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Notes from Limmud 2007

Why the Books of Maccabees Didn't Make It Into The Jewish Bible

Lindsey Taylor-Guthartz

Disputes Over Books of the Bible

There are four books of the Maccabees. Three of them tell the story of the struggle of the Hasmoneans against the Seleucids of Antiochus Epiphanes. They are the main source of our information about the festival of Chanukah—the only Jewish festival with no Biblical associations at all. (Tu Bishvat is really a tax day!)

In order to answer the question of why the Books of Maccabees didn't make it into the Jewish Bible, we must ask when was the Bible closed? The books of the Bible date down to ca. 500 BCE, though there are books which were probably written later. What were the criteria for a book to get into the Bible? Are the Books of Maccabees up to that standard?

The term canonisation of the Bible comes, via the Greeks, from Hebrew qane, a measuring stick—a yardstick. Different parts were canonised at different times. The Torah, of course, was a foundational document. The Prophets were also canonised pretty early on, pretty much as and when they were written, with the only exception of the Book of Ezekiel. This is not because of the mystical vision but ch.s 47-48 where Ezekiel presents an order of sacrifice contradicting the order of sacrifice in the Torah. The rabbis proposed to put it in a geniza, so the book would not be copied and would not survive. Then חנניה בן חזקיהו came along and took 300 barrels of oil up to his attic for lighting purposes, and worked through all the contradictions, and the rabbis were then happy to accept this book. (Unfortunately they didn't record his resolutions.)

For the Hagiographa, however, there were more problems, and disputes were recorded in the Talmud. Psalms was fine, as was Proverbs. Job was not discussed much, but gets in, which is interesting as it's not a very Jewish book, and one the later rabbis had much trouble getting their heads around. The speaker speculates it got in under the net before people started worrying about this.

קהלת was allegedly written by Solomon, but contains not-very-rabbinic thought, and the rabbis were troubled by it. (Some people think the last few verses, which redeem it, were added on explicitly for that purpose.) Esther is late, and a bit iffy. It's the only book not found amongst the Dead Sea Scrolls. שיר השירים was also a bit on-the-edge, but got in. Daniel was also a bit iffy, but also got in.

So, the later you get, the iffier you get. The borderline ones we have disputes for.

Then you have the books that get away, e.g. Ben Sira (Ecclesiasticus), which very nearly made it. The Talmud will quote from it with שנאמר and שכתוב, which are normally used to quote Scripture—as late as the Talmudic period, some people thought it was in!

The rabbinic term for whether a book is in is "does it make your hands impure?" This is counter-intuitive: if the book is holy, the scroll makes the hands impure. Various improbable reasons are adduced for this: If a cohen has impure hands, he can't eat תרומה. So there is an issue about handling and storing תרומה. People make scrolls out of leather. Mice eat leather. Mice eat agricultural food. Therefore if you store your holy book next to your תרומה, mice will walk over and eat it. Therefore, if the holy book makes the hands impure, you will not store it next to the תרומה! Post-facto explanation, anyone?

The discussions are in Eduyot, an early tractate of the Mishna recording memories of people who saw the Temple before it was destroyed (in 70CE).

Eduyot 5:3 עדיות ה ג
Ecclesiastes does not make the hands impure, according to the House of Shammai, but the House of Hillel say it does. קהלת אינו מטמא את הידים כדברי בית שמאי׃ ובית הלל אומרים מטמא את הידים׃
Yadayim 3:5 ידיים ג ה
Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes make the hands impure. Rabbi Yehudah says: Song of Songs makes the hands impure, but the status of Ecclesiastes is disputed. Rabbi Yose says: Ecclesiastes does not make the hands impure, but the status of Song of Songs is disputed. R. Shimon ben Azzai says: I heard from the 72 sages [the Sanhedrin] who elected Rabbi Eleazar ben Azariah [as nasi] that both Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes make the hands impure. R. Akiva says: Heaven forbid: Nobody ever disputed the status of Song of Songs, for the entire world is not worth the day on which Song of Songs was given to Israel; for all the Scriptures are holy, but Song of Songs is the Holy of Holies! And if they did disagree, it was only about Ecclesiastes. שיר השירים וקהלת מטמאין את הידים׃ רבי יהודה אומר שיר השירים מטמא את הידים וקהלת מחלקת׃ רבי יוסי אומר קהלת אינו מטמא את הידים ושיר השירים מחלקת׃ רבי שמעון אומר קהלת מקולי בית שמאי ומחומרי בית הלל׃ אמר רבי שמעון בן עזאי מקובל אני מפי שבעים ושנים זקן ביום שהושיבו את רבי אלעזר בן עזריה בישיבה ששיר השירים וקהלת מטמאים את הידים׃ אמר רבי עקיבה חס ושלום לא נחלק אדם מישראל על שיר השירים שלא תטמא את הידים שאין כל העולם כולו כדאי כיום שנתן בו שיר השירים לישראל שכל הכתובים קודש ושיר השירים קודש קודשים׃ ואם נחלקו לא נחלקו אלא על קהלת׃

I.e. there was major disagreement, and went on being major disagreement for a long time. Some people say the Bible was decided at the time of Yavne, but R. Akiva is 70 years later than this. In fact, there was a period of about two or three hundred years, after which there was a canon.

