Paul’s Intriguing Reference To 2 Maccabees

It is written:

Women received their dead raised to life again. Others were tortured, not accepting deliverance, that they might obtain a better resurrection. (Hebrews 11:35)

In this passage of Scripture, the Apostle Paul refers to the book of 2 Maccabees, where we are told:

2 Maccabees 7:1, 13-14, 23-It came to pass also, that seven brethren, together with their mother, were apprehended, and compelled by the king to eat swine’s flesh against the law, for which end they were tormented with whips and scourges….And after he was thus dead, they tormented the fourth in the like manner. 14  And when he was now ready to die, he spoke thus: It is better, being put to death by men, to look for hope from God, to be raised up again by him; for, as to thee, thou shalt have no resurrection unto life….But the Creator of the world, that formed the nativity of man, and that found out the origin of all, he will restore to you again, in his mercy, both breath and life, as now you despise yourselves for the sake of his laws.

What are some lessons that we may learn from Paul’s reference to 2 Maccabees?

First, the textual evidence is very strong that Paul here quotes from the book of 2 Maccabees.

“10) Hebrews 11: 35 and 2 Maccabees 7: 7 Women received their dead by resurrection. Some were tortured, refusing to accept release, that they might rise again to a better life (Heb. 11: 35). It happened also that seven brothers and their mother were arrested and were being compelled by the king, under torture with whips and cords, to partake of unlawful swine’s flesh . . . When he too had died, they maltreated and tortured the fourth in the same way. And when he was near death, he said, “One cannot but choose to die at the hands of men and to cherish the hope that God gives of being raised again by him. But for you there will be no resurrection to life” (2 Macc. 7: 1, 13–14). The writer of Hebrews provides a long list of figures from sacred history whose faithfulness gained approval. In near chronological order, the author arranges a series of illustrations from the following biblical figures: Abel (Gen. 4: 4), Enoch (Gen. 5: 21–24), Noah (Gen. 6: 13–22), Abraham (Gen. 12: 1–4, 8; 13: 3, 18; 18: 1–9 et al.), Sarah (Gen. 17: 19; 18: 11–14; 21: 1), Isaac (Gen. 22: 1–10; 21: 12; 27: 27–29), Jacob and Esau (Gen. 27: 27–29; 48: 1, 5, 16, 20), Joseph (Gen. 50), Moses (Exod. 2: 2, 10–11, 15), Joshua (Josh. 6: 20), Gideon (Judg. 6–7), Barak (Judg. 4–5), Samson (Judg. 13–16), Jephthah (Judg. 13–16), David (1 Sam. 16: 1–13), Samuel (1 Sam. 1: 20), and the prophets. Hebrews continues his list of these great biblical figures by recounting their exploits rather than listing their names. In Hebrews 11: 35, the writer refers to Maccabean martyrs depicted in 2 Maccabees 7: 1–42. This identification of the Maccabean martyrs with those described in Hebrews 11: 35 is of a high degree of certainty because there are no other examples presented in the Greek Old Testament of persons undergoing torture and not accepting deliverance for the hope of a better resurrection. Twice in the episode of the Maccabean martyrs this hope for a better resurrection is explicitly stated. 64 Hebrews 11: 35 and 2 Maccabees are also linked linguistically as well: The word in Heb. xi. 35, rendered “tormented,” is a peculiar one (tumpanizw) . . . is used here in reference to the tumpanon, in the account of Eleazar’s martyrdom in Maccabees, which the Dean does not hesitate to assert is the case especially intended. Also the word for “cruel mockings” in verse 36 is peculiar to this verse and 2 Macc. 7: 7. Other of the deeds and suffering enumerated are also based upon the Maccabean history. 65 Apart from dogmatic prejudice, this reference to 2 Maccabees is unquestionable, and both Catholic and Protestant scholars rightly acknowledge it.” (Gary Michuta, Why Catholic Bibles Are Bigger- 2nd Edition: Revised Second Edition, 868-885 (Kindle Edition); El Cajon, CA; Catholic Answers)

Second, the book of Maccabees is not part of the canon of Scripture. Instead, the book of 2 Maccabees is part of the Apocrypha, which is a series of books which were written between the close of the Old Testament and the New Testament. The Jewish people did not accept these books as part of the canon, yet they were considered historically accurate material.

