It’s a classic Sunday School question in evangelical churches when learning about the books of the Bible – “what happened after Malachi?” Nearly four centuries pass between the last regular prophet, Malachi, and the forerunner of the Christ, St. John the Baptist. What happened during that time? Why is the Bible silent about it?
Well, the Bible isn’t entirely silent. The Church has always had at least two books specifically devoted to relating some of the key historical events between Malachi and the Gospels: 1 and 2 Maccabees. They cover only a specific 50-year stretch (roughly 175-135 B.C.) but relate some critical goings-on that provide the social, cultural, historical, and even political set-up for making sense of what’s going on in Judea in the 1st century. Only in the past couple centuries have these books fallen out of Protestant attentions – the King James Bible (like Luther’s German Bible, and probably others) included these books as an appendix between the Old and New Testaments. For economic reasons, many publishers started omitting those middle books once mass printing picked up speed in the 18th century, such that by the 20th and 21st centuries now, hardly any Protestant Christian is aware of them, let alone familiar with their contents.
If you want to learn more about those books, I have an introductory video and links to a few written articles here. For now let’s just focus on 1 & 2 Maccabees, which our lectionary is about to start sampling in Evening Prayer. 1 Maccabees was originally written in Hebrew, but survives primarily in Greek, and gives us a lengthy 50-year history of the struggles between the Hellenistic kingdom and the Jews. 2 Maccabees was originally written in Greek, meant to summarize another source (probably working off of something much like 1 Maccabees), and gives us a closer look at the events surrounding the desecration and purification of the Temple.
In a general sense, 1 Maccabees is more historically-minded, giving more information, covering more years, providing less religious commentary. 2 Maccabees is more religious in nature, summarizing events with an eye to exhortation to faithfulness to God. They work together not unlike how 2 Samuel – 2 Kings play off 1 & 2 Chronicles: a lot of overlap providing different emphases. The following table shows how the two books line up.
Our lectionary does not walk through the entirety of either book, but steps through a few highlights. (To read them in full would be a significantly more lengthy process, and, for many readers, a great deal more tedious.) From October 9th through 18th we cover:
- 1 Macc. 1 = the rise of Antiochus Epiphanes and his profaning of the Temple (the “abomination of desolation”)
- 1 Macc. 2 = the uprising of Mattathias and his sons
- 2 Macc. 6 = the violent suppression of Judaism
- 2 Macc. 7 = a specific story of martyrdom at the hands of the Greeks
- 2 Macc. 8 = Judas Maccabeus takes his father’s place and continues the good fight
- 2 Macc. 10 = the purification of the Temple (origin of Hanukkah)
- 1 Macc. 7 = the next round of Greek invasion and suppression of Judaism
- 1 Macc. 9 = the death of Judas Maccabeus and succession of Jonathan
- 1 Macc. 13 = the death of Jonathan and succession of Simon
- 1 Macc. 14 = the final peace established by treaty under Simon’s leadership
If you have time, it’s worth exploring these books in full, to get the whole story. There are a lot of new names and places to keep track of (from the perspective of one unused to this period of history), but the benefits can be great. The entanglements between Jewish authorities and Rome, for example, find their beginning here. When you realize that the Romans helped save the Jews from the Greeks, and supported Judean independence, it sheds new rays of light on the relationship between the Sanhedrin and Pontius Pilate in the Gospels!