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:
Author’s Preface (⇒ 2 Macc 2:19-32)
Heliodorus’ Attempt To Profane the Temple (⇒ 2 Macc 3:1-40)
- Profanation and Persecution (⇒ 2 Macc 4:1-⇒ 7:42)
- Victories of Judas and Purification of the Temple (⇒ 2 Macc 8:1-⇒ 10:8)
- Renewed Persecution (⇒ 2 Macc 10:9-⇒ 15:36)
- Epilogue (⇒ 2 Macc 15:37-39)
The Jews in Jerusalem and in the land of Judea send greetings to their brethren, the Jews in Egypt, and wish them true peace!
May God bless you and remember his covenant with his faithful servants, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.
May he give to all of you a heart to worship him and to do his will readily and generously.
May he open your heart to his law and his commandments and grant you peace.
May he hear your prayers, and be reconciled to you, and never forsake you in time of adversity.
Even now we are praying for you here.
1 In the reign of Demetrius, the year one hundred and sixty-nine, we Jews wrote to you during the trouble and violence that overtook us in those years after Jason and his followers had revolted against the holy land and the kingdom,
2 setting fire to the gatehouse and shedding innocent blood. But we prayed to the Lord, and our prayer was heard; we offered sacrifices and fine flour; we lighted the lamps and set out the loaves of bread.
3 We are now reminding you to celebrate the feast of Booths in the month of Chislev.
4 Dated in the year one hundred and eighty-eight. The people of Jerusalem and Judea, the senate, and Judas send greetings and good wishes to Aristobulus, counselor of King Ptolemy and member of the family of the anointed priests, and to the Jews in Egypt.
5 Since we have been saved by God from grave dangers, we give him great thanks for having fought on our side against the king;
it was he who drove out those who fought against the holy city.
6 When their leader arrived in Persia with his seemingly irresistible army, they were cut to pieces in the temple of the goddess Nanea through a deceitful stratagem employed by Nanea’s priests.
7 On the pretext of marrying the goddess, Antiochus with his Friends had come to the place to get its great treasures by way of dowry.
When the priests of the Nanaeon had displayed the treasures, Antiochus with a few attendants came to the temple precincts. As soon as he entered the temple, the priests locked the doors.
Then they opened a hidden trapdoor in the ceiling, hurled stones at the leader and his companions and struck them down. They dismembered the bodies, cut off their heads and tossed them to the people outside.
Forever blessed be our God, who has thus punished the wicked!
8 9 We shall be celebrating the purification of the temple on the twenty-fifth day of the month Chislev, so we thought it right to inform you, that you too may celebrate the feast of Booths and of the fire that appeared when Nehemiah, the rebuilder of the temple and the altar, offered sacrifices.
10 When our fathers were being exiled to Persia, devout priests of the time took some of the fire from the altar and hid it secretly in the hollow of a dry cistern, making sure that the place would be unknown to anyone.
Many years later, when it so pleased God, Nehemiah, commissioned by the king of Persia, sent the descendants of the priests who had hidden the fire to look for it.
When they informed us that they could not find any fire, but only muddy water, he ordered them to scoop some out and bring it. After the material for the sacrifices had been prepared, Nehemiah ordered the priests to sprinkle with the water the wood and what lay on it.
When this was done and in time the sun, which had been clouded over, began to shine, a great fire blazed up, so that everyone marveled.
While the sacrifice was being burned, the priests recited a prayer, and all present joined in with them, Jonathan leading and the rest responding with Nehemiah.
The prayer was as follows: “Lord, Lord God, creator of all things, awesome and strong, just and merciful, the only king and benefactor,
who alone are gracious, just, almighty, and eternal, Israel’s savior from all evil, who chose our forefathers and sanctified them:
accept this sacrifice on behalf of all your people Israel and guard and sanctify your heritage.
Gather together our scattered people, free those who are the slaves of the Gentiles, look kindly on those who are despised and detested, and let the Gentiles know that you are our God.
Punish those who tyrannize over us and arrogantly mistreat us.
Plant your people in your holy place, as Moses promised.”
Then the priests began to sing hymns.
After the sacrifice was burned, Nehemiah ordered the rest of the liquid to be poured upon large stones.
As soon as this was done, a flame blazed up, but its light was lost in the brilliance cast from a light on the altar.
When the event became known and the king of the Persians was told that, in the very place where the exiled priests had hidden the fire, a liquid was found with which Nehemiah and his people had burned the sacrifices,
the king, after verifying the fact, fenced the place off and declared it sacred.
To those on whom the king wished to bestow favors he distributed the large revenues he received there.
11 Nehemiah and his companions called the liquid nephthar, meaning purification, but most people named it naphtha.
1  Demetrius: Demetrius II, king of Syria (145-139, 129-125 B.C.). The year one hundred and sixty-nine of the Seleucid era, 143 B.C. Regarding the dates in 1 and 2 Mc, see note on ⇒ 1 Macc 1:10. On the troubles caused by Jason and his revolt against the kingdom, i.e., the rule of the legitimate high priest, see ⇒ 2 Macc 4:7-22.2  Our prayer was heard: in the ultimate victory of the Maccabees.3  Feast of Booths in the month of Chislev: really the feast of the Dedication of the temple (⇒ 2 Macc 10:1-8), celebrated on the twenty-fifth of Chislev (Nov.-Dec.). Its solemnity resembles that of the true feast of Booths (⇒ Lev 23:33-43), celebrated on the fifteenth of Tishri (Sept.-Oct.); cf ⇒ 2 Macc 1:18.4  124 B.C. The date pertains to the preceding, not the following letter. King Ptolemy: Ptolemy VI Philometor, ruler of Egypt from 180 to 145 B.C.; he is mentioned also in ⇒ 1 Macc 1:18; ⇒ 10:51-59.5 [11-12] The king: Antiochus IV of Syria, the bitter persecutor of the Jews, who, as leader of the Syrian army that invaded Persia, perished there in 164 B.C.6  Nanea: an oriental goddess comparable to Artemis of the Greeks.7 [14-17] A different account of the death of Antiochus IV is given in ⇒ 2 Macc 9:1-29, and another variant account in ⇒ 1 Macc 6:1-16. The writer of this letter had probably heard a distorted rumor of the king’s death. This fact and other indications show that the letter was written very soon after Antiochus IV died, hence in 164 B.C.8 [18-36] This purely legendary account of Nehemiah’s miraculous fire is incorporated in the letter because of its connection with the temple and its rededication.9  Nehemiah, the rebuilder of the temple he: rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem, but the temple had been rebuilt by Zerubbabel almost a century before.10  Persia: actually Babylonia, which later became part of the Persian Empire.11  By a play on words, the Greek term naphtha (petroleum) is assimilated to some Semitic word, perhaps nephthar, meaning “loosened.”