–15, as both are called thrice-wretched (8:34; 15:3). The account then is highly stylized.

8:1–7, The Rise of Judas. Last mentioned as being in the desert (5:27), Judas and his companions now begin to gather their kindred, most likely referring not to near relatives but to Israelites of the same persuasion. Once again the author uses the term "Judaism" (2:21; 14:38) as opposed to "Jewish faith." The number 6,000, the total of people gathered (v. 1), is later repeated (8:16), although some of Judas’s force is said to have left (see 1 Macc 4:6, where Judas marches against Gorgias with 3,000 men). The group appeals to the Lord as the last of the martyred sons had done (7:37). The prayer employs traditional language. The blood crying out from the ground (v. 3) recalls the blood of the innocent Abel (Gen 4:10; cf. Deut 32:43; Heb 12:24). The reference to the imminent leveling of the city looks forward to Antiochus’s vow (9:13). Once God is with Judas, he is unstoppable (v. 5), although his activity probably consisted of surprise raids and ambushes by night, nuisance raids as the "little by little" of v. 8 suggests.

8:8–11, The Response of the Seleucids. Philip the Phrygian, the governor of Jerusalem (5:22; 6:11), alerts Ptolemy, the son of Dorymenes (4:45), to Judas’s success. Ptolemy appoints Nicanor and Gorgias to deal with these guerrillas. First Maccabees reports that Antiochus was informed of the matter (1 Macc 3:27), but the account in 2 Maccabees, which restricts handling of the insurrection to lower echelon officials and subordinates Nicanor and Gorgias to Ptolemy, seems more likely. Someone named Nicanor is mentioned in the letter of the Sidonians in Shechem to Antiochus IV as a royal agent. Later, another Nicanor was in Rome with Demetrius, son of Seleucus IV, and was one of the closest of his friends when he became Demetrius I in 161 bce, and there was also a Nicanor the Cyprian (2 Macc 12:2). "Nicanor" was thus a common name, and it is unlikely that all these references are to the same person. Gorgias was later governor of Idumea (2 Macc 10:14; 12:32), and it seems prudent that Nicanor would be joined by someone with local experience.

The author notes the ethnic mix of the army (v. 9). His estimate of the size (20,000) is half that of 1 Macc 3:38, but still high. The aim, payment of the tribute to Rome (v. 10), is the same as stated in 1 Macc 3:35, 52, 58. By 165 bce, the time of Antiochus’s march on Persia, the Seleucid indemnity to Rome had already been paid, but Antiochus was well-known as desiring money to pay for his extravagant generosity. In order to raise money, Nicanor intends to sell the captured Jews into slavery. Ninety slaves per talent (v. 11) was a low price, perhaps expressing contempt for the Jews. At that rate, Nicanor would need to sell 180,000 slaves to pay the tribute, many more than those already taken from Jerusalem (5:41). In 1 Macc 3:41, the traders come of their own free will, whereas here Nicanor is the instigator of the plan for slavery. Nicanor is thus seen in 2 Maccabees as the source of all evil designs against the Jews. Such a portrayal prepares the way for the dénouement of the story, as Nicanor has to flee like a runaway slave (8:35). This reversal of affairs fits in with the author’s desire to make the punishment fit the crime.

8:12–20, Judas’s Preparation. The author, in order to magnify Judas’s courage, emphasizes the fear of the Jews, outnumbered more than three to one. One wonders why those around Judas sold all they had (v. 14)—in order to run away? They pray for God to remember the covenants with the ancestors (v. 15; note the list in Sir 44:16–45:25), as God has promised (Lev 26:42; cf. Wis 18:22), for they are a people called by God’s name (1 Sam 12:22; Dan 9:19; cf. Deut 28:10). Judas, by contrast, is not afraid (v. 16). The Gentiles act with hubris, reflecting the arrogance of Antiochus (5:17–21). The phrase "torture of the derided city" (v. 17) reflects the language used about the martyrs (7:1, 7, 10, 13, 15, 42), while the overthrow of the ancestral way of life recalls what was said about Jason (4:11). The overwhelming power of God is captured in the image of "one nod" (v. 18). As any good speechmaker, Judas proffers examples of God’s help. The first is the defeat of Sennacherib in 701 bce (2 Kgs 19:35–36; Isa 37:36; see also 1 Macc 7:41; 2 Macc 15:22). The second example (vv. 19–20) is taken from more recent history, but the precise reference is unknown. The "Galatians" were the Celts, who, due to unrest in western and central Europe, were forced to migrate to the east and southeast. In 280/79, some Celts marched through Macedonia and Thrace and invaded Greece, while others, complete tribal groups, went to Asia Minor in 278/77 and overran many Greek cities. After a long struggle, they were confined to an area north of Phrygia, later called Galatia. Scholars have suggested that the incident in 2 Maccabees may refer to the battle of Antiochus I against the Celts in the 270s (although this took place in Asia Minor, which would cause the text of 2 Maccabees to be emended from Babulonia to Bagadaonia), near the Taurus mountains in Cilicia; to an incident in the suppression of the rebellion of Molon, governor-general of the eastern satrapies, by Antiochus III in 220 bce; or to the rebellion in 227–26 of Antiochus Hierax, who used Galatian mercenaries, in the east against his brother Seleucus III. The latter seems the most likely scenario. The Galatian invasion made a lasting impression on the cities of Asia Minor. What this passage shows is that Jewish soldiers served under the Seleucids, and it supports the report of Josephus that Antiochus III transferred Jewish soldiers from Babylonia to Phrygia and Lydia.

8:21–29, The Defeat of Nicanor. Judas is the counterpart to Menelaus, who was a traitor to laws and country. The division of troops described here (v. 22) is different from that of 1 Macc 3:55. The text (vv. 22–23) is very difficult to translate. Major manuscripts read as if Judas appointed his four brothers, Simon, Joseph, Jonathan, and Eleazar, to lead the four 1,500-man units and that Judas read to them from the Scriptures. In this case, it is unclear whether the first division (σπεῖρα speira) refers to a phalanx of 256 men) was part of one of these four 1,500-man units. Other manuscripts suggest, and are followed by the NRSV, that Eleazar read aloud from the Scriptures (the Latin manuscripts read Ezra instead of Eleazar). The names of Judas’s brothers in 1 Macc 2:3–5 are John, Simon, Eleazar, and Jonathan. But this account lists Joseph instead of John; some scholars have suggested that this is a reference to the envious couple Joseph and Azariah of 1 Macc 5:18, 55–62, but there Joseph is called "son of Zechariah." Eleazar seems to play the role of priest (Deut 20:2); it is interesting that "Eleazar," in Hebrew, means "help of God" (אלעזר ʾelʿāzār). On the reading of the Scriptures, see the parallel statement at 1 Macc 3:48. The War Scroll from Qumran indicates that "God’s help" was one of the insignia on the standards of God’s army, and such watchwords were common in the Hellenistic world.80 Whatever the intended meaning for vv. 22–23, the author insists that Judas calls on God for aid and that Judas’s whole family is involved in the enterprise. To this end, he divides the forces based on the number of brothers in a way that has no parallel in Jewish or Hellenistic tactical tradition. The concern of the author is clearly not about tactical maneuvers, for the description of the battle takes up only one verse (v. 24). What is important is that God is their ally. That connection with God is reinforced by the description of the Jews’ observance of the sabbath (vv. 26–27). The last two verses (vv. 28–29) refer to the story of the martyrs; the spoils are to be distributed not only to widows and orphans but also to the tortured (2 Macc 7:1, 42). Here not only the fighters benefit from their victory but so also do those whose prayer for them has great efficacy—i.e., widows and orphans (Deut 14:29; 26:12–15) and those who have been persecuted (2 Macc 7:37–38; 8:3). The language of v. 29 reflects that of the prayer of the seventh son in the martyrdom stories (7:33).

8:30–33, The Defeat of Timothy and Bacchides. The nature of 2 Maccabees as an epitome is evident in this section. People and events are mentioned without any preparation, and these accounts of other campaigns disrupt the focus on Nicanor, whose story is picked up in v. 34.

In 1 Maccabees, Bacchides is a much more important figure than the quick mention at 2 Macc 8:30 would suggest. He was the governor of the province Beyond the River, i.e., between the Euphrates and Egypt. He is sent by Demetrius I to subdue Judea, which he does (1 Macc 7:8–20). After the later defeat of Nicanor, he returns again and defeats Judas, who dies in the battle. Then Bacchides pursues Judas’s brother Jonathan but finally comes to terms with him (1 Macc 9:1–70). His activity is completely absent from the corresponding narrative in 2 Maccabees. It is unlikely that such a high-ranking personage would be listed after the middle-level commander Timothy, and so one wonders whether another Bacchides is meant here.

The death of Timothy is recorded at 2 Macc 9:3 and 10:24–38, but 2 Macc 12:10–25 records Timothy’s escape; so there seems to be two Timothys involved in 2 Maccabees. However, in 1 Maccabees there is only one Timothy who fights with Judas’s forces on three occasions: (1) when Judas defeats Timothy, captures Iazer, and returns to Judea (1 Macc 5:6–8); (2) when Timothy’s men are surprised by Judas (1 Macc 5:28–34); and (3) when Timothy, having regrouped his forces, challenges Judas again and is defeated near Carnaim (1 Macc 5:37–44). All three meetings in 1 Maccabees occur after the purification of the Temple. One will note the specific parallels between the accounts of 1 and 2 Maccabees, if the accounts in 2 Maccabees are accepted as being out of order. If one accepts as more historically reliable the outline of events in 1 Maccabees, then the author of 2 Maccabees has misplaced events. Most scholars agree that 2 Macc 12:1–25 parallels the battles in Gilead recounted in 1 Macc 5:28–44. There are also parallels between 2 Macc 10:24–38 and the account in 1 Macc 5:6–8, although 2 Maccabees records that Timothy dies in that battle, whereas 1 Maccabees does not. The events in 2 Macc 8:30–33 also seem out of order: Judas seems to be in control of Jerusalem (v. 31) even though the Jews do not recapture the city until 10:1–8; mention of strongholds (v. 30) reflects the account of 2 Macc 12:10–25. It would thus seem as if vv. 30–32 summarize the Gilead campaign told later in 2 Maccabees 12.

This summary, however, has been well woven into the context. The author refers to the same groups—the tortured, the widows, and the orphans—in vv. 28 and 30. The same word is used for collecting the arms of the enemy at vv. 27 and 31. Just as the author uses the theme of appropriate retribution for Nicanor when he is forced to flee as a slave, so also in this section the burners are burned. The author of 2 Maccabees narrates these events possibly to suggest that there were other campaigns before the purification of the Temple or to note how Judas’s men behave after victories and also to heighten the dramatic tension as one wonders what happened to Nicanor. The spoil taken to Jerusalem (v. 31) is probably God’s portion (Num 31:28). The word for "commander" (φύλαρχος phylarchos, v. 32) is sometimes taken as a proper name, Phylarchos. The Greek word does not refer to the city, Jerusalem, but to the "fatherland" (πατρίς patris; see 4:1; 5:8, 9, 15; 8:21; 13:3, 11, 14; 14:18). Nothing else is known about Callisthenes (v. 33).

8:34–36, The Fate of Nicanor. The epithet "thrice accursed" will be used again of the Nicanor in the last battle in 2 Maccabees (15:13). His plan (v. 11) backfires, and he receives the appropriate punishment (v. 35). The author sarcastically contrasts his "success" (v. 35) with that of Judas’s (8:8). The help of the Lord (v. 35) resonates with the watchword given to the army (8:23), and the word for "defender" (ὑπέρμαχος hypermachos, v. 36) is related to the word for "ally" (σύμμαχος symmachos, v. 24). The author returns to the theme enunciated at 3:1: The Jews are invincible once they follow God’s law. Nicanor, as Heliodorus had done before him (3:35–39), proclaims the power of God.


Throughout this chapter, the author emphasizes the power of prayer and the need to keep God’s covenant; these are the sure ways to victory. His emphasis on fidelity to one’s religious convictions and traditions needs to be repeated. But one must also be careful, for in this war context, the stress on standing by one’s own traditions, on knowing who one is, at times results in denigrating the opponent. Throughout this chapter, the author seeks to dramatize his story by contrasting the two foes, Judas and Nicanor, almost as light and darkness, but this rhetorical presentation at times obscures what actually happened. So we must not let our rhetoric lead us to paint those who disagree with us as "the enemy," "godless" people.

2 Maccabees 9:1–29, The Death of Antiochus IV


Following the defeat of Nicanor and Timothy, the gruesome death of Antiochus IV is described. This arrangement ignores the more complex order of events as they can be pieced together. In 1 Maccabees, after the defeat of the expedition of Nicanor and Gorgias, Judea is invaded by Lysias, the regent left behind in charge of affairs by Antiochus IV while he went on campaign in the eastern part of his empire (1 Macc 5:26–35). There also seems to have been an attempt to negotiate a peaceable settlement of the rebellion as seen in the letter of Antiochus IV (2 Macc 11:27–33), which 2 Maccabees has put out of order, and possibly in the replacement of Ptolemy son of Dorymenes, an enemy of the Jews, by Ptolemy Macron, who was more friendly to the Jews (2 Macc 10:12–13). The author of 2 Maccabees has arranged events for the best dramatic effect. He wants to show no change of heart in the archenemy Antiochus IV until he is humiliated by God’s power. His humiliation brings about his regret at his actions against the Jews and the Temple. He then dies, and only after his death is the Temple purified. Dramatically speaking, the death of the one who brought on the initial misfortune has to occur before things can be put right again and the Temple purified. According to 1 Maccabees, Antiochus IV dies after the purification of the Temple (1 Macc 6:5–7). According to a Babylonian chronicle, news of Antiochus IV’s death reached Babylonia in the month Kislev in the year 148 according to the Babylonian calendar (between November 20 and December 18 165 bce). It thus seems that the sequence in 2 Maccabees, where the king dies before the purification of the Temple, is correct, although some scholars still dispute this, suggesting that chapter 9 has been inserted into the narrative and that 10:1–8 should be placed before chapter 9. The connections between 2 Macc 9:3 and the events in chapter 8, as well as the similar threat mentioned at 8:3 and 9:14, suggests that the two chapters work together dramatically. A major threat to the Temple is averted, and then the purification of the Temple can be accomplished.

