1 August: Seven Holy Maccabees (1962 MR)

I am sure you already know that today, in the new calendar, is the feast of St. Alphonsus Maria de’Liguori, the bishop and doctor of the Church so famous for his contributions to moral theology.

However, today is also the feast of the Seven Maccabee brothers.  They are listed in the Martyrologium Romanum . Here is their entry:

2. Commemoratio passionis sanctorum septem fratrum martyrum, qui Antiochiae in Syria, sub Antiocho Epiphane rege, propter legem Domini invicta fide servatam, morti crudeliter traditi sunt cum matre sua, in singulis quidem filiis passa, sed in omnibus coronata, sicut in secundo libro Maccabaeorum narratur. Item commemoratur sanctus Eleazarus, unus de primoribus scribarum, vir aetate provectus, qui in eadem persecutione, illicitam carnem manducare propter vitae amorem respuens, gloriosissimam mortem magis quam odiosam vitam complectens, voluntarie praeivit ad supplicium, magnum virtutis relinquens exemplum.

Maybe some of you good readers can produce your flawless English versions for those whose Latin is less smooth.

Who were the Maccabee brothers? 

The Maccabees were Jews who rebelled against the Hellenic Seleucid dynasty in the time of Antiochus V Eupator. The Maccabees founded the Hasmonean dynasty and fought for Jewish independence in Israel from 165-63 BC. In 167 BC, Mattathias revolted against the Greek occupiers by refusing to worship the Greek gods. He killed a Hellenizing Jew who was willing to offer a sacrifice to the Greek gods. Mattathias and his five sons fled to the wilderness of Judea. Later Mattathias’s son Judas Maccabaeus led an army against the Seleucids and won. He entered Jerusalem, cleansed the Temple, and reestablished Jewish worship. Hanukkah commemorates this victory. In the period 167-164 BC Antiochus IV Epiphanes (175-163) killed and sold thousands of Jews into slavery. He violated the Jewish holy sites and set up an altar to Zeus in the Holy of Holies (1 Maccabees 1:54; Daniel 11:31). The people revolted and Antiochus responded with slaughter. He required under penalty of death that Jews sacrifice to the gods and abandon kosher laws. "Others were tortured, not accepting deliverance, that they might obtain a better resurrection. Still others had trial of mockings and scourgings, yes, and of chains and imprisonment" (Hebrews 11:35-36). A chief of the scribes, Eleazar, an old man, did not flee. Pork was forced on him, into his mouth, he spat it out and was then condemned to death.

St. Ambrose, in his work On Jacob and the blessed life recounts Eleazar’s death along with the deaths of seven sons of a mother. The work is filled with Neo-platonic and Stoic themes, especially about virtue theory. Ambrose goes through all their deaths in detail, making commentary on them for what they meant.

The mother is venerated by the Greeks as St. Solomnis.

St. Ambrose, in his work On Jacob and the blessed life recounts Eleazar’s death along with the deaths of seven sons of a mother. The work is filled with Neo-platonic and Stoic themes, especially about virtue theory. Ambrose goes through all their deaths in detail, making commentary on them for what they meant.

In these scenes recounted by Ambrose from IV Maccabees, the mother is being tried by being forced to watch each of here sons executed in different ways, eldest to youngest. She urges them not to give in. Ambrose thus explores the theme of how God choses the weak and makes them strong. The ancient "priest" Eleazar should be weak and infirm due to age, but he is a tower of strength. The mother of the seven boys should be weak by nature but is unshakable.  The sons are not to be moved to infidelity, even the youngest.

Here is a taste of Ambrose in De Iacob et vita beata II, 12:

The words of the holy woman return to our minds, who said to her sons: "I gave birth to you, and poured out my milk for you: do not lose your nobility." Other mothers are accustomed to pull their children away from martyrdom, not to exort them to martyrdom. But she thought that maternal love consisted in this, in persuading her sons to gain for themselves an eternal life rather than an earthly life. And thus the pius mother watched the torment of her sons … But her sons were not inferior to such a mother: they urged each other on, speaking with one single desire and, I would say, like an unfurling of their souls in a battleline.

The texts from Ambrose are really interesting.

