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Mad Max and the Maccabees

by Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts          March 2004

Copyright © 2004 by Mark D. Roberts

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Part 1: Introduction
Part 2: Introduction to 1 Maccabees
Part 3: Introduction to 2 Maccabees

Part 1: Introduction

Mel Gibson is at it again, stirring up trouble. On the Sean Hannity show last Tuesday the man who first came to fame as "Mad Max" talked about his interest in "the Book of Maccabees." A new movie, perhaps?

Actually there are four books of the Maccabees, all contained within what Protestants call the "Old Testament Apocrypha" - Jewish writings that are historically and theologically interesting, but not divinely-inspired and therefore not part of the biblical canon. (Catholics include these writings in the canon, but in a secondary category.) No doubt Gibson is referring to the story in I Maccabees, where the Seleucid King Antiochus IV defiled the temple in Jerusalem, precipitating a Jewish revolt. Under the leadership of the Maccabean family, the Jews defeated the Greek-speaking Syrian king, purified the temple, and established Jewish rule over Judea. The key events of this story are commemorated each year in the Jewish festival of Hanukkah.

The story of the Maccabees is a fascinating and inspiring one. It's filled with adventure and warfare. In the end, the little guy is victorious over the evil villain. Moreover, in the books of the Maccabees there are numerous scenes of brutal torture, which may have spiked Gibson's interest. Will he film The Passion of the Maccabees? Perhaps. Nevertheless, if Gibson actually makes this film, he will prove that he is a glutton for punishment himself. Why? Because everybody will be mad at him. And I mean everybody. Mad Max will be replaced by Mad at Max.

Jews will be mad at Gibson. Abraham Foxman, head of the Anti-Defamation League, has already spoken out against the idea of Gibson making a film about the Maccabees. "He'll write his own history," Foxman said. "I would prefer to leave the fate of Jewish history and Hollywood to Steven Spielberg. The Maccabees . . . are our sacred history." (Hey, Mel! Here's an idea. If you make this movie, get Foxman as one of your advisors. Heck, make him the star! Foxman is as pugnacious as Judas Maccabeus.)

Evangelical Christians will be mad at Gibson. On the World Magazine Blog where I first caught wind of the Gibson story (hat tip to World Mag), somebody is already accusing Gibson of trying promote Roman Catholicism by advancing interest in the Maccabean books.

Secular critics will be mad at Gibson because there's no way to film accurately the story of the Maccabees without lots of violence. And I mean lots! The same folk who took Gibson to task for The Passion will take aim at him once again. I can hear their complaits now: senseless bloodshed, pornographic violence, worship of torture, etc.

Greeks will be mad at Gibson because the bad guys in this movie will speak Greek - the language of Antiochus IV, who had a Greek background though he reigned over Syria.

Modern Syrians will be mad too. In the story of the Maccabees, not only does a Syrian king invade Israel and defile the temple, but he ends up being defeated by a rag-tag group of Jewish guerillas. Not exactly good press for Syria.

Then, to top things off, virtually everyone in the world will be mad at Mel Gibson because, given the state of affairs in the Middle East, a movie that dramatizes violence between Syria and Israel may not be altogether helpful. Does Mad Max really want to throw a spark into the tinderbox of the Middle East?

If I were advising Mel at this point, I'd tell him to back way off from the Maccabees, unless, of course, he likes having everybody mad at him.

But, strange as it may seem, I actually think it would be great if more people - especially Christians - became familiar with the story of the Maccabees and with the four apocryphal books that bear their name. Why? Because these writings provide invaluable background for a historically-accurate understanding of Jesus. The Maccabean books contain stories of foreign oppression, war, faithfulness to God, sacrifice, courage even in the face of torture, the promise of life beyond death, family love, martyrdom, and zeal for God's temple. All of these stories, and many more besides, help us to get inside the skin of the Jewish people in the time of Christ, though the events depicted happened in the second century B.C. Once you've read the books of the Maccabees, you'll never read the gospels in quite the same way, because you'll see Jesus more accurately in the context of the world in which he lived. Moreover, you'll see how the suffering of the Maccabees paved the way theologically for the passion of Jesus himself.

Will Mad Max film the Maccabees? I hope not. But, whether he does or not, go read the books!

Part 2: Introduction to 1 Maccabees

I began my last post my noting Mel Gibson’s apparent interest in doing a movie based on “the book of Maccabees.” While suggesting that such a movie would make almost everyone in the world angry with Mel, I nevertheless encouraged Christians to read the Maccabean books, which are found in what Protestants call the “Old Testament Apocrypha.” Protestant Christians do not consider these books as part of the biblical canon, though, in the estimation of Martin Luther, they are “useful and good to read.”

