Opening Passage: The opening passage of 1 Maccabees does a good job in laying the groundwork for them all.
After Alexander son of Philip, the Macedonian, who came from the land of Kittim, had defeated Darius, king of the Persians and the Medes, he succeeded him as king. (He had previously become king of Greece.) He fought many battles, conquered strongholds, and put to death the kings of the earth. He advanced to the ends of the earth, and plundered many nations. When the earth became quiet before him, he was exalted, and his heart was lifted up. He gathered a very strong army and ruled over countries, nations, and princes, and they became tributary to him. After this he fell sick and perceived that he was dying. So he summoned his most honored officers, who had been brought up with him from youth, and divided his kingdom among them while he was still alive. And after Alexander had reigned twelve years, he died. Then his officers began to rule, each in his own place. They all put on crowns after his death, and so did their sons after them for many years; and they caused many evils on the earth. From them came forth a sinful root, Antiochus Epiphanes, son of Antiochus the king; he had been a hostage in Rome. He began to reign in the one hundred and thirty-seventh year of the kingdom of the Greeks. In those days lawless men came forth from Israel, and misled many, saying, "Let us go and make a covenant with the Gentiles round about us, for since we separated from them many evils have come upon us."
Summary: We can think about the differences between the four Maccabean books in part by seeing them as taking four different approaches to history, which we might call political, theological, legendary, and philosophical, each of which has an important place in how we understand history.
1 Maccabees is closest to what we would usually think of as a historical work, because what we tend to think of as historical objectivity is primarily a sort of political sobriety in partisan matters. There is some evidence of occasional reordering of events for narrative convenience, the numbers are usually not conservative estimates, and the author is not afraid to make an evaluation, but in most matters it is a very restrained narrative. There are clear heroes and villains in the narrative, but the assessment of each is balanced and restrained, because the author is giving an account of the rise of the Hasmonean dynasty that recognizes some of its political and moral weaknesses as well as the heroism that made it possible in the first place.
The author only refers to God indirectly. He will occasionally use the word Heaven (ouranos) when he has to for narrative purposes, but usually he will only allude to God by a brief Scriptural reference, or, on occasion, will intimate God's work by a narrative juxtaposition. It would be a mistake, however, to think of it as a purely or even mostly secular narrative; the author's devotion infuses the entire work. The time of the Maccabees is a time without prophets (9:27), but memory of the prophets is fundamental to their society (9:54) and the return of prophets is anticipated (4:46). The time is for practical work and restoration, with the restoration of the Temple as the central pillar of this work. The Jewish people have to find a way both to survive and to remain who they are. If you are attacked on the sabbath, do you defend yourself? What do you do with Hellenizing Jews who are collaborating with the enemy and are systematically persecuting those who remain faithful to Hebrew ways? I think this is in a great measure the reason why the author is unapologetic about the Maccabean ways of doing things: everything, absolutely everything, is a life-and-death decision. If they make a mistake, evaluating it has to take into account the context, in which Jewish life is being systematically destroyed on several fronts. If they rise to the occasion, they are true heroes and moral exemplars. And either way, they are preserving their people and fortifying them against the forces that would destroy them.
2 Maccabees presents itself as an epitome of a larger work by Jason of Cyrene, and explicitly states its basic approach to history:
All this, which has been set forth by Jason of Cyrene in five volumes, we shall attempt to condense into a single book. For considering the flood of numbers involved and the difficulty there is for those who wish to enter upon the narratives of history because of the mass of material, we have aimed to please those who wish to read, to make it easy for those who are inclined to memorize, and to profit all readers. For us who have undertaken the toil of abbreviating, it is no light matter but calls for sweat and loss of sleep, just as it is not easy for one who prepares a banquet and seeks the benefit of others. However, to secure the gratitude of many we will gladly endure the uncomfortable toil, leaving the responsibility for exact details to the compiler, while devoting our effort to arriving at the outlines of the condensation. For as the master builder of a new house must be concerned with the whole construction, while the one who undertakes its painting and decoration has to consider only what is suitable for its adornment, such in my judgment is the case with us. It is the duty of the original historian to occupy the ground and to discuss matters from every side and to take trouble with details, but the one who recasts the narrative should be allowed to strive for brevity of expression and to forego exhaustive treatment.
And at the end of the book he notes that a readable style has been one of his primary goals.
The book is not a mere popularization, though, since it is utterly uninterested in the Hasmonean dynasty itself, and throughout has a clear and well-developed theme: the Sovereignty of God. The question put to the Jews in the Maccabean era is precisely one of sovereignty, and the author holds that those who went after Greek ways and sought Greek prestige failed to recognize that God was their true sovereign. The Maccabean martyrs, and later Judah Maccabee, succeed entirely because they recognize God as sovereign in authority. And sovereignty is connected with another theme in the book, that of the future resurrection of the dead, which is, as it were, the chief expression of divine sovereignty; acceptance of it is essential to proper recognition of the divine authority, and what really divides the Hellenizers from the Hebrews, and the Gentiles from the Hebrews, is that the latter recognize it and act according to it. This is the underlying idea of what is perhaps the most famous passage of the book (12:41-45), in which Judah Maccabee prays for the dead and makes atonement for them. He does it because he recognizes that the resurrection of the dead is not just an abstract thesis but a practical dividing line now between those who recognize the sovereignty of God and those who refuse to recognize it, or else only give it lip service; what makes it a "holy and pious thought" is that its very character is a recognition of God's absolute sovereignty. The entire book is a reflection on the nature of divine providence.
