The book appears under a number of titles, with the main manuscripts giving the simple name used today (in the form Makkabaiôn D'). The Syriac title is The Fourth Book of the Maccabees and Their Mother. Eusebius gives the alternative titles On the Sovereignty of Reason (peri autokratoros logismou), in reference to its leading argument, adding “which some call Book of Maccabees”; and Jerome follows suit with the philosophical title, as do later church writers. This is also the name given in some Josephus manuscripts. In its first printed edition (in the Strasbourg Bible of 1526) the title is Josephus' Book about the Maccabees (Iosippou biblion eis tous Makkabaious). A similar title, Argument (or Narrative) about the Maccabees (eis tous Makkabaious logos) is occasionally found.

Canonical Status and Location in Canon.

In its original Jewish context, 4 Maccabees had no connection with the biblical canon. It is a literary work that draws on Greek generic models, scriptural only in its exempla and in its moral lessons. Such was its impact on early Christian circles, however, that it was subsumed into the Septuagint corpus. Its name, which connected it with the biblicized first book of Maccabees and its thematic connection with the second book, no doubt conferred authority upon the fourth book. Fourth Maccabees has retained deuterocanonical or apocryphal status in the Georgian Church and may appear as an appendix in Eastern Orthodox Bibles. The Greek style is not markedly Septuagintal, except perhaps in its liking for neologisms, but rather conforms to the florid taste of its period.


The work is anonymous. In late antiquity it was ascribed to the first century C.E. Jewish historian Flavius Josephus by figures as significant as Eusebius of Caesarea (Hist. eccl. 3.10.6) and Jerome (Vir. ill. 13). A number of manuscripts of Josephus contain 4 Maccabees, and the ascription continues into early printed Bibles. Most modern scholarship has found no plausibility in this old ascription. Most of the final chapter (from 18.6) is often regarded as an addition.

Date of Composition and Historical Context.

There is no firm indication within the work of when or why it was composed. The terminus post quem is the composition of 2 Maccabees, which reasonably falls in the second half of the second century B.C.E. The Jerusalem Temple is spoken of as still standing, but since this is a persistent tendency in post-70 C.E. Jewish thought, a terminus ante quem should not be derived from it. The designation in the text of the province of the Seleucid governor (strategos) Apollonius as “Syria, Phoenicia, and Cilicia” (4:2, in contrast to 2 Macc 3:5) was taken by Bickerman (2007 [1976]), who has been widely followed, to point to the composition of the whole work within a window in the mid-first century C.E. (between 20 and 54) when Syria and Cilicia (or part of it) were combined under one Roman jurisdiction. More recently, however, affinities of language and concept with both pagan and Christian writings of the second century C.E. have been felt to carry more weight.

The place of composition is also uncertain, with the leading candidate being Antioch in Syria, where the Christian veneration of the Maccabean martyrs later took root. Van Henten (1994) has argued for an origin in one of the Greek cities of Asia Minor on the grounds of some similarities between the wording of the epitaph conjured up for the martyrs by the author (17:9) and the non-Jewish epigraphy of, especially, Lycaonia, Galatia, and Phrygia. Alexandria, where much of the Greek literature of the Jewish Diaspora probably originated, remains a contender.

Whether a precise historical context should be sought raises different kinds of questions. The mid-first century dating has led some to suggest an association with the reign of the tyrannical and capricious Roman Emperor Gaius Caligula, whose demand for worship had tragic consequences for the Jews, both in Alexandria and in Judea. Yet the context need not be one of crisis, as deSilva (2006) points out. Group self-affirmation, the necessary loyalty, and communal pride at moments of relative calm and prosperity could also be achieved by conjuring up past or potential oppression. At the same time, it is tempting to propose as a general background the two major Jewish revolts of the first half of the second century, first under Trajan in the Jewish Diaspora and then under Hadrian in Palestine, both of them associated with the major martyrological legends of Talmud and midrash.

Literary History.

Like all Jewish-Greek works, 4 Maccabees survives through Christian transmission. It is present in two of the three great uncial manuscripts of the Septuagint, Codex Sinaiticus (fourth century C.E) and Codex Alexandrinus (fifth century C.E). There are many differences between the two traditions, and the Sinaiticus manuscript has been corrected by a later hand. Sinaiticus was largely sidelined by most early editors, but it is the basis of deSilva's text. While the book has been lost from Codex Vaticanus, that manuscript tradition is thought to be represented by what remains in the eighth or ninth century Codex Venetus (where, however, chapters 5:11—12:1 are lacking). A particular group of manuscripts is the so-called Menologia tradition, where 4 Maccabees appears among the lives of the saints, organized by date. There is also a Syriac tradition in the Peshitta, whose readings remain to be fully integrated. 4 Maccabees was not included in the Vulgate. A Latin adaptation under the title Passio SS. Machabaeorum, which must go back to the fourth century, is known from over thirty manuscripts. An old Slavonic version exists in one manuscript and one fragment.