I am a realist, however. Given the busy of lives of most who read my blog, I rather doubt that most of you dusted off your Apocryphas and dug in yesterday. The fact is that the Maccabean books are rather lengthy and, though portions are truly engaging, long stretches can be rather tedious. So I’ve decided to help you out a bit, by giving a brief overview of the first two books of the Maccabees, noting several curiosities and also some ways these apocryphal books help us to understand the New Testament. In this post I’ll focus on 1 Maccabees. Tomorrow I’ll deal with 2 Maccabees. (3 and 4 Maccabees are quite a bit different from the first two books. I’ll blog on them another time.)

What is 1 Maccabees?

1 Maccabees was written around 100 B.C. by a Jewish writer who strongly supported the Maccabean (also called Hasmonean) rulers in Judea. The original text was in Hebrew, though we have only Greek and Latin translations today. 1 Maccabees comprises 16 chapters (924 verses) that narrate key events concerning Jewish life in Palestine from about 170 B.C. to about 120 B.C. The good guys come from one family, especially the three brothers, Judas Maccabeus, Jonathan, and Simon, who liberated the Jews from foreign tyranny. The bad guys are the Seleucid (Greek-speaking Syrian) kings, who generally oppressed and assaulted the Jews. Worst of all is Antiochus IV Epiphanes, who arrogantly profaned the temple in Jerusalem and required that the Jews stop practicing their own religion. His offense against the Jews was so profound that he stirred up the ire of a father named Mattathias, a faithful priest who refused to submit to Antiochus’s demands because he was zealous for the law of God. When Mattathias was about to die, he urged his sons to “pay back the Gentiles in full, and obey the commands of the law” (2:68). This they did through a combination of military expertise, political brilliance, and courage inspired by their faith. Under Judas, the temple in Jerusalem was rededicated (the basis for Hanukkah, 4:52-59). Jonathan helped to advance the Jewish cause. Finally, under Simon, “the yoke of the Gentiles was removed from Israel” (13:41), 27 years after Antiochus’s desecration of the temple.

Some Interesting Features of 1 Maccabees

Many features of 1 Maccabees are fascinating and also relevant to our understanding of Jesus. Let me mention a few:

1. 1 Maccabees never mentions God directly as “God” or “LORD.” Rather, he is referred to as “Heaven” (e.g. 4:24, 40) rather like what we see in Matthew’s gospel, where “the kingdom of God” is called “the kingdom of heaven.”

2. The problem that precipitated the conflict in 1 Maccabees is “Hellenization” – the adoption (or forced adoption) of Greek practices by Jews. Antiochus forced the Jews to abandon their own faith and to worship pagan gods. But, surprisingly enough, “many even from Israel gladly adopted his religion; they sacrificed to idols and profaned the Sabbath” (1:43). This confirms what we know from others sources as well, namely, that many Jews were all too willing to give up their traditions for the sake of becoming like the Greeks. These same dynamics run throughout the time of Jesus, though with the added dimension of Roman government and culture.
The story of Judas Maccabaeus is the subject of an oratorio by Handel.

3. Speaking of Rome, one of the most fascinating aspects of 1 Maccabees is its favorable portrayal of the Romans, who are praised repeatedly and who are allies of the Jews. How things will change politically between the writing of 1 Maccabees and the Roman takeover of Judea some 40 years later, not to mention the time of Jesus, about a century later.

4. What sets Mattathias and his sons (the Maccabean brothers) apart from other Jews is zeal for God’s law (2:24-58). For this law they were willing both to die and to kill. In fact they forcibly circumcised Jewish babies who had not been circumcised by their own parents (2:46). Yet, interestingly enough, when the enemies attacked on the Sabbath, the Maccabean leaders decided that it was right to break the Sabbath law in order to defend their lives (2:41). Of course the issues of law and Sabbath are frequent concerns in Jesus’ encounters with his Jewish colleagues and opponents.

5. Violence pervades 1 Maccabees. The Jews are victims of violence perpetrated by foreign rulers. And, under the leadership of the Maccabean brothers, they give it back generously and effectively, both to the gentiles and to Jews who had supported the gentiles. The Maccabean vision of how to deal with pagan enemies is about as far from turning the other cheek as one can get.

6. The temple figures prominently in 1 Maccabees. Its profanation was part of what stirred up the Jewish rebellion against the Seleucids. This book helps us to understand just how important the temple was to the Jewish people, and how willing they were to fight against anyone who threatened its sanctity and future (like Jesus, for example).

7. Although 1 Maccabees clearly supports the rule of the Hasmoneans over Palestine, a couple of verses show a small measure of eschatological disquiet. When rebuilding the altar that had been desecrated by Antiochus, Judas’s men stored the stones of the old altar “until a prophet should come to tell what to do with them” (4:46). Then, toward then end of the book we read, “The Jews and their priests have resolved that Simon should be their leader and high priest forever, until a trustworthy prophet should arise” (14:41). Although the Hasmoneans are pictured as divinely-blessed leaders of the Jews, 1 Maccabees hints that God may have something better or different in store for his people. As it turned out, before long the Hasmonean leaders proved to be just about as bad as the gentiles they had replaced – maybe even worse. In 88 B.C., for example, the Hasmonean king Alexander had 800 of his Jewish opponents crucified, and while they were dying on the cross, Alexander had their wives and children murdered in front of their eyes (Josephus, Antiquities, 13.14.2).

