Christmas Stories in Christian Apocrypha: The birth of Jesus in the apocryphal gospels (Tony Burke, 2015)

NOTE: This Bible History Daily [Biblical Archaeology Society] article was originally published on December 10, 2014. It has been updated.

Presepe_naples_rome2
The presepio (nativity scene) is a centuries-old craft and one of Naples’s best-known traditions. This Neapolitan presepio was displayed in Rome.

One of the most familiar images of the Christmas season is the nativity scene—the well-known depiction of Jesus’ birth—displayed in an array of public and private settings, including churches, parks, store windows and on fireplace mantles. The scene, first assembled by St. Francis of Assisi in 1223, is iconographic, meaning its various elements are intended primarily to depict theological—not historical, nor even literary—truths. It harmonizes two very distinct stories: Luke’s birth of Jesus in a stable, visited by shepherds, and attended by an angelic host and Matthew’s Magi, who are led by a star to the home of Jesus’ family sometime before Jesus’ second birthday.

To most people viewing the nativity scene, it depicts the birth of Jesus as it happened, with farm animals, shepherds, angels and Magi crowding the Bethlehem stable. But the combination is apocryphal, in the wide sense that the complete scene is not an accurate reflection of what the Biblical texts say about Jesus’ birth and in the narrow sense that such harmonization of Matthew and Luke is a common feature of noncanonical Christian infancy gospels. Actually, these gospels not only combine the Biblical stories, they enhance them, with additional traditions about the birth of Jesus that circulated in antiquity. Of course most Christians throughout history were unaware of this distinction; before widespread literacy, Christians told the story of Jesus’ birth without awareness of which elements were based on Scripture and which were not.

The Christian Apocrypha are rich with tales of the birth of Jesus. The earliest and most well-known of these are the stories found in the Protevangelium (or “Proto-Gospel”) of James. Composed in the late second century, this text combines the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke with other traditions, including stories of the Virgin Mary’s own birth and upbringing. The Protevangelium was exceptionally popular—hundreds of manuscripts of the text exist today in a variety of languages, and it has profoundly influenced Christian liturgy and teachings about Mary. The Protevangelium was transmitted in the West as part of the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, which added to it tales of the Holy Family’s sojourn in Egypt and, in some manuscripts, stories of Jesus’ childhood taken from the Infancy Gospel of Thomas. Other Pseudo-Matthew manuscripts incorporate a different telling of Jesus’ birth from an otherwise lost gospel that scholars call the Book about the Birth of the Savior. In the East, the Protevangelium was translated into Syriac and expanded with a different set of stories set in Egypt to form the Life of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which was later translated into Arabic as the Arabic Infancy Gospel. Another Syriac reworking of theProtevangelium lies behind the Armenian Infancy Gospel. Christians in the East also expanded on Matthew’s Magi traditions creating the Revelation of the Magi, the Legend of Aphroditianus, and On the Star (erroneously attributed to Eusebius of Caesarea), each of which in their own way narrates how the Magi became aware that the star heralded the birth of a king.

If readers of these apocryphal texts could see the modern nativity scenes, they would be surprised to find the baby Jesus in a stable: In the infancy gospels, the birth takes place in a cave outside of Bethlehem, the same location given also by Justin Martyr (in his Dialogue with Trypho 78), who died around 165 C.E. They might have expected also to see a midwife in the scene; indeed, she does appear regularly in Eastern Orthodox depictions of the nativity, helping Mary bathe the newborn. As theProtevangelium tells it, Joseph left Mary in the cave and went into Bethlehem to find a midwife. But as Joseph and the midwife approached the cave, they saw a bright cloud overshadowing it. The cloud then disappeared into the cave and a great light appeared, which withdrew and revealed the baby Jesus. Each of the later expansions of the Protevangelium narrate this scene in their own unique way, but they all endeavor to show that Jesus was not born in a natural manner, thus allowing Mary to remain physically a virgin after the birth. So superhuman is Jesus that some texts report that he could be perceived in multiple forms. The Armenian Infancy Gospel, for example, reports that the Magi each saw him in a different way: as the Son of God on a throne, as the Son of Man surrounded by armies, and as a man tortured, dead and resurrected.

The apocryphal accounts agree with Luke that the shepherds visited the Holy Family shortly after Jesus’ birth. In the Western texts, the family then moves from the cave to a stable and places the baby in a manger. There an ox and an ass bend their knees and worship him, fulfilling the prophecy of Isaiah 1:3, “The ox knows it owner, and the donkey its master’s crib” (see Pseudo-Matthew 14 and Birth of the Savior 86). Though an apocryphal embellishment, the animals became a common ingredient in subsequent depictions of the nativity and may be observable in nativity scenes today.

Most often, the cave remains the scene of subsequent events, including the circumcision (from Luke 2:21) and the visit of the Magi. The Magi are typically depicted in art and iconography as three richly-adorned Persian kings. However, Matthew calls them only “magi from the East” (Matthew 2:1) and does not say how many there were. The writers of the apocryphal texts did their best to clarify these matters. In the Revelation of the Magi, there are at least twelve Magi—the same number is given in other Syriac traditions—and they came to Bethlehem in April (not December) from a land in the Far East called “Shir,” perhaps meant to be understood as China. The Armenian Infancy Gospel says there were three kings, and they were accompanied by 12 commanders, each with an army of 1,000 men, which would make for a very crowded stable indeed. Many of the texts continue the story of the Magi and tell what happened when they returned to their home country: In theLife of the Blessed Virgin (=Arabic Infancy Gospel) they bring back one of Jesus’ swaddling bands, which they worship because it has miraculous properties; in the Revelation of the Magi they share the vision-inducing food (some kind of magic mushrooms?) given to them by the star; and in the Legend of Aphroditianus they return with a painting of Jesus and his mother. None of these apocryphal Magi traditions are featured in nativity scenes today, but some of them influenced medieval art and literature.