3 Maccabees is a boisterous tale of a different persecution in Egypt. It is storytelling, plain and simple. Bits and pieces of the tale seem to go back to historical events, but the author is relating folk legends, not rigorous history, and seems to delight in the craziness of the whole story. Ptolemy Philopator happens to win a few battles that bring Jerusalem with in his sphere of control, and he visits to see the sights. The sight he really wants to see is the Holy of Holies in the Jewish temple, but for obvious reasons the Jews are not wholly amenable to this kind of tourism. When he attempts to enter despite their insistence that he not do it, they pray to God, who humiliates the king by beating the king around with a whirlwind. The king is savvy enough to realize that he had better desist, but, humiliated, he goes back home hatching plans to humiliate and destroy the Jews -- branding them with the sign of Dionysus, taxing them, eliminating their rights as citizens and killing those who object, while dangling the lure of full citizenship if they will only join in the Alexandrian mysteries. While some people give in to the temptation, the king finds that the Jews are largely unmoved by this complex program; carrot and stick are just not enough. The Jews go out of their way to make clear that they are still loyal to the king, but they refuse to give up their Jewish ways, and are even getting some sympathetic help and protection from a few of the Greeks of the city, who, however, are not numerous enough to do more than help here and there at the individual level.
In order to destroy the Jews entirely, the king orders a census taken of all the Jews in the kingdom. This proceeds apace until the scribes come to him and tell him that they have run out of paper -- in Egypt, in which writing materials literally grow like reeds along the river! So he changes his plans, summoning Hermon, his keeper of elephants, so that the Jews can be executed by being gathered en masse in one place and then killed by five hundred intoxicated elephants. (A point which shows that one should be careful in thinking one knows what's what when dealing with folk legends; this might seem such a crazy detail that it must be made up, but there is some evidence that the kings in Egypt did occasionally execute groups by intoxicating elephants, although nothing on the scale we find here.) At this point, however, God starts playing with the king's mind. First He sends such a deep sleep on him that oversleeps and thus never manages actually to give the order to kill the Jews until the intoxication has worn off and everything has to be set up again. Then there is a hilarious sequence in which the king orders Hermon to kill the Jews, and Hermon eagerly sets everything up, and then the king suffers temporary amnesia in which he is horrified at what Hermon is doing, and threatens to kill Hermon instead for trying to murder loyal citizens. (The scene is delightfully underplayed: "So Hermon suffered an unexpected and dangerous threat, and his eyes wavered and his face fell.") Everything is dismantled. Then the king's memory returns and he is furious that his original order wasn't carried out, leaving his nobles in complete confusion and thinking that the king is going totally crazy. Finally everything gets underway, and the Jews are being killed in the hippodrome by intoxicated elephants, and God sends angels to oppose the king, who backs down and orders all the nobles to apologize to the Jews and throw them a big banquet in reparation.
I've spent some time on the story of 3 Maccabees because I think the book doesn't get the appreciation it deserves. It has often been dismissed as a mere collection of uncritically accepted legends. But the author's use of wild legend and over-the-top rhetoric and imagery, besides making for an entertaining story, allow him to do something he would not otherwise be able to do: give a sort of representative picture of Gentile-Jewish relations. I think this is a probable way in which the king's whiplash changes of mind is to be read: the history of the Jews really is something like this, in which Gentiles rampaging and out for Jewish blood is suddenly alternated by Gentiles praising Jews and rewarding them for their loyalty, without much rhyme or reason, and without the Jews themselves ever really changing or doing anything new. And it has to be said that the craziness of the king of Egypt's plan for eliminating the Jews is not less insane than some of the anti-Jewish plans that real governments have really tried to put into effect. Folk legends about historical events are not about accuracy of details but about the sense of the people, and the author does a good job of using them to capture a sense of being a Jew in a world dominated by unpredictable Gentiles. As such it conveys the key message that, whatever the persecution may be, one should remain hopeful, because the world always swerves. And the details, again, are often entertaining. Perhaps it's just living in the Bureaucratic Age, but I find there to be something almost perfect about a government setting out to destroy a people and getting tripped up in its plans because it runs out of office supplies.
4 Maccabees I've talked a bit about before; it is a philosophical reflection on the Maccabean martyrs mentioned in 2 Maccabees, arguing on the basis of their stories that reason is capable of ruling the passions and that life according to the Jewish law is a training in the virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude, and temperance. In the course of doing this, it also argues that "those who die for the sake of God live to God" (16:25) and that those who put them to death receive eternal torments. In addition, it suggests in several ways that the martyrs are examples for everyone, even those not martyred, and that the blood of the martyrs atones for the sins of the people.
Favorite Passage: From 3 Maccabees:
But at these words he was filled with an overpowering wrath, because by the providence of God his whole mind had been deranged in regard to these matters; and with a threatening look he said, "Were your parents or children present, I would have prepared them to be a rich feast for the savage beasts instead of the Jews, who give me no ground for complaint and have exhibited to an extraordinary degree a full and firm loyalty to my ancestors. In fact you would have been deprived of life instead of these, were it not for an affection arising from our nurture in common and your usefulness." So Hermon suffered an unexpected and dangerous threat, and his eyes wavered and his face fell. The king's friends one by one sullenly slipped away and dismissed the assembled people, each to his own occupation. Then the Jews, upon hearing what the king had said, praised the manifest Lord God, King of kings, since this also was his aid which they had received. The king, however, reconvened the party in the same manner and urged the guests to return to their celebrating. After summoning Hermon he said in a threatening tone, "How many times, you poor wretch, must I give you orders about these things? Equip the elephants now once more for the destruction of the Jews tomorrow!" But the officials who were at table with him, wondering at his instability of mind, remonstrated as follows: "O king, how long will you try us, as though we are idiots, ordering now for a third time that they be destroyed, and again revoking your decree in the matter? As a result the city is in a tumult because of its expectation; it is crowded with masses of people, and also in constant danger of being plundered."
Recommendation: Highly Recommended, all of them.