Maccabees in the New Testament
My last article presented several of Jesus’ teachings from the Wisdom of Sirach and noted the fact that Matthew’s gospel paid particular attention to those teachings. While Wisdom of Sirach had only a limited impact on the New Testament, the history of the Maccabees affected first century Judaism so strongly that our Protestant avoidance of 1st and 2nd Maccabees has enabled serious errors in some of our most central doctrines.
Like Sirach, 1st and 2nd Maccabees have been mislabeled as “apocrypha,” a title originally reserved for heretical Gnostic writings;1 but no apocryphal teachings arise in 1st or 2nd Maccabees. Even if one does not accept these books as Scripture, Martin Luther called them “profitable and good to read.”2 My hope is that this article will encourage many Christians to read these chronicles of resistance and victory, which strongly shaped Jewish culture at the time of our Lord’s incarnation and the Writings which followed from His apostles.
Inspiration for Pharisees
A Pharisee is a “separatist.” The title “Pharisee” occurs almost 100 times in the New Testament. According to the Jewish Encyclopedia, the word derives from the Aramaic “perishaya” and the Hebrew “perushim,” meaning someone who separates himself from impure persons or things.3 One man in particular inspired the “separation” of the Pharisees. His name was Mattathias Maccabeus.
Antiochus IV Epiphanes rose to power in the Greek Seleucid Empire in 175 B.C. 1st Maccabees 1:10 introduces Antiochus Epiphanes, then quickly turns its focus to the Jews of that time who rebelled against God’s law and covenant. They regretted their separation from the religions and cultures of other nations and therefore wanted to form a covenant with nations like Greece. In the New English Translation of the Septuagint, 1st Maccabees 1:11 and 1:15 read as follows:
“In those days out of Israel came sons, transgressors of the law, and persuaded many, saying, ‘Let us go and make a covenant with the nations around us, because from the time we separated ourselves from them many evils have found us.’ … and they fashioned foreskins for themselves and apostatized from the holy covenant and joined themselves to the nations and sold themselves to do evil.”(emphases added)
In 168 B.C., Antiochus IV entered the temple in Jerusalem, massacring people and defiling the sanctuary. He demanded that the Judaeans become like the Greeks, a process known as “Hellenization.” The ones who conformed to Greek culture and education were called “Hellenes,”4 a word normally translated in our Bibles as “Greeks.” King Antiochus decreed that all of Judaea should be Hellenized, “To the end they might forget the law, and change all the ordinances.”(1st Mac 1:49 KJV)
In the Judaean town of Modin however, the elderly priest Mattathias refused bribes from the king’s officers to make profane sacrifices. The King James Version of 1st Maccabees 2:21-26 records his “zeal for the law” as follows:
“‘God forbid that we should forsake the law and the ordinances. We will not hearken to the king’s words, to go from our religion, either on the right hand, or the left.’ Now when he had left speaking these words, there came one of the Jews in the sight of all to sacrifice on the altar which was at Modin, according to the king’s commandment.
“Which thing when Mattathias saw, he was inflamed with zeal, and his reins trembled, neither could he forbear to shew his anger according to judgment: wherefore he ran, and slew him upon the altar. Also the king’s commissioner, who compelled men to sacrifice, he killed at that time, and the altar he pulled down. Thus dealt he zealously for the law of God like as Phinees did unto Zambri the son of Salom.”
The events of 1st and 2nd Maccabees have been fictionalized in the excellent novel “My Glorious Brothers.” In reality, Mattathias and his sons defeated the Greek armies, as prophesied in the book of Zachariah, and began a Jewish reign which is referred to as “the times of the separation” in the NETS of 2nd Maccabees 14:3 and 14:38. On his deathbed, Mattathias gives a rousing speech, which is so important that it inspired the Hebrews 11 “hall of faith.” Running from 1st Maccabees 2:49 through 2:68, Mattathias’ speech includes, “Now therefore, children, be zealous for the law…” and “Remember the works of our fathers…” and “Children, be brave, and be strong in the law, for by it you will be glorified.”(NETS)
The New Testament word “Pharisees” is just a transliteration of the Greek “farisaion.” If the word were actually translated, our New Testaments would read “Separatist” or “Separatists” nearly 100 times. These first-century Jewish Separatists originated during the Maccabean armed resistance to Greece and subsequent cultural resistance to Hellenization, whether by Greek forces or Roman forces.
