On the Unity of 2 Maccabees

In the 70s there were a number of publications promoting a fragmented provenance for the book of 2 Maccabees (Habicht and Momigliano, primarily). More recently that perspective has been mitigated in favor of a view that sees the text as unified when it first came from the pen of the epitomizer (see van Henten, Doran, and most recently Schwartz). From Doran:

The epitome is a unified piece . . . and not a patchwork quilt of sources.

While I think the narrative is generally a unified text, the martyrs of Eleazar and the mother and her seven sons are, I believe, late interpolations into the narrative. I’d like to present a couple considerations which I believe support this view.

The martyrdoms of Eleazar and the seven sons are often referred to as a turning point within the narrative. Their deaths, acting as expiatory sacrifices, catalyzed the subsequent victories of Judas and his men. Interestingly enough, when Judas gives his intercessory prayer with his men (2 Macc 8:2–4), he fails to mention the martyrdoms. He cites the blasphemies committed prior to the martyrdoms (2 Macc 6:1–11), but he is silent regarding any subsequent improprieties on the part of the king. If these events were really the impetus for Judas’ descent from the mountains and return to battle, he seems rather indifferent to, or even ignorant of, them. Additionally, the text seems to treat the intercessory prayer as the catalyst for the return of God‘s favor. Immediately following the prayer in chapter 8 we are told simply that the Lord’s wrath turned to mercy.

A look at contemporary Jewish literature also shows intercessory prayers are consistently represented as the event that leads to divine intervention. In 1 Maccabees it is Judas’ intercessory prayer alone that restores the Lord’s mercy. The situation is same in Daniel chapter 9, 1 Enoch 47, and Baruch 2–5. Throughout the Maccabean period the prayers of the righteous serve to appease the wrath of God. Martyrdom is conspicuously absent as such a catalyst. Thus 2 Maccabees provides its own turning point independent of chapter 7. The excision of the chapter is further supported by 2 Macc 6:12–17, where the author comforts the reader after having described the brutal improprieties of Antiochus. No explanation or warning accompanies the more grisly deaths of 6:18–7:42, and Judas’ prayer in chapter 8 specifically names only those crimes that precede the martyrological interjection.

In my estimation, there is little reason to reject chapter 7 as a later addition to the narrative. The phrase “King of the Universe” 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 not in the second century BCE, but in the late first or early second century CE.



3 responses to “On the Unity of 2 Maccabees

  • Joel


    1.) How late do you consider late? The author of Hebrews is believed to refer to the mother with seven sons in its ‘hall of faith’ passage.

    2.) Considering that 2nd Maccabees is a propaganda piece, could it be that the author pieced it together (especially considering the Hebrew original of 1st Maccabees) and that the prayer of Judas is original to him, but that the added story of the martyrs were added to the Tradition which births this book?

    While I cannot fully argue either way – especially since reading such books doom the soul (66 or 67 or 68 and no more) – but it would seem to me that the author is only recounting Tradition(s) which would allow for (dis)honest story telling, and not interpolations.

  • Daniel O. McClellan

    Thanks for the comments Joel. Regarding (1), I have interacted with Hebrews 11. The earliest manuscript we have attesting to those verses is from around 200 CE. I prefer a date for 2 Macc 7 around the latter end of 70-135 CE. I’m aware of the different arguments for late and early dates for Hebrews, but I don’t think any of them are solid enough to preclude my thesis. 4 Maccabees is bigger obstacle, in my mind, but I discuss that at length in my much lengthier paper.

    Regarding (2), van Henten has proposed that the martyrdoms may predate the composition of the rest of 2 Macc, but were fully incorporated into the narrative. I am more inclined to the opposite view, that they are subsequent to the surrounding narrative and not fully integrated into it.

    The first explicit reference to the Maccabean martyrs is Clement of Alexandria, then Origen. Hebrews is fuzzy (date-wise), but the martyrs aren’t mentioned by Philo or Josephus, despite lengthy martyrologies. The developing Jewish tradition of a parent and seven sons begins in the early Common Era with a father (quoted in Josephus). Using women as martyrological ideals springs up early in the second century CE among Christian texts, and if we put 2 Macc 7 here it fits perfectly into the trajectory of the parent and seven sons tradition. Better resurrection as a recompense for martyrdom also springs up right about this time. There are several other considerations I go over in my most recent draft of this paper, as well. I’m more than happy to provide anyone who is interested a copy of that paper, as well. I’m always looking for a fresh set of eyes on my research.

    I appreciate your time, Joel. I hope that responds in a round-about way to your questions.

  • Joel

    I would necessarily opt for an earlier date for Hebrews, which would have my chronology for the inclusion of Martyrs a tad bit differently.

    I look forward, however, to others thoughts, and I am always interested in new information.

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