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II Maccabees

Author: Unknown

Date Written: c. 100 BC

Date of Narrative: 180-161 BC

 

2 Maccabees is unique among biblical books because it is actually a summary of another book.  The author tells us that he is summarizing a 5-volume work by Jason of Cyrene (2:23).  Unfortunately, Jason's book is not extant and we have no information about him.  The author of 2 Macc chooses to remain anonymous, but he indicates his purpose at the beginning (2:19-32) and gives a brief conclusion at the end (2:37).  Two letters appear at the beginning which apparently accompanied the book on its way from Jews in Palestine to Jews in Egypt at different times.  The letters report on circumstances in the Holy Land and remind the Jews in Egypt to celebrate the new feast of Hanukkah.  The second letter is older than the first.

 

2 Macc is not a sequel to 1 Macc nor does it proceed as a continuous narrative.  It presents many stories, but does not link them all in chronological order.  One poignant feature of 2 Macc is its martyr stories.  The author gives vivid descriptions of the violence suffered by the Jews in Palestine.  The martyrdom of Eleazar (6), the execution of the seven sons and their mother at the hands of Antiochus IV Epiphanes (7) and the gruesome death of Razis (14) are especially memorable.  The book gives two different accounts of the death of Antiochus (1:13-17; 9:1-29).  Besides the letters in the first chapter, we find a few official letters in ch. 11.

 

2 Macc explains the conflict over the high priesthood before the Maccabean era in more detail that 1 Macc.  Onias III is the rightful high priest but his brother Jason seeks to steal the office of high priest.  Jason bribes Antiochus to depose Onias and appoint himself instead (4:7-9).  Jason thus obtains the high priesthood, but soon he is outbid by Menelaus (4:24).  Eventually, an official bribed by Menelaus assassinates Onias (4:34).

 

The author highlights the role of the Temple.  The Lord protects the Temple treasury from the greedy Heliodorus.  But the Lord allows Antiochus to defile it on account of the people's sins (6:1-17).  Once Judas Maccabeus recaptures Jerusalem, he purifies the Temple.  The Jews immediately enshrine this event in the holiday of Hanukkah (10:6-8).

 

The author focuses on the battles and accomplishments of Judas Maccabeus, but pays little attention to his brothers.  2 Macc gives details about Judas' campaigns against Nicanor, Timothy, Lysias and many others.  Yet even after Judas establishes a limited peace, the Jews suffer local persecution which provokes a new wave of warfare (12:1-5).  The book ends with Judas' second victory over Nicanor.  This battle is so memorable that it too is made into a holiday which is celebrated just before Purim.

 

2 Macc shows the power of God in the midst of the difficult circumstances of the Maccabean era.  The author highlights miracles like the divine confrontation of Heliodorus (3:22-34) and the vision of ominous riders in the sky (5:2-3).  Yet he is writing for Jews outside of Palestine so he emphasizes the desperate straits of the Palestinian Jews so that the Diaspora Jews will be moved to support and pray for them.  The horrible martyrdoms are a powerful example of the evils of foreign oppression but they show the inner strength of the Jewish people and the glory of obedience to the Law.  The martyrs of the Maccabean era illustrate that obedience to God is more important than obedience to man.  In 2 Macc, we can see God's hand at work even in the times of his people's greatest suffering.

 

By Mark Giszczak

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