The “glory” which Mattathias promised his sons was God’s “salvation” from their enemies, which is the primary theme of salvation in the New Testament, not salvation from hell or from God’s wrath, as is commonly thought in Protestantism. Jesus spoke about hell (directly or indirectly) in just 60 verses, 3% of our red-letter verses. Yet in the four Gospels alone, demons (including Satan) are specifically mentioned or quoted as speaking in 120 verses. This number does not include indirect references nor vague titles like “the enemy” or even the “evil one,” as in the Sower parables.
On page after page, Jesus directly battles unclean spirits. When He frees people from demons, He speaks of Satan’s kingdom and proclaims His own kingdom of heaven or “kingdom of God.” He refers to Satan’s kingdom as “this world” and “the world,” setting Himself in opposition to it. Throughout the Gospels we hear of the battle between Light and darkness, as though the Maccabean battles had raged on without an end.
On his deathbed, Mattathias appointed his son Judas as the new commander. Judas continued spreading the message of zeal for the law, zeal for good works, and the expected salvation which God will give those who hold fast to His law. The KJV of 1st Maccabees 3:18-22 translates his words as follows:
“…it makes no difference before heaven to save by many or by a few. For the victory of battle standeth not in the multitude of an host; but strength cometh from heaven. They come against us in much pride and iniquity to destroy us, and our wives and children, and to spoil us: But we fight for our lives and our laws. Wherefore the Lord himself will overthrow them…”(emphases added)
When Judas Maccabeus prepares his troops before an army of enemies, he rallies them, saying, “Remember how our fathers were saved in the Red Sea when Pharao [sic] was pursuing them in force. And now let us cry out to heaven, if he will desire us and will remember the covenant of our fathers and will smash this company in front of us today. And all the nations will know that there is one who redeems and saves Israel.”5(emphases added) At the close of that battle, the writer of 1st Maccabees declares, “And a great salvation came about in Israel on that day.”6(emphasis added)
The Maccabean Revolution happened just 160 years before our Lord’s incarnation. The Maccabean salvation lived on in first-century Jewish minds, and it followed from the lips and pens of Jesus and His apostles. In the Great Commission, hell and wrath get no mention, but the King of Kings’ authority takes center state. Later when Jesus commissioned Paul, He still did not offer a message about hell, but about His own authority and about salvation from enemies: “I am sending you to open their eyes, so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and a place among those who are sanctified by faith in me.”7
We may recognize the implications of wrath and hell in the Great Commission or in Paul’s commission, but the explicit and predominant theme throughout the New Testament is that of a war between two kingdoms and the escape of prisoners who “turn from darkness to light and from the power of Satan to God.” We do not read 1st and 2nd Maccabees, therefore we overlook that theme and then offer the subtexts (wrath and hell) as the New Testament’s primary theme. The Maccabees fought flesh and blood; our King and His apostles fought equally real enemies for the salvation of prisoners: “He has delivered us from the power of darkness and conveyed us into the kingdom of the Son of His love.” (Col 1:13 NKJV)
“Put on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. For we do not wrestle with flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.” (Eph 6:11-12 NKJV)
When we overlook the histories of the Maccabees, we also misunderstand the context of some of the most important language in the New Testament—language which communicates Maccabean themes like salvation, works, Pharisees, zeal for the law, circumcision, and redemption.
Before our King’s incarnation, Judaea and Rome had come together in peace through the efforts of a nephew of Judas Maccabeus named John. Two of John’s grandsons fought one another in the Hasmonean Civil War, a war which the Roman Republic resolved by conquering Jerusalem in 63 B.C. and then demanding tribute.
The Roman Republic became the Roman Empire, and its power over Judaea had increased greatly by the time John the Baptist preached. The people of Judaea longed for the same salvation which Mattathias and his sons had accomplished. They believed in large part that separation (Pharisaism) was their means of salvation, in contrast with Hellenization. More simply stated, they believed that God would save the zealous separatists from their enemies.
Mattathias had called them to zeal for works of the law and zeal for the law itself, both of which showed their faith in God. The following excerpts are from the NETS of 1st Maccabees 2:50-68 (emphases added):
“Now, children, be zealous in the law, and give your lives for the covenant of our fathers.”
“Remember the works of our fathers, which they did in their generations, and receive great glory and an everlasting name.”
“Was not Abraam found faithful in temptation, and it was accounted to him as righteousness?”
