Monday, August 06, 2018

Apocrypha-lypso (3)

As we have seen repeatedly in the first two installments of this series, the standard Protestant Old Testament is not the only version of the Bible out there. Other versions exist, most of which contain a wider and more varied selection of religious books than our own Bibles.

For Catholics and those in Orthodox churches, no consideration of the relative value of the Apocryphal or Deutero-canonical texts is necessary. Their episcopate takes a position on their behalf and says to them, in effect, “Here’s your Bible.”

Protestants, on the other hand, have no central governing body to decide such issues, and I have yet to come across any local church’s statement of faith that addresses the canonicity or non-canonicity of these “extra” books. Which means it’s up to us to either evaluate them for ourselves, or else opt to put our trust in the folks who made decisions about such things in years past.

Beyond the 66 books about which everyone seems to agree, it falls to each Christian to decide for him- or herself if perhaps God may be speaking, or if honest historians have merely recorded accurate history, or if the text in front of him is a fraud. Sometimes those decisions are screamingly obvious. Other times, there is much to commend in Apocryphal literature. But the question before us at all times is not merely “Is it commendable?” or “Is it accurate?” or “Is it well written?” The question is, “Is it the word of God?”

3. 1 Maccabees

A detailed and intriguing partial history of the Greek occupation of the land of Judea in the 2nd century B.C. and its consequences for the earthly people of God, you can read the New Revised Standard text of 1 Maccabees here.

1 Maccabees opens with the Greek defeat of the Medo-Persians by Alexander the Great in 331 B.C., followed almost immediately by the division of Alexander’s kingdom, and later by the rise of Antiochus IV Epiphanes (215-164 B.C.), who governed the Greek Seleucid Empire of which Judea was a part.

Priests with Swords

The book follows the exploits of a post-exilic Jewish family of fighting priests, the five sons of Mattathias from the city of Modein. Mattathias was a Levite, arguably from the line of Aaron, who found himself politically pressured by Antiochus to abandon the worship of Jehovah and lead Israel into the observance of Gentile customs. Antiochus had stripped the temple in Jerusalem of its treasures (1:21-23), plundered the city, torn down its walls (1:31), defiled the sanctuary (1:37) and built himself a garrison there. He forbade circumcision and burnt offerings, put to death women who had their babies circumcised, and hung their dead infants from their necks (1:61).

In short, not a nice fellow. The people of Jerusalem were forced to take to the hills.

When the king’s emissary reached Modein, Mattathias defied him, killed him and struck down any Jew who obeyed Antiochus’ orders (2:24-25). He tore down the pagan altars and instigated a revolt, which, led in succession by three of his sons, Judas (surnamed Maccabeus), Jonathan and Simon, would serve to transform the nation over a forty year period. The ‘Maccabees’ forcibly circumcised Jewish babies, fought pitched battles with the occupying forces, and preserved the written law Antiochus was bent on destroying. Their priestly authority and resolute defiance of the oppressor drew other harassed Israelites to them.

The Hammer Falls

After the death of Mattathias, Judas Maccabeus took command of the resistance. Maccabee means “hammer”, and Judas’ victories are often portrayed as hammerings. He put his enemies to the torch (3:5). He defeated Apollonius in battle and killed him (3:11-12). He rebuffed successive attacks by 47,000 and 65,000 Gentile troops with as little as 10,000 men and a great deal of prayer. He marched on the citadel at Jerusalem, cleansed the sanctuary, reconsecrated and rededicated the temple and fortified the city. From there he made forays into Gilead and Galilee to take back towns and villages under Gentile control.

With Rome on the verge of becoming a significant world power, Judas sent emissaries to make an alliance with them against the Greeks. But shortly thereafter, he died in battle with the army of Demetrius. His brother Jonathan became commander of Israel’s forces in his place, and later his brother Simon, followed by Simon’s son John. The book ends with John as high priest, his father and brothers betrayed and killed, and the very Chronicles-like notation that:
“The rest of the acts of John and his wars and the brave deeds that he did, and the building of the walls that he completed, and his achievements, are written in the annals of his high priesthood, from the time that he became high priest after his father.”
The book makes heroes of a certain subset of devout Jews while portraying their traitorous, collaborative brethren in a much less flattering light. Not everyone in Israel was a fan of the Maccabees.

