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MACCABEES, Books of the. Certain apocryphal Jewish writings, treating chiefly of the history of the Maccabees (q.v.). They consist of four books, of which the first two were received in the Vulgate, and declared canonical by the Council of Trent. The third is also considered canonical by the Greek Church. The First Book — the most important — comprises the period B.C. 175-135, and relates the attempt of Antiochus IV., Epiphanes, to suppress the Jewish cult and force the people into acknowledgment of the Greek gods (ch. i.); the rising of Mattathias and his sons against the oppressor (ch. ii.); the heroic deeds of Judas Maccabæus (chs. iii.-ix. 22); of Jonathan (chs. ix. 23-xii.); and of Simon, until the election of John Hyrcanus to the dignity of high priest (chs. xiii.-xvi.). The account bears, on the whole, the marks of great accuracy, and proceeds chronologically after the Seleucidan Era. According to Origen and Jerome, this book was originally written in Hebrew, and internal evidence confirms the correctness of this view. The original text is lost, but the Greek translation is a faithful reproduction. The author, a Palestinian and a patriotic Jew, was devoted to the Asmonean dynasty. He must have stood close to the centre of political life in Palestine. All the evidence available is in favor of the assumption that the book was finished shortly after the death of John Hyrcanus (say between B.C. 100 and 90), and the vividness of the descriptions makes it highly probable that the author was himself a witness of some of the Maccabean struggles and writes in part from personal observation and reminiscences. His attachment to the Jewish priesthood points to his having been a Sadducee. Except for the documents which the author incorporates into his book and the various speeches which are not to be regarded as authentic or verbatim (any more than in the narratives of Greek historians), the first book of Maccabees is a trustworthy source for the period it covers, though, of course, the events are colored by the author's fervent partisanship.
The second book of the Maccabees differs widely from the first. It also deals with the national uprising, but covers only the fifteen years from B.C. 175 to 161. Prefixed to the history are two letters (chs. i.-ii. 18), purporting to have been sent from the Palestinian to the Egyptian Jews, inviting them to celebrate the feast of the reinauguration of the temple. The author then announces in a preface the subject of his work and his source, which is a history of the period in ‘five books,’ composed by Jason of Cyrene (q.v.). Of this larger work he gives an epitome. He begins with the attempted spoliation of the temple by Heliodorus, under Seleucus Philopator, and ends with the death of Nicanor. The author concludes with an epilogue in regard to his own work. While the contents of the two letters correspond to the conditions prevailing at the time of the dates attached, which are equivalent to B.C. 143 and 124 respectively, the letters themselves are fabrications, and were probably written originally in Hebrew. The extract from Jason's work — a history embellished by additions, of a partly moralizing, partly legendary nature — contains many chronological and historical errors, and bears the stamp of being written merely for religious and didactic purposes. The history of Jason was composed by a contemporary of persons who had taken part in the Maccabean struggle, but he received his information orally at second hand. The epitomist, who also prefixed the two letters, wrote in Greek, apparently in Alexandria, toward the close of the first century B.C.
The third and fourth books of the Maccabees are only remotely connected with the Maccabean history. The third book may be described as a religious novel, the subject of which is the triumph of the Jews over their enemies. It deals with a supposed pre-Maccabean incident — the miraculous deliverance of the Jews of Egypt from the attempt of Ptolemy Philopator (B.C. 221-204) to destroy them in revenge for a humiliation which he suffered during a visit to Jerusalem, when he endeavored to enter the temple, but was prevented by divine intervention. Five hundred elephants are set upon the Jews, imprisoned in the hippodrome, but two angels intervene, and the elephants turn against the men of Ptolemy's army and trample them to death. The Jews are set free and the King, besides providing a banquet lasting seven days, issues a proclamation in their favor. The book, which has, of course, no historical value whatsoever, was probably written by an Alexandrian Jew in Greek at the close of the first century B.C., as an encouragement to the Jews in their struggle against Roman subjection. The book is not referred to by any of the early Jewish writers, and the earliest Christian witness to it occurs in the third century A.D.
The fourth book is of a homiletical character. It consists of two parts: (1) A philosophical discussion on the thesis that “the pious reason is absolute master of the passions;” followed by (2) illustrations of the thesis by stories of Jewish martyrs. In the second portion the author reproduces chapters iii.-vii. of the second book of Maccabees, which accounts for the title of the book. It was formerly held that the book was by Josephus, but Freudenthal has shown conclusively that the author was a Hellenistic Jew, probably of Alexandria, who wrote at the beginning of the Christian Era. While of no historical value and marred by exaggerated accounts of the sufferings of Jewish martyrs, it is of great interest because of the picture it affords incidentally of family life among the Jews in the writer's days, as also for some of its doctrines, e.g. that the death of a martyr is an expiatory offering for his people.
A fifth book of the Maccabees is sometimes referred to. It is an Arabic work printed in the Paris and London Polyglots with Latin translation, and contains a history of the Jews beginning with the account of Heliodorus (II. Mac. iii.) and ending with the downfall of the Asmoneans. It is based upon I. and II. Maccabees and Josephus.
Bibliography. English translations of the books of the Maccabees have been published by Cotton, Bagster, and Churton; there is a French translation by Reuss (in La Bible, Paris, 1874 sqq.), and a recent German translation by Kautzsch in Die Apokryphen und Pseudepigraphen des Alten Testaments (Tübingen, 1898). There are commentaries by Bissell, Zöckler, Fritzsche, and Grimm. For special treatises, consult: Willrich, Juden und Griechen (Göttingen, 1896); Schlatter, Jason von Cyrene (Munich, 1891); Niese, Kritik der beiden Makkabäerbücher (Berlin, 1900); Freudenthal, Die Flavius Josephus beigelegte Schrift über die Herrschaft der Vernunft (Breslau, 1869). Consult, also, the Hebrew histories of Wellhausen, Guthe, and Stade, and Schürer, History of the Jewish People in the Time of Christ, vol. i. (Edinburgh, 1896).