Tag Archives: Martyrdom

The Dying Saviour: Greek or Hebrew Origin?

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. read more »

Salvation through a Saviour’s Death — Another List

Recall our recent post, Why a Saviour Had to Suffer and Die? Martyrdom Beliefs in Pre-Christian Times. I have just come across a similar list making the same point: the blood of Jewish martyrs was believed to purify and cleanse the nation; the martyrs’ blood led to God’s forgiveness of the sins of the nation and the salvation of all.

Third, the martyrs suffered and died because of the nation’s sin (2 Macc 7:18, 32; 12:39–42; 4 Macc 4:21; 17:21–22), just as the high priest offered the animal’s blood for sin on Yom Kippur (Lev 1:1–7:6; 8:18–21; 16:3–24).

Fourth, the martyrs’ blood was the required price for the nation’s national purification, forgiveness, and salvation (2 Macc 7:32–38; 4 Macc 6:28–29; 7:8; 17:21–22), just as the animals’ blood was the required price for Israel’s forgiveness on Yom Kippur (Lev 16:30).

Fifth, the martyrs’ deaths provided purification and cleansing for the nation (4 Macc 6:28–29; 17:22), just as the animals’ blood provided purification and cleansing for Israel on Yom Kippur (Lev 16:16, 30).

Sixth, the martyrs’ deaths ended God’s wrath against the nation (1 Macc 1:1–64; 2 Macc 7:32–38; 8:5; 4 Macc 17:21–22), just as the animals’ blood when appropriately offered at Yom Kippur placated God’s wrath against the nation (Lev 9:1–16:30).

Seventh, the martyrs died as representatives of and vicariously for the nation (2 Macc 7:18, 32; 4 Macc 4:21; 17:21–22), just as the animals were representatives of and were substitutes for the sins of the nation on Yom Kippur (Lev 16:1–30).

Eighth, God judged sin and granted forgiveness through the martyrs’ deaths in the narratives (2 Macc 6:12–7:38; 4 Macc 17:21–22), just as YHWH judged sin and granted forgiveness through the animals’ deaths on Yom Kippur (Lev 16:1–30).

Wiley, Henrietta L.. Sacrifice, Cult, and Atonement in Early Judaism and Christianity: Constituents and Critique (Resources for Biblical Study Book 85) (Page 263). SBL Press. Kindle Edition.

It would seem to be the most natural thing in the world for the Judeans who could interpret their martyrs deaths in such a way to imagine a similar fate, at least equally beneficial, for a messiah. This, especially if any thought of earthly military victory was utterly out of the question.


Wiley, Henrietta L., and Christian A. Eberhart. 2017. Sacrifice, Cult, and Atonement in Early Judaism and Christianity: Constituents and Critique. Atlanta, GA: SBL Press.


Why a Saviour Had to Suffer and Die? Martyrdom Beliefs in Pre-Christian Times

The next time I hear someone say that no-one would make up a saviour who suffers and dies I will be able to point them to the table in this post. I think we can conclude that a suffering and dying messiah is exactly what we should expect to emerge from a world where all seemed lost and there was no hope for real deliverance in this life. Note, for example, #13. The table is taken from Ethelbert Stauffer’s New Testament Theology, to which I was directed by Morna Hooker in her book, Jesus and the Servant.

The Principal Elements of the Old Biblical Theology of Martyrdom

(Chief passages and proof texts)

