Third Maccabees is perhaps best remembered for God’s dramatic actions rescuing the Jews from Ptolemy IV Philopater (221-205 B.C.). Josephus narrates a similar story, but dates it to the reign of Ptolemy VIII Physcon (169-116 B.C., Contra Apion, 2.52-55). The story narrated by 3 Maccabees is fanciful, but as Livia Capponi comments, the intention of the author was “to offer a testimony to the courage and firmness of the Egyptian Jews even in the face of death” (293).
Although he Jews maintain a respectful attitude toward the king, Philopater is enraged when the Jews refuse to obey his demands (3 Macc 3:1-10). Philopater commands that Jews be rounded up and arrested. The Jews are not honest, Philopater argues, because “they accepted our presence by word, but insincerely by deed, because when we proposed to enter their inner temple and honor it with magnificent and most beautiful offerings, they were carried away by their traditional arrogance, and excluded us from entering; but they were spared the exercise of our power because of the benevolence that we have toward all” (3:17-18, NRSV).
The decree was read “to the heathens” at public feasts, but the Jews reacted with great mourning. Jews are “dragged away” in iron bonds to Alexandria. The chapter is filled with tragic descriptions of old men led off in chains and virgin brides are taken away from their bridal chambers. They are taken to Alexandria and brought to the hippodrome to be made a public example for those who might defy the king.
The king intends to kill the Jews he has taken captive by charging five hundred elephants (5:1-51). He ordered the elephants to be driven into a frenzy with a mixture of wine and frankincense, but when the appointed hour came, God caused the king to fall asleep so that he never gave the order to kill the Jews. Philopater is enraged and intends to kill the Jews the next day. Again, the whole town turns out for the spectacle, but when the time comes for the king to give the order, the Lord made his mind go blank and he threatens to toss his friends to the elephants instead. Finally the king himself drives the crazed elephants toward the Jews, who are praying, weeping and embracing one another in full expectation of their deaths.
At this moment, a priest named Eleazar prays to God, asking God’s will to be done (6:1-15). If that means dying, then let it be, but God ought to act for his own glory and “let the Gentiles cower today in fear of your invincible might, O honored One, who have power to save the nation of Jacob” (verse 13, NRSV). As Eleazar finished his prayer the heavens open and two angels descend, visible to all but the Jews (6:16-29). So awesome was their appearance the king began to shudder and he repented of his plans to destroy the Jews. He commands the guards to “release the children of the almighty and living God of heaven, who from the time of our ancestors until now has granted an unimpeded and notable stability to our government.”
These dramatic events are narrated as a kind of theological drama. The hand of the Lord is against Philopater and he cannot harm the Jews as he once intended. But like the three young men in Daniel 3, the Jews gathered in the hippodrome are more than willing to die rather than obey the orders of the king. Eleazar’s speech alludes to both the fiery furnace in Daniel 3 and Daniel’s refusal to pray to Darius in Daniel 6 (3 Macc 6:6-7). He also refers to God’s rescue of Jerusalem from Sennacherib (2 Kings 19:35) and God’s rescue of Jonah. In all four biblical cases, there is no human way for the person to be saved. They are only rescued by the “most high, all conquering God who governs all creation” (3 Macc 6:2).
As I suggested in a previous post, this book was written after Rome took control of Judea. The story of a large number of Jews resisting the king’s demand to give up their ancestral traditions may have encouraged those who sought to upset Roman rule in the years leading up to the first Jewish rebellion.
Bibliography. Livia Capponi, “‘Martyrs and Apostates: 3 Maccabees and the Temple of Leontopolis’”, in Hellenistic Judaism: Historical Aspects, Henoch 29.2 (2007), 288-306.