Some books of the bible have little to redeem themselves. A few of them you could throw out, like Obadiah and Jude. Others should stay in the canon despite their odious theology. I’m thinking today of I Maccabees and Galatians.
Not only are I Maccabees and Galatians filled with important (and rather exciting) historical information, their offensive outlook is balanced by biblical counterparts. I Maccabees is tempered by II Maccabees, and countered by the apocalypse of Daniel. Galatians is corrected by Romans — by the same apostle learning from his mistakes. Let’s examine these cases.
I & II Maccabees and Daniel
The Maccabees books are in the Catholic and Orthodox bibles, but they should be in the Protestant canon too. They relate the story of the Jewish revolt against Antiochus Epiphanes that lasted from 168-160 BC, and resulted in an independent Jewish state which hadn’t existed since the sixth century. The independence wasn’t actually granted until 143, and would only last until Rome took over in 63, but it’s the crucial inter-testamental event that forms the basis for Hanukkah. The Maccabean revolt was a war of religious ideology — as much as the Islamic jihad has been since the days of Muhammad. The book of Daniel was written during the Maccabean revolt, as an apocalyptic wish-fantasy of the Greek empire getting annihilated by God. Here’s how the three books compare:
I Maccabees validates holy war, and the attempts of the Maccabeans to enforce Jewish religion by force of arms. The heroes of the book are those who led the revolt: the priest Mattathias and his five sons, the third being the famous Judas “Maccabeus” or “the Hammer”. The Maccabees were basically like the modern Taliban: willing to kill anyone, even their own people, for budging an inch from what the Torah required. The first person Mattathias killed was a fellow Jew in the temple, for not standing pure against the Greeks (I Macc 2:19-28).
II Maccabees, however, has a different agenda. While it doesn’t condemn the Maccabean jihad, it shines an approving spotlight on martyrs more than militants. It subordinates militarism to martyrdom, and as a result we get a different group of heroes. Judas Maccabeus is still lauded because he was so legendary, but the true resisters are people like Eleazar, who suffered torture and martyrdom when he refused to eat forbidden food (6:18-31); or Razis, who killed himself rather than the enemy — by plunging a sword into his own stomach, jumping off a balcony, and finally tearing out his own entrails (14:37-46). In II Maccabees, being a faithful Jew is about willing to die for the purity of one’s faith, preferably without resorting to arms even if the latter is a necessary evil.
Then there is Daniel. If I Maccabees teaches the holy cause of war, and II Maccabees teaches the superior resistance acts of spiritual protest and martyrdom, Daniel is about the supreme faith that leaves the rightings of all wrongs to God. It is God who will wreak vengeance on the kingdoms of men, as he sees fit, and in the meantime, God’s people should not be resorting to Taliban-esque violence as they see fit. Like the book of Revelation, Daniel is an apocalyptic fantasy, and while it suggests a God who is savage and punitive, it’s at least a fantasy (there is no real danger of the world being torn apart and its people decimated in the manner described) which allows believers to focus on the good part of the myth. Apocalypses are wrong but for the best of reasons, as they reflect a yearning for God to defeat evil, redeem the world, and hold humanity responsible for the wrongs they inflict on others.
Galatians and Romans
Paul’s letters about the law aren’t systematic treatments of faith-righteousness. They are responses to ethnic pride and bigotry. In Galatians, unfortunately, Paul counters with a bigotry just as bad. Philip Esler has suggested that Galatians is not an appropriate text for theological guidance in our world today. Rather than try to unite competing groups of Jews and Gentiles, Paul made matters worse by writing off Jews beyond the pale — lambasting them as illegitimate descendants of Abraham through Hagar (rather than Sarah), and portraying the Torah as a yoke of slavery.
In Romans, on the other hand, where again Jews and Gentiles are in conflict, though for different reasons, Paul learned from his past errors. He essentially adopted an approach advocated by modern social-theorists, who tell us that people should assert their ethnic differences (at least to a degree) in order to resolve inter-group conflict. The attempt to erase ethnic identity only makes matters worse, which is why Paul avoids repeating the Galatian offense, “In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek” (Gal 3:28).
In fact, Romans corrects almost all the earlier offenses. In Galatians Abraham was made out to be the heir of uncircumcised Gentiles (Gal 3:6-9), but in Romans he is the heir of the uncircumcised and circumcised in equal measure (Rom 4:1-17). In Galatians the Torah was an active agent in consigning Israel to sin (Gal 3:19-24), but in Romans the Torah is holy (Rom 7:12), and it is either passive in relation to sin (Rom 7:7-13) or has nothing to do with it at all (Rom 7:14-25). Most importantly, while in Galatians the promises to Israel were no longer in force, replaced with the promise of Christ (Gal 3:19-26; 4:1-2), in Romans the promises to Israel are still being fulfilled, but in an unexpected way (Rom 11:13-32), and with the result that the pagan nations have now become a means to an end. In Galatians, the Christian church is the true Israel (Gal 6:16); in Romans, Israel is Israel (Rom 9-11), and should be respected accordingly. Romans concludes by telling Jews and Gentiles to “welcome the other” and to respect each others practices (Rom 14:1-15:6).
Romans, in short, provides a very helpful basis for dealing with ethnic conflict. Galatians is a recipe for disaster, and it’s no surprise that Paul lost his churches in Galatia.
Should I Maccabees and Galatians then be rejected from the canon?
Not necessarily. I Maccabees does offer insights into the motivations for holy war, and Galatians shows how bigotry can be escalated in the name of fighting it. Unenlightened books of the bible can be useful in showing believers how not to behave. This is risky though, because most people are taught that all scripture has positive instructional value. I would suggest that negative-instructional books have a place in the canon provided there are enough positive supplements which cover the same ground. I Maccabees is supplemented by II Maccabees and, even better, Daniel. Galatians shows Paul fighting fire with fire; Romans is his repentance. Counterparts like these don’t emerge in Islam. Jihad and intolerance saturate the Islamic canon, and to go against these elements is to kill the patient. Militant supremacist texts in the Qur’an explicitly supersede the (very few) texts that counsel peace and tolerance, in any case.
I Maccabees and Galatians are good examples of negative instructional books. They show Jews and Christians how not to behave, especially by their biblical counterparts.