The Dying Saviour: Greek or Hebrew Origin?

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by Neil Godfrey

Prof. Dr. Jan Willem van Henten

The Christian dying saviour who atones for his people was a development of Hebrew ideas but the Greek influence cannot be ignored either. In fact, the evidence suggests that the Greek idea was embraced by Hebrew authors. (This post is sharing a few pages from J. W. van Henten’s The Maccabean Martyrs As Saviours of the Jewish People: A Study of 2 and 4 Maccabees. I work with Henten’s date for the composition of 2 Maccabees as around 124 B.C.E.)

We read in 2 Maccabees 6:12-17 that the suffering of the Jewish people at the hands of Seleucid kings is a sign of God’s special love for his people. God seeks to discipline his people before their sins get too far out of hand. That’s not how he treats the gentiles. He lets their sins continue until the reach some ultimate height and presumably then they will really suffer.

12 Now I urge those who read this book not to be depressed by such calamities, but to recognize that these punishments were designed not to destroy but to discipline our people. 13 In fact, it is a sign of great kindness not to let the impious alone for long, but to punish them immediately. 14 For in the case of the other nations the Lord waits patiently to punish them until they have reached the full measure of their sins; but he does not deal in this way with us, 15 in order that he may not take vengeance on us afterward when our sins have reached their height. 16 Therefore he never withdraws his mercy from us. Although he disciplines us with calamities, he does not forsake his own people. 17 Let what we have said serve as a reminder; we must go on briefly with the story.

The martyrs who suffer do so not only for their own sins but primarily because of the sins of all their people. (The only sins mentioned are those of the Jewish traitors.) A mother and her seven sons are martyred one by one, and before the sixth son was taken to suffer a gruesome fate  we read in 2 Maccabees 7:18 his words spoken to Antiochus:

18 After him they brought forward the sixth. And when he was about to die, he said, “Do not deceive yourself in vain. For we are suffering these things on our own account, because of our sins against our own God. Therefore astounding things have happened.

The mother engaged in a philosophical discourse with her seventh son before he suffered his gruesome fate, the point being to rationalize the notion of the resurrection for readers. (Henten, p. 176)

“These things” that are suffered embrace both the suffering of the martyrs and the afflictions of the whole nation.

The seventh son expressed the same in 2 Maccabees 7:32

32 For we are suffering because of our own sins.

The same phrase “our own sins” is again found in 10:4 after the restoration of the Temple and prayers are made expressing hope never to suffer again the same way for their sins:

When they had done this, they fell prostrate and implored the Lord that they might never again fall into such misfortunes, but that, if they should ever sin, they might be disciplined by him with forbearance and not be handed over to blasphemous and barbarous nations.

The seventh son’s last words (7:37-38) were a declaration that his and his brothers’ martyrdom would bring an end to the sufferings of their people:

37 I, like my brothers, give up body and life for the laws of our ancestors, appealing to God to show mercy soon to our nation and by trials and plagues to make you confess that he alone is God, 38 and through me and my brothers to bring to an end the wrath of the Almighty that has justly fallen on our whole nation.

Henten interprets the above passages as meaning that the martyrs are suffering as a result of the sins of all the Jews:

The pattern of the narrative . . . as well as certain remarks in 5:17-20 and 6:12-17 support this interpretation (cf. 4 Macc. 4:21). The wicked deeds of some Jewish leaders have led the whole people including the martyrs into a state of sin. This explains why the youngest brother can say at 2 Macc. 7:38 that the wrath of the Lord “has justly fallen on our whole nation”. The godless actions of Simon, Jason, Menelaus, Lysimachus, Alcimus and the unfaithful soldiers of Judas are the only sins of Jews reported in 2 Maccabees. Nowhere are the sins of the martyrs themselves mentioned. The martyrs . . . die because of the sins of the people and in this way show their solidarity with the people

(Henten, 137)

The martyrs are acting on behalf of the entire people:

The references to “we”, “us” and “our” in 2 Macc. 7:16, 30, 32-33, 38 are intended to be inclusive; they point not only to the martyrs but also to the people. The youngest brother says in 7:30 to the Seleucid king that Moses has given the law of the Lord to “our ancestors”, thereby making the entire people responsible for keeping the Torah. In 2 Macc. 7:31, Antiochus is not called the adversary of the martyrs but of “the Hebrews”.

