I finished the Deutero-canonical book of II Maccabees last night. I was not planning to read II Maccabees during Hanukkah, which commemorates some of the historical events that II Maccabees is about. It just happened that way. I started the Deutero-canonical writings about four months ago, and I ended up in II Maccabees in December.
A question that is in my mind concerns the afterlife in II Maccabees. Here are some thoughts:
1. In II Maccabees 7, we read the story of the time that the evil Seleucid King Antiochus Epiphanes tried to compel seven Jewish brothers and their mother to eat swine’s flesh, in violation of their religious convictions. The brothers and the mother are unafraid to die, and one reason is that they believe in the resurrection of the dead. In v 14, one of the brothers tells Antiochus, “But for you there will be no resurrection to life!” (NRSV). What does that mean exactly? Does the brother in this story believe that Antiochus will not be resurrected from the dead, period, but will remain in the grave, or in Hades? Or does the brother think that Antiochus will have a resurrection, but it will not be unto life, but rather unto damnation? Daniel 12:2 contrasts two such resurrections: “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt” (NRSV). The later Book of IV Maccabees, in its telling of the story, depicts one of the brothers telling Antiochus: “but you, because of your bloodthirstiness toward us, will deservedly undergo from the divine justice eternal torment by fire” (NRSV).
2. The thing is, in both I Maccabees and II Maccabees, Antiochus does repent. In I Maccabees 6:1-17, after losing a battle, Antiochus reflects that he was wrong to treat Jerusalem as he did. In II Maccabees 9, Antiochus actually converts to Judaism. Still, he dies of a horrible disease in II Maccabees 9, and II Maccabees 9:18 (and also II Maccabees 1:13-17, which has a different story of his death and does not depict him actually repenting) attributes his death to God’s just punishment. Did God not forgive Antiochus for the evils that he had done, notwithstanding Antiochus’ regret or repentance? Could Antiochus find God’s forgiveness in the afterlife? IV Maccabees does not have a story of Antiochus repenting, but it does depict him admiring the seven Jewish brothers for their bravery (IV Maccabees 17:23-24). As far as Antiochus’ eternal destiny is concerned, IV Maccabees maintains that Antiochus has, is, and will experience postmortem punishment: “The tyrant Antiochus was both punished on earth and is being chastised after his death…For these crimes divine justice pursued and will pursue the accursed tyrant” (NRSV).
3. Interestingly, II Maccabees briefly refers to a Seleucid idea regarding the afterlife. II Maccabees 11:23 depicts Antiochus V writing to his brother Lysias, “Now that our father has gone on to the gods…” (NRSV). This suggests that Antiochus V believed his father went to the gods after death.
4. In II Maccabees 6, we read the story of the elderly Jew Eleazar refusing to eat swine’s flesh, choosing to die instead. V 23 says that he told people to send him to Hades. In this story, he believed that even he, a righteous person, would go to the Underworld after death.
5. II Maccabees 12:40-45 tells the story of Judas Maccabeus finding the corpses of Jewish soldiers who had been carrying “sacred tokens of the idols of Jamnia” (NRSV). Judas says that these soldiers fell in battle on account of this sin, yet he arranges for an offering of atonement to be made on their behalf. The author of II Maccabees says that Judas did so because he believed in the resurrection. “For if he were not expecting that those who had fallen would rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead.
But if he was looking to the splendid reward that is laid up for those who fall asleep in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Therefore he made atonement for the dead, so that they might be delivered from their sin” (NRSV). This statement leads me to ask questions.
a. Did Judas necessarily believe in the resurrection when he had that offering offered for atonement? Daniel Harrington in the HarperCollins Study Bible distinguishes II Maccabees’ interpretation of Judas’ act from what Judas’ intention may have been: “The sin offering was probably intended by Judas to ward off punishment against the living” (see Josh 7).” Harrington’s idea is that Judas offered the sin offering so that God would not punish the living Jews for the sins of the Jews who carried those talismans, not to atone for the sins of the dead Jews who had carried the talismans. That could be, but I wondered something: Could one believe that Judas atoned for the sins of the dead Jews who carried the talismans, without accepting that this had anything to do with them receiving a good afterlife? The ancient Israelites seemed to believe that dead people survived through their name being around and honored after their death, or through their children. Could Judas’ atonement be a way to ensure that people would still honor and remember these men’s name and posterity?
b. II Maccabees seems to imply that Judas making atonement for the dead Jews only makes sense in light of a belief in the resurrection. It makes that statement as if resurrection was the only possible afterlife. Yet, II Maccabees 15:14-16 depicts Judas seeing the departed Onias and Jeremiah in heaven, praying for the Jews. Does II Maccabees there believe that souls go to heaven? If so, why can’t that be a post-mortem reward? The answer may be that II Maccabees prioritized resurrection over the immortality of the soul: that, sure, souls may go to a place temporarily after the death of the body, but the ultimate hope is the resurrection. Notice also that Onias and Jeremiah are in heaven, whereas righteous Eleazar in II Maccabees 6:23 expected to go to Hades after death. Do only very special souls go to heaven, in II Maccabees? Why wouldn’t Eleazar qualify for this designation, though, since he died out of commitment to God?