Academic journal article Journal of Biblical Literature

Mattathias and the Jewish Man of Modein

Academic journal article Journal of Biblical Literature

Mattathias and the Jewish Man of Modein

Article excerpt

(ProQuest: ... denotes non-US-ASCII text omitted.)

According to 1 Maccabees 2, the Maccabean revolution begins with one crucial moment, Mattathias's act of defiance in Modein. When the father of the Hasmonean dynasty kills the Seleucid official and a Jewish man who is willing to participate in a pagan rite, he attempts to rally those of his people who are still faithful to their God and religion to take history into their own hands.

This famous story is the subject of a brilliant reading by Shaye J. D. Cohen, who argues that the religious and cultural identity indicated by "Jewishness" was not yet present in 1 Maccabees and that Mattathias's victim was not Jewish but Judean.1 This interpretation fits with Cohen's overarching theory that the Greek term Ioudaioi had a geographical ("Judean") but not a religious or cultural ("Jewish") dimension before the late second century b.c.e. Since the scholarly consensus is that both 1 and 2 Maccabees were written in that era, these works may provide evidence of this shift.2 Cohen offers 1 Macc 2:15-26 as a parade example of his theory that there was no "Jewishness" in 1 Maccabees and that it existed only as of the writing of 2 Maccabees; thus it is fair to begin with this case before dealing with the general proposition that there is no "Jewishness" in the book.

I will argue that Cohen's interpretation of this passage is quite problematic and that the person whom Mattathias kills is a Jewish man of Modein; that Modein is in Judea; that 1 Maccabees does use the term ... (Ioudaioi) for Jews, adherents of the Jewish religion, and not merely for "Judeans"; and that the concept of "Jewishness" as delineated by Cohen begins at least as early as the writing of this book.


I will review the text before outlining Cohen's arguments and responding at length.

The king's officials in charge of enforcing apostasy came to the town of Modein to make them sacrifice. Many Israelites came up to meet them, and Mattathias and his sons were brought into the gathering. The king's officials addressed Mattathias as follows, "You are a respected and distinguished leader in this town, supported by sons and kinsmen. Now be the first to come forward and obey the command of the king as all the gentiles have done, as well as the people of Judah and those who have been allowed to remain in Jerusalem. In return, you and your sons will be raised to the rank of the Friends of the King, and you and your sons will be honored by grants of silver and gold and many gifts." (1 Macc 2:15- 18)3

Seleucid officials involved in the persecution of the Jewish religion come to the town of Modein. Since the townspeople seem to be unwilling to participate in the pagan rite, or because the officials have met this kind of resistance in other towns, they attempt to bribe the priest Mattathias to set an example and "be the first to come forward" and obey the king's command; the townspeople will certainly follow their leader. When Mattathias defiantly and eloquently refused,

a Jewish man came forward in the sight of all to offer sacrifice upon the altar in Modein in accordance with the king's decree. When Mattathias saw this, he was filled with zeal and trembled with rage and let his anger rise, as was fitting; he ran and slew him upon the altar. At the same time he also killed the king's official in charge of enforcing sacrifices, and he destroyed the altar. (2:23-25)

In explaining his position that Mattathias's victim was not "Jewish," Cohen argues the following points:

1. Modein was outside of Judea;4 when the officials state that "all the gentiles . . . as well as the people of Judah [...] and those who have been allowed to remain in Jerusalem" (1 Macc 2:18), they imply that all of Judea has already submitted to the persecution.

2. The usual translation of ... cited above, that the worshiper is "a Jewish man," is incorrect; instead, he is a "Judean" man. …

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