Among the writings of the Jewish Pseudepigrapha is a fictional narrative known as 3 Maccabees. This work tells the story of how the Jewish people endured unjust persecution at the hands of Ptolemy IV Philopater (221–204 B.C.E.), the Hellenistic ruler of Egypt, and with the miraculous help of God triumphed over him. The name “3 Maccabees” itself is a misnomer as the narrative has nothing to do with the Maccabees or the Maccabean period of Jewish history. The alleged events in 3 Maccabees occur more than forty years before the Maccabean period (167–163 B.C.E.) and, apart from the first two chapters, take place in Ptolemaic Egypt. The title probably derives from the book's position after 1 and 2 Maccabees in the text of the Septuagint.

The narrative of 3 Maccabees has two distinct parts. The first (1:1—2:24) relates to the events around the battle of Raphia (217 B.C.E.) between the armies of Philopator and Antiochus III, the Great, and the aftermath of the battle when Philopator allegedly visited Jerusalem. The second part, (2:25—7:23), narrates the attempts of Philopator to destroy the Jewish people living in Egypt and tells how God miraculously delivered them.

The narrative begins by recounting how Philopator with his army marched against Antiochus, who had seized significant amounts of Philopator's domain in Coele-Syria (modern Lebanon, southern Syria, Israel, and Palestine). According to the story, the two armies met at Raphia, near Gaza, and Philopator's army prevailed (1:1–5). Having won a great victory, Philopator decided to visit the neighboring cities to encourage their loyalty to him. When he visited Jerusalem, Philopator offered up sacrifices to the God of the Jews, but his desire to enter the Holy of Holies led to a mass demonstration by the priests and people of Jerusalem. When Philopator attempted to enter the sanctuary, God answered the prayer of Simon the high priest by miraculously striking Philopator with paralysis. His friends and bodyguards dragged him from the Temple, and after he recovered, he left Jerusalem uttering bitter threats against the Jews (1:6—2:24).

On his return to Egypt Philopator sought to requite his treatment in Jerusalem by ordering a systematic attack on the Jewish people in Egypt. He first commanded that the Jews be registered, stripped of their social and political status, and branded with the ivy-leaf symbol of the god Dionysus. While a few self-serving Jews accepted initiation into the mysteries of Dionysus to avoid the king's punishment, the majority remained loyal to their ancestral religion and found ways to buy themselves out of the registration (2:25–33). With the failure of his initial plan, he issued a letter commanding his army to bring together the Jewish people from throughout Egypt so that they could be put to death with extreme cruelty (3:1–30). Bound and chained like wild animals, the Jews from the countryside were brought to the hippodrome outside of Alexandria. When their fellow Jews in Alexandria tried to offer comfort to them, the king had them interned as well, to await torture and destruction (4:1–21). Angered by the failure of his agents to complete a registration of all the Jewish people, the king ordered Hermon, his elephant keeper, to drug and inebriate his 500 war elephants. Hermon was then to drive them into the hippodrome to trample the Jews to death. For two consecutive days God thwarted the evil intentions of Philopator. On the third day, in response to the prayer of the priest Eleazar, God sent two fearsome angels against Philopator and his army as they sought to drive the elephants into the hippodrome. The elephants turned on the army and began to trample them to death in their maddened state. When this happened Philopator finally came to his senses. He turned on his drinking friends blaming them for what had happened, and then ordered the release of the Jews, recognizing that they were his loyal subjects (5:1—6:29). He further ordered that the Jews be given provisions for a seven-day festival, during which they celebrated their divine deliverance. At the end of the festival the king agreed to send them to their homes, and also allowed them to destroy any Jewish apostates who had transgressed against God and God's law. When they eventually returned to their separate homes, all of their property and goods were restored to them, and they were held in honor and awe by their former enemies (6:30—7:23).

Authorship, Origins, and Date.

We have no direct information about the authorship and origins of 3 Maccabees, and must rely upon inferences drawn from the text itself. The author had a sophisticated Greek vocabulary that included terms only used in Greek poetry, and he had a predilection for compound adjectives and verbs, some of which are not found elsewhere in existing Greek literature, such as psychoulkein (“to be at the last gasp” 5:25). His style, which at times is prolix and pretentious, intentionally imitates earlier Classical Greek even though the work was written in the Hellenistic period. Taken together, these features suggest that the text was not a translation of an original Hebrew document, but was written in Greek by someone of considerable competence in the language. Scholars almost universally agree that the author was a member of the Jewish community in Alexandria (Croy 2006), an assumption receiving support from Emmet (1913) who demonstrates a close relationship in style, language, and content between 3 Maccabees, and 2 Maccabees and the Letter of Aristeas, both of which are thought to have originated in the Jewish community at Alexandria.