Christians of all times and places have delighted in the story of Jesus’ birth, so much that they have yearned to learn more about the first Christmas than is found in the Biblical accounts. The Christmas nativity scene is the outcome of efforts by creative and pious writers to fill in blanks left by Matthew and Luke and to combine multiple traditions, Biblical and non-Biblical, into one enduring image. The nativity scene is a timeless representation of when God became man; it is also a testament to human imagination and the art of storytelling.

Duccio_di_Buoninsegna_-_The_Nativity_between_Prophets_Isaiah_and_Ezekiel_-_WGA06754
This small tripartite painting, The Nativity with the Prophets Isaiah and Ezekiel, is part of a massive altarpiece known as the Maestà. Composed of many individual paintings, the Maestà was commissioned by the Italian city of Siena in 1308 from the artist Duccio di Buoninsegna. It contains elements of the birth of Jesus from Christian Apocrypha, including the cave, the ox, the ass and the midwife.

Interested in learning about the birth of Jesus? Learn more about the history of Christmas and the date of Jesus’ birth in the free eBook http://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/free-ebooks/the-first-christmas-the-story-of-jesus-birth-in-history-and-tradition/

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God’s Killings in the Deuterocanonical Books Part II – 17 Acts of Murder in the Books of the Maccabees (Steve Wells, 2013)

Deuterocanonical is a term coined in 1566 by the theologian Sixtus of Siena, who had converted to Catholicism from Judaism, to describe scriptural texts of the Old Testament considered canonical by the Catholic Church, but which are not present in the Hebrew Bible today, and which had been omitted by some early canon lists, especially in the East. The deuterocanonical books are considered canonical by Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, and the Church of the East, but are considered non-canonical by most Protestants. The word deuterocanonical comes from the Greek meaning ‘belonging to the second canon’. The original usage of the term distinguished these scriptures both from those considered non-canonical and from those consideredprotocanonical. However, some editions of the Bible include text from both deuterocanonical and non-canonical scriptures in a single section designated “Apocrypha”. This arrangement can lead to conflation between the otherwise distinct terms “deuterocanonical” and “apocryphal”. The Greek Septuagint English translation used in this article can be found here:

http://www.ellopos.net/elpenor/greek-texts/septuagint/

The books in the Apocrypha (aka the Deuterocanonical books) add another 20 killings to God’s list. The first three involve Susanna and Judith, the rest are told in the Books of the Maccabees. This article is about the murders in the Books of the Maccabees, it is taken from Drunk with Blood: God’s Killings in the Bible, 2nd revised edition:

Tombs of the Maccabees, Modi'in, Israel
Tombs of the Maccabees, Modi’in, Israel

MATHATHIAS’ DOUBLE MURDER: The first chapter of I Maccabees tells about the trials and tribulations of the Jews after Alexander the Great conquered Judea. His successor in the region (a century and a half later), Antiochus, desecrated the Temple in Jerusalem and forced the Jews to abandon their religious traditions. That’s when Mathathias appears.

“Now when he had left speaking these words, there came one of the Jews in the sight of all to sacrifice on the altar which was at Modin, according to the king’s commandment. Which thing when Mattathias saw, he was inflamed with zeal, and his reins trembled, neither could he forbear to shew his anger according to judgment: wherefore he ran, and slew him upon the altar. Also the king’s commissioner, who compelled men to sacrifice, he killed at that time, and the altar he pulled down. Thus dealt he zealously for the law of God like as Phinees did unto Zambri the son of Salom.” (I Maccabees 2:23-26)

The Zeal of Phinehas, 15th c.
The Zeal of Phinehas, 15th c.

[Note: Mathathias was showing his zeal for the Law just like Phinehas did when he threw a spear through an interfaith couple. The double murder pleased God so much that He stopped killing Israelites with a plague—after killing 24,000. For being so “zealous for his God,” Phinehas was given God’s covenant of peace” and the “covenant of an everlasting priesthood.” Mathathia’s double murder was as pleasing to God as Phineha’s].

Phinehas followed the man into his tent, and drove his spear through both of them, through the man of Israel and into the woman's belly. (Children's Illustrated Bible)
“Phinehas followed the man into his tent, and drove his spear through both of them, through the man of Israel and into the woman’s belly.” (Children’s Illustrated Bible)

MATHATHIAS AND HIS FRIENDS SLAY THE WICKED SINNERS, CIRCUMCISE THE UNCIRCUMCISED AND YIELD NOT TO THE HORN OF THE SINNER: So they joined their forces, and smote sinful men in their anger, and wicked men in their wrath: but the rest fled to the heathen for succour. Then Mattathias and his friends went round about, and pulled down the altars: And what children soever they found within the coast of Israel uncircumcised, those they circumcised valiantly. They pursued also after the proud men, and the work prospered in their hand. So they recovered the law out of the hand of the Gentiles, and out of the hand of kings, neither suffered they the sinner to triumph. (I Maccabees 2:44-48)

Circumcision in the Bible, with flint blade for ancient knife.
Circumcision in the Bible, with flint blade for ancient knife.

[NOTE: According to the story in I Maccabees, Antiochus had made circumcision illegal so there were lots of uncircumcised boys running around in Israel. Mathathias and his men inspected every penis in Israel to make sure it was properly circumcised, and if not, they cut off the offending foreskin themselves].

Tomb of Mattathias ben Johanan, Israel
Tomb of Mattathias ben Johanan, Israel

GOD KILLED ANDRONICUS (THAT SACRILEGIOUS WRETCH): Andronicus was an official of King Antiochus who got involved in a dispute between two rivals for the Jewish high priesthood. One claimant was Onias, God’s favorite; the other was Menelaus, a cruel tyrant and savage beast, who stole gold out of the temple and gave it to Andronicus. Menelaus asked Andronicus to kill Onias, which he did. Then, God inspired Antiochus to kill Andronicus (the sacrilegious wretch) as his deserved punishment.

