We use cookies to enhance your experience on our website. By continuing to use our website, you are agreeing to our use of cookies. You can change your cookie settings at any time. Find out more
Select Bible Use this Lookup to open a specific Bible and passage. Start here to select a Bible.
Make selected Bible the default for Lookup tool.
Book: Ch.V. Select book from A-Z list, enter chapter and verse number, and click "Go."
  • Previous Result
  • Results
  • Look It Up Highlight any word or phrase, then click the button to begin a new search.
  • Highlight On / Off
  • Next Result

Maccabees, The Books of the

The four books of the Maccabees are independent works. 1 and 2 Maccabees separately record the Maccabean rebellion and the events leading up to it; 3 Maccabees is a historical novel, which became associated with 1 and 2 Maccabees for thematic reasons; and 4 Maccabees is a discourse on reason which took its cue from the story of the Maccabean martyrs. Because they were either not written or not preserved in Hebrew, they are not part of the Jewish and Protestant canons, but are accorded varying degrees of canonicity by Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches (see Apocrypha, article on Jewish Apocrypha). They differ greatly in aims and presentation, scope and detail. They also differ in matters of chronology, so reconstructing the precise course of events and their political background has been a major scholarly pursuit. It will help to begin by outlining the history of the Maccabean rebellion.

Historical Summary.

In 200 BCE, Antiochus III of Syria defeated Ptolemy V of Egypt at Paneion, thus finally winning the Levant, including Judah, for the Seleucid empire. He won Jewish support by granting tax concessions and the right to live in accordance with traditional Jewish law (Antiochus IV's later removal of this concession precipitated rebellion). Antiochus III then tried to extend his empire into Greece, but came into conflict with Rome, which had similar interests. He was defeated and forced in the Peace of Apamea (188 BCE) to pay ruinous indemnities. Syria's financial desperation was another factor contributing to the Jewish rebellion: it caused Seleucus IV (187–175 BCE) to send his minister Heliodorus to raid the Jerusalem Temple for money (2 Macc. 3), and it caused his successor Antiochus IV (175–164 BCE) to accept bribes from successive candidates for the Jerusalem high priesthood. Rivalry for this office was itself a major factor in the ensuing struggle. When the high priest Onias III, slandered by his rivals, went to Syria to defend his position before Antiochus IV, his brother Jason usurped him by offering to pay more tribute and to turn Jerusalem into a more typical Hellenistic city‐state, of the kind Antiochus favored as conducive to the unity and stability of his empire. In 171 BCE Jason himself was similarly ousted by Menelaus, who, though not of the high priestly family, offered a yet higher tribute to Antiochus and raided the Temple plate to pay it, much to the anger of the people. However, the systemic change brought about by Jason and exacerbated by Menelaus subtly affected the agreement by which the Jews were allowed to regulate their lives by their own laws; a Hellenistic Jerusalem might be expected to organize itself like other cities of the Greek world, with an assembly, a voting citizen body, a gymnasium, and an ephebeion for training young men who would take part in athletic contests at home and abroad. In short, the Jews were under pressure to conform to the life‐style of the surrounding world; and this too was a factor in the Maccabean struggle.

The attempt to regularize Jerusalem's position in the Seleucid empire was important to Antiochus because Judah lay between Syria and Egypt, which Antiochus wished to annex. In 172 BCE, the guardians of the newly enthroned minor Ptolemy VI declared war on Antiochus, who sent a diplomat to Rome to meet Roman objections and invaded Egypt in 169 BCE; when he did so again in 168 BCE, the Romans ejected him. Jason meanwhile had attacked Menelaus and tried to reinstate himself in Jerusalem. Antiochus, seeing this as rebellion, attacked Jerusalem and looted the Temple (1 Maccabees dates this to 169 BCE; 2 Maccabees, probably correctly, to 168 BCE), leaving a commissioner in charge. In 167 BCE, the Syrians made an unexpected and vicious attack and established a military garrison in Jerusalem (1 Macc. 1.29–35). Clearly, Antiochus was determined to control Judah, although Egypt, for the time being, was closed to him.

