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Lindsey Taylor-Guthartz





2 and 4 Maccabees: Evolving Responses to Hellenism





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Lindsey Taylor-Guthartz





2 and 4 Maccabees: Evolving Responses to Hellenism








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2 and 4 Maccabees: Evolving Responses to Hellenism

2 Maccabees (ca. 1st cent. B.C.E) presents Judaism as the antithesis to Hellenism. A century or so later, however, 4 Maccabees uses Hellenistic ideas to encourage Jews to hold fast to their ancestral faith.


2 and 4 Maccabees: Evolving Responses to Hellenism

Maccabees, Wojciech Stattler, 1842. National Museum Kraków. Wikimedia

Four books of Maccabees, written at different times, have survived from antiquity. In this piece, we will take a closer look at books 2 and 4, which throw light on the different responses of Hellenistic Jews to the challenge of contemporaneous ideas and influences.[1]

2 Maccabees

The second book of Maccabees looks more like religious propaganda than history, though it probably contains historical information. Originally written in Greek, it is 15 chapters long, and claims to be an abridgement of a longer work in five volumes, written by a certain Jason of Cyrene (North Africa), of whom we know nothing else.

The date of 2 Maccabees is not clear: Jason might have been a contemporary of Judah, as there are some eyewitness touches, and scholars date it to somewhere between 143 and 63 B.C.E. It only covers 15 years, focusing on the events in the time of Judah Maccabee, through his victory over the Seleucid general Nicanor on 13 Adar II 161 B.C.E. It’s quite similar in its account of Judah’s rebellion to 1 Maccabees, our main source for the Chanukah story and the history of the Hasmonaean-led revolt of the Jews against the oppressive Seleucid empire, though sometimes the order of events is different.

The book starts off with two letters, the first of which is dated 124 B.C.E. (in most manuscripts), which asks the Jews of Alexandria in Egypt to observe Chanukah. Unlike the rather plain style of 1 Maccabees, it’s in very ornate Greek, and is chock-full of miracle stories, angels, and omens. A clear message runs through the book: the nation’s sin brings punishment, but the strength of the Jews lies in their observance of the commandments.

Judaism vs. Hellenism

2 Maccabees is the first text to present Judaism (ioudaismos) as the antithesis of Hellenism (allophylismos, “an alien way of life” or hellenismos, “the Greek way of life”), a theme that became very popular later in Jewish thought. The main points of ioudaismos that the author stresses are circumcision, sabbath, and kashrut – all practices that distinguish Jews from non-Jews; another praiseworthy act that is emphasized is the giving of tzedakah (charity).

The book asserts that remaining loyal to God’s covenant leads to honor, while abandoning Jewish ways leads to shame. “Bad” characters who are not loyal to Judaism come to sticky ends, and the author is quite open about his joy at this; for example, documenting the downfall of the wicked high priest, Jason, he writes (2 Macc. 5: 9-10):

There he who had driven many from their own country into exile died in exile, having embarked to go to the Lacedaemonians in hope of finding protection because of their kinship. He who had cast out many to lie unburied had no one to mourn for him; he had no funeral of any sort and no place in the tomb of his ancestors.

Martyrdom Stories

2 Maccabees is one of the earliest texts to glorify martyrdom, linking the spiritual heroism of martyrs to the hope of reward in the afterlife and resurrection; this was a new idea.[2]

The martyrdom stories in 2 Maccabees form quite a contrast to the physical heroism attributed to the warriors who die as martyrs in 1 Maccabees. 2 Maccabee’s martyrdom stories probably provided the source for the versions that appear in 4 Maccabees, as we’ll see later.

