1 Maccabees

The books of 1 and 2 Maccabees are named for their chief protagonists, the descendants of Mattathias. The ‘Macacabees’ led a rebellion against Antiochus IV and his efforts to destroy every vestige of the religion of the Jews.

The text opens with a brief history of the Empire of Alexander the Great and the disposition of that empire after Alexander’s death along with the attempts of the Seleucid kings, his successors in the Levant, to establish Hellenistic religion as the religion of Palestine. Chapter two describes the beginning of the revolt led by the priest Mattathias and his sons. In chapters three through nine (v. 22) the exploits of Mattathias’s son Judas are described and his exploits praised.

Following the death of Judas, his brother Jonathan assumes leadership of the rebellion and his actions are the subject of 9:23-12:53. Most notably, Jonathan’s decision to enter a pact with the Romans would prove decisive for the rebellion and the history of Judea following upon it.

The book then turns to an exposition of the exploits of the third and final son of Mattathias, Simon, as he assumed leadership of the movement (13:1-16:24). The book ends with Simon’s death.

Date and authorship

The book of First Maccabees was written by an anonymous partisan of the Maccabeean movement sometime around the reign of Alexander Jannaeus (ca. 100 BCE). It is well attested in manuscripts of the Septuagint and while some scholars suggest that it may have been composed originally in Hebrew, that may be erroneous. The presence of Semiticisms does not necessarily indicate an original Semitic composition but may suggest that the author thought in Semitic linguistic structures whilst writing in the Greek language.

The anonymous author seems to have made use of various sources, such as letters, texts from the Temple archives, and other contemporaneous sources.


First Maccabees is propaganda literature the purpose of which is to portray the Maccabean rebellion as a religious war of ‘pure Judaism‘ against ‘impure Judaism’ and paganism. The strategies of the Maccabeans can best be described as ‘talibanesque’ in that they were just as harsh in their treatment of non-compliant Jews as they were their Greek and Egyptian enemies. Theirs was a war of religious ideology.

Further reading

Bartlett, John R. “1 Maccabees.” Pages 807-30 in Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible. Edited by James D. G. Dunn and John W. Rogerson. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2003.
Elwell, Walter A., and Barry J. Beitzel. Baker Encyclopedia of the Bible. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1988.
Goldstein, Jonathan E. I Maccabees: A New Translation with Introduction and Commentary. Anchor Bible 41. New York: Doubleday, 1976; New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2007; London: Yale University Press, 2007.
Harrington, Daniel J. “Maccabees, First and Second Books of.” Pages 837-39 in The Eerdmans Bible Dictionary. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1987.
Rappaport, U. “I Maccabees.” Pages 711-34 in The Oxford Bible Commentary. Edited by John Barton and John Muddiman. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.