THE BOOKS OF THE MACCABEES IN THE BIBLE ILLUMINATE THE CONTINUOUS AND STEADY UNFOLDING OF GOD’S SALVATION PLAN FOR ALL MANKIND. WITHOUT READING THOSE BIBLICAL BOOKS, QUITE AN AMOUNT OF THE REST OF THE BIBLE MAKES AS MUCH SENSE AS TRYING TO UNDERSTAND THE “WHODUNNIT” WHEN SEVERAL CHAPTERS TOWARDS THE END OF AN AGATHA CHRISTIE BOOK HAVE BEEN RIPPED OUT.
“From the time of Malachias (perhaps shortly before the reforms of Esdras) no prophet had appeared in Israel. The Chosen People were left by God to keep faith in Him without the inspiring activity of the prophets. In the period between Malachias and Herod there is evidence that the faith of many was weakened. Many fell victim to the Hellenising tendencies of the Seleucid dynasty [for details about this, as described in the Holy Scriptures, please see the previous episode of “The Salvation History As Revealed in the Bible” posted 2 days ago]. On the other hand, the Macchabaean revolt shows that many retained a firm hold on their ancient faith. The final defeat of the Macchabaean ambitions by Herod the Great did not mean that the religion of Jahweh had perished or that God had deserted His people.
On the contrary, to those who like ourselves can look back over history, there are not lacking signs that the divine plan for the salvation of mankind was maturing during this long period of divine silence. God had promised that His blessings would be brought to the world through the descendants of Abraham. Through His prophets He had foretold that all the nations would be brought to worship Jahweh. While this great gathering of the nations to Jahweh had been slightly foreshadowed by the inclusion of isolated individuals in the company of the people of God, until this period there did not appear any significant developments pointing to the accomplishment of God’s design for universal salvation. But during this period signs of the maturation of the divine plans appear.
IMPORTANT SIGNS OF THE MATURATION OF THE DIVINE PLANS APPEAR
These signs are chiefly three: the Diaspora of the Chosen People, Hellenism and the establishment of the Roman Empire. It is these three factors in universal history which we must now consider, with a view to perceiving their role in the accomplishment of God’s will to save man.
The word ‘Diaspora’ was a term used by Jews to signify the Jews who lived outside the Promised Land given them by Jahweh. In 857 B.C. some Jews had gone to live in Damascus after Achab had defeated the king of Syria. The ten northern tribes had been deported to Assyria by Sargon. The kingdom of Juda had been deported to Babylon by Nabuchodonosor. The ten northern tribes were apparently assimilated by their conquerors, for they disappear from history. But many of the kingdom of Juda returned to Palestine under Zorobabel, and later under Esdras and Nehemias.
The evidence shows, though, that many of the Jews remained in Babylonia. There is also historical proof that a Jewish colony was established at Elephantine in Egypt. Later, after Alexander the Great had founded the city of Alexandria in Egypt, many Jews went there and established a Jewish colony. By the time of Herod the Great the Jewish colony at Alexandria seems to have numbered a million souls. From Alexandria it is legitimate to suppose that they emigrated to other ports throughout the Mediterranean world. At any rate, by the time the Roman Empire was established the Jews were to be found dispersed throughout the Mediterranean world.
This dispersion of the Jews so widely through the parts of the civilised world then known to them meant that at least some knowledge of the existence and character of Jahweh, the only true God, had gone beyond the borders of Palestine, had penetrated the lands of people who still worshipped false gods and practised idolatry. It represented at least a beginning of God’s efforts to bring all men back to Himself.
This view is reinforced by three facts: first, the preservation of Jahwism among the dispersed Jews; second, the translation of the Sacred Books of the Jews into Greek, the common language of the nations within the scope of Roman domination, and third, proselytism.
AN AMAZING FACT
It is an amazing but true fact that the Jews, even though dispersed throughout a pagan world, preserved their faith in Jahweh. With the exception of the ten northern tribes who become lost to history as an independent entity or group once they are deported to Assyria, the other Jews throughout the Diaspora retain their identity both as Jews and as worshippers of Jahweh. Through all antiquity this is a singular fact.
Other peoples may have emigrated from their own lands but they ceased to retain their own identity and, for want of a better word, their insularity, their own allegiance to their religion and their God. There remained always between the different Jewish communities spread throughout the world and the centre of Jahwistic worship at Jerusalem a close bond. Communication between the dispersed Jews and the mother-centre at Jerusalem continued throughout this period. With the exceptions of the Jewish communities at Elephantine and Leontopolis in Egypt, the Jewish communities in the Diaspora preserved their faith in the one true God by meeting in their synagogues once a week to read their Sacred Books and meditate on their message.
At Elephantine and Leontopolis, perhaps contrary to the best traditions of their faith, the Jews actually built temples in which they offered sacrifices to Jahweh. In this way the Jews preserved their faith in the one true God. In this way they gave an example to the non-believing nations of the world of faithfulness to the one true spiritual God.
Because they were living in lands foreign to their original homeland, they lost contact with their mother tongue. But so great was their devotion to their religion and to its long tradition that they produced a translation into Greek, the one language understood throughout the Mediterranean world, of their own Sacred Books. This translation was known as the Septuagint.
Entirely apart from its value to the Jews in enabling them to remain true to their ancient religious traditions, it also served the greater purpose of revealing to the world at large the treasures of God’s dealings with the human race. It would not be correct to overestimate the influence of the Septuagint on pagan thought or life before the advent of Christianity. On the other hand, it would be foolish to deny that it did provide to the unbelieving nations of the world an opportunity to discover the written record of God’s relations with the world of man since the beginning of time.
