Omitting the Maccabees

Why the books that tell the Hanukkah tale are not in the Hebrew Bible.

Print this page Print this page

Several Theories

There are various theories to explain the exclusion of the apocryphal books. One theory is that only books written originally in Hebrew were considered for inclusion in the canon. However, the Book of Daniel, although included within the canon, is to a large extent written in Aramaic. Even more problematic is the fact that scholars believe that the First Book of Maccabees was indeed written originally in Hebrew, therefore meeting the language criterion for inclusion--and yet it is absent from the biblical canon.

Another theory to explain the omission of the first two Books of Maccabees is based on the dating of these documents. Although it is often assumed that the biblical canon was formalized at Jamnia, there is some speculation that the accepted list of books was in existence long before. In other words, perhaps the gathering of rabbis at Jamnia inherited a list of documents already unofficially recognized as canonical and simply formalized this list.

If this is true, the relatively late date of the Maccabean revolt would preclude its inclusion in an already accepted previous list. It would be too "new" a book for serious consideration, since it had no history grounding it securely within tradition. This theory, however, is severely weakened through a comparison with the Book of Daniel, since Daniel is included within the biblical canon in spite of the fact that most scholars date the latter book to the time of the Maccabean revolt around 165 B.C.E.--in other words, to the time of the story related in the Books of Maccabees.

It has also been suggested that the exclusion of the Books of the Maccabees can be traced to the political rivalry that existed during the late Second Temple Period between the Sadducees and the Pharisees. The Sadducees, a priestly class in charge of the Temple, openly rejected the oral interpretations that the Pharisees, the proto-rabbinic class, openly promoted. The Maccabees were a priestly family, while the rabbis who may have determined the final form of the biblical canon at Jamnia were descended from the Pharisees. Is it possible that the exclusion of the Books of Maccabees was one of the last salvos in the battle between the Pharisees and Sadducees?  Would the rabbis at Jamnia have been inclined to canonize a document that so clearly praised the priestly Hasmonean family?

Pragmatism and Politics

Perhaps the answer lies more within the realm of pragmatism and politics. The Books of Maccabees describe the revolt led by the Maccabean family against the Syrian king, Antiochus Epiphanes. A couple of centuries later, Jewish scholars found themselves in Jamnia with the Temple destroyed and Jerusalem lost. Their circumstances were the result of their own failed revolt against the Romans.

Did you like this article?  MyJewishLearning is a not-for-profit organization.

Please consider making a donation today.

Rachael Turkienicz

Dr. Rachael Turkienicz teaches at York University and is affiliated with York's Centre for Jewish Studies and its Faculty of Education. She also serves as director of a beit midrash in Toronto, Canada.