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Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Old Testament Catholic Martyrs

Jim Curley

“Although all nations obey King Antiochus, so as to depart every man from the service of the law of his fathers, and consent to his commandments, I and my sons, and my brethren will obey the law of our fathers. God be merciful unto us: it is not profitable for us to forsake the law, and the justices of God. We will not hearken to the words of King Antiochus. Neither will we sacrifice and transgress the commandments of our law to go another way” (1 Mc 2:19-22).

A Simple Desire

With these words Mattathias declares war on King Antiochus and the Gentiles. It is approximately 166BC. King Antiochus, one in a line of successors to Alexander the Great, has decreed that all under his rule must practice the culture and worship the gods of the Gentiles, suppressing the Israelites’ worship of the One, True, God.

After refusing to sacrifice to the pagan gods, Mattathias, prefiguring the just anger of Christ when He cleansed the Temple, rushes forward and kills a fellow Jew who is going to make a pagan sacrifice. He then kills the government official who is overseeing the profanation. Mattathias, his sons, and his brethren flee to the mountains.

At this time, it is not Mattathias’s purpose to conquer or even to drive out the Gentiles. He and his family (to be known as the Maccabees) simply desire to practice and live by the Law of their fathers. The Gentiles, however, will not let sleeping dogs lie, much to their own regret.

Other faithful Jews have fled to caves and desert places to practice the faith of their fathers. They are pursued and captured. An old man, Eleazar, suffers an honorable death for not eating unclean food — “for the most venerable and the most holy laws” (2 Mc 6:28). A woman is made to watch her seven sons be skinned and cooked alive because she and her sons will not sacrifice to the pagan gods. Finally, an entire company of families and friends (over 1,000 people) are massacred in the desert plain because they will not sacrifice to the pagan gods and will not defend themselves against the Gentile army on the Sabbath. They say, “Let us die in our innocence” (1 Mc 2:37).

Mattathias and his company hear of this massacre and decide it is now time to fight, saying, “If we shall all do as our brethren have done, and not fight against the heathens for our lives, and our justifications, they will now quickly root us out of the earth” (1 Mc 2:40). Thus begins God’s smashing of the enemies of Israel with His hammer — the Maccabees.

Mattathias leads a small band to go into the towns and to tear down altars built to the pagan gods and to circumcise children — guaranteeing that the holy laws are still alive in the flesh. When he dies, he leaves the army in the capable hands of his third son Judas, surnamed Maccabeus. He leaves his second son Simon to guide the family in the way of wisdom.

Judas leads a larger and larger force to greater and greater victories, often inspiring his men with speeches recalling God’s favor on Israel in ages past. His victories culminate in the restoration of the Temple (Hanukkah commemorates this restoration) which had been desecrated and profaned by King Antiochus.

Judas is finally killed in battle, and his brother Jonathan takes on the military leadership. He also has great victories. When he dies (brothers John and Eleazar have already been killed in battle), the last brother, Simon, leads the armies. He, too, has great victories and reigns over Israel as high priest in peace and prosperity for some years. Simon also is eventually killed by the enemies of Israel.

The actions of the Maccabees and of those martyrs for the Jewish laws are different responses to the same persecution. They are prefigurations of both Christian warriors and Christian martyrs.

The Catholic Ideal of Martyrdom

The word "martyr," from the Greek martus, literally means “a witness who testifies to a fact of which he has knowledge from personal observation.... The disciples of Christ were no ordinary witnesses such as those who gave testimony in a court of justice”: they gave testimony with their lives (Catholic Encyclopedia, 1917). Eventually the term “Christian martyr” became associated only with those who witnessed to Christ with their blood, as did St. Stephen, the first martyr.

Clearly, by his own words, the old man Eleazar’s purpose is to give witness to the law and die for love of God: “By departing manfully out of life I shall show myself worthy of my old age, and I shall leave an example of fortitude to young men if with a ready mind and constancy I suffer an honorable death, for the most venerable and most holy laws” (2 Mc 6:27-28).

Each of the seven brothers who are cooked alive is a witness to the old covenant laws. We quote the second brother, whose words could very easily be taken from the mouths of so many Christian martyrs, “Thou indeed, O most wicked man, destroy us out of this present life. But the King of the world will raise us up, those who die for His laws, in the resurrection of eternal life” (2 Mc 7:9).

Finally, of these Jewish martyrs, we look again at those families massacred in the desert plain in witness to the law and to the Sabbath. We quote again, “Let us all die in our innocence: and heaven and earth shall be witnesses for us, that you put us to death wrongfully” (1 Mc 2:37). Seventeen hundred years later, the Carthusian monks in London repeated these words, “Let us all die in our innocence!” as they prepared for their own martyrdom at the hands of Henry VIII’s agents. Those Carthusians certainly recognized those Jewish families as their predecessors, as witnesses — as pre-Christian martyrs.

How does this tradition of martyrdom in the face of persecution presented in First and Second Maccabees reconcile with the actions of Mattathias and his sons? Are both “Catholic” responses?

