First Maccabees as Pro-Hasmonean Propaganda

Image result for Matthias Maccabeus1 Maccabees is clearly in favor of the revolution against the Seleucid and the Hasmonean dynasty.  It is “a thoroughgoing pro-Hasmonean” (Fischer, 4:441). For the author of 1 Maccabees, the revolt was God’s will since the Hasmoneans liberated Judean from foreign rule.

For example, in 5:62 the early Hasmoneans are described as “those men into whose hands salvation of Israel was given.” Later Christian readers are accustom to hear salvation (σωτηρία) as “salvation from sin,” the noun regularly refers to liberation from enemies in the Septuagint. For example, in LXX 1 Sam 2:1, Hannah can “I rejoice in your salvation” because her “mouth derides my enemies.” LXX 1 Samuel 11:9, Saul tells the people of Jabesh-Gilead they will “have their salvation” by noon the next day. He is referring to a military campaign to rescue them from the Ammonites.

More significant, 1 Macc 6:62 uses a divine passive, ἐδόθη, salvation “was given.” Daniel 7 uses this passive form of the verb “to give” a number of times to indicate the sovereign God has granted something to another. For example, in 7:14 the son of man is given authority to rule. God grants to the son of man that authority. The writer of 1 Maccabees is therefore not attributing the rescue of Israel from their enemies to the military might of Judas, but rather to God.

Judas’s father Matthias provides the spark for the Maccabean revolt. Matthias was a priest in Jerusalem who left the city because of the ruin of Zion. The noun (σύντριμμα) refers to destruction of Jerusalem, as in Lamentations 4:10. The temple itself has lost its glory (ἄδοξος), recalling the loss of the Ark of the Covenant in 1 Sam 4:22(Ἀπῴκισται δόξα Ισραηλ).

Later, Matthias is described as “burning with the zeal of Phinehas” (1 Macc 2:26) when he first rallies people to rebel against the Seleucids. Phinehas was the priest who killed a man and prostitute who dared to flaunt their sin before the tabernacle in Numbers 25:11. This violent response to a flagrant sin is the immediate model for the Maccabean revolt: the sons of Matthias are willing to kill other Jews who have willfully broken the covenant.

Even his last words to his sons, Matthias urges his sons to emulate Phinehas, David, Caleb, Joshua, Elijah and other great heroes of the Hebrew Bible.

1 Maccabees 2:51 (NRSV) “Remember the deeds of the ancestors, which they did in their generations; and you will receive great honor and an everlasting name.

Most of the heroes of the Hebrew Bible Matthias urges his sons to emulate expressed their zeal for the Lord with violence, but some passively resisted the empire and were willing to die. He mentions Hananiah, Azariah, and Mishael who “believed and were saved from the flame” (2:59). Although they were saved, these three men were willing to die rather than bow to the image of the Empire (Dan 3:18). According to Matthias, Daniel was rescued from the mouth of the lions “because of his innocence” (1 Macc 2:60).

The Hasmoneans were therefore the next generation of great hero from the Hebrew Bible. The book consciously places them in the line of Phineas, Joshua, and David.

But Matthias’s speech says there are other ways to resist the Seleucids than armed rebellion. Some Jews did passively resist and were will to die. This last point may have some traction in discussions of how Christians used 1 Maccabees in the early church when they were being persecuted. No one “burned with zeal” and attacked the Roman pagans, but many went to their deaths like Hananiah, Azariah, and Mishael, willing to be executed rather than give up their faith in Jesus.

12 thoughts on “First Maccabees as Pro-Hasmonean Propaganda

  1. The Maccabean revolt and resulting Hasmonean dynasty were major political shifts in the lives of the Jews. It’s been said that history is written by the winners, and the books of Maccabees certainly demonstrate this idea. There is a clear bias towards the Maccabees in these books, painting Judas Maccabees and his armies as ordained by God to carry out a holy mission. The imagery and wording creates a heroic narrative that is clearly bent towards the Maccabees as protagonists. “He fought many battles, conquered strongholds, and put to death the kings of the earth” (1 Maccabees 1:2). This is just one example of the sort of verbal bias expressed in these accounts. While the accounts found in the Maccabean literature provide excellent information, it’s important for the reader to be aware of the “victor’s bias” when studying it.

  2. After reading 1 Maccabees, it is evident that much of the book revolves around a “heroic” story. I assumed that Judas Maccabees was the one who started the Maccabean revolt, but clearly his father, Matthias, was the one who contributed to the revolt. Matthias is definitely a heroic character in 1 Maccabees, and it seems like he was very passionate about the cause he was fighting for. In 2:24-26, the author talks about the zeal that was in Matthias, and how he dealt with people who were wanting to sacrifice in the temple. However, like you said; many of the Jews ended up passively resisting the rebellion which cost them their lives. Clearly throughout 1 Maccabees, the Jews were striving to stand firm in their beliefs in hope of eternal life. “In 1 Maccabees there seems to be an assumption that our only hope of an”afterlife” is in gaining glory and a good name, so that our descendants will sing our praises” (Tomasino, 234).

