liv: In English: My fandom is text obsessed / In Hebrew: These are the words (words)
[personal profile] liv
In my original 3W4DW post I asked for suggestions of topics for me to ramble about, and [personal profile] wychwood asked for the Books of Maccabees:
Could you talk about the Books of Maccabees? Like, are they part of Jewish scripture? What do they mean to you? I read something about them being marginalised as part of a political agenda, but Hannukah has obviously survived - what's up with that?
In short, no, none of the Books of Maccabees are part of Jewish scripture. At least Maccabees 1 and 2 have acquired more importance than most other Apocryphal books because of chanukah, as you Wych points out. To dig into that a bit more, though:

The Jewish Bible is often referred to as the Tanach, sometimes spelled Tenakh. This is an acronym, it stands for Torah, Neviim (prophets) and Ketuvim (writings). Taken together, the Tanach is very similar to the canonical form of the Protestant Old Testament, except with the books in a slightly different order and some minor differences in verse and chapter numbering. The Torah (in its narrow sense) is the Five Books of Moses or the Pentateuch, the first five books in the OT. These form the absolute central scriptural text, everything else about Judaism traces its origins to these books. The Five Books are what gets written on scrolls and read ceremonially in synagogues. The rest of the Hebrew Bible is considered sacred, but in some ways it's not very central to modern Judaism, it's instructive to read, it's considered Divinely inspired, it's used as part of liturgy, but it's illustrative of the Torah and rabbinic laws can not directly be derived from these sections of the Bible.

Fixing the final canonical form of Tanach happened in the early part of the rabbinic era, when they were already starting to move to a religion based on detailed legal systems ultimately derived from Torah, rather than a Biblical religion in the sense that Christians might understand it. Torah itself was already pretty much fixed by this time; though there are hints of disputes about manuscript variants, it's set almost down to the exact sequence of letters, let alone which books are included. The books of Prophets were also already fixed by the time we have written records of people discussing the constitution of the scriptural canon, though there wasn't quite such a strong system to ensure fidelity of copying. The important thing about Prophets is that they are considered to be written down by people who were directly transmitting God's words. Not all books about people we might think of as prophets are in the Prophets section of the Torah. These books are Joshua through Malachi (but not including Chronicles, which is at the end of the Jewish ordering of the Hebrew Bible).

The controversy arose over the "Writings"; we have records of several debates about whether books had enough holy status to be included in this section. In fact there's a lovely story about R' Akiva arguing in favour of the inclusion of Song of Songs, because it's basically just erotic poetry, but he considered it to have holy status on grounds that more or less amount to literary merit. The ones that actually made the cut are Psalms, Proverbs, Job (which is very Hellenized, by the way), the five so-called megillot which are read separately at particular times in the liturgical calendar ie Song of Songs, Ruth, Lamentations, Ecclesiastes and Esther, three random prophets who are not Prophets namely Daniel, Ezra and Nehemiah, and Chronicles, an alternate version of Kings which has somewhat lower status though still holy. There are other books that were written during around the same era as the later books of Writings and in a similar style, which did not make it into our Bible; these ended up being the Apocrypha for Protestants and (some of them?) are included within the Catholic Bible.

Normally the Apocryphal books don't really have any status within normative Judaism, but they are sometimes treated as early collections of midrash, which are teaching stories used to illustrate and expand on Biblical and legal material. Several people have pointed out the similarity between rabbinic midrash and fanfic, because it frequently fills in gaps in the text or fixes perceived theological problems or just explores relationships and backstories of the characters. The books of Maccabees are part of this set of books, or at least Maccabees 1 and 2 are, Maccabees 3 and 4 were, if I remember correctly, probably originally written in Greek and then back-translated into Hebrew, and therefore really never had any possibility of being in the canon.

[personal profile] wychwood is right that the reason for the exclusion of Maccabees is partly political. The Maccabees themselves established the Hasmonean kingdom, a brief period when Judea had political and military autonomy and was ruled over by this dynasty of priest-kings. This was politically unacceptable in early rabbinic Judaism, partly because they were trying to move the seat of power away from the inherited priesthood (let alone any kind of monarchy) and plant it firmly within a quasi-meritocratic intellectual system where scholars, later known as rabbis, ran things. If you think of the debates in the New Testament between the Sadducees and the Pharisees, the Sadducees were kind of politically aligned with the Hasmoneans and wanted to preserve an inherited priesthood, whereas the Pharisees were busy trying to establish what became rabbinic Judaism. Also because under Roman occupation it was a really bad idea to remind the ruling authorities that Jews had ever had any kind of military or statehood ambitions! So as the rabbis rose into ascendancy, helped along by the destruction of the Temple in the middle of the first century, the Hasmoneans and therefore the books of Maccabees were falling seriously out of favour.

The reason that the books didn't just completely fade into oblivion is, as [personal profile] wychwood is aware, chanukah. Chanukah is the ultimate ironic festival, because it celebrates a movement of zealots who resisted integration into Greek culture by... following the extremely Greco-Roman custom of establishing a new festival to celebrate a military victory. The early rabbis were very unhappy with this, but they were faced with the practical problem that people on the ground were in fact enthusiastically celebrating chanukah, because who doesn't love an 8-day party in the depths of winter? So what they did was to try and spiritualize chanukah in some way, they created a story whereby chanukah wasn't a celebration of a military victory when Judea achieved independence from the occupying Seleucids, but rather a celebration of a temple miracle involving lights continuing to burn even when there wasn't enough fuel.

Chanukah continued to be a minor but popular festival for all of Jewish history. It gained status in modern America and from there spread worldwide mainly because of its proximity to Christmas. For many generations now it's been used as a consolation prize for kids who are left out of the massive partying and present-giving fest that is modern secular Christmas. And misguided attempts at multiculturalism have tried to package chanukah as the "Jewish equivalent" of Christmas. We don't ever formally read the books of Maccabees (unlike reading the megillot at their appropriate seasons), but we do incorporate retellings of stories that have their origins in those books into our celebrations.

The books have also become tied up with the Zionist mythos, which is a topic far too complicated for me to get into when I'm talking completely off-the-cuff like this. But basically for most of the period between the Romans ransacking Jerusalem in the first century and the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, the story of the Maccabees has been a kind of revenge fantasy for Jews living under more or very often less benign occupying powers, a talisman that one day we'd get an army again and then Christian and Muslim pan-national powers won't be able to push us around any more. By the end of the nineteenth century that fantasy starts looking nationalist and even imperialist, because those were the prevailing cultural trends in late nineteenth century Europe.

What do the books mean to me? Not a whole lot, I have never actually sat down and read trhough even 1 Maccabees. I've just picked up the stories from my general culture, and gone through several rounds of problematizing and reclaiming them over my lifetime. For one thing I'm a thoroughly rabbinic Jew, I am not interested in nationalism based on military power or an inherited priesthood/monarchy. For a second thing I am a thoroughly assimilated Jew, I consider myself very much part of British, European and general Western culture, I have no truck with trying to make Judaism "pure" of outside cultural influences or separating ourselves from our surrounding cultures. Much less of committing acts of violence against Jews who are insufficiently fundamentalist.

So there you go. Brain dump of what I know about the Books of Maccabees. Corrections from people who are more expert in any of this stuff most welcome! Any more topic suggestions, anyone?

(no subject)

Date: 2013-04-28 04:34 pm (UTC)
From: (Anonymous)
topics to ramble about: I would like to hear if there have been any results from the baking experiments you mentioned a while back...


Miscellaneous. Eclectic. Random. Perhaps markedly literate, or at least suffering from the compulsion to read any text that presents itself, including cereal boxes.

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