History repeats itself, they say.
They’re wrong. We’re just too stubborn to learn from history.
The Maccabean period of Jewish history, which started with the revolt led by Judas Maccabeus in 167 BCE, is crucial in understanding the times in which Jesus lived and the New Testament was born.
It also has a lot to say about current events in the United States. Those who have ears to hear, let them hear.
There are a lot of moving pieces to this era, which makes a brief recounting of the events almost impossible. Longer accounts are convoluted, so I’m not going to even try.
An era, however, is not defined just by the events that comprise it but also by the cultural ideas and values that distinguish it from other historical periods. Let me highlight the most important of the Maccabean period.
First and foremost was contempt for the foreigner.
Not that it was without some justification. Israel had been under foreign domination since the Babylonians conquered Judah in the early part of the sixth century BCE.
But this enmity extended beyond their conquerors. Greek society, which prevailed during the Maccabean period, welcomed diversity of thought, religion and ethnicity, and that diversity was evident throughout Israel.
Foreigners abounded, especially because Israel was a major trade route back and forth from the northern Mediterranean countries and Asia to Egypt. Money and jobs brought these foreigners to the land.
Israel was influenced so much that no one spoke Hebrew anymore. Aramaic, the language of ancient Syria, was the common tongue.
Greek was the language of commerce, which allowed people from all around the Mediterranean to do business with one another.
Hebrew – the language of the Torah, the prophets, the Psalms – was dying out as a spoken language.
By Jesus’ day, the most common version of the Hebrew Bible was the Septuagint, which was in Greek. It’s the version Paul quotes in all his letters.
Religious diversity meant that while Judaism was allowed to be practiced by the Jews, so also were many other religions.
The land was full of worship, but that was offensive to the followers of Judas Maccabeus. They were sure that only their version of Judaism, with its strict interpretation of the Torah, was right.
Second, and related, was an effort to take Israel back to the days when only Yahweh was worshipped and the only law was the Law of Moses.
Back in those days, though there was always some ethnic diversity, the people of Israel were in control and everyone else had to adapt to their ways. Now the Jews had to adapt to the Greek way.
Some Jews thought that was fine and easily adapted to the best parts of Greek culture. The Maccabees felt that was compromise. They not only refused to compromise, but they considered the Jews who did to be enemies.
No people, having enjoyed hegemony in a land, give it up easily, nor do they give up the memory.
The Maccabees promised to “Make Israel Great Again” (to adapt a widely used contemporary expression) even if that past never really existed the way it was described in their propaganda.
Yahweh was never the only god worshipped, even among the Israelites, nor did they follow the Law of Moses as closely as it was subsequently portrayed.
And there were always foreigners traveling through the land; this area as a major trade route preceded the forming of the nation of Israel.
Finally, there was a commitment to violent revolution. Israel would be great again through great military victory.
“Maccabeus” means “hammer,” and Judas was called that because his guerilla army swooped down upon foreign armies and their Jewish compromisers and hammered them uncompromisingly.
Though he was killed in the struggle, it was viewed as honorable to die fighting.
The “independence” that the revolt won was a sham.
The great powers of the area were too busy fighting each other to do much with the troublesome Jews and their Hasmonean kings, but this little stretch of land between the sea and the desert was too strategic to ignore for long. Meanwhile, Rome was gathering strength and enlarging its influence.
Some of the Jews of Jesus’ day idealized this period of time and the violence it enshrined.
The zeal of the Maccabees led eventually to the zeal of the Zealots, who presumed that God would give them victory over the Romans the way he “gave” the Maccabees victory over the Seleucid army.
What they got instead was death and defeat, the city and its temple destroyed, its citizens running to the hill. Just as Jesus had said (see Matthew 24).
Jesus faced many opponents, but all of them were fueled by the mindset of the Maccabees. It’s why they killed him.
Jesus preached love of enemy, not violence against them. He opposed the nationalism that pitted Jews against Gentiles and then justified it through a misreading of their own sacred writings.
There were many Jews who were willing to pick up a sword and die for freedom. Jesus picked up a cross and died for it.
His way led to resurrection and true freedom. Their way just led to death and destruction.
Jesus’ proclamation of the kingdom of God was not a wistful look back at an idealized past that never really existed but rather a look forward to a future filled with hope that exceeded the most idealized expectations, and which was already at hand and breaking out among them.
And Jesus embraced the diversity of people that surrounded him, including a traitorous tax collector, sinful prostitutes and a Roman centurion who had more faith, Jesus said, than any Israelite (Matthew 8:10).
Jesus said that his family wasn’t determined by nationality or ethnicity, but by those who followed his example in these and other ways.
We would be wise to embrace the same ethic today.