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The Books of 1 and 2 Maccabees

In yesterday’s post I discussed the Maccabean revolt, and in today’s I need to summarize our principal sources of information about the revolt, the books of 1 and 2 Maccabees.  My reason for doing so has to do with my topic of the afterlife.  It is in 2 Maccabees that we find a very different view from what can be seen in the Hebrew Bible itself, as I will show in a subsequent post, a view that became popular later among the early Christians.

These two books are not in the Hebrew Bible, and as a result are not accepted as canonical by Jews or Protestants.  They are, however, found in the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible called the Septuagint, and are accepted as “Deutero-canonical” by both the Roman Orthodox and the Eastern Orthodox traditions.  Protestants consider them to be among the “Apocrypha.”

Like the other Deutero-canonical books, they are Jewish writings that date from the period after the Hebrew Bible.  Here is the brief introduction I give to them in my textbook, The Bible: A Historical and Literary Introduction.




1 Maccabees

With the book of 1 Maccabees we move from the genres of fiction and wisdom to the genre of history.   This is a historical narrative that details the events that led up to the Maccabean Revolt (chs. 1-2) and that transpired during the years of rebellion, for three generations of the family that led the uprising.   It is our principal source of knowledge about the period, and so is of particular interest to historians of this crucial time in ancient Israel.  It was originally written in Hebrew.

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A New Genre in Jewish Antiquity: The Apocalypse
Background to The Christian Afterlife: The Maccabean Revolt: A Blast from the (Recent) Past!



  1. Avatar
    jhague  July 28, 2017

    Are both of these books considered to be mostly historical?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 30, 2017

      Yes, lots of solid historical information, though obviously told from a particular perspective / slant / bias that affected the narrative.

  2. Avatar
    hasankhan  July 28, 2017

    So there is no mention of hell or heaven i.e. afterlife in Hebrew Bible that dates before 200 BC? Nothing from sayings of Moses or earlier prophets? Why would a believer in God then take prosecution or even obey God if there are no consequences? If there was no reward or punishment, what motivation does a believer have to follow the prophet?

    From Qur’an we know there have been disputes among the people of book about afterlife that’s why the incident of seven sleepers of cave took place so that God proves to people that He can resurrect from the dead and interestingly in Qur’an right after mentioning that story, God speaks about heaven and hell.

    So what are earlier prophets reported to say worship One God and if you don’t then what will happen? You go to Sheol and if you don’t you still go to Sheol?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 30, 2017

      Before 200 BCE the dominant view was of a Sheol, where everyone goes to lead a shadowy existence for here on out.

  3. Avatar
    TheologyMaven  July 28, 2017

    Bart- are you using the term “resurrection” broadly in this post, not just bodily resurrection? Hope you trace where the idea of bodily resurrection came from, versus a spiritual afterlife. Because you could be judged (and sentenced) either way, but “resurrection of the body” seems relatively unique among traditions.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 30, 2017

      Yes, by “resurrection” I mean resurrection of the body — and the thread is now heading to an explanation of where that idea came from.

  4. Robert
    Robert  July 28, 2017

    Aside from a belief in an afterlife with vindication for the just and faithful, there don’t seem to any other elements of the apocalyptic genre or perspective in the Maccabean corpus. Contrast this with the roughly contemporaneous book of Daniel. Thus, I am still reluctant to consider Phariseeic belief in the resurrection as necessarily betraying an apocalyptic character for them. I imagine some certainly were apocalyptic but doubt that all were necessarily so.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 30, 2017

      Yes, 1 Maccabees is fairly rigorously historical; but there begin to emerge aspects of apocalpytic thought in 2 Macc 6-7, as I’ll try to show.

      • Robert
        Robert  August 11, 2017

        Not really. There’s nothing in 2 Macc 6-7 like Daniel’s scheme of world empires, wild visions in need of interpretation, Satan or demonic powers, or any belief in or prediction of an imminent end of the world. There is merely, as I noted above, belief in resurrection with vindication for the just and faithful as well as eventual punishment by God of the oporessive rulers and their descendents. Even the eventual punishment of those oppressing the Jews does not seem to be characterized as some type of eternal punishment in hell. The Maccabean corpus seems rather to largely reflect a literature written by those who now enjoy some measure of temporal power and autonomy in league with the Romans and other nations.

        • Bart
          Bart  August 13, 2017

          Nope, nothing like that. It’s not an apocalypse! But it begins to reflect an apocalyptic view, in a way I’ll try to show.

  5. Avatar
    godspell  July 28, 2017

    Much like the Irish Catholics who refused to ‘drink the soup’–ie, accept food when they were starving, that was offered on the condition they become Protestants.