(Henten, 138)

The sufferings that the martyrs in chapter 7 speak of are the sufferings of “the entire Jewish people” as well as to the martyrs. Reconciliation will follow the short period of torment, as the last son makes clear:

33 And if our living Lord is angry for a little while, to rebuke and discipline us, he will again be reconciled with his own servants. . . . . 38 and through me and my brothers to bring to an end the wrath of the Almighty that has justly fallen on our whole nation.”

Immediately after the deaths of the seven sons and their mother the reconciliation begins. From chapter 8 the tide turns and Judas Maccabeus soundly defeats the army of Nicanor.

40 So he died in his integrity, putting his whole trust in the Lord. 41 Last of all, the mother died, after her sons. . . . 

8 Meanwhile Judas, who was also called Maccabeus, and his companions secretly entered the villages and summoned their kindred and enlisted those who had continued in the Jewish faith, and so they gathered about six thousand. They implored the Lord to look upon the people who were oppressed by all; and to have pity on the temple that had been profaned by the godless; to have mercy on the city that was being destroyed and about to be leveled to the ground; to hearken to the blood that cried out to him; to remember also the lawless destruction of the innocent babies and the blasphemies committed against his name; and to show his hatred of evil.

As soon as Maccabeus got his army organized, the Gentiles could not withstand him, for the wrath of the Lord had turned to mercy. Coming without warning, he would set fire to towns and villages. He captured strategic positions and put to flight not a few of the enemy. He found the nights most advantageous for such attacks. And talk of his valor spread everywhere.

The story flow leads the reader to understand that the martyrdoms were the turning point in God’s intervention and working through Judas Maccabeus to free the people from foreign domination.

This pattern is repeated when Razis kills himself to save his people — 2 Maccabees 14:37-46. Stabbing himself didn’t work, so he threw himself off a tower into the enemy below, but that didn’t work either, so he finally ripped out his entrails and flung them at his opponents. The following chapter sees Judas Maccabeus announcing to his troops a dream-sign from God (Jeremiah giving him a golden sword) with the only possible outcome, 15:27:

So, fighting with their hands and praying to God in their hearts, they laid low at least thirty-five thousand, and were greatly gladdened by God’s manifestation.

These stories of deaths that became turning points for the liberation of the Jews are core themes in 2 Maccabees. What was their source of inspiration?

[I]n 2 Macc. 7:37-38 classical and Hellenistic Greek vocabulary concerning the death for one’s fatherland (Hellas), home town, laws, friends, relatives or beloved131 is combined for the first time with conceptions about atonement in the Hebrew Bible . . . .

(Henten, 157)

The Greco-Roman influence

The devil is in the details of the vocabulary used.

Furthermore, classical Greek literature and later Hellenistic Greek texts not only contain fixed phrases about dying for one’s polis, friend, or conviction, but also convey the notion of atonement with similar expressions.

(Henten, 157)

Instances of self-sacrifice to save one’s people in Greek literature:

In The Phoenician Women (Phoenissae) by Euripides, Menoiceus (Menoeceus) saves his home town of Thebes by killing himself (links are to the perseus.tufts.edu source):

I myself . . . am ready to die to save my country.

Know this, I will go and save the city, and give my life up for this land.

who gave up his life for his country,

you must sacrifice Menoeceus, your son here, for your country,

But this tender youth, consecrated to his city, might by dying rescue his country

to devote my son to death for the city

Iphigeneia Aulidensis focuses on Iphigeneia’s willingness to be sacrificed to enable the Greek fleet to launch and defeat the Trojans:

If Artemis has decided to take my body, am I, a mortal, to thwart the goddess? no, that is impossible. I give my body to Hellas; sacrifice it and make an utter end of Troy. This is my enduring monument; marriage, motherhood, and fame—all these is it to me.