While scholars almost universally agree about the origins of 3 Maccabees, the same cannot be said for its date. Broadly speaking, three different views have emerged among scholars. For some the appearance of the term laographia in 2:28, a term referring to a census taken for creating a poll tax roll in the Roman period, and the threat to the social status of the Jewish people associated with it in 2:30, has particular significance. Hadas (1953) points out that in 25/24 B.C.E. when Egypt became a Roman province, a census took place to establish a poll tax. Such a census, he believes, may have included a demotion in the status of the Jewish people, which in turn may have led to defections by Jews wishing to avoid the loss of social and political status previously enjoyed in Ptolemaic Egypt. Thus, Hadas suggests that the most probable date for 3 Maccabees is sometime around 24 B.C.E. Against this view, however, is the fact that the term laographia was used in the papyri of Ptolemaic Egypt in association with creating tax rolls, and therefore it is unwise to read too much into the appearance of laographia in 2:28 (Anderson 1985).

Collins (2000), following the lead of several earlier scholars, argues that 3 Maccabees was written during the Roman period for the same reasons identified by Hadas. He differs, however, by claiming that the reign of the third Roman emperor, Caligula (37–41 C.E.), provides the specific historical circumstances for the writing of 3 Maccabees. According to Collins the only time during the Roman period that the twin phenomena of the Jewish community in Egypt experiencing persecution and the Temple in Jerusalem coming under threat of desecration, the two themes of 3 Maccabees, occurred was in the period 38–41 C.E. Several considerations, however, weigh heavily against Collins' view. First, the order of the two key attacks on Judaism is reversed in 3 Maccabees since the historical sequence was an attack on the Jewish community in Egypt, primarily by the local population, and then later Caligula's attempt to have his own image set up in the Temple. Second, there is no real correspondence between Philopator's desire to see the Holy of Holies and Caligula's attempt to have his image erected in the Temple. If 3 Maccabees were written in response to the crisis under Caligula, the author could easily have presented Philopator's attack on the Temple in terms of asserting his own claims to deity and setting his own image up in the Temple, but he did not (Anderson 1985). In addition, the outcome of the Caligula episode is radically different from that in 3 Maccabees. Caligula did not repent of his actions but was assassinated before his image could be set up in the Temple. In 3 Maccabees the denouement comes when Philopator acknowledges the great God of the Jews as guiding his affairs, recognizes the good will of the Jews toward his rule, and stresses that opposition toward them is dangerous since the power of the Most High God protects them (7:2–9). Finally, 3 Maccabees does not appear to have resulted from a specific crisis (Alexander 2003), nor is such a crisis necessary to explain the narrative (Croy). The social and political tensions within the Jewish community in Alexandria from any time after the mid-second century B.C.E. are sufficient to account for the origins of 3 Maccabees (Schürer 1986).

An alternative approach is to use literary data from the text in a comparative fashion. Based on 6:6 the author seems to have some knowledge of the short narrative at the conclusion of Prayer of Azariah (1:23–27; NRSV), one of the Greek additions to Daniel that most likely date[s] from the Maccabean period. This suggests that the earliest possible date may be the mid-second century B.C.E. (Croy). As previously mentioned, 3 Maccabees has strong similarities in content, language, and style to 2 Maccabees, dating from the late second century, and the Letter of Aristeas, dating from around 100 B.C.E. (see Delcor 1989 on the dates). Also it is widely held that a literary connection exists between 3:11–30 and the Greek text of Esther 13 in respect to the royal letters found in both. The problem is that scholars have dated Greek Esther anywhere from 114 to 48 B.C.E., and it is unclear in which direction the literary borrowing has occurred (Schürer). In the absence of certainty the literary relation between the two documents does not move us forward regarding the date.

Two technical considerations provide us with some help. In 3:12 and 7:1, the beginning of two letters allegedly written by Philopator, he identifies himself as “King Ptolemy Philopator.” This constitutes an anachronism; epithets, like “Philopator,” only came to be used in official Ptolemaic correspondence from around 100 B.C.E. (Croy). Second, the greeting, chairein kai erroōsthai (“greetings and good health”), used in the two letters is the same as the greeting found in the Letter of Aristeas, a letter that, as previously mentioned, has numerous similarities to 3 Maccabees and dates from around 100 B.C.E. Letters found in Egyptian papyri texts confirm that this greeting was in vogue around the turn of the first century B.C.E. but changed later (Anderson 1985).

In light of the above considerations, especially the literary and technical ones, a date in the late second century or early first century B.C.E. seems likely, and has been adopted by many scholars (e.g., Emmet; Anderson, 1985; Decor, 1989; Alexander, 2003).

Historicizing Fiction.

