More On God as Creator from II Maccabees


As I was reading through II Maccabees again, I was struck by the references to God as creator and the Jewish mother’s exact confession of God as Creator in chapter 7.  Regardless of whether chapter 7 was originally in Jason’s history (2:19-23) or an interpolation of the epitomator, the view she confesses is still from the second century BC at latest (see NETS, 503, for details).

Texts Pertaining to Creation

7:23 τοιγαροῦν ὁ τοῦ κόσμου κτίστης ὁ πλάσας ἀνθρώπου γένεσιν καὶ πάντων ἐξευρὼν γένεσιν καὶ τὸ πνεῦμα καὶ τὴν ζωὴν ὑμῖν πάλιν ἀποδίδωσιν μετ᾽ ἐλέους, ὡς νῦν ὑπερορᾶτε ἑαυτοὺς διὰ τοὺς αὐτοῦ νόμους.

Therefore indeed the Creator of the world, the one who formed the beginning of humanity and invented the beginning of all things will give both spirit and life to you again with mercy, as/because now you watch yourselves on account his laws.

7:28 ἀξιῶ σε, τέκνον, ἀναβλέψαντα εἰς τὸν οὐρανὸν καὶ τὴν γῆν καὶ τὰ ἐν αὐτοῖς πάντα ἰδόντα γνῶναι ὅτι οὐκ ἐξ ὄντων ἐποίησεν αὐτὰ ὁ θεός, καὶ τὸ τῶν ἀνθρώπων γένος οὕτω γίνεται.

I ask that you, child, after looking into heaven and earth and seeing all things in them, know that God did not make them from existing matter/things, and the race of men came about in the same way.

Some observations that stand out: 1) God invented the beginning of all things, which has to include all matter.  2) This view of creation is the ground for believing that God will raise the dead and supply them again with spirit and life.  Thus the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo functions as the ground for the life in the new creation.  3) 7:28 expresses negatively what was already expressed positively in 7:23: God did not make them (the heavens and the earth) from existing things.


Although these texts are late compared to the rest of the OT, these texts depend on the doctrine of creation contained therein.  The Jews were certainly reading the text that we have, and concluding from it that God created all things and he did not create them from existing matter.  Their interpretation is not inspired, but it certainly enjoys a long tradition, and it is also the conclusion of the Author to the Hebrews in 11:3: Πίστει νοοῦμεν κατηρτίσθαι τοὺς αἰῶνας ῥήματι θεοῦ, εἰς τὸ μὴ ἐκ φαινομένων τὸ βλεπόμενον γεγονέναι and the Gospel of John 1:3: πάντα δι᾽ αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο, καὶ χωρὶς αὐτοῦ ἐγένετο οὐδὲ ἕν. ὃ γέγονεν and other place in the NT.

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19 thoughts on “More On God as Creator from II Maccabees

  1. Thanks for highlighting this important theme. I would note, however, that most interpreters do Not see a reference to creatio ex nihilo, given the way the same terminology is used in other Greek sources.

    In light of such parallels, rendering ἐξ ὄντων as ‘from existing matter/things‘ seems inappropriate. And of course, it isn’t clear that resurrection was thought of in terms of ‘creation out of nothing’ either. :-)

  2. James,

    Thanks for stopping by.

    Would you list some of these interpreters and other places in primary sources that contain the same terminology?

    Also, since you disapprove of my translation, “from existing matter/things,” what substitute would you propose? I agree that creatio ex nihilo is not necessary for a doctrine of the resurrection, but these texts seem to employ the logic that since God has created all things and the beginning of man, he will also give spirit and life to his faithful servants. That’s how I understand the logic. How do you understand it?

  3. The best place to start is Gerard May’s book on the subject, Creatio Ex Nihilo. Aristotle and other Greek authors used the terminology of ‘εκ του μη ‘οντος in the sense of creation out of chaos, of turning disorder (understood as “non-being”) into order/being.

    I’m not sure I have a better translation to propose, since this ancient Greek terminology was used in ways and with connotations that require one to add a footnote or explanation when translating! :)

  4. James,

    Thanks for coming back, and I will have to think about the parallel that you provided, but let me bounce one observation off of you.

