Gary Morrison, «The Composition of II Maccabees: Insights Provided by a Literary topos», Vol. 90 (2009) 564-572
II Maccabees is an unusual text, its composition and content are topics of extensive discussion. This paper identifies a literary construct that we attribute to the epitomiser. Its identification allows us to assign various parts of the text to the same hand giving us more insight into both the text’s composition and the epitomiser’s ability as an historian and writer. Furthermore, the identified literary topos suggests that recent attempts to minimise the extent to which II Maccabees represents any conflict between the Greeks and the Jews, Judaism and Hellenism may need to be reconsidered, some apparent instances of favourable relations between the Jews and other nations (in particular the Hellenes) are not what they seem.
The Composition of II Maccabees 569
The second example occurs near the start of the book proper. We are
informed that the early Seleucid kings (and especially Seleucus IV) paid for
Temple celebrations during the time that Onias was High Priest (2 Macc 3,2-
3). This passage praises Onias, not because he fostered a positive relationship
with the Seleucids, but because even the Seleucid kings respected the Temple.
The distinction is subtle but informative: everyone knew what the Seleucid
kings were really like â€” a point reinforced by our author in the following
lines when Seleucus IV instructs Heliodorus to remove funds from the
Temple (2 Macc 3,7-40). We should interpret the passage as emphasising
Onias IIIâ€™s â€˜greatnessâ€™ through the suggestion that even those blasphemous
gentile kings could have paid him and the Temple respect.
One further passage and example of our topos must be mentioned. In
Chapter 9 Antiochus, on his death bed and wracked with pain, finally â€œsees
the lightâ€ and promises to give the Jews equal privileges to those enjoyed by
the citizens of Athens. The promises are not, however, all that they seem. In
the mind of the unreformed Antiochus Athens is represented as the zenith of
human civilisation, while the Jews are viewed as the absolute nadir (â€œthe
fodder for the birds of preyâ€ â€” 2 Macc 9,15). The reformed Antiochus will
reverse this assessment and switch from condemning to supporting Jewish
culture: the Jews will take the position of (or will at least be equivalent to) the
Athenians (18). The problem is that the circumstances with which our author
lets Antiochus make his offer demonstrates that he does not believe
Antiochusâ€™ sincerity and neither it seems does the Lord (2 Macc 9,18).
Furthermore, the account is rich with irony: even on his deathbed Antiochus
does not understand that the Jews do not want to be Athenians (Hellenes).
This ideology is reinforced by the subsequent use of the by now familiar
device of the emphatic kaiv: Antiochus â€œeven (kaiv) promises to turn Jewâ€ (2
Macc 9,17); and the use of exaggeration to achieve effect, when an unlikely
people or person shows favour to or sympathises with the Jews. The obvious
is not the reality in this passage. The role for the Athenians is as the antithesis
of the Jews, indicating that they cannot be viewed in a friendly way; to the
contrary, the literary constructs and undercurrents in this passage suggest
Temple treasures does suggest, at best, ambivalence. Interpretation of 2 Macc 4,49 as
another example of our literary topos provides consistency in the general construct of
chapter four regarding Jews and â€œothersâ€.
(18) See 2 Macc 9,15: â€œBut he would make all the Jews, whom he had [hitherto] not
judged to be worthy of burial, but [rather] of being thrown with the dumb beasts as fodder
for birds of prey, the equals of [what] the Athenians [had hitherto been]â€™ (tou;" de; Ioudaivou",
ou}" diegnwkei mhde; tafh'" ajxiw'sai, oijwnobrwvtou" de; su;n toi'" nhpivoi" ejkrivyein qhrivoi",
pavnta" aujtou;" i[sou" Î”Aqhnaivoi" poihvsein).
The choice of the Athenians is also interesting since Athens is outside of the Seleucid
Empire, and it is an Athenian whom Antiochus uses to introduce the Hellenic customs so
despised by our author (2 Macc 6,1-3). It would have been known that Antiochus was a
great admirer of Athenian culture, he had after all spent time there on his way back from
Rome â€” Appian Syr. XI.45; Polybius 26,1; OGIS I no. 248 vv. 55-56; O. MÃ˜RKHOLM
Antiochus IV of Syria (KÃ¸benhavn 1966) 40-42.
(19) Strangely most commentators interpret the representation of the Athenians here as
positive. See (e.g.) GOLDSTEIN, II Maccabees, 356, who argues that â€œJason assumes to be
treated like an Athenian is a privilegeâ€. It is not Jason but Antiochus who makes this
assumption, the author of this passage holds an altogether more hostile view.