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Marty Lockshin





Chanukah: The Greek Influence of Martyrdom



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Marty Lockshin





Chanukah: The Greek Influence of Martyrdom






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Chanukah: The Greek Influence of Martyrdom

On Chanukah we celebrate the miraculous military victories of the “few over the many,” and of Jewish culture over Greek.  Ironically, however, Chanukah has also bequeathed to us a new genre of Jewish literature, one that has been in frequent use ever since: Greek-style stories of bravery in defeat and dying for the cause.


Chanukah: The Greek Influence of Martyrdom

The martyrdom of the Maccabees.  Antonio Ciseric. 1860

The Glory of Death in Battle

The stories of the Maccabees’ victories over the Syrian-Greeks are not found in the Jewish Bible or in any other canonical Jewish work.  But the books of the Maccabees, now found in the Apocrypha, were written by proud Jews with strong commitment to Jewish values and observance.  Even if these books are not canonical or “holy,” they represent what many loyal Jews were thinking between the 2nd century B.C.E. and the 1st century C.E.

In these books, descriptions of glorious victories are mixed with tales of failure and of heroes dying in battle.  In 1 Maccabees chapter 6, Eleazar, the brother of Judah the Maccabee,[1] “win[s] for himself an everlasting name” by dying heroically:

1 Macc 6:40 Now a part of the king’s army was spread out on the high hills, and some troops were on the plain, and they advanced steadily and in good order. 6:41 All who heard the noise made by their multitude, by the marching of the multitude and the clanking of their arms, trembled, for the army was very large and strong. 6:42 But Judas and his army advanced to the battle, and six hundred of the king’s army fell. 6:43 Now Eleazar, called Avaran, saw that one of the animals was equipped with royal armor. It was taller than all the others, and he supposed that the king was on it. 6:44 So he gave his life to save his people and to win for himself an everlasting name6:45 He courageously ran into the midst of the phalanx to reach it; he killed men right and left, and they parted before him on both sides. 6:46 He got under the elephant, stabbed it from beneath, and killed it; but it fell to the ground upon him and he died.

Eleazar’s death is not attributed to any sin that he committed, but to his brave action and his willingness to risk almost certain death.  He did not immediately accomplish any military gain: in the continuation of the story, “when the Jews saw the royal might and the fierce attack of the forces, they turned away in flight.”[2]  Still, the author sees Eleazar’s actions as heroic and worthy of emulation. 

No story similar to this appears in the Hebrew Bible.  Stories of this nature, however, are well known to us from Greek epic literature.  For example, as Homer’s Odyssey opens, Odysseus has not returned home twenty years after leaving for the Trojan War and ten years after the war’s end.  His son Telemakhos, who has heard that his father survived the war, fears that he is now dead and worries that his father may have died an inglorious death on the sea journey home and not a death with kleos (renown or glory) in battle, as befits a hero.  Homer also provides for some of his heroes an aristeia, a description of their finest hour in battle.  At the end of such scenes the hero often dies.[3]

The Glory of Death for Religion or Principle

In the books of the Maccabees, Jews also die for the cause off the battlefield.  In 2 Maccabees, another Jew named Eleazar chooses death rather than betraying his religion:

2 Macc 6:18 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.6:19 But he, welcoming death with honor rather than life with pollution, went up to the rack of his own accord, spitting out the flesh, 6:20 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.[4]

As he died a horrible death,

He groaned aloud and said, “It is clear to the Lord in his holy knowledge that, though I might have been saved from death, I am enduring terrible sufferings in my body under this beating, but in my soul, I am glad to suffer these things because I fear him.”[5] 

The narrator adds that his death was “an example of nobility and a memorial of courage, not only to the young but to the great body of his nation.”[6]

The Story of “Channa” and her Seven Sons

Perhaps the most famous martyrdom story in the books of the Maccabees is about “Channa” and her seven sons. The story appears, with significant variations, in many ancient sources (including both 2 Maccabees and 4 Maccabees).[7]  In the core story, a tyrannical non-Jewish king gives the seven sons of a woman (usually described as a widow) the choice of transgressing Jewish law (through worshiping idols or through eating “polluted” food) or dying a terrible death. With the encouragement of their mother, all seven sons remain steadfast and are killed by the tyrant. 

