With Hanukkah fast approaching, here is something to chew on along with your latkes: Why are the Books of Maccabees—the fullest account of the Jewish insurrection celebrated at Hanukkah—included in the Christian Bible, but not the Hebrew one?
Answering that question requires answering others. Who decided what got into the Bible and what got left out? What criteria did they use? As Stanford University religion professor Michael Penn puts it: “Who essentially got to decide the table of contents?”
The traditional response, of course, is that God decided, or at least divinely inspired proxies. If that’s the case, the Bible doesn’t give much of a hint of it. Exodus identifies Moses as God’s messenger, who delivers the Ten Commandments. Nowhere does the text anoint an editor.
Biblical scholars have long been trying to unravel the process of what’s known as canonization—how religious groups come to consider certain texts authoritative and holy, while others were forgotten or held secondary. The detective work requires a deep reading of the surviving texts that influential groups of Jews considered holy thousands of years ago, including those works that didn’t make it into the Bible. Archaeological finds help, as does an understanding of the civilizations surrounding the Jews of Israel, and some common sense assumptions of how people make decisions.
Even then, much remains a mystery. “We have no documents that even claim or pretend to give us the whole story,” says Shaye J. D. Cohen, a Harvard professor of Hebrew literature. “We have fragments of stories here and fragments of stories there.”
As far as Bible scholars can suss out, Jews had come to agree on the 24 books that today make up the Hebrew Bible by around 300 C.E. There was no conference of leading Jewish authorities called to make the final cuts, and no vote. Don’t think of the Bible as a single book, urges Jonathan Klawans, Boston University professor of religion, but as an anthology. At different times, different books were included.
The five books of Moses, or Torah, were the first to be broadly accepted as holy by Jews. Over the years, scholars have identified different authors of different Torah passages, which sometimes contradict each other, by the style of writing and the subject matter. They are referred to by abbreviations—”J” for Yahwist (the oldest and most unadorned of the writers, likely from the Southern Kingdom of Judea and possibly, literary critic Harold Bloom argued, a woman), “P” for Priestly (the most concerned with rules of purity) and so on.
The person (or persons) who wove the different parts together is referred to as “R,” the Redactor—the editor who made sense of it all. Early 20th century German theologian Franz Rosenzweig referred to R as “Rabbenu,” or “our master.” Whether this great editor or editors really existed is unknown, although, as Cohen says, “it’s hard to imagine the Bible coming together by itself.”
Michael Satlow, a Brown University professor of Judaic studies, says scribes played an editor-like role in ancient times. They not only copied material but corrected it and tried to make it cohesive and literate. “Scribes were scholarly and creative, not human photocopy machines,” he writes in his 2014 book, How the Bible Became Holy.
With the Torah, for instance, he notes that one section of Exodus talks of the Passover slaughter of lambs and the smearing the blood on doorposts to keep away evil forces, while another section talks of a feast of unleavened bread sans slaughter. Later, in Deuteronomy 16:1-8, the two parts—animal sacrifice and unleavened bread—are merged into one celebration. The Redactor in action, perhaps in the form of scribes.
But in the 5th century BCE, the Torah was recognized as a cohesive work. At that time, Ezra, a scribe and Persian official, traveled to Jerusalem carrying what the book of Nehemiah calls “the scroll of the Law of Moses” [Nehemiah 8:1]. Several hundred years later, there are hints that Jews had come to accept a Bible with three parts, similar to the current arrangement of Torah, Prophets, and Writings. The Dead Sea scrolls found in Qumran contain what’s known as the Halakhic Letter, written around 150 BCE. One passage talks about a three or perhaps four-part Bible, says James VanderKam, a Notre Dame emeritus professor of Hebrew scriptures, although he cautions that the scroll fragments are so beat up that it’s tough to know for sure.
Still, there were many contenders for what books should be included. That reflected the many different factions of Jews at the time—Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, the Jews of Qumran, Samaritans, among others. Different groups had different books they held holy. Qumran Jews studied the books of Jubilees, Enoch, Ben Sira, and Tobit, all of which had Jewish themes but none of which made it into the Jewish Bible.