“Now Menelaus, supposing that he had gotten a convenient time, stole certain vessels of gold out of the temple, and gave some of them to Andronicus, and some he sold into Tyrus and the cities round about. Which when Onias knew of a surety, he reproved him, and withdrew himself into a sanctuary at Daphne, that lieth by Antiochia. Wherefore Menelaus, taking Andronicus apart, prayed, him to get Onias into his hands; who being persuaded thereunto, and coming to Onias in deceit, gave him his right hand with oaths; and though he were suspected by him, yet persuaded he him to come forth of the sanctuary: whom forthwith he shut up without regard of justice. For the which cause not only the Jews, but many also of other nations, took great indignation, and were much grieved for the unjust murder of the man. And when the king was come again from the places about Cilicia, the Jews that were in the city, and certain of the Greeks that abhorred the fact also, complained because Onias was slain without cause. Therefore Antiochus was heartily sorry, and moved to pity, and wept, because of the sober and modest behaviour of him that was dead. And being kindled with anger, forthwith he took away Andronicus his purple, and rent off his clothes, and leading him through the whole city unto that very place, where he had committed impiety against Onias, there slew he the cursed murderer. Thus the Lord rewarded him his punishment, as he had deserved” (II Maccabees 4:32-38)

Bust of Antiochus IV at the Altes Museum in Berlin.
Bust of Antiochus IV at the Altes Museum in Berlin.

A JEWISH MOB KILLS LYSIMACHUS, THE SACRILEGIOUS FELLOW: In the last apocryphal killing, God killed Andronicus (the sacrilegious wretch) for supporting the wrong candidate (Menelaus) for Jewish high priest. The next high priest was Lysimachus. There were rumors among the Jews that Lysimachus followed after his brother’s sacrilegious ways:

“Now when many sacrileges had been committed in the city by Lysimachus with the consent of Menelaus, and the fruit thereof was spread abroad, the multitude gathered themselves together against Lysimachus, many vessels of gold being already carried away. Whereupon the common people rising, and being filled with rage, Lysimachus armed about three thousand men, and began first to offer violence; one Auranus being the leader, a man far gone in years, and no less in folly. They then seeing the attempt of Lysimachus, some of them caught stones, some clubs, others taking handfuls of dust, that was next at hand, cast them all together upon Lysimachus, and those that set upon them. Thus many of them they wounded, and some they struck to the ground, and all of them they forced to flee: but as for the churchrobber himself, him they killed beside the treasury.” (II Maccabees 4:39-43)

GOD HELPS JUDAS MACCABEUS DESTROY THE WICKED: After Mathathias died, his son, Judas Maccabeus, replaced him as the leader of the Jewish terrorists. His first act was to burn “them that troubled his people” (with fire). Judas went through the cities of Judah, destroying the wicked, making himself famous all over the world. He killed Apoloonius and many of his soldiers, and he took the sword of Apollonius and fought with it for the rest of his life. Seron, the captain of the Syrian army, heard about Judas (as had everyone on earth). He collected a large army of wicked men to fight Judas. When Judas’ smaller army saw the Syrians, they were frightened. But Judas told them not to worry. Because success in war depends on God, not on numbers. “The Lord Himself will overthrow them. Immediately after his speech to his soldiers, Judas attacked Seron’s army, killing 800 men which made Judas even more famous and feared. And Judas was just getting started (I Maccabees 3:1-5; 8-26)

[NOTE: The same story, more or less, is told in II Maccabees 8:5-6).

JUDAS AND HIS UNARMED MEN KILL 3000 OF GORGIA’S SOLDIERS: In Judas Maccabeus first set of God-assisted slayings, he told his men not to worry about large opposing armies because success in war depends not on numbers but on God: “The Lord Himself will overthrow them.” This time, though, Judas and his men didn’t have a single sword among them. They didn’t need any; God did it all for them.

Judas and the Israelites prepare for war by putting on sackcloth, putting ashes on their heads, rending their garments, blowing trumpets, and crying together with a loud, long prayer to heaven:

“What shall we do with these, and whither shall we carry them away? For thy sanctuary is trodden down and profaned, and thy priests are in heaviness, and brought low. And lo, the heathen are assembled together against us to destroy us: what things they imagine against us, thou knowest. How shall we be able to stand against them, except thou, O God, be our help?”(I Maccabees 3:44-54)

And the war rituals worked like magic: Judas and his completely unarmed valiant men defeated 5000 well-armed soldiers. He told his men not to do anything; God would do the killing for them—and He did! Judas blew the trumpet and God killed 3000 Gentile soldiers. Then Judas and his men enriched themselves with the booty. As they left the bodies of God’s victims, they sang a hymn to God praising him for his mercy and they prepared for God’s next killing. (I Maccabees 4:1-11, 13-15, 23-24).

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THE HANNUKAH KILLINGS: A year after God’s slaughter of Georgia’s army, Lysias attacked Judas with an army of 60,000. Judas asked God to deliver the Syrians like he did the mighty strangers to David and Jonathan. He asked God to scare the hell out of them and kill them with the sword of those that love him and it worked. God helped Judas kill another 5000:

“The next year therefore following Lysias gathered together threescore thousand choice men of foot, and five thousand horsemen, that he might subdue them. So they came into Idumea, and pitched their tents at Bethsura, and Judas met them with ten thousand men. And when he saw that mighty army, he prayed and said, ‘Blessed art thou, O Saviour of Israel, who didst quell the violence of the mighty man by the hand of thy servant David, and gavest the host of strangers into the hands of Jonathan the son of Saul, and his armourbearer; Shut up this army in the hand of thy people Israel, and let them be confounded in their power and horsemen: Make them to be of no courage, and cause the boldness of their strength to fall away, and let them quake at their destruction: Cast them down with the sword of them that love thee, and let all those that know thy name praise thee with thanksgiving.’ So they joined battle; and there were slain of the host of Lysias about five thousand men, even before them were they slain.” (I Maccabees 4:28-34)

