Sunday, December 07, 2014

Fortnightly Books, December 7

Who is like You from among the mighty, O Lord? (Exodus 15:11)

Hanukkah begins the evening of December 16 this year, and thus overlaps the next fortnight, after which I'll be taking a week off from the Fortnighly Book for Christmas. So what I've decided to do is to do something a little different and lead up to Hanukkah with an appropriate set of texts: First Maccabees, Second Maccabees, Third Maccabees, and Fourth Maccabees. All of these are very different books.

First Maccabees is a deuterocanonical work that gives us the story of the revolt of the Maccabees, that is, the rebellion of the Jewish priest, Mattathias ben Johanan, and his sons, Judah Maccabeus, Jonathan Apphus, and Simon Thassi against the attempt of the Greco-Syrian king Antiochus IV Epiphanes to stamp out the Jewish religion. The book was certainly written originally in Hebrew, although only the Greek version is extant.

Second Maccabees is a deuterocanonical work that also covers the Maccabean revolt. However, it focuses on a much narrower portion of the history (roughly about the first seven chapters of 1 Maccabees), supplementing it with additional traditions. The author of Second Maccabees states that he is abridging a five-volume history by Jason of Cyrene, whose work has not survived and who, unfortunately, is otherwise unknown, and the book was almost certainly originally written in Greek. It is much more theological in tone than 1 Maccabees. 1 and 2 Maccabees are both in Catholic versions of the Biblical canon.

Third Maccabees is the odd book out; it has nothing directly to do with the Maccabees or their revolt at all, being concerned (insofar as it is concerned with actual historical events) with a different persecution of Jews that happened decades before. However, it can perhaps be considered a Maccabean book in the broad sense, in that it covers an important part of the historical background, and in that it can be said to have a number of thematic links and occasional verbal similarities (enough to indicate that the author may have had access to 2 Maccabees). The persecuting king in this work is the Greco-Egyptian ruler, Ptolemy IV Philopator, who had recently defeated the Greco-Syrian king Antiochus III. It is not, however, a book concerned particularly with history, but with conveying a wealth of folk legend about Jewish survival of persecution. It was originally written in Greek.

Fourth Maccabees is a philosophical work. It draws from a particular set of episodes in 2 Maccabees 6-7, and can be read both as a general treatise on virtue and as a philosophical reflection on Jewish martyrdom. In both aspects it is a work devoted to helping the reader cultivate a better life. Originally written in Greek, it is a masterpiece of early Hellenistic Jewish philosophy.

The sheer diversity of these books should make it interesting to read them all together. Read such a way, I think they can be seen as a rich exploration of the problems faced by Jews in dealing with the rise of Hellenistic culture from the time of Alexander the Great, and the complexities of living in a civilization that was not merely a political unity but primarily a unity of an all-encompassing and, to the Jews, alien culture. I'll probably be reading them all in the New Revised Standard Version.

Hanukkah (Hebrew for 'Dedication') is, of course, the holiday celebrating the rededication of the Temple that crowned the Maccabean victories. It is a minor holiday in the Jewish calendar; the importance it has in broader culture has more to do with its proximity to Christmas than its significance among the Jews. While the basic story of the Maccabees relevant to Hanukkah is certainly influenced by 1 Maccabees, the book is not part of the Jewish canon -- hence its survival in Greek as part of the Septuagint but not in Hebrew Thus ironically, the Christian canon has more on this very Jewish holiday than the Jewish canon. (This is true, barely, even for the Protestant canon, in which 1 Maccabees is not regarded as canonical; Hanukkah is explicitly mentioned in the Gospel of John 10:22ff., and recognizing this is in fact essential for understanding what is going on in the story.) However, the elements of Hanukkah celebration most widely recognized are those surrounding the story of the miracle of lights, which is a rabbinical tradition that in its earliest written form in the Talmud (Shabbat 21b) long postdates any of the Maccabean books, so, alas, we'll not see it here. Hanukkah is also, of course, called the Festival of Lights; the earliest mention of this is in Josephus, who (interestingly) does not connect the name with any literal light at all, instead taking it metaphorically to mean the sudden manifestation of unhoped-for liberty.

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