Apostasy in Third Maccabees

Third Maccabees book opens rather abruptly with the news of Philopater IVs victory over Antiochus III at the battle of Raphia (1:1-5). Ptolemy IV Philopater (221-203) was a weak and indecisive king, initially not defending his territory until the Antiochus III was in Egypt.  When he did act, he was relentless.  When the two armies met at Raphia in 217 B.C.  Antiochus III had 62,000 men, 6000 cavalry and 102 elephants; Ptolemy had a nearly equal force of 70,000 men, 5000 cavalry, and 73 elephants (Polybuis, Histories, 5.79). Antiochus lost 17,000 men in this battle and Ptolemy annexed Palestine.


The Leiden First Maccabees manuscript (Codex Per F 17)

The peace Ptolemy made with Antiochus III turned out to be a mistake since Antiochus would recover and shift the balance of power in favor of the Seleucid dynasty. Ptolemy IV escaped an assassination plot when a Jew named Dositheos replaced the king with an “insignificant man” who was killed instead of the king.

What is interesting is the description of Dositheos as a Jewish person who later “changed his religion and apostatized from the ancestral traditions” (μεταβαλὼν τὰ νόμιμα καὶ τῶν πατρίων δογμάτων). The noun νόμιμος refers to a statute or law (LXX Lev 3:17, for example) rather than the Torah itself. It is the word used 1 Maccabees when the Seleucids suppress traditional Jewish practices (1:14, 42, 44), similar to 3 Maccabees 3:2. These are ancestral traditions since they come from the “decrees of the fathers.”

Dositheos alienates himself from these ancestral traditions using ἀπαλλοτριόω. This word has the sense of being an outsider or a stranger. It is used in LXX Hosea 9:10 to describe the Israelites who shamefully worshiped the gods of Baal-peor and became detestable like the thing they loved.” This may be a significant intertext since the response to the apostasy at Baal-peor was the zealous action of Phineas, a model for Matthias at the beginning of the Maccabean revolt (1 Macc 2:26, 54). The verb also appears in LXX Jeremiah 19:4 with reference to profaning the sanctuary. In LXX Ezekiel 14:5-7 the house of Israel has become estranged from God because they worshiped idols.

Although it is unlikely Paul has this particular text in mind, he does use the same sort of language to describe Gentiles in Ephesians. Gentiles were alienated from God (4:18) and the “commonwealth of Israel” (2:12), separated by the law of commandments (τὸν νόμον τῶν ἐντολῶν) and decrees (ἐν δόγμασιν). As a Second Temple period Jewish writer, Paul describes the Gentiles in the same way the writer of 3 Maccabees describes Dositheos.

By giving up ancestral practices which set him apart as a Jew, Dositheos has made himself a stranger and an outsider both to Israel and to God. His estrangement is demonstrated by preserving the life of Philopater, who will defile the Temple and outlaw ancestral traditions (3 Macc 3:2).

The warning to the reader in this opening paragraph that to apostatize from the ancestral traditions has far reaching implications. In the case of Dositheos, he preserved the life of a man who will defile the Temple. He becomes a stranger and an alien to his God and his people as a result.

How would this warning be understood by Diaspora Jews in the Roman world?

11 thoughts on “Apostasy in Third Maccabees

  1. What 3 Maccabees tries to address is the problem of apostasy in the Diaspora, and reiterates the boundary between Jews and Gentiles. Since those Jews have abandoned their faith in the book, they are judged quite harshly and looked down upon. In regards to Gentiles, the Jews were told to keep their distance in order to avoid the issue of apostasy.

    How would the warning against apostasy be understood by the Jews in the Roman world? They would probably do their best to keep the traditions in order to avoid being completely alienated from everything they have ever known. Their God and people were important to them.

