This is an expert from the Fourth Book of Maccabees, a Jewish work written in Greek around the beginning or the middle of the first century CE. The NT authors present Yeshua’s death as atonement and sacrifice (e.g. Mark 10:45; Matt 20:28; Heb 9:12; Rom 5; 1 Tim 2:6). And some critics have noted that this is not a Jewish theological idea. It is interesting to note how the author of 4 Maccabees does something very similar to the NT writers. In 4 Maccabees the blood of Eliazar and other martyrs quite literally atones for the land of Israel.

“Truly the contest in which they were engaged was divine, for on that day virtue gave the awards and tested them for their endurance. The prize was immortality in endless life. Eleazar was the first contestant, the mother of the seven sons entered the competition, and the brothers contended. The tyrant was the antagonist, and the world and the human race were the spectators. Reverence for God was victor and gave the crown to its own athletes. Who did not admire the athletes of the divine legislation? Who were not amazed?

The tyrant himself and all his council marveled at their endurance, because of which they now stand before the divine throne and live the life of eternal blessedness. For Moses says, “All who are consecrated are under your hands.” These, then, who have been consecrated for the sake of God, are honored, not only with this honor, but also by the fact that because of them our enemies did not rule over our nation, the tyrant was punished, and the homeland purified—they having become, as it were, a ransom for the sin of our nation. And through the blood of those devout ones and their death as an atoning sacrifice, divine Providence preserved Israel that previously had been mistreated.

For the tyrant Antiochus, when he saw the courage of their virtue and their endurance under the tortures, proclaimed them to his soldiers as an example for their own endurance, and this made them brave and courageous for infantry battle and siege, and he ravaged and conquered all his enemies. O Israelite children, offspring of the seed of Abraham, obey this law and exercise piety in every way, knowing that devout reason is master of all emotions, not only of sufferings from within, but also of those from without.

Therefore those who gave over their bodies in suffering for the sake of religion were not only admired by mortals, but also were deemed worthy to share in a divine inheritance. Because of them the nation gained peace, and by reviving observance of the law in the homeland they ravaged the enemy. The tyrant Antiochus was both punished on earth and is being chastised after his death. Since in no way whatever was he able to compel the Israelites to become pagans and to abandon their ancestral customs, he left Jerusalem and marched against the Persians.” (4 Mac 17:11–18:5 NRSV)



  1. Martyrdom is common among Jews and they believed God is happy for those who died defending the Law of God, hence God saves the land of Israel

  2. While no doubt the author was Jewish, his writing style and content as well as that it was written in Greek shows a completely Hellenized viewpoint. To most Jews of the time my guess is this would have been very offensive. To the early Notsarim it would have been heresy. And to the Sicarii it would have been another target! And to make matters worse, the Maccabees themselves would have loathed and despised this document and they’s have killed the author outright! However, your point that blood atonement for the sins of all is a Jewish idea in the time of Yeshua is noted. Thanks.

    • I am not so sure, Daniel. The author of 4 Maccabees is definitely much more Hellenistic in thinking, but he is a Jew who cares about Torah and Judaism but perhaps in a different way. There was always diversity among the Jews. Its not the Maccabees or Sicaarii or Pharisees were “true Jews” and others were slackers, leftists or renegades from orthodoxy. There was no orthodoxy. Competing Judaisms co-existed in that world.

  3. We really don’t have to go beyond genuine Scripture to find this thought: It’s in Isaiah 53, which speaks of Messiah as being an offering for sin. But this was great. Thank you.

  4. Hi Professor Shir,like your article re your reference to Matthew and Mark, each are followed by the parable of the blind men(man) outside of Jericho, a city mentioned in accounts of David and the city destroyed by Joshua, this has been nagging at me for a while.

  5. Why does Jericho exist in the times of David and Jesus, when it was destroyed by Joshua. Is it a city rebuilt (i.e.bricks and mortar) many times or is it a school of thought like that of the tyrant you mention in your article, this being the reason for Yahweh

  6. Instructing Joshua to take nothing from the city.
    I saw these parables immediately after the references in Matthew and Mark and wondered if they were the example of the Tyrants being blind men

  7. My Pastor recently share with us, in Bible study, how the Macabbes were left out of the King James version of the bible. I do have a bible with the Macabbes and plan to use it more. Thank you for sharing insight on the bible.

  8. Where, why and how do “some critics” arrive at the conclusion that “atonement and sacrifice” are “not a Jewish theological idea”??? We cannot read OT scriptures without recognizing them as its core! It could be concluded that atonement and sacrifice were the ultimate end game of creation.

    • Atonement and sacrifice of humans (not animals). A human dying to atone for another human – that’s what people say is not found in Jewish theological thoughts. But that is what we have here and in Is 53, if one thinks it is about Messiah and not Israel as many would like to suggest.

  9. I’ve been spending a bit of time this year getting my head around “atonement” and my best efforts so far have settled on seeing and understanding the word kippur/atonement as “covering” in most instances. I think it still fits within this narrative.

    I know it’s not etymologically linked to clothing Adam & Eve in the garden, but it seems to me that that is the point God has been making all along. The laws and regulations seem less about making us right with God and more about easing our conscience in regards to perceived standing with God. Covering over our shame so we can “boldly” or confidently enter into His presence (illustrated by rituals for entering the tent of meeting).

    God clothed/covered over Adam and Eve’s nakedness and shame where their own efforts were lacking, there was a covering (of blood) involved in Egypt for the “passover”, Leviticus 16 tabernacle ritual stuff is all about covering the furniture, earthly space and priests, the kapporet/mercy seat is a covering for the covenant and many other examples obviously.

    So rather than associating expiation or substitution with atonement theology, I think I prefer to imagine covering over and reconciliation more predominantly. I will often, albeit ironically, “substitute” the word atonement for covering when I come across it to help my imagination.

    I’m interested in your thoughts on this approach Professor. Shalom

  10. I didn’t mean to say Leviticus 16 specifically haha Obviously that’s Yom Kippur stuff and has significant “covering” aspects in it, but I was more broadly speaking of Levitical tabernacle rituals than a specific instance sorry!

  11. Good article as usual, Prof. Shir. One little problem with the NRSV translation here: religion was a later concept. To the Jewish people, their walk with God was a way of life. (I’m quite sure you are aware; just adding to the conversation.) They didn’t compartmentalize like Westerners, and perhaps many others today. Thank you for sharing!

  12. Off topic as not from Maccabees, but same context: When Phinehas thrust the spear through the man and woman out of zeal: the end half of verse 13 (Numbers 25) says…he was jealous for his God and made atonement for the people of Israel (by spilling human blood).

  13. This is a hard read. Confusing. So different than the bible. “they now stand before the divine throne and live the life of eternal blessedness” If that is supposed to be heaven and right then the bible is wrong The Bible says only I has gone to heaven Jesus.


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