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Second Book of Maccabees

The Second Book of Maccabees, known in Greek as Τά Μακκαβαïκά, that is, the narratives about (Judah called) the Maccabee. It was this title which gave the title to the other books of the Apocrypha bearing the same name. It is an abridgment of a larger work of five books written by a *Jason of Cyrene who is otherwise unknown (see 2:23–28). Traces of the original division may be preserved in the similar conclusions in several chapters (3:40; 7:42; 10:9; 13:26; 15:37–39). Unlike I *Maccabees which was written in Hebrew, the original language of this book was Greek; and unlike the former, which begins with an account of the revolt of Mattathias and tells of the wars of his sons the *Hasmoneans up to the days of John Hyrcanus, this book deals solely with the deeds of *Judah Maccabee, and only until his victory over Nicanor on 13 Adar II, 164 B.C.E. ("Nicanor Day"). However, the main account is prefaced by a lengthy introduction on the actions of the Hellenizers, Simeon of the priestly division of Minyamin (Bilgah), who wanted to be the agoranomos (the market overseer) in Jerusalem, and Jason the brother of the high priest Onias, and Menelaus the brother of Simeon, both of whom wanted to be high priests. Their acts of plunder and bribing the king caused the people to rise against them, but their contacts with kings led to the intervention of the Syrian king Antiochus IV Epiphanes and to the religious persecutions which were in fact the direct cause of the Maccabean revolt.

The events related subsequently are in general similar to those in I Maccabees, although the two books are independent of each other. However, chapters 8–12 present a different order: the death of Antiochus IV (10:1–9) and the arrival of Lysias at Beth-Zur (ch. 11) here precede the purification of the Temple. The epitomizer for some reason or other altered the original order (8:29, 34–36; 10:1–8; 8:30–33; 9:1–29; 10:9; he apparently thought that the letter in 11:22, in which Antiochus IV is regarded as having died, belonged to the same period as the other letters in that chapter which, however, preceded it by a year). If the original order is restored, however, the events accord with those in I Maccabees. In its extant form, II Maccabees begins with an addendum to the main body of the book, consisting of two letters sent at different times from Judea to Alexandria which request that the festival of Ḥanukkah be observed. The first was written, according to its date, in 124 B.C.E. (in the days of John Hyrcanus), while the second, undated one (which has all kinds of aggadic stories and is regarded as largely apocryphal) was written earlier, and is a letter from Judah (Maccabee) to Aristobulus, the tutor of King Ptolemy (Philometor, 180–145 B.C.E.)

The main part of the book commences with 2:19, at a time when Onias (III) was high priest, Seleucus ruled in Asia, and peace and tranquility reigned in Ereẓ Israel; however, the avarice of several high priests led to a complete reversal of the situation. Simeon of the priestly division of Minyamin (see above) informed the king's strategus in Syria and Phoenicia that there were vast treasures in the Temple. The king's mission to take the treasure failed (the envoy Heliodorus saw angels smiting him and fainted), and Jason and Menelaus (see above) then began to compete for the high priesthood. As a result of their rivalry and the base acts accompanying it in Jerusalem and Antioch (where Onias the high priest was killed), the people revolted, and Antiochus instituted religious persecutions against them. At first many suffered martyrdom. Then Judah Maccabee rose in revolt together with his men, defeating first the local governor, then the commanders Nicanor and Gorgias (8:8–29), and in the month of Xanthicus (Adar, March) 164 B.C.E. (11:1–15) triumphed over the commander in chief Lysias near Beth-Zur and purified the Temple (10:1–8). There follows a description of wars with various neighboring countries (8:30–33; 10:15–38; 12:2–9, 17–31), and an account of Antiochus IV's death (ch. 9: described here as a punishment from heaven) and his contrition (the author cites a letter from him to the Jews of Antioch (9:19) and interprets it as addressed to all the Jews). After this comes an account of the wars against Antiochus Eupator (13:1–27), the mission of the priest Alcimus, and Judah's victory over Nicanor (15:36).

In its literary form, as well as in its language, this book is entirely different from I Maccabees. Unlike the latter, which uses simple, matter-of-fact language, II Maccabees is written in the style of Greek historians: in ornate language, rich in idioms and poetic metaphors, and in expressions filled with pathos, drama, and rhetoric, stirring the reader. Also, as was usual with these historians, the book is full of various stories of miraculous events, of the intervention of heavenly creatures, directly (by angels) and indirectly (by signs in heaven and on earth presaging evil).

The purpose of the book is religious propaganda, the basic idea being that the sin of the nation is the cause of the divine punishment ("For it is not a light thing to do wickedly against the laws of God: but the time following shall declare these things"; 4:17). Yet the suffering that comes upon Israel is only to chasten the people (6:12–17), and is itself a sign of the divine providence – to warn them against sin. The aim of the introduction is to show that the sin of the priests lay in serving alien forces. In this book – for the first time – Judaism stands as an antipode to *Hellenism (2:21, 8:1, 14:38), and the Greeks are represented as barbarians, avid for plunder and pillage (4:8, 23, 32, 42; 5:16). In contrast, the strength of the Jews lies in the fulfillment of the practical mitzvot (the observance of the Sabbath – 6:11; 8:26; 12:38; the precaution against ritual uncleanness – 5:27), and outstanding examples of such acts of bravery are given. One is the story of the elderly Eleazar, who steadfastly refused to eat forbidden food despite all the torture inflicted on him; another is of the woman and her seven sons who suffered martyrdom for the sanctification of the Divine Name (6:18ff.; ch. 7 – see *Hannah and her Seven Sons). Much emphasis is also laid on the belief in the resurrection of the dead (7:14; 12:43). Although his views are very close to those of the Pharisees, it is impossible to tell whether the author, Jason, was one of them. He was apparently a contemporary of Judah Maccabee, as several incidents sound as if they emanate from an eyewitness.


Charles, Apocrypha, 1 (1913), 125–54; C.L.W. Grimm, Kurzgefasstes exegetisches Handbuch zu den Apocryphen des Alten Testaments, 3 (1853); R. Laqueur, Kritische Untersuchungen zum zweiten Makkabaeerbuch (1904); idem, in: Historische Zeitschrift, 136 (1927), 229–52; W. Kolbe, Beitraege zur syrischen und juedischen Geschichte (1946); E. Bickerman, in: Pauly-Wissowa, 14 pt. 1 (1928), 779–97; idem, in: ZNW, 32 (1933), 233ff.; H. Bévenot, Die beiden Makkabaeerbuecher (1931); M. Hak, in: Sinai, 12 (1943), 92–99.

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