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22 Responses to 1 August: Seven Holy Maccabees (1962 MR)

  1. Tecumseh says:

    The mother of the seven boys should be weak by nature but is unshakable.

    Nearly 20 years ago I tried to read The Gulag Archipelago, I didn’t get too far, I lost the books before I got half way through the first volume. I seem to recall that Solzhenitsyn stated that when the NKVD were torturing people they had almost all types of characters summed up. The torture was “tailored” to suit the individual. Allegedly the toughest customers they had were little old ladies..!! they apparently had real difficulties with these guys..!!

  2. Aren’t their relics in the church of San Pietro in Vincoli?

  3. Garrett says:

    Is a Byzantine icon the only image we have of the Seven Maccabee Saints? Are there no Latin statues made in their images?

  4. athanasius says:

    Today in the Benedictine Calendar is also the feast of St. Peter in Chains.

  5. Joshua says:

    I recall reading that their reputed relics, previously exposed for veneration in St Peter ad Vincula, were withdrawn from public view in the forties (sorry, thirties), when tests shewed they were *dog* bones.

    Of course, I fully assent to the veneration of these saints, and any Church-authenticated relics still around, but in this case the Church acted rightly in ending what had turned out to be a misdirected veneration.

    Fools may take this as some sort of anti-Christian evidence, but any rational person will note that of course mistakes like this are bound to happen, and indeed Trent recommended precisely that if evidence against the veracity of relics be proved, then the mistake should be corrected in this manner.

  6. John Anderson says:

    Rather literal; I don’t think Bishop Trautman would approve.

    The commemoration of seven Holy brothers, martyrs, who, on account of the preservation of the Lord’s law with unsurmuountable faith, were savagely handed over to death in Antioch in Syria under King Antiochus Ephiphanes, with their mother, who certainly through her individual sons suffered but through all her sons was crowned, just as it is told in the second book of Maccabees.
    Likewise Holy Eleazarus, one of the foremost of the scribes, a man advanced in age, who in the same persecution, refusing to eat meat illegal to eat for love of life, embracing a most glorious death rather than a hateful life, led the way voluntarily to punishment, leaving behind an model of virtue shining.

  7. Sid Cundiff says:

    Great that we venerate Old Testament and BC figures! Venice has churches dedicated to Job and Moses. Whether we should follow our Baptist friends and have churches named “Pisgah”, “Zion”, “Sinai”, etc. I can’t say.

  8. Deusdonat says:

    SID – I have mixed emotions there. The OT has many stories which were appropriate only for a select segment of the world population at a distinct moment of time and are not at all relevant or applicable today (i.e. concubinage, polygamy, levitical dietary and sanitary laws etc). And of course there ARE messages which are eternal and thus relevant to us as Christians. But the danger here I believe is the trap which other sects (you mention the Baptists) fall into: taking it as a literal historical account which it absolutely is not. Thus for the church to commemorate certain great figures of the OT in order to show us examples of virtue is of course laudible. But there are so many examples which are more recent, accurate and relevant within the last 2,000 years of church history.

    I will say this: the Eastern churches tend to be more OT focused than Catholicism on a number of levels. I would say the Ethiopian Orthodox church is probably the most OT leaning of all the legitimate churches (sects notwithstanding). Their bible even goes so far as to contain books which the Catholic (and other Orthodox) churches consider apocryphal (i.e. the book of Enoch) but which were used in the BC era by the Jews.

  9. Tomas Lopez says:

    I’ll give it a whirl:

    The commemoration of the passion of the Seven Holy Brother-Martyrs, who at Antioch in Syria, under King Antiochus Epiphanes, kept invincible faith according to the law of the Lord. They were cruelly handed over to death along with their mother, who kept the same faith as each of her sons and was crowned in all of them, as is recounted in II Maccabees. Holy Eliezer, foremost of the Scribes, is also remembered today. He was promoted in old age and, during the same persecution, refused to eat forbidden flesh out of love of life, but instead embraced a most glorious death rather than a hateful life. He voluntarily went forward to the torment, leaving us a great example of strength.

    John Anderson—What did you do with “passionis”? What about “commemorator”?

  10. Tom in NY says:

    The Latin sets up the sentences differently than idiomatic English. John Anderson posted a correct literal translation.

