4 Maccabees - Introduction
Although not a part of the canon of scripture of any religious community, 4 Maccabees is included in some important manuscripts of the Septuagint, (the Greek Bible), and its particularly vivid, sometimes morbid, presentation of unflinching commitment to one's faith was a source of inspiration for Jews during the Hellenistic era. Despite its title, 4 Maccabees has little to do with the Maccabean family or their armed revolt against Seleucid rule during the second century BCE (see the Introductions to in 1 and 2 Maccabees). The focus instead is on heroes of a different sort, a group of Jewish martyrs who endured torture and execution out of loyalty to their God and their people. According to the interpretation advanced by the book, it was their noble sacrifice, not any military or political exploits, that ultimately secured God's favor for the Jews and rescued them from foreign oppression ( 18.3–5 ).
Part moral treatise, part funeral oration, 4 Maccabees is a classic example of the interpretation of Jewish religion using Greco‐Roman intellectual and rhetorical conventions. Indeed, Judaism is even presented as “a philosophy in accordance with devout reason” ( 8.1; see also 1.1; 5.4,7,11,22,35; 7.7, 9, 21; 8.15 ). As such, its adherents are trained to exercise control over the ruinous influence of irrational emotions such as desire and fear, to prevail over the cruel injustices of tyranny, and to embody moral virtues, especially piety, wisdom, and courage. The book's underlying contention is that strict adherence to Judaism actually fulfills the highest ideals of Hellenistic civilization, a pointed message for Jews under constant pressure to assimilate into the dominant, pagan culture.
The book has two major parts. The first ( 1.1–3.18 ) presents the philosophical thesis that “reason rules the emotions” ( 1.5 ), linking reason especially with “a way of life in accordance with the [Mosaic] law” ( 2.8 ). The second, longer part ( 3.19–18.19 dramatizes this thesis through a series of narratives that describe the brutal tortures inflicted by the Seleucid ruler Antiochus IV Epiphanes (ruled 175–164 BCE) on Eleazar, seven brothers, and their mother. These heroic stories, based on the much shorter accounts of 2 Maccabees 6–7 , are meant to advocate loyalty to Judaism even in the most trying circumstances. Ultimately, the martyrs are meant as exemplars for anyone who would “fight the sacred and noble battle for religion” ( 9.24; cf. 16.16 ). Conversely, Antiochus, portrayed as a shameless, impious, and bloodthirsty tyrant (e.g., 11.3–6; 12.11–14 ), represents the epitome of Gentile vice.
The book's theology, emphasizing veneration of the patriarchs, obedience to the law, and the sovereignty of God, is fully Jewish, with two distinctive features. First, the martyrdoms are interpreted as a substitutionary atonement that expiates the nation's sin and purifying the land (see 17.21–22n. ). Second, in contrast to 2 Maccabees with its emphasis on bodily resurrection, 4 Maccabees speaks of God's final reward for the martyrs in terms of the immortality of the soul, reflecting Hellenistic ideas (see 9.22n. ).
Written in Greek by an unknown author, 4 Maccabees has sometimes been assigned to the period 20–54 CE, when Cilicia was joined to Syria and Phoenicia as a single province (see 4.2 ), although it in fact could have been written at any time during the late first century BCE or the first century CE. The book's place of origin is similarly uncertain. Jerusalem is a likely candidate, though Antioch (see 5.1n. ), Alexandria, and other cities have been proposed. While it is unlikely that 4 Maccabees was known to any New Testament auther, the book's interpretation of martyrdom is representative of the theological milieu in which early Christian attached atoning significance to the suffering and death of Jesus (e.g., Mt 26.28; Mk 10.45; Rom 3.24–25; Heb 9.11–14; 1 Jn 1.7 ).