No, the Maccabees did not run a funeral home on Pine Street in Pawtucket. That family was the McAloons. The Biblical name Maccabee, loosely translated “hammer” denoting ferocity in battle, was uniquely given to the Jewish hero Judas who led a successful revolt against the Seleucid kings, longtime persecutors of the Jewish people. The name is popularly extended to Judas’ brothers, supporters and other champions who resisted the suppression of the Jews and their sacred law in the second century before Christ. The present First Book of Maccabees, from which this Sunday’s first reading is taken, is the Greek translation of a Hebrew book celebrating the family of Mattathias and his three sons, Judas, Jonathan and Simon, and his grandson, John Hyrcanus. The writer compares their exploits with those of Israel’s ancient heroes, the Judges, Samuel, and David. The two Books of Maccabees are not accepted as inspired Scripture by Jews and Protestants but have always been accepted by the Catholic Church as authentic Biblical revelation.
Through poetic laments and hymns of praise the author celebrates the customary Jewish belief that the people of Israel have been specially chosen by the one true God as partners in a covenant and that they alone are privileged to know and worship the true God, their eternal benefactor and unfailing source of help. The people, in turn, must worship the Lord alone and observe exactly the precepts of the law given to them. In true Jewish fashion, the author insists on fidelity to the law as the expression of Israel’s love for God. The main plot is the struggle between those who would uphold the law and those, Jews or Gentiles, who would destroy it. The severest condemnation goes not toward foreign persecutors but toward unfaithful Jews who had become adversaries to their own Jewish tradition and who resisted Judas and his brothers who themselves were models of fidelity and loyalty toward the Law.
According to 1 Maccabees, the Seleucid king Antiochus banned traditional Jewish religious practices hoping to instill Hellenistic or Greek customs throughout Judea. He made possession of the written Torah a capital offense, burning the copies he could find. The observance of the sabbath and feasts was banned. Circumcision was outlawed, and mothers who circumcised their babies were killed along with their families. All traditional Jewish ritual sacrifices were forbidden. After Antiochus issued these decrees forbidding Jewish religious practice, a rural Jewish priest from Modiin, Mattathias the Hasmonean, sparked a revolt against the Seleucid Empire by refusing to worship any Grecian god. Mattathias in fact killed a Greek-speaking Jew who stepped forward to offer a sacrifice to an idol in Mattathias’ place. Then he and his five sons fled to the wilderness of Judah.
After Mattathias’ death about one year later in 166 BC, his son Judah Maccabee led an army of Jewish dissidents to victory over the Seleucid dynasty and their Jewish sympathizers. The Maccabees destroyed pagan altars found in villages. They circumcised boys and forced their fellow Jews into revolt. The ensuing battles gained notoriety among the Seleucid army for the Jewish use of guerrilla tactics. After the victory, the Maccabees entered Jerusalem in triumph and ritually cleansed the Temple, reestablishing traditional Jewish worship there and installing Jonathan Maccabee as high priest. This rededication of the Jerusalem Temple is the origin of the Jewish feast of Hanukkah. The New Testament mentions Jesus visiting the temple during Hanukkah (Jn10:22-23). A large Seleucid army sent to quash the revolt returned to Syria on the death of Antiochus IV. The Seleucid commander then agreed to a political compromise that included civil and religious freedom. The Maccabees formed a fully independent Jewish kingdom from about 110 to 63 BC.
As readers of the New Testament well know, the appreciation, celebration and observance of the Jewish Law, as recorded in the Jewish Scriptures, was the heart and soul of Judaism in the time of Jesus Christ. Keeping the Law and being Jewish were two sides of the same coin. The observance of the Law gave the Jews a distinctive identity which fostered a unifying spirit within their community and reminded them daily that they had been uniquely selected by God as his chosen people favored exclusively over their neighbors.
By the time of Christ, the keeping of the Law often obscured the meaning of the Law. Outward observance overtook inner appreciation. They did the right thing for the wrong reason, to borrow Eliot’s keen phrase. Christian believers too must regularly check their inner dispositions. Going through the motions is not the same as being properly motivated. Love of God and his favored graces is the source of all authentic religion.