For my write-up today on Jonathan Goldstein’s Anchor Bible commentary on II Maccabees, I’ll discuss Goldstein’s treatment of the two (or, technically, three) epistles at the beginning of the book.
Epistle 1 is in II Maccabees 1:1-10a. According to Goldstein, it contains Epistle 0, which is vv 7-8. Epistle 1 calls upon the Jews in Egypt to celebrate Judas Maccabeus’ “purification of the temple and…dedication of the altar” (Goldstein’s words on page 24). Goldstein dates Epistle 1 to 124-123 B.C.E., and Epistle 0 to 143-142 B.C.E.
Goldstein narrates that the Jews in Egypt during the time of these epistles had problems. In 145 B.C.E., the priest Onias IV had established a sanctuary in Leontopolis, Egypt, appealing to Isaiah 19:19, and that was controversial with Jews in Jerusalem because they interpreted Deuteronomy 12:4-14 to recognize the legitimacy of only one sanctuary, which was in Jerusalem. Epistle 0 implicitly condemns Onias IV’s sanctuary in that it appears to criticize the high priest Jason for setting up his own alternative sanctuary after leaving Jerusalem. Moreover, Epistle 1 exhorts the Egyptian Jews to repent of a sin, which could be their worship at Onias IV’s sanctuary.
In 124 B.C.E., Ptolemy VIII Euergetes II was winning the dynastic war against his sister, Cleopatra II, who was supported by Jews in Egypt. Epistle 1’s historical context, therefore, is a time when the fortunes of the Jews in Egypt appeared to be taking a turn for the worse.
Epistle 2 is in II Maccabees 1:10b-2:18. Goldstein maintains that Epistle 2 was forged in Egypt in 103 B.C.E. to serve as a supplement to Epistle 1. Its goal, according to Goldstein, was to uphold the legitimacy of the Jerusalem temple against Onias IV’s sanctuary, and also to reaffirm the need for the Egyptian Jews to celebrate the Maccabees’ victory. It does the first by saying that the post-exilic temple in Jerusalem still used the divine fire (just as the pre-exilic temple did) because the fire was preserved in some sort of liquid, which Jeremiah safeguarded. But, while the author of Epistle 2 disapproves of Onias IV’s sanctuary and prefers the one at Jerusalem, he still thinks that there are things that could make the Jerusalem temple holier—-such as the restoration of the golden altar, which is hidden away until the full restoration of the Jewish exiles to Israel.
Something else to note is that Epistle 2 stresses the role of Nehemiah in the post-exilic restoration of Jerusalem. According to Goldstein, there was controversy about whether the post-exilic leader was Nehemiah or Zerubbabel. I Esdras prefers Zerbubbabel, Goldstein argues, because it is probably priestly Oniad propaganda, and Nehemiah opposed Tobiah and his “Zadokite priestly friends, who were ancestors of the Oniads” (page 175). But, due in part to Ben Sira’s influence, the author of Epistle 2 thought that Zerubbabel and Nehemiah were the same person, and that Zerubbabel was Nehemiah’s Babylonian name, and so he stressed Nehemiah.
As I said yesterday, Goldstein contends that II Maccabees itself really had no problem with other sanctuaries besides the one in Jerusalem. Goldstein even argues that the Jason who wrote II Maccabees uses a memoir from Onias IV himself! But, according to Goldstein, the anti-Onias IV epistles were put at the beginning of II Maccabees after 78-77 B.C.E. for liturgical purposes, as Jews in Egypt used II Maccabees to celebrate Judas Maccabeus’ victory.