Antiochus's determination led him to one further disastrous political error. In 167 BCE he tried “to compel the Jews to forsake the laws of their ancestors and no longer to live by the laws of God, also to pollute the temple in Jerusalem and to call it the temple of Olympian Zeus” (2 Macc. 6.1–2). According to 1 Maccabees 1.41–50, the king decreed the Jews “to follow customs strange to the land, to forbid burnt offerings and sacrifices and drink offerings in the sanctuary, to profane sabbaths and festivals, to defile the sanctuary and the priests, to build altars and sacred precincts and shrines for idols, to sacrifice swine and other unclean animals, and to leave their sons uncircumcised.” This was followed in December 167 BCE by the erection of “a desolating sacrilege upon the altar of burnt offering” (1 Macc. 1.54), the erection of altars throughout Judah, and the proscription of the Jewish Law. These descriptions show that in Jewish eyes the king was persecuting Jewish religion by attacking the Law and the Temple. By his “decree,” however, Antiochus presumably (his original wording is not extant) was withdrawing the Jewish right of self‐rule by Jewish law and opening the Jerusalem Temple to all worshipers (as any other Hellenistic city temple would be); but, worse, he was making the positive practice of Jewish law punishable. It has been argued that Antiochus saw the Jews much as the Romans saw the followers of the god Bacchus—as dangerous religious fanatics—and wished to suppress them, but Antiochus was not giving way to mere prejudice; he was punishing the Jews for political rebellion by prohibiting precisely those things that constituted Jewish independence—the concession of self‐rule by ancestral laws, and the exclusivity of the Jerusalem Temple.

The result was rebellion, led by Judas called “Maccabeus” (“hammerlike”; 1 Macc. 2.4), son of Mattathias, from Modin, 20 km (17 mi) northwest of Jerusalem (Map 10:X5). The rebellion is described in detail in 1 Maccabees, and cannot be recounted in full here. In outline, however, affairs developed as follows: After several local victories in Judah, Judas occupied the Temple area, purged it of non‐Jewish cultic activities, and rededicated it (December 164 BCE); this was the institution of the festival of Hanukkah (called the feast of the Dedication in John 10.22; see Feasts and Festivals). The following year he widened his military activities to Idumea, Galilee, Transjordan, and Philistia; the Seleucid army responded, but, after an initially successful campaign preempted by an attempted coup d'état in Syria, the Syrians offered Judas terms, withdrawing the edict of 167 BCE (1 Macc. 6.58), but leaving the Syrian garrison in Jerusalem and destroying Judas's Temple defenses. They also executed the high priest Menelaus. Thus, in theory the Jews had regained religious independence (with no clear leadership to exercise it), and the Syrians retained political control (with inadequate popular support to maintain it). In 162–161 BCE a new Syrian king, Demetrius, and a new high priest, Alcimus, collaborated to eliminate Judas and his supporters. Judas defeated the new general sent against him, Nicanor, but fell before the more experienced Bacchides in 160 BCE. Bacchides fortified Judah, but failed to make progress against Judas's successor Jonathan and finally withdrew. Alcimus died, and power remained de facto with Jonathan, who began to “judge” the people from his home in Michmash (Map 10; inset); the historian deliberately compares Jonathan with the rulers who preceded the monarchy in Israel. Constitutionally, however, Judah was still under Seleucid rule, symbolized by the garrison in Jerusalem.

Jonathan now proceeded to steer Judah toward independence by diplomacy, bargaining with successive Seleucid rulers for political concessions. In return for Jonathan's support, the Seleucid pretender Alexander Balas gave him the high priesthood (to which Jonathan had no hereditary right) in 152 BCE. Jonathan refused to support Demetrius I and defeated Demetrius II in 147 BCE (thus earning new honors and more territory from Balas); but when Balas was killed in 145 BCE, Jonathan shifted his allegiance to Demetrius II, for which Demetrius transferred to Jonathan three districts from Samaria. When Antiochus VI and Trypho ousted Demetrius in 145 BCE, they confirmed Jonathan in his position and made his brother Simon governor of the coastal region. Jonathan and Simon now began rapidly to develop Judah's position. The Seleucid garrison at Beth‐zur was replaced by a Jewish one, Joppa was garrisoned, Adida fortified, Gaza captured, the Seleucid garrison in Jerusalem blockaded, and the walls of Jerusalem and the fortresses of Judah repaired. Jonathan renewed both the diplomatic links with Rome initiated by Judas in 161 BCE and the links of brotherhood and friendship with Sparta which supposedly were established several generations earlier by Onias the high priest and Arius king of Sparta. Jonathan campaigned, ostensibly against Demetrius II, in Syrian territory near Hamath. Trypho, naturally anxious at this Jewish resurgence, captured Jonathan by treachery, and Simon took over the Jewish leadership. He completed Jonathan's military and diplomatic program, crowning his achievements by expelling the Seleucid garrison from Jerusalem and negotiating the formal abolition of tribute payable to Syria with Demetrius II. In effect, this meant the end of Seleucid rule of Judah, and 1 Maccabees 13.41 notes that in 142 BCE “the yoke of the gentiles was removed from Israel, and the people began to write in their documents and contracts, ‘In the first year of Simon the great high priest and commander and leader of the Jews.’ ” This was the beginning of a new era, which was to last until 63 BCE, when Pompey the Great claimed Judah for Rome.

