Meqabyan (Amharic: መቃብያን, romanized: Mek'abiyan, also transliterated as Makabian or Mäqabeyan), also referred to as Ethiopian Maccabees and Ethiopic Maccabees, are three books found only in the Ethiopian Orthodox Old Testament Biblical canon. The language of composition of these books is Geʽez, also called Classical Ethiopic, although they are more commonly found in Amharic today. These books are entirely different in their scope, content and subject from the more well-known known books of Maccabees found in Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Bibles.
The account of the Maccabees described in these sacred texts are not those of the advent of the Hasmonean dynasty of Judea, nor are they an account of the "Five Holy Maccabean Martyrs", nor the "woman with seven sons", who were also referred to as 'Maccabees' and are revered in Orthodox Christianity as the "Holy Maccabean Martyrs". The Maccabees referred to do not correspond to known martyrology and their identity is never fully clarified by the ancient author. However, they do assume the familiar moniker of being "a Maccabee", the etymological origins of which remain disputed.
Like much of the Orthodox Tewahedo biblical canon, until the 21st century it was accessible only in the Geʽez or Amharic tongue. There are now two complete translations available in English that are accessible to the public – a translation by Feqade Selassie, and an Iyaric translation by Ras Feqade Tebbaqiw in use by Rastafarians. Additionally, the First Book of Ethiopian Maccabees has also been translated into English by DP Curtin. Despite this, there is still currently limited significant academic scholarship available on the books' authorship or origins.
First Book of Ethiopian Maccabees (1 Meqabyan)
The text has 36 chapters in total, and gives the account of two separate revolts against Seleucid rule over Judea. The first account begins by stating that there was an idol-worshipping king of Media and Midian who is devoted to the cult of his idols. Unlike the more familiar narrative found in the books of Maccabees, his name is given as "Tseerutsaydan" (or "Tsirutsaydan"); this is possibly a folk memory of the historical Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes, who held court at the Phoenician cities, after he began minting coins with the names "Tyre and Sidon" (Tsur u Tsaydan) stamped in Punic alongside his image.
According to this book, a certain man from the territory of Benjamin called Meqabis (or Maccabeus) had three sons Abijah (Amharic: አብያ), Shelah (Amharic: ሴላ), and Pantera (Amharic: ፓንደር), who opposed the tyrannical policies of the king and refused to worship his idols. Their account consumes only a short section of the book, spanning chapters 1 through chapter 4. They are noted elsewhere in the hagiographical text of the Ethiopian Synaxarion, and hold a feast day within the Ethiopian Church.
A second group of brothers are later introduced in chapter 15. They are called Yihuda (ይሁዳ, Judah), Meqabis (or Maccabeus) and Mebikyas, and they are said to have led a successful revolt against the ruthless King Akrandis of Midian. This is possibly a historical allusion to the king Alexander I Balas, who ruled the Seleucid Empire after the death of Antiochus IV, and who supported the legitimacy of the Maccabees cause. However, in this folk rendering of history, Mebikyas enters the king's military camp and decapitates him at his dinner table, while his food was still in his mouth.
The rest of the book contains no further narratives about the Maccabeans and offers no further historical narrative, instead focusing on principles such as the primacy of God, the importance of good works, and the vanity of earthly power, often illustrated using examples from the Old Testament.
Chapter 1: Tseerutsaydan, a king of the nations of Midian and Median, worships idols, offering sacrifices to them and compelling his subjects by force to do likewise.
Chapter 2: Three sons of Maccaebeus, of the tribe of Benjamin (the Meqabyans), refuse to worship the idols, stating instead that they worship the one true God. Being powerful warriors, they elude capture by Tseerutsaydan's forces and escape to the mountains. The king's forces return to the city and threaten to destroy it unless its inhabitants capture the Meqabyan on their behalf; the city's inhabitants plead with the Meqabyan to give themselves up.
Chapter 3: Three of the brothers – Abijah, Shelah and Pantera – give themselves up to the king's forces, who then deliver them to Tseerutsaydan. After again refusing to worship the king's idols, they are tortured and thrown into jail for three days. They again refuse to worship the idols, and suffer further torture. Tseerutsaydan then decides to feed them to bears, tigers and lions, however the animals refuse to attack them, instead turning on the king's forces, killing 75 of them. In the confusion two other unnamed sons of Maccabeus come to release Abya, Seela and Fentos, however the three refuse and then all five are imprisoned. The five brothers are then burned alive in a fire pit, whereupon they die and enter Heaven.
Chapter 4: Tseerutsaydan attempts to dispose of their corpses by burning, drowning and feeding them to vultures, but their bodies remain unharmed at each attempt. At night Tseerutsaydan has a vision of the brothers, and seems to be repentant, however they state that it is up to God how to deal with him, and reiterate the uselessness of his idols.
