“Judaism” and 2 Maccabees

I just finished reading Steve Mason’s article “Methods and Categories: Judaism and Gospel” (pointed out by Jim Davila), and I enjoyed it thoroughly. Like Jim, I also appreciated the final section on methods, since I am a graduate student currently grappling with dozens of different methodologies in the research I do. One of Steve’s first points, however, touches upon a topic I’ve been working with on and off for the last three years, and I thought I would comment. It doesn’t have to do with categories so much as 2 Maccabees. He states, based on the paucity of the word Ιουδαισμος in Jewish literature and its proliferation in later Christian literature, that

we seem to have only three options. (Perhaps I am missing some.) Either (a) the author of 2 Maccabees coined Ioudaismos to mean Judaism and experimented with it, but the experiment did not catch on until the Christians revived it; or (b) it did catch on, but by some fluke it does not surface in any other literature of the period, though it was in wide use; or (c) the author of 2 Maccabees did not use Ioudaismos to mean Judaism as a system, but something else. Later authors found no comparable occasion to use it until the Christians Paul and Ignatius, whose authoritative status prompted later Christians to find ways of using it.

I am aware this does not engage the author’s primary thesis or the theme of his paper, but I would suggest that one possibility was missed. I argued in a paper presented at the 2008 SBL Rocky Mountain/Great Plains regional meeting that the final redaction and dissemination of 2 Maccabees took place in the Common Era, after the martyrdoms of Eleazar and the mother and her seven sons were added. I’d like to share two or three key points of that discussion.

In addition to the use of the word Ιουδαισμος, the phrase “King of the Universe” (ο του κοσμου βασιλευς) in 2 Macc 7:9 fits much better in the Common Era, after the Hebrew word עולם developed the meaning “universe.” The phrase appears in no other literature, Greek or Hebrew, until this shift in meaning in the first century CE (I discuss this issue briefly here).

As has long been noted, the martyrdoms of Eleazar and the seven sons seems to be an interpolation to the flowing narrative. The expiatory nature of the sacrifice of the seven sons in chapter 7 also seems to conflict with the explanation the rest of the narrative gives for the return of God’s favor. In 2 Macc 8:1–5 the impetus is the intercessory prayer offered by Judas. This fits with the literature of the time period (Daniel, 1 Enoch, Baruch, 1 Maccabees), but chapter 7’s sacrifice fits better in the Common Era. The intercessory prayer also specifically mentions Antiochus’ atrocities up to the Eleazar pericope, but omits Eleazar’s death and those of the mother and the seven sons. The two stories seem totally foreign to the rest of the narrative.

Finally, several texts from the Common Era develop a tradition about a parent and seven sons facing death rather than betraying their ancestral laws. The tradition begins in a simple form with The Assumption of Moses 1:9, from the early first century CE. In this story it is a father, Taxo, facing the Romans, and the death of the seven sons is not described. Josephus (Jewish Antiquities 14.429) expands upon this tradition by describing the death of the sons at the hands of the father. In Pesiq. Rab. 43 the story takes a form similar to 2 Maccabees, but is typologically earlier. b. Git. 57b is roughly parallel to 2 Maccabees 7, and Midr. Lam. 1:16 is the most developed of all (even giving the mother a name).

2 Maccabees 7 fits confmortably into this developing type-scene if we date it to the late first or early second century CE, which also ameliorates issues with the use of expiatory ideology, the word “Judaism,” and the phrase “King of the Universe.” Rather than a response to Greek aggression, I believe the stories arise from the acute periods of Roman persecution, and are meant to galvanize revolutionary Jews to remain faithful to the “laws of their fathers” even in the face of death.

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2 responses to ““Judaism” and 2 Maccabees

  • On the Unity of 2 Maccabees « Daniel O. McClellan

    [...] in chapter 7 and the use of the phrase “Judaism” elsewhere in the book (which I discuss here) also support the idea that the addition of chapter 7 and the final redaction of the book occured [...]

  • Andrew

    I think your explanation is on the right track, but I would go further and guess that 2 Maccabees simply was written in the second century AD by Catholics as part of their emerging martyrology. Whether it was based on an earlier work by “Jason of Cyrene,” or if that was a fiction invented to give it the aura of antiquity, cannot be determined, but the fact that it was solely preserved by Christians, has many Christian themes, continually speaks of “the Jews” and “their” customs and forefathers as some exotic other, and uses strange euphemisms for YHWH like “King of the Universe,” should all factor in a reassessment of the supposed pre-common era, Hellenistic Jewish origin of this work. And just why would a “Hellenistic Jew” be motivated to write a book that specifically condemns Hellenism to begin with?

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