1 Maccabees.


1 Maccabees presents a coherent and well‐organized account of the events just described, emphasizing throughout the leadership of the Hasmonean family. Chaps. 1 and 2 form an introductory section, explaining how Israel reached the humiliating position inflicted upon her by Antiochus. The author blames not only Antiochus but also the “lawless men” who “came forth from Israel, and misled many, saying, ‘Let us go and make a covenant with the gentiles around about us, for since we separated from them many disasters have come upon us’” (1 Macc. 1.11). But chap. 2 sets against these hellenizing Jews the priest Mattathias and his sons, whose loyalty to the Law and the covenant and whose skills in counsel and battle will bring Israel's restoration.

Chaps. 3.1–9.22 recount the first phase of the restoration under the leadership of Judas, who defeats a series of increasingly professional forces sent against him, captures and rededicates the Temple, takes the war into gentile territory, achieves the abolition of the infamous decree, and arranges a treaty with Rome before being killed in battle. Judas is presented as a latter‐day Saul or David, not least at his death when Israel laments him in famous words (1 Macc. 9.21; cf. 2 Sam. 1.19):

How is the mighty fallen,the savior of Israel.

Chaps. 9.23–12.53 turn to Judas's youngest brother, Jonathan, who is made “ruler and leader, to fight our battle” (1 Macc. 9.30). After some skirmishing, Jonathan concludes the war with Bacchides, and begins to “judge” Israel (1 Macc. 9.73). This judgeship is important, hinting at the Hasmonean monarchy to follow. Similarly, Jonathan's high priesthood was important to the author, for it provided the title and justification for the frequently challenged high priesthood assumed by the Hasmonean monarchy.

The author brings the political story to its climax with the work of Simon (chaps. 13.1–16.17), under whom “the yoke of the gentiles was removed.” The particular importance of Simon is that he establishes a new era (1 Macc. 13.41–42), described in terms taken from prophecies of Israel's paradisal future:

He established peace in the land,and Israel rejoiced with great joy.All the people sat under their own vines and fig trees,and there was none to make them afraid.

(1 Macc. 14.11–12)

But the author is at particular pains to underline Simon's position as “high priest, commander, and ethnarch [NRSV: leader] of the Jews” (cf. 1 Macc. 13.41; 14.17, 35, 38, 41, 47; 15.2) and to indicate the position of John Hyrcanus as Simon's heir (1 Macc. 13.53; 14.59; 16.1–3); the book ends with a statement of John's acts, brave deeds, and achievements “from the time that he became high priest after his father” (1 Macc. 16.23–24).


1 Maccabees is, in effect, an apologia for the Hasmonean monarchy, and other families are not allowed to steal the limelight. When Joseph and Azariah, two subordinate commanders, try to emulate Judas's success, they fail disastrously because “they did not belong to the family of those men through whom deliverance was given to Israel” (1 Macc. 5.62). The public citation of Simon and his brothers proclaimed that they “exposed themselves to danger and resisted the enemies of their nation, in order that their sanctuary and the law might be preserved; and they brought great glory to their nation” (1 Macc. 14.29).

Sources, dating, text, and canonicity.

The author's political concerns, however, do not negate his historical value. He apparently had access to official state archives and public records (cf. 1 Macc. 14.27, 48–49), from which may derive some of the documents quoted. He refers to official annals at least for the rule of John Hyrcanus (1 Macc. 16.24), during which he probably wrote. In chronological matters he uses the official Seleucid era, dating from October 312 BCE, for events of Seleucid history, and the local Jewish calendar, whose years were dated from spring 312 or 311 BCE, when drawing upon Jewish sources. What these might have been (apart from the annals of Hyrcanus's rule) we can only guess, but an obvious possibility is some account or “acts” of Judas, whose existence has been inferred from 1 Maccabees 9.22. (This might also have been the source for the work of Jason of Cyrene abridged by 2 Maccabees.) The author of 1 Maccabees is not given to pious legend (as is 2 Maccabees), though the story of Mattathias in chap. 2 comes near this, but he does include a number of poetic laments (e.g., 2.7–13) and eulogies (e.g., 3.3–9), which are full of biblical allusions and may be his own compositions.