Chapter 5: An extended attack on the faithlessness of Tseerutsaydan, using the examples of Hiram and Nebuchadnezzar; the glory of God and his angels, as was shown to Tobit and Moses; the primacy of God over earthly kings.
Chapter 6: The contrasting fates of kings in the afterlife: good kings who rule in truth and righteousness shall enter the Hall of Heaven, a brilliant place of abundance and joy; evil kings who ruled unjustly go to Gehenna. This is followed by an extended commentary on King Saul, and his refusal to heed the warnings of the prophet Samuel.
Chapter 7: A king's power comes from God; the vanity of earthly power, which passes away whereas God remains forever; Gehenna awaits arrogant kings and others who neglect God.
Chapter 8: The fate of the soul after death, and the resurrection of the dead; the contrasting fates of sinners and the righteous.
Chapter 30: God's message to Samuel – Saul to be stripped of the crown; God honours those who honour him.
Chapter 31: God's message continued – Kings reign by God's will; God honours righteous kings such as David.
Chapter 32: God's message continued – God's care for his creation; the impudence of those who deny their creator.
Chapter 33: God's message continued – God will punish those who reject him, and honour those who remember him.
Chapter 34: Many kingdoms will rise and fall before God's final judgement.
Chapter 35: Israel shall be judged and destroyed for the sins of its rulers.
Chapter 36: God will also judge Israel's neighbours; the importance of living a good life, as exemplified by Abraham, Moses, Isaac and Jacob. God honoured Israel, however, they flouted his law and adopted the foreign gods of their neighbours; the cycle of punishment, repentance and subsequent backsliding; the noble example of Abraham.
Second Book of Ethiopian Maccabees (2 Meqabyan)
The Second Book of Ethiopian Maccabees contains twenty-one chapters in total. Chapters 1-5 recounts that a man named Maccabeus made war against Israel, which was God's punishment for their sins. He later repents and is taught the law of the God of Israel by the prophet Rei, until the time of his death. Thereafter, his children are attacked by King Tseerutsaydan. Chapters 6–8 and 12–13 recount the same narrative of First Ethiopian Maccabees of the brothers who refuse to worship Tseerutsaydan's idols. Included in the text's more general religious teachings, are a strong emphasis on the doctrine of physical resurrection of the body and the sectarian splits in 1st century Judaism.
Chapter 1: Maccabeus, a man of Ramoth in Moab, unites with the Amalekites and Edom and attacks Israel, with each nation then returning to their homelands in triumph.
Chapter 2: The prophet Rei states the attack was God's judgement, and Israel must repent of its wrongdoings. It is stated that at this time Maccabeus, frightened of God's judgement for his sinful conduct, repents and wears dust and sackcloth.
Chapter 3: God instructs Rei to visit Maccabeus, who is standing in a pit up to his neck as part of his repentance. Rei informs Maccabeus that the success of the attack was in fact due to God, and that God accepts his repentance. Maccabeus removes himself from the pit, and asks Rei to provide him knowledge of God's law; as a result Maccabeus returns home, destroys all the idols and temples, and casts out the magicians. Some of the children who had been captured in the attack on Israel help teach the law to Maccabeus. Meanwhile Israel finds itself in a cycle of degenerating into idolatry, being punished by God via the use of attacks from neighboring peoples, followed by Israel's repentance.
Chapter 4: Maccabeus follows the law and institutes it in Moab; as a result the kingdom prospers, its people are glad and its enemies are overcome.
Chapter 5: After Maccabeus dies, his children continue to live righteously. However, after five years, King Tseerutsaydan of Chaldea comes and attacks their kingdom. Despite the manifold sins of his rule, the children of Maccabeus continue to live in righteousness.
Chapter 6: Tseerutsaydan is devoted to his idols, and demands that his subjects also worship them, however the children of Maccabeus refuse to do so. As a result he throws them into a fire, where they die. However he is later visited by them in a night vision, and they rebuke him for his idolatry, stating that he will descend into Gehenna after death.
Chapter 7: They continue to rebuke him and his Devil-inspired idolatry; the vision ends, and Tseerutsaydan stays up all night in fright.
Chapter 8: Despite the visitation Tseerutsaydan continues in his idolatry, growing arrogant in his conquests, and oppressing his subjects; the text states that God will punish evildoers, as Joshua punished the kings of Canaan.
Chapter 9: The evil and unjust will be punished by God, and end up in Gehenna; the importance of following the law.