Structure and Contents.

The story is a fictive elaboration of the material in 2 Maccabees chapters 6 and 7. In structure it is a puzzling hybrid, which combines a number of literary genres or forms in a manner apparently characteristic of the “Second Sophistic,” the Hellenizing elite culture of the Roman Empire in the second century B.C.E. Opening with a philosophical proposition, the author announces that his theme is “most philosophical”: he is setting out to prove pious reason (eusebês logismos) to be superior to the passions (tôn pathôn). He explains that the martyrs will be his exemplar and goes on to explain his terms, placing reasoned self-control within the framework of Jewish Law. This assertion is explained and emphasized, and it recurs in various formulations, as something that is under examination, throughout the work. But while the rest of the book, from 3:19 to the end, does indeed constitute a demonstration of a kind, it soon exceeds the bounds of what is needed, and the discourse slides in and out of dramatic, eulogistic, or moralistic mode, scarcely even trying to sound like philosophy. The book continues as follows:

  • 3:19—4:26: the background of Apollonius's raid on the Temple and the persecution of Antiochus IV are sketched in.
  • 5–7: the refusal of Eleazar, an aged priest, to eat pork, or even to pretend to eat pork, is recounted; he continues defiant and dies horribly.
  • 8:1—9:11: King Antiochus, described as a tyrant, addresses the seven brothers from a lofty throne, and they spurn his overtures and scorn his savage threats.
  • 9:12—12:20: narrative of the brothers' martyrdom, with speeches exchanged between the tyrant and his victims interspersed with exceedingly graphic descriptions of their dreadful torments and agonized deaths.
  • 13:1—14:10: their achievement celebrated as the victory of pious reason and the acme of fraternal affection.
  • 14:10—16:24: the mother's reactions to the death of her children and her heroism in urging them on, with reflections on procreation and the power of maternal love.
  • 17:1–6: apostrophe to the mother, in which her self-inflicted death, appropriate to her purity, is described.
  • 17:7—18:6: eulogy of the martyrs and reflections upon the public effect of their martyrdom, including an address to the audience.
  • 18:7–19: the mother's final teachings to her son on obedience to the Torah and divine salvation.
  • 18:20–4: we are assured there will be punishment for the tyrant for his horrific brutalities (again reviewed in brief), and immediate translation for the “children of Abraham” and their mother to the eternal choir of their ancestors.


Diaspora Jews with a Greek education are rightly proposed as the original core hearers/readers of this blend of Greek thought with the Torah. But if the work is to be situated in the marketplace of religions and ideas that characterized the early second century C.E., we may envisage a lively interest both from pagans, who would have responded at the very least to the philosophy, to the depiction of the royal tyrant, to the drama of the exchanges, and to the bloodthirstiness of the tortures, and from Christians, whose own first martyr narratives, written during this period, have much in common with 4 Maccabees.

The generic hybridity and shifts of 4 Maccabees makes it hard to pin down the original function of the work, and the following descriptions, singly or in combination, have all had their advocates: philosophical dialogue; moral diatribe; synagogue homily; epideictic oration; panegyric; set piece in the tradition of the funeral oration (epitaphios) for delivery at the commemoration of the martyrs' deaths or else composed for armchair readers; even perhaps, just a school training exercise.

Fourth Maccabees had enormous importance for the early Church and became the best known of the four books in the Maccabean corpus. Its high profile was enhanced by the emergence of the veneration of the Maccabean martyrs at Antioch near Daphne, which clothed the fiction in reality. The martyrdoms were admired and celebrated across the Roman world, and extensive interpretation of 4 Maccabees appeared in the shape of homilies composed for the supposed anniversary of the martyrdom (1 August) in both East and West during the fourth and fifth centuries C.E. These were authored by such important figures as Ambrose, Augustine, John Chrysostom (three orations), and Gregory of Nazianzenus; they honor those pre-Christian martyrs for their supreme endurance on behalf of the Law of their Fathers, achieved without the benefit of the model of Christ.

There was no direct Jewish interpretation. But 4 Maccabees may be detectable behind the principal rabbinic narrative about these martyrs: in Lamentations Rabbah 1.16 common motifs can be identified, such as the ruler's offer to one of the sons that he perform the idolatrous act unseen; but such motifs are put to very different use, with an emphasis among the rabbis on the absolute supremacy and power of the one God.

Reception History.

It is often hard to distinguish the influence of the martyrology in 2 Maccabees from that of 4 Maccabees. In the New Testament, marked verbal echoes of 4 Maccabees have been observed in the Pastoral Epistles and in Hebrews (explored by deSilva, Scarpat [2006], and others); but it is not yet clear whether these are evidence of direct influence.