    It’s important to recognize that not all of this resistance comes from specific religious beliefs themselves, but from people with a strong collective identity feeling a natural resistance to being told what to do, and how to believe. Behold what’s happening now, in parts of the middle east, with various religious groups, including sects of Islam, refusing to give up their ways, even under the threat of death and torture.

    And atheists did their share of this kind of thing, in the communist nations. Let’s not be forgetting that. And that they lost in the end. (And that people who have resisted this type of oppression can also end up perpetrating it, as some of the Orthodox are doing under Putin, who is about as religious as Trump, but hum a few bars….).

    There is no greater evil in this world than telling other people how to believe. There is no more unforgivable sin. It doesn’t matter what system you’re pushing. When you use compulsion, you are admitting you yourself do not believe.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 30, 2017

      I think there are many evils worse than trying to change someone’s beliefs. Horrible birth defects, despair that leads to suicide, starvation — it’s a long list (for me).

      • Avatar
        godspell  July 31, 2017

        How about using starvation to try and make somebody say “Your religion is better, I give up”?

        Leaving aside the fact that it tends to harden people’s beliefs, not change them.

        Birth defects are down to Mother Nature, take it up with Her. We wouldn’t even exist if genes weren’t malleable. For every useful mutation, there are endless bad ones. And yet look at how diverse and beautiful Life on this planet is–and sometimes it seems all you want to see is what doesn’t work.

        No greater evil than perfectionism. The desire to make everything agree with everything else, which ties in to trying to make other people believe as you do.

        Suicide is a choice–like despair. Oh, here’s a quote for you–one of my favorite writers–

        “Once you’ve handed the reins over to despair, to mix a metaphor just a teeny bit, your job is done. You don’t have to sweat it any more, you’ve taken yourself out of the game. Despair is the bench, and you are warming it.”

        Time we all got off the bench.

    • Avatar
      Wilusa  July 30, 2017

      Oh, that bit about the “soup” brings back memories! Of having heard, as a child, someone (probably Dad’s mother) snottily saying someone else (meaning, really, their ancestors) “took the soup” – just because they were Protestants who had a seemingly Irish name. I did understand what the “soup” reference meant, though I don’t remember who explained it to me.

      • Avatar
        godspell  July 31, 2017

        It isn’t necessarily true–some converted willingly, and of course many Protestants came to Ireland, for many reasons, and are as Irish as anyone else now. So are the Jews and Buddhists and Hindus living there. Many of the most loyal Irish patriots were Protestants. National and religious loyalty are two different things, and ought to be.

  6. Avatar
    Wilusa  July 28, 2017

    Really related to the previous post, where it seemed I couldn’t have controlled the “Reply” feature: Did all this talk ablut “Judea” – over centuries – include Galilee and Samaria?

  7. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  July 28, 2017

    Awhile back, I was surprised to learn from you how the concept of heaven, as most of us imagine it and have hoped for it, was pretty much absent from the Old Testament and seemed to be not that prominent in the ancient Jewish faith. So, when and how our current concept of heaven arose and what evidence was used to support this concept really does seem crucial and highly important. So, please keep going with this thread.

  8. Avatar
    Wilusa  July 28, 2017

    Can you tell us the first actual reference to the belief in a bodily resurrection?

  9. Avatar
    paul373  July 28, 2017

    I think you meant “principal” rather than “principle” a couple of times in your blog.

  10. Avatar
    Stylites  July 28, 2017

    There are many things I like about your textbook The Bible. One of them is the coverage you give to the Apocrypha (Deutero-Canonical books). Far too often these writings are not included in Old Testament courses or texts, and this is unfortunate, since they can be a useful source. Thanks for including them.

  11. Avatar
    Prizm  July 28, 2017

    Hi Bart, just wondering if you could provide your thoughts on this (a bit off topic):
    – Matthew used the Septuagint as a source, and used large portions of Mark.
    – Mark has Jesus riding on one donkey, Matthew has Jesus riding on two donkeys.

    I’m wondering why Matthew seemed to ignore Mark on the number of donkeys, but copied Mark in many other locations.

    I had a look at Brenton’s 1879 English version of the Septuagint, and it does indeed indicate two donkeys in the original ‘prophecy’: “he is meek and riding on an ass, and a young foal.” (Zech 9:9). So it appears the Septuagint mistranslated the original Hebrew of only one donkey.

