“What do you intend to ask and learn from us? For we are ready to die rather than transgress the laws of our ancestors.”
2 Maccabees 7:2
The first two books of Maccabees (of which four are known) are considered the inspired word of God by Orthodox and Roman Catholic Christians, but not so by Jewish or Protestant communities. Nevertheless, all of them agree on the importance of these books. Each book, in a slightly different way, provides the reader with a record of events in the land of Judea during the tumult of the Mediterranean empires spanning the first three centuries B.C. They show us the cultural scene in ancient Palestine just decades before the birth of Christ, providing us with a kind of window into the world between the Old and New Testaments.
The books take their name from the Israelite hero of the era, Judas Maccabeus, and his family— brothers Simon and Jonathan, and nephew John Hyrcanus. Their last name means alternately, “hammer-headed,” and “designated by God,” which gives you a good idea what these books are about — wars for Israel’s religious and political freedom. Written in the style of the Old Testament’s historical books, the accounts of 1 & 2 Maccabees begin with the death of Alexander the Great and the breakup of his Greek (Hellenistic) empire and continue through the reigns of several minor kings from Syria (the Seleucids). They document the Jewish guerilla war against the Seleucids and the reasons for it, as well as the brief period of Jewish independence (under the Hasmonean dynasty), before concluding with Israel’s alliance with the Roman Republic. The books also provide background about the Jewish feast of Hanukkah (2 Macc 1:19 and on), the new belief among Jews in the resurrection of the dead (2 Macc 7), and God’s creation of the world “out of nothing” (2 Macc 7).
Both books agree on the basic reason for the insurgency: forced cultural assimilaton of Jewish citizens to Greek ways, even to the point of disregard for the law of Moses and worship of Yahweh. Basically, the Israelites presented in these books rejected the idea that, “it’s all [to be] Greek to me!” Most of the military conflicts presented here are seen by Judas and his faith-filled followers as a holy war against the destruction of their religion by a decadent outside influence.
In many ways, Maccabees is a very contemporary story. War-making in the name of religion still exists, and imperial nations still force their weaker counterparts into hopelessness and despair by their actions. Understanding the history and religion of these two books is of great importance for today’s world. While these books offer insight into doctrines central to both Judaism and Christianity, the stories of the Maccabees have also been used to justify political claims of today and yesterday–among Jews, those of the modern state of Israel over lands formerly occupied by Palestinians; and among Christians, the religious justification of holy wars.