Sacrifice of Polyxena (Wikimedia)

There are many more citations to the specific phrases. In sum,

Euripides also describes how Polyxena appeases Achilles’ spirit by her death. In the Heraclydae, Euripides recounts how Heracles’ daughter, Macaria, saved the life of her sisters and brothers by her own death. As the ideal spouse, Alcestis is likewise prepared to die instead of her husband Admetus in order to save his life. The theme of vicarious death can also be found in fragments of two tragedies which are lost: the Erechtheus and the Phrixos.

(Henten, 158)

Euripides was not alone.

In texts from the Hellenistic and Roman periods, the idea of a substitute or atoning death remains common,

  • as traditions about Metioche and Menippe, the daughters of Orion, or the daughters of Antipoinos, Androkleia and Alkis attest.
  • In addition, the act of devotio, the custom that a Roman general would commit suicide in case his army was threatened by certain defeat, also has a vicarious and atoning aspect. Livius describes how P. Decius Mus prevented a defeat of the Roman republic by dedicating himself and his soldiers to the deities of the underworld. He uses the phrase piaculum in this context, which refers to a deed of expiation (8.9.10). Decius died on behalf of the army (pro exemtu) and the Roman people of the Quirites (pro populo Romano Qumtibusque).
  • The link between Greek literary traditions and Roman practice is attested in the self-conscious imitation of Euripides’ character Alcestis by women in later periods; she inspired women to sacrifice themselves to the benefit of their husbands. In the Anthologia Graeca, we hear of a woman called Callicratia, who considered herself “a new Alcestis”. Inscriptions from the first or second century C.E. from Sardinia honour an Atilia L. Pomptilla. She brought about her husband’s recovery by sacrificing her own life. One of the inscriptions suggests that this Atilia surpassed even Alcestis in her desire for self-sacrifice . . . .
  • In the second century C.E., the idea of dying for the sake of the emperor became popular. . . .

(Henten, 159, my formatting)

Henten does not deny possible Hebrew antecedents to this topos in 2 Maccabees. However, he does point out their limited potential as a source for the idea compared with the Greco-Roman literary culture. Thus, concerning the Suffering Servant in Isaiah 52 and 53,

However, even scholars who assume that Isa. 52:13-53:12 refers to a vicarious death of a human person, recognize that this passage would be unique in the Hebrew Bible. In early post-biblical Jewish literature, the idea of a vicarious death remains marginal. Apart from 2 and 4 Maccabees, scholars have found similar notions only in the Prayer of Azariah, Test. Ben. 3:8 and a few passages from Qumran. Testament Benjamin 3:8 in its present form, however, should be considered a Christian text.

(Henten, 160)

Evolution of the Hebrew idea of the sacrifice of the mediator

In Exodus 32, after the Golden Calf failure of Israel, Moses went back to God and said,

32 But now, if thou wilt forgive their sin—and if not, blot me, I pray thee, out of thy book which thou hast written.

Here Moses is telling God he wishes to die with his people if God does not forgive them. That’s far from an appeal to save them by his death. Later, however, we see an interesting reinterpretation of that Exodus scene. Contrast the above Exodus passage with Psalm 106:23

Therefore he said he would destroy them—
had not Moses, his chosen one,
stood in the breach before him,
to turn away his wrath from destroying them.

According to Ps. 106, Moses risked his own life with his attempt to reconcile the Lord with his people. This psalm, therefore, offers a re-interpretation of Exod. 32:30-34· and reformulates Moses’ role by suggesting that he was willing to sacrifice his life to the benefit of his people.