9:1–4, Antiochus IV Receives News of the Defeat of Nicanor. The geographical and historical data provided in these verses are confusing and conflict with other sources. Persepolis was the old capital of the Persian Empire, while Ecbatana lies in Media, hundreds of miles away to the northwest. According to other sources, Antiochus attempted to rob the temple of Nanaia in Eylmais, to the south of Ecbatana (see 1 Macc 6:1; 2 Macc 1:13–15). Here, however, Antiochus attempts to gain control of Persepolis and to plunder its temples. In addition, this chapter contains only one of several ancient versions of the death of Antiochus IV (see, e.g., 1 Macc 6:1–16; 2 Macc 1:13–14).

Antiochus IV had set out in mid to late 165 bce to consolidate his rule in the eastern satrapies. A local dynasty of priests and princes had risen to power around Persepolis and Istakhr and had won their independence in the early years of Antiochus IV. Antiochus’s reputation for plundering temples is at play here, and he no doubt would have welcomed the money to finance his campaign to regain control of the eastern satrapies. In this temple attack, in contrast to the attack on the Temple at Jerusalem, no divine epiphany is described. Verse 3 links this story to chapter 8, including the out-of-place reference to Timothy. The last time the king appeared in the narrative, he was in a rage (7:39). Here his rage continues, and he is portrayed as a bully wanting to show how tough he is to those weaker than he. The seventh son had prayed that the arrogance of Antiochus would be justly punished (7:36; cf. 5:21), and it begins to happen. The irony of Antiochus’s threat to turn Jerusalem into a cemetery (v. 4) is revealed in v. 14.

9:5–12, The Punishment of Antiochus. As so often in 2 Maccabees, the punishment fits the crime (vv. 5–6). Yet Antiochus remains arrogant in spite of his illness, and his mad rage is the cause of his downfall (v. 7). The description of his arrogant self-importance (v. 8; see also 5:21) reflects feats that only God can accomplish (Isa 40:12). The cruel punishment he suffers of death by putrefaction is found in Greek writings as well; the mention of worms recalls Isa 66:24 and Jdt 16:17. The author relishes relating the gruesome torments and accords well with other stories of the deaths of scoffers against the gods. Verse 10 captures marvelously the foolishness of humans thinking they are gods and not mortals (cf. the hymns against proud kings in Isa 14:4–21, particularly the boast of the king of Babylon in vv. 13–14; Ezek 28:12–19). Antiochus, under the flogging of God, comes to knowledge (v. 11). His confession is almost proverbial. One must not fight against God (2 Macc 7:19).

9:13–27, The Repentance of Antiochus. 9:13–17. Although Antiochus makes a vow to the Lord, his prayer will no longer be heard (v. 13). Although Jason (4:18) and Nicanor (15:32) were also said to be "abominable," Antiochus is the worst of all (7:34). The word translated "abominable" (μιαρός miaros) also has the connotation of "polluted," "defiled with blood," and thus raises the issue of blood guilt as the reason why God refuses to have mercy on Antiochus (see Isa 1:15). The phrases "level to the ground" (as in 8:3) and "make a cemetery" (as at 9:4) recall Antiochus’s earlier misdeeds against Jerusalem and heighten the irony of his current condition (v. 14). Antiochus’s earlier threat not to allow the burial of corpses (v. 15) was a great anti-social, dehumanizing action as well (cf. David’s boast to Goliath that David will give "the dead bodies of the Philistine army this very day to the birds of the air and to the wild animals of the earth" [1 Sam 17:46 NRSV]; see also Isa 56:9–11; Jer 7:33; 12:9; 15:3; 16:4; 19:7; 34:20; Ezek 29:5; 39:4, 17). It is not sure exactly what declaring Jerusalem "free" means in this context. It seems to imply more than freedom from taxes (1 Macc 10:31). Freedom in the sense of autonomy was always a slogan of great appeal in any propaganda war (as, for example, the counterclaims of Antigonus Gonatas and Ptolemy I to set all Greek cities free and the declaration by the Roman Senate in 196 bce that all Greeks were to be free). But the relationship between the monarch and each "free" city, which had its own traditions and system of government, was a special one. It is not clear exactly what is meant by making the Jews equal to the Athenians. Athens was considered the guardian of classical culture, and during the second century the Parthenon was restored and the Agora reconstructed. In 174 bce, Antiochus IV had promised to finish the unfinished temple of Olympia Zeus. Similarly, Antiochus vows to restore the Temple in Jerusalem to even more grandeur than at the time of Onias III (v. 16; see 2 Macc 3:1). Antiochus’s promise to proclaim the power of God worldwide (v. 17) exceeds what Heliodorus had done (3:34, 36). Antiochus even promises to become a Jew. What exactly this means is unclear, although it probably did not mean becoming a Judean (a citizen of Judea). The word "Jew" here is not a geographical designation, but a religious one. What would be required in the second century bce to become a Jew? Would it mean more than did the worship of Naaman (2 Kgs 5:15–18) or the confession of Nebuchadnezzar (Dan 4:34–37)? Does the author of 2 Maccabees envisage that Antiochus would be circumcised and follow all the laws of the Torah? We do not know. Josephus, the first-century ce Jewish historian, recounts a story in which Izates, the king of Adiabene, wishes to convert to Judaism and thus to be circumcised. However, his mother, who had earlier converted to Judaism, and the Jew who had converted her, Ananias, dissuade him. Later, Eleazar, another Jew, comes to Adiabene and insists that he be circumcised. Izates follows Eleazar’s advice.

9:18–27. The author reemphasizes that Antiochus will not escape God’s judgment (v. 18), and thus the king, although in such pain, pens a letter. Since the writing of a deathbed testament was a well-known literary device in Hellenistic literature, the authenticity of the letter that follows has been greatly debated. Those who affirm its authenticity agree that the original letter has been added to; those who deny its authenticity agree that it is modeled on a genuine letter, possibly to the army, whose support would have been crucial in any change of leadership. Whatever its origins, the letter has been adapted so as to further the rhetorical aims of the author. This is most easily seen in the way the addressees of the letter, the Jewish citizens, are mentioned before the king and are addressed as "esteemed" or "worthy" (v. 19). It is not specified to whom the term "citizens" refers, whether to the people of Antioch-in-Jerusalem or to those Jews who were citizens of various cities throughout the Seleucid Empire. Since the Jews as a whole were never given citizen rights in any community in which they lived (see, e.g., 2 Macc 12:3, where the citizens of Joppa are distinguished from the Jews living among them), the letter is most likely addressed to the former. The phrasing, however, if imprecise, suits the aim of the author: to show that the Jews can be good citizens, that they are not anti-social. The greeting formula is quite extravagant with its threefold wish of hearty greetings, health, and prosperity (more so than the greeting in 1:10b). The addition of the term "general" (στρατηγός stratēgos) supports the suggestion that the letter may have been, or was modeled on, a letter to the army. At vv. 20–21 come the usual well wishes for the recipient’s health, although the text itself is variously transmitted in the manuscripts. Note how the king remembers with affection the esteem and goodwill of the Jews (v. 21)! Given that this letter comes after the events narrated in 9:1–12, to describe the king’s condition as an annoying illness is a marvelous understatement and shows that this letter, authentic or not, does not really belong with the situation of 9:1–8. Rather, vv. 23–25 make clear that the letter originally concerned the orderly transfer of power. Antiochus IV’s father, Antiochus III the Great, had appointed his son Seleucus IV as his successor. Following Antiochus III’s death, while attempting to raise money in the east after his defeat by Rome, Seleucus took the throne. Following this precedent, Antiochus IV names his own son, Antiochus V Eupator (who was still a young boy and needed a regent; see 1 Macc 3:33; 6:14–15), as heir to the throne. What is astonishing is that in this context, Antiochus places his trust in the Jews for the success of this transfer of power and the stability of the realm (v. 25). The Jews are asked to continue their goodwill toward Antiochus and his son (9:26). Verse 27 is also incongruous in the context, as Antiochus IV was in no way moderate and kind to the Jews. Needless to say, the advice will not be followed. The thrust of this letter in this context is to argue that the Jews are not anti-social, as so many stories circulating in the Hellenistic world suggested.

9:28–29, The Death of Antiochus. Antiochus dies in a strange land (see 5:9–10, the death of Jason). Philip, who has the title σύντροφος (syntrophos), meaning "brought up with"—but in the Seleucid hierarchy has the meaning "intimate friend"—takes Antiochus’s body home. In contrast to 1 Maccabees, in the account in 2 Maccabees, Philip flees to Egypt because he fears Antiochus V, not Lysias. According to 1 Maccabees, the dying Antiochus IV replaces Lysias by Philip as guardian of Antiochus V (3:32–33; 6:14–15). When Philip returns from the east, he takes control of Antioch, but Lysias forces him out (6:55–56, 63). Philip’s unsuccessful attempt is mentioned at 2 Macc 13:23, although, since the author of 2 Maccabees has the Philip who was with the dying Antiochus IV flee to Egypt, he seems to distinguish him from the Philip of the coup attempt in 13:23. Ptolemy VI Philometor, to whom Philip is said to flee, had been driven out of Alexandria to Rome in October 164, just before Antiochus IV’s death, and did not return until the middle of 163. The conflict between Philip and Lysias, therefore, must have taken place in the first half of 163. According to Josephus, Lysias had Philip murdered before he could reach Egypt.


The account of the punishment of Antiochus IV draws on a well-attested theme in the Bible: the sharp distinction between humans and God. The serpent had tempted Eve in the Garden of Eden to eat of the fruit of the forbidden tree (Gen 3:5). So the prohibition was broken, and the humans were expelled from the garden for trying to be like God. In the story of the tower of Babel, humans had thought to breach the distance separating them from the heavens and for their pains had been scattered over the face of the earth, speaking different languages (Gen 11:1–9). The hymns of Isaiah against the hubris of the kings of Babylon and how it would result in their humiliation (Isa 14:4–7) and the sayings of Ezekiel over the king of Tyre (Ezek 28:2) are eloquent testimony to the need to maintain this high, exalted notion of God. The story in Daniel 4 tells how King Nebuchadnezzar fell from his place of honor and dignity and was driven away from human society to become like an animal, eating grass like oxen and having hair as long as eagle feathers and fingernails like bird claws. Humans are shown to be stupid if they try to "play God."

These stories raise important issues for our own time. We have had enormous advances in medicine, science, and technology. Yet we have not yet grasped the ethical implications of these advances, especially in the area of human biology. For instance, how are we to use responsibly the technology for gene manipulation in medicine? Clearly it will be a great advantage if doctors are someday able to eradicate genetic disorders, like muscular dystrophy. But what limits should be put on the use of these techniques? Will parents want to manipulate what kind of child they will have, what sex, hair or eye color, body size? Religious communities will need to pay careful attention to such issues. With all of our advances, we still need to recognize our limitations and weaknesses. We must not try to play God.

2 Maccabees 10:1–8, The Purification of the Temple


After the elimination of the prime antagonist against the Temple, Antiochus IV, the author now describes the people’s joy at righting the wrong Antiochus had done. As mentioned in the Commentary on chap. 9, some scholars suggest that this section has been misplaced from going before chapter 9, but the joy belongs after the death of the enemy (as in the victory-enthronement pattern in Exodus 15). In contrast to the blasphemer Antiochus IV, whose body is "brought back" (παρεκομίζετο parekomizeto) to Antioch (9:29), Judas and his companions "bring back" for themselves—i.e., "recover" (ἐκομίσαντο ekomisanto, v. 1)—the Temple and the city. The parallel passage in 1 Macc 4:36–59 puts emphasis not only on the purification of the sanctuary, but also on its dedication (as in 1 Kgs 8:63; 2 Chr 7:5; Ezra 6:16–17). The author of 2 Maccabees also recognizes the action as a dedication (2:19), but as he has stressed that the Temple was overthrown because of the sins of the people (5:17–20; 6:12–17), he now stresses the purification of the Temple and the sin of the people. No mention is made of the priests who performed the sacrifices, whereas 1 Macc 4:42 stresses the choice of blameless priests.

The author makes no mention of the citadel (2 Macc 4:28), although it is mentioned later (15:31). In contrast, 1 Maccabees stresses the need to defend the Temple from the troops at the citadel (1 Macc 4:41, 60). The description of altars around the agora (v. 2) reflects Greek custom and supports the notion that Antiochus IV had simply instituted pagan worship practices in Jerusalem rather than one particular cult. The sacrifices (v. 3) most probably refer to the continual daily sacrifice (see Exod 29:38–42; Num 28:3–8). The incense offering (Exod 30:7–8), the lighting of lamps (Exod 27:20–21; Lev 24:2–3), and the setting out of the showbread (Exod 25:30; Lev 24:5–9) show the concern of the author to portray Judas as following the Torah (2 Chr 13:11; 1 Macc 4:50–51). In contrast to the two-year lapse in Jewish sacrifices in the Temple (2 Macc 10:3), 1 Maccabees has an interval of three years (1 Macc 1:54; 4:52), while Dan 12:7 has three and a half years. Most likely 1 Maccabees is correct. The language of v. 4 is similar to that of 6:12–17. Once again the nations are described as barbarous (2:21). The prayer recalls that of Solomon at the dedication of the Temple, where he also prays for mercy for the people’s sin (1 Kgs 8:46–50).

To show the providential care of God, the author emphasizes that the renewed sacrifice took place on the anniversary of the day of the defilement (v. 5; see also 2 Macc 6:7; cf. 1 Macc 4:52). The author then refers to Judas’s flight to the mountains (v. 6; 5:27). The connection with the Feast of Tabernacles (vv. 6–7) is found in the prefixed letters (1:9, 18), but is not made in 1 Maccabees. The carrying of branches, signifying fertility, is commanded at Lev 23:40. The word translated "ivy-wreathed wands" (θύρσοι thyrsoi, v. 7) was also used for what was carried in processions of Dionysus, and the author may be showing once again the reversal from the persecution when the Jews were forced in procession to Dionysus (2 Macc 6:7). The language at v. 8 is repeated almost word for word at 15:36, and so binds the two festivals together.