Avot deRabbi Natan 1:2 reflects this (though is not historical in its dates):

Abba Shaul says: ... Originally, it is said, Mishlei [Proverbs], Song of Songs and Ecclesiastes were suppressed; for since they were held to be mere parables and no part of the Holy Writings, they arose and suppressed them; until the men of Hezekiah came along and interpreted them.

The Biblical Book That Isn't A Biblical Book

Let's have a look at a book that didn't get in: Ben Sira (44:1—15).

Let us now praise famous men, and our fathers that begat us.
The Lord hath wrought great glory by them through his great power from the beginning.
Such as did bear rule in their kingdom, men renowned for their power, giving counsel by their understanding, and declaring prophecies:
Leaders of the people by their counsels, and by their knowledge of learning meet for the people, wise and eloquent are their instructions:
Such as found out musical tunes, and recited verses in writing:
Rich men furnished with ability, living peaceably in their habitations:
All these were honoured in their generation, and were the glory of their times.
There be of them, that have left a name behind them, that their praises might be reported.
And some there be, which have no memorial; who are perished, as though they had never been; and are become as though they never had been born; and their children after them.
But these were merciful men, whose righteousness hath not been forgotten.
With their seed shall continually remain a good inheritance, and their children are within the covenant.
Their seed standeth fast, and their children for their sakes.
Their seed shall remain for ever, and their glory shall not be blotted out.
Their bodies are buried in peace; but their name liveth for evermore.
The people will tell of their wisdom, and the congregation will shew forth their praise.

This used to be read at Remembrance Sunday and so forth; a line from this was selected for WW1 memorials by Rudyard Kipling (who lost a son in the war).

Why didn't this book get into the Bible? Mishna, Yadayim 2:13:

The books of Ben Sira and all the books written from then onwards do not make the hands impure.

This despite the tractate of Bava Kama saying it is a book of the Bible, though; and the above references to דכתיב.

The Candidates

Now let's look at the Books of Maccabees as candidates. These books are not actually linked; and some are better candidates than others.

1 Maccabees

1 Maccabees we only have in Greek nowadays, because it survived in the Christian Apocrypha, but the Jews dumped it. (Possibly the Jews dumped it partially because the Christians were interested in them.) We can tell the book was originally written in Biblical-style Hebrew because of phrases like "found favour in your eyes". This is not a natural phrase in English or Greek.

It's a history book covering the years from 175 BCE when Antiochus came to the throne, through the years of the persecution of the Jews, and the Hasmonean revolt, down to the death of Shimon in 135 BCE. It's our main and sometimes only source of history for this period, and seems to be accurate. (The other source we have is Josephus.)

We don't know who the author was; he appears to be a deeply religious man. He's not into miracles. There's no mention of the jug of oil—this was not found until in the Talmud, written seven hundred years later! We don't know when it was written, but probably before 63 BCE, when the Romans heaved onto the scene. After that the Jews went off the Romans very rapidly. In this book, the author speaks of the Romans with approval.

1 Maccabees 2:1-28:

In those days Mattathias son of John son of Simeon, a priest of the family of Joarib, moved from Jerusalem and settled in Mode'in. He had five sons, John surnamed Gaddi, Simeon called Thassi, Judas called Maccabeus, Eleazar called Avaran, and Jonathan called Apphus.

He saw the blasphemies being committed in Judea and Jerusalem, and said,

"Alas! Why was I born to see this,
the ruin of my people, the ruin of the holy city,
and to live there when it was given over to the enemy,
the sanctuary given over to aliens?
Her temple has become like a person without honor;
her glorious vessels have been carried into exile.
Her infants have been killed in her streets,
her youths by the sword of the foe.
What nation has not inherited her palaces
and has not seized her spoils?
All her adornment has been taken away;
no longer free, she has become a slave.
And see, our holy place, our beauty,
and our glory have been laid waste;
the Gentiles have profaned them. Why should we live any longer?"
Then Mattathias and his sons tore their clothes, put on sackcloth, and mourned greatly.

