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

Authorship, Provenance, Date, and Occasion.

1. Authorship.

4 Maccabees is clearly a Jewish book written by a Jew for Jews. There are not only several references to figures from the OT (e.g. 2:2, 17, 19; 14:20; 16:3, 20–1 ), but in 4:20 there is an explicit reference to the citadel in Jerusalem, ‘of our native land’. Whether the book was read orally, or by individuals in private, the book assumes the reader will have previous knowledge of its author's work. The author implies the existence of such works when he says in 1:12b : ‘as my custom is, I shall begin by stating my main principle, and then I shall turn to their story, giving glory to the all-wise God’. This appears to indicate that the recipients can be assured the book is authentic because it exhibits the same style as his previous works.

2. Provenance.

The reference in 4:20 to ‘our native land’ rules out Palestine as a place of composition. Other centres such as Alexandria and Athens are possible, but the strongest candidate is Antioch. The most immediate indicator is the person of the arch-villain Antiochus IV Epiphanes, who naturally had a close connection with his capital city of Antioch. John Chrysostom testifies that the Christians believed the tomb of the Maccabean martyrs to be situated at Antioch, in the quarter of the Kerateion, near the synagogue (Fourth Homily on the Maccabean Martyrs).

3.

Ignatius of Antioch sent seven epistles from Antioch enroute to Rome where he was martyred in 107 CE. He thought in the same sacrificial terms as the Jew responsible for 4 Maccabees. Perhaps the most striking example is his use of the Greek word antipsychon. Ignatius uses the word (Smyrn. 1.2; Eph. 21.1) to express the idea of ransom, which is mirrored in its use in 4 Maccabees. The word is exceptionally rare, and appears in neither the LXX nor the NT, though it does appear twice in 4 Maccabees ( 6:29; 7:21 ). It is not unlikely that the Ignatian letters and 4 Maccabees are related. Both are concerned with the idea of martyrdom, use the rare word anti-psychon, and display a direct and vivid style. Due to the rifts in Antioch between Jews and Christians, and the fact that none of Ignatius' letters remained in Antioch, a common source may be the best solution. This may also explain the abundance of sea imagery found in 7:1; 13:6–7 ; and 15:31 .

4. Date.

For Christians to have appropriated the work from Judaism, the book must have been extant in Jewish circles at a time when the two groups had cordial relations. The most desirable date would be a time when the majority of Christians still formed a Jewish sect. Incidentally, nowhere in the ancient world would the Christians be in a better position to appropriate the work than in Antioch. Acts 11:19–20 states that the church in Antioch was second only to Jerusalem. The main evidence for dating the book is the title assigned to Apollonius in 4:2: ‘governor of Syria, Phoenicia, and Cilicia’ (Bickerman 1945 ). There was only a single short period in early imperial Rome when Cilicia was associated with Syria for administrative purposes: 18–54 CE. There is no convincing reason why this title should be given to Apollonius rather than the one given in 2 Macc 4:4: ‘governor of Coelesyria and Phoenicia’, unless it was written in these years. Within this period there are two particular moments when the book may have been written. Three sources tell of angry Jewish reaction to Caligula's reign (38–41 CE ), especially concerning the proposed erection of his statue in the Jerusalem Temple. Malalas chronicled in 39–40 that the animosity between Jews and Greeks in Antioch was at flashpoint (see also Philo, Leg. ad Gaium, and Jos. Ant. 18.8). The initial impetus for protests was probably at the seat of the governor himself: Antioch. The narrative of 4 Maccabees would have been quite pertinent at this juncture. The Jews are here exhorted not to compromise their faith, but to imitate their forefathers in defying the oppressive power.

5.

Another contemporary allusion may be found in 4:15: ‘When King Seleucus died, his son Antiochus Epiphanes succeeded to the throne, an arrogant and terrible man’. The author's source, 2 Maccabees, states correctly that Antiochus was Seleucus' brother. This is usually dismissed as an authorial error, but it is more likely that an author who is not afraid to use allusions is employing the same device again, perhaps with reference to the Roman emperor of his own time. In the period 18–54 CE, there were four emperors. Neither Caligula nor Claudius was the son of his predecessor, but Tiberius and Nero were. Both their predecessors had adopted them, and were their stepfathers. In Nero's case he came to the throne late in 54 CE, the year in which the governor's title reverted. Besides this, the case for Tiberius' reign is very strong. His predecessor Augustus was tolerant towards the Jews, as is demonstrated by the edict he promulgated, recorded by Josephus (Ant. 16.6.2). Tacitus and Suetonius similarly maintain his benevolence towards Jews (see e.g. Suetonius' Augustus, 2.93). In a striking contrast the same three authors describe how Tiberius disliked the Jews. The first persecution of Jews began when the Jews in Rome were expelled in 19 CE: four thousand were shipped to Sardinia where they were ‘employed in suppressing brigandage' (Tac. Ann. 2.85). In addition Josephus reports Tiberius’ incitement of Jewish feelings in Jerusalem itself, when through Pilate he introduced effigies of the Caesar (J.W. 2.9.2). It is clear that Tiberius had an axe to grind against the Jews and other so-called mystery cults. The reign of Tiberius therefore may provide the most congenial backdrop to the writing of 4 Maccabees.

6. Occasion.

The majority opinion prefers the idea that 4 Maccabees was written for oral delivery at an annual festival in memory of the deaths of the Maccabean martyrs, probably at the site of their tombs. However the book is of such a philosophical nature that it makes more sense if it were read in private where the terms could be inwardly digested rather than speedily passed over in speech. Commentators have pointed to 3:19 and 1:10 as the best proof that it was prepared for oral delivery on a day of commemoration. The Greek text of 3:19 reads: ēdē de kai ho kairos hēmas epi tēn apodeixin tēs historias tou sōphronos logismou. Hadas (1954 ) translated this passage: ‘But the season now summons us to the demonstration of the theme of temperate reason.’ Hadas claimed that ‘the season’ refers to a specific time of the year, but a better rendering of kairos may be ‘time’, referring to contemporary events. Whichever view is accepted will dictate the importance attributed to difficult parts of the book's narrative. The natural corollary of the commemoration theory is that the arguments put forward in 1:1–3:19 and 17:2–22 are subordinate to the narrative describing the martyrdoms. However, the author claims the narrative is an illustration of his ideas, and is subsidiary to the rest of the book: ‘I could prove to you from many and various examples that reason is dominant over the emotions, but I can demonstrate it best from the noble bravery of those who died for the sake of virtue, Eleazar and the seven brothers and their mother’ ( 1:7–8 ). By the author's own admission the narrative supplements the argument and not vice versa. If the argument is the main focus, it is unwise to assume that the book was written for an annual commemoration of the martyrs.

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