In our great grandparents’ time Christians were made to believe that all the stories in the Bible were factual. Since then historians and language scholars have found that some of the stories were works of fiction written years or even centuries after the events described.
That is the case with today’s first reading. It tells the story of three holy young men who would not bow down to an idol in 590 B.C. But scholars have found that it was written in a language that was only developed centuries later.
As good Christians we need not believe the story to be factual, but we must believe that it was inspired by God. That was in the year 168 B.C. God meant it to be used to inspire holy young men of that time. Let’s look at the history that led up to it.
Between 332 and 322 B.C. Alexander the Great conquered all the Middle East, while telling his generals to spare the temple in Jerusalem. After his death his General Ptolemy made himself the king of Egypt, while his General Seleucus made himself king of the rest of the Middle East including Jerusalem, building himself a capital at Antioch, a hundred miles north of Jerusale,m
From the year 312 B.C. Jerusalem was ruled by kings descended from Alexander’s General Seleucus. In 190 B.C King Antiochus III, the eighth descendant of Seleucus, attempted a conquest of Athens, but he was halted by a Roman army that came to the aid of Athens.
The Romans surrounded Antiochus, taking his sons captive, and threatening to execute them if Antiocus did not send Rome a thosand gold pieces every year. By taxing his people, and by robbing temples, Antiochus managed to keep alive his sons who were hostages in Rome. Then, one of those former hostages followed his father as King Antiochus IV; and he too had to send a thousand gold pieces a year to Rome to keep Rome from executing his sons.
To find that ransom money Antiochus IV invaded Egypt. But after he got hold of the gold, the Romans came, and they made him give the gold back the Egyptians. Then, desperate for gold to keep his hostage sons alive, Antiochus IV robbed the temple where the rich Jews had all kept their savings.
When the rulers of all the Mediterranean nations scorned Antiochus for invading Jerusalem’s sacred temple, he tried saving face by saying he was giving the Jews a more noble religion. He placed a statue of Zeus on the altar of Jerusalem’s temple, and he built gymnasiums where the young people were served non-kosher food.
It was the temptations Antiochus IV put before these young men that had God inspire a writer to produce the story of the young men from 590 B.C.. They had refused non-kosher food, and they would not bow to the statue of Zeus; and that made them into heroes. The story we have at Mass today inspired the Maccabees to rebel against Aniochus IV, restoring a pure worship to the temple.