Around this time, the Maccabee family led a revolt against the Greek rulers of Judea, known as the Seleucids. Four books of Maccabees tell the story of the revolt and the generations that followed, who became known as the Hasmonean dynasty.
The first book, in particular, would seem to be a natural for the Jewish canon. It recounts the familiar stories of the holiday: Jewish opposition to the tyranny of Antiochus, the triumph of Judah the Maccabee (Hebrew for “hammer”) and his family over the Seleucids, and the desecration and rededication of the temple in Jerusalem.
It’s also packed with Game of Thrones-style action, gore and intrigue. (My favorite is when Judah’s brother, Eleazar, dives under a Seleucid war elephant covered in royal armor, thinking that must be the king’s ride. Eleazar stabs the elephant with his sword and is crushed beneath the collapsing animal. Despite his bravery, the Maccabees retreat in the face of an enormous Seleucid army and regroup in the mountains.)
By the time a rough version of the complete Hebrew Bible was finished, sometime by the 3rd century CE, the political and military situation in Judea had vastly changed. The Hasmoneans had long ago ceded power to Rome. Judean Jews had mounted two revolts, both of which ended disastrously. The first, in 70 CE, led to the destruction of the second Temple. After the second revolt, led by Simon Bar Kohkhba in 132 CE, Jews were barred from Jerusalem and taken into slavery. In decades of fighting, many thousands of Jews were killed, Galilean cities and villages were destroyed, and the region deforested because so many trees were cut down during sieges.
The failures also winnowed the number of Jewish communities. The Jews of Qumran and Masada were conquered and killed, as were other zealots. The Sadducees, whose legitimacy derived from their priestly role, disappeared with the destruction of the Temple. That largely left the more plebeian Pharisees and early Christians, who considered themselves Jews.
Who made the final cuts of the text of the Jewish Bible? Those who survived the Roman wars and who reinvented Judaism as a decentralized religion, not one based around a Jerusalem temple.
The earliest synagogues appear around the 3rd century BCE in Egypt, then a part of the Greek empire, writes Satlow, the Bible historian. They were either physical buildings or sometimes groups of Jews engaged in prayer and learning. Over the next 200 years, synagogues spread throughout the Greek-speaking world, he writes, including to the Galilee. The early rabbis were the successors of the Jewish survivors, the Pharisees—in outlook if not necessarily in blood lineage.
As Christians broke off and formed a distinct religion, it was left to the early rabbis and their disciples to make the decisions about canon. “By the third century CE, the rabbis have these groups of texts that are seen as authoritative,” Satlow says.
According to one theory, a first century CE rabbinical meeting in the Judean village of Yavneh, now south of Tel Aviv, was decisive. What the rabbis debated and decided there has been the subject of myth and speculation for centuries. Some early Bible scholars argued that the Yavneh rabbis made the final edits to the Bible and shut down consideration of newer works.
That would give a clear-cut answer to the canon question, but modern scholars reject it. Cohen, the Harvard expert on Hebrew literature, went further than many of his peers in a 1984 paper, arguing that Yavneh was a place where the reeling remnants of the Jewish elite ended their infighting and focused on a common future. The divisions between the followers of rabbis Hillel and Shammai were healed and “sectarian exclusiveness was replaced by rabbinic pluralism,” he writes.
Others say there isn’t enough proof even to back that up, and nowadays Cohen says he isn’t sure there was an actual meeting, or whether sometime around then the different wings of Judaism reconciled. For his part, Satlow figures, Yavneh was more like “a prisoner of war camp” where the rabbis were held by the Romans and later released.
A number of biblical scholars offer pragmatic explanations of how the last of the books of the Bible were selected. Benjamin Sommer, a biblical expert at Jewish Theological Seminary, says the Jewish Bible came together through dozens if not hundreds of small decisions made throughout the Jewish world during the second and third century CE. Synagogues had to decide which scrolls were important enough to study and to pay scribes to copy. Over time, in a decentralized fashion, synagogues and their rabbis came to a common understanding of which books were significant enough to be included in a common anthology. That became what we now call the Jewish or Hebrew Bible.
