2 Maccabees

By James M. Rochford

Unless otherwise noted, all citations are taken from the New Revised Standard Version (NRSV).

As we pointed out earlier (see “1 Maccabees”), 1 Maccabees is a book credited as a good and reliable historical account, while 2 Maccabees is not. Scholars often criticize 2 Maccabees for being too corrupted from theological emphases, rather than a historical emphasis. Metzger writes, “An unmistakable characteristic of the author is the amplifying of the religious and miraculous elements in his narrative.”[1]


The author of this book is unknown. Whoever it was claims to be an abridgement of an earlier five-volume history by Jason of Cyrene. DeSilva writes, “Second Maccabees is a unique book among the Apocrypha in that its author is really an editor and abridger of a much longer work, Jason of Cyrene’s five-volume history of the Maccabean Revolt (2:23, 26, 28).”[2]


The date of the book is difficult to ascertain. Metzger writes, “Scholars have conjectured dates ranging from about 120 BC to the first half of the first Christian century.”[3] DeSilva tentatively dates it to 124 BC.[4]

Historical or theological problems

Judas purifying the Temple. 2 Maccabees states that Judas purifies the Temple two years after the altar had been desecrated (2 Macc. 10:3), while 1 Maccabees places this differently (1 Macc. 4:52; 1:54-59).

The first expedition of Lysias. The first expedition of Lysias took place before the death of Antiochus Epiphanes (1 Macc. 4:26-35). Metzger comments, “Lysias was defeated by Judas after the appearance of a horseman, clothed in white and brandishing weapons of gold, who rode at the head of the Jewish forces (chap.11).”[5]

Quotations in the Church Fathers

Cyprian paraphrases chapters 6-7 (Ad Fortunatum, 11; Exhortatio ad martyrium, 22-27).

Eusebius and Augustine also refer to this book.

Important content in the book

The book parallels 1 Maccabees chapters 1-7. However, the story starts in 175 BC, rather than 168 BC.

The author bases his theology of history on the blessings and cursings of Deuteronomy 28-30. He sees that the righteous are punished for the sins of the nation, but the righteousness of the few bring the blessings for the whole nation.

Mattathias is similar to Phineas having violent zeal for God’s law (Num. 25:6ff).

The book played a major role in defining the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah (Jn. 10:22).

Hebrews 11:35 may allude to the martyrs in 2 Maccabees being willing to endure torture and death. If this is a real allusion, it would offer no difficulty to our view of the canon. After all, the author of Hebrews could simply be citing the book as history—not inspired Scripture.

(Chapter 1) Introduction

The book opens with a desire for the reader to obey God’s commandments (1:1-6).

The book starts in 143 BC (1:7) and 124 BC (1:9).

(Chapter 2) History of Israel: Nehemiah & Jeremiah

Jeremiah instructed the people not to be led astray by money during the exile. The author wants the people to continue to keep the holy days (2:16).

In 2:19, the author starts to detail the history of the Maccabees. Jason of Cyrene had a five-volume history on these events, and the author here wants to summarize that larger work (2:23-32).

(Chapter 3) Beginning of the history of the Maccabees

A man named Simon told Apollonius of Tarsus about the great wealth in the Temple (3:6). Simon had exaggerated how much money was there (3:11).

Heliodorus tries to steal the Temple treasury. Heliodorus still confiscated the money (3:13). The people of Jerusalem called out to God in mourning. God answers the prayer by sending a rider on a horse to strike Heliodorus (3:25). They had to carry Heliodorus out on a stretcher (3:27).

The high priest Onias heals Heliodorus. Onias—the high priest—prayed and made a sacrifice for Heliodorus and the man was healed (3:32-34). Heliodorus repents of his actions.

(Chapter 4) Onias is killed, and Menelaus further betrays the Jewish people

Simon slandered Onias. Antiochus Epiphanes takes over and Jason (Onias’ brother) takes over the high priesthood (4:7). Jason starts to Hellenize the Jewish people (4:10-15), and divine disaster struck the people as a result (4:16-17).

At the Greek games, Jason tries to sacrifice 300 silver drachmas to Hercules (4:19). He welcomes Antiochus Epiphanes into Jerusalem.

Menelaus (Simon’s brother) secures the high priesthood back from Jason by outbidding him for it (4:24). But Menelaus never paid the money he promised.

Menelaus conspires with Andronicus to kill Onias (4:34). Antiochus has Andronicus killed for doing this (4:38).

Lysimachus led 3,000 men to attack the Jewish people (4:40), but the Jewish people fought back with ashes and even blocks of wood (4:41). Menelaus was put on trial for his crimes, but Menelaus weaseled his way out by bribing Ptolemy (4:46-47).