The Martyrdom of Eleazar

The first martyr in the book is the aged Eleazar (2 Macc. 6:18-23, NRSV):

Eleazar, one of the scribes in high position, a man now advanced in age and of noble presence, was being forced to open his mouth to eat swine’s flesh. But he, welcoming death with honor rather than life with pollution, went up to the rack of his own accord, spitting out the flesh, as all ought to go who have the courage to refuse things that it is not right to taste, even for the natural love of life.
Those who were in charge of that unlawful sacrifice took the man aside because of their long acquaintance with him, and privately urged him to bring meat of his own providing, proper for him to use, and to pretend that he was eating the flesh of the sacrificial meal that had been commanded by the king, so that by doing this he might be saved from death, and be treated kindly on account of his old friendship with them.
But making a high resolve, worthy of his years and the dignity of his old age and the gray hairs that he had reached with distinction and his excellent life even from childhood, and moreover according to the holy God-given law, he declared himself quickly, telling them to send him to Hades.

The Mother and Her Seven Sons

Eleazar’s story is followed by the famous tale of the mother and her seven sons, all of whom choose martyrdom rather than forsaking their faith (chapter 7).[3] Long and elaborate speeches are put in the mouths of the martyrs, in a very Greek style, as we can see from the speech of the youngest of the seven sons as he faces the king’s executioners (2 Macc. 7:30-38, NRSV):

The young man said, “What are you waiting for? I will not obey the king’s command, but I obey the command of the law that was given to our fathers through Moses. But you, who have contrived all sorts of evil against the Hebrews, will certainly not escape the hands of God. For we are suffering because of our own sins. And if our living Lord is angry for a little while, to rebuke and discipline us, He will again be reconciled with His own servants.
But you, unholy wretch, you most defiled of all men, do not be elated in vain and puffed up by uncertain hopes, when you raise your hand against the children of heaven. You have not yet escaped the judgment of the almighty, all-seeing God.
For our brothers after enduring a brief suffering have drunk of everflowing life under God’s covenant; but you, by the judgment of God, will receive just punishment for your arrogance.
I, like my brothers, give up body and life for the laws of our fathers, appealing to God to show mercy soon to our nation and by afflictions and plagues to make you confess that He alone is God, and through me and my brothers to bring to an end the wrath of the Almighty which has justly fallen on our whole nation.”

The lasting nature of God’s covenant is emphasized here: even if God justly chastises His sinful people, He will restore them and give their martyrs eternal life, while He will punish their enemies.

4 Maccabees and the Importance of Reason

The fourth book of Maccabees offers a very different take on how to be Jewish in late antiquity, with all its challenges and seductions. The book probably dates from the middle of the first century C.E.; it may come from somewhere in the eastern Diaspora – Egypt or Syria, or Cilicia (modern Turkey). We don’t know who the author was, but it was originally written in a very elaborate Greek.

The book seeks to prove that reason can rule people’s emotions, inspiring them even to die rather than give up their faith, and that this is the true path that gives individuals honor and everlasting reward. It’s not interested in the historical or military side of things, and reuses the martyr stories from 2 Maccabees to serve as examples that prove the philosophy being promoted. The book starts with a declaration of purpose (4 Macc. 1:1-4, NRSV):

The subject that I am about to discuss is most philosophical, that is, whether devout reason is sovereign over the emotions. So it is right for me to advise you to pay earnest attention to philosophy. For the subject is essential to everyone who is seeking knowledge, and in addition it includes the praise of the highest virtue—I mean, of course, rational judgment. If, then, it is evident that reason rules over those emotions that hinder self-control, namely, gluttony and lust, it is also clear that it masters the emotions that hinder one from justice, such as malice, and those that stand in the way of courage, namely anger, fear, and pain.

Torah Teaches Reason

The author claims that reason is what enables us to choose wisdom, as a direct result of education in Torah (4 Macc 1:15-17):

Now reason is the mind that with sound logic prefers the life of wisdom. Wisdom, next, is the knowledge of divine and human matters and the causes of these. This, in turn, is education in the law (ἡ τοῦ νόμου, i.e., Torah), by which we learn divine matters reverently and human affairs to our advantage.

In turn, this education allows us to act according to what Greek moralists regarded as the four cardinal virtues: prudence, justice, courage, and temperance (flagged up all through the book).

Once the mind is equipped in this way, it can master the pathē – a complex term meaning all the emotions, passions, and senses that the Greeks regarded as innate in human beings, and which they thought had to be controlled in order to live a virtuous life.