The style of these poems and the prose narrative, often reminiscent of the books of Samuel and Kings, supports Jerome's statement that 1 Maccabees was originally written in Hebrew. The book exists, however, only in a Greek translation; the oldest manuscript containing it is the fourth century CE Codex Sinaiticus. The original title is debated. Origen, quoted by Eusebius, preserved as a title the phrase sarbēth sarbanaiel, a corrupt Greek transliteration of the Aramaic “Book of the House of the Princes of God” (or, “of Israel”), that is, “Book of the Hasmonean Family.” Some such title would be more appropriate than “Maccabees,” for “Maccabee” was the nickname of Judas alone, but by the end of the second century CE Clement of Alexandria was distinguishing between “the book of Maccabean history” (1 Maccabees) and “the epitome of Maccabean history” (2 Maccabees). The book is considered part of the canon by Roman Catholics and most Orthodox churches.

2 Maccabees.


2 Maccabees is a very different book, as is clear from the prologue (2.19–30) and epilogue (15.37–39). The author intends to tell “the story of Judas Maccabeus and his brothers, and the purification of the great temple, and the dedication of the altar, and further the wars against Antiochus Epiphanes and his son Eupator, and the appearances that came from heaven to those who fought bravely for Judaism, so that though few in number they seized the whole land … and regained possession of the temple … and liberated the city and re‐established the laws” (2 Macc. 2.19–22). This he has condensed from the five‐volume work of the otherwise unknown Jason of Cyrene, in such a way that “the style of the story delights the ears of those who read the work” (15.39).

The book begins with two letters. The first (1.1–9) is dated 124 BCE, the second (1.10–2.18) is undated but, if authentic, is possibly from 163 BCE, before the first anniversary of the Temple rededication of 164 BCE. Both letters are from Jerusalem, urging Jews in Egypt to celebrate the feast; the author of 2 Maccabees, by prefixing them to Jason's work, has created a book that could be read at precisely such a festival (cf. Esther; 3 Maccabees).

The account of events summarized from Jason's work differs from 1 Maccabees' account in content, order, and style. It contains more political detail at certain points as well as more legendary material. The narrative has two parallel climaxes: the first is the defeat of Nicanor, the death of Antiochus, and the celebration of the purification of the sanctuary (8.1–10.8); the second is the defeat and death of Nicanor and the decree establishing the future celebration of that day (15.6–36). The summary of Jason's work is arranged between the prologue and epilogue as follows: (1) attacks on the Jewish Temple and religion by Seleucus, Antiochus, and Jewish Hellenists (3.1–6.11); (2) martyrdom of Eleazar, the seven brothers and their mother (6.18–7.42); (3) defeat of Nicanor, death of Antiochus, celebration of the Temple purification (8.1–10.9); (4) “what took place under Antiochus Eupator” (10.10–13.26); (5) defeat and death of Nicanor, decree for future celebration of the day (14.1–15.37). The author has evidently ordered the material in sections (perhaps following the divisions of Jason's five volumes). Concern to balance the sequences of sections (3) and (5) has led to adjustments in chronology; thus, for example, Antiochus IV's death precedes the Temple purification, whereas in 1 Maccabees it follows it (in fact, both events date to December 164 BCE). Three letters from Antiochus IV's reign appear in fact to belong to Antiochus V's (11.16–21; 27–33; 34–38), possibly because the author disliked crediting peace initiatives to Antiochus IV. The work ends with Nicanor's death (cf. 1 Macc. 7.47); Judas's death a year later is unmentioned and his success unclouded. In style, 2 Maccabees is more rhetorical than 1 Maccabees, addressing readers directly and involving their sympathies (see 6.12–17).


