Since this Monday is Memorial Day, I thought it would be fitting to talk briefly about prayers for the dead. This is particularly so since the most explicit Scriptural depiction of prayers for the dead involves praying for the souls of dead soldiers. It comes from 2 Maccabees 12:38-46:
Judas rallied his army and went to the city of Adullam. As the week was ending, they purified themselves according to custom and kept the sabbath there. On the following day, since the task had now become urgent, Judas and his men went to gather up the bodies of the slain and bury them with their kinsmen in their ancestral tombs.But under the tunic of each of the dead they found amulets sacred to the idols of Jamnia, which the law forbids the Jews to wear. So it was clear to all that this was why these men had been slain. They all therefore praised the ways of the Lord, the just judge who brings to light the things that are hidden.Turning to supplication, they prayed that the sinful deed might be fully blotted out. The noble Judas warned the soldiers to keep themselves free from sin, for they had seen with their own eyes what had happened because of the sin of those who had fallen. He then took up a collection among all his soldiers, amounting to two thousand silver drachmas, which he sent to Jerusalem to provide for an expiatory sacrifice.
In doing this he acted in a very excellent and noble way, inasmuch as he had the resurrection of the dead in view; for if he were not expecting the fallen to rise again, it would have been useless and foolish to pray for them in death. But if he did this with a view to the splendid reward that awaits those who had gone to rest in godliness, it was a holy and pious thought. Thus he made atonement for the dead that they might be freed from this sin.
It’s a moving passage. Judas has lead his army in battle, and discovers afterwards that God permitted some of the Israelites to be killed in battle, since they’d been wearing idolatrous amulets. This scene alone captures a strange contradiction: on the one hand, these men died fighting for God and Israel; on the other hand, they still clung to superstition and idolatry.
I’m reminded that Joe Feuerherd, the publisher of The National Catholic Reporter, died of cancer yesterday morning. I’ve made it clear in the past that I think that much of the Reporter’s agenda is not just wrong, but heretical. But while Feuerherd may have clung to some heresies (and I can’t say even that much, since I know next to nothing of the man), he lived a life dedicated in some way to God, and Katherine Jean Lopez’s moving tribute makes clear that this was a man motivated by charity. Our job isn’t to sort of the contradictions of human existence, or to guess how God might judge the moral gray areas in each other’s lives. Our job here is to pray for both the living and, in a particular way, the dead.
I’m aware that some Protestants will reject 2 Maccabees, because they don’t see it in their Bible. I would say only this in response:
- On what basis can you show that 2 Maccabees isn’t Scripture? I’ve mentioned before nobody in the Early Church thought the 66-Book Protestant canon was the correct canon of Scripture. So if Protestants can’t show why their own canon is right, I don’t see how that’s a basis for rejecting 2 Maccabees.
- 2 Maccabees was believed to be inspired Scripture by the early Church. It’s affirmed as canonical by Origen, Augustine, Jerome, and a lot of other Fathers. Are there any reasons for believing we know better than them on this issue?
- There’s sound reason to believe Jesus treated 1 and 2 Maccabees as Scripture. The Jewish holiday Hanukkah celebrates the Maccabees’ re-dedication of the Temple. Both First and Second Maccabees call for it to be celebrated, and these are the only Scriptures which do so (remember, the Talmud and Mishnah weren’t written yet, and were never considered Scripture). And we see Jesus Christ Himself celebrating Hanukkah in John 10:22.
- Even if it isn’t Scripture, it’s still true. Even if one refuses to accept the Second Book of Maccabees as inspired Scripture, that doesn’t mean the Book is false. If you don’t want to treat it as Scripture, at least treat it as a history book. And it shows that the pious Jews of Israel believed in praying for the dead. Judas Maccabbeus calls for the praying, and there are no signs that anyone thinks this is strange. The author of 2 Maccabees even talks about how this practice proves that there’s an afterlife, something rejected by many of the Jews who rejected these Books (Luke 20:27). So the controversial part wasn’t that Judas was praying for the dead, but that there was an afterlife.
- Even if it were false, it’d still tell us something. Even if the author of 2 Maccabees were completely making up this account, we’d still be able to tell that some of the Jews before Christ believed in praying for the dead. After all, the author explicitly praises the practice.
Greet Priscilla and Aquila and the household of Onesiphorus.
May the Lord show mercy to the household of Onesiphorus, because he often refreshed me and was not ashamed of my chains. On the contrary, when he was in Rome, he searched hard for me until he found me. May the Lord grant that he will find mercy from the Lord on that day! You know very well in how many ways he helped me in Ephesus.
So there are references to greeting Onesiphorus’s family, while Onesiphorus himself is described in the past tense (“he often refreshed me“). This is followed by what looks very much like a prayer for his departed soul: “May the Lord grant that he will find mercy from the Lord on that day!” It’s possible that’s not what’s going on here. Neither Paul, nor apparently any other New Testament writer, felt that it was necessary to write on whether or not to pray for the dead. But given that the early Christians (and the Jews before them) did pray for the dead, this silence seems to suggest their approval.
Of course, it’s much easier to simply say that 2 Maccabees is part of the Bible, and shows quite clearly that it is “holy and pious” to pray for the dead. So this Memorial Day, offer up a few prayers for those who died defending our freedom (and the freedom of others), as well as for all of the recently departed, including Joe Feuerherd. May the Lord grant that they will find mercy from the Lord on that day!