  3. Indeed, 1 Maccabees does represent a very pro-Hasmonean propaganda, which clearly favored the revolution against the Seleucids. Tomasino makes it clear that while the two books of Maccabees are a primary source to understanding how the Jews reacted to persecution, it is very important to keep in mind that “both the books are designed to praise the family and faction that resisted oppressors and won independence for the nation. Their perspectives are biased, and both accounts are fraught with difficulties” (Tomasino, 137). The author even goes on to say that the two books even contradict each other. This idea that the book creates is more romanticized than anything as most of the time, like what was stated above, many of the Jews ended up passively resisting the rebellion instead of “taking up arms”.

  4. It’s no surprise to me that the writer of 1 Maccabees favors a revolt against the Seleucid dynasty. As was mentioned throughout 1 Maccabees 29-40, the devastation and persecution of the Jews by the hands of Antiochus is certainly apparent upon the city. Due to this persecution by Antiochus and even by his appointed later equally benevolent High Priest Menelaus, revolt would have been necessary in my opinion (Tomasino 132). An interesting point brought up within the post above, mentioned that the writer of 1 Maccabees was attributing the rescue of Israel not to the power of Judas, but to God instead. This is interesting because at the time of this writing, it’s clear that the writer of 1 Maccabees has still emphasized the fact that GOD is the reason for the liberation of Israel. Even despite the horrific persecution the Jews were facing the fact of the matter is the writer of 1 Maccabees was intent on emphasizing that even though Judas liberated the Jews, the important aspect to remember was the fact that this was God’s will for His chosen people.

  5. The struggle of comparing The revolt in Maccabees and the early church is they were fighting two different things. When the Hebrews burned with zeal they wished to bring purity back to Israel, they wanted the homeland to be God’s chosen land in a physical sense. When you follow Jesus through the passion week he speaks of his kingdom being not of this world, and how his kingdom is a spiritual kingdom. The big differences are you can fight physically over land, you can take land and lose land. When you fight against the things of the spirit its not as easily taken from you. This is why the propaganda was important. Knowing going into a fight against a larger force is intimidating, for one to win a war against a bigger adversary one must have his people believe they can win. This is why the early Christians did not need propaganda, Christ on the cross had already, not yet won the battle and all that is left is to be faithful and run the race.

  6. It is interesting to note the change in what it meant to be the ultimate hero of the faith when Christianity came along. The Jews’ heroes were military conquerors like David or Joshua who God used to defeat vile pagan nations. In this sense, Judas Maccabees was just like a Jewish hero of old. On the contrary, however, heroes of the faith for Christians are often people who follow in Jesus footsteps and are willing to lay down their lives for what they believe. Now, of course, there are examples of this in the Old Testament (such as Daniel), but the majority commanded armies. Jewish heroes of the faith are action movies whereas Christian heroes are drama/thrillers.

  7. It is interesting to think of this as a piece of propaganda since propaganda always has some sort of purpose. In the case of 1 Maccabees that is likely to praise the Hasmonean line. This type of propaganda likely also had an effect on how the Jews leading up to Jesus time would view their messiah to come as a conquering king instead of as the sacrificial lamb and high priest. Even if they were only expecting a high priest the Hasmoneans tend to think of them as governors if not kings. This propaganda therefore had a large effect on the politics and views in Judaism during Jesus time.

    • Bradley, noticing the skewed lens that Israel made for itself through this propaganda is a great point. This propaganda does show a deeper level of expectation when it comes to Israel’s hope of a Messiah and that further shows that when they had the choice between Jesus or Barabas. Barabas was chosen because he was more attractive in the lens of the Maccabean revolt. Loving your enemies does not make sense to people who want to cast out their overlords. I wonder if Israel would have failed in the Maccabean revolt, would they have been more open to Jesus’ kingship? Could it be that Israel would have been more open to Jesus if they would have been less individualistic and more family and tribe as Joshua said in Joshua 24:15?

  8. Today if we “burn with zeal” for God, we more than likely will not go out and kill those who persecute Christians or even Jews because that is not socially acceptable. If we were to go out and fight all those who persecute followers of Jesus, then people might say that we are as bad as Hitler was. On the other hand, if we act passively towards those who persecute us, we might be received more warmly.

  9. The thing that stands out the most to me, is that 1 Maccabees displays a deeper understanding that the military of the Jews did not win the day, but God did. The Greek term they used is ἐδόθη, this is interesting because Daniel 7 uses the same term in a passive form. This displays that the writer is not giving credit to Judah and his military, but that the winner of the battles for Israel is God. It is interesting because the Greek word ἐδόθη also means salvation. I appreciate that the understanding of the word salvation in Maccabees means that God gave victory to the Maccabees. I believe 1 Maccabees does a good job displaying the shared attributes that the Maccabees had with Phinehas, David, Caleb, Joshua, and Elijah.

  10. It is fascinating to me that the author of 1 Maccabees linguistically tied in the success of the Hasmonean revolt to the miraculous acts of God in the Old Testament. It does makes sense that the Jews would believe this freedom of the nation, by a few untrained Jews, to be salvation from the Lord. This idea would also explain why the whole Jewish community made a holiday out of it. It also explains why the disciples were expecting another miracle of this sort from Jesus, rather then His death and resurrection. In your last paragraph you mention that Matthias’s speech may have been used in the early church to argue for ‘peaceful zeal’. I am wondering if they used Maccabees at all or just went straight to the Old Testament. It seems to me that 1 Maccabees would be a very confusing place to argue peace from given the overall story of the Revolt.

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