The king's officers who were enforcing the apostasy came to the town of Modein to make them offer sacrifice. Many from Israel came to them; and Mattathias and his sons were assembled. Then the king's officers spoke to Mattathias as follows: "You are a leader, honored and great in this town, and supported by sons and brothers. Now be the first to come and do what the king commands, as all the Gentiles and the people of Judea and those that are left in Jerusalem have done. Then you and your sons will be numbered among the friends of the king, and you and your sons will be honored with silver and gold and many gifts."

But Mattathias answered and said in a loud voice: "Even if all the nations that live under the rule of the king obey him, and have chosen to obey his commandments, everyone of them abandoning the religion of their ancestors, I and my sons and my brothers will continue to live by the covenant of our ancestors. Far be it from us to desert the law and the ordinances. We will not obey the king's words by turning aside from our religion to the right hand or to the left."

When he had finished speaking these words, a Jew came forward in the sight of all to offer sacrifice on the altar in Modein, according to the king's command. When Mattathias saw it, he burned with zeal and his heart was stirred. He gave vent to righteous anger; he ran and killed him on the altar. At the same time he killed the king's officer who was forcing them to sacrifice, and he tore down the altar. Thus he burned with zeal for the law, just as Pinchas did against Zimri son of Salu.

Then Mattathias cried out in the town with a loud voice, saying: "Let every one who is zealous for the law and supports the covenant come out with me!" Then he and his sons fled to the hills and left all that they had in the town.

At that time many who were seeking righteousness and justice went down to the wilderness to live there, they, their sons, their wives, and their cattle, because troubles pressed heavily upon them.

It's like the Bible, and yet unlike it. There is a reference to Pinchas attacking Zimri ben Sallu. Possibly by appealing to Pinchas the author is saying he did the right thing, because it's one of those situations (i.e. he was right to take the law into his own hands). He's also echoing Jeremiah; and the Torah in terms like "their sons, their wives and their cattle."

It doesn't all sound like books of the Bible, though: The speeches are too long; in the Bible speeches are short. This is more like Greek historical writing, where you put what they should have said, in noble and rhetorical language, into the mouths of the characters.

2 Maccabees

This is very different; it's not a historical work, but a religious work, and seems to have been an abbreviation of a longer work in five volumes. The author was Jason of Cyrene. At this time there were Jewish communities in Judaea, and Babylonia, and a million-strong community in Alexandria and its child communities in the Maghreb. Jason of Cyrene was one of these.

The book covers 15 years, in the time of Judah Maccabee, covering the period until his victory over Nicanor at 13 Adar 164 BCE.

The book starts with two letters, one dated 124 BCE, addressed to the Jews of Alexandria asking them to observe Chanukah. Clearly at this time, the festical was still being propagated through the Jewish world. The style is florid. The story of the mother with the seven sons appears here, but also in Gittin and Eicha Rabbah—and is in a different setting in each one! (In Gittin it's under the Romans.) The woman also has different names: Miriam in Gittin, Hannah here. If such an incident ever happened, the stories we have are an amalgam of different incidents.

There angels here, and omens too; and there's a clear message: the nation's sin brings punishment. Also, the strength of the Jews lies in their observance of מצות. This is the first place where the clash of civilisations between Judaism and Hellenism arises.

There are some eyewitness touches here, but we can't date the book to any better than 125-63 BCE.

2 Maccabees 7:1-6 24-39 (the passage in question with the goriest bits removed):

It happened also that seven brothers and their mother were arrested and were being compelled by the king, under torture with whips and cords, to partake of unlawful swine's flesh. One of them, acting as their spokesman, said, "What do you intend to ask and learn from us? For we are ready to die rather than transgress the laws of our fathers."

The king fell into a rage, and gave orders that pans and caldrons be heated. These were heated immediately, and he commanded that the tongue of their spokesman be cut out ... the brothers and their mother encouraged one another to die nobly, saying, "The Lord God is watching over us and in truth has compassion on us, as Moses declared in his song which bore witness against the people to their faces, when he said, `And he will have compassion on his servants.'" [Deuteronomy 32.36]

[Deaths of the other brothers]

The youngest brother being still alive, Antiochus not only appealed to him in words, but promised with oaths that he would make him rich and enviable if he would turn from the ways of his fathers, and that he would take him for his friend and entrust him with public affairs. Since the young man would not listen to him at all, the king called the mother to him and urged her to advise the youth to save himself. After much urging on his part, she undertook to persuade her son. But, leaning close to him, she spoke in their native tongue [Aramaic] as follows, deriding the cruel tyrant: "My son, have pity on me. I carried you nine months in my womb, and nursed you for three years, and have reared you and brought you up to this point in your life, and have taken care of you. I beseech you, my child, to look at the heaven and the earth and see everything that is in them, and recognize that God did not make them out of things that existed. Thus also mankind comes into being. Do not fear this butcher, but prove worthy of your brothers. Accept death, so that in God's mercy I may get you back again with your brothers."

