Calvin thought 2 Maccabees contained a passage that approved of prayers for the dead. Augustine thought the same. The whole Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Church agrees.
What do you think? Chances are, if you are a Protestant, you never read the passage in question so you don’t have an opinion on it.
“It’s not in the Bible, so it is not important,” you say. Without getting into Canonical disputes, a proper interpretation of 2 Maccabees is important for two reasons:
First, it is a valid historical question whether or not contemporary Jews practiced intercessory prayers on behalf of the dead. If so, then the early church’s continuance of the practice may be indicative of the practice always being accepted among the people of God from a time preceding the coming of Christ into the world.
Second,if prayers for the dead were understood by early Jews and Christians to be efficacious on behalf of the deceased, there are serious ramifications for this. For example, it opens up the theoretical possibility for an intermediary status such as purgatory after dead.
The Passage in Question. Here is what 2 Macc 12:43-45 says about how Judas Maccabeus responded to slain soldiers of his that died with idolatrous amulets on their persons:
He also took up a collection, man by man, to the amount of two thousand drachmas of silver, and sent it to Jerusalem to provide for a sin offering. In doing this he acted very well and honorably, taking account of the resurrection. For if he were not expecting that those who had fallen would rise again, it would have been superfluous and foolish to pray for the dead. But if he was looking to the splendid reward that is laid up for those who fall asleep in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Therefore he made atonement for the dead, so that they might be delivered from their sin.
The embolden is an obvious qualification. So, being that it would have been foolish to pray for the dead if there would not be a resurrection, it was a holy and pious thought that the resurrection was is in view when he made the prayer.
The glaringly obvious point is that it is the belief in the resurrection is being extolled, not the act of praying to the dead itself. This is clearly what the author is saying. Perhaps Augustine or Calvin disagrees, but to disagree one must read into the passage ideas that are not there. What the passage says in the above is rather simple.
Proving out the above via two examples. I have noticed that simple things may allude us when we, for whatever reason, want to disagree about something. So, how can I help clear the air so to say?
…By changing the focus of the passage to an action we would all condemn. While the act of praying for the dead are good, or bad, depending upon your theological persuasion, I think I devised two examples that encompass actions that we acknowledge to be bad–serving head cheese and abusive discipline.
It is my hope that the following two examples I cooked up faithfully maintain the wording and flow of thought of 2 Maccabees. I believe the examples make clear to the reader that the action in the passage is not what is not being approved of, but rather, the rationale for committing the action. Identical wording with the original is preserved in bold.
- The Act of Buying Headcheese for Hungry Soldiers:
He also took up a collection among all the soldiers, amounting to two thousand silver drachmas, which he sent to the store to buy headcheese for everyone to eat. In doing this he acted very well and honorably, taking account of the soldiers’ hunger. For if he were not expecting that those soldiers were hungry, it would have been superfluous and foolish to buy so much headcheese. But if he was concerned about the soldiers’ hunger, it was a holy and pious thought. Therefore he bought headcheese for the soldiers, so that they might be less hungry.
In the above, it is obvious with only minor changes in wording that the act of buying headcheese might not even be good, but rather the thoughtfulness pertaining to the soldiers’ if the headcheese was specifically bought for that purpose.
2. The Act of Severe Belting for the Sake of Discipline:
George Washington then belted his son tenaciously so that the boy would never again be late to school. In doing this he acted very well and honorably, taking account of the boy’s discipline. For if he were not expecting that belting would successfully discipline the boy, it would have been superfluous and foolish to beat the lad so tenaciously. But if he was looking to the splendid reward of good discipline that is laid up for boys that are given corporal punishment, it was a holy and pious thought. Therefore he belted the boy, so that he might be delivered from his lack of discipline.
Is the above an endorsement of belting or discipline in general? Of course not. Rather, it reads like a careful apology for a revered man, George Washington, committing a shameful act for supposedly good purpose.
Conclusion. Being that language should be understood in a consistent way, it is obvious that the author of Maccabees was to some degree uneasy with the actual prayer, just as much as I’d be uneasy with severe belting or feeding people headcheese. Yet, we can agree that the passages wholeheartedly agreed with the intention of the otherwise questionable act. In the above two examples, one obviously more extreme than the next, we can see this is obviously the conclusion the reader must draw from the construction of the passage’s wording.