After God “discomfited” the Gentiles, Judas and his brethren went up to clean up the Temple:

“Then said Judas and his brethren, Behold, our enemies are discomfited: let us go up to cleanse and dedicate the sanctuary. Upon this all the host assembled themselves together, and went up into mount Sion. And when they saw the sanctuary desolate, and the altar profaned, and the gates burned up, and shrubs growing in the courts as in a forest, or in one of the mountains, yea, and the priests’ chambers pulled down; They rent their clothes, and made great lamentation, and cast ashes upon their heads, And fell down flat to the ground upon their faces, and blew an alarm with the trumpets, and cried toward heaven.” (I Maccabees 4:36-40)

“Then they took whole stones according to the law, and built a new altar according to the former; And made up the sanctuary, and the things that were within the temple, and hallowed the courts. They made also new holy vessels, and into the temple they brought the candlestick, and the altar of burnt offerings, and of incense, and the table. And upon the altar they burned incense, and the lamps that were upon the candlestick they lighted, that they might give light in the temple. Furthermore they set the loaves upon the table, and spread out the veils, and finished all the works which they had begun to make. Now on the five and twentieth day of the ninth month, which is called the month Casleu, in the hundred forty and eighth year, they rose up betimes in the morning, And offered sacrifice according to the law upon the new altar of burnt offerings, which they had made.” (I Maccabees 4:47-53)

When the Gentiles found out the Jews had cleaned up the temple, they were exceedingly angry and began to persecute and kill the Jews—which got Judas (and God) into a killing mood again. He slaughtered tje children of Esau, burned to death the children of Bean and smote the children of Ammon:

“Now when the nations round about heard that the altar was built and the sanctuary renewed as before, it displeased them very much. Wherefore they thought to destroy the generation of Jacob that was among them, and thereupon they began to slay and destroy the people. Then Judas fought against the children of Esau in Idumea at Arabattine, because they besieged Gael: and he gave them a great overthrow, and abated their courage, and took their spoils. Also he remembered the injury of the children of Bean, who had been a snare and an offence unto the people, in that they lay in wait for them in the ways. He shut them up therefore in the towers, and encamped against them, and destroyed them utterly, and burned the towers of that place with fire, and all that were therein. Afterward he passed over to the children of Ammon, where he found a mighty power, and much people, with Timotheus their captain. So he fought many battles with them, till at length they were discomfited before him; and he smote them. (I Maccabees 5:1-8)

After the slaughter of the Gentile and the rededication of the Temple, the Jews established the annual eight-day festival, which we now know as Hanukkah:

“Moreover Judas and his brethren with the whole congregation of Israel ordained, that the days of the dedication of the altar should be kept in their season from year to year by the space of eight days, from the five and twentieth day of the month Casleu, with mirth and gladness.” (I Maccabees 4:59)

THE MACCABESS BROTHERS SLAUGHTER THE HEATHENS: After the Hanukkah killings, the gentiles gathered together to fight the Israelites, who sent messengers with “their garments rent’ to ask Judas for help. Judas and his brothers (Simon and Jonathan) attacked the Gentiles in Galilee and Galad. Simon killed 3000 Galilean heathens and took their wives and children captive. Judas and his army went to Bosor and “slew every male with the edge of the sword, took all their spoils, and burnt it with fire…killing almost 8000.” Then Judas burnt the city of maspha to the ground after killing every male “with the edge of the sword.” Judas then went and did likewise to Casbon, Mageth, and Bosor, and the rest of the cities of Galaad.” Next, Judas commands his soldiers to akkack the great city of Ephron, kill every male, and then burn it. To thank Him for helping them slaughter the Gentiles, Judas and his brothers killed some animals for God. Then Judas and his brethren attacked the children of esau, burned walls and towers in Chebron, destroyed the altars and statues in the land of the aliens and strangers, and took the spoils of their cities:

“Now unto Simon were given three thousand men to go into Galilee, and unto Judas eight thousand men for the country of Galaad. Then went Simon into Galilee, where he fought many battles with the heathen, so that the heathen were discomfited by him. And he pursued them unto the gate of Ptolemais; and there were slain of the heathen about three thousand men, whose spoils he took. And those that were in Galilee, and in Arbattis, with their wives and their children, and all that they had, took he away with him, and brought them into Judea with great joy.” (I Maccabees 5:20-23)

“Hereupon Judas and his host turned suddenly by the way of the wilderness unto Bosora; and when he had won the city, he slew all the males with the edge of the sword, and took all their spoils, and burned the city with fire, From whence he removed by night, and went till he came to the fortress. And betimes in the morning they looked up, and, behold, there was an innumerable people bearing ladders and other engines of war, to take the fortress: for they assaulted them. When Judas therefore saw that the battle was begun, and that the cry of the city went up to heaven, with trumpets, and a great sound, He said unto his host, Fight this day for your brethren. So he went forth behind them in three companies, who sounded their trumpets, and cried with prayer. Then the host of Timotheus, knowing that it was Maccabeus, fled from him: wherefore he smote them with a great slaughter; so that there were killed of them that day about eight thousand men.” (I Maccabees 5:28-34)

“This done, Judas turned aside to Maspha; and after he had assaulted it he took and slew all the males therein, and received the spoils thereof and burnt it with fire. From thence went he, and took Casphon, Maged, Bosor, and the other cities of the country of Galaad. After these things gathered Timotheus another host and encamped against Raphon beyond the brook. So Judas sent men to espy the host, who brought him word, saying, All the heathen that be round about us are assembled unto them, even a very great host. He hath also hired the Arabians to help them and they have pitched their tents beyond the brook, ready to come and fight against thee. Upon this Judas went to meet them. Then Timotheus said unto the captains of his host, When Judas and his host come near the brook, if he pass over first unto us, we shall not be able to withstand him; for he will mightily prevail against us: But if he be afraid, and camp beyond the river, we shall go over unto him, and prevail against him. Now when Judas came near the brook, he caused the scribes of the people to remain by the brook: unto whom he gave commandment, saying, Suffer no man to remain in the camp, but let all come to the battle. So he went first over unto them, and all the people after him: then all the heathen, being discomfited before him, cast away their weapons, and fled unto the temple that was at Carnaim. But they took the city, and burned the temple with all that were therein. Thus was Carnaim subdued, neither could they stand any longer before Judas.” (I Maccabees 5:35-44)

