The seven holy Maccabee martyrs Abim, Antonius, Gurias, Eleazar, Eusebonus, Alimus and Marcellus, their mother Solomonia and their teacher Eleazar suffered in the year 166 before Christ under the impious Syrian king Antiochus IV Epiphanes. This foolish ruler loved pagan and Hellenistic customs, and held Jewish customs in contempt. He did everything possible to turn people from the Law of Moses and from their covenant with God. He desecrated the Temple of the Lord, placed a statue of the pagan god Zeus there, and forced the Jews to worship it. Many people abandoned the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, but there were also those who continued to believe that the Savior would come.
A ninety-year-old elder, the scribe and teacher Eleazar, was brought to trial for his faithfulness to the Mosaic Law. He suffered tortures and died at Jerusalem.
The disciples of St Eleazar, the seven Maccabee brothers and their mother Solomonia, also displayed great courage. They were brought to trial in Antioch by King Antiochus Epiphanes. They fearlessly acknowledged themselves as followers of the True God, and refused to eat pig’s flesh, which was forbidden by the Law.
The eldest brother acted as spokesmen for the rest, saying that they preferred to die rather than break the Law. He was subjected to fierce tortures in sight of his brothers and their mother. His tongue was cut out, he was scalped, and his hands and feet were cut off. Then a cauldron and a large frying pan were heated, and the first brother was thrown into the frying pan, and he died.
The next five brothers were tortured one after the other. The seventh and youngest brother was the last one left alive. Antiochus suggested to St Solomonia to persuade the boy to obey him, so that her last son at least would be spared. Instead, the brave mother told him to imitate the courage of his brothers.
The child upbraided the king and was tortured even more cruelly than his brothers had been. After all her seven children had died, St Solomonia, stood over their bodies, raised up her hands in prayer to God and died.
The martyric death of the Maccabee brothers inspired Judas Maccabeus, and he led a revolt against Antiochus Epiphanes. With God’s help, he gained the victory, and then purified the Temple at Jerusalem. He also threw down the altars which the pagans had set up in the streets. All these events are related in the Second Book of Maccabees (Ch. 8-10).
Various Fathers of the Church preached sermons on the seven Maccabees, including St Cyprian of Carthage, St Ambrose of Milan, St Gregory Nazianzus and St John Chrysostom.
The incorruptible body of Saint Solomoni is treasured at the Patriarchal Church of Saint George in Constantinople
Saint Cyprian of Carthage: On Martyrdom and the Maccabees
That it was predicted before that the world would hate us, and that it would stir up persecutions against us, and that no new thing is happening to the Christians—for from the beginning of the world the good have suffered, and the righteous have been oppressed and slain by the unrighteous.
St. Cyprian of Carthage.The Lord in the Gospel forewarns and foretells, saying: If the world hate you, ye know that it hated me before it hated you. If ye were of the world, the world would love his own: but because ye are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you. Remember the word that I said unto you, The servant is not greater than his lord. If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you; if they have kept my saying, they will keep yours also (Jn. 15:18–20). And again: The time cometh, that whosoever killeth you will think that he doeth God service. And these things will they do unto you, because they have not known the Father, nor me. But these things have I told you, that when the time shall come, ye may remember that I told you of them. And these things I said not unto you at the beginning, because I was with you (Jn. 16:2–4). And again: Verily, verily, I say unto you, That ye shall weep and lament, but the world shall rejoice: and ye shall be sorrowful, but your sorrow shall be turned into joy (Jn. 16:20). And again: These things I have spoken unto you, that in me ye might have peace. In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world (Jn. 16:33).