The second act of this story finishes as the first had done, with the Jews celebrating the power of God in their Temple. Two major opponents of "proper" Jewish behavior have been defeated, the high priest Jason and the Seleucid king Antiochus IV. The reader can anticipate that any further attack on the Temple in Jerusalem will also be unsuccessful, and can also expect that there will be such an attack, since one opponent, the high priest Menelaus, still remains. This has been a much more serious attack on the Temple than that of Heliodorus in 2 Maccabees 3. The first attack had been on the Jewish educational system because Jason had built a gymnasium, thereby attempting to erase any distinction between the Jews and their neighbors. Menelaus had also despoiled the Temple for his own private gain. Finally, Antiochus IV had attempted to wipe out the very practice of Judaism within Judea. The author of 2 Maccabees shows how these attempts had been foiled by God after the martyrs had offered up their lives rather than transgress God’s commandments.

The story stresses the need for covenantal loyalty on the part of the Jews. Because they aped Greek ways, disaster had befallen them. Because the martyrs showed their faithfulness to God, God had come to Israel’s aid. The martyrs provide a striking example of how death can be fruitful, whereas Antiochus IV dies without accomplishing anything.

The story is one of great heroism, but it is one in which it is easy to tell who are the villains. As in western movies where the bad guys wear black hats and the good guys wear white hats, the author of this narrative shows clearly who he thinks the bad guys are. Where one group is trying to oppress another and suppress their right to worship, it is a pretty clear call. When religion was outlawed, or at least put under very tight rein, in the Soviet Union and in China, it was easy to see that the authorities were in the wrong. Opposition and oppression have a way of helping us to define what we stand for. They have a way of demarcating a believing community from those who wish to suppress or curtail its activities. The blood of martyrs is said to have watered the seeds of Christianity. We all hope that if we were put in such a position we would have the courage and conviction to stand up for our beliefs.

But how are we to keep a sense of community when we are not under attack? When Judea’s national symbol, the Temple, was polluted, when the distinctive markers of Judaism—the Torah scrolls, circumcision, the Jewish festivals—were forbidden, it was clear that those who wished to maintain their religious practices had to take a stand. But once the threat has passed, how will a community maintain its sense of identity? The history of sectarian strife within Christianity suggests that the answer may not lie in the direction of trying to define who is and who is not a "proper" member of the community. We can see the beginning of this problem in the attitude of the author of 2 Maccabees. It would appear that, for him, a "true" Jew did not attend a gymnasium. When a community tries to make these kinds of distinctions, problems will always arise, for all of us are different with different backgrounds and different educational and life experiences. When a community is not under threat or attack, perhaps the best solution to maintaining it is to celebrate the various gifts that each member of the community brings to it, to revel in the "rainbow" quality of our community. The apostle Paul speaks to all of our communities when he says, "Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way" (1 Cor 13:4–5 NRSV). The moral character of the high priests Jason and Menelaus, as portrayed in this narrative, is shown to be such that they sought only their own aggrandizement, sought ways that they could keep their positions of power and important status. They insisted on their own way to the detriment of the community. They are the anti-type of the high priest Onias, who sought only what was good for the community.

2 MACCABEES 10:9–15:36

The Third Act: Further Defense of the Temple


This third section of the epitome deals with further attacks on the Temple under the successors of Antiochus IV. There is a marked contrast between the rather condensed account of many campaigns in 10:14–13:26 and the more expansive account of Nicanor’s expedition in chaps. 14–15.



This section of 2 Maccabees seems to be structured around a pattern whereby first attacks by local leaders occur (10:14–38; 12:3–45), then come a major expedition and peace (2 Maccabees 11; 13).

2 Maccabees 10:9–13, Dynastic Changes


10:9–11. As at 3:40–4:1, the author provides a transitional sentence to the next episode, the reign of Antiochus V Eupator. Antiochus V was only nine years old and was, in fact, under the guardianship of Lysias (1 Macc 3:33). Lysias had been placed in charge of the area from the Euphrates to the border of Egypt by Antiochus IV (1 Macc 3:32). In contrast to the NRSV translation, v. 11 should be translated "appointed one Lysias to have charge of the government, and Protarchos as governor of Coelesyria and Phoenicia," since the offices of chief minister of the empire and governor of Coelesyria did not overlap.

10:12–13. The situation described in these verses is similar to that at 13:24. Ptolemy Macron, as governor of Cyprus, had been loyal to Ptolemy VI Philometor of Egypt, but the botched maneuverings of the Ptolemaic court and the subsequent loss of the Ptolemies to Antiochus IV in the war of 170/169 had led him to go over to the Seleucid side (c. 168 bce) when Antiochus IV’s fleet invaded Cyprus. The description of Ptolemy Macron as being friendly towards the Jews should not be seen as simply a peaceful disposition. As previous governors of Coelesyria and Phoenicia had been hostile to the pious Jews (Apollonius son of Menestheus, 4:4; Ptolemy son of Dorymenes, 4:45; 8:8) and their stance seems to reflect court policy, this change in attitude should be seen as reflecting the policy of the governor’s superiors. Since such a change in attitude would probably have occurred after the peace negotiations following the first expedition of Lysias (2 Macc 11:14, 16–21), which actually took place during the reign of Antiochus IV (1 Macc 4:28–29; 2 Macc 11:27–33), these events have been misplaced by the author of 2 Maccabees in order to portray Antiochus IV as the evil opponent of the Jews, and not as someone who entered into peace negotiations with them. The court gossip mentioned at 2 Macc 10:13 no doubt reflects the intrigues at court following the restoration of the Temple and preceding Lysias’s second expedition (1 Macc 6:21–28). The last part of v. 13 is very corrupt; the conjecture of the NRSV translation is as good as any.

2 Maccabees 10:14–23, Campaigns in Idumea


10:14–17. Gorgias was governor of Idumea (2 Macc 12:32) and seems also to have been in control of Jamnia (1 Macc 5:59). He is characterized as being experienced in military affairs and had already taken part in an attack on the Jews (2 Macc 8:9). The author makes sure to mention that it was not the Jews who initiated the attacks, but the Seleucid forces (1 Macc 5:3–5 also has the Idumeans as hostile to Judas and his forces). The Jews who have been banned from Jerusalem (v. 15) are presumably followers of Menelaus, although the author does not explicitly say so and does not mention the garrison in the citadel or use the term "ungodly Israelites" (1 Macc 6:18–27). In fact, the whole account is very sparse on geographical details, not specifying which Idumean strongholds were attacked and captured (vv. 16–17). The author’s main concern is not in those details but in stressing that the Jews pray to God to be their ally (v. 16; see 2 Macc 8:24). The figure of 20,000 dead (v. 17) is high, as are the figures 9,000 for those who "took refuge" in the towers (v. 18) and 20,000 for those whom Judas is said to have killed "in the two strongholds" (v. 23; cf. the numbers at 2 Macc 8:30).

10:18–23. The three commanders left in charge of the siege (v. 19) are most likely two brothers of Judas, Simon and Joseph (8:22), and an otherwise unknown Zacchaeus. Scholars have suggested that this episode is a doublet of 1 Macc 5:18, 55–61, where two commanders—Joseph son of Zechariah and Azariah—became jealous of the successes of Judas and Simon and attempted to capture Jamnia but were defeated. The siege fails because of the treachery of some of Simon’s men, who are described as "lovers of money" (v. 20; cf. Luke 16:14), a common accusation against opponents. Since Simon is glorified in the account of 1 Maccabees, but not here, some scholars have further concluded that the author is anti-Hasmonean in bent. The author of 2 Maccabees, however, includes many stories of deception (2 Macc 13:21), compromise (12:24–25), and backsliding (12:39–40), so this episode need not be taken as anti-Hasmonean propaganda. What it does is show the faithfulness and incorruptibility of Judas. He summons the leaders of the people (v. 21), perhaps the commanders of the army (following Deut 1:15). The men are accused of treachery (similarly to Menelaus, 2 Macc 5:15) and are executed (v. 22). With that transgression done away with, Judas quickly captures the two towers.

2 Maccabees 10:24–38, The Defeat of Timothy


This campaign, also sparse in chronological and geographical details, is often seen as reporting the same events as 1 Macc 5:6–8, an even sparser description of a campaign into Ammonite territory. But there are major differences in this passage: Timothy’s death, not mentioned in 1 Maccabees, is described with considerable detail (10:37). Here Timothy invades Judea (vv. 24–25), whereas in 1 Maccabees Judas crosses over the Jordan to attack the Ammonites (1 Macc 5:6). Second Maccabees describes a single battle that seems to take place in Judea (although Judas and his forces go out "a considerable distance" from the city to engage Timothy [10:27]), whereas 1 Macc 5:7 mentions "many battles" with the Ammonites. And the account in 2 Maccabees describes in detail the siege and capture of Gazara (Gezer), whereas 1 Maccabees recounts only the capture of Jazer, in the Transjordan (5:8; according to 1 Maccabees, Gazara was not conquered until the reign of Simon [1 Macc 13:43–48]).

10:24. As mentioned previously, the author of 2 Maccabees must have thought that there were two Timothys, the one here and at 8:30–33, the other at 12:17–25. Whether there were two or whether one should follow the order of 1 Maccabees and only have one Timothy is disputed, but most likely there was only one. The author does not specify the number of mercenaries but, since over 21,000 die in the battle (v. 31), the author means the numbers to be frightening.

10:25–28. The Jews in their distress turn to supplicate God (v. 25; cf. 10:4), using the traditional signs of national mourning by putting earth on their heads as if they were buried and wearing sackcloth, from which shrouds are cut (Neh 9:1; Esth 4:1–3; Jer 6:26; Dan 9:3). Gathered around the new altar, they ask for God’s mercy (v. 26; Joel 2:17). The reference to the law is from Exod 23:22, which specifies that God will act this way if the people obey the commandments (cf. 1 Kgs 8:37–39). The calm confidence of the Jews (v. 28) is contrasted with the animal rage of their opponents.

10:29–31. The epiphany to defend Judas and to scatter the enemy has many Greek elements. Often in the Iliad, for example, a hero is protected by a god. When Delphi was defended against the Persians and the Gauls, gigantic figures pursued the fleeing attackers while thunderbolts crashed down on them. Zeus is pre-eminently Zeus Keraunos who hurls thunderbolts at his enemies.87 No one has satisfactorily explained the number five for the supernatural figures (v. 29). One might note how the following siege lasts five days (v. 35).

10:32–38. According to 1 Macc 5:8, the defeat of the army led by Timothy took place in Jazer in Transjordan, not Gazara on the border of Judea to the west of Jerusalem. The motif of the taunting defenders (v. 34), found again at 12:14–16, mirrors the taunts of the Jebusites during David’s siege of Jerusalem (2 Sam 5:6–9). A cistern (v. 37), a large pit with plastered walls for storing water, was a perfect hiding place. The victory hymn (v. 38) may be compared to the song of Miriam after the defeat of Pharaoh (Exod 15:20–21), or to the song after David’s defeat of Goliath (1 Sam 18:6–7).


Throughout this narrative, the opponents of the Jews are shown to instigate the problems. While the Jews wish to be left alone to follow their own ancestral customs, the non-Jews will not let them. When someone does try to help them, as in the case of Ptolemy Macron, he is dismissed. The local governors, Gorgias and Timothy, constantly seek to attack the forces of Judas Maccabeus. Here again we see the Maccabees behaving in line with just-war principles, acting only out of self-defense. The reader may be particularly intrigued as to what Ptolemy Macron’s peace proposals would have been, but the story reminds us that the peacemakers are often the first casualties of war as more extreme voices for violence drown out the calls for peace.

Yet even while the Maccabees are only acting in self-defense, there are also uglier overtones in these stories. Simon’s followers, who let enemy forces go (2 Macc 10:20–21), are portrayed as mercenaries, money-lovers, as not looking for the welfare of the community but only for their self-interest. The assumption behind this telling, however, seems to be that the only good enemy is a dead enemy, for Judas immediately sets out to destroy all those who were left besieged. Such an attitude of taking no hostages, of accepting no ransom for prisoners, is disturbing. It violates the later-formulated principles of just war. These stories are told by someone who definitely thinks that God is on the Maccabees’ side, and that their enemies are to be destroyed. Such a cavalier attitude toward human life and its dignity is one that we must seriously question. Even in battle, the object should be not to kill, but to render harmless.

2 Maccabees 11:1–12, The Campaign of Lysias


The story of the first expedition of Lysias is told here as having occurred during the reign of Antiochus V (who was only nine years old at this time). It actually occurred, however, under Antiochus IV. As mentioned before, the author did not wish to shift focus away from Antiochus IV as the main and constant antagonist of the Jews, and the author narrated one major battle (chap. 8) before the death of Antiochus IV. First Maccabees reports that Lysias, as chancellor of Antiochus IV, sent out the expedition of Nicanor (1 Macc 3:32, 38) before himself invading (4:24–35).

11:1–3. For the first time, Lysias is described as the guardian of Antiochus V (v. 1; see 1 Macc 3:33). He is also described as being "in charge of the government," a position he held under Antiochus IV (1 Macc 3:32), and is given the high title "kinsman" (Lysias is said to be of royal lineage, probably a reference to this title; see 1 Macc 3:32). Jonathan, Judas’s brother, was later given the same title (1 Macc 10:89). The full description of Lysias here, after the brief mention at 2 Macc 10:10, suggests some misplaced order. The figure of 80,000 infantry and "all the cavalry" (v. 2) exceeds the numbers at 1 Macc 4:28. The author of 1 Maccabees reports that Lysias sent the expedition of Nicanor to destroy the people (1 Macc 3:38, 42), as Antiochus IV had commanded him, which contrasts with the description of Lysias’s intentions here. The events described here—enforced Hellenization, taxing the temple revenue, and selling the high priesthood (vv. 2–3)—seem closer to what happened during the high priesthood of Jason (2 Macc 4:11–15), who purchased the office (2 Macc 4:7–9). Lysias’s actions also seem to presuppose that the Temple and the city were controlled by Judas, and not by the followers of Menelaus.

