Although this book, like the preceding one, receives its title from its protagonist, Judas Maccabee (or Maccabeus), it is not a sequel to 1 Maccabees. The two differ in many respects. Whereas the first covers the period from the beginning of the reign of Antiochus IV (175 B.C.) to the accession of John Hyrcanus I (134 B.C.), this present book treats of the events in Jewish history from the time of the high priest Onias III and King Seleucus IV (c. 180 B.C.) to the defeat of Nicanor’s army (161 B.C.).
The author of 2 Maccabees states (⇒ 2 Macc 2:23) that his one-volume work is an abridgment of a certain five-volume work by Jason of Cyrene; but since this latter has not survived, it is difficult to determine its relationship to the present epitome. One does not know how freely the anonymous epitomizer may have rewritten his shorter composition, or how closely he may have followed the wording of the original in the excerpts he made. Some parts of the text here, clearly not derived from Jason’s work, are the Preface (⇒ 2 Macc 2:19-32), the Epilogue (⇒ 2 Macc 15:37-39), and probably also certain moralizing reflections (e. g., ⇒ 2 Macc 5:17-20; ⇒ 6:12-17). It is certain, however, that both works were written in Greek, which explains why the Second Book of Maccabees was not included in the canon of the Hebrew Bible.
The book is not without genuine historical value in supplementing I Maccabees, and it contains some apparently authentic documents (⇒ 2 Macc 11:16-38). Its purpose, whether intended by Jason himself or read into it by the compiler, is to give a theological interpretation to the history of the period. There is less interest, therefore, in the actual exploits of Judas Maccabeus than in God’s marvelous interventions. These direct the course of events, both to punish the sacriligeous and blashphemous pagans, and to purify God’s holy temple and restore it to his faithful people. The author sometimes effects his purpose by transferring events from their proper chronological order, and giving exaggerated figures for the size of armies and the numbers killed in battle; he also places long, edifying discourses and prayers in the mouths of his heroes, and inclines to elaborate descriptions of celestial apparitions (⇒ 2 Macc 3:24-34; ⇒ 5:2-4; ⇒ 10:29, ⇒ 30; ⇒ 15:11-16). He is the earliest known composer of stories that glorify God’s holy martyrs (⇒ 2 Macc 6:18-⇒ 7:42; ⇒ 14:37-46).
Of theological importance are the author’s teachings on the resurrection of the just on the last day (⇒ 2 Macc 7:9, ⇒ 11, ⇒ 14, ⇒ 23; ⇒ 14:46), the intercession of the saints in heaven for people living on earth (⇒ 15:11-16), and the power of the living to offer prayers and sacrifices for the dead (⇒ 12:39-46).
The beginning of 2 Maccabees consists of two letters sent by the Jews of Jerusalem to their coreligionists in Egypt. They deal with the observance of the feast commemorating the central event of the book, the purification of the temple. It is uncertain whether the author or a later scribe prefixed these letters to the narrative proper. If the author is responsible for their insertion, he must have written his book some time after 124 B.C., the date of the more recent of the two letters. In any case, Jason’s five-volume work very likely continued the history of the Jews well into the Hasmonean period, so that 2 Maccabees would probably not have been produced much before the end of the second century B.C.
The main divisions of 2 Maccabees are:
I. Letters to the Jews in Egypt (⇒ 2 Macc 1:1-⇒ 2:18)