(Henten, 162)

Above we saw mention of the Prayer of Azariah. This prayer is a Septuagint addition to the canonical version most of us are familiar with. (A pdf file of translation is available at http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/nets/edition/40-daniel-nets.pdf; a Greek text at https://en.katabiblon.com/us/index.php?text=LXX&book=DnTh&ch=3). Here is Henten’s translation of Daniel 3:39-40 (LXX):

Accept us, because we come with broken heart and humbled spirit, as though we came with burnt-offerings of rams and bullocks and with thou- sands of fat lambs. Let our sacrifice be as such before you this day. And let yourself be atoned (from) behind you (και έξίλασαι όπισθεν σου), because there is no disgrace to those who put their trust in you.

The significance of these two passages — Psalm 106:23 and Dan. 3:39-40 — is that they are evidence of an emerging Jewish tradition that atonement could be achieved by the sacrificial death of the mediator.

2 Macc. 7:33  And though the living Lord be angry with us a little while for our chastening and correction, yet shall he be at one again (καταλλάσσω) with his servants.

2 Macc. 7:37-38 But I, as my brethren, offer up my body and life (σώμα καί ψυχήν προδίδωμι) for the laws of our fathers, beseeching God that he would speedily be merciful unto our nation (‘ίλεως … γενέσθαι); and that thou by torments and plagues mayest confess, that he alone is God; And that in me and my brethren the wrath of the Almighty, which is justly brought upon our nation, may cease.

So the idea was developing in Jewish thought and is dramatized at some length in 2 Maccabees.

At the same time, the idea that a mediator was necessary for effecting the atonement may well have been triggered by non-Jewish traditions. This assumption is strengthened by the phrases which contain the notion of atonement in 2 Macc. 7:33, 37-38 (καταλλάσσω; σώμα καί ψυχήν προδίδωμι, and ‘ίλεως γενέσθαι — see side-box). These are in keeping with classical and Hellenistic Greek vocabulary concerning atonement and reconciliation discussed above.

(Henten, 163)



Henten, Jan Willem van. 1997. The Maccabean Martyrs As Saviours of the Jewish People: A Study of 2 and 4 Maccabees. Leiden ; New York: Brill.



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6 thoughts on “The Dying Saviour: Greek or Hebrew Origin?”

  1. An important issue is that of national salvation (essentially the removal of the Deuteronomistic curses), which seems a very Jewish idea, and is seen in 2 and 4 Maccabees — VS — the Christian idea of a personal savior. There doesn’t seem to be an idea of national salvation for the Jews in the Christian Bible at all, and perhaps even the opposite, except maybe in Revelation. The Christian idea of personal salvation and the soul’s joining with the gods seems closer to what is seen in Greek mystery religions.

  2. An idea my mind is skirting around is that a national salvation mushroomed into something else with the inclusion of gentiles into that core nation. The “new Israel” in a sense grew out of but then broke down national identities. The focus on the personal is the inevitable corollary.

    1. E.g — contra Paul, it would seem, the gospels present the kingdom of God as a new Israel, a national body, at least in some sort of symbolism or spiritual entity. Note the 12 apostles, for starters.

  3. I did a study of 1 & 2 Maccabees years ago and concluded that both are later than the typical dates assigned. Dates like “124 BCE” were arrived at through apologetics, not historical method, i.e., the same way other textual dates are established in seminary schools.

    1. Here is Henten’s discussion (pp. 51-53) on the date of 2 Maccabees:

      There is a clear terminus a quo for the date of 2 Maccabees in its entirety, since the first festal letter dates the feast of Sukkoth to the month of Chislev in the hundred eighty-eighth year (2 Macc. 1:9). This date probably refers to the Seleucid era, which began in the spring of 311 b.c.e., thus indicating that December 124 b.c.e. is the likely date of the festival.

      He then says,

      There is, unfortunately, no solid evidence for the terminus ante quem. Therefore, varying opinions place the date of 2 Maccabees anywhere between 124 b.c.e. to the first half of the first century c.e.99 Bickermann dates 2 Maccabees, including the festal letters, to around 60 b.c.e.100 There are, however, several reasons why 2 Maccabees should be dated before 63 b.c.e., the year of Pompeius’ intervention in the power struggle between the sons of Alexander Jannaeus.