And when His disciples questioned Him concerning the sign of His coming, and the consummation of the world, He answered, saying: And Jesus answered and said unto them, Take heed that no man deceive you. For many shall come in my name, saying, I am Christ; and shall deceive many. And ye shall hear of wars and rumours of wars: see that ye be not troubled: for all these things must come to pass, but the end is not yet. For nation shall rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom: and there shall be famines, and pestilences, and earthquakes, in divers places. All these are the beginning of sorrows. Then shall they deliver you up to be afflicted, and shall kill you: and ye shall be hated of all nations for my name’s sake. And then shall many be offended, and shall betray one another, and shall hate one another. And many false prophets shall rise, and shall deceive many. And because iniquity shall abound, the love of many shall wax cold. But he that shall endure unto the end, the same shall be saved. And this gospel of the kingdom shall be preached in all the world for a witness unto all nations; and then shall the end come. When ye therefore shall see the abomination of desolation, spoken of by Daniel the prophet, stand in the holy place, (whoso readeth, let him understand:) Then let them which be in Judaea flee into the mountains: Let him which is on the housetop not come down to take any thing out of his house: Neither let him which is in the field return back to take his clothes. And woe unto them that are with child, and to them that give suck in those days! But pray ye that your flight be not in the winter, neither on the sabbath day: For then shall be great tribulation, such as was not since the beginning of the world to this time, no, nor ever shall be. And except those days should be shortened, there should no flesh be saved: but for the elect’s sake those days shall be shortened. Then if any man shall say unto you, Lo, here is Christ, or there; believe it not. For there shall arise false Christs, and false prophets, and shall shew great signs and wonders; insomuch that, if it were possible, they shall deceive the very elect. Behold, I have told you before. Wherefore if they shall say unto you, Behold, he is in the desert; go not forth: behold, he is in the secret chambers; believe it not. For as the lightning cometh out of the east, and shineth even unto the west; so shall also the coming of the Son of man be. For wheresoever the carcase is, there will the eagles be gathered together. Immediately after the tribulation of those days shall the sun be darkened, and the moon shall not give her light, and the stars shall fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens shall be shaken: And then shall appear the sign of the Son of man in heaven: and then shall all the tribes of the earth mourn, and they shall see the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. And he shall send his angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they shall gather together his elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other. (Mt. 24:4–31). Thus, these things that are now happening to Christians are not new or sudden; since the good and righteous, and those who are devoted to God in the law of innocence and the fear of true religion, advance always through afflictions, wrongs, the severe and manifold penalties of troubles, and in the hardship of a narrow path.
Thus, at the very beginning of the world, righteous Abel was the first to be slain by his brother. Jacob was driven into exile, Joseph was sold, and king Saul persecuted the merciful David. King Ahab endeavored to oppress Elias, who firmly and bravely asserted the majesty of God. Zacharias the priest was slain between the temple and the altar, that he himself might become a sacrifice there, where he was accustomed to offer sacrifices to God. So many martyrdoms of the righteous have, in fact, often been celebrated; so many examples of faith and virtue have been set forth to future generations. The three youths, Ananias, Azarias, and Misäel, equal in age, agreeing in love, steadfast in faith, constant in virtue, stronger than the flames and penalties that urged them, proclaim that they only obey God, that they know Him alone, that they worship Him alone, saying: “O king Nebuchodonosor, there is no need for us to answer thee in this matter. For the God whom we serve is able to deliver us out of the furnace of burning fire; and He will deliver us from thy hands, O king. And if not, be it known unto thee, that we do not serve thy gods, and we do not adore the golden image which thou hast set up.”(Dan. 3:16–18). And Daniel, devoted to God, and filled with the Holy Spirit, exclaims and says: “I worship nothing but the Lord my God, who founded heaven and the earth.” Tobias also, although under a royal and tyrannical slavery, yet free in feeling and spirit, maintains his confession to God, and sublimely announces both the divine power and majesty, saying: “In the land of my captivity I confess to Him, and I show forth His power in a sinful nation.” Tob. 13:6.