The experience of the Maccabean rulers helped to shape Jewish expectations for the coming of God’s kingdom. It wasn’t enough simply to have Jewish leadership over Judea. They needed the one, true king, the one anointed by God to usher in God’s own kingdom. Nothing less would do.

Part 3: Introduction to 2 Maccabees

Two days ago, in response to Mel Gibson’s apparent interest in making a film about “the book of Maccabees,” I began a short series of blog entries focusing on the Maccabean literature. The four books of Maccabees appear in the Old Testament Apocrypha, a collection of Jewish writings that Protestants consider to be useful but not divinely inspired. In my last post I provided an overview of 1 Maccabees, followed by an examination of some ways that this book informs our understanding of Jesus. In this post I’ll focus on 2 Maccabees. (3 and 4 Maccabees share themes in common with books 1 and 2, but are quite different and don’t even deal with members of the Maccabean family. I’ll address them at some other time.)

What is 2 Maccabees?

2 Maccabees is a historical writing, though it does not pick up where 1 Maccabees left off. In fact 2 Maccabees includes events earlier than 1 Maccabees and concludes with the successful effort of Judas Maccabeus to purify the temple in Jerusalem – a key event in the middle of 1 Maccabees. The main bad guys are still the Seleucids, especially King Antiochus, and the main good guys are still the Maccabean brothers, though Judas takes center stage in the second book. 2 Maccabees includes material not found in 1 Maccabees, like several ancient letters, discussion of Jewish adoption of Greek ways, and a gruesome description of the torture of one Jewish family (ch. 7). Like 1 Maccabees, the second book was composed around 100 B.C. But, unlike its predecessor, 2 Maccabees was originally written in Greek, not Hebrew. The unnamed author of 2 Maccabees explains that his work is actually a condensed version of a five-volume history written by a certain Jason of Cyrene (2:23).

2 Maccabees was written for the pleasure and profit of its readers (2:25). It was also intended to encourage Jewish celebration of Hanukkah (1:9, 18). It provides support for the Maccabean (Hasmonean) rulers of Judea, and it attempts to provide a theological rationale for the suffering of the Jewish people.

Why did the people have to suffer so terribly?

2 Maccabees explains why God allowed – indeed, ordained – the suffering of the Jewish people, not to mention the desecration of the temple by the impious pagan king Antiochus IV. According to this book, the Jewish people deserved what they received because so many of them had abandoned God in favor of adopting Greek customs and gods. Even the temple shared in God’s punishment of the Jews, though the time of restoration and reconciliation would come in the future (5:15-20). God allowed his people to endure terrible tortures, but “these punishments were designed not to destroy but to discipline our people” (6:12). In the midst of grave times, God “never withdraws his mercy from us” (6:16).

2 Maccabees see Jewish suffering in light of the “big picture” of God’s faithfulness. For one thing, those who are tortured and killed for their commitment to God have the hope of resurrection from the dead (e.g. 7:14). They would not be raised, like Lazarus in the Gospel of John, to an extension of ordinary human life. But they would be raised for life in God’s eternal future. Although the idea of resurrection in 2 Maccabees differs in many ways from what we find in early Christian writings, nevertheless there is a common thread: the one who suffers righteously will be raised from the dead, and this resurrection will be his vindication. Thus 2 Maccabees begins to paint the background against which early Christians will make sense of the resurrection of Jesus.

In yet another way 2 Maccabees lays a foundation for early Christian reflection on the meaning of Jesus. In a striking passage from 2 Maccabees we read the bold words of a young man who is about to be tortured to death:

I, like my brothers, give up body and life for the laws of our ancestors, appealing to God to show mercy soon to our nation and by trials and plagues to make you [Antiochus] confess that he alone is God, and through me and my brothers to bring to an end the wrath of the Almighty that has justly fallen on our whole nation. (7:37-38)

Through his suffering, this young man hopes to take God’s wrath upon himself so that the Jewish nation may be saved. In fact, following his martyrdom, the tide turns and the Jewish people, under the military leadership of Judas Maccabeus, prevail against the pagans who defiled the temple. Why? Because “the wrath of the Lord had turned to mercy” (8:5).

Once again 2 Maccabees points in the direction of the saving work of Jesus. Like the brothers in 2 Maccabees 7, he will be tortured and killed. And, like the brothers, his death will allow God’s mercy to be poured out. But the significance of Jesus’ death goes far beyond anything we find in 2 Maccabees. He bears, not merely the sin of Israel, but the sin of the world. And his death leads to mercy, not only for the Jews, but for all who call upon his name, Jew and gentile alike.

With the stories of the Maccabees echoing in their ears, the earliest Christians could hear the divine song of salvation as sung by Jesus, whose took upon himself the sin of the world in his passion, and who was vindicated through his resurrection from the death.
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