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First Book of Maccabees

The First Book of Maccabees (I Maccabees) is historical work extant in Greek, covering the period of 40 years from the accession of Antiochus Epiphanes (175 B.C.E.) to the death of Simeon the Hasmonean (135 B.C.E.). Its name in the Septuagint and in the writings of the Church Fathers (Eusebius and Clement) is Τα Μακκαβαïκά, i.e., “Maccabean matters” or “the Book of the Maccabees.” The original Hebrew name of the book is unknown. According to Origin it was “Sarbeth Sabaniel.” Different hypotheses have been suggested to explain these words, which should perhaps read: סֵפֶר בֵּית סָרְבָנֵי אֵל (Sefer Beit Sarevanei El), the words Sarevanei El (“who strive for God”) being a translation into contemporary (mishnaic) Hebrew of Jehoiarib, the name of the priestly order (see I Chron. 24:7; Neh. 12:6, 19) to which the Hasmonean family belonged. In support of this conjecture is the fact that in later times, after the glamor of the Hasmonean dynasty had become tarnished, the name Jehoiarib is found translated by the above word in its Aramaic form מסרבי (mesarevei; TJ, Ta’an. 4:8, 68d) though it is there used in a pejorative sense as “rebellious,” “fractious.”

I Maccabees is the main, and at times the only, historical source for the period. The book opens with the conquest of Alexander the Great, but immediately after this relates the activities of Antiochus Epiphanes and the Jewish Hellenizers (whom the author calls “the sons of Belial” – the reprobates) and summarily reviews the causes of the Hasmonean rebellion. From this point on it gives a more detailed account of the events of Mattathias’ revolt, through the rededication of the Temple, down to the time when John *Hyrcanus, the eldest son of Simon the Hasmonean, was appointed ruler.

The many expressions in the Greek version which occur only in biblical Hebrew (e.g., from the hands of the gentiles: mi-yad ha-goyim; and his heart was raised: va-yarom libbo; before his face: al panav; and the matter found favor in their eyes: va-yitav ha-davar be-eineihem) clearly confirm the testimony of the Church Fathers that the original language of the book was Hebrew. The style was biblical Hebrew (including use of the vav conversive), and particularly that of the historical books of the Bible. Like Joshua and Judges, it begins with the vav conversive, but reflects the style of Ezra and Nehemiah in including historical documents and similar testimony. Like these biblical books, although it is written largely in prose, now and again it includes poetry, such as the Lamentation of Mattathias (2:7–13), prayers (3:18–22; 4:30–33; 7:41–42), and a hymn (14:8–15). Unlike II Maccabees it does not contain explanations of historical or personal psychological motivation, of the sort usually found in the works of the contemporary Greek historians.

The writer achieves a high degree of objectivity. He even refrains from censuring the *Hassideans who opposed the Hasmoneans, though it is clear where his sympathies lie since he regards the Hasmoneans as chosen by Providence “to give deliverance unto Israel” (5:62). The course of events described is not considered as diverging from the natural order, and supernatural intervention is almost entirely absent from the narrative, even though the basic assumption underlying the entire book is that Israel’s success is a direct result of their faith and their steadfastness in their loyalty to the Torah and the keeping of the commandments. The author is very circumspect about mentioning God’s name. In place of the Tetragrammation or the biblical Elohim, he either writes “Heaven” (3:18, 50, 60; 4:10, 40, et al.) or else uses a circumlocution to avoid the use of a proper name altogether (e.g., 2:21, 26; 3:22, 53; 4:10, et al.).

The book ranks high as an accurate historical source, and even the numbers it contains are not exaggerated. Despite scholarly arguments to the contrary, the idiomatic constructions typical of this book incontrovertibly prove it to be the work of a single author. His name is unknown, but he almost certainly was an eyewitness to the events he describes (cf. 6:39). He avoids expressing outright partisanship, but the fact that he wrote at the beginning of John Hyrcanus’ rule, when the latter was still a Pharisee, and lauds Mattathias’ decision to permit defensive military action on the Sabbath – which was approved by the Pharisaic school (Jos., Ant. 12:276; 14:63; Tosef., Er. 4:6–7) – indicates that he was close to this circle.

The literary sources used by the author include both letters from official archives (such as those from the Seleucid kings and Roman officials to the Hasmoneans), and public documents (such as the people’s declaration assigning the high priesthood and the chief executive position to Simeon), as well as other literary sources in Hebrew (among them the various poems). Thus it is that the author employs two different systems of dating: one for external affairs (where he starts the year in the fall, in the month of Tishri), and one for internal events (which he dates according to the calendar starting in the month of Nisan).

The original Hebrew version seems to have disappeared quite early. The Church included I Maccabees in its canon together with the rest of the Septuagint and this was ratified by the Catholic Church Council of Trent. After the Reformation, the Protestants removed it from their Bible and relegated it to the Apocrypha. A Hebrew translation was made in the 11th century (published by D. Chwolson).


Charles, Apocrypha, 1 (1913), 59–124; O.F. Fritzsche, Libri Apocryphi Veteris Testamenti Graece (1871); A. Rahlf, Septuaginta, 1 (1935); H.B. Swete, The Old Testament in Greek, 3 (1894); W. Kappler, Septuaginta, Vetus Testamentum Graecum, 9 pt. 1 (1936); A. Geiger, Urschrift und Uebersetzungen der Bibel (Breslau, 1857); G. Rawlinson, in: H. Wace (ed.), Apocrypha, 2 (1888), 373ff.; B. Niese, Kritik der beiden Makkabaeerbuecher (1900); Schuerer, Gesch, 1 (19013), 32–40; H. Ettelson, The Integrity of I Maccabees (1925); Y. Baer, in: Zion, 33 (1964), 101–24; F. Bickermann, Der Gott der Makkabaeer (1937); A. Kahana, Ha-Sefarim ha-Ḥiẓoniyyim, 2 (1937), 72–94; J. Heinemann, in: MGWJ, 82 (1938), 145–72; F.M. Abel, Les Livres des Maccabées (1949); P. Churgin, Mehkarim bi-Tekufat ha-Bayit ha-Sheni (1949), 190–202; K.D. Schunck, Die Quellen des I. und II. Makkabaeerbuches (1954).

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.