    “A memorial of the death of the seven holy martyred brothers. They lived in Antioch, Syria in the reign of King Antiochus Epiphanes. As told in the second book of Maccabees, they were cruelly handed over to death with their mother because they served the Lord’s law with unconquered faith. She suffered as each was put to death individually, but she was crowned in all their deaths.
    “Likewise, St. Eleazar is remembered. He was advanced in age, and one of the leading scribes. In the same persecution, refusing to eat non-kosher meat to save his life, he chose a most glorious death than a hateful life. He went to prayer of his own free will, leaving behind an example of great strength.”

    As Father Z has pointed out, Latin can be far more compact than English. I used nine sentences, the Martyrology, two. The English won’t carry the parallel “..passa, …coronata,” nor the contrast “…singulis,…omnibus.” In the second Latin sentence, idiomatic English won’t follow the parallel, “…respuens, …complectens,…relinquens.”

  11. Tomas Lopez says:

    Tom in NY:

    I am not questioning the accuracy of John Anderson’s translation. What I am questioning is why he purports (and now you with him) it to be a literal translation. I am perfectly fine with his translation–but I do take exception to labeling it a literal one when, in my view, it is not.

    Interesting use of “non-Kosher” for “illicitam.” Do you believe these words are of the same register? I am not so sure.

    I do not object to parsing the Latin into smaller units–I did the same thing. However, I do not count nine sentences in your version, but rather six (your first utterance is not a sentence).

    I concede that there is precedent for referring to OT personages as “saints,” however, the term has taken on a narrower meaning today (which I believe “Holy Eliezer” conveys). After all, the Roman Canon does not even refer to Abraham or Melchisidech as saints!

    BTW, I earn a living as a Spanish-English interpreter, so yes indeed I am familiar with the principles of translation you cite and employ.

    Fr Z, once a few more translations have been posted, wouldn’t it be fun to have readers vote on which one they prefer?

  12. Tom in NY says:

    Ad Thomam Lopez:
    Responsum tuum aequm est.

    Perhaps, on more reflection, “against Jewish law” for “illicitam” would have been more dignified.

  13. John Anderson says:

    Mr. Lopez,

    Thanks! Literal though the translation attempted to be, it was not correct in a few places. Have added corrections/improvements in capitals.

    The commemoration OF THE SUFFERING of seven Holy brothers, martyrs, who, on account of the preservation of the Lord’s law with unsurmuountable faith, were savagely handed over to death in Antioch in Syria under King Antiochus Ephiphanes, with their mother, who certainly through her individual sons suffered but through all her sons was crowned, just as it is told in the second book of Maccabees.
    Likewise Holy Eleazarus IS COMMEMORATED, one of the foremost of the scribes, a man advanced in age, who in the same persecution, SPITTING OUT meat illegal to eat for love of life, embracing a most glorious death rather than a hateful life, led the way voluntarily to punishment, leaving behind A SHINING model of virtue.

  14. Tomas Lopez says:

    John Anderson–

    You are right, it is now more literal. Riddle me this, Batman: Do you think it is now a better translation?

    BTW, where are you getting SHINING from in the last phrase, “magnum”? Am I overlooking something?

  15. John Anderson says:

    Whether it is better or not, I’m not sure. It is certainly more literal and conveys all the information of the original (I hope). The phrasing either way is painfully un-English, which probably renders the translation less than ideal. It struck me after I read your first question as interesting that what is being commemorated is the suffering of the Maccabee brothers but Eleazer himself if commemorated. Maybe it’s best not to make too much of that difference; it may be stylized more than anything else, as I’m not a specialist on the martyrology. I certainly believe that in translating, information must be conveyed with as little additional specificity or ambiguity as reasonable. Translating from one register to a corresponding register increases the level of difficulty. There are some tricky rhetorical devices in Greek and Latin that are really hard to translate, such as transferred epithets and hyperbaton. I translated magnum as “shining,” as “big example” seemed strained and “great” seemed to fall flat. I somehow wanted to express the effect of the hyperbaton. I originally translated the phrase as “model of virtue shining,” but realized that it was ambiguous whether it was the model that was shining or the virtue. What do we usually call models or examples in English? Shining seemed to me to do for English what magnum seems to do for Latin; somehow the model is conspicuous. Not perfectly literal, but “rather” literal.

