I Maccabees :: Catholic News Agency
I Maccabees

Author: Unknown

Date Written: c.100 BC

Date of Narrative: 323-104 BC


1 Maccabees is one of the deuterocanonical books of the Bible.  2 Macc is not a sequel to 1 Macc.  In fact, 2 Macc tells many of the same stories from a slightly different perspective than 1 Macc.  1 Macc narrates the struggle of the Jewish people against the political and cultural influence of the Greeks.  At the time of 1 Macc, the land of Israel was caught in the crossfire of the ancient Greek empires.


1 Macc begins with the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC and ends with the reign of John Hyrcanus as high priest (134-104 BC).  The book can be very confusing because of the political disarray of the period.  Alexander conquered all the lands from Greece to India, so he divided up his kingdom on his deathbed.  The Holy Land fell in the part alotted to Seleucus and his heirs.  Generations later, Antiochus IV Epiphanes rules the Seleucid Empire 175-164 BC.  To consolidate his power, he institutes a program of religious assimilation which forbids Jews from practicing the Law.  In fact, he impels Jews to take part in pagan sacrifices and eat non-kosher food.  In the Temple, Antiochus sets up an idol of Zeus, the "abomination of desolation" (1:54).


Mattathias, a zealous Jewish priest, refuses to partake of the pagan sacrifice which is being forced on him.  Then he and his five sons hide out in the country and launch a rebellion against Antiochus' reign.   Mattathias soon dies, but appoints his son, Judas Maccabeus, to take command of the military forces they have gathered (2:66).  Judas leads the Jewish people in a series of astounding victories against Antiochus' forces.  In the space of three years, the Jews recapture Jerusalem and purify the Temple (4:36).  This purification and rededication of the Temple is the basis for the Jewish feast of Hanukkah.  After more victories, Judas dies in battle and is succeeded by his brother Jonathan.


Jonathan not only leads military campaigns, but takes for himself the office of high priest (10:21).  Jonathan was from a priestly family, but not from the high priestly family of Zadok so some saw this as a usurpation of legitimate religious authority.  Jonathan skillfully plays diplomatic games with the surrounding powers, but eventually he is captured and assassinated by Trypho who had taken the Seleucid throne.


Simon succeeds Jonathan as Israel's military ruler and high priest.  Simon is the first of the Hasmonean rulers.  His heirs ruled until Herod the Great came to power in 37 BC.


1 Macc is an intentionally historical book.  It includes several poems and a dozen historical letters and treaties.  Throughout 1 Macc Israel is constantly having to shift its political and military decisions depending on which Greek rulers are in power.  The remarkable thing about the Maccabean era is that this tiny country was able to throw off the yoke of foreign oppresion.  The Jews had been subjugated to foreign powers for over 400 years and God gave his suffering people the power to gain their freedom.


The Hasmonean kingdom lasted only about a hundred years, but it represented the great aspirations of the Jewish people and displayed the power of God even though the dynasty was tarnished by ambition and human weakness.  The Maccabees' incredible accomplishments set the stage for the messianic expectations of the Jews at the time of Jesus.


By Mark Giszczak

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