Early Adventism and the Apocrypha, Part 4: Maccabees

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Early Adventism and the Apocrypha, Part 4: Maccabees

In this article, the fourth of our Early Adventism and the Apocrypha series, a saga exploring various books contained in early Adventist Bibles (and still retained in most Bibles around the world), we will discuss and discover the two works known as 1 and 2 Maccabees. This work will be introduced, explored, and reflected on with regard to the role that it had within early Adventism. While certain apocryphal works such as 2 Esdras/4 Ezra (to be explored in a future article) carried the most weight spiritually in certain Adventist communities, other works such as the books of Maccabees were also studied, commented on, and even preached about by early Adventist pioneers. Their contributions to Adventism, while smaller than others, are no less important and certainly deserve attention, as such a need has been perceived to produce a closer study of some of these works and the role that they both held in early Adventism, as well as the role that they can potentially still have for modern Adventists who wish to read these ancient works as Mrs. White once admonished that the church should do.


RELATED ARTICLE: “Inspired” or “Inspiring”?


An Overview of 1 and 2 Maccabees


The books of Maccabees were written during the Second Temple period of Judaism’s history. The work of 1 Maccabees “may have been produced in the reign of John Hyrcanus (134–104) or shortly afterward in the 1st century b.c.e.”[1] The book of 2 Maccabees, on the other hand, claims to be a condensed version of an earlier five-volume work by a Jason of Cyrene. His work could have been written “shortly after the events that he described (160–152),” whereas 2 Maccabees in the form we have it “may have been made ca. 124, though an early 1st-century date is also possible.”[2] On the other hand, while 1 Maccabees was originally written in Hebrew and then translated into Greek, directing its attention to a primarily Palestinian Jewish audience, 2 Maccabees appears to have originally been written in Greek and addressed to a wider Hellenistic audience.


The two books each recount the events of the Maccabean revolt, a period of time when Antiochus Epiphanes IV persecuted the Jewish people in Jerusalem. Under his regime, he set out specifically to eradicate the Jewish faith, a campaign of religious persecution that involved burning copies of the law, forbidding the Sabbath, and forcing Jews to eat unclean meats. The books recount the narratives of how this persecution occurred, how the Maccabean family (and ultimately the figure of Judas Maccabee) helped free and take back control of Judah, and the examples of faith and piety that the Jewish people exhibited during this tumultuous time. Surprisingly, although the Jewish people celebrate the events of the Maccabean revolt (the celebration of Hanukkah is annual), neither of the two books were adopted eventually into Rabbinical Judaism’s final canon. However, it was included in many editions of the Greek translation of the Old Testament, known as the Septuagint, indicating that the work received a canonical-esque status by certain Jews after its completion.


RELATED ARTICLE: The Apocrypha and the Canon


Given the centrality of the events of the Maccabean Revolt to the time period of the New Testament, it is not surprising to discover that both the events recorded in and the books themselves are sometimes referenced. For example, the celebration of Hanukkah, commemorating the events, is referenced in John 10:22-23 (cf. 1 Macc. 4:59), where Jesus is implied to be honoring the festival by his presence in the temple and the analogy of the temple with himself (cf. 1 Macc. 4:36).

In the Gospel of Matthew, the actual book of 1 Maccabees appears to be invoked when Jesus references that people will flee to the mountains (cf. Matt. 24:16 and 1 Macc. 2:28), or when he mentions the “desolating sacrilege” (cf. Matt 24:15 and 1 Macc. 1:54; also 2 Macc. 8:17), though in that instance he appears to be proposing a rival or dual interpretation. In truth, the Gospel of Matthew may have intended for its original Jewish readers to imagine that chapter 24 is a Hanukkah speech, thus explaining why so many of the passages in one chapter echo 1 Maccabees. On the other hand, 2 Maccabees has less references than the first. One example is found in the book of Hebrews where a story from 2 Maccabees is referenced as an example of faithfulness (cf. Heb. 11:35 and 2 Macc. 6:18-7:42).


