Abolition of Judaism. 1a Not long after this the king sent an Athenian senator* to force the Jews to abandon the laws of their ancestors and live no longer by the laws of God, 2also to profane the temple in Jerusalem and dedicate it to Olympian Zeus,* and the one on Mount Gerizim to Zeus the Host to Strangers, as the local inhabitants were wont to be.b 3This was a harsh and utterly intolerable evil. 4The Gentiles filled the temple with debauchery and revelry; they amused themselves with prostitutes and had intercourse with women even in the sacred courts. They also brought forbidden things into the temple,c 5so that the altar was covered with abominable offerings prohibited by the laws.
6No one could keep the sabbath or celebrate the traditional feasts, nor even admit to being a Jew. 7Moreover, at the monthly celebration of the king’s birthday the Jews, from bitter necessity, had to partake of the sacrifices, and when the festival of Dionysus* was celebrated, they were compelled to march in his procession, wearing wreaths of ivy.d
8Following upon a vote of the citizens of Ptolemais, a decree was issued ordering the neighboring Greek cities to adopt the same measures, obliging the Jews to partake of the sacrifices 9and putting to death those who would not consent to adopt the customs of the Greeks. It was obvious, therefore, that disaster had come upon them. 10Thus, two women who were arrested for having circumcised their children were publicly paraded about the city with their babies hanging at their breasts and then thrown down from the top of the city wall.e 11Others, who had assembled in nearby caves to observe the seventh day in secret, were betrayed to Philip and all burned to death. In their respect for the holiness of that day, they refrained from defending themselves.f
God’s Purpose. 12g Now I urge those who read this book not to be disheartened by these misfortunes, but to consider that these punishments were meant not for the ruin but for the correction of our nation. 13It is, in fact, a sign of great kindness to punish the impious promptly instead of letting them go for long. 14h Thus, in dealing with other nations, the Sovereign Lord patiently waits until they reach the full measure of their sins before punishing them; but with us he has decided to deal differently, 15in order that he may not have to punish us later, when our sins have reached their fullness. 16Therefore he never withdraws his mercy from us. Although he disciplines us with misfortunes, he does not abandon his own people. 17Let these words suffice for recalling this truth. Without further ado we must go on with our story.
Martyrdom of Eleazar. 18* Eleazar, one of the foremost scribes, a man advanced in age and of noble appearance, was being forced to open his mouth to eat pork.i 19But preferring a glorious death to a life of defilement, he went forward of his own accord to the instrument of torture, 20spitting out the meat as they should do who have the courage to reject food unlawful to taste even for love of life.
21Those in charge of that unlawful sacrifice took the man aside, because of their long acquaintance with him, and privately urged him to bring his own provisions that he could legitimately eat, and only to pretend to eat the sacrificial meat prescribed by the king. 22Thus he would escape death, and be treated kindly because of his old friendship with them. 23But he made up his mind in a noble manner, worthy of his years, the dignity of his advanced age, the merited distinction of his gray hair, and of the admirable life he had lived from childhood. Above all loyal to the holy laws given by God, he swiftly declared, “Send me to Hades!”
24“At our age it would be unbecoming to make such a pretense; many of the young would think the ninety-year-old Eleazar had gone over to an alien religion. 25If I dissemble to gain a brief moment of life, they would be led astray by me, while I would bring defilement and dishonor on my old age. 26Even if, for the time being, I avoid human punishment, I shall never, whether alive or dead, escape the hand of the Almighty. 27Therefore, by bravely giving up life now, I will prove myself worthy of my old age, 28and I will leave to the young a noble example of how to die willingly and nobly for the revered and holy laws.”
He spoke thus, and went immediately to the instrument of torture. 29Those who shortly before had been kindly disposed, now became hostile toward him because what he had said seemed to them utter madness.j 30When he was about to die under the blows, he groaned, saying: “The Lord in his holy knowledge knows full well that, although I could have escaped death, I am not only enduring terrible pain in my body from this scourging, but also suffering it with joy in my soul because of my devotion to him.” 31This is how he died, leaving in his death a model of nobility and an unforgettable example of virtue not only for the young but for the whole nation.
* [6:1] Athenian senator: or, Geron the Athenian, since geron can also be a proper name.
* [6:2] Olympian Zeus: equated with the Syrian Baal Shamen (“the lord of the heavens”), a term which the Jews mockingly rendered as shiqqus shomem, “desolating abomination” (Dn 9:27; 11:31; 12:11; 1 Mc 1:54).
* [6:7] Dionysus: also called Bacchus, the god of the grape harvest and of wine; ivy was one of his symbols.
* [6:18–7:42] The stories of Eleazar and of the mother and her seven sons, among the earliest models of “martyrology,” were understandably popular. Written to encourage God’s people in times of persecution, they add gruesome details to the record of tortures, and place long speeches in the mouths of the martyrs.