01 August 2019

Seven Holy Maccabees
and their revolt against
the first recorded pogrom

The Menorah is a symbol of the Maccabean revolt and Hanukkah … a ceramic glazed tile by Joel Itman, inspired by the ark in the synagogue in Cuneo, illustrates August in a Jewish Art Calendar published in Italy (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Patrick Comerford

My Redemptorist friends at Mount Saint Alphonsus in Limerick are celebrating today as the Feast of Saint Alphonsus Maria de’ Liguori (1696-1787). He founded the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer, or the Redemptorists, in 1732. In 1762, he became Bishop of Sant’Agata dei Goti.

Meanwhile, around the corner on the Crescent in Limerick, at a Mass in the Church of the Sacred Heart this evening, the Institute of Christ the King is celebrating the Feast of the Seven Holy Maccabees.

Traditionally, these martyrs are named as Abim, Antonius, Gurias, Eleazar, Eusebonus, Alimus and Marcellus. With their mother, often named as Solomonia, and their teacher Eleazar, the were martyred in 166 BCE under the Seleucid Syrian king Antiochus IV Epiphanes.

From 167 to 164 BC, this Hellenistic monarch held Jewish customs in contempt and violated Jewish holy sites. He desecrated the Temple in Jerusalem, erected a statue of the pagan god Zeus in the Holy of Holies (I Maccabees 1: 54; Daniel 11: 31), and demanded Jews worship it.

Eleazar, a 90-year-old elder, scribe and teacher, was put on trial for his faithfulness to the Mosaic Law, was tortured and died at Jerusalem.

The disciples of Eleazar, the seven Maccabee brothers and their mother Solomonia, also displayed great courage. They were put on trial in Antioch by King Antiochus IV Epiphanes. They fearlessly acknowledged themselves as followers of God, and refused to eat pig meat.

The eldest brother acted as spokesmen for the rest, saying that they preferred to die than break the Mosaic Law. He was tortured in front of his brothers and their mother, his tongue was cut out, he was scalped, and his hands and feet were cut off. A cauldron and large frying pan were heated, he was thrown into the pan, and he died.

The next five brothers were tortured one after the other. The seventh and youngest brother was the last one left alive. Antiochus suggested Solomonia should persuade her youngest son to obey him so that his life would be spared. Instead, his mother told him to imitate the courage of his brothers. He upbraided the king and was tortured even more cruelly than his brothers had been.

After her seven sons had been murdered, their mother stood over their bodies, raised up her hands in prayer to God and died. The narrator mentions that the mother ‘was especially admirable and worthy of honourable memory. Although she saw her seven sons perish within a single day, she bore it with good courage because of her hope in the Lord’ (II Maccabees 7: 20).

Although this mother is unnamed in II Maccabees, she is known variously as Hannah, Miriam, and Solomonia. In the Midrash, she is called Miriam bat Tanhum in Lamentations Rabbah; in Josippon, she is called Hannah or Chana, perhaps recalling Hannah, who says that the ‘barren [woman] has borne seven [children]’ (I Samuel 2: 5); in the Eastern Orthodox tradition, she is known as Solomonia.

Other versions of the story are found in IV Maccabees, which suggests the woman threw herself into the flames (17: 1). The tenth century Josippon, said to be based on the work of Josephus, says she fell dead on her sons’ bodies.

The martyrs’ death of the Maccabee brothers inspired Judas Maccabeus, and he led a revolt against Antiochus Epiphanes. After his victory, he purified the Temple in Jerusalem, and threw down the pagan altars. These horrific events are recounted in II Maccabees 6-10.

A Menorah in the only surviving mediaeval synagogue in Córdoba (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

The Jewish festival of Hanukkah commemorates the victory of Judas Maccabeus and the cleansing of the Temple. The story of the Seven Holy Maccabees reflects a theme in these books that ‘the strength of the Jews lies in the fulfilment of the practical mitzvot.

The Talmud also tells this story, but the refusal to eat pork becomes a refusal to worship an idol. Tractate Gittin 57b cites Rabbi Judah saying that ‘this refers to the woman and her seven sons,’ and the unnamed king is referred to as the ‘Emperor’ and ‘Caesar.’ The woman completes suicide in the Talmudic telling of the story saying she ‘also went up on to a roof and threw herself down and was killed.’

The Rabbis decided not to include I and II Maccabees in the Jewish biblical canon, and these books are regarded by many churches in the Reformation tradition as deuterocanonical or apocryphal books.

