Praying for the Dead: Paul’s use of the Maccabees (2)

Maccabees. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This is part 2 in a two part series examining the cultural context of 2nd Timothy 1.16-18. There is no biblical mandate, or allowance, for doing so, right? – yet, we seemingly have an example from Paul. In the previous post, we examined the idea that Paul used allusions (not quotes) from the Maccabean books in his writings. In this post, we examine the 2nd Timothy 1.16-18 in light of 2nd Maccabees 12.39-45. It is this passage most often pointed to in promoting the view that Paul was indeed praying for the dead.


William Barclay, the Scottish commentator, in reference to 2nd Timothy 1.16-18, writes

Prayers for the dead are a much-disputed problem which we do not intend to discuss here. But one thing we can say–to the Jews prayers for the dead were by no means unknown. In the days of the Maccabean wars there was a battle between the troops of Judas Maccabaeus and the army of Gorgias, the governor of Idumaea, which ended in a victory for Judas Maccabaeus. After the battle the Jews were gathering the bodies of those who had fallen in battle. On each one of them they found “things consecrated to the idols of the Jamnites, which is forbidden the Jews by the law.” What is meant is that the dead Jewish soldiers were wearing heathen amulets in a superstitious attempt to protect their lives. The story goes on to say that every man who had been slain was wearing such an amulet and it was because of this that he was in fact slain. Seeing this, Judas and all the people prayed that the sin of these men “might be wholly put out of remembrance.” Judas then collected money and made a sin-offering for those who had fallen, because they believed that, since there was a resurrection, it was not superfluous “to pray and offer sacrifices for the dead.” The story ends with the saying of Judas Maccabaeus that “it was an holy and good thing to pray for the dead. Whereupon he made a reconciliation for the dead, that they might be delivered from sin”

This premise which we seek to examine is this: Does the example of Judas Maccabaeus hide in Paul’s words?  We will endeavor not to separate the cultural and political context of what is said to be happening here.  The Sadducees (Matthew 22:23) rejected the doctrine of the resurrection. They were the largest party in sectarian Judaism. However, growing in opposition to them their doctrine, the Pharisees who did believe in the Resurrection. We are first introduced to them, not in the New Testament, but in 1st Maccabees 2.42:

Then there united with them a company of Hasideans, mighty warriors of Israel, every one who offered himself willingly for the law. And all who became fugitives to escape their troubles joined them and reinforced them. They organized an army, and struck down sinners in their anger and lawless men in their wrath; the survivors fled to the Gentiles for safety. (1Ma 2:42-44 RSV)

It is during this period in the struggle for the soul of Jewish orthodoxy – a fight between the Hasideans (Pharisees) and the Hellenists (Sadducees) – which certain doctrines were maturing, such as the coming resurrection. The doctrine of a personal immortality began to assume a sharp contrast with that of a terminal human soul. If we begin to see that Judas’ army joined with, and later led, the Hasideans (Pharisees), then the gesture of the soldiers here would only serve to strengthen and to politicize the faith in the Resurrection. Plainly, Judas’ gesture could be seen a political ploy to firmly establish the doctrine of the immortality of the soul. For the nascent Pharisee, it was important to enforce the immorality of the soul – even in praying for the dead.

Let’s examine the passage:

“On the next day, as by that time it had become necessary, Judas and his men went to take up the bodies of the fallen and to bring them back to lie with their kinsmen in the sepulchres of their fathers.

Then under the tunic of every one of the dead they found sacred tokens of the idols of Jamnia, which the law forbids the Jews to wear. And it became clear to all that this was why these men had fallen.

According to Phil0 (Gai 1:200 PHE), Jamnia was the largest city in Judea, filled with sexual immorality and of course, pagans.

The dead had fallen, according to the author, because while they fought for Israel and God, they still wore the amulets of the pagans. The author of 1st Maccabees describe the new Hasidean army as one who struck down sinners and lawless men. Wearing these things was against the Law – against the Sect – and thus, God had stricken them down in their sins.

So they all blessed the ways of the Lord, the righteous Judge, who reveals the things that are hidden; and they turned to prayer, beseeching that the sin which had been committed might be wholly blotted out.

Why would it be important for this to happen – two reasons:

  • To enforce the doctrine of the Resurrection
  • To remain pious in front of the other Jewish sects

And the noble Judas exhorted the people to keep themselves free from sin, for they had seen with their own eyes what had happened because of the sin of those who had fallen. He also took up a collection, man by man, to the amount of two thousand drachmas of silver, and sent it to Jerusalem to provide for a sin offering.