The debate over these works continued throughout the early church, where many councils declared them canonical (or left them out). Such discussions remained even at the time of the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation. Martin Luther is often, quite incorrectly, remembered or imagined for having rejected the Apocrypha due to his decision to move the works to their own section within his German translation of the Bible. The truth, however, is that he accepted several of the works as already or potentially canonical.[3] Luther was convinced that the book of 1 Maccabees was canonical scripture that properly belonged in the Bible, whereas he believed that the book of 2 Maccabees was not. His decision to move such books to their own section was driven by his hope that Protestants would come to decide the merits of each book eventually, something that ultimately never came to pass.


RELATED ARTICLE: Searching for God’s “John Hancock” in the Bible


The Maccabees and Early Adventism


For Early Adventism, the books of Maccabees were popular works to cite in discussions of various topics. 1 Maccabees was one of only three apocryphal works that received the unanimous endorsement of the Review and Herald’s editors, which included James White and Uriah Smith. In 1858, they publicly endorsed the Apocrypha as “containing much light and instruction,” and furthermore listed 1 Maccabees as the third most recommended work to be read by Adventists. They stated that “the first book of Maccabees is a very valuable historical monument, written with great accuracy and fidelity, on which even more reliance may be placed than on the writings of Josephus.”[4] They concluded their editorial by remarking that at the time they were not prepared to either uphold or deny the inspiration of the book. This position would be later echoed by the editors of the Review in 1910 when they noted that


It is possible… that some parts of The Apocrypha may be true Scripture, but The Apocrypha as a whole is not considered… as inspired Scripture…[5]


This emphasis on the valuable historical nature of 1 Maccabees becomes readily apparent because of the reliance upon it by Early Adventists for prophetic interpretation. It is readily and regularly cited as proof of historical dates and events when attempting to interpret Daniel’s prophecies. Likewise, it is often quoted for citing historical information regarding various aspects of the Jewish culture preceding Jesus. In 1869, D. M. Canright wrote an article examining the views of 1 and 2 Maccabees on the immortality of the soul. He noted, more reserved than Andrews, that


Although the books of the Apocrypha are not commonly regarded as being inspired, yet their testimony is important as showing the belief of the Jews at the time they were written.[6]


In 1872, Canright cites 1 Macc. 2:32-40 as a demonstration that the Jews were observing the Sabbath faithfully and could not have lost track of its correct timing.[7] A similar reference is made by R. F. Cottrell in a different article in 1886.[8] That same year, in the Review’s column titled “Scripture Questions,” G. W. Morse replies to a question about the Ark of the Covenant by citing 2 Macc. 2:2-7 as “historical evidence” about its present location.[9] This was something that a number of writers would later continue to repeat when asked the same question.[10] By 1906, someone could say that the books of Maccabees were “not considered by Protestants to be inspired books” (while noting that some Adventists did believe 2 Esdras was inspired), note also that the Maccabees “give us good instruction in history.”[11]


RELATED ARTICLE: Reasons Why Apocrypha Is Rejected


On occasion, sermons or exegetical expositions were given on the book, just as had been done with the books of Tobit, Wisdom, and Sirach (covered in previous articles). On one occasion in 1869, 2 Maccabees was cited as evidence in favor of creation by ex nihilo.[12] Regarding a complicated passage in 2 Maccabees that had brought much controversy during the disputes with Martin Luther during the Reformation, that same year Canright took extensive time during his article on immortality to explain to Adventists that the passage in question was never problematic to begin with. Although he admits that the “books of the Apocrypha are not commonly regarded as being inspired,” he is aware that a number of people do, perhaps prompting the lengthy treatment he gives the topic.


In chap. xii, 43-45, is a passage claimed by Catholics as proving the doctrine of purgatory. If it could be proved that the soul is immortal, and lives after the body dies, it would be quite a plausible proof that the Jews held the doctrine of purgatory. But as we have shown that they did not believe in these doctrines, this passage does not prove what is claimed for it… There is no evidence here that the dead are conscious, but the reverse, as it all relates to the resurrection. It is said that all that was done for the dead would have been in vain if they had not hoped that they would rise again. Hence they did not expect that their offerings and prayers would benefit the dead till the resurrection. Then of course they did not believe that the dead were alive and conscious… This harmonizes with the teachings of both the Old and New Testaments.[13]


The opposite approach is taken by the editors of the Review much later in 1910, when commenting on the same passage, they accept the Catholic interpretation:


The verses in 2 Maccabees 12:43-46 are simply a record of that time. The faith of the Jews had been greatly perverted even at that time. They had mixed with the Grecians, and had imbibed more or less of the heathen philosophy. That is shown in their own traditions as well as in the Apocryphal books. They probably did just what the record says they did; but they were a long way from God, and had so intermixed His truth with heathen philosophy, that we must not look to their belief as the truth.[14]


Later, in 1913, an extensive series of articles would layout the history of Antiochus Epiphanes and argue for his connection to the prophecy in Daniel 9.[15] In the Youth Instructor of 1880, a full-page Bible study was presented on the book of 1 Maccabees, complete with a list of thirty-seven specific study questions.[16] The most interesting aspect of the study, besides its breadth, is that it is explicitly described as “Bible Lessons for Youth,” demonstrating that the publication expected Adventists to assume that 1 Maccabees was part of the Bible.

This is seen similarly in the Bible Teaching School of 1904 when giving a commentary on Gen. 1:1, it quotes from 2 Macc. 7:28 as a “Biblical writer.”[17] Interestingly, when reprinted in the Oriental Watchman in 1909, the editors replaced “Biblical” with “ancient,” demonstrating a sensitivity to the original wording.[18] Likewise, in a special education section of the Review, A. W. Spaulding writes in 1906 that Adventist children are expected to likely hear “tales of the Maccabees and even some of the Bible heroes,” and that these stories must be said carefully to them, so as to not “arouse the boy’s spirit of adventure and fight.”[19]


However, not all of the evaluations for the books of Maccabees were neutral or positive. A minority were negative and appeared in the latter part of the 19th century. R. S. Webber who valued the Apocrypha as a historical source was one of those who at the time denied its inspiration, citing several verses from 2 Macc. 12:43-44, the same verses Canright earlier attempted to defend.[20]

Likewise, a reprint of a non-Adventist attack on the Apocrypha argued that because the author of 1 Maccabees may have interpreted the fulfillment of the Messiah with the Maccabean family and the fact that 2 Maccabees appears to speak highly of someone who committed suicide, that “in conclusion [they] lay no claim to inspiration.”[21] In 1914, a reader of the Australian Signs of the Times wrote to ask about the inspiration of 1 Maccabees, to which the editors replied that “No thoughtful mind would claim inspiration for the Book of Maccabees.”[22] By 1917, the editors of the Present Truth wrote that although 1 Maccabees was “not considered worthy, being an uninspired book, of a place in our Bible,” they admitted that it “is yet regarded as a reliable historical authority.”[23]


Ellen White and the Maccabees


Mrs. White makes a number of possible references to both books. To name a few, one could mention with regard to 1 Maccabees, that she often cites the cessation of prophecy during the Second Temple period, a fact only recounted in 1 Macc. 9:27.[24] With regard to 2 Maccabees, Mrs. White primarily references the second chapter and its narrative of how the prophet Jeremiah hid the ark of the covenant (2 Macc. 2:4-8).[25]

Even without these few examples of her usage, her early endorsements of the entire apocryphal collection stand as an implicit affirmation of the need for Adventists to read and study these works. Likewise, James White felt that it was vitally important that all Adventists have available to them the entire collection of the Apocrypha, including the books of Maccabees. He compared the need for having an Adventist printing of the Apocrypha to the same importance as publishing a second edition of one of Mrs. White’s writings.[26]

In conclusion, several things can be noted regarding the use of the books of Maccabees by early Adventists:

  1. They were treated by some as authoritative for historical matters, but the first book was valued more highly than the second in this regard.
  2. Some objected to certain depictions of events within the second book.
  3. When discussed publicly, more favored it than disfavored it.
  4. 2 Maccabees was most valued spiritually for its retelling of a lost narrative about the prophet Jeremiah hiding the ark, rather than any of its other narratives.


Regardless of whether Adventists today are willing to share James White’s enthusiasm or affirm Mrs. White’s younger affirmation that the Apocrypha, and the books of Maccabees, are part of the Word of God, as she repeatedly claimed in her 1849 vision, surely many Adventists can begin today to once again agree with her that these works are worth our time and study for both historical and spiritual edification. The Apocrypha and specifically the books of Maccabees are truly part of our Adventist background in many unforeseen and important ways.

Click here to read the rest of this series on early Adventism and the Apocrypha



[1] Daniel Harrington, “Maccabees, First and Second Books of,” ed. David Noel Freedman, Allen C. Myers, and Astrid B. Beck, Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 2000), 838.