There is no doubt that the dissemination of 4 Maccabees enhanced the Maccabean tradition in Christianity and stimulated greatly the evolution of the ideology and motifs of pre-Constantinian martyrdom, from its expiatory function to its role in the achievement of military victory, from the mother's voluntary act of throwing herself into the flames to preserve her untouched body to the tyrant's punishment and gruesome death, and finally to the certain resurrection of the martyrs in their heavenly choir.

Most striking is the appearance of relics in centers as far flung as Cologne, where they were transferred in 1164 and a college of Maccabeans was founded, and Rome, where the tombs of the Maccabees are still to be seen in the Church of Saint Peter-in-Chains. The gruesome descriptions of torture are thought to have given rise to the colloquial French macabé for the corpse of a murdered person and to the English word “macabre.” There were also relics in Constantinople.

In Jewish culture, the main carrier of the story of the Maccabean martyrdoms was Sepher Josippon (14–16), a historical compilation made in tenth-century southern Italy, for centuries taken to be the real Josephus. Apart from folk tradition, its main source was 2 Maccabees 6 and 7; in Josippon—as there—the martyrdom of Eleazar was presented separately. But the possibility of influence on Josippon from the extended story in 4 Maccabees has not been excluded, given its popularity among Christians, and thus it is conceivable that echoes of 4 Maccabees indirectly affected the medieval Jewish conception and literature of self-immolation in anticipation of slaughter.



Editions and Commentaries

  • Anderson, H. “4 Maccabees (First Century A.D.).” In The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha 2, edited by J. H. Charlesworth, pp. 530–543. New York: Doubleday, 1985.
  • Bensly, R. L. The Fourth Book of Maccabees and Kindred Documents in Syriac, First Edited on Manuscript Authority. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1895.
  • DeSilva, D. A. 4 Maccabees: Introduction and Commentary on the Greek Text in Codex Sinaiticus. Septuagint Commentary Series. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2006.
  • Dörrie, H. Passio SS Machabaeorum, die antike lateinische Ubersetzung des IV Makkäbaerbuches. Abhandlung der Gesellschaft der Wissenschaften zu Göttingen; Philologisch Historische Klasse 3. Folge 22. Göttingen, Germany: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1938.
  • Hadas, M. The Third and Fourth Books of Maccabees. Jewish Apocryphal Literature. New York: Dropsie College/Harper, 1953.
  • Klauck, H. J. 4 Makkäbaerbuch. Jüdische Schriften aus hellenistisch-römischer Zeit 3.6. Gütersloh, Germany: Gerd Mohn, 1989.
  • Scarpat, G. Quarto libro dei Maccabei: Testo, traduzione, introduzione e commento. Biblica 9. Brescia, Italy: Paideia, 2006.
  • Townshend, R. B. “The Fourth Book of Maccabees.” In Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament 2, edited by R. H. Charles, pp. 653–685. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1913.


  • Bickerman, E. J. “The Date of Fourth Maccabees.” In Studies in Jewish and Christian History: A New English Edition including The God of the Maccabees, 1, pp. 266–271. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 2007 [1976].
  • Cohen, G. D. “The Story of Hannah and her Seven Sons in Hebrew Literature.” In M.M. Kaplan Jubilee Volume, pp. 109–122. New York: Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1953.
  • Henten, J. W. van. “A Jewish Epitaph in a Literary Text: 4 Macc 17:8–10.” In Studies in Early Jewish Epigraphy, edited by J. W. van Henten and P. W. van der Horst, pp. 44–69. Arbeiten zur Geschichte des antiken Judentums und des Urchristentums 21. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 1994.
  • Henten, J. W. van. The Maccabean Martyrs as Saviours of the Jewish People: A Study of 2 and 4 Maccabees. Supplements to the Journal for the Study of Judaism, 57. Leiden, Netherlands: Brill, 1997.
  • Hillhorst, T. “Fourth Maccabees in Christian Martyrdom Texts.” In Ultima Aetas: Time, Tense, and Transience in the Ancient World. Studies in Honour of Jan den Boeft, edited by C. Kroon, D. d. Hengst, and J. d. Boeft, pp. 107–121. Amsterdam: VU University Press, 2000.
  • Obermann, J. “The Sepulchre of the Maccabean Martyrs.” Journal of Biblical Literature 50 (1931): 250–265.
  • Renehan, R. “The Greek Philosophic Background of Fourth Maccabees.” Rheinisches Museum f. Philologie 115 (1972): 223–238.
  • Vinson, M. “Gregory Nazianzen's Homily 15 and the Genesis of the Christian Cult of the Maccabean Martyrs.” Byzantion 64, no.1 (1992): 166–192.

Tessa Rajak