(Chapter 5) Antiochus invades and slaughters Jerusalem

Antiochus went to war with the Egyptians (5:1). Jason heard a false report that Antiochus died, and he took it as an opportunity to rush the city with a thousand men (5:5). Menelaus retreated into the inner citadel while the men were outside. Jason couldn’t overtake the citadel and had to go into hiding with the Ammonites (5:7).

Antiochus hears about the rebellion and leads a slaughter in Israel (5:11-12).

“He commanded his soldiers to cut down relentlessly everyone they met and to kill those who went into their houses. Then there was massacre of young and old, destruction of boys, women, and children, and slaughter of young girls and infants. Within the total of three days eighty thousand were destroyed, forty thousand in hand-to-hand fighting, and as many were sold into slavery as were killed” (5:12-14).

Next, Antiochus (along with Menelaus) plundered the Temple (5:15). The author notes that God allowed this plunder, because he was judging the people.

“Antiochus sent Apollonius, the captain of the Mysians, with an army of twenty-two thousand, and commanded him to kill all the grown men and to sell the women and boys as slaves” (5:24).

They did this on the Sabbath, so that the Jewish people wouldn’t fight (5:25).

Judas Maccabeus flees to the country to live off the land (5:27).

(Chapter 6) Horrible persecution for the Jewish people

“Not long after this, the king sent an Athenian senator to compel the Jews to forsake the laws of their ancestors and no longer to live by the laws of God; also to pollute the temple in Jerusalem and to call it the temple of Olympian Zeus, and to call the one in Gerizim the temple of Zeus-the-Friend-of-Strangers, as did the people who lived in that place” (6:1-2).

“The temple was filled with debauchery and reveling by the Gentiles, who dallied with prostitutes and had intercourse with women within the sacred precincts, and besides brought in things for sacrifice that were unfit” (6:4).

The people couldn’t keep the Sabbath or the festivals (6:6). They were told to sacrifice to Dionysus (6:7). They would kill those who wouldn’t assimilate (6:9).

“For example, two women were brought in for having circumcised their children. They publicly paraded them around the city, with their babies hanging at their breasts, and then hurled them down headlong from the wall. Others who had assembled in the caves nearby, in order to observe the seventh day secretly, were betrayed to Philip and were all burned together, because their piety kept them from defending themselves, in view of their regard for that most holy day” (6:10-11).

Again, the author interprets this as God’s divine judgment (6:12-17).

Eleazar—a 90 year old faithful scribe—refused to eat pig’s meat (6:18). He would rather be sent to Hades! (6:23). His last words were, “It is clear to the Lord in his holy knowledge that, though I might have been saved from death, I am enduring terrible sufferings in my body under this beating, but in my soul I am glad to suffer these things because I fear him” (6:30).

(Chapter 7) The mother and seven sons are tortured to death

A mother of seven boys also refused to eat pig meat (7:1). Antiochus had the leader of the brothers tortured: cut out his tongue, scalped him, cut off his hands and feet, and threw him alive onto a heated frying pan (7:4-5). This all happened while his brothers and mother were watching! They tortured the next brother, giving him an opportunity to recant and apostatize (7:7). But he refused (7:8). The second brother’s last words were, “You accursed wretch, you dismiss us from this present life, but the King of the universe will raise us up to an everlasting renewal of life, because we have died for his laws” (7:9). They continued to torture and killed each brother in turn, and all the brothers theologically spit in the face of Antiochus (7:10-19).

There was one final brother left with his mother. Both mother and son refused to apostatize, and they received an even worse torture and death (7:39). The mother was especially brave, even after watching all of her sons die right in front of her.

(Chapter 8) Judas Maccabeus leads warfare against Nicanor

Judas gathered about 6,000 men. Judas couldn’t be stopped because God was with him. He would usually attack at night (8:7).

Philip sends Nicanor to stop Judas. Judas gives an impassioned speech about how God would protect them as he did before. Judas’ army killed 9,000 of Nicanor’s men, and caused them to flee (8:24). They dispersed the booty to those who had been tortured, to orphans, and to widows (8:28). Nicanor flees.

(Chapter 9) Death of Antiochus Epiphanes

Antiochus Epiphanes hears about these events, and sets out to make “Jerusalem a cemetery of Jews” (9:4). Antiochus received a bowel disease, and he fell out of his chariot being horribly and mortally wounded (9:5-7). His body was infested with worms (9:9). He couldn’t endure his own stench (9:12). He declared Jerusalem free, the restoration of the Temple, and even said he would become a Jewish evangelist (9:14-17). But he didn’t get healed (9:18). He bequeaths the kingdom to his son, Antiochus, and he dies (9:28).