In doing this he acted very well and honorably, taking account of the resurrection. For if he were not expecting that those who had fallen would rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead.

This verse is, for the most part, the reason why Protestants quickly reject this series of books. (Note, I am not arguing for their canonical inclusion.)

Again, we see the resurrection stated as the reason to do these things. We have to remember that the Maccabean army was not merely fighting against foreigners, but other sects, at least politically speaking. It is here that we find Judah’s real reason for offering sacrifices for the dead – not Scriptural reason, but political reasons. He had to prove, and reenforce the doctrinal precept that the Resurrection will come, and one will stand in judgement, on That Day.

But if he was looking to the splendid reward that is laid up for those who fall asleep in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Therefore he made atonement for the dead, that they might be delivered from their sin.” (2Ma 12:39-45 RSV)

Considering that the fallen were already asleep without godliness, Judas’ thought was primarily for himself (perhaps for making alms), to exceed even his own righteousness. It is also a possibility that these people did fall asleep in godliness, but still could be afforded sin. This passage might not be a condemnation of the dead; instead, it may be that Judah took this time to unequivocally state his belief in the Resurrection. Note, the author of this passage refuses to confirm that the atonement would actually work – only that Judah ordered it.

To review, for the first time in Jewish literary history, we have a mention of an atonement being made for the dead. We also note that during this time in Jewish history, the Sadducees, who didn’t believe in the Resurrection, held power, but was coming to be challenged by the Hasideans, believers in the Resurrection, who later became the Pharisees of the New Testament, a sect from which the Apostle Paul sprang. The Hasideans were the military might of the Maccabean Revolt, led by Judah. After a battle, he attempted to bury the dead, but found pagan amulets on the bodies. Because of this, he made sacrifice for the dead to show that the Resurrection was indeed a coming reality and to exceed the righteousness of others.

Now, we turn to Paul’s use of this motif – if he used it – in 2nd Timothy 1.16-18:

May the Lord grant mercy to the household of Onesiphorus, for he often refreshed me; he was not ashamed of my chains, but when he arrived in Rome he searched for me eagerly and found me — may the Lord grant him to find mercy from the Lord on that Day — and you well know all the service he rendered at Ephesus. (2Ti 1:16-18 RSV)

First, we must conclude that Onesiphorus is absent -whether by abandonment, death, or in the field. Second, we note that Paul does not affirm that the absent will have mercy, nor do we find the Apostle making sacrifices or penitent prayers. Neither do we see the Apostle encourage Timothy to do so either. Instead, we see one thing – the Resurrection. For the Pharisee Saul, the Resurrection was second only in gaining Eternal Life. For the Apostle Paul, the Resurrection was second only in attaining it.

Is there a connection then?

As a Pharisee, the once-Saul Apostle Paul was a religious descendent of the Hasideans/Pharisees. We can see that there are some literary allusions between Paul and the Maccabean books, and of course, by human nature, there will exist some carry over of Tradition even upon conversion. Yet, we have to examine the goal of each author. For the Maccabean author, we see a start of a political/religious movement which believed in the Resurrection of the Dead. The author presents Judah as a firm believer in this precept, so much so that he worries for his fallen comrades and their soul state. While they died in the service of Israel, they died with pagan amulets. Yet, the author(s) never again approach the subject of praying, or making atonement, for the dead. Further, in the Pharisees in the New Testament, we do not see this practice carried over – perhaps because the Pharisees at that time had been invested with a great amount of power. Further, we note that Judaism as a whole never developed a taste for a canonical Maccabean series, even shorten as Rome has done.

The Apostle Paul, while signaling that he was a Pharisee, never once urges prayer for the dead as means of restoring mercy to a soul. He shares with Maccabaeus a firm believe in the Resurrection, but unlike Judah, Paul is not trying to enforce a new precept, but simply to remind others of an existing doctrine. For Judas Maccabaeus, the proof of a resurrection was yet to come; for Paul, the Resurrection of Christ confirmed the belief that the soul did not perish in Eternity. While Judah made a show of making an atonement for the soldiers to see, and of sending a very large endowment for sacrifice to Jerusalem where the Temple was not doubt controlled by the Sadducees, he confirmed that the military might of the Jewish nation stood firmly upon the Resurrection of the Soul. Thus, to die in the service of God was to die in godliness which promised a resurrection into Eternal Life. The Apostle Paul needed no enforcement of a political ideal, but a reminder of the mercy of Christ and the service to Him which would be remembered on That Day.

