Many scholars believe that 1 Maccabees is the most important historical writing in the Apocrypha. It details the Jewish revolt against the Seleucid Empire, which was established by one of the leading army officers who served under Alexander the Great (Seleucus I Nicator) during the 4th century BC. At its height, the Seleucid Empire included much of Mesopotamia, Persia, Central Asia, Asia Minor, and the Middle East. However, by the early to middle part of the 2nd century BC, the Seleucid “empire” had lost much of the eastern part of the empire to the Parthians. The Seleucids did continue to control parts of its western areas, including Syria and Judea, but the empire was unstable. That instability gave a small army of Jews the opportunity to take control of Judea.
According to 1 Maccabees, the revolt began with Mattathias and his sons. Mathathias was the son of John, the son of Simeon, a priest of the sons of Joarib. His sons’ names were Joannan (called Caddis), Simon (called Thassi), Judas (called Maccabeus), Eleazar (called Avaran), and Jonathan (whose surname was Apphus). They refused to obey the king’s decree and worship Greek gods — the first step in the rebellion.
“Then Mattathias answered and spake with a loud voice, Though all the nations that are under the king’s dominion obey him, and fall away every one from the religion of their fathers, and give consent to his commandments: Yet will I and my sons and my brethren walk in the covenant of our fathers. God forbid that we should forsake the law and the ordinances. We will not hearken to the king’s words, to go from our religion, either on the right hand, or the left. Now when he had left speaking these words, there came one of the Jews in the sight of all to sacrifice on the altar which was at Modin, according to the king’s commandment. Which thing when Mattathias saw, he was inflamed with zeal, and his reins trembled, neither could he forbear to shew his anger according to judgment: wherefore he ran, and slew him upon the altar. Also the king’s commissioner, who compelled men to sacrifice, he killed at that time, and the altar he pulled down. Thus dealt he zealously for the law of God like as Phinees did unto Zambri the son of Salom. And Mattathias cried throughout the city with a loud voice, saying, Whosoever is zealous of the law, and maintaineth the covenant, let him follow me. So he and his sons fled into the mountains, and left all that ever they had in the city. Then many that sought after justice and judgment went down into the wilderness, to dwell there: Both they, and their children, and their wives; and their cattle; because afflictions increased sore upon them.” 1 Maccabees 2:19-30
1 Maccabees contains the history of Mattathias and his sons’ many battles with Gentiles and Hellenist Jews. The Maccabees ruled for many years in what became known as the Hasmonean Dynasty. Judas captured Jerusalem in 164 BC and reconsecrated the Temple. Hanukkah, the Jewish Festival of Lights, commemorates that rededication of the Temple under Judas, the new high priest. Judas died during the Battle of Elasa in 160 BC against the Seleucid General Bacchides. Jonathan continued to fight against the Seleucids and eventually defeated them. His brother Simon became high priest and leader.
“Also that the Jews and priests were well pleased that Simon should be their governor and high priest for ever, until there should arise a faithful prophet; Moreover that he should be their captain, and should take charge of the sanctuary, to set them over their works, and over the country, and over the armour, and over the fortresses, that, I say, he should take charge of the sanctuary; Beside this, that he should be obeyed of every man, and that all the writings in the country should be made in his name, and that he should be clothed in purple, and wear gold: Also that it should be lawful for none of the people or priests to break any of these things, or to gainsay his words, or to gather an assembly in the country without him, or to be clothed in purple, or wear a buckle of gold; And whosoever should do otherwise, or break any of these things, he should be punished. Thus it liked all the people to deal with Simon, and to do as hath been said. Then Simon accepted hereof, and was well pleased to be high priest, and captain and governor of the Jews and priests, and to defend them all.” 1 Maccabees 14:41-47
Simon Thassi ruled for several years, but was killed by son-in-law Ptolemy in 135 BC. Simon’s son John became high priest the next year, but had to negotiate a truce with Antiochus VII after the Seleucidian leader laid seige to Jerusalem.
Three religious groups formed during this time in Israel’s history: Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes. The Sadducees came from the wealthy and priestly families and supported the Hasmoneans. The Hasidim were opposed to the Sadducees. The Pharisees and Essenes came from the Hasidim. The Pharisees believed in strict adherence to the Mosaic Law, but continued to live within Jewish society. The Essenes were so opposed to the Hasmoneans that they lived apart from society in desert communities. The Sadducees and Pharisees were the primary religious groups that Jesus Christ dealt with during the early part of the 1st century AD.
1 Maccabees has been part of many Bibles through the centuries, including the original version of the King James Version (1611 AD). It is part of the canon of Scripture in the Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Coptic, and Russian Orthodox churches.
We do not know the name of the author of the book, but it was probably written toward the end of the 2nd century BC. Even though Hebrew texts for 1 Maccabees have not been found, scholars believe it was originally written in Hebrew based on the pro-Jewish and strong nationalistic approach to the historical information.
It is interesting in light of the nature of the history of Israel that 1 Maccabees was not included in the Hebrew Canon of the Bible. It was the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible that included 1 Maccabees and other apocryphal books. The historical events of 1 Maccabees are also not referred to by Jesus or His Apostles in the New Testament. Though that is not the final answer as to whether a writing is Scripture or not, it is an observation worth noting. It is clear that the religious/political groups born out of the time of the Maccabees were in opposition to the Message of Israel’s Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth.
I find 1 Maccabees a fascinating historical document and believe every Christian should read it to understand the historical and political structure of Israel in the years leading up to our Lord’s Ministry on earth. It is helpful to understand the climate of faith and fear that Jesus addressed with His preaching and teaching.
As far as 1 Maccabees being part of the canon of Scripture, I’m not convinced. Where is the prophet of God? Several times in the book we read that the people were going about their lives waiting for a prophet of God to come along and show them what to do. The prophet never came. These are the only verses in 1 Maccabees that mention a prophet.
“They thought it best to pull it down, lest it should be a reproach to them, because the heathen had defiled it: wherefore they pulled it down, And laid up the stones in the mountain of the temple in a convenient place, until there should come a prophet to shew what should be done with them.” 1 Maccabees 4:45-46
“So was there a great affliction in Israel, the like whereof was not since the time that a prophet was not seen among them. ” 1 Maccabees 9:27
“Also that the Jews and priests were well pleased that Simon should be their governor and high priest for ever, until there should arise a faithful prophet.” 1 Maccabees 14:41
Also, the name of God is used only a few times in 1 Maccabees and never in relation to His speaking to anyone. This is important. God spoke hundreds of times in the Old Testament and usually through prophets. Where are the prophets in 1 Maccabees? Where is God guiding His people by Voice? While an interesting historical read, I can’t find the kind of proof necessary to add a book to the Canon of Scripture.
Before we look at the next apocryphal book, let’s answer an important question. Some scholars believe that the Old Testament Jesus read, memorized and quoted from was the Greek version, the Septuagint, and that gives credibility to the apocryphal books. True or false? We’ll look at that in the next part of our study.
In Christ’s Love and Grace,
Building Confidence Through Evidence
“Scripture taken from the New King James Version. Copyright © 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.”