The Apocrypha in Lent – 28 February

If this is your first visit, please see my introduction to these Lenten readings.

28 February. 2 Maccabees chapters 1-4

The books of Maccabees, set in the second century BCE, cover known historical events but from a biased pro-Jewish perspective. Whereas the first book follows a chronological sequence, the second one, as explained in the “editor’s preface” in chapter 2, seems more like an anthology of anecdotes.

Chapter 3 opens the book proper, with a tale of the appearance of three angelic figures, one of them on horseback, to smite Heliodorus, an envoy of the Greek king who had been sent to confiscate the contents of the treasury of the Temple in Jerusalem.  Confusingly the Simon referred to in this chapter is not the Simon Maccabee whose exploits ended the first book, but an earlier man of the same name.  Here we see quite clearly how corrupt Jewish society had become under Greek influence: although the Temple leaders and ordinary people are pictured praying to God for deliverance, what they are most concerned about is “calling on the Lord to preserve the deposits intact for the depositors in full security” (3:22).

Chapter 4 tells of how the high-priesthood also became increasingly corrupt in the time before the Maccabees came on the scene. Onias is presented in chapter 3 as a saintly high priest, but first his brother Jason, and them Menelaus, effectively buy the office from the absentee king Antiochus. Onias ends up being murdered in an act of treachery – effectively a hired killing set up by Menelaus – and Menelaus then buys his way out of court.  Such a corrupt use of wealth seems to have horrified even the leaders of what was clearly a wealth-obsessed society.

Although succeeding chapters relate how the Maccabees rose up against the Greek overlords, they were no better when it came to honest government.  In my comments on 1 Maccabees, I suggested that the Maccabees were trying to compare themselves to great kings of the past like David, but without the true faith in God that had inspired David, or like Victorian magnates who put on a show of piety while being more concerned about profits than natural justice.

No wonder Jesus, coming along a few generations later when the successors of the Maccabees, the Pharisees, were in power, warned so strongly that “one cannot serve both God and wealth” and of the “yeast of the Pharisees” that would corrupt the whole of society.