I wrote this in response to a classmate, in my World Religions course, that was discussing the Maccabean Revolt and 1 and 2 Maccabees. As a Protestant, she was not familiar with the stories found in these books. In her discussions, she quotes and attaches a video by Dr. Brown – Why the Maccabees Aren’t in the Bible. I have included this video at the very bottom for you to view. The synopsis is as my classmate wrote, “According to Dr. Brown, the Bible is meant to be “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness,” (2 Tim. 3:16). While this story is interesting as a part of history it is not meant to be used to rebuke, correct, or train into righteousness. He maintains that people should know the story, but not study it as a way of living. It is not meant to show us how to be closer to God nor show us how to be God’s light to those around us.”
As part of our assignments in this course, we are required to respond in a substantive manner to the essays written by our classmates. This week the essays were all related to Judaism. This was my response to her in relation to the importance of 1 and 2 Maccabees as sacred scriptures that include the miracle, mystery, and history of the Jewish Festival of Lights – Hanukkah:
As a Catholic, I am quite familiar with 1 and 2 Books of Maccabees found in the Old Testament. They are used in our readings at Mass.
The first book of Maccabees “devotes a lot of space to wars and political intrigues extending over a period of forty years, his primary purpose is a religious one. He reports the calamities the Jewish people experience on account of their sins, while also stressing the role played by God in his providence, who watches over them as he promised he would (cf. Ps 119:89-90). The success of the Jewish campaigns he attributes to God’s protection, but he makes it clear that faithfulness to the Covenant is, as was the case with their forebears, the ground on which Israel must totally rely. From this it follows that, for the just man, supreme glory consists in being ready to give one’s life, if necessary, to defend God’s interests—the Law, which every Jew must strictly obey.” (1)
The second book of Maccabees “is even more important from the doctrinal point of view. It aims at bringing out even more strongly the religious lessons of the time, and the story is written more like a sermon than a history. It includes such fundamental texts as that which states that God created all things ex nihilo, out of nothing, not out of things which existed (7:28), and those which make it clear that the sacrifice of martyrs is a voluntary form of atonement which placates God’s anger (7:36, 8:5). (1)
The sacred writer’s purpose in the second book “is to build up the morale of the Jews. Naturally, any account of the war of liberation led by Judas Maccabeus would have this effect and would show that victory was due to God’s powerful aid (2:19-22). But he also wants to show that God’s purpose in permitting persecution is to discipline the Jews “in order that he may not take vengeance on us afterwards when our sins have reached their height” (6:12-17). Also “Judas’ victory over Nicanor ensures the liberation of the Jewish people and guarantees the proper worship of the true God.” (1)
The second book “gives a very moving account of the martyrdom of seven brothers, whose names are unknown but who are popularly called “the Maccabees” (2 Mac 7:1 ff). Their faith in the resurrection, which they explicitly assert (v. 11), gives them the courage to undergo terrible sufferings to keep the holy Law of God, sufferings in which they are also supported by their mother’s faith. She, having offered God the lives of her sons, then offers herself in sacrifice, giving an example of fortitude and also of that faith in which she had reared her children.” (1)
These “books are well worth prayerful reading, particularly the second, which provides us with many edifying examples – especially the humility which leads its protagonists to trust in God, their fortitude in defending their faith, their patience in dealing with obstacles to observance of the Law, and their deep piety, as shown in their prayer for their dead comrades”. (1)
“First and Second Maccabees helps us to realize that God watches over his own, and they show that Israel always wins victory over its enemies when it stays true to the Covenant.” (1)
A Jewish take on the exclusion of the books from the Hebrew Bible:
“In spite of the fact that various non-canonical writings did not make it into the Jewish canon, they nonetheless contain much of value and are worthy of study, even if the rabbis did not consider them to be divinely inspired or as holy as the Bible.” (2)
Perhaps, the answer [to why the books were not included was] “lies more within the realm of pragmatism and politics. The Books of Maccabees describe the revolt led by the Maccabean family against the Syrian king, Antiochus Epiphanes. A couple of centuries later, Jewish scholars found themselves in Jamnia with the Temple destroyed and Jerusalem lost. Their circumstances were the result of their own failed revolt against the Romans.” (2)
Perhaps they [the Rabbis] “felt it unwise to promote a text that heralded the successful outcome of a Jewish revolt. It may have posed a threat both internally and externally. The Romans would certainly not look kindly upon the popularization of such a text, since it might very well reintroduce the concept of revolt to a population desperately trying to survive the devastating outcome of its own failed attempts. Ironically, this very internal/external struggle lies at the core of the Hanukkah story, and perhaps it was this very struggle playing out again in history that prevented the basic texts about Hanukkah from being included within the biblical canon.” (2)
Also once the books were included in the Christian Bible “its authoritative nature was rejected by the Jewish community.” (2) Ironically, the books are only available for reading and studying because of the Catholic church. There is new interest in these books in the Jewish community and many are now reading and studying them to “help enrich our understanding and our celebration of Hanukkah.” (2)
You [my classmate] wrote, “According to Dr. Brown, the Bible is meant to be “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness,” (2 Tim 3:16). While this story is interesting as a part of history it is not meant to be used to rebuke, correct or train into righteousness. He maintains that people should know the story but not study it as a way of living. It is not meant to show us how to be closer to God nor show us how to be God’s light to those around us.”