    The parallel that you provide would be translated something like, “from the non-being.” However, the negative μη is explicitly modifying the participle. In II Maccabees, we have ουκ modifying the main verb ποιεω, which means, “God did not make.” The negative is not qualifying or modifying the participle as in your parallel example. Rather, we have an unqualified participle meaning, “being” or “existing.” I would argue, at least at present, that we are not looking at the terminus technicus of the philosophers here, but a statement that is contradicting the Greek philosophers.

    Furthermore, 7:23 says that God has invented the beginning of all things. It seems to me that we have an affirmation of creatio ex nihilo both positively and negatively. Anyways, thanks for the interaction and feel free to follow up again.

    • You may be right, but it seems that you are suggesting that 2 Maccabees meant something that no one for a long time afterwards understood it to mean. Paul uses similar language (in Romans 4:17), and yet it would still be some time before the doctrine of creation ex nihilo would be introduced explicitly in Christianity, and the evidence suggests that it was not something that could simply be taken for granted.

      As for Judaism, it is my understanding that the doctrine of creation out of nothing did not catch on until many, many centuries later.

      • James,

        Perhaps I should qualify my statement by the use of an analogy to the doctrine of the Trinity. Although the term is not used in Scripture, the doctrine can be, was, and is derived from the texts of Scripture. The doctrine as officially formulated did not arrive on the scene until later in the history of the church, but the texts, which undergird the doctrine, were there from the beginning. Does this make sense?

        This is what I mean by the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo being in the inter-testamental period. Obviously, the Latin term does not appear, but I do think the stuff or evidence to formulate such a doctrine was present.

        It is interesting to note that the New English Translation of the Septuagint also translated 7:28 in this way, “And God did not make them out of things that existed.” I came to my translation independently of NETS, but the translation is essentially the same.

        Thanks again for the comments. I will check out May’s book per your suggestion.

      • It’s interesting that you used the Trinity as an example, because I’d view the full-fledged doctrine of the Trinity, as formulated at Nicaea, as being a response to new questions asked about certain New Testament passages and Christian doctrines in light of the development of the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo in the intervening period. The debates leading up to the council essentially asked which side of the absolute dividing line between God and creation the Logos ought to be placed on. In earlier times, the Logos was a “both/and” concept, as illustrated not only by John 1:1 but also Philo’s famous statement that the Word is “neither uncreated like God, nor created like you, but between the two extremes.”

  5. James –

    I’m not following how John 1:1 fits into the discussion. Are you saying that John 1:1 is a statement like Philo’s? I would have to disagree with that point, since I think John 1:1 is clearly calling the Logos θεος, God or divine, which does not place him in the middle of the two extremes, but clearly places him on the divine side of the coin.

    Perhaps you could fill this point out for me?

    • You’re probably right that John is saying “both/and” while Philo is saying “neither/nor.” But I think both reflect the view that the Logos is the dividing line between God and creation, rather than a sharp line being clearly drawn on one side or the other. One reason for my taking this view is that it is hard to account for the extended debates that led up to the Council of Nicaea if these questions had been clearly addressed and answered long before (see R. P. C. Hanson’s treatment of this subject in his book The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God.

      On creatio ex nihilo, Gerard May’s book can be previewed on Google Books. There’s also an article online that is critical of May, but largely because its author is persuaded that Biblical authors thought of God in certain specific ways, and thus must have meant something different than their contemporaries who used very similar language. Since the author provides a summary of May’s evidence, he actually makes May’s case for him pretty well, I thought.

      The main point that runs through May’s work and with which I concur is that unless an ancient author clarifies their meaning as different from that of their contemporaries, we should probably assume that they meant by words/terms what their contemporaries would have understood them to mean. I don’t see any other way to avoid historical anachronism.

      That’s where I’m coming from on this, in a nutshell.

  6. James –

    I think I understand your point better now, but I have two comments by way of response.

    1. Where does the OT data fit in? Thinking specifically of 2 Macc. 7, would not the mother have had access to a knowledge of creation from Genesis 1:1 and texts like Isaiah 42:5 and 45:7 (where even the darkness is created). I hold that Isaiah is dependent on Genesis, and that the Jews of the second temple period are simply reflecting on these texts.

