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Maccabees Books of
Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblical Literature
[APOCRYPHA] The books of Maccabees are the titles of certain Jewish histories containing principally the details of the heroic exploits referred to in the preceding article [MACCABEES].
There were in all four books (to which some add a fifth) known to the ancients, of which three are still read in the eastern, and two in the western church. Of these the third is the first in order of time. We shall, however, to avoid confusion, speak of them in the order in which they are commonly enumerated.
The First Book of Maccabees contains a lucid and authentic history of the undertakings of Antiochus Epiphanes against the Jews, from the year B.C. 175 to the death of Simon Maccabeus, B.C. 135. This history is confessedly of great value. Although its brevity, observes De Wette, renders it in some instances unsatisfactory, defective, and uncritical, and occasionally extravagant, it is upon the whole entitled to credit, chronologically accurate, and advantageously distinguished above all other historical productions of this period. It is the second book in order of time.
There is little question that this book was written in Hebrew, although the original is now lost. The Greek version abounds in Hebraisms and errors of translation.
Of the author nothing is known; but he must have been a Palestinian Jew, who wrote some considerable time after the death of Simon Maccabeus, and even of Hyrcanus, and made use of several written, although chiefly of traditional, sources of information. At the same time it is not impossible that the author was present at several of the events which he so graphically describes.
The Second Book of Maccabees (the third in order of time) is a work of very inferior character to the first. It is an abridgment of a more ancient work, written by a Jew named Jason, who lived at Cyrene in Africa, comprising the principal transactions of the Jews which occurred during the reigns of Seleucus IV, Antiochus Epiphanes, and Antiochus Eupator. It partly goes over the same ground with the first book, but commences ten or twelve years earlier, and embraces in all a period of fifteen years. It does not appear that the author of either saw the other's work. The second book of Maccabees is divided into two unconnected parts. It commences with a letter from the citizens of Jerusalem and Judea to the Greek Jews in Egypt, written B.C. 123 (which refers to a former letter written to the same, B.C. 143, acquainting them of their sufferings), and informs them that their worship was now restored, and that they were celebrating the Feast of Dedication. The second part () contains a still more ancient letter, written B.C. 159, to the priest Aristobulus, the tutor of King Ptolemy, recounting, besides some curious matter, the death of Antiochus Epiphanes. The third part contains the preface, in which the author states that he is about to epitomize the five books of Jason. The work commences with the attack of Heliodorus on the temple, and closes with the death of Nicanor, a period of fifteen years. The history supplies some blanks in the first book; but the letters prefixed to it contradict some of the facts recorded in the body of the work, and are consequently supposed to have been added by another hand. Neither are the letters themselves considered genuine, and they were probably written long after the death of Nicanor, and even of John Hyrcanus. This book gives a different account of the place and manner of the death of Antiochus Epiphanes from that contained in the first book.
The narrative, as De Wette observes, abounds in miraculous adventures, historical and chronological errors, extraordinary and arbitrary embellishments, affected descriptions, and moralizing reflections. We are not aware when either Jason himself or his epitomizer lived. Jahn refers the age of the epitomizer to sometime previous to the middle of the last century before the birth of Christ, and De Wette maintains that Jason must have written a considerable time after the year B.C. 161.
The Third Book of Maccabees, still read in the Greek church, is, as has been already observed, the first in order of time. It contains an account of the persecution of the Egyptian Jews by Ptolemy Philopator, who is said to have proceeded to Jerusalem after his victory at Raphia over Antiochus the Great, B.C. 217, and after sacrificing in the temple, to have attempted to force his way into the Holy of Holies, when he was prostrated and rendered motionless by an invisible hand. Upon his return to Egypt, he revenged himself by shutting up the Jews in the Hippodrome, and exposing them to be crushed beneath the feet of elephants. This book contains an account of their deliverance by divine interposition. It is anterior in point of date to the Maccabean period, and has received its designation from a general resemblance to the two first books in the heroic character of the actions which it describes. Calmet (Commentary) observes that this book is rejected as apocryphal in the Latin Church; not, however, as not containing a true history, but as not being inspired, as he considers the first two books to be. It is nevertheless regarded by De Wette as a tasteless fable, and notwithstanding the relation which it contains of an annual festival, considered by him as most probably destitute of any historical foundation. Dr. Milman (Hist. of the Jews) describes it as a 'romantic story.'