Reconstruction of Medieval Mural Painting, Battle of Judas Maccabeus with Timotheus and the Fall of Maspha
Reconstruction of Medieval Mural Painting, Battle of Judas Maccabeus with Timotheus and the Fall of Maspha

“Now when they came unto Ephron, (this was a great city in the way as they should go, very well fortified) they could not turn from it, either on the right hand or the left, but must needs pass through the midst of it. … Wherefore Judas commanded a proclamation to be made throughout the host, that every man should pitch his tent in the place where he was. So the soldiers pitched, and assaulted the city all that day and all that night, till at the length the city was delivered into his hands: Who then slew all the males with the edge of the sword, and rased the city, and took the spoils thereof, and passed through the city over them that were slain. (I Maccabees 5:46; 49-51)

“So they went up to mount Sion with joy and gladness, where they offered burnt offerings, because not one of them were slain until they had returned in peace.” (I Maccabees 5:54).

Afterward went Judas forth with his brethren, and fought against the children of Esau in the land toward the south, where he smote Hebron, and the towns thereof, and pulled down the fortress of it, and burned the towers thereof round about. From thence he removed to go into the land of the Philistines, and passed through Samaria. At that time certain priests, desirous to shew their valour, were slain in battle, for that they went out to fight unadvisedly. So Judas turned to Azotus in the land of the Philistines, and when he had pulled down their altars, and burned their carved images with fire, and spoiled their cities, he returned into the land of Judea. (I Maccabees 5:65-68)

NICANOR’S ARMY—THE ALMIGHTY BEING THEIR HELPER, THEY SLEW ABOVE 9000 MEN: It’s hard to sort out God’s killings in First and Second Maccabees. The same stories are often told, but the details are so different that it’s hard to believe they are the same story. This is the account from II Maccabees:

King Philip (Demetrius in I Maccabees 7:4) sent Nicanor and Gorgias with 20,000 soldiers “to root out the whole race of the Jews.” When Judas found out about it, he gathered 7000 men “to fight manfully.” Telling them to trust in God who “at a beck” can destroy all of Nicanor’s army—along with “the whole world ,” if he wants to—like he did to Sennacherib’s 185,000 sleeping soldiers and when 6000 Jews and Macedonians slew 120,000 Galatians “because of the help they had from heaven.” For such a great slaughter, “they received many favors.” The speech had the desiring effect, inspiring the troops to die for their country. After Judas concluded his speech by reading Esdra’s book and giving them the watchword “The help of God,” his soldiers went off to fight Nicanor. And with God as their helper, “they slew above 9000 men.” Then they asked the “merciful God” to help them kill some more. And with God’s help, they killed more than 20,000 in Timotheus and Bacchides’ army. They killed Philarches (a wicked man) and they burned to death Callisthenes, as “a worthy reward for his impieties.” (II Maccabees 8:9-33).

Dura_Europos_fresco_holy_man

JONATHAN AND SIMON DESTROY THE WICKED OUT OF ISRAEL: Jonathan Maccabeus encouraged his company to fight Bacchides, but they were divided by the Jordan River. So Jonathan told his troops to ask God for help. Jonathan and those that were on his side of the Jordan swam to the other side and together they killed 1000 men in Bacchides’ army. A little later, Jonathan struck the brethren of Odares and the children of Paseron, while his brother Simon discomfited Bacchides, and killed many wicked men that had asked him to come to their country. Thus, Jonathan and Simon destroyed the wicked out of Israel. (I Maccabees 9:44-73).

FIVE HEAVENLY HORSEMEN CAST DARTS AND FIREBALLS AT THE ENEMY: When Timotheus and his army threatened to attack, Judas and his companions sprinkled dirt on their heads, girded their loins with haircloth, and begged God to help them kill some more Gentiles. And the dirty heads and hair-clothed loins worked like a charm! God sent from heaven five men on horses, who cast darts and fireballs at the Gentiles, confounding them with blindness and filling them with trouble, and killing 20,500 soldiers and 600 horsemen. Timotheus fled to a stronghold, where he and his companions “blasphemed exceedingly, and cast forth abominable words.” Twenty of Judas’ young men were especially offended by their bad language, so they burned the blasphemers alive. Then they blessed the Lord “who had done great things” and given them the victory. (II Maccabees 10:24-38)

Coin with portrait of Antiochus IV. Reverse shows Apollo seated on an omphalos. The Greek inscription reads ΒΑΣΙΛΕΩΣ ΑΝΤΙΟΧΟΥ ΘΕΟΥ ΕΠΙΦΑΝΟΥΣ ΝΙΚΗΦΟΡΟΥ (King Antiochus, the divine Epiphanus, Bringer of Victory.
Coin with portrait of Antiochus IV. Reverse shows Apollo seated on an omphalos. The Greek inscription reads ΒΑΣΙΛΕΩΣ ΑΝΤΙΟΧΟΥ ΘΕΟΥ ΕΠΙΦΑΝΟΥΣ ΝΙΚΗΦΟΡΟΥ (King Antiochus, the divine Epiphanus, Bringer of Victory.

