Dedicated to the writings of Saint Luke.

Friday, November 23, 2007

Great Lamentation in Maccabees

As noted earlier this month, Luke used the Greek word for lamentation which is a hapax in Acts. I did not at the time recognize that this Greek phrase κοπετν μέγαν for “great lamentation” also appears in 1 Maccabees 2:70; 4:39; 9:20 and 13:26. The death of Mattathias is described in these words: “And he died in the hundred forty and sixth year, and his sons buried him in the sepulchres of his fathers at Modin, and all Israel made great lamentation for him.” The third and fourth citations describe the death and burial at Modin of Judas and Jonathan respectively. 1 Macc 4:39 describes how the men mourned with great lamentation when “they saw the sanctuary [at Mount Zion] desolate, the altar profaned, and the gates burned.”

Luke intends to direct our attention to the conflict and opposition between Hellenism and Judaism that arose in the time of the Maccabees and more particularly to his identification of the Hellenists (perhaps more accurately Hellenizers) of Acts 6 with the Hellenizers of 1 Maccabees. According to historian Elias Bickerman, the Hellenizers of 1 Maccabees wanted to preserve aspects of Judaism that fit with Greek ideals, like a universal God, but to remove those parts of Jewish practice that separated Jews from others: dietary laws, Sabbath observance, circumcision.

“In those days there emerged in Israel lawless men who persuaded many, saying, ‘Let us go and make a covenant with the nations that are around us; for since we separated ourselves from them, many evils have come upon us’” (I Maccabees 1:11). Interestingly, there is no mention of the Hellenizers' names in First Maccabees. In 1 Maccabees, the Hellenizers are described as “godless,” “lawless,” "lawbreakers,” and “men who hate their own nation.” The Hellenizers are criticized in 1 and 2 Maccabees but not by this name; Jubilees, 1 Enoch, Daniel and Sirach are also highly critical. I suspect that none of these texts actually use a Greek word which can be translated as Hellenizers.

We started this blog commenting that Luke in the Greek phrase translated as “great lamentation” was alluding to the Maccabees. Recall that Acts 8:2 states: “Devout men buried Stephen, and made great lamentation over him.” Perhaps Luke is asking us to recognize that in the Maccabean period, thousands of devout men were called upon to die or lose their traditional way of life. Stephen was stoned because he defended his understanding of the traditional way of life as part of his faith.

Rajak wrote: “the unreconciled members of the Jewish establishment who held out against the Maccabees in Jerusalem’s Akra fortress are described in the Maccabean literature not only as impious and lawless, but specifically as ‘hellenisers.’” I have been unable to locate this word in Maccabees. I did find a verse in 2 Macc 4:13 which the NETS translates as “There was such an extreme of hellenization and increase in the adoption of allophylism [alien ways] because of the surpassing wickedness of Jason, who was impious and no high priest.” It may be that Luke was thinking of this verse.

The Hellenizers in Maccabees and in the first century include many priests and high ranking members of the temple establishment. Just as the author of 1 Maccabees refrains from accusing the leading Hellenizers of idolatry (Goldstein), so does Luke. This is surprising in light of the strong anti-idol polemic that appears throughout Acts of the Apostles. It may however explain why many priests joined the movement. They were more conservative than the ranking members of the temple establishment.

I suspect, although I am not certain, that these clues suggest the existence of Bakhtin hidden polemics. Stephen’s last sermon is really a dialogue with more than one group. Stephen successfully challenged the Hellenizers and they complained to the temple establishment. Both the Hellenizers and the temple establishment were happy to eliminate Stephen. Saul originally challenged the Hellenizers, but he liked the temple establishment also opposed Stephen, because Stephen wanted to include within Judaism those members on the fringe. Stephen and the Samaritans were both adamantly opposed to the Hellenizers because the Hellenizers wanted to remove those parts of Jewish practice that separated Jews from others: dietary laws, Sabbath observance, and circumcision. It was an unusual dialogue!

This is a work in progress.

Copyrighted 2007


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