These, then, who have been consecrated for the sake of God, are honored, not only with this honor, but also by the fact that because of them our enemies did not rule over our nation, the tyrant was punished, and the homeland purified—they having become, as it were, a ransom for the sin of our nation. And through the blood of those devout ones and their death as an atoning sacrifice, divine Providence preserved Israel that previously had been mistreated.

4 Macc 17:20-22 NRSV

I have some questions about this passage:

  1. Did the author believe the people who lived in the nation were forgiven for their sins due to the actions of the martyrs?
  2. How is the blood sacrifice of sinful humans (the martyrs) sufficient to atone for sins?
  3. Is personal repentance assumed to be unnecessary for atonement, i.e the martyrs just atoned for everyone whether or not everyone repented?
  4. Who/what was held ransom, by who, for what, and who paid the ransom, if anyone?

1 Answer 1


Your observation seems to be the correct one, however I would advise against referencing Maccabees, as there are passages that directly conflict with parts of canon scripture, for example what is written in II Mac. 12:46:

"It is therefore a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they may be loosed from sins."

This passage teaches that there is something that can be done for the dead, that their sins may be loosed. What is that? "Pray".

However, what do the canonical scriptures say with regards to the actions of the living for the dead? Eccles. 9:5-6:

"For the living know that they will die; but the dead know nothing, and they have no more reward, for the memory of them is forgotten. Also their love, their hatred, and their envy have now perished; nevermore will they have a share in anything done under the sun."

What will the dead no longer have a share in? "Anything done under the sun." Hence, the actions of the living can no longer affect those who have passed on, contrary to what may have become tradition by the time that Maccabees was written.

Thus, it was not surprising that Jesus had this to say about the Jews. Matt. 15:3:

"He answered and said to them, "Why do you also transgress the commandment of God because of your tradition?"

What was being transgressed by what had become Jewish tradition? "the commandment of God." Hence, I would repeat my advice to be wary of anything written in Maccabees.

Now, to address the passage you referenced, let's ask the Bible: Can other people die for our sins? Deut. 24:16:

"'Fathers shall not be put to death for their children, nor shall children be put to death for their fathers; a person shall be put to death for his own sin."

Can someone else die for our sin? "A person shall be put to death for his own sin". Hence, the passage you quoted is, like other passages in Maccabees, in conflict with what is taught in the canonical scriptures, and should be considered just merely human opinion.

A person may say, "Doesn't Christ's death conflict with this, also?" That's a question for another time.

  • Welcome to Biblical Hermeneutics. When you have a moment please take our Tour: hermeneutics.stackexchange.com/tour
    – Lesley
    Commented Mar 8, 2021 at 17:13
  • Maccabees is cannon scripture in some churches, but that aside, your answer really doesn't address my question.
    – matt2048
    Commented Mar 9, 2021 at 0:33

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