“The canon was substantially fixed long before Jamnia, and discussions there did not admit certain books into the canon but allowed these books to remain. 2 Additional evidence on the Old Testament canon comes from Josephus, a well- known Jewish historian of the first century….We can draw several conclusions from Josephus. 1. The number of books looked upon as having divine authority is carefully limited to twenty- two. By joining Ruth to Judges and Lamentations to Jeremiah, and remembering that the Jews enumerated their books differently, the twenty- two books mentioned by Josephus are the same as the thirty- nine books in our Bible today. 2. The division of the books is according to a three- part pattern. Although individual books are included in different categories, they form a threefold grouping similar to the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings. 3. The time covered in these books is expressly limited. Josephus believed that the canon extended from Moses to Artaxerxes (464- 424 B.C.). This corresponds with the Jewish belief that prophetic inspiration ceased with Malachi, who apparently was a contemporary of Ezra and Nehemiah. 4 This was the period of Artaxerxes. Others indeed wrote later, but their writings are not on a par with the earlier writings. In other words, according to Josephus, the canon is closed. 4. The text of these books is sacred. No one has dared to cancel or alter it, since to every Jew these writings are “decrees of God.” (Neil Lightfoot, How We Got The Bible, 154-156 (Kindle Edition); Grand Rapids, Michigan; Baker Books)

Geisler and Nix provide further historical confirmation that the Old Testament canon was closed nearly four hundred years before Christ Jesus was born:

“The Jewish teachers acknowledged that their prophetic line ended in the fourth century B.C. Yet, as even Catholics acknowledge, all apocryphal books were written after this time. Josephus wrote: “From Artaxerxes until our time everything has been recorded, but has not been deemed worthy of like credit with what preceded, because the exact succession of the prophets ceased” (Josephus). Additional rabbinical statements on the cessation of prophecy support this (see Beckwith, 370). Seder Olam Rabbah 30 declares “Until then [the coming of Alexander the Great] the prophets prophesied through the Holy Spirit. From then on, ‘Incline thine ear and hear the words of the wise.’” Baba Bathra 12b declares: “Since the day when the Temple was destroyed, prophecy has been taken from the prophets and given to the wise.” Rabbi Samuel bar Inia said, “The Second Temple lacked five things which the First Temple possessed, namely, the fire, the ark, the Urim and Thummin, the oil of anointing and the Holy Spirit [of prophecy].” Thus, the Jewish fathers (rabbis) acknowledged that the time period during which their Apocrypha was written was not a time when God was giving inspired writings.” (Norman Geisler, Baker Encyclopedia Of Christian Apologetics, 33 (Kindle Edition); Grand Rapids, Michigan; Baker Books)

The first and second books of Maccabees themselves acknowledge that they are not inspired.

1 Maccabees 9:27-And there was a great tribulation in Israel, such as was not since the day, that there was no prophet seen in Israel.

1 Maccabees 14:41-And that the Jews, and their priests, had consented that he should be their prince and high priest for ever, till there should arise a faithful prophet.

Third, the Bible often references non-canonical writings and encourages its’ readers to study and learn from them.

Matthew 5:21-You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘YOU SHALL NOT MURDER, and whoever murders will be in danger of the judgment.’ (Cf. Matthew 5:31, 33, 38, 43)

Jesus here references the rabbinic traditions of His day.

“Jesus used the phrase ‘You have heard that the ancients were told,’ or a similar one, to introduce each of the six corrective illustrations He gives in this part of His sermon (see vv. 21, 27, 31, 33, 38, 43). The phrase has reference to rabbinical, traditional teaching, and in each illustration Jesus contrasts that human teaching with the divine Word of God. The examples show ways in which God’s righteousness surpasses that of the scribes and Pharisees (see v. 20)…Jesus is not modifying the law of Moses, the teaching of the Psalms, the standards of the prophets, or any other part of Scripture. The essence of what He has just said in verses 17-20 is (1) that His teaching stands firmly in agreement with every truth, even every word, of the Old Testament, and (2) that the Jewish religious traditions did not…The rabbis of past generations were often called the ‘fathers of antiquity,’ or ‘the men of long ago,’ and it is to them that ‘the ancients’ (vv. 21, 33) refers. Jesus was contrasting His teaching0and the true teaching of the Old Testament Scriptures themselves-with the Jewish written and oral traditions that had accumulated over the previous several hundred years and that had so terribly perverted God’s revelation.” (John MacArthur, The MacArthur New Testament Commentary: Matthew 1-7, 7025-7066 (Kindle Edition); Chicago, Illinois; Moody Press)

In 1 Corinthians, Paul writes:

1 Corinthians 15:33-Do not be deceived: “Evil company corrupts good habits.”

Many are unaware that the Apostle is here quoting from a well-known ancient orator:

“Paul now moves from a biblical text with an anti-Epicurean thrust (vs. 32 b) to a quotation from the third-to-fourth century Athenian dramatist Meander: ‘Do no be misled; bad company corrupts good character.’ …The epigram from Meander’s Thais was a popular one in Paul’s day and would probably have been known to any educated Corinthian.” (Roy E. Ciampa & Brian S. Rosner, The First Letter To The Corinthians: The Pillar New Testament Commentary, 791-792 (Kindle Edition); Grand Rapids, Michigan; William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company)

In the Book of Acts, we read of Paul’s sermon on Mars Hill:

Acts 17:26-28-And He has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth, and has determined their preappointed times and the boundaries of their dwellings, 27  so that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; 28  for in Him we live and move and have our being, as also some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are also His offspring.’