For Judah, it was politics; for Paul it was a reminder that That Day will come. For Judah, it is involved large sacrifices  in hope of a better resurrection and a need to appear noble; for Paul, nothing remained for the dead except for Judgement.

The main point of separation between Judas Maccabaeus and the Apostle Paul is the atonement. While Judas made sacrifices, Paul did nothing. While Judas gave money, Paul did nothing. For Judas Maccabaeus, he hoped that a sacrifice by himself and his army could strengthen the chance of the fallen. For the Apostle Paul, everything was in the hands of God.

One last note – I am no arguing for the inclusion of the Maccabean books into the Canon – far from it – yet, the New Testament was not written in a vacuum. While the Paul’s prayer shows, for many, a similarity with the actions by Maccabaeus, the slight similarity is far outweighed by the dissimilarity – in actions, motivations, and goals.

As a side note, unlike with E-Sword, I was able to use BibleWorks 8 to search the Greek, had excellent access to the Lexicons, as well as compare different translations and books (using their parallel viewer among other gadgets, such as a searchable works of Philo)

You may purchase BibleWorks 8 from:

Westminser Bookstore

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9 Replies to “Praying for the Dead: Paul’s use of the Maccabees (2)”

  1. So…glad…you are back….to correct….my typos… 🙂

    Seriously, thanks. While I like the history of the Maccabean period – rough and rowdy Jews stomping the Greeks into the ground, to accept the ‘theology’ as biblical is not the best idea. The Hasideans became the Pharisees, but not even the Pharisees kept the practice of praying for the dead.

    I find it odd that the Jews adopted the Festival of Lights (Hanukkah) but not the Maccabean books themselves. I mean, Christologically speaking, there is nothing here (unlike Wisdom, Baruch, and Sirach) so that is out as an excuse. Further, 1st Maccabees was written in Hebrew/Aramaic…so that’s out as well. Why? I think it’s because of 2nd Maccabeas.

  2. Joel,
    My understanding was that most of the deuterocanonical books were excluded from the Jewish ‘canon’ for the simple reason that Christians accepted them so wholeheartedly. Although, honestly, I can’t remember what I read that gave me this impression.

  3. I was really surprised to see you note all this but then stop short and fail to mention Paul’s obvious parallel to 2 Maccabees 12

    2 Maccabees 12:44

    for if he were not expecting the fallen to rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead.

    1 Corinthians 15:29 Otherwise, what do people mean by being baptized on behalf of the dead? If the dead are not raised at all, why are people baptized on their behalf?

  4. Excellent breakdown of 2 Macabees 12. I was discussing the validity of the Apocrypha with a Christian not too long ago and they used the text about making sacrificies for the dead as an excuse to disregard the Apocrypha. I used a similar argument as you made that this was a historical account of what the Macabees did after the battle, and the passage doesn’t say if the Most High honored their request or not.

  5. Jews have always prayed for the dead. Jesus and the Apostles were Jews. Since the beginning of Christ’s Church, they’e prayed for the dead, had Masses for the dead, prayers for the dead. It hadn’t stopped until Luther had his own dispute with the Church and started his own, throwing out the Books that have always been included in the Canon. Christians had prayers written for the dead as they hid in the catacombs and Masses for the Dead. What if there are generations upon generations of non Orthodox and Catholic Christians being deprived of prayers after death for a possibly faulty doctrine?

  6. Never take this text out of context. Paul’s point was simple. The resurrection is a reality. It is going to happen when Jesus returns. Even the pagans believe in the resurrection, otherwise, why would they baptize for the dead?

    1. Where do you get “Even the pagans believe in the resurrection”? That’s a broad, and extremely broad statement. Pagans might have believed this about certain individuals who became deified, but not as a general rule. Rather, the bulk of humanity would live forever after death as disembodied spirits. When Paul preached the resurrection of Christ in Athens he was largely mocked. Two early Christian authors assert that this refers to a practice among a couple of Gnostic groups. In that case, it would be, “Even the heretics believe in the resurrection…,” or at least certain aberrant Christians of whom Paul and the Corinthians were aware, who independently came up with the idea such could be done.

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