While she was still speaking, the young man said, "What are you waiting for? I will not obey the king's command, but I obey the command of the law that was given to our fathers through Moses. But you, who have contrived all sorts of evil against the Hebrews, will certainly not escape the hands of God. For we are suffering because of our own sins. And if our living Lord is angry for a little while, to rebuke and discipline us, He will again be reconciled with His own servants. But you, unholy wretch, you most defiled of all men, do not be elated in vain and puffed up by uncertain hopes, when you raise your hand against the children of heaven. You have not yet escaped the judgment of the almighty, all-seeing God. For our brothers after enduring a brief suffering have drunk of everflowing life under God's covenant; but you, by the judgment of God, will receive just punishment for your arrogance. I, like my brothers, give up body and life for the laws of our fathers, appealing to God to show mercy soon to our nation and by afflictions and plagues to make you confess that He alone is God, and through me and my brothers to bring to an end the wrath of the Almighty which has justly fallen on our whole nation."

The king fell into a rage, and handled him worse than the others, being exasperated at his scorn. So he died in his integrity, putting his whole trust in the Lord. Last of all, the mother died, after her sons. Let this be enough, then, about the eating of sacrifices and the extreme tortures.

Again, this is someone mouthing off against the Greeks and putting his thoughts into his characters' mouths. The book goes over the top in the way that 1 Maccabees does not.

3 Maccabees

This is the odd one out. It's written in Greek, and is nothing to do with the Maccabees. It's an explanation of why the Jews of Egypt celebrate a Purim-like story in the summer. (Apparently lots of places had a story of this kind.) There was no chance this was going to get into the Bible!

4 Maccabees

Also written in the first century BCE, also in Greek; deals with the martyrs. Christian martyrolocal literature takes off from here. Ten out of the eighteen chapters are taken up with the story of Hannah and her seven sons.

There's a philosophical slant, arguing that reason can persuade people to give up their lives for their faith:

4 Maccabees 1:7-12:

I could prove to you from many and various examples that reason is dominant over the emotions, but I can demonstrate it best from the noble bravery of those who died for the sake of virtue, Eleazar and the seven brothers and their mother. All of these, by despising sufferings that bring death, demonstrated that reason controls the emotions. On this anniversary it is fitting for me to praise for their virtues those who, with their mother, died for the sake of nobility and goodness, but I would also call them blessed for the honor in which they are held. For all people, even their torturers, marveled at their courage and endurance, and they became the cause of the downfall of tyranny over their nation. By their endurance they conquered the tyrant, and thus their native land was purified through them. I shall shortly have an opportunity to speak of this; but, as my custom is, I shall begin by stating my main principle, and then I shall turn to their story, giving glory to the all-wise God.

This is very Greek, and completely alien to the Jewish mind.

Their candidacy

So, having ruled out 3 Maccabees, would any of the others have had a chance to get into the Bible? Firstly, time is against them; they're all after the Ben-Sira cut-off date, but 1 and 2 Maccabees are only just such.

Secondly, the language factor: Only 1 Maccabees was written in Hebrew. You can't have a Greek book in the Bible! Only Hebrew and Aramaic are acceptable. And of course when Greek became a holy language for the Christians, that put the Jews well off it. (Also, the Greek/Egyptian form of Judaism exemplified by Philo didn't really take off; what we have today is the Palestinian/Babylonian form.)

Thirdly, we already had an idea of what a holy book looks like. Ben Sira, for example, does look like Proverbs. (Of course; Esther doesn't fit into this model. It is also the one book of the Bible which does not make the hands unclean.) So, this rules out 4 Maccabees.

Fourthly, the politics. The Hasmoneans started off very well, but they rapidly went downhill and became Hellenistic despots. The rabbis didn't like them because they were kings and High Priests, and weren't entitled to be; and they intrigued against each other, &c, &c, &c. This is why the miracle of the jug of oil is played up so much in the Talmud; also why the story of the martyred mother and her sons is played up, because it emphasises religion rather than party politics.

There's also the "raised-bar" factor. By this stage, if you are a book and you want to get into the Bible, you've got to be good. Perhaps this is why Esther got in: it's got "star quality". The Books of Maccabees did not: They were recent history: "What do I need a book for? I'll just ask my granddad; he was there." And possibly after the Bar Kochba revolt, people had better things to worry about, and the debate about inclusion in the Bible simply got frozen as it was.

Finally, when the rabbis discuss which of the prophets get their works written down, they say: Prophecy that was needed for the generations was written down; prophecy trhat was not needed for the generations was not written down. Possibly this was felt to apply to the Books of Maccabees too.

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