Here, he again references pagan writers:

“The precise expression is found in the writings of Aratus (270 B.C.); and though not the exact words still the idea is found in the writings of Cleanthes (300-220 B.C.). Cleanthes was a Stoic philosopher, and the sentiment here quoted was directly at variance with the Epicureans’ beliefs. Aratus was a native of Cilcia, the same country Paul was from. This quotation of the heathen poets would at once quicken the attention of the hearers. This was not an illiterate Jew, but a man of culture, acquainted with the thoughts of their own great poets.” (Gareth Reese, Acts: New Testament History, 632; Joplin, Missouri; College Press)

When Paul wrote to Titus, he warned them of false teachers that were present in that day and age:

Titus 1:12-13-One of them, a prophet of their own, said, “Cretans are always liars, evil beasts, lazy gluttons.” 13  This testimony is true. Therefore rebuke them sharply, that they may be sound in the faith,

Whom does Paul refer to when he writes “this testimony is true?”

“This phrase is found in the Minos of the Cretan poet Epimenides, a sixth-century B.C. poet of Knossos, Crete, quoted by Callimachus (ca. 300-240 B.C.). Epimenides joked of his own people that the absence of wild beasts on the island was supplied by its’ human inhabitants…Paul occasionally quoted Ancient Greek poets (Acts 17:28).” (Thomas C. Oden, First And Second Timothy And Titus: INTERPRETATION: A Bible Commentary For Teaching And Preaching, 65-66 (Kindle Edition); Louisville, KY; Westminster John Knox Press)

Paul’s reference to 2 Maccabees is not surprising, since he often referred to non-inspired works to make important points.

Finally, the reason why people often reject Paul’s reference to 2 Maccabees is because this book references the practice of praying for the dead.

2 Maccabees 12:40-46-And they found under the coats of the slain, some of the donaries of the idols of Jamnia, which the law forbiddeth to the Jews: so that all plainly saw, that for this cause they were slain. 41  Then they all blessed the just judgment of the Lord, who had discovered the things that were hidden. 42  And so betaking themselves to prayers, they besought him, that the sin which had been committed might be forgotten. But the most valiant Judas exhorted the people to keep themselves from sin, forasmuch as they saw before their eyes what had happened, because of the sins of those that were slain. 43  And making a gathering, he sent twelve thousand drachms of silver to Jerusalem for sacrifice to be offered for the sins of the dead, thinking well and religiously concerning the resurrection. 44  (For if he had not hoped that they that were slain should rise again, it would have seemed superfluous and vain to pray for the dead, 45  And because he considered that they who had fallen asleep with godliness, had great grace laid up for them. 46  It is therefore a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they may be loosed from sins.

While some object to the prayers for the dead recorded in 2 Maccabees, they are perhaps unaware that the Apostle Paul himself at times prayed for the dead.

2 Timothy 1:16-18-The Lord grant mercy to the household of Onesiphorus, for he often refreshed me, and was not ashamed of my chain; 17  but when he arrived in Rome, he sought me out very zealously and found me. 18  The Lord grant to him that he may find mercy from the Lord in that Day—and you know very well how many ways he ministered to me at Ephesus.

Speaking of this passage, one author has written:

“The reasons for believing that Onesiphorus was already dead when Paul prayed this prayer are immediately apparent in the text. Paul speaks of “the household of Onesiphorus” in the present tense, but of Onesiphorus himself only in the past tense. Moreover, in the final verses of 2 Timothy, Paul sends greetings to Priscilla, Aquila, and “the household of Onesiphorus,” not Onesiphorus himself (2 Tim 4: 19-21). 6 This language is perfectly intelligible if Onesiphorus was dead but still had a wife, children, or family living in Ephesus, but is extremely difficult to understand if Onesiphorus was still living. Finally, the content of Paul’s prayer is strongly suggestive that Onesiphorus is already dead. He prays that Onesiphorus “will find mercy from the Lord” on the day of judgment, but mentions nothing about his health or happiness in this life. In summary, in the words of Alfred Plummer, “it seems, therefore, to be scarcely too much to say that there is no serious reason for questioning the now widely accepted view that at the time when St. Paul wrote these words Onesiphorus was among the departed.” 7 Not only does Paul’s prayer for Onesiphorus give biblical sanction for prayers for the dead, J. N. D. Kelly argues that the practice was common in the early church: “There is nothing surprising in Paul’s use of such a prayer, for intercession for the dead had been sanctioned in Pharisaic circles at any rate since the date of 2 Macc 12: 43-45 (middle of first century B.C.?). Inscriptions in the Roman catacombs and elsewhere prove that the practice established itself among Christians from very early times.”” (James Beilby, Postmortem Opportunity: A Biblical and Theological Assessment of Salvation After Death, 138 (Kindle Edition); IVP Academic)

Paul’s point in Hebrews 11 is crystal clear: we need to do our best to stand in faith and be true to God, no matter what consequences we may face in this world.

The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit, be with you all. Amen.

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