GOD KILLED ANTICOHUS WITH AN INCURABLE BOWEL DISEASE: Antiochus was a Seleucid king who, according to II Maccabees, mistreated the Jews. So God paid him back by giving him “an incurable and invisible plague” that caused “a dreadful pain in his bowels…and bitter torments of the inner parts.” While Antiochus suffered from his God-given bowel disease, worms swarmed out of his body, “his flesh fell off, and the filthiness of his smell was noisome.” No one could get near him because of the “intolerable stench.” It got so bad, in fact, that Antiochus couldn’t even “abide his own stench.” Then Antiochus became a Jew and begged God to stop tormenting him. But God did not stop. Antiochus, “the murderer and blasphemer, being grievously struck…died a miserable death” from his God-given bowel disease. (II Maccabees 9:5, 9-17, 28).

There’s another story about Antiochus’ death in the same book. In this one, Antiochus is smashed with stones as he entered the temple in Jerusalem. His head is cut off and his body chopped into pieces—all with God’s help and blessing:

“Which when the priests of Nanea had set forth, and he was entered with a small company into the compass of the temple, they shut the temple as soon as Antiochus was come in: And opening a privy door of the roof, they threw stones like thunderbolts, and struck down the captain, hewed them in pieces, smote off their heads and cast them to those that were without. Blessed be our God in all things, who hath delivered up the ungodly.” (II Maccabees 1:15-17)

IDUMEANS, TRAITORS, AND JEWS IN TWO TOWERS: After God killed Antiochus with a bowel disease, Judas Maccabeus restored the temple and “by the protection of the Lord” destroyed the altars of the heathens. Then they all got down on the ground and begged God to never again deliver them into the hands of barbarians and blasphemous men. After the prayer, Judas returned to killing people. He hunted down the Jews that had not supported his previous killing campaigns, by allying with the Idumeans. Then he asked God to help him attack the Idumeans. And together, God and Judas killed more than 20,000.But some Idumeans escaped to two towers. When Judas found out, he killed the men who allowed the escape and killed more than 20,000 in the twin towers. (II Maccabees 10:1-4, 15-23).

Nicanor died after being defeated by Judas Maccabaeus. His head and arms are cut off. Mosaic. Sant'Evasio Cathedral. Casale Monferrato. Piedmont Region.
Nicanor died after being defeated by Judas Maccabaeus. His head and arms are cut off. Mosaic. Sant’Evasio Cathedral. Casale Monferrato. Piedmont Region.

NICANOR’S HEAD—A MANIFEST SIGN OF THE HELP FROM GOD: Apparently Nicanor and at least some of his army survived the previous massacre, because a while later they attack the Jews on the Sabbath day. But Judas trusted in God, telling the people “a dream worthy to be believed.” Then Onias prayed for the people and Jeremiah the prophet showed up, delivering to Judas a gift from God: a holy, golden sword. The people were inspired by Judas to fight—not to protect their families and friends, but for the sake of “the holiness of the temple.” Judas reminded the people of how good God is at killing people and prayed:

“O Lord, thou didst send thine angel in the time of Ezekias king of Judea, and didst slay in the host of Sennacherib an hundred fourscore and five thousand: Wherefore now also, O Lord of heaven, send a good angel before us for a fear and dread unto them; And through the might of thine arm let those be stricken with terror, that come against thy holy people to blaspheme.”

So the Jews prayed with their hearts and fought with their hands, killing 35,000, while “being greatly cheered with the presence of God.” When the Jews found out that Nicanor had been killed, “they made a great noise and blessed the Almighty Lord.” Judas commanded that Nicanor’s head, hand and shoulder be cut off and carried to Jerusalem. Judas showed everyone Nicanor’s head and “wicked hand.” Then he had his tongue cut out and fed piece by piece, to the birds. Finally, he hung his hand and head over the temple and castle, respectively, as “an evident and manifest sign of the help of God.” (II Maccabees 15:1-3, 7, 11-35)

ALIENS AT CADES: Until now, everything went well for Jonathan and his brothers. They slaughtered gentiles, heathens, wicked sinners, and traitorous Jews wherever they went. When an army of strangers attacked Jonathan’s army and his army ran away, Jonathan rent his garments, cast dirt on his head and prayed. Having done that, his army returned and together they attacked the aliens at Cades, killing 3000 of them. (I Maccabees 11:68-74)

JOHN BURNS TO DEATH 2000 IN THE TOWER OF AZOTUS: Simon Maccabeus was getting old so he gathered his sons around him and made a speech, encouraging them to fight in holy wars, as he and his brothers had done their entire lives:

“I, and my brethren, and my father’s house, have ever from my youth unto this day fought against the enemies of Israel; and things have prospered so well in our hands, that we have delivered Israel oftentimes. But now I am old, and ye, by God’s mercy, are of a sufficient age: be ye instead of me and my brother, and go and fight for our nation, and the help from heaven be with you.”

Simon’s speech had the desired effect. In the next verse, Simon’s son John enlisted 20,000 fighting men to attack Cendebeus. And after sounding the holy trumpets, John and his army routed Cendebeus’ army. John pursued the fleeing soldiers and, with God’s help, burned 2000 of them to death in the Tower of Azotus. (I Maccabees 16:1-10)

Tomb of Simon the Just, Jerusalem
Tomb of Simon the Just, Jerusalem

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[NOTE: Though the original book of I Maccabees was written in Hebrew, as can be deduced by a number of Hebrew idioms in the text, the original has been lost and the version which comes down to us is the Septuagint. Origen of Alexandria gives testimony to the existence of an original Hebrew text (as cited by Eusebius, Church History, vi. 25). Jerome likewise claims “the first book of Maccabees I have found to be Hebrew, the second is Greek, as can be proved from the very style” (per Prologus Galeatus). The book’s author is unknown. The author interprets the events not as a miraculous intervention by God, but rather God’s using the instrument of the military genius of the Maccabees to achieve his ends.

Unlike 1 Maccabees, 2 Maccabees was written in Koine Greek. The author of 2 Maccabees is not identified, but he claims to be abridging a 5-volume work by Jason of Cyrene. This longer work is not preserved, and it is uncertain how much of the present text of 2 Maccabees is simply copied from that work. The Greek style of the writer is very educated, and he seems well-informed about Greek customs. 