2 Maccabees is less concerned with the historical order of events than with the theological opposition between the Judaism represented by “orthodox” high priests like Onias and the hellenizing Judaism of Jason and Menelaus. At the heart of the struggle lies “the most holy temple in all the world” (5.15), firmly protected by God (3.39). The author knows, however, that the nation is even more important: “the Lord did not choose the nation for the sake of the holy place, but the place for the sake of the nation” (5.19). The nation's sufferings under Antiochus are punishment for apostasy (4.13–16), but “these punishments were designed not to destroy but to discipline our people” (6.12). Punishment is often shown as fitting the crime; thus Jason “who had driven many from their own country into exile died in exile” (5.9; cf. especially 9.5–28). The Jewish nation, however, was saved by the faith and prayers of Judas and his men (8.1–5; 15.7–11), which brought victory in battle (e.g., 15.20–27). Such victories were signaled by the dramatic appearance of angelic horsemen (cf. 3.25–26; 5.2–4; 10.29–30; 11.8). Equal faith was shown by martyrs such as Eleazar, the seven brothers and their mother, and the hero Razis (6.18–7.42; 14.37–46), who might expect the reward of resurrection (cf. 7.9, 11, 14, 23, 29; Dan. 12.2–3). An extension of this belief, influential in Christian theology, appears in 12.39–45, where Judas, having discovered that some of his own battle casualties had been wearing idolatrous amulets, provided sin offerings “and made atonement for the dead, so that they might be delivered from their sin,” in the expectation that those who had died fighting for the Maccabeean cause might rise again. (See Afterlife and Immortality.)

The author thus uses the story of Judas to affirm what he sees as the central tenets of Judaism: the importance of the Temple, the Law (especially the Sabbath observance), loyalty under persecution, faith in God's mercy to his covenant people and in his power of miraculous intervention. 2 Maccabees' outlook is like that of the book of Daniel and that of the Qumran War Scroll; these books may have a Hasidean background (cf. 1 Macc 2.42; 7.13; Judas was leader of the Hasideans, 2 Macc. 14.6). The author is more concerned with Judaism than with the monarchic nationalism of the Hasmoneans, whom he ignores, perhaps pointedly. Yet he writes in Greek, not in Hebrew, in a Hellenistic genre, and he is not totally dismissive of gentiles; even Antiochus IV grieves at the death of Onias (4.37), and Nicanor becomes genuinely friendly toward Judas (14.18–25).

Sources, dating, text, and canonicity.

For all its theological concern, 2 Maccabees is an important historical document. The underlying history of Jason shows remarkable knowledge of Jerusalem politics, and perhaps access to Temple archives (from which probably comes the correspondence of 1.1–2.18 and 11.16–38). Jason may have used a Seleucid source for some details of Seleucid history (e.g., 4.21–22, 30–31; 5.1; 9.1, 29; 10.11–13), and an “acts of Judas” (see above), together with some legendary material (6.18–7.42; 14.37–46). Much of this suggests an origin at Jerusalem, though Alexandria or Antioch has often been proposed. Jason probably wrote in the middle‐late second century BCE; 2 Maccabees must be dated between 124 BCE (1.9) and the arrival of Rome in 63 BCE. If the author is deliberately anti‐Hasmonean, as some think, he probably belongs to Janneus's reign (103–76 BCE). The text of 2 Maccabees is preserved in the fifth century CE Codex Alexandrinus, and in Old Latin, Syriac, and Armenian translations, and has canonical status in the Roman Catholic and most Orthodox churches.

3 Maccabees.


The book begins with Ptolemy IV Philopator's preparations to meet Antiochus III in battle at Raphia (217 BCE). A plot by one Theodotus to assassinate Philopator is thwarted by a lapsed Jew, Dositheus. Philopator wins the battle, and decides to visit his subjects with gifts for their temples. He is prevented by divine intervention from entering the Jerusalem sanctuary (the story is strongly reminiscent of 2 Macc. 3); on returning to Egypt he decrees that the Alexandrian Jews should be reduced to laographia (tax registration) and servitude, and be forced to accept the cult of Dionysus; those who accepted willingly would be given equal citizen rights with the citizens of Alexandria. A few apostatized, but the majority stood firm.

Philopator then ordered all the Jews of the interior to be rounded up and executed; explanations and instructions were issued to the army. The roundup is described with exaggerated pathos. Jews were registered until after forty days pens and paper ran out. The Jews were herded into the hippodrome, and five hundred elephants were excited by drink and incense to trample them to death, but when the moment came to let them loose, the executioner delayed because the king was asleep. After being woken, he dined, and, only then remembering the Jews, deferred the execution until the following day, when, again forgetful, he deferred the matter one more day. Angered by courtiers' criticism, Philopator swore he would massacre the Jews, ravage Judah, and burn the Temple. The next morning the intoxicated elephants were set on the Jews; in response to the prayer of the aged priest Eleazar, two terrible angels caused the elephants to turn in panic and trample the king's soldiers.

