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I’ve been reading about the history of Hanukkah and found that a lot of the material comes from the Book of the Maccabees. What is that work? Is it a sacred work, part of the Torah, or just a work of history?
Thank you for raising the interesting issue. There are actually a number of works which are given that general title. Wikipedia lists Maccabees Books 1-8. Most, however, are later works of little historical significance or not related to the Hanukkah story at all. Only the first two are original or near-original works of value.
Maccabees I appears to be a contemporary account of the Hanukkah story, written from a religious perspective, possibly by one of the actual Hasmonean soldiers. (It goes into great detail about every battle fought – the number of Jewish soldiers, their precise movements, the terrain, etc.) It is believed to have originally been written in Hebrew. Maccabees II is a shorter version covering less history but including more theology. (It states that it’s a summary of an earlier work.) It was originally written in Greek, also from the standpoint of a believing Jew.
One very important point is that the Books of the Maccabees were never preserved by the Jews. We only have them today through the Christians – because they were included as part of the Septuagint and later in the New Testament. (Maccabees I & II are both deuterocanonical books – works included as part of the Catholic Bible by but not the Protestant.) The original Hebrew of I Maccabees does not even exist today.
The reason for this is that the Jewish people preserved virtually no works from Biblical times other than the Torah itself. During the Second Temple era, there was a great Jewish body known as the Men of the Great Assembly (Anshei Knesset HaGedolah). One of the tasks it took upon itself was the canonization of the Torah – deciding which books should be included in the Tanach. The sages determined which books were written through prophecy or Divine inspiration, as well as which contained eternal messages for Israel. All other books they eschewed – so as not to confuse the sacred with the non-sacred and possibly heretical. As a result, works such as the Maccabees were not studied by Jews and were eventually lost, basically until modern times.
As I heard the historian Rabbi Dovid Katz of Baltimore observe, as a result of this, ironically, almost all the details of the Hanukkah story are known to us today from the Christians – basically from the New Testament. The Jewish literature – the Talmud and Midrash – contains hardly any references to the history of Hanukkah. Many of the most well-known stories of Hanukkah which we've been taught since childhood – such as when Mattityahu killed the renegade Jew and cried, “Whoever is to God, to me!” – do not appear in any Jewish sources. And very likely, our ancestors were not aware of them at all. Even the name “Maccabee” itself – believed to be some kind of family name and which some claim stands for “mi kamocha ba’eilim Ado-shem” (“who is like You among the strong, God” – Exodus 15:11), is never mentioned in any Jewish source. (This admittedly makes the theory that it’s a Hebrew acronym somewhat less plausible.)
Beyond that, I Maccabees is believed to be a historically-accurate contemporary account of the story of Hanukkah. It covers the entire history of the Hanukkah period – from Antiochus IV Epiphanes’s suppression of Jewish observance through the successful conclusion of the rebellion, until the reign of Simon’s son John Hyrcanus. It goes into great detail about almost every detail of the story. However, since it is virtually the only source we have for most of the events of Hanukkah, historically, the story is totally unverified. We thus view the Book of the Maccabees as both a fascinating and valuable historical work – which for us brings the story of the Hanukkah salvation to life. But it is really only a history book, without any sanctity.