2 Maccabees demonstrates several points of doctrinal interpretation deriving from Pharisaic Judaism, and also found in Catholic and Eastern Orthodox theology.

Doctrinal issues that are raised in 2 Maccabees include:

  • Prayer for the dead and sacrificial offerings, both to free the dead from sin
  • Merits of the martyrs
  • Intercession of the saints (15:11–17) (at least as seen from a Christian viewpoint) 
  • Resurrection of the dead
  • Specific mention of creation ex nihilo (II Maccabees 7:28)

Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox regard 2 Maccabees as canonical. Jews and Protestants do not. 2 Maccabees, along with 1 and 3 Maccabees, appeared in the Septuagint, the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible completed in the 1st century BC. In Jamnia c 90, according to one theory now largely discredited, rabbis endorsed a narrower canon, excluding deuterocanonical works such as 2 Maccabees. This had little immediate impact on Christians, however, since most Christians did not know Hebrew and were familiar with the Hebrew Bible through the Greek Septuagint text of Hellenistic Jews, which included 2 Maccabees and other deuterocanonical works. 

God’s Killings in the Deuterocanonical Books Part I – 3 Acts of Murder in the “Apocrypha” (Steve Wells, 2013)

Deuterocanonical is a term coined in 1566 by the theologian Sixtus of Siena, who had converted to Catholicism from Judaism, to describe scriptural texts of the Old Testament considered canonical by the Catholic Church, but which are not present in the Hebrew Bible today, and which had been omitted by some early canon lists, especially in the East. The deuterocanonical books are considered canonical by Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, and the Church of the East, but are considered non-canonical by most Protestants. The word deuterocanonical comes from the Greek meaning ‘belonging to the second canon’. The original usage of the term distinguished these scriptures both from those considered non-canonical and from those consideredprotocanonical. However, some editions of the Bible include text from both deuterocanonical and non-canonical scriptures in a single section designated “Apocrypha”. This arrangement can lead to conflation between the otherwise distinct terms “deuterocanonical” and “apocryphal”. The Greek Septuagint English translation used in this article can be found here:

http://www.ellopos.net/elpenor/greek-texts/septuagint/

The books in the Apocrypha (aka the Deuterocanonical books) add another 20 killings to God’s list. The first three involve Susanna and Judith, the rest are told in the Books of the Maccabees. This article examines the first three murders; it is taken from Drunk with Blood: God’s Killings in the Bible, 2nd revised edition:

Part of the Septuagint text of the Susanna story as preserved in Papyrus 967 (3rd century).
Part of the Septuagint text of the Susanna story as preserved in Papyrus 967 (3rd century).

THE STORY OF SUSANNA (DANIEL 13)

Susanna’s husband owned an orchard near his house where a couple of old judges liked to hang out, just to get a glimpse of Susanna. Once, when Susanna went to take a bath, the two judges ran to her and said, “We’re in love with you, let’s have sex.” If she refused, they would claim to have witnessed her having sex with a young man. Susanna started screaming, everyone came to see what was wrong, and the old men accused Susanna of having sex with a young man. They all believed them and condemned Susanna to death. At the last minute, the Lord raised up the holy spirit of a young boy, whose name was Daniel, and he interrogated the two old men separately. Their answers were different and contradictory.

Daniel told the first liar: “Very well; thou hast lied against thine own head; for even now the angel of God hath received the sentence of God to cut thee in two” (13:55). He then told the second liar: “Well; thou hast also lied against thine own head: for the angel of God waiteth with the sword to cut thee in two, that he may destroy you” (13:59)

“With that all the assembly cried out with a loud voice, and praised God, who saveth them that trust in him. And they arose against the two elders, for Daniel had convicted them of false witness by their own mouth: And according to the law of Moses they did unto them in such sort as they maliciously intended to do to their neighbour: and they put them to death. Thus the innocent blood was saved the same day.” (13:60-62)

Susanna and the Elders, 5th century fresco, Thessaloniki
Susanna and the Elders, 5th century fresco, Thessaloniki

[NOTE: Sextus Julius Africanus did not regard the story as canonical. Jerome (347–420), while translating the Vulgate, treated this section as a non-canonical fable. In his introduction, he indicated that Susanna was an apocryphal addition because it was not present in the Hebrew text of Daniel. Origen also noted the story’s absence in the Hebrew text, observing (inEpistola ad Africanum) that it was “hidden” (compare “apocrypha”) by the Jews in some fashion. There are no known early Jewish references to the Susannah story.]

The Righteous Judith, commemorated December 17th.
The Righteous Judith, commemorated December 17th.

THE BOOK OF JUDITH

JUDITH IS BLESSED ABOVE ALL WOMEN (FOR CUTTING OFF A SLEEPING MAN’S HEAD): The Book of Judith confirms what is already conveyed from the story of Jael in Judges: it is a most blessed thing for a woman to kill a man while he sleeps:

“Blessed among women be Jael wife of Chaber the Kenite; let her be blessed above women in tents…  She stretched forth her left hand to the nail, and her right to the hand workman’s hammer, and she smote Sisara with it, she nailed through his head and smote him; she nailed through his temples.” (Judges 5:24; 26) (Some translations say “Blessed above women be Jael”).