Philopator repented, freed the Jews, and prepared a seven‐day feast to celebrate the deliverance. He repatriated the Jews, with permission to execute those who had apostatized (over three hundred people). Another seven‐day feast was celebrated when the Jews reached Ptolemais in the eastern delta, where they dedicated a house of prayer. The book closes with the blessing: “Blessed be the Deliverer of Israel through all times! Amen!”

Historicity and dating.

Clearly, the work postdates Ptolemy IV Philopator (221–204 BCE), who is presented much as pictured by Polybius and Plutarch: given to drinking, a devotee of the god Dionysus, and interested in architecture. The visit to Jerusalem and interest in the Temple here recorded are not impossible, and the account of the battle of Raphia (chap. 1) agrees in outline with that of Polybius (Hist. 5.80, 86). But the story shows no certain firsthand knowledge of events, and it shares some features with other Jewish writings of the second and first centuries BCE. There are clear parallels with the story of Esther in Dositheus's revelation of the plot to assassinate Philopator (1.3; cf. Esther 2.21–23), in the Egyptian view of the Jews as hostile to the state (3.6–7; cf. Haman's view, Esther 3.8), and in the concluding establishment of a celebratory feast (cf. Esther 9.16–32). This last is also a feature of 2 Maccabees, with which 3 Maccabees has obvious similarities: for example, Philopator's attempt to enter the sanctuary (cf. 2 Macc. 3), the vision that terrified the elephants (3 Macc. 6.18–21; cf. 2 Macc. 3.26), the attempts to hellenize the Jews, the hostility to the Temple, the figure of the aged priest Eleazar, and the use of official correspondence.

There are also close relationships between 3 Maccabees and the Letter of Aristeas, which is usually dated to the mid second century BCE. Both are concerned with the sanctity of the Temple and the importance of the Law; both focus on the status of Jews in Alexandria and Egypt, and the relationship between the Ptolemaic king and the Jews. In Aristeas, Ptolemy II Philadelphus liberates his father's Jewish captives from servitude, and in 3 Maccabees Ptolemy IV threatens to return the Jews to it and worse. Aristeas presents the Alexandrian king and court as sympathetic to the Jews, and the Jews as people whose Law can be seen as rational and whose wisdom and learning can contribute to the good of the state. 3 Maccabees presents the king and court in less friendly light, accepting the Jewish right to live in Egypt only after divine intervention, and it shows the Jews as a people who must resist persecution to the death and punish all who compromise. The author of 3 Maccabees knows Aristeas but he reflects a much more difficult situation than that presupposed by Aristeas, and a much later one. The author also knew the Greek translation of Esther (probably dated 114 or 77 BCE); Philopator's edict (3 Macc. 3.12–29) may derive from Ahasuerus's edict (Esther 13.2–9).

These literary dependencies, together with the use of laographia (see below) suggest that 3 Maccabees is a first‐century BCE or even first‐century CE Jewish writing from Alexandria, drawing upon a number of stock motifs. This is confirmed by Josephus's attribution (Apion 2.53–54) of the same elephant story to Ptolemy VIII Physcon (145–116 BCE). The story may be exaggerated, but in essence it is historical; Physcon was hostile to the Alexandrian Jews because they had supported his sister Cleopatra against him for the throne. 3 Maccabees may be combining the tradition of this episode with other material about Jewish persecution from 2 Maccabees and the Greek Esther to make his story.


The author's concerns are clear: to show how Jews abroad should behave when threatened with persecution. In the face of an attack on the Temple, a threat to Jewish status in Alexandria, and a threat to destroy the whole Jewish population of Egypt, the correct Jewish response is above all prayer (1.16–2.20; 6.1–17; 7.20). The Jews are to hold firm to the Law and destroy apostates (2.33; 7.10–15), to remain hopeful (2.32–33) by trusting in providence (4.20), while remaining loyal to the king despite his persecution (3.3).

The story involves the vexed question of the status of the Jews at Alexandria. The Jewish community there constituted a politeuma (corporation), and was allowed to live in Alexandria ruled by its own elders in accordance with its own laws. Its members were neither native Egyptians (who were forbidden residence in Alexandria) nor full citizens of Alexandria. They were “foreigners in a foreign land” (6.3), yet reasonably privileged ones. This ambiguous position often led to trouble; the Roman emperor Claudius later ruled that the Jews should live peaceably in a city not their own, and that the Alexandrians should allow them this liberty.