“Ioseph in the time of his affliction observed the commandment …”
“Phinees our father, by becoming zealous with zeal …”
“Elias, by becoming greatly zealous for the law, was taken up into heaven.”
“Hananias, Azarias and Misael, because of their faith, were saved from fire.”
“Children, be brave, and be strong in the law, for by it you will be glorified.”
“And you shall draw to you all those who observe the law …”
“Return what is due to the nations, and be attentive to the ordinance of the law.”
Judas, son of Mattathias: “But we fight for our lives and our laws. Wherefore the Lord himself will overthrow them …”(1st Mac 3:21-22 KJV emphasis added)
Jonathon, son of Mattathias wrote to Rome: “… we have the holy books of scripture in our hands to comfort us … we have help from heaven … we are delivered from our enemies, and our enemies are brought under foot.” (1st Mac 12:9,15)
Simon, son of Mattathias: “Ye yourselves know what great things I, and my brethren, and my father’s house, have done for the laws and the sanctuary … Doubtless I will avenge my nation, and the sanctuary …” (1st Mac 13:3,6 KJV emphasis added)
Eleazar the Scribe: “… manfully changing this life, I will shew myself such an one as mine age requireth, And leave a notable example to such as be young to die willingly and courageously for the honourable and holy laws …” (2nd Mac 6:27-28 KJV emphasis added)
First of seven martyred brothers: “… we are ready to die, rather than to transgress the laws of our fathers.” (2nd Mac 7:2 KJV emphasis added)
Seventh of seven martyred brothers: “… I will not obey the king’s commandment: but I will obey the commandment of the law that was given unto our fathers by Moses. … But I, as my brethren, offer up my body and life for the laws of our fathers…” (2nd Mac 7:30,37 KJV emphases added)
Testimony of Nicanor: “… the Jews had God to fight for them, and therefore they could not be hurt, because they followed the laws that he gave them. (2nd Mac 8:36 KJV emphasis added)
Regarding Judas Maccabeus: “And he resembled a lion in his works … And he caused bitterness to many kings, and gladness to Iakob by his works …” (1st Mac 3:4,7 NETS emphases added)
So likewise after the fashion of the Maccabean Separatists, the Apostle Paul wrote of himself, “a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee; as to zeal, a persecutor of the church; as to righteousness under the law, blameless,”8 As Mattathias and his followers described it, zeal and works came from faith. The Maccabees did not try to earn heaven by their works, but to live out their faith as Separatists who trust in God, rather than as Hellenes who forsake their faith in God.
By the first century, the Separatists (Pharisees) had perverted the zeal-and-works mindset of their Maccabean heritage into that of boasting. Yet zeal and works were not what we have misunderstood the New Testament to say; that is, works were not a method of earning heaven. Zeal and works were the Maccabean outcome of faith, a faith which resulted in divine “salvation” from enemies.
Circumcision in the Maccabees
Why in the world did the apostles talk so often about circumcision? After the Book of Joshua, circumcision and foreskins are mentioned just seven times in the Protestant Old Testament, aside from the use of the epithet “uncircumcised” for non-Jews. Three of the seven verses are about David’s “bride price” for Saul’s daughter Michel, leaving a paltry four verses on the topic across 33 books. Yet such genital surgery shows up a whopping 65 times in the words of the apostles.
Since the Protestant Old Testament prophets and historians almost completely omit the topic after the Israelites entered the Promised Land, we should ask how male genital surgery morphed into such a hot topic in the first century. If we open an Old Testament of one of the 2,000-year-old branches of Christianity, however, we get nine more passages, seven of which occur in 1st and 2nd Maccabees, both of which Martin Luther called “profitable” reading.
Wasting no time at all, circumcision shows up in the very first chapter of 1st Maccabees. A key aspect of Hellenization was the provision of gymnasiums where men competed naked. The KJV of verses 14 and 15 reads “Whereupon they built a place of exercise at Jerusalem according to the customs of the heathen: And made themselves uncircumcised …”
You heard it right: “made themselves uncircumcised.” Gymnasium competition was as important to Hellenized societies as bath houses were to Roman society. Therefore Judaeans who forsook the law would undergo epispasm or infibulation procedures, which Paul references in 1st Corinthians 7:18.