In spite of the claims of Kasher (1985) and others that 3 Maccabees has significant historical worth for the period of Philopator, most scholars classify the book as a romantic fiction, often linking it to the genre of Greek romance. This fit is somewhat arbitrary, however, as 3 Maccabees lacks key features of Greek romances such as a hero or heroine and erotic love (Hadas). Perhaps a better designation, from a modern perspective, would be historical fiction (Johnson 2004) or historicizing fiction, modeled on the book of Esther, since various features in the story create the impression of historical verisimilitude, while the overall composition contains imaginative elements. Historical verisimilitude is created at the outset through mention of a known Ptolemaic ruler, Philopator, and a known event, the Battle of Raphia. The two are treated in some detail by the Polybius (circa 200–118 B.C.E.) (Histories 5.79–86). Philopator's visit to the Temple in Jerusalem is plausible, if otherwise unconfirmed by historical sources. His experience at the Temple then offers a plausible reason for his antagonism toward the Jewish population of Egypt. The setting up of the stone with its inscription (2:27–30) and the presence of seemingly official letters from “King Ptolemy Philopator” (3:11; 7:1) also contribute to the historical verisimilitude.

Nevertheless, 3 Maccabees poses clear problems if read as a historical source. First, Polybius offers a detail regarding the aftermath of the Battle of Raphia that makes Philopator's attack on the Jewish people seem extremely improbable. He says that following the battle, Philopator returned to Egypt and immediately was forced to go to war with the native Egyptian population (Histories 5.107.1–3). If this is the case, and there is no reason to doubt Polybius, Philopator could not possibly have been in a position to launch an attack on the Jewish population of Egypt as presented in 3 Maccabees. In fact Johnson argues that we have no concrete evidence for the persecution of Jewish people in Egypt during the Ptolemaic period.

Many of the details in the narrative appear improbable as well. For example, the registration of the entire Jewish population who were gathered in the hippodrome prior to their annihilation makes no sense, nor does the more than forty days of internment for such a vast group before destroying them (4:14–16). It is psychologically implausible that, while the king sought to destroy the Jews, they “continued to maintain goodwill and unswerving loyalty toward the dynasty” (3:3). The use of drunken war elephants to destroy the Jewish people appears to be legendary. Josephus (Contra Apionem 2.50–55) attributes the elephant episode to Ptolemy VIII Physcon (145–116 B.C.E.). In both stories the drunken elephants turn on the retainers of the king leading to their being trampled to death while the Jews are protected by God. The two fearsome angels (6:18–21), who could not be seen by the Jews but caused panic among their enemies, appear to be highly imaginative. These and other details confirm that 3 Maccabees is historicizing fiction.

Religious and Cultural Significance.

The author of 3 Maccabees is clearly a devout Jew of conservative sentiments. He is strongly attached to the Temple and Jerusalem, to the Law, to the special status of the people of Israel, and to the notion that God will protect the Temple and the people of Israel in times of oppression. Perhaps his most important message for his original audience, the Jewish people of Egypt, concerns the need for faithfulness to God. The author appears to be steeped in the theology of Deuteronomy since he connects the suffering and oppression of the Jewish people at the hands of their gentile enemies with their own sinfulness and impiety (2:13–14, 19; 6:10). In their prayers both Simon and Eleazar confess the sins of their respective communities in a general way, and call upon God to rescue them from the evil that threatens to overwhelm them. In the story, as promised in Deuteronomy 28:1–14, God protects and ultimately rescues them from their adversaries. Thus, the Jewish people, as the beloved of God, can rely on the power of God to protect and rescue them in whatever situation they find themselves, provided that they are faithful to God. In the end, this point is recognized even by Philopator (7:9).

A second major theme of the book concerns the unjust suffering of the Jews. This long-recognized apologetic motif is found in several places. For example, after the king turned on the Jews, the author maintains that they remained loyal toward his dynasty and by virtue of their good deeds were held in high regard by the general population (3:1–5). On several subsequent occasions Philopator himself confirms their loyalty and their good will toward him and his ancestors (5:31; 6:25–26, 28; 7:7), and even maintains that his friends undermined his rule by seeking their destruction (6:23–24). Thus in the narrative Philopator mounts a defense of the Jewish people as good subjects in spite of their cultural differences, but he also points out that doing evil to the Jewish people will lead to vengeance from the Most High God against the perpetrators of the evil (7:9).

The work also has a polemical element since it justifies the destruction of those Jews who were guilty of apostasy by their willful transgression of the Law and their rejection of the God of the Jews (7:10–15). But the work is also polemical in its repeated attacks on Philopator for his arrogance, impiety toward God, and licentious lifestyle (1:26; 2:2, 14, 21, 26; 3:11; 4:16; 5:20, 42, 47), and more generally toward the calumny, arrogance, and maltreatment of the gentiles (3:6–7; 5:13; 6:9, 11). Since Philopator is ultimately thwarted by God, his life serves as a warning to other unjust Ptolemaic rulers not to attack the Jewish people, a point he makes in his second letter when he warns against making the God of the Jews an enemy (7:9).

