The title of 1 and 2 Maccabees is taken from the surname of Judas (1 Mace. 2:4), the third son of Mattathias, the hero of the war of Jewish independence against Syria. The origin of the word “maccabee” is unclear; it may derive from the Hebrew word maqqabi (= hammer)—a reference to Judas’ physical strength and exploits. As a surname it was also applied to his brothers and, by extension, to the seven martyred brothers (2 Macc.7).
The books had separate authors. Given its exactness of dates, places and documents and its enthusiasm for the Jewish cause, 1 Maccabees must have been written by a Palestinian Jew who witnessed the events he describes; the author of 2 Maccabees was more likely an Alexandrian Jew and a Pharisee, given what he has to say about resurrection. The first book was written in Hebrew, although what we have is only a Greek translation; the second, written in Greek, shows that the author had a good grasp of Greek rhetoric and the Greek language, which suggests he may have been from Alexandria.
As far as the dates of composition are concerned, these can be taken as approximately 100 B.C. for the first and 124 B.C. for the second, on the basis of the information given in the first letter they refer to (2 Mace. 1:9).
Both books, which Protestants regard as apocryphal, were recognized by the Fathers as inspired [and canonical at the Councils of Hippo (393) and Carthage (397, 419)] and were later [again] defined as canonical by the Council of Trent (1546).
After the death of Alexander the Great (323 B.C.) two main dynasties established themselves in the territories of his huge empire—the Ptolemies, who controlled Egypt and also Palestine up to 200 B.C.; and the Seleucids, who took over large parts of the Middle East and moved into Palestine in 200 B.C.
The Ptolemy kingdom was founded by Ptolemy I, the son of a Macedonian nobleman. Ptolemy, a loyal general of Alexander’s, was made satrap of Egypt in 323 when Alexander died, and in 304 he assumed the title of king, annexing Cyprus, Palestine, and the Lebanon. In 285 he abdicated in favor of his son Ptolemy II, who became involved in a struggle with the Seleucid kings. Ptolemy II’s court at Alexandria was famed for its learning. His son, Ptolemy III Euergetes, extended his empire into Persia.
The kingdom began to decline under Ptolemy IV Philopator, who was a bad administrator and led a dissolute life. From the time of Alexander onward Greek culture spread throughout the Middle East. The early Seleucid rulers were tolerant of the political and religious cultures of the territories they controlled, but things changed when Antiochus IV Epiphanes came to power, and the scene in Palestine became one of persecution and war. Antiochus was determined to impose hellenic religion and civilization in Palestine as elsewhere, and naturally this was anathema to the Jews, who at this time were quite faithful to the Covenant with Yahweh.
First Maccabees gives a detailed account of the struggle in Palestine over a period of fifty years, from the time Antiochus IV Epiphanes came to the throne up to the death of Simon, the last of the Maccabee brothers (134 B.C.).
After a short introduction the book describes the Jewish uprising against Antiochus, whose persecution led to the desecration of the Temple. Mattathias proclaimed a holy war; Jewish armed resistance operated from the wilderness with great success under the successive leadership of three of Mattathias’ sons—Judas Maccabeus, the undisputed leader of the Jews (3:1-9); Jonathan (9:28-12:53), and Simon (chap. 13-16). When Simon died he was succeeded by his son John Hyrcanus, who became the founder of the Hasmonean dynasty. At this point the book ends.
The second book overlaps with the first, starting earlier. It runs from the end of the reign of Seleucus IV, the predecessor of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, up to the defeat of Nicanor, shortly before the death of Judas Maccabeus—that is, a period of fifteen years (176-161), which are covered in chapters 1-7 of the first book.