But evidence for their early acceptance is found in the Letter to the Hebrews: ‘Women received back their dead, raised to life again. There were others who were tortured, refusing to be released so that they might gain an even better resurrection’ (Hebrews 11: 35). This hope of eternal life after torture is not found anywhere in Old Testament apart from II Maccabees 7.

The Early Fathers of the Church who preached on the Seven Holy Maccabees include Saint Cyprian of Carthage, Saint Ambrose of Milan, Saint Hilary of Poitiers, Saint Gregory Nazianzus and Saint John Chrysostom.

It is probable that Hilary of Poitiers refers to this woman as a prophet when he says, ‘For all things, as the Prophet says, were made out of nothing’ (see II Maccabees 7: 28).

According to one tradition, the relics of this mother and her sons were buried on the site of a synagogue in Kerateion in Antioch, later converted to a church. Another tomb is located in the Jewish cemetery in Safed, the highest city in Galilee. Tombs claimed as the graves of the martyrs were found in San Pietro in Vincoli (Saint Peter in Chains) in Rome in 1876.

The woman and her sons, along with the Eleazar , are known as the Holy Maccabees or the Holy Maccabean Martyrs in both the Orthodox Church. According to Eastern Orthodox tradition, the sons are called Abim, Antonius, Gurias, Eleazar, Eusebonus, Alimus and Marcellus, though the names differ slightly among different authorities.

The Roman Catholic Church also includes them in its list of saints on 1 August. But this day became the feast of Saint Alphonsus Maria de’ Liguori in 1969, and the Maccabee Martyrs were omitted from the General Roman Calendar.

In the Middle Ages, many mystery plays portrayed the Maccabean martyrs. These plays may have given us the word ‘macabre,’ from the Latin Machabaeorum chorea, or ‘Dance of the Maccabees.’

The Menorah and the holiday of Hanukkah are symbols of the suffering and triumph of the Maccabees. In the 16th century, the Maharal of Prague, Rabbi Judah Loew, discussed early rabbinical opposition to celebrating Hanukkah and emphasis on the miracle of the oil, and wrote:

‘The main reason that the days of Hanukkah were instituted was to celebrate the victory over the Greeks. However, so that it would not seem that the victory was due only to might and heroism, rather than to Divine Providence, the miracle was denoted by the lighting of the Menorah, to show that it was all by a miracle, the war as well.’

A Menorah in the Maisel Synagogue in Prague (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2019)

Writing in the Tablet last week [27 July 2019], Kirsty Jane Falconer described the persecution of Jews in Alexandria in the year 38 during the reign of the Emperor Claudius as ‘the first pogrom in history.’ However, the first pogrom in history may have been the decrees against Jews in the reign of Antiochus IV Epiphanes.

Martin Luther’s deletion of I and II Maccabees from a canon that the Church had accepted for 15 centuries disregarded Patristic tradition. I wonder had he accepted the canonical authority of these books, whether he would have modified his virulent and disgusting antisemitic polemic that was later used to justify the antisemitism of the 1930s that led to the Holocaust.

The Jewish Holocaust Memorial at Liberty Square in Thessaloniki is a bronze sculpture by Nandor Glid in the shape of a Menorah whose flames are wrapped around human bodies (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

II Maccabees 7 (NRSVA):

1 It happened also that seven brothers and their mother were arrested and were being compelled by the king, under torture with whips and thongs, to partake of unlawful swine’s flesh. 2 One of them, acting as their spokesman, said, ‘What do you intend to ask and learn from us? For we are ready to die rather than transgress the laws of our ancestors.’

3 The king fell into a rage, and gave orders to have pans and cauldrons heated. 4 These were heated immediately, and he commanded that the tongue of their spokesman be cut out and that they scalp him and cut off his hands and feet, while the rest of the brothers and the mother looked on. 5 When he was utterly helpless, the king ordered them to take him to the fire, still breathing, and to fry him in a pan. The smoke from the pan spread widely, but the brothers and their mother encouraged one another to die nobly, saying, 6 ‘The Lord God is watching over us and in truth has compassion on us, as Moses declared in his song that bore witness against the people to their faces, when he said, “And he will have compassion on his servants”.’