“Hiring scribes to make a copy of a scroll is expensive,” Sommer says. “Synagogues don’t have huge libraries. They’re going to invest in those scrolls that they consider to be sacred and authoritative.”
There was also a kind of best-seller list among the texts, which gave another boost to standardization. “The scrolls that get used the most are the ones that need to be copied the most,” Sommer says. ‘They are being opened, being rolled one way or the other, and they get damaged.”
Why only 24 books, not more? At the time, the Jewish world was greatly influenced by Greek Hellenism, whose center was the library at Alexandria, says Guy Darshan, a biblical studies professor at Tel Aviv University. For the Greeks, Homer’s works were considered “foundational literature,” he says, the way the Bible now is considered foundational for Western religions. Alexandria scribes divided the Iliad and the Odyssey into 24 scrolls, numbered for the 24 letters of the Greek alphabet. To them, Homer was the alpha and omega of Greek literature.
While little is known about the scribes of Judea, it’s reasonable to surmise that their cataloging was influenced by Alexandria, so they too chose the number 24 to organize the Jewish Bible. “Recognizing the Homeric model as representing the optimal divisions based on a perfect number enables us to posit that the Jerusalem scribes made it their task to establish the Hebrew Bible as the Jewish counterpart to the most important composition in the Hellenistic world,” Darshan writes.
That explanation would seem to clash with the work of Josephus, a 1st century CE Roman Jew, who wrote that the Jewish Bible consisted of 22 books. But few scholars give that number much credence. Josephus probably counted the books of Ruth and Lamentations as parts of other books to come up with the number 22, says Sommer, presumably to match the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet.
Which books should be chosen for the 24th? Nowhere are the criteria listed but looking at the ones included and excluded give important clues.
First, all the books of the Jewish Bible are written in Hebrew, aside from some passages in Aramaic. None are written in Greek. Of the books of Maccabees, only the first was written in Hebrew, and that original was lost and later translated into Greek. All the rest were originally written in Greek. That was a no-go for the later books.
Second, all the books in the Jewish canon use a lunar calendar. That would disqualify the book of Jubilees, which uses a quasi-solar calendar—52 weeks of seven days—even though Jubilees was popular at Qumran and gives a different slant on the story of Genesis and Moses. The apocalyptic book of Enoch, which retells parts of Genesis and talks of angels and demons, also suffers from the solar calendar defect.
Had books using two different calendars become part of the same Bible, something as seemingly obvious as which day to celebrate Passover or Rosh HaShanah would have been uncertain. The lack of a leap year in the quasi-solar calendar would also have screwed up dates.
Third, some books would have been included simply because they were popular and dealt with religious themes. The book of Esther, for instance, tells how a Jewish queen in Persia thwarted the murderous enemies of the Jews. There isn’t a single mention of God in the book, but still, it made the final cut, as did the love poetry known as the Song of Solomon.
None of these three criteria would rule out the first book of Maccabees, yet it wasn’t included. There were other reasons the rabbis found the work distasteful.
Although the Maccabees today are celebrated as freedom fighters, that wasn’t the view of the early rabbis. To them, the Maccabees and their successors were usurpers and politically inept. The Maccabees filled the position of high priest with their own, though they weren’t descendants of the high priest Zadok, as the rabbis thought necessary. Later Maccabees also claimed to be monarchs, though they weren’t descendants of King David. That made them illegitimate. “When the Maccabees take over, it’s improper,” says Sommer.
Perhaps even more importantly, the Maccabees were political blunderers in the view of early rabbis. To defeat the Greeks, the Maccabees negotiated a mutual defense treaty with Rome. While that helped defeat the Greeks, it gave Rome a way to assert control over Judea when the Hasmonean dynasty descended into infighting and strife. Eventually, Rome became ruler and the Maccabees faded into history. During Roman rule, Jerusalem and the temple were destroyed and the Jews enslaved or deported.