The sacred writer’s purpose is to build up the morale of the Jews. Naturally, any account of the war of liberation led by Judas Maccabeus would have this effect and would show that victory was due to God’s powerful aid (2:19-22). But he also wants to show that God’s purpose in permitting persecution is to discipline the Jews “in order that he may not take vengeance on us afterwards when our sins have reached their height” (6:12-17). After the episode of Heliodorus (3:1-40), the writer lays great emphasis on the inviolate sanctity of the Temple and implies that Antiochus suffers the terrible death he does suffer because of his profanation of it. The same fate overtakes another persecutor, Nicanor, who dies because he threatened to destroy the Temple. Judas’ victory over Nicanor ensures the liberation of the Jewish people and guarantees the proper worship of the true God.
Although the author of the first book devotes a lot of space to wars and political intrigues extending over a period of forty years, his primary purpose is a religious one. He reports the calamities the Jewish people experience on account of their sins, while also stressing the role played by God in his providence, who watches over them as he promised he would (cf. Ps 119:89-90). The success of the Jewish campaigns he attributes to God’s protection, but he makes it clear that faithfulness to the Covenant is, as was the case with their forebears, the ground on which Israel must totally rely. From this it follows that, for the just man, supreme glory consists in being ready to give one’s life, if necessary, to defend God’s interests—the Law, which every Jew must strictly obey.
The second book is even more important from the doctrinal point of view. It aims at bringing out even more strongly the religious lessons of the time, and the story is written more like a sermon than a history. It includes such fundamental texts as that which states that God created all things ex nihilo, out of nothing, not out of things which existed (7:28), and those which make it clear that the sacrifice of martyrs is a voluntary form of atonement which placates God’s anger (7:36, 8:5).
In this connection it gives a very moving account of the martyrdom of seven brothers, whose names are unknown but who are popularly called “the Maccabees” (2 Mac 7:1 ff). Their faith in the resurrection, which they explicitly assert (v. 11), gives them the courage to undergo terrible sufferings to keep the holy Law of God, sufferings in which they are also supported by their mother’s faith. She, having offered God the lives of her sons, then offers herself in sacrifice, giving an example of fortitude and also of that faith in which she had reared her children. Christian tradition venerates these seven brothers as martyrs, and churches were dedicated to them in Antioch, Rome, Lyons, and Vienne.
Other texts lay stress on the intercession of the saints and the value of prayers for the dead (12:43-46), which are the basis of the dogma of the communion of saints. As we know, those who have left this world and enjoy the beatific vision, in the same act of charity in which they love God, are also praying for their brothers, who are members of the Church like themselves. After Jesus redeemed mankind by dying on the cross, the just of the Old Testament were enabled to enter heaven, and thus the ancient people of God became the new Israel, which is the Church.
This book also tells us more about atonement beyond the grave by asserting the existence of purgatory (12:38ff). It also asserts the resurrection of the just and tells us what we need to know about the fate of the unjust (7:9, 14,23,29; 14:46). Thus, for example, in 2 Maccabees 12:43 there is Judas’ act of faith in the resurrection and salvation of his fallen soldiers, but he realizes that they must atone for their sins in the next life, and he wishes to help them in this and asks for prayers from the living. This text explicitly states that there is an interim stage where souls are purified and that they can be helped by suffrages offered by the living.
All this shows that these inspired books are well worth prayerful reading, particularly the second, which provides us with many edifying examples – especially the humility which leads its protagonists to trust in God, their fortitude in defending their faith, their patience in dealing with obstacles to observance of the Law, and their deep piety, as shown in their prayer for their dead comrades.
First and Second Maccabees help us to realize that God watches over his own, and they show that Israel always wins victory over its enemies when it stays true to the Covenant.
The history of the Maccabee family given in these books ends with the death of Simon and the succession of his son, John Hyrcanus. Flavius Josephus, the first century Jewish historian, carries the story forward; only he gives the surname Hasmoneus, which applies to the successors of the early Maccabees up to Aristobulus II.
Aristobulus I, the son of John Hyrcanus, was the first to add the title of king to that of chief priest. When he died his widow, Alexandra, married his elder brother, Alexander Janneus, and she remained on the throne while her son Hyrcanus II was high priest.
Alexandra was succeeded by another son, Aristobulus II. When war broke out between these two brothers the Romans intervened, took Jerusalem and brought the monarchy to an end.