  2. The fact of the matter is, that when Dositheos truly abandoned the Jewish traditions, this could have been a warning to the Diaspora Jews that when somebody does apostatize, there will be implications in doing so. This would have been especially present to the Diaspora Jews in a variety of ways. As is mentioned throughout the scriptures, when the chosen people of Israel disobey God (such as by worshipping false Gods) they are indeed punished for doing so (Exodus 20 1-7). Therefore; when, the Jews take a look at the apostasy by Dositheos and the resulting effect of Philophater would have by defiling the temple (3 Mac. 3:2) as well as by disregarding the autonomy of God (3 Mac. 3: 13-18) it’s fair to say that when apostasy occurs punishment will ensue in some way or manner. As was mentioned in the blog post, “Dositheos becomes a stranger and an alien to his God and his people as a result.” Apostasy overwhelmingly results in punishment, as is mentioned by Tomasino, when he brings up the fact that the Canaanites were exterminated in Palestine for a similar apostasy (Tomasino 75). Overall this warning could have been understood as the overwhelming notion that if you choose to commit apostasy be prepared to suffer for it. However; this, may have also been reason enough to keep the Law as well, in order to please God.

  3. I can imagine that this warning is intended to be taken as nothing short of serious. I like what Darius says, “it’s fair to say that when apostasy occurs punishment will ensue in some way or manner.” For a Jew to denounce his faith and willingly choose to become a stranger to God and to Israel, the implications would be significant. This is a prime example of why the Jews had been warned to remain separate from Hellenistic culture. One cannot simply accommodate into the culture and religion of another society without being effected in some way.

  4. The warning given against apostasy would have likely scared any Hellenistic Jews who were reading it, as what they were doing was viewed as apostasy by a number of people. It is almost a threat that is being leveled against anyone who is leaning away from Jewish law and tradition. Before the days of Jesus, the only way to stay connected to God was through Jewish laws, customs, and religious practices. Throughout the scriptures, we see a number of people face terrible consequences as a result of their turning away from Jewish faith. Idol worshippers are dealt with swiftly and justly in the Old Testament. The Diaspora Jews living in the Roman world would have likely received this warning with a renewed sense of dedication to Jewish culture, likely either due to a sense of fear or conviction.

  5. I think that the warning that was given in regards to apostasy would have been taken seriously. It should have been valid enough to make the Jews aware of exactly what would happen if they continued to pursue a path away from God. Clearly, Dositheos did not choose a path that lead towards God; therefore, he essentially served as an example of what not to do. Turning away from Jewish tradition, practices and religion was not something that would be taken lightly. The punishment for turning on Jewish faith would have been severe. The reaction from the Diaspora’s should have been to stay true to their religion.

  6. I would think that the Jews who read this warning would perceive it almost as a threat by the writer. If a Jew were to turn away from their ancestral traditions or to aid their oppressors they would be considered the same as the Gentiles. As such these people would be forsaken by their people and their God. Likely this message was written in order to prevent anymore Jews from abandoning their ways and becoming Hellenized. The Diaspora Jews probably reaffirmed themselves in keeping their traditions as a reaction to receiving this message.

  7. I think the warning serves to be quite legitimate. To show ones’ loyalty is important in aspects of faith, and even in God’s relationship with the Jews at this time there was often turmoil, but they were his people. There were people that practiced his law very devoutly, even in the face of fear and persecution. I think it also serves as a reminder that our actions have consequences — so especially in dealings of faith, we must act gracefully.

  8. This is something that I’ve really been trying to figure out lately, the whole apostasy/abandonment chicken-and-the-egg scenario. Which came first? Israel’s apostasy, or God allowing them to stray to the idols of other nations? In scripture, we see prophecy (and historical writings to ‘prove’ the prophecy) that God will bless them if they worship Him according to His commandments. We also see that they are conquered whenever they start to stray to idolatry. So, would God have allowed them to flourish as a nation again if they had only worshipped properly (not only following the letter of the Law, but the spirit of loving God for His commandments as King David described of his own faith)? Would they have been re-established as a light among the nations if they’d just put in a little effort to love God again instead of relying on tradition and Law for their salvation? Or were they simply being primed for the coming of the Messiah, even if they didn’t understand what He would look like? It’s a really strange tension to be resolved that reflects, in some ways, the seemingly conflicting roles of God’s sovereignty and man’s choice in salvation. The chicken or the egg? I guess we’ll find out after this life.

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