“The squabbling (in the Hasmonean period) as to who should be next high priest and king leads to the involvement of (General) Pompey and Rome,” says Kelley Coblentz Bautch, a St. Edward’s University theologian. “The latter decisively insert themselves into Judean politics, which paves the way for Roman domination from the late first century BCE on.”
The distaste for the Maccabees comes through in the Babylonian Talmud. When the rabbis discuss Hanukkah [Sabbath 21B] they don’t talk about the rebellion. Instead, they tack on the tale of the miracle of the oil lasting for eight days during the temple’s rededication. “The message of that story is they are trying to put God back into the temple,” says Cohen, the Harvard scholar. “Look, here’s a miracle so Hanukkah was legit.”
While the rabbis detested the Maccabees, early Christians venerated them, both for their ferocious resistance and for their martyrdom. Persecuted Christians especially identified with the mother and her seven sons in the second book of Maccabees [2 Maccabees 7] who chose torture—being scalped and burnt alive—rather than transgress Jewish law and eat pork.
A cult of the Maccabees took hold, especially in Antioch, Syria. During the 4th century CE, Gregory of Nazianzus, the bishop of Constantinople, sermonized that the Maccabees “merit being honored by everyone because their steadfastness was for the sake of defending the ways of their fathers.”
When early Christians were putting together their Bible, they had a more inclusive view of what they should classify as Old Testament. Maccabees was included in what is now the Catholic Bible, and Enoch and Jubilees made it into the bibles of the Ethiopian and Eritrean Tewahedo Orthodox Churches. “Christians have a canon that is much broader,” says Cohen. “It includes books that are written in Greek.”
When the church split during the Protestant reformation, Luther and others had a stricter definition of what should be part of the Old Testament. Out went books written in Greek, although many Protestant Bibles still included them in a section called Apocrypha, meaning ”of doubtful origin” but still worth studying—something like an additional reading list assigned for college students. The Maccabees are included in the Protestant Apocrypha. While the first book was originally written in Hebrew, that text was lost and probably unknown to Luther.
The first book of Maccabees had one last strike against it when it came to inclusion in the Jewish Bible. Everything in the Bible is written as if it happened no later than the end of the Persian period in the 5th century BCE. Obviously, a recounting of the Maccabean revolt three centuries later wouldn’t qualify.
Of course, there was nothing stopping the rabbis from making an exception—and in a sense they probably did. Biblical scholars say that the book of Daniel was probably written around the time of the Maccabean revolt, sometime before the death of King Antiochus in 164 BC. It is the only book to make a mention of the Greek empire, as part of Daniel’s prophecies.[Daniel 11:20] That would make Daniel the last text to be included in the Hebrew Bible. After Daniel, the anthology was finished.
Daniel is described as a young Jewish scholar exiled in Babylonia, sometime in the 6th century BCE. But Daniel’s apocalyptic visions in chapter seven through 12, [especially 11] where he talks of war and revolt against powerful Greek rulers are seen as a metaphorical recounting of the Maccabean revolt before the writer knew how the revolt would turn out.
“The book of Daniel, especially the obscured visions in the second half of the book, are talking in code about the events of the 160s BCE—the persecution of Judaism by Antiochus,” says Cohen.
Writing in metaphor may have made the work seem less dangerous to Roman overlords watching carefully for signs of revolt. Perhaps early rabbis and synagogues missed the metaphorical allusions when they ordered scrolls of Daniel. Few rabbis back then knew much about Greek Hellenistic civilization.
But Satlow, the Brown University biblical scholar, has another interpretation. The Hebrew Bible doesn’t include the Maccabean tale of an ultimately failed revolt in a small dot of land in the Middle East, he says. Instead, the resistance of the Maccabees is transformed through Daniel’s prophecies into a forecast of resistance to tyrannical oppression anywhere, making it a story for the ages.