THE MACCABEE REVOLT AND THE GOSPEL BOOKS
At this time of year, as the Church looks to the “end-times” and the fulfillment of all things in Christ’s Second Advent, readings from the last two Books of the Old Testament, the First and Second Books of the Maccabees occur in the readings for Mass and the Divine Office. The events of the Maccabee Revolt are important for understanding the social context of the Gospel Books.
What was the Maccabee Revolt? About 167 years before Christ’s Birth, the Jewish nation was threatened with destruction by its Greek overlords. Alexander the Great’s generals had divided up his vast conquests after his death and set themselves up as kings in their own right. (This occurred about 300 years before Christ.)
The Jews in Judea and Jerusalem were a vassal state of one of these Greek Kingdoms. Ruled by their High Priest in Jerusalem, they paid annual tribute to the Greek King in Antioch and were left to run their own internal affairs. Conspiratorial plotting from within Jerusalem to depose the High Priest , however, ended up bringing in the Greek King Antiochus Epiphanes who set about to level the Jewish religious customs and make them conform to Greek pagan ways.
The violence used against the Jews to accomplish this provoked two reactions. Some resisted by simply refusing to comply. Even when faced with torture and death, they would not disobey the commandments of the Torah. These people were known as the “pious ones” or the Hasidim. Others, however, resisted the king’s violence with a violence of their own. They killed Jewish “traitors” and they formed a guerilla army in the hill country of Judea.
They were led by the five brothers of a priestly family, particularly a man called Judas “Maccabeus”—the “Hammer”. These were the “Holy Warriors”. Their re-conquest of Jerusalem and the re-dedication of the Temple, which had been profaned by the pagan Greeks, is the basis for the Jewish feast of Hanukkah.
The Maccabee wars ushered in an era of massive violence, which, in the long-term, set the stage for the Roman domination of Judea and the rise of the Roman’s loyal client, the tyrant Herod the Great, who held the title “King of the Jews” by Rome’s favor. Among the Jewish people, however, the story of the Maccabee Revolt took on a life of its own. It became, in legend, a heroic, mythical story wherein the “holy warriors” were the ones who acted as God’s avengers and saved Israel.
We see the effect of this in the way the Lord Jesus is measured up against the popular Maccabee-like expectations of the Messiah. Surely, he will be like Judas Maccabeus—only he will raise up an even greater army, of epic proportions, to restore the kingdom to Israel! Our Lord, for His part, recalls the legacy of the Hasidim of that time—those who suffered and died for the Law but did not resist—and rejects the Holy Warriors: “He who liveth by the sword, dieth by the sword.”
The Catholic Church canonizes the Hasidim and honors them with a liturgical feast: the Feast of the Holy Maccabees, celebrated on August 1st. She is much more ambivalent about the “Holy Warriors” and their legacy of violence.