Some historical events leave a deep footprint. Alexander the Great’s conquest of much of the world, as known to the people of the Mediterranean at the time, was one such event. While the political empire he established fragmented quickly among his squabbling heirs, the linguistic and cultural empire – an accidental by-product of his victories – lasted centuries longer. Greek became the common language of the ancient Mediterranean world, and Greece’s culture, education and philosophy became the ones to admire.
For some time this was also the case in Jerusalem, many of whose leaders aspired to the Hellenistic city state model. The writer of First Maccabees attributes this primarily to the beginning of the second century BC. He sees it as yet another example of religious and cultural compromise. The leaders seeking cultural assimilation are backed up by the forces and laws of the king, Antiochus Epiphanes, who seems also to have had some delusions of grandeur. The Greek East was much quicker to treat kings or emperors as divine than the Roman West.
Following his conquest of Egypt, Antiochus raids the temple of Jerusalem on his way home. Later, in support of the modernising faction, he is presented as suppressing the teaching of Torah. This culminates in his putting up a statue of Zeus in the Jerusalem temple – the original “abomination of desolation” that crops up later in the gospels. This is this match that lights the flame of a significant rebellion, led by the religiously and culturally conservative Mattathias, and later by his sons, especially Judas Maccabeus.
Eventually the rebels triumph; they purify the temple, instituting the feast of Hanukkah,1 and establish a dynasty which survives for a century. Presumably, by marrying into this dynasty after the end of its power, Herod the Great hoped to claim legitimacy for his reign by inheritance as well as Roman-backed power grab.
Second Maccabees starts the story a little earlier, and only covers the early years of the rebellion. It is more concerned with piety and has a particular emphasis on some key persecution and martyrdom stories. These stories offer the first clear example we have of a hope in the resurrection of the dead leading to prayer for individuals.2
Between them these books help fill in the gap between the testaments. More importantly, we begin to see why some of the questions about boundaries and law-keeping come to be regarded as so important. Food laws, particularly those relating to eating pork, circumcision, and sabbath keeping all become key flashpoints in the struggle for the soul of Judaism. In the stories of persecution they are literally matters of life and death.
New Testament times inherit these same flashpoints. Sabbath observance is a regular feature of controversy in the gospels; circumcision is a major issue in Paul’s writings. Questions of food and diet, or of who keeps you company at table, are never far away. The New Testament also inherits the model of martyrdom that is developed in the Maccabean context: being prepared to be faithful to death because of both the truth of God, and the hope of resurrection.
The variant versions of the lectionary go their own ways here, except that each only has one reading from these books. The Roman Catholic lectionary uses the story of the seven martyr brothers from Second Maccabees, and the Anglican lectionary uses a short excerpt from the last words of Mattathias which hands the rebellion over to his sons.3
- The Hebrew word is often also spelt Chanukah by English-speaking Jews – the opening sound is rather like the “ch” in “loch”.
- For example, a mother praying for her son as they are about to die (2 Macc 7:29) or Judas Maccabeus offering sacrifices for the dead (2 Macc 12:44-45)
- The Roman reading is for the 32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time, Year C. The Anglican reading is for the Feast of St George.