The Zeal of Mattathias


The officers of the king in charge of enforcing the apostasy
came to the city of Modein to organize the sacrifices.
Many of Israel joined them,
but Mattathias and his sons gathered in a group apart.
Then the officers of the king addressed Mattathias:
“You are a leader, an honorable and great man in this city,
supported by sons and kin.
Come now, be the first to obey the king’s command,
as all the Gentiles and the men of Judah
and those who are left in Jerusalem have done.
Then you and your sons shall be numbered among the King’s Friends,
and shall be enriched with silver and gold and many gifts.”
But Mattathias answered in a loud voice:
“Although all the Gentiles in the king’s realm obey him,
so that each forsakes the religion of his fathers
and consents to the king’s orders,
yet I and my sons and my kin
will keep to the covenant of our fathers.
God forbid that we should forsake the law and the commandments.
We will not obey the words of the king
nor depart from our religion in the slightest degree.”

As he finished saying these words,
a certain Jew came forward in the sight of all
to offer sacrifice on the altar in Modein
according to the king’s order.
When Mattathias saw him, he was filled with zeal;
his heart was moved and his just fury was aroused;
he sprang forward and killed him upon the altar.
At the same time, he also killed the messenger of the king
who was forcing them to sacrifice,
and he tore down the altar.
Thus he showed his zeal for the law,
just as Phinehas did with Zimri, son of Salu.

Then Mattathias went through the city shouting,
“Let everyone who is zealous for the law
and who stands by the covenant follow after me!”
Thereupon he fled to the mountains with his sons,
leaving behind in the city all their possessions.
Many who sought to live according to righteousness and religious custom
went out into the desert to settle there.

1 Maccabees 2:15-29

Mattathias Slays the Apostate, Gustave Dore Bible illustrations

Mattathias Slays the Apostate, Gustave Dore Bible illustrations, 1865


From Catholic Resources

The Artist:

Gustave Doré was an Alsacian artist who specialized in book illustrations.  Born in Strasbourg, France, on January 6, 1832, he began his artistic career in Paris when he was only 15 years old.  His drawings and illustrations were groundbreaking and very popular, although he never won the acclaim of the artistic elite in France.  In his later years, he spent much time in London, where he also opened a very popular gallery.  He died on January 23, 1883, at the age of 51.

Doré is probably most famous for his depictions of numerous scenes from the Bible, but he also produced illustrations for many other books, including Milton, Dante, La Fontaine, Don Quixote, Baron Munchhausen, etc.  [See below for links to websites with a more detailed biography and some reproductions of his non-biblical illustrations and paintings.]

The Bible Illustrations:

Doré and the artisans in his studios produced hundreds of different woodcuts illustrating scenes from a wide variety of biblical stories from both the Old Testament (including the Apocrypha) and the New Testament.

His biblical illustrations were first published in 1865 in France and reprinted in the late 1860’s in various German, English, and other editions. These large-folio multi-volume Bibles (with about 240 illustrations each) were very heavy and expensive, but smaller editions were soon also published. Most of the illustrations are identical in the various editions, but some illustrations are not found in certain language editions, and in other cases as slightly different illustration is found for the same biblical passage.

Doré’s illustrations were extremely popular in both Europe and America in the last decades of the nineteenth century. For example, over 1.5 million people visited the Doré Exhibition at the Art Institute of Chicago in 1896.  Several publishers also printed smaller collections of his biblical illustrations without the complete text of the Bible in so-called “Doré Bible Gallery” editions.

His artistic style greatly influenced some of the early biblical films, especially those of D. W. Griffith and Cecil B. DeMille. In fact, some of the scenes from DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1923 & 1956) look remarkably similar to the corresponding biblical illustration by Doré.

4 thoughts on “The Zeal of Mattathias

  1. hermitsdoor says:

    I have ambivelence about stories about zealotes, which the Hebrew and Christian scriptures are full of… moderation and compromise does not make for a good narrative. While people with convictions command leadership, what I see occuring in our local and global society these days is zealotes drawing lines-in-the-sand. This ranges from Tea Party members shutting down the US government to Al Queda resolving to drive western influence from Isalmic holy sites to ISIS killing anything they deam corrupt. Some years ago, back in the seemly mild days of the Moral Majority influencing US politics, I quipped that we would soon be back to the Middle Ages with an emphasis on purifying society. Hmmmm, I best keep my prophecies quiet, lest some claim I’m zealous!

    Liked by 1 person

    • jane arney says:

      Part of the reason I chose an illustration for this passage from the lectionary was that it seems people think Islam is the only religion that engages in violent zealotry. I’ve seen comments to that effect on Facebook posts, when the Old Testament contains much of the sort of violence we are seeing today. I agree with you about zealotry.


      • hermitsdoor says:

        Let’s not forget the Sack of Rome in 1527. French Christians hiring German mercenary soldiers to attack the Papacy… meanwhile killing around 40,000 citizens, priests and nuns. One of my theories of religions is that at some point conflicts arise between more orthodox and radical branches. The Catholic/Protestant division occured about 1400 – 1600 years after the beginning of Christianity. Islam started about 600 years later, and is at about the same time frame (2000 – 600 = 1400 years). By my theory, we have a few hundred years for Islam to settle down. Meanwhile, as Christians ran rampt trying to erradicate the opposing churchs (all those ruined churchs in England) and the French Huguenots in South Africa, so too with various Islamic factions.

        Liked by 1 person

      • jane arney says:

        I’ve thought much the same thing about the trajectory of Islam in comparison with Christian history. Unfortunately we seem to be living in a time of much religious extremism. Perhaps a pendulum swing back from the secular humanism of the Enlightenment?


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