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The Oxford Bible Commentary Line-by-line commentary for the New Revised Standard Version Bible.

Date.

1.

A firm date of composition for 3 Maccabees remains elusive. It can be no earlier than the battle of Raphia in 217 BCE, with which the narrative begins. However, in spite of the narrator's efforts at verisimilitude, the overriding fantastic nature and improbabilities of the story, as well as the absence of any other evidence for a real persecution targeted at Jews in this period, cast serious doubt on its historical authenticity. A latest possible date is more difficult to fix, although the story's assumption that the Jerusalem Temple exists and stands at the heart of Judaism suggests (but does not prove) that it was written before the temple's destruction in 70 CE. In spite of the meagre evidence that serves to support any particular date within these boundaries, several specific settings have been proposed for the origins of 3 Maccabees.

2.

Of the main proposals, the latest suggested setting for 3 Maccabees relates it to the persecution of the Jews of Alexandria in the time of the emperor Gaius Caligula. However, there is little proper correspondence between the situation described in 3 Maccabees and events in Roman Alexandria from 38 CE. If the story is a veiled criticism of that period of Roman rule, it is very cryptic indeed.

3.

A dating to early Roman rule in Egypt under Augustus depends on the significance of the term laographia. In 3 Maccabees, this refers to a census imposed by Ptolemy IV for the registration of all Jews unwilling to commit apostasy and who are to be enslaved ( 2:28 ). This has been taken as a covert reference to the laographia introduced in 24 BCE that subjected the vast majority of inhabitants of Egypt to a poll tax. The Augustan measure was, however, by no means equivalent to enslavement, and certainly not directed exclusively at Jews. It carried no demands for religious observance, and certainly did not offer citizenship in the terms proposed in 3 Maccabees for Jewish apostates. It is quite possible that the term in 3 Maccabees, which also appears in the usage of Ptolemaic papyri, is meant simply to recall the strict taxation imposed under Ptolemy IV as a result of his expensive wars.

4.

The author of 3 Maccabees seems to borrow from the Greek Daniel, which, in final form, must belong to a period after 165 BCE. However, the connection depends on just one word ( 6:6, cf. Dan 3:50 ), and the fluid nature of the composition of the Daniel corpus must make it impossible to prove our author's dependency on the Greek Daniel. An early first-century BCE date may be indicated by the formulae in the royal letters that appear in 3 Maccabees and reflect the style of late-Ptolemaic papyri. Caution, however, must be urged here too: the formulae might well be the work of a later writer, imitating the style of earlier chancery practice.

5.

Finally, 3 Maccabees has been related to a persecution of the Jews of Alexandria under Ptolemy VIII Euergetes (Physcon) (145–116 BCE), which is recorded only in Josephus' Against Apion, 2.50–5). Josephus' narrative, though showing no clear dependence on 3 Maccabees, shares some similarities of detail with our story: a Ptolemy's attempt to destroy the Jews of Alexandria with a herd of drunken elephants; his repentance; and the commemoration of the Jews' deliverance by a special festival day. However, the two narratives, as their differences demonstrate, are best seen as different versions of a common folk-tale, adapted for different purposes. From a historical point of view it is not implausible that Physcon may have expressed hostility to Jews at the beginning of his reign, since Alexandrian Jews had sided with his opponent, subsequently his partner and queen, Cleopatra II. However, there is no other evidence for a persecution of Jews at this time. Indeed, Physcon is known from papyrological evidence to have favoured the Jews.

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