The story was originally told in connection with the events of Chanukah; the tyrant being Antiochus or another Syrian-Greek.  But in later sources, from the classical rabbinic period, the events take place in the Roman period, as part of the Hadrianic persecutions, three hundred years after the events of Chanukah.[8]

In the earliest versions of the story from Maccabees 2 and 4, the woman is not given a name.  In Eikhah Rabbah (written between the 5th and 7th centuries) she is referred to as Miriam bat Tanhum. In other midrashim, she is called Miriam bat Nahtom.  Referring to the woman as Channa, which is ubiquitous in Jewish circles today, originates in Yossipon, a medieval Jewish history book that reworks much material from Josephus, and was probably edited in Italy in the ninth century.[9] By the days of Maimonides (1138-1205), the story was well known, and the mother’s name was simply assumed to be Channa. In one of his letters, Maimonides could write just three words שבעת בני חנה (“Channa’s seven sons”), and assume that everyone understood the reference.[10]

Martyrdom in 4 Maccabees

The longest and most gruesome version of these two martyrdom stories—the story of Eleazar and the story of the mother of seven sons—is the one in 4 Maccabees, which was written in Greek by a faithful Jew, probably in the first century C.E.[11]  (At one point the book was incorrectly attributed to Josephus and given the title “On the Supremacy of Reason.”)[12] 

In 4 Maccabees, martyrdom is not just one theme among many; it is the core of the book.  While the book praises the martyrs for their loyalty to Judaism and for resisting both the threats and the entreaties of the Syrian-Greek monarch and the attractions of Greek culture, ironically, it is based on principles of Greek philosophy.  As Elias Bickerman puts it, the book “is a lecture on the power of Reason, guided by Torah, over the weaknesses of flesh.”[13]

4 Maccabees opens (1:1) by announcing its reliance on philosophy:

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.    

Scholars have identified well-known Greek philosophical ideas, both Stoic and Platonic, in the book.[14]  Repeatedly, the author tells us that “devout reason” must master the emotions.[15]  Not only are the sons praised for choosing to live by reason, but their mother is, too:

4 Macc 15:10 They were righteous and self-controlled… 15:10 though so many factors influenced the mother to suffer with them out of love for her children, in the case of none of them were the various tortures [described in painful detail in this book – ML] enough to pervert her reason.

In other words, even when her sons were suffering excruciating deaths, their mother felt only pride for them since her reason, too, conquered her emotions. 

Citing “Martyrdom” Stories from the Bible

The author of 4 Maccabees puts a curious speech into the mouth of the mother as she urges her sons to choose martyrdom.  She reminds them of the Bible lessons they had learned from their father before he died:

4 Macc 18:9 A happy man was he, who lived out his life with good children, and did not have the grief of bereavement.18:10 While he [your father] was still with you, he taught you the law and the prophets.[16] 18:11 He read to you about Abel slain by Cain, and Isaac who was offered as a burnt offering, and about Joseph in prison. 18:12 He told you of the zeal of Phinehas, and he taught you about Hananiah, Azariah, and Mishael in the fire. 18:13 He praised Daniel in the den of the lions and blessed him.18:14 He reminded you of the scripture of Isaiah (43:2), which says, “Even though you go through the fire, the flame shall not consume you.”

The choice of biblical stories for the mother to cite in the name of her husband seems inappropriate. None is a story of martyrdom. The only one listed who was even killed is Abel, but he was a murder victim, not a martyr.[17] The rest weren’t even killed. Isaac was saved by a voice from heaven.[18] Joseph suffered for a short while in prison but then he was released and became the viceroy in Egypt.[19]  Daniel was thrown into the lions’ den but did not die.[20] Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah emerged unharmed from a fiery furnace.[21]  The story of Phineas seems the most out of place.  Phineas did kill Zimri[22] but Zimri was, according to both the Bible and later Judaism, a despicable transgressor who deserved to die, not a martyr.

Perhaps the author chose these biblical lessons because, in common with martyrdom stories, most of them involve zealous dedication to a cause and overcoming one’s emotions.   He could not cite any biblical stories about martyrdom since there are none.[23]  The consistent message of the Hebrew Bible is that righteous behavior will be rewarded in the end.  Even Job has his fortunes restored and redoubled at the end of the book.   

Many biblical texts do teach the lesson that the mother quotes from Isaiah 43:2,

כִּי תַעֲבֹר בַּמַּיִם אִתְּךָ אָנִי וּבַנְּהָרוֹת לֹא יִשְׁטְפוּךָ כִּי תֵלֵךְ בְּמוֹ אֵשׁ לֹא תִכָּוֶה וְלֶהָבָה לֹא תִבְעַר בָּךְ.
When you pass through water, I will be with you; through streams, they shall not overwhelm you. When you walk through fire, you shall not be scorched; through flame, it shall not burn you.

