Historical Maccabees and Historical Jesus

Mythicists sometimes assert that an account like the Gospels, which features angelic interventions and other such details, ought to be set aside as fiction, rather than setting just the miracles aside and then sifting the rest for potentially useful historical data.

As I prepared to touch on the books of the Maccabees in my course on the Bible yesterday, it struck me that the same objection could be made about those works. They too feature angelic interventions and miracles. There are stories in them which probably have no basis in history, and stories in which there are deliberate echoes of earlier scriptural narratives. And yet historians conclude that they are not mere “historical fiction,” in the sense of fiction set against the backdrop of historical events – although some episodes within them are likely to fit that description. But taken on the whole, they are still closer to what was considered history in that time period. The speeches are not actual records of words delivered on those occasions, but rather the placement of appropriate words on the lips of those characters by the authors. But for the most part, key persons and events reflect actual historical persons and events.

The relevance of this to the question of the genre of the Gospels ought to be clear. The overall features of the Gospels most closely resemble these “hagiographic histories” that other Jews wrote and read around the same time period. They are works which need to be sifted critically in search of historical data, and never accepted uncritically. But they are not works written merely for entertainment purposes. They are works that aim to offer a theological interpretation of events, with more license taken in terms of invention than a modern historian should consider appropriate, but still rooted in things that actually happened.

I suspect the reason few mythicists seem aware of such considerations, or take them sufficiently seriously, is that (1) none of them have a background in the study of ancient Judaism, the most relevant area of expertise for someone investigating the historical Jesus, and (2) they instead draw mostly on dated scholarship from an era that witnessed strenuous efforts to ignore Jesus' Jewishness and to rip him free of that context.


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  • histrogeek

    In the rare case where I try to engage mythicists, I try to point out that the non-biblical histories from roughly the same era have a noticeable amount of supernatural material folded in. Unless of course Rome was one of the most lightening-plagued cities in human history, and the less-said about those birds the better.

  • No_one_significant

    Interesting analogy. None of the Macc books are from the time of the events. They’re decades later. 1, 2, and 4 Macc drew on early sources (1 Macc was in Hebrew; 2 Macc was based on the 5 vols of Jason of Cyrene). There is overlap of material in those 3 books that doesn’t always agree. Lots of themes in the Macc books are found in other Jewish and classical lit. We have no contemporary historical records for any of them.

    • histrogeek

      And then there’s the fact that commonly known stories related to the Maccabees aren’t even in the books (i.e. Hanukkah).

    • Andrew

      1 & 2 Maccabees are probably closer to the time of Josephus than the 2nd Century BCE. I think we should take with a grain of salt the supposed “Hebrew” language origin of 1 Maccabees (a book completely unknown at Qumran), which only exists in Greek and reads as if it were written in that language, and the supposed “lost original” of 2 Maccabees (both it and the “original” also being completely unknown at Qumran). Like the gospels, scholars want 1 & 2 Maccabees to be authentic and early, and therefore read them through apologetic lenses, using criteria specifically devised to ensure the desired outcome.

  • Matt Brown

    Very-well written article Dr.McGrath. I heard this argument from another mythicist the other day who says we should assume the gospels as fiction, myth, and legend, and that was his reason for denying Jesus of Nazareth’s existence

    However, just because historians dispute certain events in the gospels as myth or legend, doesn’t in anyway allow one to conclude the entire gospel accounts as myth or legend or that Jesus of Nazareth didn’t exist. That’s a non-sequitir.

    • redpill99

      I usually hear Jesus compared to King Arthur along these lines.

      • Matt Brown

        Well from whoever you heard that from was certainly mistaken

  • beallen0417

    Yep. Jesus and the Maccabees are just the same:


    • stuart32

      The question we are considering is whether the presence of supernatural details in an ancient account is a good reason for rejecting the account as a whole. How would you say the evidence you have cited helps us to answer this question?

    • Ignorantia Nescia

      You may find Atwill or Carotta interested in that theory.

    • John


      While this is not exactly how James expressed it, I’ve been thinking about this issue recently too, and I see the comparison of the Maccabee books with the gospels as being even more aptly about comparing the evidence for an historical Judah Maccabee and an historical Jesus (and the oldest Maccabean coins are from thirty years or more after Judah’s death).