(Chapter 10) Restoration of the Temple

Judas restores the Temple (10:1-5). They celebrate the first Hannukah (10:6).

Antiochus Eupator takes over after his father dies (10:10).

Judas continues to kill the traitors in Israel (10:22).

Judas fights Timothy with the aid of “five resplendent men on horses with golden bridles” (10:29). Judas’ men killed Timothy (10:37).

(Chapter 11) Lysias surrenders his military aggression and chooses a truce

Lysias invades Jerusalem. Judas leads another army to fight off Lysias. Lysias is defeated, but he himself escapes the battle (11:12). Lysias realizes that the Jewish people were “invincible” because of the power of God (11:13), and he tries to broker a treaty with them. Judas accepts the truce, because it regained all authority in Israel (11:15). This all happened in 164 BC (11:33, 38).

(Chapter 12) Judas continues to win battles against traitors

Some of the local Pagan governors didn’t agree to the truce (e.g. Timothy, Apollonius, etc.). They tricked the people living in Joppa to take a boat trip with entire Jewish families (12:3). Then, these men drowned about 200 Jewish people at sea (12:4).

Judas attacked these ships and burned them and the harbor to the ground (12:6). He also burned down Jamnia (12:8-9). He captured Timothy, but let him go because Timothy held Jewish hostages (12:24-25).

(Chapter 13) Death of Menelaus and withdraw of Lysias

Antiochus Eupator comes to fight Judea in 163 BC (13:1). Menelaus encouraged this so that he could get back into office (13:3). Antiochus turned on Menelaus, realizing that Menelaus was responsible for all of this failure and bloodshed in war against the Jewish people (13:4). Antiochus has Menelaus thrown into a 75 foot tower filled with ashes, where he dies (13:5-7). Lysias and his men withdraw from Israel.

(Chapter 14) Demetrius is deceived into fighting by Alcimus

Demetrius comes to battle Judas and Israel. In 161 BC (14:4), Alcimus tries to appease Demetrius, knowing that he won’t be restored in Israel (14:3-4). Alcimus tells Demetrius that Judas is a zealot and the cause of all the problems (14:6-10).

Demetrius sends Nicanor to kill Judas and install Alcimus as high priest (14:12-13). Nicanor and Judas start to become friends (14:24-25).

Alcimus tells Demetrius that Nicanor was a traitor to Rome (14:26). Nicanor turns on Judas and promises to destroy the Temple and raise a temple to Dionysus if the priests refuse to hand over Judas (14:33).

Nicanor tries to capture Razis: “When the troops were about to capture the tower and were forcing the door of the courtyard, they ordered that fire be brought and the doors burned. Being surrounded, Razis fell upon his own sword, preferring to die nobly rather than to fall into the hands of sinners and suffer outrages unworthy of his noble birth. But in the heat of the struggle he did not hit exactly, and the crowd was now rushing in through the doors. He courageously ran up on the wall, and bravely threw himself down into the crowd. But as they quickly drew back, a space opened and he fell in the middle of the empty space. Still alive and aflame with anger, he rose, and though his blood gushed forth and his wounds were severe he ran through the crowd; and standing upon a steep rock, with his blood now completely drained from him, he tore out his entrails, took them in both hands and hurled them at the crowd, calling upon the Lord of life and spirit to give them back to him again. This was the manner of his death” (14:41-46).

(Chapter 15) Death of Nicanor

Nicanor tries to attack on the Sabbath, so that the people couldn’t fight back (15:1-4), but the people refused (15:5).

Judas encourages the troops with a vision of Onias and Jeremiah praying for Israel (15:12-16). The men were more concerned for the Temple than they were for their own families (15:18).

Judas beats Nicanor’s army through the power of prayer (15:26), and Nicanor dies in battle (15:28). The decapitate Nicanor and bring his head to Jerusalem (15:30). Judas cut out Nicanor’s tongue, feeding it to birds, and hung Nicanor’s head from the city wall (15:35).

[1] Bruce M. Metzger, An Introduction to the Apocrypha (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977), 140.

[2] David A. deSilva, Introducing the Apocrypha (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2002), 268.

[3] Bruce M. Metzger, An Introduction to the Apocrypha (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977), 141.

[4] David A. deSilva, Introducing the Apocrypha (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2002), 270.

[5] Bruce M. Metzger, An Introduction to the Apocrypha (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977), 144.