History and Transmission

The surviving copies of 1 Maccabees are in Greek, but show strong idiomatic indications of having been translated from Hebrew. The book made it into the Septuagint, but was not considered among the definitive 24 books of the Old Testament agreed upon by Jewish scholars in the late first century A.D.

1 Maccabees reads as straight history: no overt theology, doctrine, and definitely nothing certifiably miraculous. While it is not unreasonable to attribute several of Judas’s unlikelier victories to divine providence, none are so one-sided as to be outrageous. God has promised to protect his earthly people when they obey him and call on his name, and that is the level at which God’s involvement is evident here.

The history in Maccabees is regarded as “generally reliable“, though some of the details are considered suspect as a result of the pro-Jewish perspective of the author.

So Why Not a Larger Canon?

That brings up the obvious question: if it’s legit history and if the theology isn’t a major problem, why isn’t 1 Maccabees part of the OT canon? The Jews themselves rejected it as canonical, but should we?

Our look at the Book of Tobit showed us that theological consistency with the rest of scripture is key to canonicity, and Judith reminded us that historical consistency is just as vital. 1 Maccabees brings up an entirely different issue: the purpose of the Old Testament canon. If the OT exists to serve as nothing more profound than a series of ancient and carefully preserved writings pulled from various periods in Israelite history to testify to their national history and religious beliefs, then surely 1 Maccabees belongs.

But this is not the case at all. As Adrian Rogers points out here, and as others have pointed out throughout the centuries, the books of the Old Testament canon are not just individual bits of history, but part of a sustained spiritual narrative. Even non-believers like Jordan Peterson, doing little more than a quick-and-dirty survey of the Bible, recognize this:
“It’s a funny thing that the Bible has a story, because it wasn’t written as a book: it was assembled from a whole bunch of different books. The fact that it got assembled into something resembling a story is quite remarkable.”
Now, not everyone, religious or secular, agrees about the finer details of what that narrative is actually saying, but the Lord Jesus maintained it is all about him, and most Christians would agree.

The Theme of the Old Testament

Thus Genesis speaks of the Offspring of the woman who would one day “bruise the head” of the serpent, and later of the “Lamb” God had promised to provide. Exodus provides evidence God wanted to take out of the world a people with whom he would establish a covenant relationship through a Mediator. In fact, every one of the 39 OT books in the Protestant canon advances the ongoing narrative concerning the coming of the Christ in some relevant way, whether it is the need for a Messiah, the tribe from which Messiah would come, the circumstances of his birth, his character or the nature of his work. Even the seemingly endless genealogies with which the OT is rife provide evidence later used by the writers of the gospels to establish that Jesus of Nazareth was the whole point of the narrative.

With this in mind, any book for which claims to a divine origin are made (none are made for Maccabees, so far as I am aware) needs to contain more than accurate history and solid theology: it needs to deliver to God’s people some aspect of his message to man not found anywhere else, or else make a specific spiritual point more convincingly than some part of the existing canon. There is no hint that 1 Maccabees gives the people of God (either Jewish or Christian) anything of a spiritual nature than we do not have in spades elsewhere. Even the message “God is able to preserve his people” is made more convincingly in Esther. There, the threat to the Jews is more than dire; it is existential.

Besides, our Protestant Old Testament currently ends with Malachi, while our New Testament begins with Matthew. The thematic flow from the end of Malachi 4 into the coming of John the Baptist in the early chapters of Matthew is about as perfect a segue as anyone could ask for. I’d hate to disrupt it with anything that didn’t have an indisputable claim to a place in the canon.

The Value of 1 Maccabees

The immediate historical fulfillment of much of Daniel 8 is found in greater detail in 1 Maccabees than almost anywhere else. That alone makes it as useful a read as any other historical document of its period.

Readability: 8/10
Plausibility: 7/10

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