  • David Hillman

    Yes there is much debate, unresolved, as to how far the books of Maccabees give a true picture of the causes of the war, how much it was really a civil war between Judaeans, and if it was how far they can justly be characterised as Hebrews versus Hellenists. It is not the presence of miracles that should make one sceptical but the possible ideological drums being beaten. For the same reason I distrust the early parts of the histories of the Venerable Bede not because of the presense of miracles but because it is probably distorted by his wish to see the Anglo-Saxons as God’s chosen people against the perfidious Britons. Niel Godfrey has some thoughtful posts on early Greek historians and the need to be sceptical not only of the history narrated in the delightful Herodotus, but also in those whose pose is as hard headed objective narrators. Of course we do have coins and other material remains of the Hasmoneans whereas, unless Saint Helen was an archaeologist in truth, none from the Jesus story. And for the latter when we scrape away the miracles and tropes no provable history remains.

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      I’m not sure I am following your point towards the end there. Are you suggesting that Jesus ought to have minted coins? We do not have coins minted by Hillel or Shammai or Honi the Circle Drawer or the Teacher of Righteousness, either, and historians are unsurprised, since we do not expect people who are not kings to mint coins.

      • David Hillman

        Not quite true that only kings minted coins, but you are right it was true in Judaea at the time of the Roman Empire. My point was not to get at Hillel etc for not minting coins (I prefer words to coins anyway, especially two or three aphorisms attributed to Hillel and some of the sayings of Jesus) nor do we have any writings from John Ball or many others whose words are more precious than rubies. That we don’t have their coins does not mean they do not exist (surely you don’t think I mean that if they existed they would have coined – that is ridiculous), it just means there is that less evidence for their historicy.

  • http://againstjebelallawz.wordpress.com/ Enopoletus Harding

    I think historians should be extra cautious about using such combinations of history and historical fiction as Maccabees, Ezra-Nehemiah, and the Deuteronomistic History. Context and purpose are extremely important here.

  • Gary

    I’m sorry, think I’ve used this before. But any Maccabee myth has to include this.
    It is so tasty.

  • Andrew

    Well, it is certainly debatable how historical 1-3 Maccabees are. Isn’t 3 Maccabees considered completely legendary? Although that book isn’t recognized as being of the same importance as the other two, it is vital to acknowledge that the author had no historical interest per se, and felt free to invent his own pseudo-history. The addition of a few actual historical figures into the story does not magically transform the story into actual history.

  • http://vridar.wordpress.com Neil Godfrey

    I’ve never heard of any mythicist arguing that a whole text should be set aside as fiction because it contains stories of angels etc. Who are these mythicists who argue, this, Professor McGrath? I am sure you will tell us and not allow anyone to get away with suggesting you continue to make up your own myths about mythicists.

    I am also curious as to how you determine genre. Are you really suggesting that a document containing a narrative about an angel can be allocated into a specific genre because of that narrative? What does “genre” mean to you?

    But if you are thinking of arguments by some of us who have never argued Jesus did not exist but are nonetheless open to the question, and who also do discuss genre and things like historical narratives with angels in them, then I wonder that you still have not understood the simplest points we have made.

    • redpill99

      freeratio has several posters by the name of aaa4789 et al who do.

      • http://vridar.wordpress.com Neil Godfrey

        I’m talking about published mythicists or those open to the possibility of mythicism, ike Doherty, Price, Wells, Thompson, Carrier, Lataster, Fitzgerald, Viklund, Brodie, Zindler.

        If you want to refute a point by referring to anonymous who-evers on the web we can play that useless game back and forth all day about anything.

    • David Hillman

      Well I certainly have never seen any historian argue that we should set aside a history because it contains miracles. I trust Bede completely on his Kings, bishops, battles and his dates, though being aware of some of his prejudices and not being at all bothered by his partial use of hagiography. And Arrian, who relies on first rate witnesses, though he has Alexander guided at one point by a talking snake, if my memory serves me right. The presence of miracles in a history merely reminds us of what we should be aware of anyway- of the need to realise that not all details of a history may be right, of the need to use judgement. (There is of course what one correspondant on Carrier’s blog called the “strange shit quotient” in a history, but that is a different point than professor McGrath’s belief that those he calls mythicists discount any histories containing miracles or angels).