So we have a very Greek idea at the center here, but ironically, at the same time the author is stating that only the Torah and the Jewish way of life can give us the training in “devout reason” that will enable us to control all these wild and unreliable emotions.

Biblical Stories Where Reason Dominates Emotions

After this introduction, the author goes on to cite stories from the Bible, such as that of Moses, who overcame his anger towards the rebels Dathan and Aviram and dealt with them according to reason – this is contrasted with Jacob’s words “Cursed be their anger!” (Gen 49:7) about his sons Simeon and Levi after they slaughter the inhabitants of Shechem after the abduction of their sister Dinah – clearly they did NOT use their reason to overcome their emotions (4 Macc 2:17-20):

When Moses was angry with Dathan and Abiram, he did nothing against them in anger, but controlled his anger by reason. For, as I have said, the temperate mind is able to get the better of the emotions, to correct some, and to render others powerless. Why else did Jacob, our most wise father, censure the households of Simeon and Levi for their irrational slaughter of the entire tribe of the Shechemites, saying, ‘Cursed be their anger’? For if reason could not control anger, he would not have spoken thus.

The author continues by generalizing the point (4 Macc 2:21-23):

Now when God fashioned human beings, he planted in them emotions and inclinations, but at the same time he enthroned the mind among the senses as a sacred governor over them all. To the mind he gave the law; and one who lives subject to this will rule a kingdom that is temperate, just, good, and courageous.

Here we see a fascinating use of biblical texts to support a very Greek philosophy about virtuous behavior! Another example is the author’s treatment of the story of King David and the water from Bethlehem, which appears in 2 Samuel 23:14-17, according to which David, in the midst of a battle, complains that he is thirsty and some of his young soldiers bring him water at great personal risk. David considers the water “blood water” and instead of drinking it, pours it out as a libation to God. 4 Maccabees describes David’s reaction thus (3:15-18):

But David, though he was burning with thirst, considered it an altogether fearful danger to his soul to drink what was regarded as equivalent to blood. Therefore, opposing reason to desire, he poured out the drink as an offering to God. For the temperate mind can conquer the drives of the emotions and quench the flames of frenzied desires; it can overthrow bodily agonies even when they are extreme, and by nobility of reason spurn all domination by the emotions.

The Persecutions of Antiochus IV

Having warmed his readers up with biblical examples, the author then moves on to recent history, namely persecutions of the Jews by Antiochus IV. This sets the stage for his main examples in support of his argument: the stories of the aged priest Eleazar, and of the mother and her seven sons, all of whom prefer martyrdom to abandoning the one true God and His law. The material comes from 2 Maccabees, but has been vastly expanded – for instance the mother only speaks for a few verses in 2 Maccabees, but here her speech and the author’s praise of her lasts for four chapters.

The author intends to show that their behavior, far from being extreme or strange, is the only possible course dictated by reason in the face of the unreasonable nature of the king’s persecution. Each character makes philosophical speeches. For example, the mother of the seven sons declaims (4 Macc 16:16-23):

“My sons, noble is the contest to which you are called to bear witness for the nation. Fight zealously for our ancestral law. For it would be shameful if, while an aged man endures such agonies for the sake of religion, you young men were to be terrified by tortures.
Remember that it is through God that you have had a share in the world and have enjoyed life, and therefore you ought to endure any suffering for the sake of God. For his sake also our father Abraham was zealous to sacrifice his son Isaac, the ancestor of our nation; and when Isaac saw his father’s hand wielding a knife and descending upon him, he did not cower.
Daniel the righteous was thrown to the lions, and Hananiah, Azariah, and Mishael were hurled into the fiery furnace and endured it for the sake of God. You too must have the same faith in God and not be grieved. It is unreasonable for people who have religious knowledge not to withstand pain.”

The author even offers hypothetical speeches that might have been presented by the martyrs had they had decided to accept the king’s demands and abandon their faith (8:16-23, 16:6-10); these allow the author to point out the faults of these possible (but rejected) lines of reasoning.