Chapter 10: Exhortation to abide by God's word; the example of Balaam and Balak; God punishes those who break his law, even Israel itself, whom he allowed to be captured and exiled, and Jerusalem destroyed, for their many sins.
Chapter 11: The example of Moses, who stayed loyal to God even as his siblings opposed him (presumably a reference to Miriam and Aaron opposing his taking of a Cushite wife, as recounted in the Book of Numbers, chapter 12) and also during the rebellion of Korah; the importance of the Tabernacle to God and Israel.
Chapter 12: God will punish religious hypocrites and those who disobey his law, whilst rewarding the righteous. Meanwhile Tseerutsaydan, at the height of his arrogance, proclaims himself immortal, claiming that the powers of God are his. At that precise moment the angel of death (Thilimyakos) kills him, and the Chaldeans, who had been preparing to fight him, come and plunder his kingdom (presumably a separate or insurgent group of Chaldeans, as Tseerutsaydan is earlier stated to be the king of Chaldea in chapter 5).
Chapter 13: The example of the five children of Maccabeus who, by refusing to offer sacrifices to the king's idols, rightly feared punishment in the hereafter more than punishment on earth, and who are therefore assured of eternal bliss in heaven.
Chapter 14: The teachings of Jewish sects, such as the Samaritans, Pharisees and Sadducees, on the resurrection (namely, that physical resurrection will not occur) condemned.
Chapter 15: All will be judged according to their works on the Day of Judgements; those who denied physical resurrection will be condemned.
Chapter 16: Contrasting fates of righteous believers and iniquitous unbelievers in the afterlife.
Chapter 17: Allegory of plants – as God feeds them water to grow and flourish, likewise with the human soul with his teachings; drunkenness condemned.
Chapter 18: Those who deny physical resurrection destined for Gehenna.
Chapter 19: Death comes to all – powerful and weak, good and evil; final judgement shall occur after physical resurrection.
Chapter 20: Good works and bad will be revealed at the final judgement; the good shall be led to heaven by angels, the bad to Gehenna by demons.
Chapter 21: Thieves and murderers will be punished; the noble example of Moses, who showed Israel the law; the righteous will reside with God forever.
Third Book of Ethiopian Maccabees (3 Meqabyan)
The Third Book of Ethiopian Maccabees is the shortest of the three books, containing 10 chapters. At times, within the liturgical practices of the Ethiopian Church, the 2nd and 3rd Books of Meqabyan are collapsed to form a single text. It is a diffuse account of salvation and punishment, and the importance of maintaining faith in God, illustrated from the lives of various Biblical patriarchs, such as Adam, Job, and David. Much of the book is concerned with the Devil and how he tempts humans to sin. It is stated that the Devil was originally an angel who was punished by God for arrogantly refusing to bow down to his creation Adam (this same story appears in various non-canonical Apocryphal works concerning Adam, as well in the Iblis narratives of the Quran).
Chapter 1: The Devil will be brought low; the text details a long speech by the Devil, where he boasts in how he turns humans away from God's law, leading them to Gehenna; the Devil (here assumed to have originally been an angel) was punished by God for refusing to bow to Adam; a debate between God and the Devil; those who refuse God will be given over to the Devil.
Chapter 2: The Devil states how he misleads humans with the temptations of the world; the creation of Adam was partly a response to the Devil's arrogance when an angel; how the Devil corrupted Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden.
Chapter 3: Despite the fall of man, God continued to care for Adam and Eve.
Chapter 4: The arrogance of the Devil condemned; Adam was created to praise God; the contrition of Adam contrasted with unrepentant arrogance of the Devil.
Chapter 5: Good and bad deeds will be weighed up at the Day of Judgements; the dangers of sin.
Chapter 6: Contrasting fates of good and evil people.
Chapter 7: The importance of maintaining faith in God, using the example of David.
Chapter 8: The importance of maintaining faith in God, using the example of Job.
Chapter 9: All things on earth are God's, and only God has omniscience; the importance of maintaining faith in God; sinners and idolaters will end up in Gehenna.
Chapter 10: Reward and punishment will be meted out at the time of physical resurrection; the need to do good works in this life, as it will be too late on the Day of Judgement.
Tebbaqiw, Ras Feqade. Books of Meqabyan 1-3. Online Edition, in Iyaric style
Selassie, Feqade. Ethiopian Books of Meqabyan 1–3, in Standard English. 2008; Lulu Press Inc, Raleigh, NC
Curtin, D.P. The 1st Book of Ethiopian Maccabees. 2018; Barnes & Noble Publishing, New York, NY
Curtin, D.P. The 2nd Book of Ethiopian Maccabees. 2023; Dalcassian Publishing Company, Philadelphia, PA