What is Third Maccabees?

This “historical romance” was written in Greek sometime after the battle of Raphia (217 B.C.) and before the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. The book seems to know the additions to Daniel and possible the Letter of Aristeas as well, so it is probable the book was written in the first century B.C. The book may also have used 2 Maccabees, there are parallels in vocabulary and style. The book is often included in texts on the Apocrypha. The book is misnamed, since it does not contain a history of the Maccabean period, nor is it a continuation of the other two Maccabean books.  The book concerns an incident unrelated to the Maccabean family, and is titled Ptolemaica in some manuscripts (deSilva, 306).

Image result for third maccabeesSome scholars date the book to the reign of Caligula because of his desire to place an image of himself in the temple in A.D. 40. This sort of fictional “reaction” to Caligula is told in the guise of a similar crisis of the not-too-distant past. The problem with this view is there nothing explicit in the text which points to Rome or Caligula as the real point of the book.

A third possibility is the book was written in response to the shift from Egyptian to Roman control of Egypt in 24 B.C. The civic status of the Jew in Egypt was in question at that time, therefore the author creates a story as a comment on the beginning of Roman rule in Egypt. The evidence for this is a hint in 2:28 to a Roman poll tax.

This is a very thin argument and cannot serve as a final proof of the date of the book either. As Anderson says in his introduction, the real problem with each of these theories is that the book does not read like a “crisis document.” It lacks nearly every important characteristic of the apocalyptic response to a crisis (judgment, retribution, overthrow of the present age by God himself).

3 Maccabees may have been written as a defense of Diaspora Jews written to a Judean Jewish audience (Williams, 17). Since they live outside the land, they are considered to be “still in exile” and are therefore still under God’s judgment. The book demonstrates that God hears the prayers of the Diaspora Jewish community and preserves them in persecution, as he did during the Jewish community in Judea during the time of Antiochus IV Epiphanies. It is possible the Jews in Jerusalem looked down on the Jews living outside the land.  The Jew of the Diaspora has as close of a connection to God as of the Jewish living in the land.

The book certainly addresses the problem of apostasy in the Diaspora since the Jews who have renounced their faith in the book are judged harshly. A major theme of the book is the boundary between the Jew and the Gentile. When Gentiles appear in the story, they are prejudiced, lawless and abominable. Even in Egypt Jews are warned to keep their distance from Gentiles and to avoid apostasy at all cost.

The context of the Caligula decree seems to make the most sense, but there does not seem to be enough time for a book like this to be written and circulated to make much of a difference in that situation. It is possible the author has in mind “generic” persecution, since a number of Greek and Roman generals sought to enter the temple. Pompey did in fact enter the Holy of Holies without any judgment. It is possible the book was written after Pompey as a sort of “what should have happened” story.

The study of this book is valuable to the student of the New Testament because it describes the Jews as unwilling to compromise their faith even in the Diaspora. When Ptolemy threatens to enter the sanctuary the whole population of Jerusalem join in the protest, but it is a protest to God to step into the situation and stop Ptolemy himself.  God is “the God, who oversees all things, the first Father of all, holy among the holy ones” (NRSV), therefore he can act and do what he needs to in order to defend himself.

Paul’s encounters with Jews in Asia Minor, for example, indicate that most Jews were keeping the law and not particularly interested Paul’s encouragement of Gentiles to “convert” partially by believing Jesus is the Messiah and not keep the Law. Here in this book those Jews who chose to “following their own bellies” and reject the Law in order to gain favor with the King are killed in the climax of the story. It is little wonder Paul’s gospel of freedom from the Law often resulted in riots and physical abuse (2 Cor 12).


Bibliography: David A. deSilva, Introducing the Apocrypha (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002), 304-322; David Williams, “3 Maccabees: A Defense of Diaspora Judaism,” Journal for the Study of Pseudepigrapha 13 (1995), 17-29.


8 thoughts on “What is Third Maccabees?

  1. To describe the Jews of Judea any time prior to 135 CE as “Palestinian Jews” is an anachronism. The Jews of the period certainly did not identify themselves in this manner, and of course Matthew 2:1 speaks of Jesus having been born in “Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king…” It says nothing of Bethlehem being in “Palestine” nor does the word Palestine appear anywhere in the Hebrew Scriptures (except as a mistranslation of “Philistia”, the Greek rendering of the original Hebrew Peleshet) nor, I believe, in the NT.

    It is fair to say that the renaming in 135 CE by Imperial Rome of Judea “Syria-Palaestina” after the third major Jewish revolt in a period of about one century was an act of pure colonialism, meant to destroy the connection of the indigenous Jewish (i.e. Judean) people with their ancestral homeland.

    The English word of the original Hebrew Yehudi (Judean) dropped the ‘d’ (unlike for instance German “Jude”, Spanish “judío”) and is now pronounced “Jew.” Today, however, there are 6.5 million Israeli Jews who every daily use the original Hebrew (YehudI) and understand themselves to be Judeans, quite literally.

    Just as English has readjusted to referring to Peking as Beijing, or Bombay as Mumbai (the original pronunciations in their respective languages), so too perhaps English-speakers ought to consider respecting Judeans by reinserting the ‘d’.

    In any event, “Palestine” was an imperial imposition onto the aboriginal name of the country, Judea, that was carried over into modernity by a succession of occupying empires (pagan Roman, Byzantine Christian, Arab-Muslim, Turkish-Muslim, British Christian).

    • Thanks Isaac, mea culpa. I normally do not use the term (and I will go back and edit one of the two references above out of the post). The other is drawn from the Williams article, and I may not be able to extract it and be accurate in my citation.

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