The name Maccabee, probably meaning “hammer,” is actually applied in the Books of Maccabees to only one man, Judas, third son of the priest Mattathias and first leader of the revolt against the Seleucid kings who persecuted the Jews (⇒ 1 Macc 2:4, ⇒ 66; ⇒ 2 Macc 8:5, ⇒ 16; ⇒ 10:1, ⇒ 16). Traditionally the name has come to be applied to the brothers of Judas, his supporters, and even to other Jewish heroes of the period, such as the seven brothers (2 Macc 7).
The two Books of Maccabees, placed last in the Douai version of the Old Testament, contain independent accounts of events in part identical which accompanied the attempted suppression of Judaism in Palestine in the second century B.C. The vigorous reaction to this attempt established for a time the religious and political independence of the Jews.
1 Maccabees was written about 100 B.C., in Hebrew, but the original has not come down to us. Instead, we have an early, pre-Christian, Greek translation full of Hebrew idioms. The author, probably a Palestinian Jew, is unknown. He was familiar with the traditions and sacred books of his people and had access to much reliable information on their recent history (from 175 to 134 B.C.). He may well have played some part in it himself in his youth. His purpose in writing is to record the salvation of Israel which God worked through the family of Mattathias (⇒ 1 Macc 5:62)-especially through his three sons, Judas, Jonathan, and Simon, and his grandson, John Hyrcanus. Implicitly the writer compares their virtues and their exploits with those of the ancient heroes, the Judges, Samuel, and David.
There are seven poetic sections in the book which imitate the style of classical Hebrew poetry: four laments (⇒ 1 Macc 1:25-28, ⇒ 36-40; ⇒ 2:8-13; ⇒ 3:45), and three hymns of praise of “our fathers” (⇒ 1 Macc 2:51-64), of Judas (⇒ 1 Macc 3:3-9), and of Simon (⇒ 1 Macc 14:4-15). The doctrine expressed in the book is the customary belief of Israel, without the new developments which appear in 2 Maccabees and Daniel. The people of Israel have been specially chosen by the one true God as his covenant-partner, and they alone are privileged to know him and worship him. He is their eternal benefactor and their unfailing source of help. The people, in turn, must be loyal to his exclusive worship and must observe exactly the precepts of the law he has given them.
There is no doctrine of individual immortality except in the survival of one’s name and fame, nor does the book express any messianic expectation, though messianic images are applied historically to “the days of Simon” (⇒ 2 Macc 14:4-17). In true deuteronomic tradition, the author insists on fidelity to the law as the expression of Israel’s love for God. The contest which he describes is a struggle, not simply between Jew and Gentile, but between those who would uphold the law and those, Jews or Gentiles, who would destroy it. His severest condemnation goes, not to the Seleucid politicians, but to the lawless apostates among his own people, adversaries of Judas and his brothers, who are models of faith and loyalty.
1 Maccabees has importance also for the New Testament. Salvation is paralleled with Jewish national aspirations (⇒ 1 Macc 4:46-⇒ 14:41), in contrast to the universal reign of God taught by Christ in the Gospel (⇒ Matthew 13:47-50; ⇒ 22:1-14). Also, destruction of the wall of the temple separating Jew from Gentile is an act of desecration in ⇒ 1 Macc 9:54 but in ⇒ Eph 2:14, an act of redemption and unification of both through Christ. On the other hand, association, in ⇒ 1 Macc 2:52, of Abraham’s offering up of Isaac (Gen 22) with his justification by God (⇒ Genesis 15:6) is reflected in ⇒ John 2:21, ⇒ 22 just as the Scriptures are regarded as a source of consolation in ⇒ 1 Macc 12:9 and in ⇒ Romans 15:4.
The Books of Maccabees, though regarded by Jews and Protestants as apocryphal, i.e., not inspired Scripture, because not contained in the Palestinian Canon or list of books drawn up at the end of the first century A.D., have nevertheless always been accepted by the Catholic Church as inspired, on the basis of apostolic tradition.
1 Maccabees is divided as follows:
I. Introduction: Hellenism in Asia Minor (⇒ 1 Macc 1:1-9)