The Fourth Book of Maccabees, which is also found in the Alexandrian and Vatican manuscripts, is generally supposed to be the same with the Supremacy of Reason, attributed to Josephus, with which it for the most part accords. It consists of an inflated amplification of the history of the martyrdom of Eleazar, and of the seven brothers, whose torments and death, with that of their mother, form the subject of 2 Maccabees 6-7.
Calmet has pointed out several contradictions between this and the second book, as well as the books of Moses, together with some opinions derived from the Stoics, such as the equality of crimes; which, he supposes, together with its tedious descriptions, have consigned it to the rank of an Apocryphal book.
What has been called the Fifth Book of Maccabees is now extant only in the Arabic and Syriac languages.
It is impossible to ascertain the author, who could scarcely have been Josephus, as he disagrees in many things with that historian.
The work consists of a history of Jewish affairs, commencing with the attempt on the treasury at Jerusalem by Heliodorus, and ending with the tragic fate of the last of the Hasmonean princes, and with the inhuman execution by Herod of his noble and virtuous wife Mariamne, and of his two sons. This history thus fills up the chasm to the birth of Christ.
Dr. Cotton has pointed out among the 'remarkable peculiarities' found in this book the phrases, 'Peace be unto thee,' and 'God be merciful to them,' showing that the practice of prayer for the dead was at this time prevalent. But the most remarkable passage in reference to this subject is , where Judas forwards to Jerusalem 2000, or according to the Syriac 3000, and according to the Vulgate 12,000 drachmas of silver, to make a sin-offering for the Jews slain in action, on whose persons were found things consecrated to idols, which they had sacrilegiously plundered in violation of the law of Moses (). The author of the book remarks that it was a holy and good thought to pray for the dead, which, he observes, would have been superfluous had there been no resurrection. Calmet observes that, according to the notions of the Jews and some of the Christian Fathers, the pains of hell for those who died in mortal sin (as appears to have been the case of these Jews) were alleviated by the prayers and alms of the living, if not entirely removed; and cites a passage from a very ancient Christian Liturgy to the same effect. This learned commentator supposes that the ancient and Catholic practice of prayer for the dead had its origin in this usage of the Jews, although he admits it to be a distinct thing from the doctrine of purgatory as held in the Roman Church.
The first two books of Maccabees have been at all times treated with a very high degree of respect in the Christian Church. Origen, professing to give a catalogue of the twenty-two canonical books, of which, however, he actually enumerates only twenty-one, adds, 'besides, there are the Maccabees.' This has given rise to the notion that he intended to include these books in the canon, while others have observed that he has omitted the Minor Prophets from his catalogue. In his preface to the Psalms he excludes the two books of Maccabees from the books of Holy Scripture, but in his Princip. (ii. 1), and in his Comment. ad Rom. ch. v., he speaks of them as inspired, and as of equal authority with the other books. St. Jerome says that the Church does not acknowledge them as canonical, although he elsewhere cites them as Holy Scripture. Bellarmine acknowledges that these, with the other deutero-canonical books, are rejected by Jerome, as they had not been then determined by any general council. The first councils which included them in the canonical Scriptures were those of Hippo and Carthage. They were received with the other Apocryphal books by the Council of Trent. Basnage, cited by Lardner (Credibility), thinks that the word 'Canonical' may be supposed to be used here [by the councils of Hippo and Carthage] loosely, so as to comprehend not only those books which are admitted as a rule of faith, but those which are esteemed useful, and may be publicly read for the edification of the people, in contradistinction to such books as were entirely rejected. This is also the opinion of the Roman Catholic Professor Jahn, who expresses himself in nearly the same words. Dr. Lardner conceives that Augustine also, unless he would contradict himself must be understood to have used the word in the same sense.
Kitto, John, ed. Entry for 'Maccabees Books of'. "Kitto's Popular Cyclopedia of Biblical Literature". https://www.studylight.org/​encyclopedias/​eng/​kbe/​m/maccabees-books-of.html.