11:4–5. The author enjoys contrasting the might of humans with the power of God (v. 4; 3:34; 10:28). Here, he states that Lysias "did not take God’s power into account at all, but felt exultant confidence" in his own troops (v. 4). The treaty of Apamea with the Romans in 188 had forbidden the Seleucids to use elephants in future battles, but Lysias has eighty; elephants could be quite successful against peoples who had no experience of them. As in 1 Macc 4:29, Lysias approaches Jerusalem from the south (v. 5); 2 Maccabees describes Beth-zur as being five schoinoi (σχονοί), not stadia (στάδια), as the NRSV translates, from Jerusalem. The schoinos, a Persian measure, could equal thirty, forty, or sixty stadia. Since a stadium is about one-fifth of a kilometer, five schoinoi of thirty stadia would locate Beth-zur about 30 kms south of Jerusalem (it is actually 28.5 kms south).

11:6–12. Once again, prayer precedes the battle (v. 6), and Judas sets the example (v. 7). As God had sent an angel before the Israelites in the past (Exod 23:20; 33:2; Josh 5:13–15; 2 Kgs 19:35), so now they pray for God to do likewise for them. The closest parallels to this scene, however, are from nonbiblical accounts: the battle between the Romans and the Latins, when the Dioscuri, the twin gods, charged at the head of the Roman force and forced the Latins to flee; Athena’s help to the citizens of Cyzicus;89 and Theseus, who at Marathon rushed before the Greeks at the barbarians. In this account, the role of the divine heroes of the Greeks has been taken over by an angel of the Lord. God’s mercy is again praised (2 Macc 8:3, 5; 10:26), and God is described as Israel’s ally (v. 10; 8:24; 10:16), giving them the courage to win a convincing victory (v. 11). Lysias saves himself by a disgraceful flight, as had Nicanor (2 Macc 8:34–35). According to 1 Maccabees, the numbers of those killed are much smaller (1 Macc 4:34), and Lysias made an orderly retreat.

2 Maccabees 11:13–38, Peace Negotiations


While Lysias is said in 1 Maccabees to retreat to Antioch in order to regroup and gather an even larger force (1 Macc 4:35), here, continuing under the assumption that these events occurred during the reign of Antiochus V, Lysias recognizes, even as Heliodorus had done (2 Macc 3:38–39), that the Hebrews were invincible while God was their ally (v. 13). Such a realization leads Lysias to negotiate for peace (v. 14; cf. the request of the Hasideans at 1 Macc 7:12, where the same phrase "just terms" [δίκαιοι dikaioi ] is used). The end of v. 14 is difficult, as two verbs "persuade" (πείθω peithō) and "compel" (ἀναγκάζω anagkazō) are found. The verse should be translated: "promising that he would compel the king to be their friend." Most likely scribes found it doubtful that a minister could compel a king to do anything and so inserted the verb for "to persuade." Just as Onias III had the people’s welfare in view (2 Macc 4:6), so too does Judas (v. 15), who sets down the terms in writing.

The context allows the author to insert four documents, the dating, content, and order of which have been much discussed. Three of the letters, the first (vv. 16–21), the third (vv. 27–33), and the fourth (vv. 34–38), are dated to the 148th year, which precedes the death of Antiochus IV. The second letter (vv. 22–26) is undated. The dates given in the documents also represent problems. The month mentioned in the first letter, Dioscorinthius (v. 21), is otherwise unknown in the Macedonian calendar. In addition, both the third and the fourth letters are dated 15 Xanthicus (vv. 33, 38), although their respective contents make it improbable that they were written on the same day. According to the third letter, it was Menelaus and not Judas who conducted the negotiations with Lysias (v. 32), whereas the first and fourth letters seem unlikely to have originated from Menelaus’s followers. The order of the letters does not seem correct, as the fourth letter precedes the decision of the king, while the second and third are decisions of a king.

Accordingly, scholars have sought the correct dating and occasion for these letters. Such a search, however, depends on the way one reconstructs the sequence of events. According to C. Habicht’s reconstruction, letter three reflects a mission of peace by Menelaus to Antiochus IV before setting out on his eastern expedition. When this mission failed, Lysias made his first attack on Judea, but when it in turn failed, he entered into negotiations with the rebels. The negotiations broke down when Antiochus IV died, thus letter two grants amnesty to the rebels on Antiochus V’s accession to the throne. According to Bar-Kochva’s reconstruction, after the defeat of Nicanor and Gorgias, Ptolemy son of Dorymenes, an enemy of the Jews, was replaced by Ptolemy Macron, friendly to the Jews (2 Macc 10:12), and negotiations with the rebels began. The first letter thus represents an interim report on the negotiations, and letter four a sign of Roman willingness to help negotiate. According to Bar-Kochva, Antiochus IV refused to negotiate, but Menelaus’s request for conditional amnesty was allowed (letter three). Letter two is the official reprieve of the persecution by Antiochus V. In general, the arguments of Bar-Kochva are very plausible, although letter three should probably be placed earlier. After the failure of local initiatives against the rebels in 166/165 bce (1 Macc 3:10–26; 2 Maccabees 8), Menelaus saw the opportunity to convince Antiochus IV that his measures in Jerusalem were ill-conceived and that a conditional amnesty and the end of the religious persecutions should take place. Antiochus IV agreed while on his expedition to the eastern satrapies (March 164 bce; letter three). For some unknown reason, possibly because of the popular hatred of Menelaus and the belief that he was a traitor (2 Macc 4:39–50; 5:15), the amnesty offer was rejected. Lysias took up peace negotiations again after his first expedition (letter one), and the Roman emissaries asked Judas’s group for a report on the negotiations (letter four). Either at the death of Antiochus IV or at the end of Lysias’s second expedition, after the Seleucids had recaptured Jerusalem (1 Macc 6:48–59), letter two returned to the Jews the Temple and the repeal of the edicts against the ancestral religion.

11:16–21, The First Letter. Lysias chooses a neutral term, πλῆθος (plēthos, which may mean "multitude" or "mass," sometimes "people"; cf. 1 Macc 8:20), to refer to the addressees (v. 16), rather than the formal "nation" (ἔθνος ethnos), "senate" (γερουσία gerousia), or "people" (δῆμος dēmos). Such a neutral address suggests that the letter was not written to a formally recognized group within the Seleucid Empire. The envoys of this group, John and Absalom (v. 17), are otherwise unknown, but it is interesting that they bear Hebrew, not Greek, names. Two sons of an Absalom, Mattathias (1 Macc 11:70) and Jonathan (1 Macc 13:11), fight alongside Judas’s successors, Jonathan and Simon. The document referred to in v. 17 is said to be "appended below" (ἐπιδόντες epidontes) to this letter, not "delivered" (NRSV) or "presented" (NAB). Verse 18 distinguishes between those issues that had to be referred to the king and those that Lysias felt competent to grant. The verse should not be translated "he has agreed to what was possible" (NRSV) but rather "what lies within my competence, I have agreed to" (author’s trans.). Lysias leaves the working out of further specifics to his subordinates (v. 20). "Goodwill" (εὔνοια eunoia, v. 19) is the same word used in the letter of Antiochus IV (2 Macc 9:21, 26). The year 148 in the Macedonian Seleucid calendar (v. 21) would lie between October 165 and September 164 bce. Dioscorinthius has been interpreted as Dios, the first month in the Macedonian calendar, or Dystros, the fifth month, or Daisios, the eight month.

11:22–26, The Second Letter. This letter is undated. Verse 23 uses a phrase that was customarily used at the death of a king (cf. 2 Macc 4:7) and would suggest a time near the accession of Antiochus V. As such, the letter would be a granting of amnesty at the start of a reign. Yet Bar-Kochva suggests that the writer uses vague, "diplomatic" wording to cover recent negative actions and to point to a new start; thus he dates the letter after the second campaign of Lysias (the negotiations mentioned at 1 Macc 6:59).

Antiochus’s addressing Lysias as "brother" is normal court language, and does not infer a close relationship between them; Lysias held the rank of kinsman (2 Macc 11:1). The desire for one’s kingdom to be undisturbed is found also in the Greek Esth 3:13, but there it is given as a reason for destroying the disturbing Jews. Although the author of 2 Maccabees saw the reforms initiated by Jason as the adoption of Greek customs (2 Macc 4:10–11), the letter here (v. 24) refers most probably to the decrees of Antiochus IV (1 Macc 1:41–59; 2 Macc 6:1 uses the same verb "conduct their lives," "live" [πολιτεύομαι politeuomai ] found in v. 25). The language in v. 25 is very similar to that of the letter of Antiochus III, when the king declared that the Jews should live by their ancestral religion. According to v. 25, the letter also stipulates the restoration of the Temple. However, if this letter is dated to the beginning of Antiochus V’s reign, the Temple already was under Judas’s control, and this is simply a diplomatic recognition of the status quo. If the letter is dated to the end of the second expedition (1 Macc 6:55–62), it is a real concession.

11:27–33, The Third Letter. The "senate" (gerousia, v. 27) is known from the same letter of Antiochus III (see above) and was the official municipal body in Jerusalem (2 Macc 4:44). The mention of Menelaus (v. 29) raises the question of whether the letter was addressed only to his supporters. The accompanying phrase, "to other Jews," seems to be quite general. As at v. 23, the Jews are said to wish to return to normality (vv. 29, 31). The letter mentions two dates, 30 Xanthicus (i.e., the end of March 164 bce), and 15 Xanthicus, the middle of March 164 bce. In the later Megillat Taʿanit, the Scroll of Fasting, an entry dated 28 Adar (February/March) states that the good news reached the Jews that they did not have to depart from the Torah. Given that the date of this entry is March 164, then the king must be Antiochus IV, as it seems unlikely that his nine-year-old son would have written such a letter, even at the direction of Lysias. Since Antiochus IV had left for the eastern campaign in late 165 bce, Menelaus must have accompanied him or perhaps visited him during his first stop in Greater Armenia, to the northeast of Syria. Fifteen days to deliver this document from Greater Armenia (or from Media) to Jerusalem and to announce the amnesty would be cutting it very close. Perhaps Antiochus agreed to Menelaus’s request in principle and the letter was dated from the chancery at Antioch. Nevertheless, the amnesty ends the persecution, allowing the Jews to follow their own customs (vv. 30–31; emending the text to διαιτήματα [diaitēmata ], rather than to δαπανήματα [dapanēmata ], as the Kosher laws would have been included in the reference to the Torah). But amnesty is conditional upon the cessation of hostilities and the return home of the rebels. If this condition was not met, hostility would break out again.

This letter is very important and intriguing for the role it gives to Menelaus. Since the rest of 2 Maccabees portrays Menelaus as a traitor to Judaism, it is difficult to determine what role he is playing. Perhaps he supported Antiochus’s suppression of Judaism in the beginning but later saw that policy as losing ground. Or perhaps he recognized that if he was to remain as civil as well as religious leader of Judea, he would have to switch position and try reconciliation before things got too out of hand in Judea. Or does this letter reveal him as someone who, a little over two years after Antiochus IV had forcibly attempted to suppress Judaism in Judea, succeeded in showing him the stupidity of these measures and convinced him to allow the Jews in Judea to follow their ancestral customs? Does Menelaus comes across, not as a traitor to Judaism, but as an advocate for his people who tries to change the monarch’s will not by armed confrontation but by slowly working on him diplomatically? Was it his diplomacy combined with the Maccabean successes that won the day?

11:34–38, The Fourth Letter. After the Romans had forced Antiochus IV from Egypt in 168, they had kept a wary eye on Antiochus IV and his ambitions and did not want him cooperating with Eumenes II of Pergamum. An embassy had been sent to Antioch in 166 bce, led by T. Sempronius Gracchus. A third embassy would be sent in 163/62, during which the Roman ambassador Octavius would be killed after ordering the Seleucid fleet burned and the Seleucid war elephants hamstrung, since they had contravened the peace treaty of Apamea. The embassy referred to in this letter probably took place in autumn 164, so the date appended to the letter should be disregarded as having been copied from the third letter. The embassy contacted the Jewish forces under Judas, addressing them as "a people" (δῆμος dēmos) rather than "a multitude" (plēthos; the same term is found in official correspondence in 1 Macc 8:29; 12:6; 14:20, 23; 15:17). Such a recognition was tacit support of the rebels. Rome enjoyed putting a cat among the chickens; also in 164 the Roman commissioner G. Sulpicius Gallus publicly invited accusations against Eumenes II of Pergamum in his own capital at Sardis.


This chapter raises interesting questions about how one is to confront aggression. It is noteworthy that 1 Maccabees is completely silent about these first peace negotiations of Menelaus and Lysias; when the author does mention peace attempts after Lysias’s second expedition, it is only to point out that one cannot trust the Seleucids, since they always break their word (1 Macc 6:55–63). In fact, the author of 1 Maccabees shows distinct reserve about relations with the Seleucids and seems always to argue that Judea was able to defend itself independently against its neighbors, who were always suspect. On the other hand, 2 Maccabees is open to negotiations with the Seleucid central government, but argues that these always fail because of jealous minor officials (2 Macc 12:2; 14:26). It also denigrates the memory of Menelaus, who attempted to restore the ancestral customs. What one has to ponder again is when and if one has to resort to armed resistance to counter naked aggression. Under what conditions does non-violent resistance work, and when will it only lead to annihilation of the people and its culture? The third letter suggests that a balanced combination of diplomacy and show of force may be the most pragmatic approach in an armed world for nations to settle disputes.

The fourth letter suggests that the intervention of an outside force may be required to get negotiations going. Such intervention usually does not work, however, if the parties do not want to negotiate. If people want to kill one another, it is exceedingly difficult to stop them. The Romans were not at all altruistic in their intervention. They were seeking to extend their power base. But an organization such as the United Nations can be helpful in bringing opposing parties to the bargaining table and in helping to limit disputes. Its power is limited, however, by the will of the parties involved in the conflict. When all sides have become sickened by the killing, then a mediator like the U.N. can be of most assistance—not when warring factions insist on continuing the conflict.

