Antonio Ciseri's Martyrdom of the Seven Maccabees (1863), depicting the woman with her dead sons.

The woman with seven sons was a Jewish martyr described in 2 Maccabees 7. She and her seven sons arrested during the persecution of Judaism initiated by King Antiochus IV Epiphanes. They were ordered to consume pork and thus violate Jewish law as part of the campaign. They repeatedly refuse, and Antiochus tortures and kills the sons one by one in front of the unflinching and stout-hearted mother before eventually killing her as well.

The story likely occurred around the beginning of the Antiochian persecution of Jews (c. 167/166 BCE) that preceded the Maccabean Revolt.[1] Although unnamed in 2 Maccabees, the mother is known variously as Hannah,[2] Miriam,[3] Solomonia,[4] and Shmouni.[5]

Other versions of the story appear in Jewish sources such as the Talmud and Josippon.


2 Maccabees

The book 2 Maccabees depicts events during the turbulent period of the 170s and 160s BCE. King Antiochus IV Epiphanes of the Seleucid Empire which then ruled Judea departs on a campaign in the Sixth Syrian War, but becomes enraged after what he interprets as a Jewish revolt. He issues decrees forbidding various traditional Jewish practices, such as keeping kosher and circumcision of sons. The mother and seven sons are swept up in this persecution and are arrested. They are brought directly before Antiochus, tortured, and ordered to eat pork or die. One of the brothers said, on behalf of everyone, that even if they were all to die, they would not break the law. The angry king ordered to heat up the pans and cauldrons, and he ordered the first brother to have his tongue cut off, the skin to be removed from the head and the ends of the limbs cut off – All this was happening in front of the rest of the brothers and mother, who, in the meantime, encouraged each other to passively resist the tormentors' demands. When the first martyr was inert and still breathing, Epiphanes ordered him to be thrown into a hot frying pan. When he died, the next one was brought in and the skin was stripped from his head along with his hair. Each of the seven brothers endured the same torture. The torment of the sons was watched by their tenacious and rather stoic mother, who had lost all her sons.

The narrator mentions that the mother "was the most remarkable of all, and deserves to be remembered with special honour. She watched her seven sons die in the space of a single day, yet she bore it bravely because she put her trust in the Lord."[6] Each of the sons makes a speech as he dies, and the last one says that his brothers are "dead under God's covenant of everlasting life".[7] The narrator ends by saying that the mother died, without saying whether she was executed, or died in some other way.

Talmud and Midrash

The Talmud tells a similar story, but with refusal to worship an idol replacing refusal to eat pork. Tractate Gittin 57b cites Rabbi Judah as saying that "this refers to the woman and her seven sons". The woman is not named and the king is referred to as the "Caesar". In this version of the story, each son goes to his death while citing a different verse from the Torah prohibiting idolatry. The Caeasar takes pity on the seventh son and, offers to drop his royal seal on the ground so that the son can pick it up and thus accept his royal authority. He refuses, proclaiming that the glory of heaven is more important to him than the glory of a mortal king. As he is being led off to be killed, his mother tells him: " My son, go and say to your father Abraham, you bound [a son] to one altar; I bound [sons] to seven altars." The story concludes with the woman's suicide: she "went up on to a roof and threw herself down and was killed." A heavenly voice then proclaims, "A joyful mother of children (Psalms 113:9)."[8]

A similar version of the tale occurs in the midrashic text Lamentations Rabbah (Chapter 1). In this version the woman is named Miriam bat Nahtom (Miriam, the Baker's Daughter). The story concludes similarly to the version in the Talmud, but in this version the youngest son holds a long conversation with the Caesar, proving from Biblical verses the superiority of his God and the system of reward and punishment. When the moment arrives for him to be executed, the mother insists that she be killed first. The Caesar refuses on account that the Bible prohibits killing an animal and its offspring on the same day (see Leviticus 22:28). The mother retorts "Fool! Have you already fulfilled all the commandments and only this one remains?"[9]

Other versions

Other versions of the story are found in 4 Maccabees (which suggests that the woman might have thrown herself into the flames, 17:1) and Josippon (which says she fell dead on her sons' corpses[2]). The Josippon version of the story probably was paraphrased from a Latin version of 2 Maccabees, and was notable as the first major exposure of medieval Jewish audiences to the story.[10][11]


Various sources have proposed names for this woman. In Lamentations Rabbah she is called Miriam bat Nahtom,[3] in the Eastern Orthodox tradition she is known as Solomonia,[4] while in the Armenian Apostolic Church she is called Shamuna,[12] and in Syriac Christianity she is known as Shmuni.[13] She is called "Hannah" (or "Chana") in Josippon, perhaps as a result of connecting her with Hannah in the Book of Samuel, who says that the "barren woman bears seven", (1 Samuel 2:5). Gerson Cohen notes that this occurs only in the longer Spanish version of Josippon (1510), while the shorter Mantuan version (c. 1480) continues to refer to her anonymously.[2]

The Courage of a Mother, one of Gustave Doré's illustrations for La Grande Bible de Tours, 1866.