  16. Tomás López says:

    John Anderson and Tom in NY:

    I concur completely with your analyses!

    Wasn’t that an edifying exercise?

  17. Martin Wallace OP says:

    The tongues of the Maccabees are venerated in the Dominican Church of St Andrew (Sankt Andreas Kirche) in Cologne (Köln) in Germany. [Interesting! I didn’t know that! – Fr. Z] The same church has the body of St Albert the Great in the crypt, and the chasuble in which I believe his body was clothed at burial (removed when he was moved to the present location, I think.)

    Details are here: http://www.sankt-andreas.de/kirche/machabaerschrein.php/1

    Perhaps someone with better German than I have could give us the gist of how they come to be there.

  18. Tom in NY says:

    Edifying indeed.
    We can move from “aedes” and “facere” to Father Z’s “brick by brick,” with metonymy and a modest diminution.
    Regards to all.

  19. Tom in NY says:

    In the sixth paragraph:

    “The Maccabee relics were later brought to Constantinople and Rome where they are honored even today at San Pietro in Vincoli. According to a legend, the Maccabee relics should have been received by Archbishop Reinald of Dassel at the same time when he (Reinald) should have received those of the holy Three Kings at Milan from the Emperor Friedrich Barbarossa; in 1164 (the relics) were transported to Cologne.”

    The rest is up to you.

    Regards.

    Machabäerreliquien wurden später nach Konstantinopel und Rom gebracht, wo sie noch heute in San Pietro in Vincoli verehrt werden. Einer Legende nach soll Erzbischof Reinald von Dassel die Machabäerreliquien gleichzeitig mit denen der Heiligen Drei Könige in Mailand von Kaiser Friedrich Barbarossa erhalten haben und 1164, nach Köln überführt haben.

  20. Clayton says:

    I translated a bit more freely to convey the sense of the original. Think of it as an RSV-CE version.

    “Commemeration of the suffering of seven holy brothers as martyrs, who, at Antioch in Syra, were cruelly handed over to death with their mother for having kept the Law of their Lord with indefatigable faith. Their mother suffered for each of her children, and yet was honoured in every way, as the whole story is told in the second book of Maccabees. Also commemorated today is Saint Eleazer, one of the chief scribes, a man advanced in age who, in the same persecution as the Maccabees, refusing, out of fear for his own life, to eat unlawful meat, and embracing a noble death more dearly than a worthless life, went freely to his own execution, leaving behind a great example of strength and virtue.”

  21. Michael says:

    The Seven Maccabee brothers are in the Book of Maccabees – everybody knows that, but many Catholics keep in their homes Protestant bibles, obtained in Catholic bookshops, in which this books is either downgraded to “apocrypha” or omitted. It is a canonical book as solemnly defined by the Council of Trent.

  22. Fr. David Collins, SJ says:

    The Maccabees martyrs (described in II Macc. 7 (by Catholic reckoning, a deutero-canonical book)) have received limited veneration in the Latin West. In addition to Rome (where the reputed relics were kept in St Peter in Chains) the most important cultic sites were Geneva and Cologne. In the cathedral of Saint Peter in Geneva, there was a side chapel dedicated to the Maccabee martyrs in ca 1405. In Cologne there was a monastery of Benedictine nuns dedicated to the Maccabee martyrs roughly from the 11th to the 18th centuries. In the Renaissance, interest in the Maccabees was invigorated and numerous works of art and literature were commissioned for the convent. Even the humanist Erasmus participated by participating in the preparation of a Latin translation of the (by Catholic reckoning) apocryphal IV Maccabees, which contains another account of the martyrdom. Regional popularity increased such that the Maccabees briefly achieved the status of official patrons of Cologne (along with the Three Kings and Saint Ursula & companions). Some of the manuscripts and books produced in conjunction with the Renaissance devotion still exist in Cologne’s archdiocesan library; the reliquary smithed in ca. 1527 can be viewed in the Church of Saint Andrew, not far from the Cologne cathedral. The monastery itself was destroyed; the site lies underneath the main train station.