A. The shape of martyrdom

1. The people of God is the martyr nation among the Gentiles. Psa. 73.3 ff.; 78.1 ff.; 79.9 ff.; 82.3 ff.; Jdth. 9.8; Isa. 42.1 LXX; AEn. 85 if.; 89.59 if.; IV Ezra 3.27 ff.; MEx. on 20.23; SB, II, 284
2. Those people of God who are loyal to the Torah are persecuted by the Gentiles and their accomplices DaG, 3; 9; 11 f.; I Mac. 2.27 if.; II Mac. 5.27; 7.2, 30; IV Mac. 5.16 f; PsSol. 17.19; AssMos. 8.6; Martls. 2.8 ff.; PsPhil. 6.9, 16; San. 49a; Cantr. 8.6 f.
3. Those people of God who are loyal to the Torah are persecuted by their apostate fellows Psa. 21; 40.9 f.; 68; II Chron. 24.1; Wisd. 2 f.; 5; PsSol. 4; 12; Dam. 1.20; IV Ezra 7
4. The people of God persecute the messengers of God (III βασ 19.2 ff.; Ex. 17.4; 32.9; Num. 14.10; 17.14; Jer. 6.10; 9.25; 11.19; Isa. 40 if.; II Chron. 36.16; Jub. 1.12; Martls. 3; 5; Paraljer. 9.20 ff.
5. The blood of Abel cries to heaven till the end of time AEn. 22.7; TestAbr. 11
6. Even the picture of Messiah has traces of the martyr in it SB, II, 273 ff.; IV Ezra 7.29; 10.1, 16, etc., in Jeremias, Deutsche Theologie, II, 1929, 106 ff.
7. Even the picture of the Son of Man has traces of the martyr in it Joachim, Jeremias, briefly: Motifs from the Servant Songs in the texts about the Son of Man in AEn. 37 ff; Traditions about the past earthly life, the present heavenly existence and the future return of the Son of Man in AEn. 39.4 ff; 71.14 ff.; 90.31, etc.

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B. The fate of martyrdom

8. The confessors live in the desert, far from the wickedness and pursuits of the world I Mac. 1.56; PsSol. 17.16 f.; AssMos. 9; Martls. 5.11 ff; PsPhil. 6.7 ff; Dam. 6.5
9. The persecutors use suspicions and slanders, false accusations and false witnesses against those who are faithful to God Jer. 15.15; Psa. 26.12; 34.11; DaΘ. 6.5 f.; Wisd. 2.22; III Mac. 7.11; Ps. Sol. 12.1ff; Martls. 3.8 f.
10. The martyrs are treated undeservedly like thieves and killed and in this sense suffer innocently Psa. 34.7, 19; 58.4 f; Wisd. 2.19, 22; 3.5; PsSol. 12.4; II Mac. 7.40; IV Mac. 12.14
11. The martyrs frequently suffer and die in the arena, which was a recognized institution also in Palestine in hellenistic times III Mac. 4.11 [IV Mac. 5.1; 15.20]; cf. Jer. 12.5; Eccl. 9.11; I Mac. 1.14; II Mac. 4.12 ff; IV Mac. 4.20; JosAnt. 12.241; 15.268 ff, 341; remains in Jerusalem, Samaria, Rabbath-Ammon, Gerasa, etc.
12. Martyrs are often scourged and crucified, and ‘cross’ therefore appears occasionally as the inclusive term for a martyr’s fate AssMos. 8.1; JosAnt. 12.256; Gnr. on 22.6; further A. Schlatter, Die Märtyrerer den Anfängen der Kirche, 1915, 70 and n. 259 above
13. The martyr’s death is a sign of his coming victory Dan. 3; Wisd. 2.17; Martls. 5.7; Ber. 61b; AZ. 18a
14. Lists of martyrs kept memory fresh about the typical murder of the saints in history IV Mac. 16.20 f; 18.11 ff. L. Zunz, Die gottesdienstl. Vortrage der Juden, 1832, 142; Elbogen, 203; 228 ff.; Kaufmann, REJ, 1887, 250; SB, I, 582
15. History has also seen some miraculous deliverances which God has wrought for his faithful ones Dan. 3.49 f; III Mac. 6.18 ff.; 7.16; PsPhil. 6.9, 17 f; Gnr. on 15.7; 22.19

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C. God’s Glory and the shame and glory of martyrdom read more »