Mosaic of Jael at the Dormition Church, Jerusalem
Mosaic of Jael at the Dormition Church, Jerusalem

Judith was a beautiful widow who fasted all the time (except on the Sabbath) and wore haircloth on her loins (8:6-7). She asked God to help her kill her enemies the way he helped Simeon slaughter the newly circumcised Hivites (9:2-3). God answered her prayer and made Judith even more beautiful so she could seduce and murder the Assyrian general, Holofernes (12:16). She lied to him about her intentions, partied with him in his tent; then, after he fell asleep in a drunken stupor, she cut off his head:

“And Holofernes took great delight in her, and drank more wine than he had drunk at any time in one day since he was born… And Judith was left alone in the tent, and Holofernes lying along upon his bed: for he was filled with wine… Then she came to the pillar of the bed, which was at Holofernes’ head, and took down his fauchion from thence, And approached to his bed, and took hold of the hair of his head, and said, ‘Strengthen me, O Lord God of Israel, this day.’ And she smote twice upon his neck with all her might, and she took away his head from him. And tumbled his body down from the bed, and pulled down the canopy from the pillars; and anon after she went forth, and gave Holofernes his head to her maid; 10 And she put it in her bag of meat: so they twain went together according to their custom unto prayer: and when they passed the camp, they compassed the valley, and went up the mountain of Bethulia, and came to the gates thereof” (13:6-10).

Judith Mosaic at the Dormition Church, Jerusalem
Judith Mosaic at the Dormition Church, Jerusalem

And for that act, Judith is declared to be blessed above all women upon the earth:

“Then said Ozias unto her, ‘O daughter, blessed art thou of the most high God above all the women upon the earth; and blessed be the Lord God, which hath created the heavens and the earth, which hath directed thee to the cutting off of the head of the chief of our enemies.’” (13:18)

THE JUDITH MASSACRE–HANG YE UP THIS HEAD UPON OUR WALLS: When Judith returned to the Israelites, she took Holoferne’s head out of the wallet, and showed it to them, assuring everyone that no sex was involved in the murderous deed (13:19-20).

“And Achior [an unbelieving Ammonite], being called for, came, and Judith said to him: ‘The God of Israel, to whom thou gavest testimony, that he revengeth himself of his enemies, he hath cut off the head of all the unbelievers this night by my hand’” (13:27)

“When Achior saw the head of Holofernes in a man’s hand in the assembly of the people, he fell down on his face, and his spirit failed. But when they had recovered him, he fell at Judith’s feet, and reverenced her, and said, ‘Blessed art thou in all the tabernacles of Juda, and in all nations, which hearing thy name shall be astonished.’” (14:6-7)

Achior was so impressed with the whole thing that he decided to become a Jew right then and there, cutting off his own foreskin to seal the deal: “And when Achior had seen all that the God of Israel had done, he believed in God greatly, and circumcised the flesh of his foreskin, and was joined unto the house of Israel unto this day.” (14:10)

Righteous Judith Prayer Cards
Righteous Judith Prayer Cards

Judith told the Israelites to hang Holofernes’ head on the wall and wait a bit until the Assyrians see the headless body of Holofernes wallowing around in his own blood. Then, while they’re freaking out about that, attack them while they’re running away. God will help them kill them all. (14:1-4)

The entire Assyrian army was so shook up by the whole thing that they all ran away. The Israelites chased them as they ran, killing them all (with God’s help, of course) with the edge of the sword. (15:1-6)

“Then Joacim the high priest, and the ancients of the children of Israel that dwelt in Jerusalem, came to behold the good things that God had shewed to Israel, and to see Judith, and to salute her. And when they came unto her, they blessed her with one accord, and said unto her, ‘Thou art the exaltation of Jerusalem, thou art the great glory of Israel, thou art the great rejoicing of our nation: Thou hast done all these things by thine hand: thou hast done much good to Israel, and God is pleased therewith: blessed be thou of the Almighty Lord for evermore.’ And all the people said, So be it.” (15:8-10)

Judith and Holofernes, trictrac checker. Ivory, Western France, 12th century, found in Bayeux in 1838.
Judith and Holofernes, trictrac checker. Ivory, Western France, 12th century, found in Bayeux in 1838.

[NOTE: Although early Christians, such as St. Clement of Rome, St. Clement of Alexandria, and Tertullian, read and used the Book of Judith, some of the oldest Christian canons, including the Bryennios List (1st/2nd century), that of Melito of Sardis (2nd century) and Origines (3rd century), do not include it. Jerome, when he produced his Latin translation, counted it among the apocrypha, (although he changed his mind and later quoted it as scripture, and said he merely expressed the views of the Jews), as did Saints Athanasius Cyril of Jerusalem and Epiphanius of Salamis. However, the influential Church Fathers Augustine, Ambrose, and Hilary of Poitiers, considered Judith sacred scripture, and Pope Innocent I declared it part of the canon. In Jerome’s Prologue to Judith he claims that the Book of Judith was “found by the Nicene Council to have been counted among the number of the Sacred Scriptures”. It was also accepted by the councils of Rome (382), Hippo (393) and Carthage (397) and finally dogmatically defined as canonical by the Roman Catholic Church in 1546 in the Council of Trent. The Eastern Orthodox Church also accepts Judith as inspired scripture, as was confirmed in the Synod of Jerusalem in 1672].

Judith slaying Holofernes, 1349-1354, by Guariento
Judith slaying Holofernes, 14th c., by Guariento

GOD SENT WASPS TO SLOWLY DESTROY PEOPLE: In Exodus and Deuteronomy, God promised to send hornets to help the Israelites destroy their enemies:

“I, and my brethren, and my father’s house, have ever from my youth unto this day fought against the enemies of Israel; and things have prospered so well in our hands, that we have delivered Israel oftentimes. 3 But now I am old, and ye, by God’s mercy, are of a sufficient age: be ye instead of me and my brother, and go and fight for our nation, and the help from heaven be with you.” (Ex. 23:28)

“And the Lord thy God shall send against them the hornets, until they that are left and they that are hidden from thee be utterly destroyed.” (Deut. 7:20)

There is no record of Him actually doing it except for this verse in Wisdom of Solomon 12:8-9: “And the Lord thy God shall send against them the hornets, until they that are left and they that are hidden from thee be utterly destroyed.”

God sent wasps to slowly destroy people “by little and little.” He could have killed them with war, or cruel beasts, or with just a “rough word,” but he decided to use wasps instead.

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