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The First Book of the Maccabees is a history of the struggle of the Jewish people for religious and political liberty under the leadership of the Machabee family, with Judas Machabeus as the central figure. After a brief introduction (i, 1-9) explaining how the Jews came to pass from the Persian domination to that of the Seleucids, it relates the causes of the rising under Mathathias and the details of the revolt up to his death (i, 10-ii); the glorious deeds and heroic death of Judas Machabeus (iii-ix, 22); the story of the successful leadership of Jonathan (ix, 23-xii), and of the wise administration of Simon (xiii-xvi, 17). It concludes (xvi, 18-24) with a brief mention of the difficulties attending the accession of John Hyrcanus and with a short summary of his reign (see Maccabees, THE). The book thus covers the period between the years 175 and 135 B.C.


The narrative both in style and manner is modelled on the earlier historical books of the Old Testament. The style is usually simple, yet it at times becomes eloquent and even poetic, as, for instance, in Mathathias's lament over the woes of the people and the profanation of the Temple (ii, 7-13), or in the eulogy of Judas Machabeus (iii, 1-9), or again in the description of the peace and prosperity of the people after the long years of war and suffering (xiv, 4-15). The tone is calm and objective, the author as a rule abstaining from any direct comment on the facts he is narrating. The more important events are carefully dated according to the Seleucid era, which began with the autumn of 312 B. C. It should be noted, however, that the author begins the year with spring (the month Nisan), whereas the author of II Mach. begins it with autumn (the month Tishri). By reason of this difference some of the events are dated a year later in the second than in the first book. (Cf. Patrizzi, "De Consensu Utriusque Libri Mach.", 27 sq.; Schürer, "Hist. of the Jewish People", I, I, 36 sq.).

Original Language[]

The text from which all translations have been derived is the Greek of the Septuagint. But there is little doubt that the Septuagint is itself a translation of a Hebrew or Aramaic original, with the probabilities in favour of Hebrew. Not only is the structure of the sentences decidedly Hebrew (or Aramaic); but many words and expressions occur which are literal renderings of Hebrew idioms (e.g., i, 4, 15, 16, 44; ii, 19, 42, 48; v, 37, 40; etc.). These peculiarities can scarcely be explained by assuming that the writer was little versed in Greek, for a number of instances show that he was acquainted with the niceties of the language. Besides, there are inexact expressions and obscurities which can be explained only in the supposition of an imperfect translation or a misreading of a Hebrew original (e.g., i, 16, 28; iv, 19, 24; xi, 28; xiv, 5). The internal evidence is confirmed by the testimony of St. Jerome and of Origen. The former writes that he saw the book in Hebrew: "Machabaeorum primum librum Hebraicum reperi" (Prol. Galeat.). As there is no ground for assuming that St. Jerome refers to a translation, and as he is not likely to have applied the term Hebrew to an Aramaic text, his testimony tells strongly in favour of a Hebrew as against an Aramaic original. Origen states (Eusebius, "Hist. Eccl.", vi, 25) that the title of the book was Sarbeth Sarbane el, or more correctly Sarbeth Sarbanaiel. Though the meaning of this title is uncertain (a number of different explanations have been proposed, especially of the first reading), it is plainly either Hebrew or Aramaic. The fragment of a Hebrew text published by Chwolson in 1896, and later again by Schweitzer, has little claim to be considered as part of the original.

Author and Date of Composition[]

No data can be found either in the book itself or in later writers which would give us a clue as to the person of the author. Names have indeed been mentioned, but on groundless conjecture. That he was a native of Palestine is evident from the language in which he wrote, and from the thorough knowledge of the geography of Palestine which he possessed. Although he rarely expresses his own sentiments, the spirit pervading his work is proof that he was deeply religious, zealous for the Law, and thoroughly in sympathy with the Machabean movement and its leaders. However, strange to say, he studiously avoids the use of the words "God" and "Lord" (that is in the better Greek text; in the ordinary text "God" is found once, and "Lord" three times; in the Vulgate both occur repeatedly. But this is probably due to reverence for the Divine James, Jahweh and Adonai, since he often uses the equivalents "heaven", "Thou", or "He". There is absolutely no ground for the opinion, maintained by some modern scholars, that he was a Sadducee. He does not, it is true, mention the unworthy high-priests, Jason and Menelaus; but as he mentions the no less unworthy Alcimus, and that in the severest terms, it cannot be said that he wishes to spare the priestly class.

