Essay by the Rev. Elizabeth A. Lerner
After the divvying up of Alexander's kingdom after his death, the region of Palestine was a bone hotly contended between the Egyptian and Syrian kings descended from Alexander's generals. And though Palestine was a very Hellenistic country during Hellenistic times, Jerusalem struggled to remain true to Mosaic law and halakhah, (which led to many serious conflicts, particularly around Jewish monotheism and iconoclasm, as well as the strong beliefs around clean and unclean sacrifices, etc). This goal, upheld by Onias, the high priest of Jerusalem, was not shared by his brother Jason who schemed successfully to supersede him, being awarded the priesthood and all the power that went with it by Antiochus IV. This power was considerable, the priest at that time was known as the cohen hagadol, the priest of greatness or great priest. With this title went military and civic leadership as well; he had ultimate authority in all three areas. Jason in turn was replaced by Menelaus, who wanted even more Hellenization. Around this time, Antiochus IV stirred up the pot even more by removing money and precious goods from the temple in Jerusalem without against the will of the people. It was at this point that Jerusalem first rose up and threw out the Hellenizers. This began a series of battles that lasted decades; the way First Maccabees depicts it, as soon as the Hebrew faithful had either established a peace or defeated their enemy, another king would come to try to subjugate the Jews and the whole cycle would begin again. Much of the story is unreliable in terms of size of armies, numbers slain, proportions of victorious Israelites to defeated Syrians, Egyptians, etc. Still, it offers valuable insights into one perspective on the Jewish Revolt and the Hasmoneans who led it, and clearly lays out the story celebrated still on the 25th of Kislev, Hannukah.
The text of First Maccabees places the heroism of the Hasmoneans at the epicenter of the story of Jewish revolt against Hellenism in the 2nd century BCE. Interestingly, there is no mention of the Hellenizers' names in First Maccabees. We get no sense from this text of who they are, or what they want, or where they come from. They are uniformly presented in the text as wicked, evil, immoral and inhumane beings, consistently referred to as "godless," "lawless," and "lawbreakers," "men who hate their own nation" (p. 189-91), etc. We get those names: Jason, Menelaus, etc. from other texts and books of Maccabees. In fact, no one at all is named until the Hasmoneans are introduced. Mattathias begins the revolt, and passes the military leadership on to his son Judah Maccabee who is strongest and youngest, and whose battles are often such miraculous victories as to seem sure evidence of God's aid. The military, religious and civic leadership are most strongly united in Jonathan's rule, following Judah's death. Simon's rule is marked by peace, and he is most strongly presented in the text as a religious and civic leader. The initial necessity for fighting rather than just remaining observant and pious is strongly marked in the text with the death of the most observant Hebrews who will not fight on Shabbat. (Only later, and perhaps partly as a result of this story, was the Talmudic directive created that a Jew can and must violate the laws of the sabbath if it is necessary to save a life, especially their own.)
A surprising element early in the book is Matthias' testament which mentions Daniel, but this is a later interpolation by the book's editor. The erratic feel of the text, which seems to alternate between being a religious and a political document, is often most devotional in the hymnic portions which contain language recalling other biblical books with strong thematic associations: Lamentations, Song of Songs and the Psalms. This gives rise to the question of whether the text was used at all ritually or liturgically; perhaps recital of it was a part of Hannukah celebrations.
Concerns and perspectives of the time are also evident in some other ways. The schism which was continuing to widen between the Jerusalem Israelites and the Samarians is clear in the Samarians being led to war against the Hasmoneans by Apollonius. As well, Alexander the Great was still an extraordinarily important figure in the Hellenistic world of the 2nd century, and Judah's victories are ironically, and perhaps purposely, reminiscent of Alexander's, another young hero who avenged his nation, and did so with a string of victories unbroken until his death. Indeed the text sets the entire Hasmonean clan apart as a family of heroes, "those men into whose keeping was entrusted the power of saving Israel." Indeed Judah is called swzwn, (p. 157) which is one way to say 'savior' in Greek. Yet even as they transcend the people, the Hasmoneans are 'the people' more than once in the text. They represent what is best in the people, and the story presents them as the heart of Israel, with the sole capacity to both rally and defend the people, and insure proper devotion and worship of God.
The text carefully exalts the Romans as a nation powerful yet wise, invincible yet humble, and goes on record with a number of state letters between Greeks (Spartans), Rome, and the Hasmoneans which clearly seek to keep the relations with the oldest and newest military powers in that part of the world peaceful and friendly. Indeed the text further legitimizes the decisions and rule of the Hasmoneans by linking their purpose with that of Onias, the wrongfully-deposed high priest through the correspondence with Sparta where the Jews and Spartans agree that they are actually kin.
Eschatology and apocalypticism are present, but complicated in the text. On the one hand, there is mention that they are no longer living in a time of prophets ("prophets had ceased appearing to them"), and yet they are living in expectation of a prophet coming again. This is specifically mentioned in conjunction with the defiled altar stones, which the priests place aside until a prophet comes to tell them what to do with them. Of course, in Jewish apocalypticism, the messiah's coming would be presaged by the prophet Elijah's, and so the connection between the day of judgement and the longed for return of true prophets was strong.
Even as the Hasmoneans struggle to retain their ethnic and religious identity as distinct from Hellenism, they often in the text are excellent at understanding and operating in the Hellenistic world. The official title of Friend was made famous by Alexander the Great, and in the secular sphere the Hasmoneans welcome Hellenistic traditions which make it possible for them to live as observant Jews. Another touch very much in keeping with Hellenistic tradition is the sort of Res Gestae, the listing of works done by the leader, with which First Maccabees begins to draw to a close, enumerating the works of Simon and his long reign of peace.