1 Maccabees

From New World Encyclopedia

Greek officer reads the decree of Antiochus IV Epiphanes to a group of Jews

1 Maccabees is a deuterocanonical book written by a Jewish author and included in the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox canons of the Bible. Protestants and Jews regard it as generally reliable historically, but not a part of holy scripture.

The setting of the book is about a century after the conquest of Judea by the Greeks under Alexander the Great, when the country was part of the Greek Seleucid Empire. It tells how the Greek ruler Antiochus IV Epiphanes attempted to suppress the practice of basic Jewish religious law, resulting in the Hasmonean revolt against Seleucid rule. The book covers the whole of the revolt, from 175 to 134 B.C.E., emphasizing how the salvation of the Jewish people in this crisis came through the family of a zealous priest named Mattathias, particularly his sons, Judas Maccabeus, Jonathan, and Simon, and his grandson, John Hyrcanus. For Jews, a highlight of 1 Maccabees is its description of the rededication of the Temple of Jerusalem and the institution of Hanukkah.

Probably written about 100 B.C.E., the book was included as scripture in the Greek Septuagint translation of the Hebrew Bible and later included in Christian scripture until the Protestant Reformation, when the apocrypha of the Old Testament were generally rejected by Protestants. It is considered one of the most accurate accounts of Jewish history for the period which it covers.


The name Maccabee probably means "hammer" and was the nickname given in the book to the first leader of the revolt, Judas, third son of Mattathias. Alternatively, Maccabee also might have been derived from the battle cry of the revolt, Mi Kamocha B'elim, YHWH ("Who is like you among the heavenly powers, YHWH!!"—Exodus ch. 15:11). In Hebrew, the first letters of this four word slogan form the acronym MKBY. In any case, the name later came to be used for Judah's brothers as as a family name, as well as to each of the books of "Maccabee."

The Church Father Origen relates that the title of the Hebrew original was Sarbeth Sarbanael, translated either as "the Book of the Prince of the House of Israel" or "the Book of the Dynasty of God's resisters."


In the first chapter, Alexander the Great conquers vast territories and sets up a great empire, in which the territory of Judea is included. Shortly before his death, he divides his kingdom among his generals.

Coin of Antiochus IV Epiphanes. Reverse shows seated Apollo.

The Seleucid ruler Antiochus IV Epiphanes eventually comes to rule over Syria. Many Jews adopt a policy of accommodation with him in the interest of maintaining peace with the Gentiles, and others openly embrace the Hellenistic culture he introduces. They establish a gymnasium, where men socialized in the nude. Some even engage in foreskin restoration.

However, after successfully invading the Ptolemaic kingdom of Egypt, Antiochus IV enters Jerusalem and removes the sacred objects from the Temple. He imposes a tax and establishes a fortress for his soldiers in Jerusalem. Many observant Jews flee from the capital, but others readily accept Antiochus' policies. In an effort to enforce unity, he attempts to suppress the public observance of Jewish religious laws. He bans the observance of the sabbath and the offering of sacrifices at the Temple. Finally, he desecrates the Temple by setting up an "abomination of desolation" there, apparently either a pagan idol or a bust of himself. He also forbids circumcision and possession of Jewish scriptures, imposing the death penalty for those who disobey. He even attempts to force Jewish leaders to sacrifice to pagan idols. Not only the leaders, but also circumcised infants and their mothers are killed as a warning to others.

Mattathias slays a Jewish idolater.

In the town of Modein, the priest Mattathias finds the situation intolerable. He refuses to comply with Antiochus' officers and, in an act of utter defiance, murders a Jew who attempts to offer pagan sacrifice, killing the officer as well. He then calls forth the people to holy war against the Gentiles and their Jewish collaborators. He and his three sons begin a military campaign against them, the vicissitudes of which are described in detail. Finally, after Matthathias dies, his son Judas succeeds in liberating the Temple precincts and reconsecrating the Temple itself in 165 B.C.E. The festival of Hanukkah is instituted (1 Macc. 4:59).

Gentile forces still hold a fortress in Jerusalem, however, as well as many towns in Judea and Galilee. Judas, nicknamed Maccabeus, probably meaning "hammer," continues his military exploits and also seeks an alliance with the Roman Republic to remove the Greeks. After his death in battle c. 161 B.C.E., his brother Jonathan succeeds him. The Greeks recognize him as high priest, but like Judas, he finds himself caught between competing Greek kings who are engaged in their own civil war for control of the Seleucid Empire. He plays one faction off against the other, obtaining various benefits for the Jews in exchange for his military support. He also confirms alliances with both Rome and Sparta (1 Macc. 12:1-23).