What, indeed, do we find in the Maccabees of seven brethren, equals alike in their lot of birth and virtues, filling up the number seven in the sacrament of a perfected completion? Seven brethren were thus associated in martyrdom. As the first seven days in the divine arrangement containing seven thousand years,as the seven spirits and seven angels which stand and go in and out before the face of God, the seven-branched lamp in the tabernacle of witness, the seven golden candlesticks in the Apocalypse, and the seven columns in Solomon upon which Wisdom built her house—so here also the number seven of the brethren, embracing, in the quantity of their number, the seven churches, as likewise in the first book of Kings we read that the barren hath borne seven. And in Isaiah, seven women lay hold on one man, whose name they ask to be called upon them. And the Apostle Paul, who refers to this lawful and certain number, writes to the seven churches. And in the Apocalypse, the Lord directs His divine and heavenly precepts to the seven churches and their angels, which number is now found in this case, in the seven brethren, that a lawful consummation may be completed. With the seven children is manifestly associated also the mother, their origin and root, who subsequently begat seven churches, she herself having been first, and alone founded upon a rock. Nor is it of no account that in their sufferings the mother alone is with her children. For martyrs who witness themselves as the sons of God in suffering are now no more counted as of any father but God, as in the Gospel the Lord teaches, saying, And call no man your father upon the earth: for one is your Father, which is in heaven (Mt. 23:9).
But what utterances of confessions did they herald forth! How illustrious, how great proofs of faith did they afford! The king Antiochus, their enemy—yea, in Antiochus Antichrist was set forth—sought to pollute the mouths of martyrs, glorious and unconquered in the spirit of confession, with the contagion of swine’s flesh. When he had severely beaten them with whips and yet could prevail nothing, he commanded iron plates to be heated, and when the plates had been made to glow, he commanded him who had spoken first, and who had most provoked the king by the constancy of his virtue and faith, to be brought up and roasted, his tongue that had confessed God having first been pulled out and cut off—this happened the more gloriously to the martyr. For the tongue which had confessed the name of God ought itself first to go to God. Then, sharper pains were devised for the second—before he tortured the other limbs, he tore off his scalp with the hair, doubtless with a purpose in his hatred. For since Christ is the head of the man, and God is the head of Christ, he who tore the head of the martyr was persecuting God and Christ in that head. But he, trusting in his martyrdom, and promising to himself the reward of resurrection from the retribution of God, exclaimed and said, “Thou indeed impotently destroyest us out of this present life; but the King of the world will raise us up, who die for His laws, unto the eternal resurrection of life.” (2 Macc. 7:9 [Heb. 11:35.]) When the third was challenged, he quickly put forth his tongue; for he had learned from his brother to despise the punishment of cutting off the tongue. Moreover, he firmly held forth his hands to be cut off, greatly happy about such a mode of punishment, since it was his lot to imitate the form of his Lord’s passion, by stretching forth his hands. And also the fourth, with like virtue, despised the tortures and answered, to restrain the king, with a heavenly voice exclaiming, said, “It is better that those who are given to death by men should wait for hope from God, to be raised up by Him again to eternal life. For to thee there shall be no resurrection to life”(2 Macc. 7:14). The fifth, besides treading underfoot the torments of the king, and his severe and various tortures, animated by the strength of faith to prescience and knowledge of future events by the Spirit of divinity, foretold the wrath of God to the king, and the vengeance that should swiftly follow. “Having power,” said he, “among men, though thou art corruptible, thou doest what thou wilt. But think not that our race is forsaken of God. Abide, and see His great power, how He will torment thee and thy seed.” (2 Macc. 7:16). What alleviation that was to the martyr! How substantial a comfort it was in his sufferings not to consider his own torments, but to predict the penalties of his tormentor!
But in the sixth, not his bravery only, but also his humility, is to be set forth. The martyr claimed nothing to himself, nor even made an account of the honor of his own confession with proud words, but rather ascribed it to his sins that he was suffering persecution from the king, while he attributed to God that afterwards he should be avenged. He taught that martyrs are modest, that they were confident of vengeance, and boasted nothing in their suffering. “Do not,” said he, “needlessly err; for we on our own account suffer these things, as sinning against our God. But think not thou that thou shalt be unpunished, who darest to fight against God.” (2 Macc. 7:18). Also the admirable mother, who, neither broken down by the weakness of her sex, nor moved by her manifold bereavement, looked upon her dying children with cheerfulness, and did not reckon those things to be punishments of her darlings, but glories, giving as great a witness to God by the virtue of her eyes, as her children had given by the tortures and suffering of their limbs; when, after the punishment and slaying of six, there remained one of the brethren, to whom the king promised riches, and power, and many things, that his cruelty and ferocity might be soothed by the satisfaction of even one being subdued. He asked the mother to entreat that her son might be cast down with herself. She entreated, but as befitting a mother of martyrs—as befitting one who was mindful of the law and of God—as befitting one who loved her sons not delicately, but bravely. For she entreated that he would confess God. She entreated that this one would not be separated from his brothers in the alliance of praise and glory—then only would she consider herself the mother of seven sons, if she should bring forth seven sons not to the world, but to God.
