Civilization in theory and practice

Jews and Greeks, 100 BC

Christians disagree about what exactly belongs in the Biblical canon. As an example, this is from Second Maccabees chapter 6, starting at verse 18. This is taken from the King James Version, in which Maccabees is in a section between the Old and New Testaments titled The Apocrypha.

Here’s the background. Following the death of Alexander the Great, the Seleucid dynasty ruled Judea. They were keen to Hellenize their subjects. This is usually presented in Western Civilization 101 as a Good Thing, bringing the light of Greek culture and the seeds of democracy to lands groaning under oriental despotism. That view is not without basis, but inevitably there’s more to it than that. In this case, acting like a civilized Greek meant eating some of the pig sacrificed to Zeus. This was a problem for observant Jews.

Eleazar one of the principal scribes, an aged man, and of a well favoured countenance, was constrained to open his mouth, and to eat swine’s flesh. But he, choosing rather to die gloriously, than to live stained with such an abomination, spit it forth, and came of his own accord to the torment, as it behoved them to come, that are resolute to stand out against such things, as are not lawful for love of life to be tasted.

But they that had the charge of that wicked feast, for the old acquaintance they had with the man, taking him aside, besought him to bring flesh of his own provision, such as was lawful for him to use, and make as if he did eat of the flesh taken from the sacrifice commanded by the king; that in so doing he might be delivered from death, and for the old friendship with them find favour.

But he began to consider discreetly, and as became his age, and the excellency of his ancient years, and the honour of his gray head, whereon was come, and his most honest education from a child, or rather the holy law made and given by God: therefore he answered accordingly, and willed them straightways to send him to the grave. “For it becometh not our age,” said he, “in any wise to dissemble, whereby many young persons might think that Eleazar, being fourscore years old and ten, were now gone to a strange religion; and so they through mine hypocrisy, and desire to live a little time and a moment longer, should be deceived by me, and I get a stain to mine old age, and make it abominable. For though for the present time I should be delivered from the punishment of men: yet should I not escape the hand of the Almighty, neither alive, nor dead. Wherefore now, manfully changing this life, I will shew myself such an one as mine age requireth, and leave a notable example to such as be young to die willingly and courageously for the honourable and holy laws.”

And when he had said these words, immediately he went to the torment: they that led him changing the good will they bare him a little before into hatred, because the foresaid speeches proceeded, as they thought, from a desperate mind.

But when he was ready to die with stripes, he groaned, and said, “It is manifest unto the Lord, that hath the holy knowledge, that whereas I might have been delivered from death, I [now] endure sore pains in body by being beaten: but in soul am well content to suffer these things, because I fear him.” And thus this man died, leaving his death for an example of a noble courage, and a memorial of virtue not only unto young men, but unto all his nation. — King James Bible, 2 Maccabees, chapter 6, verses 18 through 31

I took out the verse numbers and broke it into paragraphs for readability. “they that led him changing the good will they bare him a little before into hatred, because the foresaid speeches proceeded, as they thought, from a desperate mind.” A note in the text about “desperate mind” says “or madness or pride.” It made Eleazar’s friends angry that he rejected their suggestion, and their good will toward him became hatred. It’s easier for them to haul off the old man to a brutal death if they can work up some hatred. It reminds me of this comment on an earlier post about people resenting a moral challenge.

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