Surely, we know that Christian martyrdom is a long, enduring tradition in Catholicism. As we have seen, the Carthusian martyrs saw themselves in the same role as those brave Jewish families who were massacred on the desert plain by King Antiochus’s army. The Catholic ideal of martyrdom is found in Christ’s words of the Gospel: “He that findeth his life shall lose it and he that shall lose his life for Me shall find it” (Mt 10:39).

It is clear that Mattathias and his sons Judas Maccabeus, John, Simon, Eleazar, and Jonathan did not go out under arms to drive King Antiochus’s army out of Israel simply in order to save their own lives — or even so that they themselves could practice their faith according to the holy laws. They said, “If we shall all do as our brethren have done, and not fight against the heathens for our lives, and our justifications, they will now quickly root us out of the earth.” But the key words here are, “for...our justifications” and “root us out of the earth.” “For...our justifications” refers to the holy laws. The “us” they refer to is not simply themselves, but the people of Israel who worship the True God. In other words, the Maccabees wanted to preserve, not themselves necessarily, but a remnant of God’s people in order that this remnant would practice the holy laws and worship God.

This purpose is borne out by Mattathias’s deathbed instructions to his sons: “Now, therefore, O my sons, be ye zealous for the law, and give your lives for the covenant of your fathers” (1 Mc 2:50). Further, we see by their actions that the Maccabees did not try to make a stronghold to save themselves; they sought to restore worship by driving out paganism and preserving God’s people. To accomplish these things they tore down unclean altars and circumcised children. They risked their lives (and eventually gave those lives) so that their posterity could practice the holy laws.

In the books of Maccabees, we see what happens when these pure objectives are tainted. After seeing the success of Judas Maccabeus, two of Judas’s captains, Joseph and Azarias, tried to make a name for themselves by attacking the Gentiles; they are soundly defeated. God did not protect or give victory to those Israelites with selfish motives.

For the Greater Glory of God

There are many instances in the history of Christendom which are in the example of Judas Maccabeus and his brothers. In 1536 in England, after the courageous Carthusians discussed above had gone “to their deaths as bridegrooms to their marriage” (as Thomas More noted from the Tower); and just after this same Thomas More and Bishop John Fisher had lost their own heads (and gained eternal life) as witnesses to the Faith; there arose in the North Counties of England a movement led by Robert Aske of Yorkshire to defend the monasteries and the religion of their fathers — the Pilgrimage of Grace. These men had fought and died or were imprisoned — like the Maccabees — not for themselves, but to preserve the rightful worship of God, Christ’s Church in England.

In the west of France in 1793 there arose a Catholic army to wage battle against those forces of hell called the French Revolution. This Catholic army, the Vendeans, were ultimately defeated (Warren Carroll comments that perhaps the evils of the French Revolution were too great to be defeated by arms and could only be defeated by prayer), but their purpose was clear: their manifesto declared their object to be “to recover and preserve forever our holy apostolic Catholic religion.” One of the young leaders, 20-year-old Henri, Marquis de la Rochejaquelein, prayed before every battle, “I ask God to take me to Himself — and if I should survive, remain always with me.” Again, in the example of the Maccabees, these Catholic warriors fought not for themselves, but for the greater glory of God — to preserve the faith.

The Crusades are the most famous examples of the just Christian warrior. The crusaders sacrificed years of their lives (if they ever returned at all) so that pilgrims could worship in the Holy Land. The tales of the battles fought by the Knights of Malta and at siege of Szigetvar are examples. Each of these armies waged battle to preserve Christendom and the rightful worship of God. Each of these is also prefigured by the Maccabees.

It is interesting to note that the Jews in the time of Christ were expecting a warrior-Messiah, in part because of the military success of the Maccabees less than 200 years before. However, Christ shows that ultimate victory is found on the Cross and not with the crossbow.

This does not diminish the value and valor of our Christian warriors like Robert Aske and Henri, Marquis de la Rochejaquelein. These men and their companions responded to God’s call according to their own vocations and circumstances. Radical pacifists, who would deny war is ever justified, would also deny these men their rightful place of honor in preserving for us the faith of our fathers. Clearly, God does call Catholic men to arms at times to preserve the right of worship — as clearly God favored the arms of the Maccabees.

And while the Maccabees brothers have much fame, their brethren — the old man Eleazar, the seven brothers, and those who died “in their innocence” on desert plain — should not be counted less than the warrior Maccabees. These pre-Christian martyrs prefigure the London Carthusians, Thomas More, John Fisher and a host of others through the ages. These are men who, in their circumstances, were not called to fight, but to witness by their willingness to die.

The men of the books of Maccabees are of the “Catholic” type — whether they be martyrs or warriors.

  • Copyright 2005 — Jim Curley

    Jim Curley is the founder and publisher of Requiem Press, which publishes books focusing on Catholic history. He writes frequently about Catholic life, culture, and other topics on his blog at He and his wife Lorelei are parents of 7 children and live in Bethune, South Carolina. He can be reached at

    This article is based on one which originally appeared in the Spring/Summer 2005 issue of Catholic Men’s Quarterly.

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