In the Syriac 6 Maccabees, the sons are named Gadday, Maqqbay, Tarsay, Hebron, Hebson, Bakkos and Yonadab.[14]


The woman with seven sons is remembered with high regard for her religious steadfastness, teaching her sons to keep to their faith, even if it meant execution. The Maccabees story reflects a theme of the book, that "the strength of the Jews lies in the fulfillment of the practical mitzvot".[15]

Jewish tradition has de-emphasised the books of Maccabees as non-canonical texts, particularly after the rise of Christianity and the catastrophic death and destruction that followed the failure of the Jewish Great Revolt and the Bar Kochba Revolt. Thus Jewish tradition has primarily recalled this story through the versions recorded in the Talmud and the Lamentations Rabbah.

For the Christians, the books of Maccabees stayed as part of scripture due to their place in the Septuagint, at least until the Protestant Reformation. As such, much there is a substantial amount of Christian medieval art and literature honoring the woman and her seven sons. However, the emphasis in the Maaccabees version of the story on the sons' refusal to break the Biblical dietary laws was problematic for medieval Christianity, which was characterised by its view that the ritual laws in the Bible had been superseded. The result was that Christian literature and art revered the martyrs, but downplayed their Jewishness.[16][17]

It is probable that Hilary of Poitiers refers to this woman as a prophet. Hilary says "For all things, as the Prophet says, were made out of nothing,"[18] and, according to Patrick Henry Reardon, he is quoting 2 Maccabees 7:28.[19]

According to Antiochene Christian tradition, the relics of the mother and sons were interred on the site of a synagogue (later converted into a church) in the Kerateion quarter of Antioch.[2] On the other hand, tombs believed to be those of these martyrs were discovered in San Pietro in Vincoli in 1876.[20] An additional tomb believed to be that of the woman with her seven sons is located in the Jewish cemetery of Safed.

Holy Maccabean Martyrs

The Holy Maccabees
Wojciech Stattler's "Machabeusze" ("The Maccabees"), 1844
Born2nd century BC
Judea (modern-day Israel)
Died167-160 BC
Venerated inCatholic Church
Eastern Orthodox Church[21][22]
Oriental Orthodox Church
FeastAugust 1

Although they are not the same as the Hasmonean rulers called Maccabees, the woman and her sons, along with the Eleazar described in 2 Maccabees 6, are known as the "Holy Machabees" or "Holy Maccabean Martyrs" in the Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church.

What is believed to be the Maccabees' relics – kept in the Maccabees Shrine – is venerated in St. Andrew Church, Cologne, Germany.

The Orthodox Church celebrates the Holy Maccabean Martyrs on August 1. The Catholic Church also includes them in its official list of saints that have August 1 as their feast day. From before the time of the Tridentine calendar, the Holy Maccabees had a commemoration in the Roman Rite liturgy within the feast of Saint Peter in Chains. This commemoration remained within the weekday liturgy when in 1960 Pope John XXIII suppressed this particular feast of Saint Peter. Nine years later, 1 August became the feast of Saint Alphonsus Maria de' Liguori and the mention of the Maccabee martyrs was omitted from the General Roman Calendar, since in its 1969 revision it no longer admitted commemorations.[23] Since they are among the saints and martyrs recognized in the Roman Martyrology,[24] they may be venerated by all Catholics everywhere.

According to Eastern Orthodox tradition, the sons are called Abim, Antonius, Gurias, Eleazar, Eusebonus, Alimus and Marcellus,[4] though the names differ slightly among different authorities.[25] They are celebrated yearly during the Honey Feast of the Saviour.

According to the Syriac Fenqitho (book of festal offices), the name of the mother is Shmooni while her sons are Habroun, Hebsoun, Bakhous, Adai, Tarsai, Maqbai and Yawnothon.[26]

The three Ethiopian books of Meqabyan (canonical in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, but distinct works from the other four books of Maccabees) refer to an unrelated group of "Maccabean Martyrs", five brothers including 'Abya, Seela, and Pantos, sons of a Benjamite named Maccabeus, who were captured and martyred for leading a guerrilla war against Antiochus Epiphanes.[27]

Various mystery plays in the Middle Ages portrayed the Maccabean martyrs, and depictions of their martyrdom possibly gave rise to the term "macabre", perhaps derived from the Latin Machabaeorum.[28]

