3 Maccabees - Introduction
The title of the book known as 3 Maccabees is a misnomer, for it is not a historical account of the Maccabees, but a fictional story about Egyptian Jews under Ptolemy IV Philopator (221–204 BCE), half a century before the Maccabean period. The book is preserved in the Greek Septuagint and the Syriac Peshitta, as well as in most manuscripts of the Armenian Bible. It is not, however, included in the Latin Vulgate. This may explain why it was not included in the canon of the Roman Catholic Church or in the traditional Protestant apocrypha. It is included in the canon of the Eastern Orthodox churches.
Third Maccabees begins with a brief account of how Ptolemy was saved from assassination at the battle of Raphia by the intervention of a Jew ( 1.1–5 ). This brief story of Jewish loyalty provides a foil against which the king's hostility to the Jews must be seen. The second episode ( 1.6–2.24 ) tells of the king's unsuccessful attempt to enter the holy of holies in the Jerusalem Temple. The desecration is averted by divine intervention in response to the prayer of the high priest Simon. The third episode, which takes up most of the book, describes the persecution of the Jews in Egypt. Upon his return there, the king determines to take vengeance upon the Jews for his humiliation in Jerusalem. He radically alters their legal status and attempts to force them to worship the Greek god Dionysus, promising to those who comply full citizenship in Alexandria ( 2.25–33 ). The vast majority of Jews resists, and with great cruelty they are herded together to be registered, tortured, and put to death. Again divine intervention averts disaster, as after forty days the writing materials have been exhausted and the registration cannot be completed ( 3.1–4.21 ). Finally the king decrees that drugged elephants be turned upon the Jews, who have been detained in the city's arena. Twice this is providentially delayed, and the third miracle occurs in answer to the prayer of the aged priest Eleazar, paralleling the prayer of the high priest in the second episode. The elephants turn on the king's forces, and he repents, allowing the Jews to return to their homes ( 5.1–6.21 ). The book ends with a royal letter decreeing protection for the Jews, who punish those of their number who had apostatized, and rejoice at the providential deliverance (ch 7 ).
Third Maccabees belongs to a narrative genre that was especially popular among Jews who lived in the Diaspora, outside the land of Israel. Other examples are found in the book of Esther and in Daniel 2–6 . These stories tell of some great danger that threatens the Jewish community, which is then averted, either through heroic action (Esther) or, more typically, through divine intervention. Such stories provided both entertainment and edification, allowing the Jewish readers to confront their fears of destruction and then allaying those fears by the happy ending.
The work was originally written in Greek by an unknown Alexandrian Jew. The change in the status of the Jews, and the promise of Alexandrian citizenship to those who abandoned their religion, reflect the situation of the Alexandrian Jews after Rome conquered Egypt in 30 BCE. Non‐Jews were subjected to a new tax, called the “laographia” (the word used in connection with the change of status in 3 Macc 2.28 ). Citizenship normally required the worship of other gods, and so was unacceptable to most Jews. The book was most probably composed in the early first century CE, although it does depict some earlier historical events, such as the battle of Raphia, known from other sources.
Although the book is written in a rather bombastic style, it provides a colorful drama of danger and deliverance. It also conveys a strict message of the need for solidarity in the Jewish community and the contemptible nature of apostasy.