The name Maccabee in Hebrew, means “hammer”. This is properly applied to the first leader of the revolt, Judas, third son of Mattathias, whose attacks were “hammer-like”. The name came to be used for his brothers as well, which accounts for the title of the book. The Name “Maccabee” can also be derived from the first letters of each word מי כמוכה באלים י’ה “Who is like You from amongst the mighty, the LORD?” (Mem, Kaf, Bet, Yud). This Hebrew verse is taken from Exodus 15:11.
The narrative is primarily prose text, but is interrupted by seven poetic sections, which imitate classical Hebrew poetry. These include four laments and three hymns of praise.
The text comes to us in three codices of the Septuagint: the Codex Sinaiticus, Codex Alexandrinus and Codex Venetus, as well as some cursives.
Though the original book was written in Hebrew, as can be deduced by a number of Hebrew idioms in the text, the original has been lost and the version which comes down to us is the Septuagint. Some authors date the original Hebrew text even closer to the events covered, while a few suggest a later date. Because of the accuracy of the historical account, if the later date is taken, the author would have to have had access to first-hand reports of the events or other primary sources.
Origen of Alexandria gives testimony to the existence of an original Hebrew text. Jerome likewise claims “the first book of Maccabees I have found to be Hebrew, the second is Greek, as can be proved from the very style” (per Prologus Galeatus). Many scholars suggest that they may have actually had access to a Biblical Aramaic paraphrase of the work—but one should be aware of a “creeping Aramaicism”, finding evidence for a vaguely Aramaic text when there is nothing definite to point to.
Only the Greek text has survived, and this only through its inclusion in the Christian canon. Origen claims that the title of the original was Sarbēth Sarbanael (variants include Σαρβηθ Σα[ρ]βαναι ελ “Sarbēth Sa[r]banai El” and Σαρβηθ Σα[ρ]βανέελ Sarbēth Sa[r]baneel), an enigmatic Greek transliteration from a putative Hebrew original. Various reconstructions have been proposed:
“Book of the Prince of the House of Israel” or “the Prince of the House of God (El)”, from the Hebrew שַׂר בֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל, Sar Beit-Yisra’el or שַׂר בֵּית אֵל, Sar Beit-El, respectively,
“History of the House of the Warriors”,
“Book of the House of the Princes of God”,
“the Book of the Dynasty of God’s resisters”, perhaps from סֵפֶר בֵּית סָרְבָנֵי אֵל, Sefer Beit Sarevanei El (“Book of the House who strive for God”).
Gustaf Dalman, meanwhile, suggests that the title is a corruption of the Aramaic “The Book of the House of the Hasmoneans”.
The book’s author is unknown, but some suggest that it may have been a devout Jew from the Holy Land who may have taken part in the events described in the book. He shows intimate and detailed geographical knowledge of the Holy Land, but is inaccurate in his information about foreign countries. The author interprets the events not as a miraculous intervention by God, but rather God’s using the instrument of the military genius of the Maccabees to achieve his ends.