I must disagree with Dr. Brown. I find his take to be quite narrow-minded. 1 and 2 Maccabees are “God-breathed” and “useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness” and do show the Jews (and Christians) “how to be closer to God” and “how to be God’s light to those around us.”
The books provide lessons and examples in “humility that leads to trusting in God”, it shows “fortitude in defending their faith”, it shows “patience in dealing with obstacles”, it “shows deep piety”. (1)
Will you find God’s light in the books of Maccabees? Hanukkah is called the Festival of Lights! For Jews Hanukkah celebrates God’s light in their lives. “Light is a symbol of the divine presence within our lives, and our constant desire to cast away the darkness of gloom and despair, and replace it with the brightness of hope and renewal. God’s light is never diminished when we. . .pursue holiness in our lives.” (5)
What can we learn from the books?
How important it is to fight against assimilation into a pagan [worldly] culture. The Maccabees remind us of the centrality of religious liberty and the need for eternal vigilance in that regard. These holy warriors stand out as defenders of the purity of worship and the sanctity of God’s House. (3)
In 1 Maccabees, they attempted to force pagan religion on the Jews. But, led by Judah the Maccabee, they “revolted and defeated the overwhelming forces of Antiochus’ Syrian armies. The importance to Western Civilization of [the] Jewish victory can’t be underrated. If [they] had lost and subsequently been assimilated to the surrounding pagan Greek culture, there would be today no Judaism, Christianity, or Islam.” (5)
The lesson [of Hanukkah] is clear: “we aren’t meant to hide our spiritual light from the world. Nor should we only live spiritually in our private lives. It’s about sharing your light with the world. The ideal of spirituality is not simply to keep one’s faith a secret, hidden away from everyone else. We’re meant to shine our spiritual light for all to see. People of faith must have the courage to live their faith in the public square, where everyone can see just whose side they are on in the never-ending battle between light and dark. And in our complicated, polarized times, perhaps more than ever, we need people who are willing not just to see the light, but to share it.” (6)
When you view it from this Jewish perspective, the stories found in the books of Maccabees and the celebration of Hanukkah – The Festival of Lights – takes on a much greater significance.
We must also remember that Luther not only choose to exclude seven books from the Old Testament but also rejected (and attempted to exclude) from the New Testament: Hebrews, James, Jude and Revelation, because they didn’t fit into his teaching of saved by faith alone without works. If he had been successful than most Protestant denominations would not accept these books as sacred writings either! (4)
And I agree with you [my classmate], the stories found in the books of Maccabees “would make an excellent movie.” and “. . . someone should tell Mel Gibson” to make a movie about them!
P.S. I found it funny your [my classmate’s] first connection with this subject [the Maccabean Revolt] was from an episode of Friends! [The Friends episode referenced is from season 7 – “The One With The Holiday Armadillo”] I didn’t remember that scene or episode. But my first encounter with The Guf 🕊️ was from the movie The Seventh Sign, and my first knowledge of a Golem was from an X-Files episode! (The X-Files episode “Kaddish” from season 4). Isn’t it ironic how TV and movies can spark an interest in a subject?
Below is the video of Dr. Michael L. Brown (for more information on Dr. Brown, please click on the link attached to his name):
☆ This blog entry is from my work in the World Religions course at Phillips Seminary that I am currently taking. ☆
Related interesting read:
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