The book ends with the author’s praise for the martyrs, noting that they defeated the wicked tyrant by their endurance and steadfastness, and encouraging the audience of the book to imitate their courage and determination to follow God and His Torah. It’s clearly aimed at encouraging Jews to cling to their faith in a world where the majority culture regards them as odd, foolish, and out of touch with the central values of Greek culture.

Preserving Judaism with Greek Philosophical Arguments

Ironically, even though the preservation and justification of Judaism is the central theme of the book, the entire argument and the rhetorical methods used are purely Greek. The book was heavily influenced by Stoic and Platonic philosophy, both of which were widely known in the Hellenistic world.

The Stoics, for instance, had the goal of living “in accordance with nature’s law.” – Our author takes this idea and shows that since God created nature and gave it its laws, obviously those laws he gave to the Jews are a better guide to virtue, since they come from the universal Lawgiver.

God is also understood in 4 Maccabees as the ultimate patron. The patron-client relationship was central to Hellenistic society, with patrons giving favors and support to their clients, who in turn supported their patrons, expressed their gratitude, served them, and never brought them into dishonor. This is why, for the author, Jews are obliged to demonstrate their loyalty to God by never abandoning his Torah, in gratitude for all the wonderful things He has done for them. This is the basis for preferring martyrdom to betraying the divine patron.

Substitutionary Atonement

4 Maccabees also develops the notion of substitutionary atonement: The martyrs suffer in order to arouse God to forgive the sins of the rest of the people and to pardon them.

Eleazar expresses it in this way (4 Macc. 6:26-29):

When he was now burned to his very bones and about to expire, he lifted up his eyes to God and said, “You know, O God, that though I might have saved myself, I am dying in burning torments for the sake of the law. Be merciful to your people, and let our punishment suffice for them. Make my blood their purification, and take my life in exchange for theirs.”

Later, Christians transferred this idea to the figure of Jesus; they also derived much of their understanding of martyrdom from 4 Maccabees, and early Christian works, such as the Martyrdom of Polycarp, often use its ideas. They also reused much of its imagery, such as the idea of the martyrs as soldiers, or as athletes competing in and winning contests of virtue:

  • 4 Maccabees 16: 16 and 17: 15-16
‘My sons, noble is the contest to which you are called to bear witness for the nation. Fight zealously for our ancestral law’ …. Reverence for God was victor and gave the crown to its own athletes. Who did not admire the athletes of the divine legislation?
  • New Testament, 1 Corinthians 9: 24-27 (NRSV)
Do you not know that in a race all the runners compete, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable [one].

While we do not know whether Paul was aware of 4 Maccabees (which has been dated to between 20 and 130 C.E.), the use of the same metaphor to illustrate the same idea is striking. At the very least, we can surmise that first-century Jews—both those who followed Jesus and those who did not—shared common views on martyrdom which later became very important in Christianity.

Here too we have another response to the dominant Hellenistic culture of the time – using its own ideals and methods to assert that Judaism has all the answers and embodies all the virtues!

Preserving Self-Respect as a Minority

2 and 4 Maccabees illustrate some of the ways Hellenistic Jews tried to come to terms with being a minority, often despised or misunderstood; how they found ways of telling themselves that they were top of the heap and not the dregs at the bottom; how they tried to keep themselves strong and enduring in their faith; and how they accounted for both their fortunes and misfortunes. Some of their ideas are still with us; others are very much of their time, but the entire enterprise of preserving your self-respect and confidence as a minority is one that remains relevant even now.


November 29, 2018


Last Updated

April 10, 2024


View Footnotes

Dr. Rabba Lindsey Taylor-Guthartz is a Teaching Fellow at the London School of Jewish Studies, and has lectured at Cambridge, Oxford, King’s College London, and SOAS. After studying archaeology and anthropology at Cambridge, she earned her M.A. in prehistory from the Hebrew University, and her Ph.D. in Jewish studies and anthropology from University College London. She received her rabbinic ordination in the Kollel program of Yeshivat Maharat and is the author of Challenge and Conformity: The Religious Lives of Orthodox Jewish Women (Littman Library of Jewish Civilization, 2021).