      To list these reasons for setting a date before 63 as dot points:

      • There is no sign whatsoever that a period of foreign interference in Jewish affairs in Judea took place after the struggle against Nicanor.
      • The Romans are mentioned several times in 2 Maccabees (4:11; 8:10, 36; 11:34-38), but these passages seem to reflect the high regard Jews had for the Romans in the second century.
      • The image of the Romans is still positive in 2 Maccabees, probably because of their significant triumph over Antiochus III at the battle of Magnesia (190 b.c.e.) as well as the impressive action of C. Popillius Laenas against Antiochus IV in 168, which forced Antiochus to withdraw from Egypt.
      • 2 Macc. 8 contains two references to the Seleucid tribute for the Romans after their defeat at Magnesia (8:10, 36).
      • 2 Macc. 11:34-38 indicates positive diplomatic connections between the Jews of Judea and the Romans.

      These data do not correspond well with the significantly more reserved view of the Roman role from 63 b.c.e. onwards, nor does the glorious end of the history of 2 Maccabees correspond to the situation in Judea after 63 b.c.e.

      Then, to justify a date closer to 124 than 63, — For easier reading in this comments section I break it apart with some highlighting:

      If 2 Maccabees is thought to have been composed between 124 and 63 b.c.e., the actual date would most likely be at the beginning of this period.

      As I have argued above, 2 Maccabees 3-15 can be considered a history of the liberation and restoration of the Jewish temple-state. Judas the Maccabee acts as the principal liberator and at the same time the historical narrative ends before his death. He is not considered king of the Jews, as Aristoboulos or Alexander Jannaeus were.

      If, in accordance with the end of the narrative, Jewish autonomy can be taken to be an accurate reflection of the actual political situation in Judea, the reign of John Hyrcanus (135/134-104 b.c.e.) would be the most likely period for the composition.

      After the death of Antiochus VII Sidetes in 129, John Hyrcanus managed to establish considerable independence from the Seleucid kings and from the pretenders to their throne. He took advantage of the weakness of Seleucid power and consequently the Jewish state flourished during his reign even more than in the period of Simon.

      Moreover, his reign was not dominated by conflict with the Pharisees as Alexander Jannaeus’ rule later was.

      There is no evidence that John Hyrcanus appointed himself king of the Jews.

      A date during the period of John Hyrcanus would correspond to the combination of festal letters and the history of liberation in 2 Maccabees, as argued above, as well as to the date of the invitation to the Egyptian Jews in 2 Macc. 1:9 to celebrate the feast of booths in the month of Chislev.

      2 Macc. 1:1-9 most likely stems from an authentic festal letter, which implies that the Egyptian Jews were invited to join the feast of liberation of Chislev at least in 124 b.c.e.

      2 Macc. 2:19-15:39 can be considered a history of liberation which accompanied a letter of invitation to Jews in the diaspora similar to that found in 2 Macc. 1:1-9. The history serves to explain the invitation which it accompanies. The date mentioned in 2 Macc. 1:9 would correspond to the circumstances which demand precisely such an invitation.

      The history of the sanctuary of Delphi attests to the fact that a celebration of the rescue of that sanctuary on a larger, pan-Hellenic scale occurred more than forty years after the actual date of the rescue of the sanctuary. The need for such a ceremony arose because of the expansion of the military and political power of the Aetolians. One may assume an analogous state of affairs in Judea.

      It is conceivable that the Jews of Judea decided to involve diaspora Jews in their celebration of a feast of liberation during the prosperous years of John Hyrcanus’ rule, just as the Aetolians similarly invited other Greek states to participate in ‘their’ Σωτηρια-feast only after they had achieved political domination of the area.

      In both cases, the invitation of delegates from abroad can be understood as an expression of increased self-awareness on the part of the party extending the invitation.

      These considerations imply that 2 Maccabees was most likely composed not long before or shortly after the date of 2 Macc. 1:9, December 124 b.c.e.

      Critical responses welcome, of course.

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