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2 Maccabees is a deuterocannonical book of the Bible which focuses on the Jews' revolt against Antiochus and concludes with the defeat of the Syrian general Nicanor in 161 BC by Judas Maccabeus, the hero of the work. Catholics and Orthodox consider the work to be canonical and part of the Bible. Protestants and Jews, while not considering it to be Scripture, consider it useful as a historical supplement to 1 Maccabees, but reject most of the doctrinal innovations present in the work. Some Protestants include 2 Maccabees as part of the Apocrypha, useful for reading in the church.
The author of 2 Maccabees is not identified, but he claims to be abridging a 5-volume work by Jason of Cyrene. This longer work is not preserved, and it is uncertain how much of the present text of 2 Maccabees is simply copied from that work. The author wrote in Greek, apparently, as there is no particular evidence of an earlier Hebrew version. A few sections of the book, such as the Preface, Epilogue, and some reflections on morality are generally assumed to come from the author, not from Jason. Jason's work was apparently written sometime around 100 BC and most likely ended with the defeat of Nicanor, as does the abridgement available to us.
The beginning of the book includes two letters sent by Jews in Jerusalem to Jews of the Diaspora in Egypt concerning the feast day set up to celebrate the purification of the temple (See Hanukkah) and the feast to celebrate the defeat of Nicanor. If the author of the book inserted these letters, the book would have to have been written after 124 BC, the date of the second letter. Some commentators hold that these letters were a later addition, while others consider them the basis for the work. Catholic scholars tend toward a dating in the last years of the second century BC, while the consensus among Jewish scholars place it in the second half of the first century BC.
It appears to be written for the benefit of the diaspora Jews in Egypt, primarily to inform them about the restoration of the temple and to encourage them to make the yearly pilgrimage to Jerusalem. It is written not from the point of view of a professional historian, but rather of a religious teacher, who draws his lessons out of history.
Unlike 1 Maccabees, 2 Maccabees does not attempt to provide a complete account of the events of the period, instead covering only the period from the high priest Onias III and King Seleucus IV (180 BC) to the defeat of Nicanor in 161.
In general, the chronology of the book coheres with that of 1 Maccabees, and it has some historical value in supplementing 1 Maccabees, principally in providing a few apparently authentic historical documents. The author seems primarily interested in providing a theological interpretation of the events; in this book God's interventions direct the course of events, punishing the wicked and restoring the Temple to his people. It's possible that some events appear to be presented out of strict chronological order in order to make theological points. Some of the numbers cited for sizes of armies may also appear exaggerated though not all of the manuscripts of this book agree.
The Greek style of the writer is very educated, and he seems well-informed about Greek customs. The action follows a very simple plan: After the death of Antiochus Epiphanes, the Feast of the Dedication of the Temple is instituted. The newly dedicated Temple is threatened by Nicanor, and after his death, the festivities for the dedication are concluded.
2 Maccabees is notable for several points of advanced doctrine deriving from Pharisaic Judaism. Many have suggested that this is the primary reason for its rejection—and following from that, the rejection of all the deuterocannonical books—by reformers such as Martin Luther, who said: "I am so great an enemy to the second book of the Maccabees, and to Esther, that I wish they had not come to us at all." Doctrinal issues that are raised in 2 Maccabees include:
- Prayer for the dead to free them from sin (See Purgatory.)
- Expiatory sacrificial offerings for the dead
- Merits of the martyrs
- Intercession of the saints
- Resurrection from the dead (not a Jewish belief)
Particularly the offering of prayers for the dead and the resurrection of the dead are not found in other contemporary Jewish sources as even the "Kaddish," a prayer Jews say when a relative or family member dies, is used to proclaim the glory of God.
In particular, the long descriptions of the martyrdoms of Eleazer and of a mother with her seven sons (2 Macc 6:18–7:42) caught the imagination of medieval Christians. Several churches are dedicated to the "Maccabeean martyrs", and they are among the very few pre-Christian figures to appear on the Catholic calendar of saints' days. The book is considered the first model of the medieval stories of the martyrs. It's interesting to note that Hebrews 11:35 is a possible reference to this event.
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