[2] Harrington, “Maccabees, First and Second Books of,” 838.

[3] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, ed. Jaroslav Pelikan, vols. 1-55 (Philadelphia, PA; Saint

Louis, MI: Fortress Press and Concordia Publishing House, 1955-1986): 35:353.

[4] Editors, “To Correspondents: Old Style and New,” Review and Herald 12:12 (1858): 96.

[5] Editors, “Question Corner,” Review and Herald 37:23 (1910): 2.

[6] D. M. Canright, “The Nature of Man and Punishment of the Wicked, As Taught in the Apocrypha,” Review and Herald 34:5 (1869): 33.

[7] D. M. Canright, “Lost Time.,” 39:25 (1872): 194.

[8] R. F. Cottrell, “The Seventh Day Well Known,” Signs of the Times 12:21 (1886): 325.

[9] G. W. Morse, “441. Where is the Ark?” Review and Herald 63:17 (1886): 267.

[10] M.C.W., “The Ark of God,” Signs of the Times 15:14 (1889): 218-219; G.W.A., “The Ark of the Covenant,” Youth Instructor 35:49 (1887): 233; Editors, “184. What Became of the Ark?” Review and Herald 69:17 (1892): 264; Editors, “Question Box,” Bible Training School 18:33 (1914): 28; O. A. Johnson, “Where Is the Ark of the Earthly Sanctuary Now?” North Pacific Union Gleaner 9:7 (1914): 1; Mrs. S. N. Haskell, “The Tabernacle and the Ark,” Signs of the Times 39:44 (1912): 7; R. Hare, “The Ark of God,” Australian Signs of the Times 29:48 (1914): 766.

[11] Editors, “Question Corner,” Signs of the Times 32:16 (1906): 5.

[12] Editors, “Note of Prof. Stuart on Heb. xi, 3.” Review and Herald 34:19 (1869): 152.

[13] Canright, “The Nature of Man and Punishment of the Wicked,” 35.

[14] Editors, “Question Corner,” Signs of the Times 37:29 (1910): 35.

[15] Editors, “Studies in the Book of Daniel. – Chap. XI. ‘A Vile Person.’ ” The Present Truth 27:31 (1911): 489-490; Idem., “Studies in the Book of Daniel.  – Chap. XI. Rome’s Policy.” The Present Truth 27:33 (1911): 521-522.

[16] Editors, “Bible Lessons for the Youth: Lesson CVI. – The Maccabees,” Youth Instructor 28:28 (1880): 119.

[17] Editors, “The First Verse in the Bible,” Bible Teaching School 3:7 (1904): 107.

[18] Editors, “The First Verse in the Bible,” Oriental Watchman 12:6 (1909): 5.

[19] A. W. Spaulding, “The Story Circle,” Review and Herald 83:40 (1906): 28.

[20] R. S. Webber, “The Apocryphal Books,” Review and Herald 71.30 (1894): 466.

[21] George L. Robinson, “The Canon of the Bible (Concluded): The Canon of the Later Reformed and Anglican Churches,” Review and Herald 83:4 (1906): 9.

[22] Editors, “Questions and Answers,” Australian Signs of the Times 30:1 (1914): 14.

[23] Editors, “A Far-Reaching Vision.” The Present Truth 33:16 (1917): 4-5.

[24] See Ellen White, Spiritual Gifts, vol. 1 (Michigan: Seventh-day Adventist Pub. Assoc., 1858),

1:5; 1:8; Ellen White, The Desire of Ages (Mountain View, Calif.: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1898), 31.

[25] White, Spiritual Gifts, 4:114-115, 1:414 and 4a:114; Ellen White, The Great Controversy (California: Pacific Press Pub. Assn., 1888), 639; Ellen White to Brother and Sister Haskell, Letter 47, 1902.

[26] James White, Review and Herald 33:6 (1869): 48.

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About the author

Matthew Korpman

Matthew J. Korpman is a student at Yale Divinity School, pursuing his Master of Arts in Religion. He is a graduate of La Sierra University, where he worked at the H.M.S. Richards Divinity School as a Teaching Assistant. He is the upcoming author of the book “Saying No to God,” due to be released in December 2019.