In 3 Maccabees, Philopator proposes that, as revenge for his own humiliation, the Jews should either be reduced to laographia and servitude or accept initiation into the Dionysian mysteries (see Mystery Religions) and be rewarded with Alexandrian citizenship (isopoliteia; 2.28–30; 3.21). Laographia originally meant “census,” but came to refer to the poll tax that inevitably followed a census. Such payment would reduce the Jews to non‐Greek, Egyptian status. Laographia in this sense, however, is otherwise unknown before the census of 24–23 BCE, and it has therefore been proposed that 3 Maccabees was written with reference to this occasion, or to the troubles of Caligula's reign (37–41 CE). In this case, Philopator would represent the unstable Caligula, and Philopator's attempt to desecrate the Temple stands for Caligula's attempt to have his statue placed there.

In short, 3 Maccabees is a historical novel, drawing on familiar material, including popular memories of Philopator and Physcon and several Jewish writings, intended to encourage Alexandrian Jews at a period of renewed trouble over citizenship. The use of laographia with its implications for status may suggest the period of Roman administration after 31 BCE, but does not necessarily exclude a slightly earlier date.

Text and canonicity.

3 Maccabees does not appear in most canons, though the Greek text is found in Codex Alexandrinus, and some Orthodox churches do consider it canonical. Almost certainly of Alexandrian origin, it was known under its present title by Eusebius's time, but previously, perhaps, more accurately as “Ptolemaica” (“Ptolemaic matters”). Association with the Maccabean books came through its concern with persecution of the Jews by a Hellenistic king and because of its obvious similarities with 2 Maccabees.

4 Maccabees.


The author begins by proposing to discuss whether religious reason is master of the emotions. He aims to prove his point from the courage of the Maccabean martyrs who died for the sake of virtue. He defines his terms: “reason” is the intellect choosing to live by wisdom, which is education in the Jewish Law (so “religious reason” is in effect the underlying attitude of the Jew who lives by the Law). Such wisdom, however, comprises also the Platonic and Stoic virtues of rational judgment, justice, courage, and self‐control (1.18); it is especially by “rational judgment” that reason rules the emotions. There follow scriptural examples of individuals who ruled themselves by reason (which is assumed to mean, by the Jewish Law). In this way, Joseph controlled his sexual desire, Moses his anger, and so on.

The author now turns to the Maccabean history, drawing on 2 Maccabees 3–4 to introduce the stories of Eleazar (chaps. 5–7) and the seven brothers (chaps. 8–12). Eleazar becomes a philosopher and lawgiver, and the story is dramatized by the addition of speeches. King Antiochus ridicules Eleazar for abstaining from the pleasure of eating pork, one of nature's gifts (a Stoic argument); Eleazar responds that Jews must obey the Law in small things as in great; the Law has been divinely established to meet human needs. What is appropriate for one's soul is commanded to be eaten; what is not is prohibited. Antiochus will not rule Eleazar's reason in religious matters. Antiochus meets this defiance with torture; and after refusing to save himself by pretense, Eleazar dies praying that his blood be an expiation for his people, his life a ransom for theirs.

The author adds a lengthy rhetorical eulogy to point up the moral then turns to the martyrdom of the seven brothers and their mother. Antiochus urges them to adopt the Greek way of life, and he shows them the instruments of torture. They consider the arguments for submission, but reject them, being fully in control of their emotions (8.28), commenting that Antiochus has learned nothing from Eleazar. They accept their tortures calmly and philosophically (the author reveals a macabre delight in describing the details), speaking both of their readiness to suffer for the Law's sake and of Antiochus's inability to force them to abandon reason. The author underlines the lesson with a rhetorical sermon (chaps. 13–14). In chap. 15 he praises the mother's control over her natural affections, and in chap. 16 contrasts the arguments of compassion she might have used with those she actually addressed to her children before throwing herself on the fire (17.1).

The book ends with an appeal to Israel to obey the Law, knowing that reason is master of the emotions; with a statement of what the martyrs achieved; with the mother's personal apologia underlining the woman's duty to home, husband, and family; and with a final contrast between the fates of Antiochus and the martyrs, who have “received pure and immortal souls from God, to whom be glory forever and ever. Amen.”