    Therefore, I think it is better to see the Jews of the Maccabean period as dependent on the OT, not the Greek philosophers primarily. Thus, if the OT affirms creatio ex nihilo, then these Jews certainly can as well.

    2. RE: Historical Anachronism. I’m not arguing for the full blown philosophical doctrine of creatio ex nihilo, but only that there are are texts which confess that God created all that we see from nothing, which would eventually become evidence for the full doctrine. So I think we can avoid the charge of anachronism in this way.

    3. If I am in danger of anachronism, May et al. is in danger of special pleading when he comes to these texts: II Macc. 7:23, 28; Rom. 4:17; Heb. 11:3; John 1:1-3 et al., since these texts do not teach creation as world-forming. Rather given the monotheism of the authors rooted in the OT text, these authors seem to affirm that God created everything, and without him nothing was created.

    This has been a good exchange. Where to from here?

    • It has indeed been a good exchange – and I’m inclined to add “so far” because it may continue! Perhaps the next subject(s) to address are two that come up in your most recent comment. First, the question of whether Genesis 1:1ff in fact envisages creatio ex nihilo, and second, whether monotheism requires it. On the first point, the fact that there seems to have been a long tradition of Jewish interpretation that did not understand the text as teaching creation out of nothing at least needs to be considered (although obviously the history of interpretation isn’t always a good guide to a text’s historical-contextual meaning). On the second, the same data is relevant, and to the extent that monotheism is a modern term, and ancient Jews worshipped God Most High alone even without affirming creatio ex nihilo, suggests that creation out of nothing is not a sine qua non of “monotheism.”

      I should probably clarify that I’m not arguing against the position that creatio ex nihilo may do best justice to the Biblical tradition of monotheism, considered in light of questions and philosophical issues that arose subsequently. My aim is simply to accurately describe each stage in the development of Jewish and Christian thinking on this subject. But I do think that you are tending to assume that “creating” involves not simply “forming” but “bringing matter into existence.” And even John Walton’s recent book on Genesis 1 points to that not being the focus there. But again, my point is not that various authors in the periods we’re discussing denied creation out of nothing. My point is that the issue had not yet been raised explicitly, much less answered.

      • James –

        My apologies for this delayed response.

        To what “long Jewish tradition” do you refer? I think this point still needs to be argued. Isaiah affirms the substance of creatio ex nihilo, though he does not use the term (see below), and I think when one reads the two II Maccabean texts together (7:23, 28), it is clear that they did affirm that God invented the beginning of all things and he did not make the heavens and the earth from existing things. From which texts would they have read and concluded this?

        At this point, I do read Genesis 1:1 as creating out of nothing not forming pre-existent matter. Bara’ means “to create” in every other context in the OT, why not here? Specifically see Isaiah 45:7, where even the darkness is created. Just because yotser and bore’ are in parallel lines does not mean that the latter means the same as the former. The very idea of “creating (bara’) darkness” seems to be a commentary on Genesis 1:2, where darkness was on the face of the deep. Whence did the darkness come in Genesis 1:2? Apparently, Isaiah believed that God created it bara’ (Gen. 1:1).

        From where does the Psalmist in Psalm 33:6, 9 understand that God created the heavens “by his word,” and that “He spoke, and it came to be”? This text seems to point in the direction of creation by fiat, not by forming, and it is most probably dependent on Genesis 1.

        Now we still have to ask the question over whether Isaiah and the Psalmist are interpreting Genesis 1:1-2 correctly. The fact that the text can be understood as an act of creation and not a simple summary statement leads me to affirm currently that creatio ex nihilo is taught in Genesis 1:1. I want to take a look at Walton’s book still, but he will have to make a strong case for me to be persuaded.

        Now, I do think creatio ex nihilo probably requires monotheism, but I also think that Israel’s religion has always been monotheistic. I’m not persuaded that God Most High was any other deity than Yahweh or El or Elohim. K. Kitchen has shown that in the ANE context one deity may have several appellations. I think the Israel situation is no different in this respect.

        In conclusion, on my view, the OT affirms the substance of the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo, without using the term. 2 Macc. and the NT owe their formulations to what is found in the OT witness.

        This response is longer than the previous ones, my apologies.