Nevertheless, in the Bible it has a different meaning than that implied by the mother: God will protect you, so you do not have to become a martyr.   The mother’s speech in 4 Maccabees with its list of biblical stories that don’t work as precedents makes the gap between the values of biblical Judaism and later Judaism very clear.

The Death of Socrates: A Greek Precedent for the Idea of Martyrdom?

The Death of Socrates. By Jacques-Louis David 1787

While stories of bravery that leads to death in battle are common in the Greek world, it is difficult to find a precedent there for the idea of martyrdom, or dying intentionally for a principle.  But one famous Greek story may have had direct or indirect influence on Jews who encountered Greek civilization: the story of the death of Socrates (d. 399 B.C.E.).  Socrates was charged, convicted and executed for the crime of “corrupting the youth” of Athens.  In Plato’s famous dialogue, The Apology, Socrates says at his trial that he understands that there are many things that he could say that would save his life.  But he is loath to do so, as he explains:

You do not speak well, Sir, if you think a man in whom there is even a little merit ought to consider danger of life or death, and not rather regard this only, when he does things, whether the things he does are right or wrong and the acts of a good or a bad man.[24]

In other words, being a good man and saying the right thing is much more important than saving your own life. Then Socrates explains that in his understanding, dying for the cause off the battlefield is tantamount to dying for the cause in battle.  He scoffs at those who suggest to him that he should compromise his values and save his own life:

For according to your argument [that it is preferable to stay alive even if it means compromising a principle] all the demigods would be bad who died at Troy, including the son of Thetis [=Achilles], who so despised danger, in comparison with enduring any disgrace, that when his mother (and she was a goddess) said to him, as he was eager to slay Hector, something like this, I believe, “My son, if you avenge the death of your friend Patroclus and kill Hector, you yourself shall die; for straightway, after Hector, is death appointed unto you;”[25] he, when he heard this, made light of death and danger, and feared much more to live as a coward and not to avenge his friends, and said, “Straightway may I die, after doing vengeance upon the wrongdoer, that I may not stay here, jeered at beside the curved ships, a burden of the earth.”  Do you think he considered death and danger?[26]

Socrates thus cites the story of the Greek hero, Achilles, who fought bravely and killed many of the enemy even though he knew that this would lead to his own death.  Socrates draws inspiration from this story for his own decision to stick to his philosophical principles even if his own death results.

He continues:

For thus it is, men of Athens, in truth; wherever a man stations himself, thinking it is best to be there, or is stationed by his commander, there he must, as it seems to me, remain and run his risks, considering neither death nor any other thing more than disgrace.[27]

According to Plato, Socrates expanded the Greek epic concept of dying a hero’s death to include also dying for one’s principles, and not compromising one’s values simply to preserve one’s life.  In that sense, his own decision to stick with his philosophical principles—even if it meant death—was analogous to Achilles’ brave killing of Hector, even though the result was that Achilles died, too.

Ironic Influence

While the war of the Maccabees was intended to resist aspects of Greek culture, the descriptions of the conflict in the books of the Maccabees show unmistakable signs of Greek values—dying for the cause both on and off the battlefield.  Socrates’ voice on this issue may have been relatively rare in the Greek world.  But once the value of martyrdom entered Jewish literature in the days of the Maccabees, it became a crucial Jewish value that sometimes it is necessary to give up your life for the sake of Judaism.[28] 

This lesson became even more important 300 years after the events of Chanukah in the days of the Hadrianic persecutions, when the Romans persecuted the Jews in the Land of Israel around the time of the Bar Kokhba rebellion, and then later still in the Middle Ages when Jews in Christian and Muslim countries were sometimes faced with such choices. 

The original martyrdom stories like those of “Channa” and her seven sons spawned more in this genre: most famously the story of the ten rabbis who were martyred in the 2nd century C.E., a story featured in the liturgy of the Ninth of Av and Yom Kippur.  Martyrdom stories remained popular in Jewish circles through the ages for the sad reason that Jews often found themselves in similar situations, having to decide whether to give up their lives or their religion.


December 5, 2017


Last Updated

July 13, 2021


View Footnotes

Prof. Rabbi Marty Lockshin is Professor Emeritus at York University and lives in Jerusalem. He received his Ph.D. in Near Eastern and Judaic Studies from Brandeis University and his rabbinic ordination in Israel while studying in Yeshivat Merkaz HaRav Kook. Among Lockshin’s publications is his four-volume translation and annotation of Rashbam’s commentary on the Torah.