    I used to think it was Matthew that misinterpreted the Hebrew bible, but now I’m thinking he just copied what he saw in the Septuagint, intentionally ignoring what Mark wrote (perhaps he thought Mark got it wrong?). Am I on the right track? Any thoughts on this one?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 30, 2017

      Matthew frequently changes the accounts he received from Mark — whenever he thinks he has a better story/idea. This just happens to be one of those many places. He saw Jesus as *literally* fulfilling what he thought of as a precise prophecy. His mistake….

  12. Avatar
    John Uzoigwe  July 28, 2017

    Wow! This is an interesting story. So much for the love of God. Anyway Dr Bart I would like to know if the name “Jesus” was a common name before the birth of the historical Jesus. Thank you

    • Bart
      Bart  July 30, 2017

      Yes, it was a very common name (in Aramaic it would have been Yeshua; the Hebrew equivalent is Joshua)

  13. Avatar
    anthonygale  July 28, 2017

    Is there corroborating evidence to suggested that these accounts are historically accurate, and if so, about how accurate are they thought to be?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 30, 2017

      When it comes to the historical events narrated, they appear fairly accurate; they are told, of course, from a particular slant/bias/perspective.

  14. Avatar
    Seeker1952  July 28, 2017

    Off topic but want to say a good word for Deism. Reconciled God and science, aspired to a universal religion, focused on ethics as the heart of religion, explained why prayers aren’t answered, eliminated “magical” practices, and, perhaps without good reasons, held on to a belief in an afterlife. Unfortunately, a non-starter due to the problem of terrible suffering. Only remedy might be a God who, with human help, makes all things right in the end. Basic problem is God as all-powerful creator. Need a God who is a very but not all powerful force for good, with human help, in a reality that just “is the way it is” that s/he exists in but did not create. Sort of how we might see ourselves as human beings but on a much grander scale. (How did I start with Deism and wind up with process theology?)

  15. Avatar
    RonaldTaska  July 29, 2017

    Readers of this blog may find an online article about the Canaanites of interest. It is the first article in the most recent issue of “The American Journal of Human Genetics.” The title of the article is too long for me to type, but it contains the word Canaanites. The authors report taking DNA from five Canaanite fossils and conclude that the Canaanites were not completely wiped out by the Israelites as the Bible contends, but left a long line of descendants.

    • Bart
      Bart  July 30, 2017

      Yes, terrifically interesting. Modern day Lebanese are direct descendants of Canaanites.

  16. Avatar
    Stephen  July 29, 2017

    How contingent history is! What if Alexander had lived, say twenty more years and had a chance to consolidate his empire? Would it have fragmented so at his death? Would a consolidated, Hellenized world empire have prevented Roman domination? On and on…

    An unrelated question. In your opinion what is the most likely dating for the Epistle to the Hebrews?


    • Bart
      Bart  July 30, 2017

      I usually date it post-70, sometime near the end of the 1st century.

  17. Avatar
    falter  July 30, 2017

    Hello Bart:

    You wrote:
    These two books are not in the Hebrew Bible, and as a result are not accepted as canonical by Jews or Protestants. They are, however, found in the ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible called the Septuagint, and are accepted as “Deutero-canonical” by both the Roman Orthodox and the Eastern Orthodox traditions. Protestants consider them to be among the “Apocrypha.”

    Perhaps in a future thread you might explain why these books were NOT incorporated into the Hebrew Bible. Several verses that supposedly support that position include:1 Maccabees 4:45b-46;1 Maccabees 9:27, and 1 Maccabees 14:41. Of course, there maybe additional factors. Do you have an opinion?

    As always, thank you.

    Mike Alter

    • Bart
      Bart  July 31, 2017

      Like lots of other books, they simply were not regarded as scriptural authorities by Jews living in Palestine; they were important and interesting historical books. I’m not sure what you mean by “that position”. Sorry!

  18. Avatar
    Eskil  July 30, 2017

    Do 1 and 2 Maccabees talk about heaven and hell or just about the judgement day i.e. the last judgment? Is there any indication what happens to the believers and non-beliers before that day?

    • Bart
      Bart  July 31, 2017

      1 Maccabees doesn’t deal with the issue; I’ll be addressing 2 Maccabees in a future post.

  19. Avatar
    Jana  August 11, 2017

    Reading your blog makes me wonder about the concept evolution of Resurrection and whether according to Jung, the concept spawned universally and collectively in consciousness? (The concept of Resurrection evolved among Maya according to the “Maya Bible” the Popul Vuh a much later document with more ancient roots and embedded in the famous Pakal tomb at Palenque.) I eagerly await its publication!

    • Bart
      Bart  August 13, 2017

      I”m not sure how Jung accounted for it — maybe someone else can enlighten us!

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