7 After the first brother had died in this way, they brought forward the second for their sport. They tore off the skin of his head with the hair, and asked him, ‘Will you eat rather than have your body punished limb by limb?’ 8 He replied in the language of his ancestors and said to them, ‘No.’ Therefore he in turn underwent tortures as the first brother had done. 9 And when he was at his last breath, he said, ‘You accursed wretch, you dismiss us from this present life, but the King of the universe will raise us up to an everlasting renewal of life, because we have died for his laws.’

10 After him, the third was the victim of their sport. When it was demanded, he quickly put out his tongue and courageously stretched forth his hands, 11 and said nobly, ‘I got these from Heaven, and because of his laws I disdain them, and from him I hope to get them back again.’ 12 As a result the king himself and those with him were astonished at the young man’s spirit, for he regarded his sufferings as nothing.

13 After he too had died, they maltreated and tortured the fourth in the same way. 14 When he was near death, he said, ‘One cannot but choose to die at the hands of mortals and to cherish the hope God gives of being raised again by him. But for you there will be no resurrection to life!’

15 Next they brought forward the fifth and maltreated him. 16 But he looked at the king, and said, ‘Because you have authority among mortals, though you also are mortal, you do what you please. But do not think that God has forsaken our people. 17 Keep on, and see how his mighty power will torture you and your descendants!’
18 After him they brought forward the sixth. And when he was about to die, he said, ‘Do not deceive yourself in vain. For we are suffering these things on our own account, because of our sins against our own God. Therefore astounding things have happened. 19 But do not think that you will go unpunished for having tried to fight against God!’

20 The mother was especially admirable and worthy of honourable memory. Although she saw her seven sons perish within a single day, she bore it with good courage because of her hope in the Lord. 21 She encouraged each of them in the language of their ancestors. Filled with a noble spirit, she reinforced her woman’s reasoning with a man’s courage, and said to them, 22 ‘I do not know how you came into being in my womb. It was not I who gave you life and breath, nor I who set in order the elements within each of you. 23 Therefore the Creator of the world, who shaped the beginning of humankind and devised the origin of all things, will in his mercy give life and breath back to you again, since you now forget yourselves for the sake of his laws.’

24 Antiochus felt that he was being treated with contempt, and he was suspicious of her reproachful tone. The youngest brother being still alive, Antiochus not only appealed to him in words, but promised with oaths that he would make him rich and enviable if he would turn from the ways of his ancestors, and that he would take him for his Friend and entrust him with public affairs. 25 Since the young man would not listen to him at all, the king called the mother to him and urged her to advise the youth to save himself. 26 After much urging on his part, she undertook to persuade her son. 27 But, leaning close to him, she spoke in their native language as follows, deriding the cruel tyrant: ‘My son, have pity on me. I carried you for nine months in my womb, and nursed you for three years, and have reared you and brought you up to this point in your life, and have taken care of you. 28 I beg you, my child, to look at the heaven and the earth and see everything that is in them, and recognize that God did not make them out of things that existed. And in the same way the human race came into being. 29 Do not fear this butcher, but prove worthy of your brothers. Accept death, so that in God’s mercy I may get you back again along with your brothers.’

30 While she was still speaking, the young man said, ‘What are you waiting for? I will not obey the king’s command, but I obey the command of the law that was given to our ancestors through Moses. 31 But you, who have contrived all sorts of evil against the Hebrews, will certainly not escape the hands of God. 32 For we are suffering because of our own sins. 33 And if our living Lord is angry for a little while, to rebuke and discipline us, he will again be reconciled with his own servants. 34 But you, unholy wretch, you most defiled of all mortals, do not be elated in vain and puffed up by uncertain hopes, when you raise your hand against the children of heaven. 35 You have not yet escaped the judgement of the almighty, all-seeing God. 36 For our brothers after enduring a brief suffering have drunk of ever-flowing life, under God’s covenant; but you, by the judgement of God, will receive just punishment for your arrogance. 37 I, like my brothers, give up body and life for the laws of our ancestors, appealing to God to show mercy soon to our nation and by trials and plagues to make you confess that he alone is God, 38 and through me and my brothers to bring to an end the wrath of the Almighty that has justly fallen on our whole nation.’

39 The king fell into a rage, and handled him worse than the others, being exasperated at his scorn. 40 So he died in his integrity, putting his whole trust in the Lord.

41 Last of all, the mother died, after her sons.

42 Let this be enough, then, about the eating of sacrifices and the extreme tortures.

A large, tilting Menorah on the Jewish Memorial at the Aristotelean University of Thessaloniki, on the site of the ancient Jewish cemetery (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

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