By the fourth century, August 1 was celebrated in both East and Rest as the feast day of the Maccabean martyrs, so that even John Chrysostom, anti-Semite as he was, spoke of these pre-Christian heroes as “holy martyrs.” Other witnesses to the acceptance of these Jewish martyrs in a Christian hagiology are Origen, Cyprian, Jerome, Leo I, and Eusbeius of Emesa. Heroic deeds are often quickly translated into the language of fable -- Jewish literature praising the loyal handful of those who resisted at the cost of their lives the hellenizing program of Antiochus Epiphanes; the literature of Christian martyrdom extolling the sacrifice of those early Christians who preferred to die rather than compromise their faith with an act of obeisance to the genius of the Emperor. It may help in our understanding of this mythologizing process if we examine how one culture treated the martyrs of another; i.e., how Christians thought of Jewish martyrs.
It seems obvious that one’s prior view of the essential relationship between Judaism and Christianity would tend to predetermine his conclusions about Jewish martyrs. If, for instance, Christianity is seen as a break with or repudiation of Judaism, one may not be entirely sympathetic. The Book of Hebrews tends in this direction (OT heroes could not reach their perfection before Jesus Christ). A modern example of this view is found in W.H.C. Freund, Martyrdom and Persecution in the Early Church. If, on the other hand, one accepts the more charitable view of Judaism as nurturing and supporting the early Church, one is inclined to be more understanding; e.g. the gospel logion, “How blest you are when you suffer insults and persecution for my sake; in the same way they persecuted the prophets before you.” This view is shared by R. B. Townshend in his introduction to 4 Maccabees in Charles’ Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha.
Early Christian literature concerning the Maccabean martyrs tends to fall into two distinct categories: that which was written while under persecution in the 3d century, and the more reflective works of the 4th and 5th centuries. Of the first group, we shall consider Cyprian and Origen, both of whom suffered and died for their faith.
Cyprian, an administrator and ecclesiastic in time of persecution, exhorts his congregation to steadfastness in Treatise 11: Ad Fortunatum. He cites the inspiration of prior examples of martyrdom, including the 7 Maccabee brothers. While dwelling perhaps a bit too long on numerology (7 brothers -- 7 churches, and the Mater Ecclesia), he recites the incident largely as given in 2 Maccabees, with little embellishment. His comparison of Jewish and Christian martyrs is not as to their faith, but as to their numbers (Jews many, Christians more). He makes no contribution to the theology of martyrdom, and little to the understanding of Jewish-Christian relations.
Origen presented his Exhortation to Martyrdom at the beginning of the persecution of Maximinus Thrax, to the two deacons in Caesarea who had suffered. He, too, recites the events of 2 Maccabees, as “Scripture in abbreviated form,” citing the 7 as “a magnificent example of courageous martyrdom.” He sketches a tentative theology of martyrdom: a) “Sufficient to steel them to endurance was the conviction that the eye of God was upon them in their suffering;” b) God will inflict worse punishments to Antiochus and his seed, “for he who fights against those made god-like by the Word is fighting God;” c) the love of God and human weakness cannot dwell together. Origen is more reflective than Cyprian, but nowhere mentions that the Maccabees were not Christian. Perhaps, in time of persecution, the example of martyrdom is more important than the religious pedigree of the particular martyr.
From the later period, when the Church was not being actively persecuted, we have chosen as typical Augustine and Gregory of Nazianzus.
Augustine, in his Sermon 300, is not speaking to a crisis, but is giving a sermon dictated by the liturgical calendar. There is no exhortation to imitation, but instead the strong admonition, “Let no one imagine that before the Christians there was not a people under God. Arguing not only against Christians who wonder about the insertion of Jewish martyrs into a Christian liturgical calendar, but also against a hypothetical Jew who accuses Christians of claiming “our martyrs as your own,” Augustine claims that the death of Christ made true martyrs of the Maccabees. If the Maccabees died for the Law, and if Christ is veiled in the Law, then the Maccabees died for Christ: “Those who precede Christ are his followers.” Augustine even puts into the mouth of the mother of the 7 a fully Christian testimony: “In the time to come . . . Christ shall watch over you for me, whence Antiochus may never take you.”
2) Gregory of Naziansus, in his 15th Oration, In Laude Maccabaorum, is also reflective, although he does exhort to imitation as an ascetic ideal. His recitation of the events of the martyrdom is done in ghastly detail, based on either 4 Maccabees or the Triumph of Reason. Apart from the rehearsal of events, Gregory introduces many noteworthy points which may bear upon the Jewish-Christian relation. From the Maccabean literature itself, he notes: a) sacrifice is expiatory in nature; b) a living sacrifice is pleasing to God; c) the number of brothers is related to the Sabbath rest; d) the resurrection is to Jerusalem above, so that death purchases life; e) the persecutors will be punished; f) nothing is more invincible than men who are ready to die for something; g) the Greek athletic vocabulary well describes martyrdom; h) the endurance of the 7 was “for the sake of the traditions of their fathers.” There are, however, several points which are new in Christian literature on Maccabees: a) The mother of the 7 is “prototypical” of Mary, Mater Dolorosa; b) The sacrifice of the Maccabees is greater than Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac, because they “saw it through to the end.” [it is intriguing to ask if Gregory knew of rabbinic tradition in this matter. See Midrash Rabba on Lamentations; S. Siegel, The Last Trial.] c) New also for Christians is Gregory’s use of the Stoic principle of “pious reason” (eusebes logismos) as superior to and overcoming passion, a notion found in 4 Maccabees. d) The “priest Eliezer” is described as the “first fruits of those who suffered before Christ, just as Stephen was the first fruits of those who suffered after Christ.” e) The Maccabean martyrdom, as prototypical of Christian martyrdom, is actually more praiseworthy, since the Maccabees did not have the passion and death of Christ to imitate. However, “no one who was martyred before the coming of Christ could have attained his goal apart from faith in Christ.`