Jonathan is eventually captured by the Seleucid Greek ruler Diodotus Tryphon. His brother Simon succeeds him in 142 B.C.E., receiving the double office of high priest and ruler of Israel (1 Maccabees 14:41). He achieves semi-independence from the Seleucid Empire and gains recognition of his rulership from the Roman Senate in 139. In February 135, however, he is assassinated at the instigation of his son-in-law Ptolemy. Simon is succeeded by his third son, John Hyrcanus, whose two elder brothers, Mattathias and Judah, had been murdered, together with their father.

Writing and authorship

The conquests of Jonathan Maccabeus

The narrative is primarily prose text, but is interrupted by seven poetic sections, which imitate classical Hebrew poetry. These include four laments and three hymns of praise.

The history presented is very accurate, comparing favorably to pagan historians such as Livy or Tacitus. The author exhibits a personal interest in the events, but presents them as accurately as possible given his own commitment to the Maccabean dynasty as instituted by God. While he clearly portrays a divine providence behind the history he presents, the narrator refrains from the miracle stories and other legends found in 2 Maccabees, which deals with much of the same material. The later Jewish historian Josephus most likely used some form of this text in writing his account of the Maccabean revolt.

The original book was apparently written in Hebrew, as is indicated by a number of Hebrew idioms used by the author. However, the original has been lost and the version which comes down to us is the Septuagint. Ancient manuscripts of the text include the Codex Sinaiticus, Codex Alexandrinus and Codex Venetus, as well as several scrolls.

Origen (cited by Eusebius Eccl Hist vi. 25) gives testimony to the existence of an original Hebrew text. Jerome likewise claims "the first book of Maccabees I have found to be Hebrew, the second is Greek, as can be proved from the very style" (per Prologus Galeatus). Many scholars suggest that these Church Fathers may have had access to a Biblical Aramaic paraphrase of the work—most Christians writers of the time did not distinguish between Hebrew and Aramaic. In either case, only the Greek text has survived, and this only through its inclusion in the Christian canon.

Experts date the original Hebrew text sometime in the late second century B.C.E. Because of the accuracy of the historical account, if a later date is accepted, then the author must have had access to first-hand reports of the events. He either used or reconstructed primary sources such as letters, poetic accounts, and possibly court histories. Attempts to discredit the work as essentially fiction have been discounted even by strongly critical scholars today.

The book's author is unknown, but is assumed to have been a devout Jew from the Holy Land who may have even taken part in the events described in the book, or at least knew older people who participated in them. He shows intimate and detailed geographical knowledge of the Judea, Galilee, and their environs, but is inaccurate in his information about foreign countries. The author was an enthusiastic a supporter of the Maccabees who shows little sympathy with either their Jewish or Greek opponents. Unlike, the writer of 2 Maccabees, he evidences no Pharisaic theology and may have written in order to justify the Maccabeean dynasty against criticism that they were corrupt and were ruling illegitimately as Jewish kings since they were not of the Davidic lineage. He interprets the Maccabean victory not as a miraculous intervention by God, but rather as God's using the instrument of the military genius of the Maccabees to achieve his divine ends. The words "God" and "Lord" never occur in the text, always being replaced by "Heaven" or "He."

Exclusion from the Jewish canon

Several theories have emerged regarding the exclusion of 1 from the Jewish biblical canon. One is that it was simply "too new," dealing with a period several centuries after the traditional end of Jewish prophecy. Another is that, while they were included by the Jews of Alexandria in the Septuagint, they may not have gained much popularity in Jerusalem. Related to this is the issue that including 1 Maccabees in the canon may have given legitimacy to other texts in the Septuagint that were more problematic for the rabbis.

Finally, there is the issue of its revolutionary character. After the destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem in 70 C.E., Judaism regrouped under the leadership of the rabbis. The rabbinical sages of this period had learned from experience that revolt against the Gentiles (in this case the Romans) brought disaster. Thus 1 Maccabees—as well as the other books of this genre—faced a major political obstacle to their acceptance.

See also

Preceded by:
Books of the Bible
Succeeded by:
2 Maccabees

Note: 1 and 2 Maccabees are not included in most Protestant and Jewish Bibles

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Bartlett, John R. 1 Maccabees. Guides to Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha. Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 1998. ISBN 9781850757634.
  • Kampen, John. The Hasideans and the Origin of Pharisaism: A Study in 1 and 2 Maccabees. Septuagint and cognate studies series, no. 24. Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press, 1988. ISBN 9781555402853.
  • Martola, Nils. Capture and Liberation: A Study in the Composition of the First Book of Maccabees. Acta Academiae Aboensis, vol. 63, nr. 1. Åbo: Åbo Akademi, 1984. ISBN 9789516490116.
  • Sievers, Joseph. The Hasmoneans and Their Supporters: From Mattathias to the Death of John Hyrcanus I. Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press, 1990. ISBN 9781555404499.
  • Williams, David S. The Structure of 1 Maccabees. The Catholic biblical quarterly, 31. Washington, DC: Catholic Biblical Association of America, 1999. ISBN 9780915170302.

External links

All links retrieved June 13, 2023.


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