Alpha & Omega Ministries Apologetics Blog
The Perspicuity of 2 Maccabees 12 on Purgatory?
03/03/2009 - James Swan
Recently Dr. White pointed out the gulf between Catholic scholarship and popular Catholic apologists. I recently read a Catholic explanation of purgatory by Zachary Hayes ("a noted Franciscan theologian and Bonaventure scholar, OFM, of the Sacred Heart Province, is a retired professor of systematic theology at the Catholic Theological Union, Chicago, where he taught for thirty-seven years" [source]). Reading Hayes was far different than reading the usual suspects that have taken it upon themselves to interpret Rome. Many of the current Catholic apologists look at Biblical texts and simply assume they clearly prove purgatory. Hayes argues quite differently.
Let's leave the apocrypha debate aside for a moment and look at the verse Catholic apologists say unambiguously teaches purgatory, 2 Maccabees 12: 41-46. The argument goes, if Luther didn't throw 2 Maccabees out of the Bible, Protestants would have to admit the passage clearly teaches purgatory.
When Karl Keating addresses this text in Catholicism and Fundamentalism (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1988), he first asserts "Scripture teaches that purgatory exists" (p. 193) and then among a few proof texts, he bolsters his claim with: "Then there is the Bible's approbation of prayers for the dead: 'It is a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they might be loosed from their sins' (2 Macc 12:46)." In his book What Catholics Really Believe he states, "Unless it refers to Purgatory, 2 Maccabees 12:46 makes no sense" (p. 90). In his book, Answer Me This! (Huntington: Our Sunday Visitor, 2003), Patrick Madrid states, "The doctrine [of purgatory] is expressed clearly in the Old Testament book of 2 Maccabees 12" (p. 204). The New Catholic Answer Bible [Wichita: Fireside Catholic Publishing, 2005] insert answers the question "Is Purgatory in the Bible?" by stating, "The writer of 2 Maccabees praises the offering of prayers and sacrifices for the dead (see 12:38-46). Why do the departed need such assistance from us? So that their sins 'might be blotted out' (12:42)" (Insert H2). In his book, A Biblical Defense Of Catholicism [MS Word Version, 2001] Dave Armstrong has a section entitled "Scriptural Evidence for Purgatory." The account described in 2 Maccabees 12:39-42, 44-45 is said to "presuppose purgatory" (p.128).
On the other hand, Zachary Hayes states the Council of Trent maintained the passage provides a scriptural basis, but they were reading the passage with "the mindset of late medieval people" [Four Views On Hell (Grand Rapids, Zondervan, 1996), p. 103]. He contrasts this with contemporary Roman Catholic exegetes, and these see these verses differently, as "evidence for the existence of a tradition of piety which is at least intertestamental and apparently served as the basis for what later became the Christian practice of praying for the dead and performing good works, with the expectation that this might be of some help to the dead" (pp. 104-105). Modern Catholic exegetes conclude:"Since the text seems to be more concerned with helping the fallen soldiers to participate in the resurrection of the dead, it is not a direct statement of the later doctrine of purgatory" (p. 105).
These statements must not be construed to imply Hayes denies the relevance of these passages for purgatory. He argues for purgatory from tradition, and uses the classic acorn and oak tree analogy. "Is there some basis in the Scriptures for the doctrine of purgatory, or is there not? If we are looking for clear and unambiguous statements of the doctrine, we will look in vain... we might better ask if anything in Scripture initiated the development that eventually led to the doctrine of purgatory" (p.104). Hayes says of current Catholic scholarship,"Thus, Roman Catholic exegetes and theologians at the present time would be inclined to say that although there is no clear textual basis in Scripture for the later doctrine of purgatory, neither is there anything that is clearly contrary to that doctrine" (p.107).
In their zeal to win converts, current Catholic apologists think that simply citing a verse will be enough to win converts. When they're challenged to exegete a passage, texts like 2 Maccabees 12 become minefields. For instance, Dave Armstrong's "Biblical defense" of this text boils down to saying Jewish people prayed for the dead and Jesus never corrected this belief as an error of the Jews, nor did he deny a "third state" in the afterlife (p.128). When faced with the fact that those being prayed for in 2 Maccabees were idolaters, therefore dying in mortal sin, Catholic Answers states (via This Rock),
"They died fighting in a battle to defend Israel from pagans. Thus it seems that they were fundamentally doing the right thing (defending Israel from paganism) even though they were somewhat tainted with it themselves. In this mixed state they may well have been guilty of venial rather than mortal sin, like the case of a Christian who wears a good-luck charm while still having a fundamental commitment to following God."
I'm reminded of a certain Biblical story in which a certain "ark of God'' was about to fall, and a person "reached out toward the ark of God to take hold of it," and God struck him down, and how someone at Catholic Answers would explain this. Regardless, 2 Maccabees says their idolatry caused the loss of their lives (2 Macc. 12:40). The text says nothing about prayers for these soldiers to exit purgatory, rather it had to do with resurrection (12:43-45). Further, Catholic apologists have to struggle with historical studies like Jacques Le Goff's The Birth of Purgatory [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1981] in which he points out that "at the time of Judas Maccabeus- around 170 B.C., a surprisingly innovative period- prayer for the dead was not practiced, but that a century later it was practiced by certain Jews (p. 45).
Overall, even though disagreeing with Hayes as to the positive origin and affirming development of Purgatory, there was something fundamentally more honest in reading his analysis as compared to the Catholic apologists cited above. Hayes seems to realize that simply assuming the conclusion of what one wants to prove Biblically becomes tenuous in light of history. For Hayes, elements of Purgatory are found in 2 Maccabees 12, but as to purgatory proper, it was the result of development begun at the level of popular piety. For Catholic apologists, the text simply means purgatory.These are two very different approaches.