The First Book of Maccabees is an excellent and reliable historical source on the period of the Maccabean revolt and its aftermath, 175–134 b.c. The book traces the struggle of the Judean Jews against the cruel oppression of the Seleucid rulers who had taken control of Judea away from the Ptolemaic Egyptian kings shortly after 200 b.c. At the center of the story are Mattathias, a country priest, and his five sons (Joannan, Simon, Judas, Eleazar, and Jonathan), who together lead a revolution against king Antiochus IV (surnamed Epiphanes), a murderous tyrant who was aggressively forcing Greek customs and culture on the Judeans, even to the extent of setting up an altar to Zeus in the Jerusalem temple. As the rebellion expands, the son Judas distinguishes himself as a courageous leader. By means of clever guerrilla warfare he eventually regains control of Jerusalem, cleanses the temple and rededicates it to God, a celebration which continues annually to this day during the Festival of the Dedication (Hanukkah, 4.56-59).
“Maccabeus” was Judas' nickname (2.4). It may mean “the hammer” or “chosen by the Lord.” The name was soon applied to all in this heroic family who gave their lives in this Jewish struggle for freedom from tyranny. And it came to be used as well as the name of this very important history book, and of several others dealing with the same period or similar themes. First Maccabees is preserved in Greek and other secondary versions, yet is clearly based on a Hebrew original mostly composed shortly after the reign of the Hasmonean priest-king John Hyrcanus I (134–104 b.c.), perhaps around 100 b.c. The history writing in this book is obviously modeled on the style of Kings and Chronicles in the Hebrew Bible. In a very brief nine-verse introduction, the author recaps events from the meteoric rise of Alexander the Great to the division of his conquered territories among his three top servants (generals). History tells us that these three were Seleucus taking command of Syria-Mesopotamia, Ptolemy taking Egypt, and Antigonus taking Macedonia. From 1.10 to the end of the book readers are thrown immediately into the flow of events precipitated by the revolt of the family of the Maccabees. After the death of Judas Maccabeus we see the movement of this heroic family into the power vacuum in Judea, styling themselves as priest-kings (later to be known as the Hasmoneans) and rulers of Judea. Of special importance is the mention in this book of the Hasideans (Hasidim), “the pious ones,” whose primary concern (then as now) is with the honoring of God by careful and pious observance of Torah in daily life (2.42; 7.13). The key message of this book is that God can be relied on for salvation, and to raise up courageous leaders like the Maccabees to bring rescue from oppression.
Introduction, Crisis, and Rebellion (1.1—2.70)
Judas Maccabeus: Military Might (3.1—9.22)
Jonathan: Political Power (9.23—12.53)
Simon: Organizational Skill (13.1—16.24)