The "Holy Maccabee Martyrs" [1]

The frustration of constantly having to explain to non-Jewish neighbours that Hanukkah is not "the Jewish Christmas" serves to confirm the conviction that the Festival of Lights, as a supreme celebration of Jewish nationalism is, more than any other of our holidays, uniquely Jewish. Since it is not mentioned in the Bible, it does not make up part of the "common heritage" that we are supposed to share with Christianity.

In actuality this hypothesis turns out to be completely wrong. Seen from a historical perspective, the above picture can be totally reversed: The principal documents of the events, which are contained in the first two "Books of Maccabees," were actually preserved not by Jews, but by the Christian Church. Our own Talmudic sources retained only the vaguest of memories of the wars, preferring to emphasize other aspects of the festival, such as the laws of the kindling of the lamps and such peripheral tales as the miracle of the oil jar.

Among the Christians, on the contrary, the Books of Maccabees were, until very recently, accepted as part of their Bibles. This was true of most of the older Protestant versions, including the standard "King James" English translation of 1611, and it is still the case in most Roman Catholic editions.

In order to understand how this came about we must transport ourselves back to Alexandria, Egypt, the home of one of the most renowned Jewish communities of antiquity.

Greek and Hebrew Bibles

Like many of us today, most of the Greek-speaking Alexandrian Jews were not comfortable enough in Hebrew to read their Bible in the original and had to make use of a Greek translation. Their translation, which we loosely refer to as the Septuagint, after the Greek version of the Torah which was its earliest and most revered component, came to include Greek versions of the rest of the entire Hebrew Bible. The versions current in Alexandria also came to contain a number of other, later works (and expansions to Biblical books). Among these latter works were included the "Books of Maccabees."

With the development of the Christian Church, its leaders were quick to choose the Alexandrian Jewish Bible as its official Greek version. This choice reflected the veneration with which the Septuagint had long been regarded by the Jews, and also served special Christian interests: some central Christian claims for support from "Old Testament" prophecy made sense only in the Septuagint translation (e.g. the doctrine of virgin birth originated in a mistaken rendering of Isaiah 7:14).

It is generally believed that it was because of the Septuagint's identification with the Church, and because it did not reflect the sophisticated exegetical (midrashic) methods being developed in Eretz Israel that it came to be abandoned by the Jews, though the Talmud preserves the legend of the miraculous circumstances surrounding its composition.

Reprinted from the Calgary Jewish Star
Those works which were included in the Greek, but not in the Hebrew Bible, came to be known as the "hidden" books--the Apocrypha. Among these were the Books of Maccabees.

The Maccabee Inspiration

As a result of this development the persecutions of Antiochos Epiphanes, the heroism of the Jewish martyrs and the military exploits of the Maccabees were all familiar topics to any medieval Christian who read his Bible. By contrast, Jews knew of the events only from incomplete translations into Hebrew that had been made from the Christian Apocrypha collections.

This is especially ironic when we recall how conspicuously Jewish the Books of Maccabees are in their religious attitudes and ideologies. First Maccabees was composed in Hebrew, but the original has been lost, probably irretrievably.

As part of the Christian heritage, the events and personalities of the Hanukkah story were used as archetypes for distinctly Christian ideals and concerns. The ancient Jewish martyrs, ready to die for their faith, served as models of inspiration for Christians facing persecution at the hands of the Romans, even as Antiochos was perceived as a prototype of anti-Christian tyrants like Nero or Diocletian.

Like the Jews, the Catholics were generally more impressed with the accounts of martyrdom than with the military victories.

The only event from the Books of Maccabees to find its way into the Talmud is, I believe, the touching tale of the mother and her seven sons who stalwartly chose death rather than participate in idolatrous worship. This story is given special emphasis by Church tradition as well, and it is these martyrs, rather than the military heroes of the revolt, who are normally referred to as "the Holy Maccabees," and whose deeds are celebrated throughout the Catholic Church on August 1st--the only "Old Testament" figures to achieve such an honour.

Imagine celebrating Hanukkah in the middle of summer!

At a later period, the religious militancy of the Maccabees was cited as a precedent for various "holy wars," including the Crusades (whose victims were often innocent Jews) and other military campaigns taken in the name of the faith.

The Maccabees' readiness to oppose the "legal" rulers of Judea inspired various Christian dissident groups who found themselves in rebellion against the State or against the official Church--an imagery which was drawn upon repeatedly during the Protestant Reformation (though the Catholics also found ways to see themselves as the legitimate heirs to the Maccabees).

Interestingly, the rise of autonomous nation-states in the modern era led to a re-interpretation of the Maccabean uprising. Those writers who proclaimed the supremacy of the State tended to favour the position of Antiochos. Thus, Voltaire (who was at any rate a virulent anti-Semite) praised Antiochos as the legitimate and cultured king of Judea, who justly tried to stamp out the disobedience of the barbarous Jewish rebels. This re-reading of events became even more popular among scholars with the rise of political anti-Semitism in Europe.

Perhaps the most welcome consequence of the familiarity of Christians with the story of the Maccabees is the way that it has also served as a source of inspiration to artists and composers. In particular, one feels a certain gratitude for the fact that G. F. Handel composed his oratorio "Judas Maccabeus" whose pompous themes fill the Israeli radio waves during the Hanukkah season, and serves as the only real alternative to the ubiquitous Maoz Tzur tune.

This article and many others are now included in the book

Holidays, History and HalakhahHolidays, History and Halakhah

by Jason Aronson Publishers

Return to Index

My e-mail address is

First Publication: JS, Dec. 2 1988.