2 Maccabees 12:1–45, Further Local Hostilities


12:1–2. This chapter details hostilities with local officials. The author insists, as he often does, that the Jews are peaceful (10:14–15; 14:25), only desirous of following their own customs undisturbed (v. 1). However, their enemies will not leave them alone (v. 2). The author of 2 Maccabees regards the Timothy in these verses as distinct from the Timothy who earlier invaded Judea and whose death is recorded in 10:37, but most likely the author is mistaken. The Apollonius mentioned here is distinguished from others of the same name (Apollonius captain of the Mysians [2 Macc 5:24] and Apollonius from Samaria [1 Macc 3:10–11]). Hieronymus and Demophon are otherwise unknown. Nicanor was not "governor of Cyprus," which was then part of the Ptolemaic Empire, but was the commander of Cypriot troops, like Crates (2 Macc 4:29), and thus of quite a lower rank from the Nicanor mentioned in chaps. 8 and 14–15.

12:3–9. The incident of the drowning of the Jews of Joppa is not found in 1 Maccabees. Joppa was an important coastal harbor town, about thirty-two miles from Jerusalem (see 4:21). The Jews were not citizens, but lived in the town. Perhaps the Jews thought they were being given a pleasure cruise; v. 4 seems to suggest that they did not know the reason for the voyage, but obeyed simply to keep the peace, since the whole citizen body had voted in favor of it. Would a non-citizen minority group have had any say in the matter? Once again, in response to this tragedy, Judas and his forces call on God (cf. Ps 7:6–11). Judas is unable to take full revenge, however. Later his brother Simon will drive out the inhabitants of Joppa and settle there (1 Macc 13:11; 14:5). Jamnia lay about twelve miles south of Joppa, about thirty-four miles in a straight line from Jerusalem, but much farther by road. Thus it is doubtful that a fire in Jamnia could actually have been seen in Jerusalem, but it is a nice hyperbole.

12:10–12. From this point on, the events in this chapter loosely parallel the account of Judas’s campaign in Gilead as recorded in 1 Macc 5:9–36. This section begins awkwardly: A mile away from Jamnia and the west coast, the Israelites begin to march against Timothy in Transjordan (1 Macc 5:24), when they are attacked by Arabs (1 Macc 5:39 reports that Arabs served as mercenaries in Timothy’s forces, but records that the first encounter with the Nabateans was a peaceful one [1 Macc 5:24–25]). The author of 2 Maccabees stresses God’s help in the battle (v. 11). Judas again shows a willingness to negotiate peace (vv. 11–12). Later, Judas’s brother Jonathan will draw on this friendship (1 Macc 9:35).

12:13–16. Although a town named Chaspho is mentioned at 1 Macc 5:36 as one of several cities captured by Judas in Gilead, here the author provides a more elaborate story of the capture of Caspin, which is probably the same city. The strength of the city is stressed as the basis for the inhabitants’ arrogance (v. 14). As usual, the author contrasts the blasphemous behavior of the Gentiles with Judas’s piety (v. 15; see also 10:34; 15:4–5). The reference to Joshua’s attack on Jericho (Josh 6:1–21) provides a biblical example for the following destruction and slaughter. The gruesome image of the blood-filled lake (v. 16) is emotionally powerful and is similar to the image of how, in the war against Syracuse, the defeated Athenians were drinking the river stained with their own blood (cf. 2 Kgs 3:22–23).

12:17–26. Judas and his men travel about ninety miles south to the area around Araq-el-Emir, where Hyrcanus the Tobiad had built a fort (see 3:11). Since the battle with Timothy occurs at Carnaim, near Caspin, this account seems to have been misplaced. According to 1 Macc 5:13, all the male Jews in the "land of Tobiani" (ἐν τοῖς Τουβίου en tois Toubiou) had been killed as part of the persecution of the Jews that had prompted Judas’s expedition into Gilead. The author of 2 Maccabees, to the contrary, insists that Timothy had not accomplished anything except to leave a garrison behind (v. 18), perhaps at one of the deserted strongholds of the Toubiani. At this point in the narrative of 1 Maccabees, Judas divides his forces into three parts, one under Simon to go to Galilee, another under himself and Jonathan to go into Gilead, the third under Joseph and Azariah to be left in Judah (1 Macc 5:17–18). The author of 2 Maccabees may allude to this in v. 20. The parallel account of the battle with Timothy (vv. 20–26) is found at 1 Macc 5:37–43. Although both engagements take place around Carnaim, the two accounts vary greatly. The size of Timothy’s forces is greatly exaggerated (v. 20; see 1 Macc 5:38). According to the author, another epiphany of God takes place (v. 22). Timothy’s army reacts in terror and fear (cf. Exod 15:16; Deut 2:25; 11:25) and flees in panic (cf. Josh 10:10; 1 Sam 7:10; 2 Kgs 7:6–7; the description of God as "the one who sees all things" is also found at 2 Macc 15:2; see also Exod 2:25; 2 Macc 7:6). Judas’s victory (v. 23) is not complete, since Dositheus and Sosipater, who had successfully destroyed Timothy’s garrison (v. 19) are deceived by Timothy (vv. 24–25). Their motive, however, is praiseworthy in contrast to that of the troops under Simon, who had accepted bribes to allow their enemies to escape (2 Macc 10:20).

Judas now destroys Carnaim, where the women and children of Timothy’s camp had taken refuge (v. 21), and the temple of Atargatis (v. 26). Atargatis, the Syrian goddess and consort of Hadad, was identified with the Canaanite goddess Astarte. The meaning of "Carnaim" is "two horns," which may reflect the iconography of the goddess, where the horns symbolize power (cf. 1 Kgs 22:11; Zech 1:18–21).

12:27–28. According to 1 Macc 5:45–51, Judas escorted all the Jews in Gilead back to Judea. In these verses, he marches toward Ephron, which lay on the road back to Judea. The townspeople, however, will not let the army through, whereupon Judas besieges and destroys the city. This account suggests that Lysias, the chancellor of Syria, had a residence in this Transjordanian town (v. 27), which prompts the attack. The story seems typecast like that of the siege of Caspin (12:13–16): a mixed multitude in a well-defended town (v. 27), the prayer of the Jews (v. 28), the sovereign who shatters the enemy (cf. Exod 15:3, 7; Josh 10:10). The number killed is the same as at Carnaim, 25,000 (vv. 26, 28).

12:29–31. Scythopolis, or Beth-shean, is mentioned at 1 Macc 5:52 as a place the refugees from Gilead simply pass by. Here, no reason is given for Judas’s "hastening" there (v. 29). Perhaps the reason is that the author of 2 Maccabees enjoys recounting the goodwill between Gentiles and Jews (vv. 30–31; 2 Macc 9:21, 26). The Festival of Weeks, or Shabuot, was a harvest celebration (Exod 23:16; Lev 23:15–22) called Pentecost in Greek—i.e., the fifty days after Passover. The author stresses the piety of Judas’s forces in that they break off their campaigning to celebrate the festival.

12:32–42a. The emphasis on the piety of Judas’s forces (v. 31) is balanced by a story highlighting what happens to those who are not pious. Compare this passage with 1 Macc 5:55–68, which recounts an encounter with Gorgias near Jamnia in which Joseph and Azariah join battle with Gorgias on their own initiative and are defeated. The author of 1 Maccabees used the story as propaganda for the Hasmonean family.

12:32–37. After recounting battles to the east, the author now turns to activities in the south. Gorgias was already mentioned as harassing the Jews (10:14). The actual size of the battle is not given. The battle starts out poorly for the Jews (v. 34), until the heroic actions of Dositheus (v. 35), a cavalryman who should not be identified with the commander mentioned earlier (12:19, 24; the NRSV identifies him as one of Bacenor’s men, but the better reading would have him as one of the Toubiani). The story here belongs to a bardic tradition of hero stories, like the roster of David’s warriors in 2 Samuel 23. Whereas in the encounter in 1 Macc 5:55–61 Gorgias is victorious, here the author has him fleeing from the battle scene (v. 35) like Nicanor (8:34–35) and Lysias (1:12), to Marisa, one of the major cities in Idumea. The commander Esdris is mentioned without any preparation (v. 36), another sign of the shorthand nature of the work. Some scholars have suggested that he should be identified with the Eleazar of 8:23. As he and his men tire, Judas calls on the Lord to be their ally and leader. The author again stresses the piety of Judas by noting his use of the ancestral language (v. 37), as had the martyred mother and her seven sons (7:21–27). The sudden frenzied onrush catches Gorgias’s troops unawares. Some part of the battle description seems to have been left out, since it is unlikely that Gorgias’s troops would have remained fighting after Gorgias had fled (v. 35).

12:38–42a. Judas, ever observant, goes to Adullam, about eight miles northeast of Marisa, and he and his soldiers purify themselves and keep the sabbath (v. 38). Since there is no specific need to purify oneself, to become ritually clean so that one can participate in temple service, before honoring the sabbath so far from the Temple, their purification seems, therefore, to refer to purifying oneself after coming into contact with a dead body (Num 19:10–22; 31:24). As opposed to Jason (2 Macc 5:10), these fallen Israelite soldiers are to be buried in their ancestral tomb (v. 39)—not to be so buried was a punishment (1 Kgs 13:22). While 1 Maccabees explains the death of some of Judas’s forces as being due to their jealousy of Judas and his brothers (1 Macc 5:56–62, 67), the author of 2 Maccabees explains it as their lack of Torah observance (v. 40). Under the tunic of each dead man was found "sacred tokens of the idols of Jamnia." These sacred objects may have been taken during the raid on Jamnia (12:8–9); such objects were forbidden to Jews (Deut 7:25–26). Greek inscriptions from Delos set up by people from Jamnia honor Heracles and Horon, two Phoenician deities. Would the soldiers have carried booty into battle with them? More likely what they had were amulets used to protect the wearer. The proverbial wisdom that God sees all things is applied here (v. 41; see also 12:22; cf. Prov 15:11; 16:2; 24:12; Mark 4:22).

12:42b–45. These verses are difficult textually and also difficult to translate. Verse 42b seems to reflect a sacrifice for the reparation of the community, whose sin has come to light, similar to the reparation offering (Lev 4:13–35; the language of Lev 4:26, 35 is similar to that of 2 Macc 12:45). The community aspect of the sacrifice is shown by each man’s contributing to the sacrifice (v. 43). The phrase "taking account of the resurrection" is a comment by the author that interprets Judas’s action. As seen in chap. 7, the author believes in the resurrection. The language there (particularly 7:23) evokes the language of creation. The hope of the brothers (7:11, 14) is that they will live again in a newly created world. In this passage, vv. 44–45 offer two alternatives: either Judas does not think that the dead rise and believes that it is foolish to pray for them, or he believes that a reward awaits those who die piously, a holy and pious thought. Some scholars have suggested that the expressions "superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead" and "holy and pious thought" are later insertions. However, in the light of recent research on rituals for the dead in Israel (e.g., those rites underlying Isaiah 57), "to pray for the dead" may in fact reflect a custom of which only traces can be discerned. The Israelites clearly believed that the dead had another existence (see, e.g., Deut 18:11–12, which forbids seeking oracles from the dead; 1 Sam 28:14–19; Isa 65:4, which rails against those "who sit inside tombs,/ and spend the night in secret places" [NRSV]). The customs and rituals surrounding the dead suggest the belief that there is a community that stretches beyond death. The author argues that these customs and rituals mean that one can make atonement for those who have died; such practices presuppose a resurrection of the dead.


The story of the complicity of the citizens of Joppa in the murder of the Jews living among them has fearful resonances for us who live with the memories of the Holocaust of World War II, the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, and the genocide in Rwanda. We are not told in 2 Maccabees why the peoples round about took offensive action against the Jews. What we are forced to consider is how prejudice can grow and be present in traditional stories about the relations of peoples and how this prejudice can be kindled into active hatred by unscrupulous leaders. One way to prevent that might be to examine what stories we tell our children and whether they may contain unsympathetic portraits of other groups. Are ethnic jokes really all that funny? Should statements demeaning women or minority groups be tolerated?

One particular area in which this problem surfaces is the way the term οἱ Ἰουδαῖοι hoi Ioudaioi should be translated in the New Testament. The literal translation, "the Jews," most frequently occurs in the Gospel of John and the Acts of the Apostles, and in these two books it is regularly used to characterize those who oppose Jesus or the early movement of Jesus’ followers after his death. The result is that "the Jews" appear as the villains in these books. An unsophisticated reader might even get the impression that Jesus and his followers were not even Jews. Such a reader would not grasp that not all Jews in the first century opposed Jesus’ movement, and that often the people who did oppose Jesus were simply other Jews who did not accept Jesus as Messiah. Not all Jews were involved in the death of Jesus; the responsibility for Jesus’ crucifixion falls on the Roman officials in Judea, as well as on some Jewish leaders at that time. Certainly "the Jews" as a blanket group are not Christ-killers, as the second-century Christian polemic against them would state and as they would be labeled throughout the medieval period. How, then, are we to translate hoi Ioudaioi? If we are to translate the term as "the Jews," we must be sure to point out that this term does not refer to all Jews, not even all Jews in the first century ce.

2 Maccabees 13:1–26, The Second Expedition of Lysias


The author of 2 Maccabees, like the author of 1 Maccabees, records two expeditions of Lysias against the Jews. The account in 2 Maccabees 13 parallels the one in 1 Macc 6:28–63, which dates the invasion to the 150th year in the Seleucid Babylonian calendar, or 162 bce (1 Macc 6:20). Second Maccabees, however, which seems to use the Seleucid Macedonian calendar, places this invasion in 149, or between September 164 and October 163 bce. The epitome in 2 Maccabees gives only two dates aside from those in the letters in chap. 11. Some scholars prefer the dating in 2 Maccabees, while others follow 1 Maccabees and propose that, since the letters in chap. 11 all carry the date of 148 Seleucid era, either Jason or the epitomist placed the second expedition a year later.