THE JEWS MANIFESTED ALWAYS AN AIR OF MORAL SUPERIORITY
Lastly, a an indicationof the influence of the Diaspora of the Jews in preparing the world at large for the extension of God’s salvation to all men, there is evidence of proselytism. It is true that the attitude of the Jews throughout the Roman Empire drew down upon them the hatred and the ridicule of many. Wherever they went they lived together, in isolation from their fellowmen.
They despised the gods and religions of the people in whose midst they dwelt. Despite the social superiority of their pagan neighbours the Jews manifested always an air of moral superiority. This naturally begot in their neighbours a feeling of suspicion and hatred. They were regarded as atheists because most had no temples and offered no sacrifices. To an idolatrous world the crowning proof f this was the fact that Pompey, the Roman general, found no statue to a god in the Temple at Jerusalem when he entered the Holy of Holies there.
THE BLESSINGS OF JAHWEH WERE TO BE EXTENDED TO ALL NATIONS
Yet, despite this somewhat general feeling that the Jews were to be despised and shunned, converts to Judaism were made. During this period the very fact of the dispersion of the Jews among the nations of the world brought about a widening of the viewpoint of the Jews themselves. Though they still continued to regard themselves as the Chosen People of God, they began to allow others to participate in the privileges of God’s Chosen People.
Although in Palestine itself the Jews, at the time of the repatriation and ever after, rejected the offers of the Samaritans to join with them in the worship of Jahweh, outside Palestine the Jews did not reject the desire of the pagan peoples to turn to the true religion. Undoubtedly this somewhat contradictory attitude was due to the fact that the Samaritans wished to worship Jahweh while still worshipping other false gods. But it was also due to some extent to the realisation on the part of the Jews of the Diaspora of the fact that even their prophets had foretold that the blessings of Jahweh were to be extended to all nations.
ANOTHER SIGN OF THE PREPARATION OF THE WORLD FOR THE PROMISED SALVATION
A second sign of the preparation of the world for the salvation promised by Jahweh was the extension of Hellenism during this period. Hellenism might be described approximately as the diffusion of Greek culture, Greek customs and ideas through the world from India to the Atlantic coast. It began with the conquests of Alexander the Great. It was the ambition of Alexander to bring the whole world the benefits of Greek culture. The vast extent of his conquests helped to make this dream a reality. Through his own conquests Greek culture pervaded in the world of Mesopotamia, Asia Minor, Syria, Palestine and Egypt. Because the Romans accepted the essential features of Greek culture, Hellenism penetrated also the world of western Europe and northern Africa.
From the point of view of preparing the world for the accomplishment of God’s plan for human salvation Hellenism did two things. First, it broke down the barriers of national feeling and prepared men’s minds for the idea that all men might be one community. Only a universal idea was necessary to bring this idea to realisation. The universal love of God for all men could be such a universal idea. Second, Hellenism gave to the world from India to the Atlantic a universal language, Greek. Surely a universal language would be of inestimable advantage in propagating a universal religion.
WHY GOD BROUGHT FIRST ALEXANDER THE GREAT AND LATER THE ROMAN EMPIRE
The third factor in preparing the world for the advent of God’s plan to save men was the establishment of the Roman Empire. The conquests of Alexander were great, but those of the Roman Empire were even more magnificent. The Romans subdued all of southern Europe, northern Africa, Greece itself, Asia Minor, Syria and Palestine. For several centuries they brought to these areas a reign of peace. This Pax Romana, the Roman peace, would make it possible for a universal religion to spread easily.
The Romans established good roads, both land and sea roads throughout their empire. It is true that they did this to enable themselves to control their holdings more efficiently. But these wonderful roads, free from brigandage and piracy, enabled men to travel easily from one part of the empire to the other. It thus enabled ideas or religious movements to spread easily throughout the empire. In this way it made it easy for God’s love of all men to become known rapidly and effectively.
THE ‘MYSTERY RELIGIONS’ ACCUSTOMED PEOPLE IN A VERY VAGUE WAY WITH THE NOTION OF A NEED FOR REDEMPTION
As part of Hellenism and the general atmosphere of the Roman Empire, it is also worthy of mention that the religious ideas of the Mediterranean world were also undergoing a change at this time. While the worship of the traditional gods of Rome and Greece continued, there is also observable at this time a trend to a more spiritual form of worship. In the third century before Christ the worship of Serapis, a ‘saviour’ god, had spread from Alexandria in Egypt through the Roman Empire. The mystery religions, as they are known, even though in a vague way, began to popularise the same notion of a need for redemption. More precisely, they accustomed the people to the notion of a union with divinity. This notion was not so concrete as the notion of the Divine Presence which was part of Judaism. But it was at least the beginning, a preparation for the extension of the Divine Presence to the whole world.
THE ADVENT OF THE SALVATION OF THE HUMAN RACE IS IMMINENT
Thus, while it might have seemed as if God had deserted His Chosen People, had given up His plans to save the world during this period, a closer view of the historical situation reveals a different picture. During this period God worked, especially through the Macchabees, to preserve the faith of His Chosen People. On the other hand, through the Diaspora, the spread of Hellenism and the establishment of the Roman Empire, He seems to have been preparing the world at large for the advent of His salvation of the human race.”
– Martin J. Healy S.T.D., 1959