The last verses show that the book cannot have been written till some time after the beginning of the reign of John Hyrcanus (135-105 B.C.), for they mention his accession and some of the acts of his administration. The latest possible date is generally admitted to be prior to 63 B. C., the year of the occupation of Jerusalem by Pompey; but there is some difference in fixing the approximately exact date. Whether it can be placed as early as the reign of Hyrcanus depends on the meaning of the concluding verse, "Behold these [the Acts of Hyrcanus] are written in the book of the days of his priesthood, from the time (xx xx, "ex quo") that he was made high priest after his father". Many understand it to indicate that Hyrcanus was then still alive, and this seems to be the more natural meaning. Others, however, take it to imply that Hyrcanus was already dead. In this latter supposition the composition of the work must have followed close upon the death of that ruler. For not only does the vivid character of the narrative suggest an early period after the events, but the absence of even the slightest allusion to events later than the death of Hyrcanus, and, in particular, to the conduct of his two successors which aroused popular hatred against the Machabees, makes a much later date improbable. The date would, therefore, in any case, be within the last years of the second century B.C.


In the eighteenth century the two brothers E.F. and G. Wernsdorf made an attempt to discredit I Mach., but with little success. Modern scholars of all schools, even the most extreme, admit that the book is a historical document of the highest value. "With regard to the historical value of I Mach.", says Cornill (Einl., 3rd ed., 265), "there is but one voice; in it we possess a source of the very first order, an absolutely reliable account of one of the most important epochs in the history of the Jewish people." The accuracy of a few minor details concerning foreign nations has, however, been denied. The author is mistaken, it is said, when he states that Alexander the Great divided his empire among his generals (i, 7), or when he speaks of the Spartans as akin to the Jews (xii, 6, 7, 21); he is inexact in several particulars regarding the Romans (viii, 1 sq.); he exaggerates the numbers of elephants at the battle of Magnesia (viii, 6), and some other numbers (e.g., v, 34; vi, 30, 37; xi, 45, 48). But the author cannot be charged with whatever inaccuracies or exaggerations may be contained in viii, 1-16. He there merely sets down the reports, inexact and exaggerated, no doubt, in some particulars, which had reached Judas Machabeus. The same is true with regard to the statement concerning the kinship of the Spartans with the Jews. The author merely reproduces the letter of Jonathan to the Spartans, and that written to the high-priest Onias I by Arius.

When a writer simply reports the words of others, an error can be laid to his charge only when he reproduces their statements inaccurately. The assertion that Alexander divided his empire among his generals (to be understood in the light of vv. 9 and 10, where it is said that they "made themselves kings . . . and put crowns on themselves after his death"), cannot be shown to be erroneous. Quintus Curtius, who is the authority for the contrary view, acknowledges that there were writers who believed that Alexander made a division of the provinces by his will. As the author of I Mach is a careful historian and wrote about a century and a half before Q. Curtius, he would deserve more credit than the latter, even if he were not supported by other writers. As to the exaggeration of numbers in some instances, in so far as they are not errors of copyists, it should be remembered that ancient authors, both sacred and profane, frequently do not give absolute figures, but estimated or popularly current numbers. Exact numbers cannot be reasonably expected in an account of a popular insurrection, like that of Antioch (xi,45,48), because they could not be ascertained. Now the same was often the case with regard to the strength of the enemy's forces and of the number of the enemy slain in battle. A modifying clause, such as "it is reported", must be supplied in these cases.


That the author used written sources to a certain extent is witnessed by the documents which he cites (viii, 23-32; x, 3-6, 18-20, 25-45; xi, 30-37; xii, 6-23; etc.). But there is little doubt that he also derived most of the other matter from written records of the events, oral tradition being insufficient to account for the many and minute details; There is every reason to believe that such records existed for the Acts of Jonathan and Simon as well as for those of Judas (ix, 22), and of John Hyrcanus (xvi, 23-24). For the last part he may also have relied on the reminiscences of older contemporaries, or even drawn upon his own.

Greek Text and Ancient Versions[]

The Greek translation was probably made soon after the book was written. The text is found in three uncial codices, namely the Sinaiticus, the Alexandrinus, and the Venetus, and in sixteen cursive MSS. The textus receptus is that of the Sixtine edition, derived from the Codex Venetus and some cursives. The best editions are those of Fritzsche ("Libri Apocryphi V. T.", Leipzig, 1871, 203 sq.) and of Swete "O. T. in Greek", Cambridge, 1905, III, 594 sq.), both based on the Cod. Alexandrinus. The old Latin version in the Vulgate is that of the Itala, probably unretouched by St. Jerome. Part of a still older version, or rather recension (chap. i-xiii), was published by Sabatier (Biblior. Sacror. Latinae Versiones Antiquae, II, 1017 sq.), the complete text of which was recently discovered in a MSS. at Madrid. Two Syriac versions are extant: that of the Peshitto, which follows the Greek text of the Lucian recension, and another published by Ceriani ("Translatio Syra photolithographice edita," Milan, 1876, 592-615) which reproduces the ordinary Greek text.

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