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Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary
two apocryphal books of Scripture, containing the history of Judas and his brothers, and their wars against the Syrian kings in defence of their religion and liberties, so called from Judas, the son of Mattathias, surnamed Maccabaeus, as some authors say, from the word מכבי , formed of the initials of מיאּ?כמכה באלים יהוה , "Who is like unto thee, O Lord, among the gods?" Exodus 15:11 , which was the motto of his standard; whence those who fought under his standard were called Maccabees, and the name was generally applied to all who suffered in the cause of true religion, under the Egyptian or Syrian kings. This name, formed by abbreviation according to the common practice of the Jews, distinguished Judas Maccabaeus by way of eminence, as he succeeded his father, B.C. 166, in the command of those forces which he had with him at his death; and, being joined by his brothers, and all others that were zealous for the law, he erected his standard, on which he inscribed the above mentioned motto. Those, also, who suffered under Ptolemy Philopater of Alexandria, fifty years before this period, were afterward called Maccabees; and so were Eleazar, and the mother and her seven sons, though they suffered before Judas erected his standard with the motto from which the appellation originated. And therefore, as these books, which contain the history of Judas and his brothers, and their wars against the Syrian kings, in defence of their religion and liberties, are called the first and second books of the Maccabees; so that book which gives us the history of those who, in the like cause, under Ptolemy Philopater, were exposed to his elephants at Alexandria, is called the third book of the Maccabees; and that which is written by Josephus, of the martyrdom of Eleazar, and the seven brothers and their mother, is called the fourth book of the Maccabees.
The first book of the Maccabees is an excellent history, and comes nearest to the style and manner of the sacred historians of any extant. It was written originally in the Chaldee language, of the Jerusalem dialect and was extant in this language in the time of Jerom, who had seen it. From the Chaldee it was translated into Greek, from the Greek into Latin.
Theodotion is conjectured to have translated it into Greek; but this version was probably more ancient, as we may infer from its use by ancient authors, as Tertullian, Origen, and others. It is supposed to have been written by John Hyrcanus, the son of Simon, who was prince and high priest of the Jews near thirty years, and began his government at the time where this history ends. It contains the history of forty years, from the reign of Antiochus Epiphanes to the death of Simon, the high priest; that is, from the year of the world 3829 to the year 3869, B.C. 131. The second book of the Maccabees begins with two epistles sent from the Jews of Jerusalem to the Jews of Egypt and Alexandria, to exhort them to observe the feast of the dedication of the new altar erected by Judas, on his purifying the temple. The first was written in the 169th year of the era of the Seleucidae, that is, B.C. 144; and the second, in the 188th year of the same era, or B.C. 125; and both appear to be spurious. After these epistles follows the preface of the author to his history, which is an abridgment of a larger work, composed by one Jason, a Jew of Cyrene, who wrote in Greek the history of Judas Maccabaeus, and his brethren, and the wars against Antiochus Epiphanes, and Eupator his son. The two last chapters contain events under the reign of Demetrius Soter, the successor of Antiochus Eupator, and contain such varieties in their style, as render it doubtful whether they had the same author as the rest of the work. This second book does not by any means equal the accuracy and excellency of the first. It contains a history of about fifteen years, from the execution of Heliodorus's commission, who was sent by Seleucus to fetch away the treasures of the temple, to the victory obtained by Judas Maccabaeus over Nicanor; that is, from the year of the world 3828 to the year 3843, B.C. 157.
There are in the Polyglott Bibles, both of Paris and London, Syriac versions of both these books; but they, as well as the English versions which we have among the apocryphal writers in our Bibles, are derived from the Greek. For a farther account of Judas Maccabaeus, and of his brothers, whose history is recorded in the first and second books of the Maccabees, and also by Josephus, we refer to the article JEWS. The third book of the Maccabees contains the history of the persecution of Ptolomy Philopater against the Jews in Egypt, and their sufferings under it; and seems to have been written by some Alexandrian Jew in the Greek language, not long after the time of Siracides. This book, with regard to its subject, ought to be called the first, as the things which are related in it occurred before the Maccabees, whose history is recorded in the first and second books; but as it is of less authority and repute than the other two, it is reckoned after them. It is extant in Syriac, though the translator did not seem to have well understood the Greek language. It is in most of the ancient manuscript copies of the Greek Septuagint, particularly in the Alexandrian and Vatican, but was never inserted into the vulgar Latin version of the Bible, nor, consequently, into any of our English copies. The first authentic mention we have of this book is in Eusebius's "Chronicon." It is also named with two other books of the Maccabees in the eighty-fifth of the apostolic canons. But it is uncertain when that canon was added. Grotius thinks that this book was written after the two first books, and shortly after the book of Ecclesiasticus, from which circumstance it was called the third book of Maccabees. Moreover, Josephus's history of the martyrs that suffered under Antiochus Epiphanes, is found in some manuscript Greek Bibles, under the name of the fourth book of the Maccabees. This book, ascribed to Josephus, occurs under the title, "Concerning the Empire or Government of Reason;" but learned men have expressed a doubt whether this was the book known to the ancients as the fourth book of the Maccabees.
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Watson, Richard. Entry for 'Maccabees'. Richard Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/wtd/m/maccabees.html. 1831-2.