Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Does 1 Maccabees Critique the Hasmoneans?

Last week we were reading 1 Maccabees in one of my classes.  We began to discuss the work's bias.  As anyone who has even a passing acquaintance with the text knows, it is highly pro-Hasmonean.  It constantly praises the activities--and, at times, the excesses--of Judah Maccabee and his brothers.  But we also began to discuss some underlying critiques.  Or, if one is writing a history of the Maccabean Revolt while under Hasmonean rule, perhaps as the court historian, how could one possibly offer a critique?  It would have to be in allusions and hints throughout.  For example, throughout the text, the Hasmoneans are likened to Phinehas from Numbers 25:1-15 for their zeal, which is often how some rather excessively violent episodes are justified.  In response to his zeal, Phinehas receives a perpetual priesthood (Num. 25:13).  Likewise, so does Simon, the brother of Judah Maccabee,

"The Jews and their priests have resolved that Simon should be their leader and high priest forever, until a trustworthy prophet should arise." (1 Macc. 14:41 NRSV)

The difference, however, is that Phinehas receives a perpetual priesthood without qualification.  There is the slightest twinge of doubt for Simon's with the qualification of the rise of a prophet who may confirm or may nullify this pronouncement.

This, however, is quite a small qualification, a small twinge of doubt.  There is, I think, a much stronger undercurrent in the text.  But one needs to look deeper for it.

In addition to becoming high priest, commander, etc., Simon also wears the purple (14:43).  Before him, Jonathan also received the purple (10:20).

All this comes just after over the top, lavish praise of the Romans.  Speaking of their prowess in conquering others, how loyal they are to their allies, etc., the description of the Romans wraps up with this praise:

"Yet for all this not one of them has put on a crown or worn purple as a mark of pride, but they have built for themselves a senate chamber, and every day three hundred twenty senators constantly deliberate concerning the people, to govern them well.  They trust one man each year to rule over them and to control all their land; they all heed the one man, and there is no envy or jealousy among them." (1 Macc. 8:14-16)

As I said, a bit over the top--as well as inaccurate.  Nonetheless, part of the lavish praise is the fact that, as of yet, no one among the Romans had been so proud as to put on the purple (or a crown); they are, in the author's perspective, to be highly commended for such restraint.  And, while the author never states anything explicitly positively or negatively when Jonathan in chapter 10 or Simon in chapter 12 put on the purple and a crown, the hint has already been planted in chapter 8 that putting on the purple and a crown is a negative thing to do, a mark of pride.  It is an undercurrent of critique, buried under the cresting waves of seemingly constant praise.

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