The Second Book of Maccabees does not continue the narrative of 1 Maccabees as might be expected, but instead presents an alternate account that begins with events that precede the key events of 1 Maccabees. It also ends at an earlier point, essentially covering events that occurred in Judea between 180 and 161 b.c. The author includes a curious explanation of his writing in 2.19-32, claiming this book is actually an abridgement of a five-volume history (never yet discovered) by Jason of Cyrene. As such, 2 Maccabees may be one of the earliest examples of book condensation. Both that lengthy work and this condensation were written in Greek at some point after 110 b.c. Even though this book is less historically reliable than 1 Maccabees, several features make it of great interest. First, is its discussion of martyrdom and its meaning (see the dramatic account at 7.1-42 of the pious mother and her seven sons who are martyred for their faith). This is of keen interest to the author, and readers can see in this account the origins of the veneration of martyrs that would later become so prominent in Christian circles during times of persecution. Secondly, a definite belief in resurrection emerges in this book in the context of the untimely and unjust deaths of the various Maccabean heroes under tyrannical persecution (7.9). The hope and expectation of being raised to everlasting life after dying is seen as a divine act of grace that God extends to those who have died for the sake of Torah. By the time of Jesus this emerging theological development had become a tenet of belief among the more progressive Pharisees, but was resisted as a novelty by the conservative Sadducees (Matt 22.23-33).
Apart from the essential story itself, one important feature that these very different books have in common is their depiction of an indomitable Jewish spirit continually welling up and contending for religious freedom. We see in both 1 and 2 Maccabees a fierce loyalty to God, and it is this spirit and loyalty that has enabled Jews and Judaism to survive centuries of massive oppression and yet to thrive against all odds in living out the ancient calling to be “a light to the Gentiles (nations)” (Isa 49.6). The Maccabean Era was a pivotal time in their history: the time in which modern Judaism was just beginning to emerge. It was a period of rich self-expression as evidenced in the broad range of literature being authored and translated by Jews in Jerusalem, Alexandria, and throughout the Diaspora, some of which, through vigorous debate, was determined to be canonical scriptures (i.e., the Law and the Prophets). And it was from within this rich cultural milieu that one Galilean rabbi, Jesus of Nazareth, would embark on a ministry of preaching and reconciliation.
Two Letters to the Jewish Community in Egypt (1.1—2.18)
The Summary of Jason's History Introduced (2.19-32)
Heliodorus Attacks the Temple (3.1-40)
Antiochus IV Attacks the Temple (4.1—10.8)
Nicanor Attacks the Temple (10.9—15.39)