Therefore arming him, and strengthening him, and so bearing her son by a more blessed birth, she said, “O son, pity me that bare thee ten months in the womb, and gave thee milk for three years, and nourished thee and brought thee up to this age; I pray thee, O son, look upon heaven and the earth; and having considered all the things which are in them, understand that out of nothing God made these things and the human race. Therefore, O son, do not fear that executioner; but being made worthy of thy brethren, receive death, that in the same mercy I may receive thee with thy brethren.” (2 Macc. 7:27). The mother’s praise was great in her exhortation to virtue, but greater in the fear of God and in the truth of faith, that she promised nothing to herself or her son from the honor of the six martyrs, nor believed that the prayer of the brothers would avail for the salvation of one who should deny, but rather persuaded him to become a sharer in their suffering, that in the day of judgment he might be found with his brethren. After this the mother also dies with her children. There was nothing more befitting than that she who had borne and made martyrs should be joined in the fellowship of glory with them, and that she herself should follow those whom she had sent before to God.
And lest any should embrace the wicked part of deceivers when the opportunity either of a certificate or of any such matter is offered to him whereby he may deceive, let us not be silent also about Eleazar, who, when the ministers of the king offered him an opportunity to pretend to receive the flesh which was allowable for him to eat, in order to mislead the king [into thinking] that he ate those things which were forced upon him from the sacrifices and unlawful meats, would not consent to this deception, saying that it was fitting neither for his age nor nobility to feign it, for others would be scandalized and led into error. They might think that Eleazar, being ninety years old, had left and betrayed the law of God, and had gone over to the manner of aliens. It was not of so much consequence to gain the short moments of life, and so incur eternal punishment from an offended God. And having been long tortured, and finally reduced to extremity, dying in the midst of stripes and tortures, he groaned and said, “O Lord, that hast holy knowledge, it is manifest that although I might be delivered from death, I suffer the severest pains of body, being beaten with scourges; but with my mind, on account of Thy fear, I willingly suffer these things.”(2 Macc. vi. 30). Surely his faith was sincere, and his virtue sound and abundantly pure, not to have regarded king Antiochus, but God to be Judge, and to have known that it could not avail him for salvation if he should mock and deceive man when God, who is the judge of our conscience and who only is to be feared, cannot at all be mocked nor deceived.
If, therefore, we also live as dedicated and devoted to God—if we make our way over the ancient and sacred footsteps of the righteous, let us go through the same proofs of sufferings, the same testimonies of passions, considering the glory of our time the greater on this account, that while ancient examples may be numbered, yet that subsequently, when the abundance of virtue and faith was in excess, the Christian martyrs cannot be numbered, as the Apocalypse testifies and says: After this I beheld, and, lo, a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues, stood before the throne, and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, and palms in their hands; And cried with a loud voice, saying, Salvation to our God which sitteth upon the throne, and unto the Lamb. And all the angels stood round about the throne, and about the elders and the four beasts, and fell before the throne on their faces, and worshipped God, Saying, Amen: Blessing, and glory, and wisdom, and thanksgiving, and honour, and power, and might, be unto our God for ever and ever. Amen. And one of the elders answered, saying unto me, What are these which are arrayed in white robes? and whence came they? And I said unto him, Sir, thou knowest. And he said to me, These are they which came out of great tribulation, and have washed their robes, and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. Therefore are they before the throne of God, and serve him day and night in his temple: and he that sitteth on the throne shall dwell among them (Rev. 7:9–15). But if the assembly of the Christian martyrs is shown and proved to be so great, let no one think it a hard or a difficult thing to become a martyr, when he sees that the crowd of martyrs cannot be numbered.