13:1–2. No explanation is given for the change of attitude toward the Jews after the supposed agreements in chap. 11, except that the young king wanted to do worse things than his father had done (13:9). As the expedition comes after the events of chap. 12, these Seleucid setbacks must have been thought by the author sufficient reason. The force assembled is enormous and exaggerated, and the text followed by the NRSV should be emended. It is unreasonable that both Antiochus and Lysias would each have his own force, particularly since Antiochus V was a minor. Instead of reading "each of them" (ἕκαστος hekastos), the text should preferably be read as "besides" or "as well" (ἐκτός ektos), and thus translated "coming with Lysias, his guardian and chancellor, and he had as well a Greek force.…" It is also unlikely that scythed chariots would have been used, as they would have been useless in the hilly terrain of Judea.

13:3–8. Menelaus, who has not been mentioned for some time, now reappears. His role in attempting peace negotiations (11:29, 32) is completely reversed here: Menelaus now "encourages" Antiochus V in his invasion (v. 3; see 11:32) as he had helped his father (5:15). He resumes the role he had played before, a plotter against his fellow citizens (4:50; 5:23). He is the opposite of the good high priest Onias III, who only had in mind the welfare of all the people (4:5). The author stresses that God rules all events and so uses the epithet "King of kings" for God (v. 4; see 1 Enoch 9:4), an epithet used of Persian kings (Ezra 7:12; Dan 2:37) and of Nebuchadnezzar (Ezek 26:7). Since it seems unlikely that Lysias and his charge would have executed Menelaus before an expedition to regain control of Judea, it has been suggested that this description of Menelaus’s death (vv. 5–6) may belong after the expedition of Lysias. The author has placed the account here, just as Jason’s death is told at the time of his attack on Jerusalem (5:5–10), even though it took place later. Josephus places Menelaus’s death after the expedition. The failure of Menelaus’s peace overtures (11:29, 32) may have convinced Lysias that Menelaus, who had been supported by Antiochus IV, was now a liability and could be removed. Beroea (v. 4) was the name given to Aleppo in Syria by Seleucus I. Death by ashes was a Persian punishment. If the ashes were cold, the criminal would be suffocated; if they were hot, he would burn to death. Menelaus had been accused of sacrilege earlier (vv. 7–8; see 4:39). The author’s motif of appropriate retribution surfaces again (see 4:26; 5:9–10; 9:6, 28), as does the cruel fate of no burial. The holiness of the altar fire was illustrated in the punishment of Aaron’s two sons, Nadab and Abihu (Lev 10:1–5). There was a special dump for the sacrificial ashes in Jerusalem (Lev 4:12; Jer 31:40).

13:9–17, The Engagement with Lysias at Modein. 13:9–12. The depiction of Antiochus V as being worse than his father recalls Rehoboam’s statements (1 Kgs 12:13–14). Antiochus’s intent is the opposite of the desire stated in his letter that the Jews be undisturbed and live according to their customs (11:25). Once again, the Seleucid king is said to be barbarous (2:21; 4:25). The response of Judas is, as expected, ceaseless prayer (v. 10). Judas had earlier exhorted his followers to be ready to die for their laws and their country (8:21). Here is added the holy Temple, and the prayer in v. 11 echoes the supplication at the purification of the Temple (10:4). The emphasis on the whole community at prayer (v. 12) recalls the community response before the entrance of Heliodorus to the Temple (3:14–22). Fasting and weeping and mourning are the classical ritual acts of repentance to ask the Lord’s mercy (e.g., Jer 36:9; Joel 2:12–17; Dan 9:3).

13:13. The elders with whom Judas consults (v. 13) are either members of a council or senate (4:44; 11:27) or some consultative body. According to the Temple Scroll from Qumran, the king should always have with him twelve princes of his people, twelve priests, and twelve Levites, without whom he should make no decision; before going to war, he should have the high priest consult the Urim and Tummim. At Qumran the role of the priest was stressed, but the thrust was to limit the power of the king. Judas in 2 Maccabees is also portrayed as not acting arrogantly, as opposed to his enemies.

13:14–17. The account of the engagement with Lysias is colored by the theological stance of the author. With God on their side, the Jews are invincible and Judea cannot be overrun. So what was really a defeat for the Jews at Beth-zechariah (1 Macc 6:32–47), resulting in the Seleucids regaining control of Jerusalem (1 Macc 6:48–62), is depicted as a victory for the Jews instead. With the addition of the term "commonwealth," or "way of life" (πολιτεία politeia), to the list of what the Jews are fighting for (v. 14), the crisis is placed in the same category as when Jason overthrew their way of life (4:11) and when Antiochus IV sent Geron to compel the Jews to live no longer by the laws of God (6:1). Modein, which in 1 Maccabees is the hometown of the Maccabees (1 Macc 2:1), is mentioned only here in 2 Maccabees. Modein is seven miles east of Lydda, seventeen miles northwest of Jerusalem, and lies at the northeastern end of the Low Shephela, the hilly region between the Judean hills and the coastal plain. It is not far from the Gophna Hills and the ascent of Beth-horon to the mountain plateau near Jerusalem. The author seems to suggest that Judas made a surprise attack on the Seleucid forces as they marched down the coastal plain to enter Judea from the south (1 Macc 6:31; cf. the movement of John Hyrcanus in 1 Macc 16:4–5 to Modein from where he could march into the plain). The author of 1 Maccabees depicts no such surprise attack on Lysias’s forces.

Judas gives a watchword (v. 15), just as he had before the battle with Nicanor (8:23). "God’s victory" is what the Sons of Light are to write on their standards when they return from battle. The author of 2 Maccabees delights in tales of heroic achievements. Here Judas, with "a picked force," kills more than 2,000 of the enemy; he also kills the leading elephant and fills the camp with confusion (v. 15) and retires safely (v. 16). Judas’s feat parallels that of Eleazar (1 Macc 6:43–46), but Eleazar’s occurred in the midst of a disastrous battle during which he lost his life. Verse 17 contains the poetic image of Judas under God’s shelter (cf. Pss 91:1; 121:5; Isa 25:4; as well as in the phrase "under the shelter of God’s wings," Pss 17:8; 36:7; 61:4; 63:7).

13:18–26, Antiochus V’s Treaty. The king, recognizing the strength of the Jewish troops (as had Lysias in his first expedition [11:13]), now tries deceit (v. 18). According to 1 Maccabees, the Jews at Beth-zur fought courageously but eventually capitulated through lack of provisions (1 Macc 6:31, 49–50). Here the king’s forces are defeated (v. 19), the defenders of Beth-zur get whatever provisions are necessary from Judas (v. 20), and the king eventually withdraws after making a separate peace treaty with the people of Beth-zur (v. 22; did the people of Beth-zur agree not to attack the king’s forces from behind?). In the middle of this account of what occurred at Beth-zur is another exciting tale of deception by a Jew that failed (v. 21). In 1 Macc 6:32–47, the battle of Beth-zechariah is described in detail, and the defeat of the Jews is noted. In 2 Maccabees, Beth-zechariah is not mentioned by name, and it is only briefly stated that when the king attacked Judas’s forces he was defeated (v. 21b). This may be an inversion of what really happened, or it could refer to the fact that Lysias and the king were unsuccessful in their siege of the Temple and thus decided to make peace (1 Macc 6:51–61). Second Maccabees shows the invasion of the king and Lysias to be unsuccessful and the Jews undefeated. Both 1 and 2 Maccabees agree that Lysias and the king break off their attack because of an attempt by Philip to seize control of the government. However, in 1 Maccabees, Antiochus IV appoints Philip to be in charge of the kingdom and guardian of Antiochus V Eupator (1 Macc 6:14–15). Since 2 Maccabees has reported that this Philip fled to Egypt following Antiochus IV’s death (9:29), in the condensed statement of 2 Macc 13:23, one might suppose that someone else named Philip had been left in charge of affairs in Antioch by Antiochus V and was now leading a revolt.

According to 2 Maccabees, Antiochus V behaves honorably, agrees to just terms, honors the Temple, and gives gifts to it (v. 23). In doing so, Antiochus is acting as kings had done before him (3:1). He also sacrifices in the Temple, as had Alexander the Great and Ptolemy IV Philopator. In 1 Maccabees, the king breaks his oath and has the walls of Jerusalem torn down (1 Macc 6:62). Most interestingly, here Antiochus meets Judas graciously (v. 24), whereas in 1 Maccabees Judas does not seem to be anywhere near Jerusalem. The author seems to continue the theme of the Jews’ being willing to act as good citizens and be on good terms with Gentiles if they are allowed to do so (12:29–31; 14:24–25). A new governor is installed for the region of Ptolemais to the land of the Gerrenians. The location of land of the Gerrenians is uncertain; some scholars place it southward from Gaza and west of Beersheba, others as far south as Lake Sirbonis, near Pelusium (even though this area was then under Ptolemaic control); still others suggest that it be placed north of Ptolemais at Gerrha, southeast of Beirut. The change of administrators perhaps reflects a more sympathetic policy toward the Jews, as earlier with Ptolemy Macron (10:12), and in opposition to the role local governors had taken (12:2). If the area covered by Hegemonides lay south of Ptolemais, he would have controlled Jamnia, Joppa, and possibly part of Idumea; he may have replaced Gorgias (12:32–37). If the area of his control lay northward, Hegemonides would have controlled Ptolemais, Tyre, and Sidon (1 Macc 5:15). The citizens of Ptolemais, possibly already described as instigators of anti-Jewish decrees (1 Macc 5:15; 2 Macc 6:8), do not like the agreement, as later Alcimus does not like the peaceful arrangements between Nicanor and Judas (14:20, 26). With Philip in revolt, Lysias had to appease the citizens of Ptolemais so that his rear guard would be secure.


This chapter shows again the power of a historian to determine the way history is written. Guided by his worldview that Torah-observant Jews could not be defeated by any enemy, the author of 2 Maccabees has selected his facts, embellished them, and distorted what actually happened. The narrative surely is a warning to us to examine the assumptions we bring to any discussion as well as the ways we have told our cultural histories. Have we looked at our religion’s past through rose-colored spectacles and not attempted to see what drove our opponents or to empathize with their views? If we begin every discussion with the entrenched view that we are right and our opponents are wrong, how can we ever advance beyond conflict? It is easy to see the speck in our neighbor’s eye and not notice the log in our own (Matt 7:3–5), but we must learn to examine ourselves and our traditions with clear vision.


2 Maccabees 14:1–2, Demetrius Becomes King


The last two chapters of 2 Maccabees parallel 1 Maccabees 7. The author swiftly shifts to the new ruler, Demetrius I. Demetrius, son of Seleucus IV and nephew of Antiochus IV, had been held hostage in Rome in accordance with the Treaty of Apamea. He had replaced Antiochus IV in 178 on the latter’s succession to the throne and had been kept in Rome even after the indemnity had been paid off in 173. On the death of Antiochus IV, Demetrius had argued it was useless to keep him a hostage and requested permission to leave, but the Roman senate had refused, no doubt preferring to deal with an underage king like Antiochus V. After the murder of the Roman envoy in Laodicea in 163 bce, Demetrius applied again for permission to leave, was again refused, and then slipped away to wrest control of the kingdom. The author of 2 Maccabees specifies that he landed in Tripolis and was acclaimed king by the end of 162 bce (the "three years" of v. 1 means within the third year). The last date given in 2 Maccabees (13:1) was the 149th year; the next date is the 151st year (14:4), so the events of vv. 1–2 come within that span. According to both 1 Macc 7:1 and Polybius, Demetrius arrived in Tripolis with only a handful of supporters.

2 Maccabees 14:3–25, Nicanor’s Expedition


14:3–5. The peace gained at the end of chap. 13 is now to be broken, just as the peace at the end of chap. 11 had been. Alcimus, also called Yakim, had been appointed high priest after Menelaus. Alcimus is said to have "defiled" himself in the "times of separation" (ἀμειξίας χρόνοις ameixias chronois, v. 3). Scholars have puzzled over this characterization. Some have noted that, since Alcimus was initially acceptable to the Hasidim (1 Macc 7:12–18), he could not have defiled himself the way Menelaus had done and, therefore, that his defilement resulted from the incident in which sixty Hasidim were executed (1 Macc 7:12–18). Some have further suggested that "the time of separation" mentioned here thus refers to the disagreement between the Hasidim and Judas over Alcimus. Other scholars accept that the massacre is the incident referred to by 2 Maccabees, but follow a different manuscript reading and translate "in times of peace" (ἐπιμιξία epimixia), that is, in the time following the treaty with Antiochus V. The execution of the sixty Hasidim, however, occurs in 1 Maccabees after Alcimus’s installation by Demetrius I, and so after the events being reported here. But describing Alcimus as "defiled" does not necessarily indicate ritual defilement; the term translated "defile" (μολύνω molynō) can have the general meaning of "disgrace": "A whisperer degrades himself/ and is hated in his neighborhood" (Sir 21:28 NRSV). The term may be used here in a general way to contrast Alcimus’s behavior to that of Judas, who left Jerusalem so as not to share in the defilement (2 Macc 5:27), and with that of Razis, who had risked his life by remaining obedient to the law during the persecution (14:38). The description of Alcimus thus is the author’s character assassination, since Alcimus was not one of Judas’s followers and had not (like Razis) risked body and soul for Judaism. We should perhaps not look for a more specific way in which Alcimus had defiled himself—e.g., by eating non-kosher food or by persecuting those who did not obey the emperor’s orders. The statement that Alcimus could not be safe suggests that he had been forced out of Jerusalem (cf. 1 Macc 7:6). At the installation of a new king, he had come for confirmation in his office (v. 4; 1 Macc 10:60–64; 11:23–27) and brought the requisite gifts: a gold crown, a palm, and olive branches from the Temple (cf. 1 Macc 13:36–37; "olive branches" [θαλλοί thalloi ] may be translated by the more general "gifts"). Alcimus, although his folly is like Simon’s (4:6), cunningly bides his time. When the king seeks the advice of those Friends of his at hand, it is natural for him to include the high priest in the discussions on Judea (v. 5).