This lengthy discourse in rhetorical Greek addresses its readers directly, and was possibly a memorial address intended for a diaspora Jewish community, perhaps in Antioch, on the day commemorating the rededication of the Temple or the death of the Maccabean martyrs. The author strongly approves the martyrs' readiness to die for the Law and their refusal to compromise for the sake of peace with their Hellenistic neighbors. Clearly, he writes for Jews who might be put into this difficult position. Martyrdom is highly valued; martyrs are seen as champions in an athletic contest in which the tyrant is the enemy, and the world and humanity the spectators (11.20; 17.13–14), or as soldiers of God (16.14), overcoming oppressive tyranny (1.11) by their suffering and endurance (9.8, 30). In particular, the martyr's suffering has a sacrificial and atoning value for the people as a whole; thus, Eleazar at the point of death prays, “Be merciful to your people, and let our punishment suffice for them. Make my blood their purification, and take my life in exchange for theirs” (6.28–29; cf. 17.20–21). This emphasis is striking and is underlined by the eternal blessedness promised to the martyr (13.17; 15.3; 17.5, 18; 18.27), though, in sharp contrast with 2 Maccabees 7 this eternal reward does not take the form of bodily resurrection. In the Hellenistic world, this Pharisaic doctrine was not readily accepted (cf. Acts 17.32).

That the author was writing for partly hellenized Jews is also suggested by the pervasive influence of the Stoic belief in the rule of reason over the passions. The Stoics, however, believed that reason should not merely overcome the passions and emotions but subject and destroy them, whereas 4 Maccabees expressly affirms that reason rules over the passions not with the aim of destroying them but with the aim of not yielding to them (1.6; cf. 3.2–3). The author was not a hard‐line Stoic—possibly he followed the teaching of Posidonius (ca. 135–50 BCE), who agreed that passions could not be totally eradicated—but commonplace Stoic teaching can nevertheless be seen throughout. The use of the cardinal virtues of prudence (NRSV: “rational judgment”), courage, justice, and temperance (1.8) goes back to Plato and Isocrates, as does the idea that it is better to suffer wrong than to do it (9.7–9; cf. Plato Gorgias 472e).

The author, however, is a deeply committed Jew, whose ideal is not the Stoic philosopher but the God‐fearing person who witnesses to the Law, which is the Jewish wisdom and philosophy. Reason chooses wisdom, and wisdom is education in the Law (1.15–17). Reason and the Law become almost interchangeable. The conduct of martyrs who die for the Law is thus thoroughly reasonable and therefore entirely commendable in the Hellenistic world.

Date and canonicity.

4 Maccabees can be dated between the publication of 2 Maccabees and the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE, of which there is no hint. The description of Apollonius in 4.2 as governor of Syria, Phoenicia, and Cilicia (cf. 2 Macc. 4.4, which mentions only Coele‐Syria and Phoenicia) suggests a date between 18 and 55 CE, when Cilicia was joined with the other two regions for administrative purposes. 4 Maccabees is thus evidence for diaspora Judaism in the time of Jesus, whose death, like that of the martyrs, was also described as having atoning significance.

4 Maccabees' obvious interest in the Maccabean tradition led to its association with similar books in Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Alexandrinus as 4 Maccabees, although it has generally not been considered canonical. Eusebius (Hist. evang. 3.10.6) and Jerome identify the work with one called “On the Supremacy of Reason,” which they wrongly attribute to Josephus (who would not have approved the martyrs' intransigence). The title, however, described the contents well.

Influence on Christianity.

4 Maccabees had considerable influence on Christian authors, perhaps beginning with the author of the letter to the Hebrews, who shares with 4 Maccabees an interest in the faith of the martyrs and perhaps some vocabulary (cf. Heb. 12.1–2; 4 Macc. 17.9–10). Cyprian of Carthage stressed the martyrs' faithful relationship to God (Epist. ad Fortunatum 11), and Origen saw them as an example of heroic martyrdom (Exhortation to Martyrdom 22–27). Augustine saw them as Christian in all but name and made the day of their commemoration, 1 August, a specifically Christian festival, since those who died for the Law of Moses died also for Christ (Sermon 300, In Solemnitate martyrum Machabaeorum). Gregory Nazianzus (Oratio in laudem Machabaeorum 15.1) saw them as anticipating Christian martyrdom, and the mother as anticipating Mary, the mother of sorrows.

John R. Bartlett

  • Previous Result
  • Results
  • Look It Up Highlight any word or phrase, then click the button to begin a new search.
  • Highlight On / Off
  • Next Result
Oxford University Press

© 2021. All Rights Reserved. Cookie Policy | Privacy Policy | Legal Notice