Twice I have visited a synagogue, and on neither occasion did anyone check to see if I had a foreskin. Yet circumcision was so important in 1st century Judaea, that even the apostle Paul felt it necessary to circumcise a Christian on one occasion,9 because the events of 1st and 2nd Maccabees had left such a deep imprint on the Jewish culture of that era.
First-century Separatists (Pharisees) did not expect their missing foreskins to save them from Rome, much less get them into heaven. They had faith, however, that God would see their zealous separation, like that of the Maccabees, therefore He would save them from Roman rule, just like He had saved their ancestors from Greek rule. Uncircumcision and Separatism were polar opposites, one a sign of covenant with God and the other a sign of covenant with unbelievers:
“And made themselves uncircumcised, and forsook the holy covenant, and joined themselves to the heathen …”(1st Maccabees 1:15 KJV)
Works versus Grace
If it is true that New Testament “salvation” is primarily a Maccabean liberation from enemies, and if New Testament “works of the law” are acts of faith, including Pharisaism and circumcision (all being properly understood through the lens of the Maccabees), what then should we make of the works-versus-grace discussions? After all, Paul writes in such a way that grace and faith seem directly opposed to works.
In the history of the Maccabees, Jews were saved by grace through works. Since “grace” means divine generosity and “salvation” in that day meant divine liberation from Gentile rulership, first-century Jews who held a Separatist (Pharisaic) loyalty to their covenant with God would by their faith, do works which reflected God’s law, believing by faith that God in His generosity (grace) would save them from their enemies. In short, they believed they would be saved from Rome, by grace, through works of the law.
After King Jesus defeated the kingdom of this world, the Holy Spirit revealed the true battle to His apostles—apostles who lived in a post-Maccabean society where works, salvation, circumcision, and Separation from Gentiles all referred to the smaller-scale conflict of Gentile authority versus Jewish fidelity. The Maccabees needed to have faith in God’s covenant in the face of grave temptation, in order to evoke God’s grace to save them. Their faith in God’s covenant resulted in works of the law, therefore grace and works were tied directly together.
In contrast, Christians simply believed that Jesus is the promised King of Psalm 2, which calls Him the “Christ” (meaning “Anointed”) in verse 2, the King in verse 6, and God’s Son in verse 7 who defeats the rulers of this world in verses 8 and following. Therefore unlike the Maccabean Revolt, works did not have to precede salvation from the apostles’ enemies, because that battle had already been won. When people believed the apostles’ testimony that Jesus is the victorious King, works followed; but salvation had already been won, therefore Paul could say, “For by grace you have been saved through faith … not as a result of works…”
Maccabean salvation from enemies happened by God’s grace through faith after works of the law by circumcised, zealous, Separatists. The Maccabean history markedly colors the New Testament, and our Protestant theology suffers from its omission from our reading. Here are a few additional Maccabean influences on the New Testament:
- The Feast of Hanukkah in John 10:22-36 comes from the events in 1st Maccabees 4:36-59 and 2nd Maccabees 10:1-8.
- Before Paul and James recounted Abraham’s belief and God’s having counted his belief as righteousness, the writer of the Maccabees also did so in his “Hall of Zeal.”
- The Hebrews 11 “Hall of Faith” includes the mother from 2nd Maccabees 7:1-29 in Hebrews 11:35 which states, “Women received back their dead by resurrection. Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, so that they might rise again to a better life.”(ESV) While many mothers lost their children in the Old Testament, none but she are recorded as seeing their children tortured and refusing release so that they might rise again to a better life.
- 1st and 2nd Maccabees record the fulfillment of prophecies in Daniel 8:9-14 and Zechariah 9:13-17.
- Origen of Alexandria called 2nd Maccabees “holy Scripture” and taught the doctrine of creation ex-nihilo, based on the words of the same unnamed mother in 2nd Maccabees 7.10
- 1st and 2nd Maccabees were received as inspired Scripture by all four apostolic branches of Christianity long before the Protestant Reformation.
- Athanasius, Festal Letter 39: “… nor is there in any place a mention of apocryphal writings. But they are an invention of heretics who … may find occasion to lead astray the simple.”
- Hills, Edward, “King James Version Defended” (Ankeny, IA: Christian Research Press, 1997) p. 98.
- NETS 1st Maccabees 4:9-11
- NETS 1st Maccabees 4:25
- Acts 26:17-18 ESV
- Ante Nicene Fathers Volume IV, “Origen de Principiis,” book II, chapter 1, paragraph 5