14:6–10. The author provides Alcimus with an appropriate speech for the circumstances. He first answers the king’s questions (v. 6), then claims to have the king’s and his own country’s best interests at heart (vv. 7–8) and requests help (v. 9). In 1 Macc 2:42 and 7:13, the Hasideans are distinguished from the Maccabeans. Here Judas is portrayed as their leader, and the group is distinguished from the rest of the nation (v. 8). The accusation against Judas and his followers is exactly the opposite of what the reader knows to be true from the narrative: It is not Judas and his followers but Gorgias and those who were banished from Jerusalem who keep up the war (10:14–15); it is the local military commanders who will not let the Jews live in peace (12:2). Judas, in fact, will make peace with Nicanor (vv. 18–25) and settle down, the opposite of what Alcimus charges (v. 6). The charge that the state will never enjoy peace (v. 10) parallels the charge made by Onias III against the original troublemaker Simon (2 Macc 4:6). In several late Jewish narratives we find the pattern whereby the accusation is made that Jews are disturbers of the realm, and this accusation is later disproved (Esth 3:13; 3 Macc 3:26; 6:28; 7:4–7 LXX).

Verse 7 has been interpreted to mean that Alcimus has had the high priesthood taken away from him. That the phrase would have this meaning where Alcimus is presenting himself as humbly seeking the best interests of his people seems out of context. Since the verb ἀθαιρέω (aphaireō) can mean "take off a garment" (Esth 4:4; Esth 4:17k LXX), it might suggest that Alcimus is claiming that, because of his concern for his people, he has left behind his high priestly duties to come to the king (cf. Onias III at 4:5–6). The glory here would refer to the glorious robe of the high priesthood (Sir 45:8; 50:5–11). The motives Alcimus gives for coming to the king resemble those of Onias III (4:5–6).

14:11–14. The king’s Friends instigate action against Judas (cf. 10:13). The Nicanor involved here is unlikely to have been the same Nicanor mentioned earlier (8:9; 12:2), but the author assimilates the two by giving the same epithet to both (8:34; 15:3). The author of 2 Maccabees makes no mention of the expedition of Bacchides and Alcimus or of Alcimus’s tenure as high priest (1 Macc 7:8–25). Such an imposition of Seleucid control would have spoiled his depiction of Judea and Judas as invincible. Since the Roman ambassador C. Octavius had had the Seleucid elephants hamstrung in early 162 bce, perhaps Nicanor was out of a job. Only here, when Nicanor is appointed, is mention made of a governor of Judea (v. 12). The same rank was used earlier to describe local military commanders (12:2), which is probably what is meant here. Nicanor’s orders are to do away with Judas (v. 13), as Antiochus V and Lysias had been done away with, to "scatter" his forces (at 1 Macc 7:6, Judas’s opponents claim that he had "scattered" them out of the land), and to install Alcimus as high priest. At v. 14, one should probably delete "Gentiles," since the group the author intends seems to be the Israelites who opposed Judas and had been driven out of Judea (10:15). The contrast of prosperity and calamities resembles that made by the author regarding Jason’s slaughter of his fellow Israelites (5:6).

14:15–25. As customary, before going into the battle the Jews pray to God (v. 15; see 10:25), who "established his own people forever" by awesome deeds, who "upholds his own heritage by manifesting himself" (cf. Deut 9:26–29; 2 Macc 1:26; literally "with an epiphany"; see 2:21). The place at which the Jews pray and from which they set out (v. 16) seems to be presupposed by the author to be Jerusalem. The location of Dessau, at which the battle takes place, is unknown, but it seems to have been within Judea. Simon, one of the commanders (8:22; 10:19), receives a slight check (v. 17), but Nicanor decides to negotiate (v. 18; there is no mention in 1 Maccabees of an engagement at Dessau or of any contact before Nicanor opens peace negotiations). In 1 Maccabees 7:27, the Seleucid commander from the beginning planned treachery (a motif that occurs frequently in 1 Maccabees [1:30; 7:10–18], as the author is suspicious of any peace settlement with the Seleucids). Here a different picture is given, much like the description of Antiochus V’s dealings with Jerusalem (13:23–24): Nicanor acts honorably (vv. 19–20), and Judas acts with commendable caution (v. 22), although no specific reason is given for it. It is also noteworthy how Judas consults with the people before agreeing to the treaty (v. 20). The ambassadors mentioned in v. 19 are otherwise unknown. The scene for the signing of the agreement is vividly drawn (v. 21), with the two chariots coming toward each other and the two leaders sitting on facing chairs. The description of Nicanor given here, that he becomes a friend of Judas and stays on in Jerusalem, completely contradicts that of 1 Maccabees. Nicanor dismissed the group of enemies of Judas (v. 23; note the play between "flocked" [ἀγεληδόν agelēdon ], v. 14, and "flocks" [ἀγελαίους agelaious ], v. 23). One might suspect that Nicanor kept Judas near him (v. 24) so that Judas could not get up to any mischief, but the author insists on the warm attachment of Nicanor to Judas. Verse 25 shows signs of having been shortened, as three verbs follow one after another (see also 13:19, 22–23, 26). No better peace could be imagined than the fiery soldier Judas married with children and taking part in normal community life.


Judas is shown here as the model citizen. He is not aggressive against the Seleucids, as Alcimus had suggested. When honorable peace conditions can be achieved, he agrees to them and then retires to private life. He does not try to usurp Alcimus’s position, but is content with the restoration of peace under the Seleucid government. He is not ambitious and does not seek to use his armed backers as a tool for advancement. He makes the transition from soldier to civilian with apparent ease. There are two lessons for us here. One is again the counsel against ambition. The ambition of Jason and Menelaus had rent apart the social fabric earlier, and Alcimus was about to do it again. In a free-market economy, such as that of the United States, competitiveness is instilled in children from the very first days at school. It is good to be competitive, to be as good as one can be, to excel in intellectual pursuits and in sports. But we do well to remind ourselves and our children that we should not try to win at all costs, that ambition should not make us trample down others.

We should also be reminded as we read about Judas’s return to private life how difficult such a transition can be. In today’s world, a soldier who returns to civilian life after having fought in a war requires all the support and help he or she can get to move back to normal family life. The horrors of war can be imprinted on the subconscious, and we have to show ourselves as caring for those who have defended our homes and way of life.

Finally, 1 and 2 Maccabees give two very different accounts of Nicanor’s behavior, and we should reflect on what that signifies for our appreciation of biblical literature. In 1 Maccabees, Nicanor is treacherous from the start, and Judas is rightly seen to be suspicious of him and his intentions. The mistrust grows and hostilities ensue. The endemic mistrust that the author of 1 Maccabees depicts between the Maccabees and the Seleucids seems as if it could only be resolved by the independence of Judea. In 2 Maccabees, however, Nicanor is depicted as an admirer of Judas. Judas is properly cautious in meeting with him, but the two are said to strike up a friendship. The Jew and the Gentile live on good terms. Proper worship is being performed at the Temple, since its purification and restoration. Judas seems content that normalcy has returned, a normalcy that includes Judea’s being part of the Seleucid Empire. Judas does not seek independence for Judea, but appears satisfied with the situation.

Such a strong difference between the two accounts should not be explained away by claiming that one is more accurate than the other, that one deserves to be believed more than the other. Rather, the two accounts remind us of how the same event can be retold in completely different ways even by eyewitnesses of the event. The telling depends on the perspective of the account. This sense of different perspective is one that we should be sensitive to in our reading of the Scriptures. The two accounts of God’s creation of the universe in Genesis 1 and Genesis 2–3 show us two different perspectives on the origins of humanity. The four different Gospels allow us to see how different communities at the beginning of the Jesus movement viewed him and his teaching in diverse ways. Difference does not mean contradiction; it simply means diversity of viewpoint.

2 Maccabees 14:26–36, The Change in Nicanor


The relations between Nicanor and Judas are characterized as ideal ("goodwill," v. 26; see 9:21, 26; 11:19), but Alcimus intervenes to ruin the peace, as had been done earlier against Ptolemy Macron (10:13). The account presupposes that Alcimus is in Jerusalem, so he must have been installed as high priest as part of the negotiations. He accuses Nicanor with the same accusation Simon had made against Onias III (4:2). Nicanor had appointed Judas as his "deputy," or "substitute" (διάδοχος diadochos; see 4:29), rather than successor, for only the king could nominate the governor of an area. If this is not a trumped-up charge on the part of Alcimus, it implies that Judas had become a part of the normal bureaucracy of Jerusalem. Just as the false accusations of the wicked Simon had caused Seleucus IV to send Heliodorus to remove funds from the Jerusalem treasury (3:7), so also false accusations work their evil now. The king acts unwisely, as his anger shows (cf. 7:3, 39) and he annuls the terms of the agreement (v. 27; cf. 13:25). The author notes the distress of Nicanor, an honorable man, at having to break covenant when Judas was innocent, but he obeys orders (v. 28). The author of 1 Maccabees simply states that Judas came to know of Nicanor’s treachery (1 Macc 7:30). Here, in vv. 29–30, a whole scene is played out, as Judas is shown to be observant in outwitting Nicanor (v. 30). In the narrative at 1 Maccabees, Judas’s escape is followed by his victory over Nicanor at Caphar-salama (1 Macc 7:31–32). The author of 2 Maccabees makes no mention of this battle, but moves directly to Nicanor’s attack on the Temple (v. 31). Why would Nicanor think that the priests would know where Judas had hidden? Does he think they will follow the principle that it is better for one man to die than for the nation to be destroyed (2 Sam 20:14–22; John 11:50)? At this point, Nicanor’s character changes; by obeying the king’s unjust orders, he turns into someone who fights against God. The author deliberately and effectively contrasts Nicanor’s stretching out his right hand toward the Temple (v. 33) and the priests’ stretching out their hands in prayer (v. 34). As Antiochus had threatened to level the holy city (9:13; 8:3), so Nicanor threatens to level the shrine to the ground (14:33; the altars of the Lord had been thrown down in King Ahab’s time [1 Kgs 18:31], and the reader might recall the taunt of Gideon after he pulled down the altar of Baal [Judg 6:28–32]). If Judas is not handed over to him, Nicanor threatens, he will build a "splendid" (ἐπιφανές epiphanes) temple to Dionysus, foreshadowing ironically God’s "manifestation" (ἐπιφανείᾳ epiphaneia) in defeating Nicanor (15:27). The priests in their prayer call on God as the defender of the nation (8:36); Jerusalem is the place that God chose (Deut 12:5–11). The author has chosen the Greek term σκηνόω (skēnoō, lit., "tenting") to describe God’s presence, reflecting the term for God’s tent of meeting in the wilderness (Exod 25:8–9), which was placed in Solomon’s Temple (1 Kgs 8:4; Pss 15:1; 43:3; 61:4; 74:7; 84:1; see also 1 Kgs 6:1; 7:51; 8:16–21, 41–43; Ps 26:8; Sir 24:8). The prayer of the priests, which refers to the purification (10:1–4), will be fulfilled; the blessing at 15:34 will repeat the language of 14:36.


The slander of Alcimus and its acceptance by the king remind us that we must never believe everything we hear, particularly bad news. If we need to know what happened, we should check out all parties to hear every side of the story. But we are also confronted in this narrative with a more serious issue: the question of obedience to authority. The chapter is fascinating in its development of Nicanor’s character. First he is portrayed as a soldier who, on seeing the commitment and readiness to die on the part of Judas and his forces, has the wisdom to settle the dispute and gain the main objective of the king, Alcimus’s installation as high priest, through a negotiated settlement. Nicanor is not a stubborn, stupid man who can settle things only by violence. But then occurs a moral crisis for Nicanor: Should he obey the unjust decision of the king? He is troubled, but eventually decides that he must obey the king. One would not want to be in his shoes, for what were his alternatives? Could he try to reason with the king, who already had shown signs of anger? If he disobeyed, he would no doubt have been executed, and someone else would have been sent to carry out the king’s wishes. So Nicanor obeyed an order he knew was unjust. From that point on his character changes for the worse, and he is shown as fighting against God. His excuse echoes throughout history: He was only following orders. It was heard at the Nuremberg trials after World War II. It was given for what occurred at My Lai during the Vietnam war. And it will always be the excuse for not exercising moral autonomy, for thinking that we are not responsible if we can blame someone else. The ethical issue posed by Nicanor’s problem is far-reaching: How can one tell if the order of a superior is "unjust"? Yet how can we "train" people to be morally autonomous and to have the courage to blow the whistle on moral violations they witness in the companies they work for? How can an army operate if every soldier has to decide that the action is morally justified? Lurking under the narrative of Nicanor’s actions is the whole issue of conscience and authority, an issue that will always keep surfacing.

2 Maccabees 14:37–46, The Razis Affair


The episode of Razis’ martyrdom interrupts the focus on Nicanor and Judas. Just as the martyrdom accounts in 6:17–7:42 were placed after the desecration of the Temple and brought about God’s mercy, so also the author places Razis’ death after Nicanor’s threat against the Temple. After Razis’ willing death comes the removal of the threat.

14:37–40. Razis, an unusual name, is an elder, perhaps one of those consulted earlier by Judas (13:13). He is a lover of his compatriots, quite the opposite of Alcimus, who claims to be looking out for his compatriots (14:8), but he is not. The title "father of the Jews" is unexpected, but it may be a position similar to benefactor of the city, held by Onias III (4:2). No reason is given for why Razis was denounced to Nicanor. Was he one of those who had gone into hiding with Judas (14:30) because of his former zeal for Judaism at the time of persecution (v. 38)? Nicanor is now said to hate the Jews (v. 39). This is in accordance with the way 1 Macc 7:26 characterizes Nicanor from the first. Sending 500 soldiers to arrest one man seems a bit exaggerated; the author stresses by this figure the importance of Razis.

14:41–42. This scene seems to take place in a private house in which there was a tower overlooking a courtyard. Presumably Razis has been betrayed and surprised in someone’s house. Surrounded on all sides, Razis attempts to kill himself. Like Eleazar (6:23), he prefers to die "nobly" (εὐγενῶς eugenōs) rather than be insulted "unworthily" (ἀναξίως anaxiōs) of his proper ability. The Mediterranean code of honor and disgrace is strongly at play here. Plato, in the ninth book of his Laws, states that suicide is allowable under judicial constraint, under the constraint of unavoidable misfortune, and to avoid participating in a dishonorable deed. In 2 Maccabees 8, Nicanor had been defeated and had run away under the guise of a slave. He chose to act dishonorably, fleeing like a slave, when he might have committed suicide under the third condition of the code. Razis does choose to kill himself under the second condition of the code; he has no means of escape from his enemies, who are rushing to take him.

