Commentary Magazine

The Maccabees, by Elias Bickerman

The Maccabees as Moderates
The Maccabees.
by Elias Bickerman.
Translated by Moses Hadas. New York, Schocken Books, 1947. (Schocken Library, No. 6.) 125 pp. $1.50.


The Maccabees, and especially Judah the Maccabee, have stimulated the Jewish imagination from the beginning. It is entirely natural that this should be so, since they were the protagonists of a drama not only significant in itself, but also highly charged with symbolic value. For what is the conventional Jewish view of their career? Implicitly it is that the lives and deeds of the Maccabean dynasty constituted an edifying and dramatic cycle in the grand unfolding of Israel’s relation to God and God’s concern with Israel. The moral of their story is the explicit one written into the sacred history of the former, greater times: God causes Israel to vanquish its more powerful enemies, because Israel is God’s people; prosperity brings with it luxury and backsliding, the whoring after strange gods; a just and terrible punishment is then visited upon Israel, the instrument of God’s wrath being a powerful and impious foreign nation, itself doomed to prompt destruction. This is the stated design repeated over and over in the historical books of Scripture, especially Judges; and this is the fundamental theme of the political analysis of those prophets with a gift for statesmanship: Amos, Isaiah, and Jeremiah.

The Maccabees have also fired the Christian imagination. In the late Middle Ages it was commonly understood that nine warriors merited celebration in song and story: three Jewish: Joshua, David, and Judas Maccabaeus; three pagan: Hector, Alexander, and Julius Caesar; and three Christian: Arthur, Charlemagne, and Godfrey of Bouillon. The linking of David and Judah the Maccabee is to be explained by admiration for the triumph of the weak and dedicated over the strong and boastful, with Judah’s victory over the host of Antiochus Epiphanes being regarded as a later version of David’s defeat of Goliath.

In his preface, Bickerman reminds us that the example of the Maccabees was cited during the Protestant Reformation as justification for resistance to an evil religion imposed by the state, during the rise of representative government as religious authority for rebellion against tyrants, and during the Enlightenment as an argument for religious freedom. He agrees that every age must rewrite history for its own uses, but he feels that a historical sequence that has been unusually subject to shifting interpretation—as succeeding generations have required changing historical warrant for their new ideologies—is in particular need of restatement. Having issued this excellent little work in German, more than ten years ago, Schocken Books has now republished it in a first-rate translation by the Hellenist Moses Hadas, a professor at Columbia University. It would be difficult to judge how near The Maccabees comes to the unattainable ideal of writing history wie es wirklich war, but of its thoughtfulness and wisdom there can be little doubt.



The common impression is that the Maccabees shared with the Pharisees, as their chief conscious purpose, the defense of the Jewish tradition against corruption or dilution by the dominant Hellenistic culture of the age. Bickerman, however, makes the astute point that their major contribution was not so much a complete avoidance of Hellenistic influence as the skillful course they steered between total surrender and total resistance.

Total surrender was the policy of those contemporaries of Mattathias who offered oblations to the Syro-Greek Baal-Zeus, painfully removed the evidence of circumcision, and systematically sought to emulate the conduct of Greek gentlemen in Syria. Total resistance to Hellenistic thinking was implied in the religious philosophy, if not in the actual way of life, of the Saducees. In contrast, Bickerman shows that respect for an evolving tradition had been established by the Greeks’ deference to what they called the unwritten law, and that it was under their influence that the Pharisees developed the doctrine of the oral Torah. Similarly, life after death was a Hellenistic belief, which the Pharisees took over and adapted, whether or not they were aware of its origin. Bickerman writes:

The Saducees rejected the new doctrine and ridiculed the Pharisaic teaching of resurrection. If they had been the only authoritative representatives of Judaism, Judaism would either have lagged behind the times and grown rigid, as was the case with the Samaritans, who also rejected the new belief, or the course of history would have submerged Judaism and undermined the Torah. . . . For [the Pythagorean doctrine] the Pharisees substituted the single event of the Last Judgment, whose day and scope God would determine, and so dovetailed the new Hellenistic idea into the structure of biblical ideas. In its new form the adopted doctrine of resurrection developed into a characteristic element of Jewish belief; it became, with biblical monotheism, its central doctrine.

The moral seems to be that Judaism won through because the Maccabees, and more especially the Pharisees, were able to defeat the extremists of both left and right among the people. This, perhaps, is the lesson of the Maccabees for our age; a Bickerman of the next century may list it in his preface as the meaning that we and our contemporaries chose to read into the lastingly relevant story of Mattathias, Judah, and their successors.



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