Finally, several scholars have noted that 3 Maccabees has an etiological function in explaining the origin of an otherwise unknown feast among the Jews of Egypt that was celebrated to commemorate their deliverance from some perceived danger (6:36). Josephus (Contra Apionem 2:55) mentions just such a feast among the Jews of Alexandria in response to their deliverance from the machinations of Physcon and his war elephants. Alexander, however, without sufficient evidence seems to overemphasize the etiological function.

Transmission History.

Third Maccabees has left no discernible impact on Jewish literature (Hadas), nor can we trace its transmission within Judaism. It was included in some versions of the Septuagint, the earliest and most important of these being Codex Alexandrinus, a fifth-century uncial text that was clearly Christian in origin. This text has provided the base text for modern versions of the Septuagint. Although the Eastern Orthodox churches preserved 3 Maccabees and included it in their Bibles, it was placed among the Anagignoskomena, that is, books worthy to be read by the church, but not of the same authority as the other books of the Bible. Versions of 3 Maccabees existed in translation in both Syriac and Armenian by the sixth century C.E., but within the Western Church, 3 Maccabees remained unknown and as a result was not included in the Vulgate Bible, nor was it included in the apocrypha of Protestant Christianity. A few references to 3 Maccabees are found in patristic literature, the earliest in Eusebius, but such references are few and insignificant (Croy). Thus, 3 Maccabees falls into the rather unusual category of having been preserved by the church, at least the Easter Orthodox churches, while having had no discernible influence on Christianity.



  • Alexander, Philip S. “3 Maccabees.” In Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible, edited by James D. G. Dunn and John W. Rogerson, pp. 865–875. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans. 2003. Brief introduction and commentary in a one-volume commentary on the whole Bible, including apocrypha.
  • Anderson, Hugh. “3 Maccabees.” In The Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 4, edited by David Noel Freedman, pp. 450–452. New York: Doubleday, 1992. Offers a brief introduction to 3 Maccabees.
  • Anderson, Hugh. “3 Maccabees.” In The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, vol. 2, edited by James H. Charlesworth, pp. 509–529. Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1985. Good introduction, with translation, and brief notes.
  • Barclay, John M. G. Jews in the Mediterranean Diaspora: From Alexander to Trajan (323 BCE–117 CE). Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1996. Looks at the experience of Jewish people in the diaspora over a 440-year period. Very useful for understanding the cultural context of 3 Maccabees and its purpose.
  • Collins, John J. Between Athens and Jerusalem: Jewish Identity in the Hellenistic Diaspora, 2d edition. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2000. Provides a general introduction to the literature of Hellenistic Judaism and is important for Collins's dating of 3 Maccabees.
  • Croy, N. Clayton. 3 Maccabees. Septuagint Commentary Series. Boston: Brill, 2006. The most up-to-date and best commentary on 3 Maccabees in English at present.
  • Delcor, Mathias. “The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Hellenistic Period.” In The Cambridge History of Judaism, edited by W. D. Davies and Louis Finkelstein, pp. 409–503. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1989. Offers a very useful general introduction to the writings of the apocrypha and pseudepigrapha.
  • DeSilva, David A. Introducing the Apocrypha: Message, Context, and Significance. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 2002. Excellent general introduction to the apocrypha with a useful discussion of 3 Maccabees.
  • Emmet, Cyril W. “The Third Book of Maccabees.” In The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament in English, vol. 1, edited by R. H. Charles, pp. 155–173. Oxford: Clarendon, 1913. Still useful after a century; includes introduction, translation, and notes.
  • Hadas, Moses. The Third and Fourth Books of Maccabees. Jewish Apocryphal Literature. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1953. Provides introduction, text, translation and notes.
  • Johnson, Sara Raup. Historical Fictions and Hellenistic Jewish Identity: Third Maccabees in Its Cultural Context. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004. Only full-length monograph available on 3 Maccabees.
  • Kasher, Aryeh. The Jews in Hellenistic and Roman Egypt. Texte und Studien zum antiken Judentum. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 1985. Noteworthy for its view on the historical value of 3 Maccabees.
  • Schürer, Emil. The History of the Jewish People in the Age of Jesus Christ, vol. 3, part 1, revised and edited by G. Vermes, Fergus Millar, and Martin Goodman. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 1986. Part of a major updating of the classical work by Emil Schürer with a good introduction to 3 Maccabees.

Charles A. Wanamaker