See also


  1. ^ "15. Hellenism and Persecution: Antiochus IV and the Jews", The Construct of Identity in Hellenistic Judaism, De Gruyter, pp. 333–358, 2016-09-12, doi:10.1515/9783110375558-018, ISBN 978-3-11-037555-8, retrieved 2023-12-15
  2. ^ a b c d Gerson D. Cohen, Hannah and Her Seven Sons at Jewish Virtual Library
  3. ^ a b Tal Ilan, "Hannah, Mother of Seven", at the Jewish Women's Archive
  4. ^ a b c Seven Holy Maccabee Martyrs, at the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America website.
  5. ^ Synek, Eva; Murre-van den Berg, Heleen (2007). "Chapter 12: Syriac Christianity; Chapter 21: Eastern Christian Hagiographical Traditions, Oriental Orthodox: Syriac Hagiography". In Perry, Kenneth (ed.). The Blackwell Companion to Eastern Christianity. Book Publishers. pp. 266, 444–445. ISBN 9780631234234.
  6. ^ 2 Maccabees 7:20, New English Bible.
  7. ^ 2 Maccabees 7:36, Authorised Version. George Bull says of this verse, "I scarce know where to find an instance of greater faith" (in the resurrection and immortality) "and fortitude in any of our Christian martyrologies than here." Sermon VIII, cited in The Old Testament According to the Authorised Version With Brief Commentary by Various Authors. The Apocryphal Books: Esdras to Maccabees (Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1902).
  8. ^ Babylonian Talmud: Tractate Gittin Folio 57.
  9. ^ Lamentations Rabbah (Chapter 1). Accessed 2 May 2023.
  10. ^ Joslyn-Siemiatkoski, Daniel (2012). "The Mother And Seven Sons in Late Antique And Medieval Ashkenazi Judaism: Narrative Transformations and Communal Identity". In Signori, Gabriela (ed.). Dying for the Faith, Killing for the Faith: Old-Testament Faith-Warriors (1 and 2 Maccabees) in Historical Perspective. Brill. p. 129–134. ISBN 978-90-04-21104-9.
  11. ^ Stemberger, Günter (1992). "The Maccabees in Rabbinic Tradition". The Scriptures and the Scrolls: Studies in Honour of A.S. van der Woude on the Occasion of his 65th Birthday. E. J. Brill. p. 192–203.
  12. ^ Armenian Church Liturgical Calendar July 2008
  13. ^ The Women's Bible Commentary. Westminster John Knox Press. 1998. p. 324. ISBN 9780664257811.
  14. ^ Witold Witakowski (1994), "Mart(y) Shmuni, the Mother of the Maccabean Martyrs, in Syriac Tradition", in R. Lavenant (ed.), VI Symposium Syriacum 1992: University of Cambridge, Faculty of Divinity, 30 August – 2 September 1992 (PIOS), pp. 162–163.
  15. ^ Yehoshua M. Grintz, Maccabees, Second Book of at Jewish Virtual Library
  16. ^ Joslyn-Siemiatkoski, Daniel (2009). Christian Memories of the Maccabean Martyrs. New York: Palgrave Mcmillan. p. 1. ISBN 978-0-230-60279-3.
  17. ^ Cobb, L. Stephanie (2020). "Martyrdom in Roman Context". In Middleton, Paul (ed.). The Wiley Blackwell Companion to Christian Martyrdom. John Wiley & Sons Ltd. pp. 92–93. ISBN 9781119099826.
  18. ^ Hilary of Poitiers. On the Trinity. Book IV, 16.
  19. ^ Patrick Henry Reardon. Creation and the Patriarchal Histories: Orthodox Christian Reflections on the Book of Genesis. Conciliar Press, 2008. pp.34-35.
  20. ^ Taylor Marshall, The Crucified Rabbi: Judaism and the Origins of the Catholic Christianity (Saint John Press, 2009), p. 170.
  21. ^ Great Synaxaristes: (in Greek) Οἱ Ἅγιοι Ἑπτὰ Μακαβαίοι. 1 Αυγούστου. ΜΕΓΑΣ ΣΥΝΑΞΑΡΙΣΤΗΣ.
  22. ^ "7 Holy Maccabee Martyrs." OCA Feasts and Saints.
  23. ^ "Calendarium Romanum" (Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 1969), p. 132
  24. ^ "Martyrologium Romanum" (Libreria Editrice Vaticana, 2001 ISBN 88-209-7210-7)
  25. ^ The website of Holy Trinity Russian Orthodox Church in Baltimore lists them as "Habim, Antonin, Guriah, Eleazar, Eusebon, Hadim (Halim) and Marcellus." The Seven Holy Maccabean Martyrs
  26. ^ Maronite Church, Fenqitho, v. 1, Lilyo of the Feast of Shmooni and Her Seven Sons
  27. ^ Curtin, D. P. (2019-01-08). The First Book of Ethiopian Maccabees: With additional commentary. Dalcassian Publishing Company. ISBN 9788829592333.[permanent dead link]
  28. ^ The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary (Fifth edition; 2002) states that the origin of "macabre" perhaps has reference to "a miracle play containing the slaughter of the Maccabees." Volume 1, p. 1659.