      • Sorry, I should have been clearer – I was referring to the way the Bible was interpreted in post-Biblical Jewish tradition, such as in Rabbinic sources. It would be odd if the substance of the teaching of the Bible were creatio ex nihilo, but hardly anyone understood it until significantly later. When that appears to be the case, it seems to me to be more likely that when the Bible comes to be explicitly interpreted in an apparently new way, it is because the interpreters are addressing issues that were not explicitly addressed before. And so it may be that the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo is the best way to make sense of certain Biblical passages and teaching when the issue is explicitly raised; but that doesn’t necessarily mean that anyone (or at least, very many) had explicitly asked the question in those terms, much less answered it. It is a bit like the development of writing desks or the introduction of spaces between words. They seem such obvious things from our perspective that it is hard to imagine a time when the idea simply had yet to be thought of and discussed, much less implemented.

        But I think the best thing is to wait until you’ve had a chance to look at Walton’s survey of the uses of bara’, or May’s treatment of creatio ex nihilo, and then we can continue the conversation – there’s no hurry, I’m subscribed and so if you reply at some point, I’ll be ready to pick up the conversation again! :)

  7. I presented a paper at an SBL regional meeting arguing that 2 Maccabees was actually first published in the late first or early second century CE. In that paper I show that chapter 7 is an interpolation into the rest of the narrative and that the language and ideology put its composition at a much later date than normally assigned. I discuss one of those anachronisms (“King of the Universe”) on my old blog:

    Some other things to consider:

    – The word “Judaism” is first found in 2 Maccabees and not again anywhere until the late first century CE
    – Expiatory death is first found in 2 Maccabees and not again until the first century CE
    – Resurrection as a reward for martyrdom not found again until first century CE
    – Maccabean martyrs not mentioned anywhere until second century CE. (allusion in Hebrews not reliably dated prior to second century)
    – Honorable suicide a Roman ideal, not Greek
    – There was a very large developing tradition about a parent and seven sons being killed that starts in the first century CE with a dad and seven sons (Assumption of Moses and Josephus) and then moves on to a mother and her seven sons in later Rabbinic literature (Pesiq Rab 43; b. Git 57b; Mid Lam 1:16) that put 2 Macc 7, typologically, in the second to third century CE.

    I am happy to send the paper to anyone who is interested in checking it out. (And I’m always looking for a fresh pair of eyes on my work to keep me honest.)

    • Daniel –

      Very interesting thesis, but just because there are elements in 2 Macc. which do not appear until the 1st-2nd centuries CE does not mean that the book was written then. Can’t 2 Macc. be a link in the chain? A couple of questions for you:

      1. When do you date Paul’s later to the Galatians? I would date it to the first half of the first century CE and it contains a reference to Judaism in 1:13.

      2. You must define “expiatory death.” I assume you mean the death of a person to accomplish expiation. But surely this point assumes that you take a certain view of Isaiah 52:13-53:12? Does the Servant (individual or national) die? See my post on Isaiah 53:8 here.

      3. RE: martyrs and rewards. When do you date the book of Daniel? I assume you are dating it to the Maccabean period, whereas I still think there are good reasons for keeping it in the Persian period, which means that Daniel and his friends are the paradigm that the Jews have adopted.

      I would have to think about your other points, so I guess you can send your paper along :).

      • John, thanks for the prompt response. I’m being pretty brief in my explanation here, but in the paper I do go into discussing why it’s more likely 2 Maccabees is pulling these ideas from a context where they’re common rather than so many others pulling so much from 2 Maccabees. Regarding your points:

        1 – I think Galatians is later first century (50-60).
        2 – I discuss the suffering servant in my paper, and it seems to be moving in that direction, but if you accept Isaiah’s previous designation of the servant as a collective personality representing Israel then it’s not expiation.
        3 – Daniel definitely shows a developed resurrection ideology, but a different resurrection never seems to be promised as a reward for martyrdom.

        I will be happy to send it along, and I appreciate whatever comments you have.

      • Daniel –

        My apologies. It is I will look over the paper before responding, but it may be a little while before I get back to you, since I’m swamped presently with some writing projects of my own. But send it along and I will attempt to take a look at it.

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