14:43–46. The suicide act is stretched out to draw the reader in with its vivid description; the sword doesn’t do the trick, Razis’ throwing himself off a wall doesn’t, so he tears out his entrails and throws them on the troops—his blood is literally upon them. The intensity of his commitment is clear in this last grisly act. His last prayer (v. 46) recalls the prayers of the martyrs (7:11, 22–23).


Once again the narrative forces us to confront a contemporary ethical issue: the right to die. Within first-century Judaism, "honorable" suicide was debated. After the town of Jotapata had fallen, Josephus’s men urged suicide while he opposed it, although Josephus praised Phasael, who committed suicide rather than be in the power of his enemy Antigonus. Philo of Alexandria supported those Jews who were willing to kill themselves rather than see the statue of Emperor Caligula placed in the Temple.105 According to 4 Maccabees, the mother of the seven martyred sons committed suicide rather than let the king’s men touch her. Within fourth-century Christianity, as well, there was a great debate between Donatist Christians, who advocated suicide, and their opponents who did not. These debates over suicide raise the question of whether a believer in God, who gives life, can honestly take his or her life. Must one endure unbearable suffering or the certainty of a painful death through an incurable disease or can one muster moral arguments in support of suicide? It is a vital question in medical ethics today, and one about which we must all inform ourselves.

2 Maccabees 15:1–36, The Victory over Nicanor


15:1–5, Nicanor’s Arrogance. The narrative of Nicanor’s search for Judas continues. Nicanor hears that Judas is in the region around Samaria (v. 1), possibly referring to the Gophna hills just northeast of Modein and bordering Samaria, where Mattathias and his sons had fled in the first stages of the revolt (1 Macc 2:28). There is no specific mention of this search in 1 Maccabees, but 1 Macc 7:39 has Nicanor encamping in Beth-horon, just south of the Gophna hills. Taking advantage of the sabbath rest to attack the Jews had been a tactic used by the enemy in the early days of the revolt (1 Macc 2:29–38), so the Hasmoneans and their supporters had decided that they would defend themselves even if attacked on the sabbath (1 Macc 2:4–41). The Jewish observance of the sabbath was well known to non-Jews, and was portrayed as a superstition that allowed them to be taken unawares. The author of 2 Maccabees has stressed the observance of the sabbath by Judas and his followers (2 Macc 8:26–27). The incident reported here is designed to stress Nicanor’s battle against God. The Jews in Nicanor’s company (v. 2) may refer to those mentioned earlier who opposed Judas (10:15; 14:14), but the author, in characterizing them as forced to be with Nicanor, seems to introduce them as a foil to point out Nicanor’s arrogance. As often with non-Jews, Nicanor’s attitude is characterized as barbarous (2:21; 4:25; 10:4; 11:9). God is described as the all-seeing one (12:22; cf. 7:35; 9:5). Nicanor, the thrice-accursed wretch (v. 3; see 8:34), now taunts/challenges God, as Goliath taunted the Israelites (1 Sam 17:8–10, 26) and as Pharaoh’s army had boasted in pursuing Moses and the Israelites (Exod 15:9; at Exod 20:8–11, the observance of the sabbath is grounded in God’s creating heaven and earth). Nicanor’s strategy does not work.

15:6–10, The Battle Preparations. The arrogance of Nicanor resembles that of Antiochus IV (9:8). As so often (12:14–15, 27–28), the author contrasts the two sides (cf. 15:20–26). Judas, like Moses (Exod 14:13) and Joshua (Josh 10:25; cf. Josh 8:1), exhorts his men not to fear and follows the speech proposed at Deut 20:1–4. Judas cites victories from the Torah and the Prophets, but also reminds his troops of their own prowess and skill. The perfidy of the Gentiles refers to Nicanor’s violation of the covenant he had made (14:20–22, 28). In any competition, after all the training has been done, it is mental toughness that counts, and this is what Judas is instilling in his men (v. 11).

15:11–16, Judas’s Vision. In antiquity, dreams were believed to be a means by which humans kept company with the gods. People were aware that not all dreams were heaven sent, but rather were a way the gods visited humans. Dreams are reported frequently in the narrative of Genesis as a way of learning God’s will (e.g., Gen 15:12; 20:3; 40–41), whereas Jeremiah polemizes against the lying dreams of prophets (Jer 23:23–32). Daniel is both a dream interpreter (Daniel 2; 4) and a dreamer himself (Dan 7:1). The author of 2 Maccabees characterizes Judas’s dream as "a certain waking reality" (v. 11; reading ὕπαρ τι [hyper ti ] instead of ὕπερ τι [hyper ti ], "beyond measure"). Such a term was as old as Homer and applies either to the fact that the figures in the dream are so realistic or to the significance of the details that will come to pass. The detailed description of the dream suggests the first possibility here: The elements in the dream are so realistic that Judas thinks he is awake.

The characters in the dream are significant. Onias III (v. 12) takes the reader back to the beginning of the narrative (3–4:6); he is described using the expression to denote a perfect Greek gentleman, one trained in "all that belongs to excellence" (ἀρετή aretē; see also the lists describing Eleazar [6:18, 23] and Razis [14:37–38, 42]). Just as the priests had stretched out their hands (14:34), so also does Onias. The author stresses Onias’s concern for the whole community. Whereas in 12:42–45 the living pray for the dead, here the dead Onias prays for the living. There is thus a continuance of existence beyond the grave. A second person of even more majestic mien appears but does not speak (v. 13). He is identified by Onias as Jeremiah (v. 14). Jeremiah’s message was often one of doom and destruction to Judah, but he was also sent to build and to plant (Jer 1:10). Although commanded at one stage of his ministry not to pray for the people (Jer 7:16; 11:14; 14:11), once his prediction of destruction had come true (Jeremiah 42) Jeremiah was asked to pray for the remnant of the people. At 2 Macc 2:1–8, he is portrayed as hiding the temple vessels until God discloses their whereabouts. Here he gives Judas a golden sword (v. 15; see 3:25; 5:2), the giving of which reflects that this is a battle against one who fights against God, and thus it is divine assurance of victory.

15:17–19. The forces determine either "not to encamp" or "not merely to march" (v. 17). In either case, the effect of Judas’s dream is shown as arousing the adrenalin of the soldiers. The author strives for emotional effect by picturing the anxiety of those in the city, but insisting that the main concern was for the Temple, and not the relatives (v. 18). The image almost suggests that those inside the city could see what was happening out in the open (v. 19), but that would be impossible for a battle at Adasa (see 1 Macc 7:40; the location of the battle is not given in 2 Maccabees). Earlier the author had claimed that the fires in Jamnia could be seen in Jerusalem (12:9).

15:20–27, The Battle. The tactics of this battle are not described in detail in 1 Maccabees. The deployment of the Seleucid army, described here, seems based on standard practice in Hellenistic armies (v. 20). It is unlikely the elephants were employed, as Octavius had had the Seleucid war elephants hamstrung in 162 bce, before Demetrius ascended as king. The two sides are contrasted. While the Seleucid force draws on battle array (15:20), Judas prays for help (15:21–24), stretching out his hands to heaven (cf. 14:34), reciting Scripture (v. 21). In his prayer, Judas mentions the defeat of Sennacherib (v. 22; 2 Kgs 18:13–19:35; Isaiah 36–37), to which the author already alluded during the battle against the first Nicanor (8:19; cf. 1 Macc 7:41–42). Judas addresses God as "Sovereign of the heavens" (v. 23), playing off the boast of Nicanor (15:4–5). Judas asks that God send an angel (see 11:6) and that God send fear and trembling on the enemy (see Exod 23:20; 2 Kgs 19:35). The reference to "God’s mighty arm" (v. 24) recalls the victory hymn at Exod 15:16, which recounts God’s triumph over those who attack the people. The battle songs of the Seleucids (v. 25; παιάνων paianōn, "paeans") were often addressed to Apollo as soldiers went into battle; these songs are contrasted here with the prayers of Judas’s forces (v. 26; see 12:37). God once again is manifested (v. 26; see 2:21) in helping the people. The numbers killed are exaggerated.

15:28–36, The Dismemberment of Nicanor. The success of the Sovereign (15:4–5, 23), who is God of the Jews, is again signaled through the use of the ancestral language, Hebrew (v. 29; see 7:8, 12, 27; 12:37). The army returns from the battlefield toward Jerusalem (v. 28), recalling the victory procession of the divine Warrior to God’s abode (Exod 15:17). Judas is described in glowing terms (v. 30), reminiscent of Onias III’s concern for his compatriots (4:2, 5).

Judas orders his men to "cut off Nicanor’s head and arm and carry them to Jerusalem" (v. 30). Decapitation and cutting off the right hand, the sword hand, was a custom found among the Persians, but dismemberment is also found among the Greeks111 and the Romans. In Jewish tradition, David had brought the head of Goliath into Jerusalem (1 Sam 17:54), Judith displayed the head of Holofernes on the walls of Bethulia (Jdt 14:1, 11), and the Philistines cut off Saul’s head and fastened his body to the wall of Beth-shan (1 Sam 31:9–10). The details of the narrative here may have been influenced by heroic tales like these. Certainly the punishment is seen to fit the crime (vv. 32, 34; see 14:33, 36). While the author distinguishes those in the citadel from Judas’s compatriots (v. 31), he has all the groups blessing the Lord (v. 34). The fact that Judas can hang Nicanor’s head from the citadel (v. 35) suggests that it is in Judas’s control. All this is effective literarily, but probably incorrect historically, since the citadel remained under the control of the enemies of the Hasmoneans (1 Macc 9:53; 10:9); although Jonathan tried to gain control of it, he could not (1 Macc 11:20, 41), and it was not until 141 bce that Simon conquered it (1 Macc 13:49–52). According to the author of 1 Maccabees, the Jews displayed Nicanor’s head and right hand just outside Jerusalem (1 Macc 7:47). It seems unlikely that the corpse of an unclean Gentile could be brought into the view of the priests around the altar; if a Gentile was not to enter the Temple, and the skins of unclean animals were forbidden in Jerusalem, how much more so would a dead Gentile render the Temple unclean?

The wording of v. 36 is exceedingly similar to that of 10:8, suggesting how the book was structured. The Jewish calendar begins at Nisan (March/April), and the last month, Adar, falls in February/March. It is interesting that the author of 2 Maccabees helps to identify the feast day by reference to Mordecai’s day, known from the book of Esther (Esth 3:7; 9:20–23). The feast of Mordecai is thus acknowledged as wellestablished for the author of 2 Maccabees. Since the author of 2 Maccabees shows knowledge of otherwise unknown events in Babylonia (8:20), he may also have known about this popular celebration.


The author himself drives home the point remorselessly that Torah obedience brings God’s salvation. This last battle of the war books of 1 and 2 Maccabees brings us back, however, to reflect on how one can wage war justly. The dehumanizing treatment of Nicanor—cutting out his tongue, his right hand, leaving only the decapitated torso—recalls what the first of the seven martyrs underwent (7:4). The author revels in the maltreatment of Nicanor, but can we? Will such enjoyment not make us like our enemies? The difficult question is always, How do we resist the temptation to turn our enemy into a non-human, a monster, a tool of Satan? As we end the reading of these wars, let us take that problem with us.

2 MACCABEES 15:37–39

The Epilogue


The author chooses to end his account here, even though in his narrative he seems to at least mention events that occurred after Judas’s defeat of Nicanor in March 161 bce. For example, the author seems to know of the embassy of Eupolemus to Rome after this victory (2 Macc 4:11; cf. 1 Macc 8:17), although this is not certain, as there may have been earlier contacts with Rome that prompted the letter in 2 Macc 11:34–38. It is hard to reconcile the epitomist’s statement that from the defeat of Nicanor the city was in the possession of the Hebrews (v. 37). Only a year after the defeat of Nicanor, Bacchides came back to Judea and conquered it, defeating and killing Judas and reinstalling Alcimus (1 Macc 9:1–57). The absence of any reference to Bacchides’ first expedition (1 Macc 7:8–20) in 2 Maccabees supports the notion that the epitomist suppressed what did not fit into his program of profiting his readers. This book is propaganda history, and it should not be judged by any other criteria. It is a tightly structured story to praise the God of the Hebrews, who defends the Temple.

The last verses recall the different images the epitomist had used in his prologue (2:29–31) and his humble posture (2:26–27). Wines in the ancient world were so strong that they were usually mixed with water.


One wonders at the end of the book whether it has been a bit too sweet a drink. It is patently a laudatory work, a work of aggrandizement. To the victor belong the spoils, and the historian of the victor helps to perpetuate the victor’s point of view. But sometimes truth is despoiled as well. Yet the author of 2 Maccabees was following the conventions of Hellenistic historiography. The author of 2 Maccabees has centered his narrative around the Jerusalem Temple, the attempts to despoil it and the heroic deeds to save it. He may have been a trifle enthusiastic, however, in describing the valorous actions of Judas and his men.

The enduring contribution of 2 Maccabees lies in its affirmation of the ability of humans to have moral autonomy, to say no to oppression even at the cost of one’s life, to hold to God’s covenant even in the bleakest moments. The narratives of the martyrs are paradoxical, for these most gruesome descriptions of hideous deaths bring forth life and hope. Razis’ exuberant tearing out of his entrails leads into the story of Nicanor’s defeat and the safety of the Temple. Judas, against more numerous foes, risks all for God’s glory. In this willingness to risk all, heroism shines forth, for God backs up the gamble.

The narrative is about events in history, but it is a history wherein God is the principal operator. The covenant faithfulness of the Jews brings God’s defense of the Temple; their waywardness brings God’s wrath. In the brokenness of this existence, God guides the people. This message of the presence of God within the events of human history, with all its suffering and toil, is one we must listen to. We do not expect to see men on horses with golden bridles fighting to protect us, but we do know that whatever our pain and travail, God is present in this world.


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