What is Fourth Maccabees?

Fourth Maccabees is included in several manuscripts of the LXX, including Vaticanus but was not included in the Vulgate. The book is therefore not a part of the Apocrypha although it is often included in introductions to the Apocrypha. It is also in manuscripts which contain the works of Josephus. This led Eusebius and Jerome to suggest Josephus was the author, but this has been universally rejected by modern scholarship.

Image result for fourth maccabees martyrsThe book is related to the Maccabean period but the focus is on the martyrs who died for the Law during those years. The book was written in Greek by a Jew who appears to be writing before the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. The temple is never described as a thing of the past in the book but rather seems as though it is still active. It also appears to have been written after the invasion of Pompey in 63 B.C.  deSilva argues for the Roman date on the basis of two technical terms (θρησκεία, “religious” and νομικός, “skilled at law), both of which appear only in the literature of the Roman period (deSilva, 355).

The writer reflects an extensive knowledge of Greek philosophy and rhetoric. He is a man who is devoted to the law of his people and his a theologian “of considerable depth” (OTP 2:533). A few scholars (Dupont-Sommer and Hadas) think the book is an oral address which might have been made as part of a “cult of martyrs” within a synagogue context.  As Anderson notes, this is possible, but the chief objection is that a synagogue speech would have been based on a text from the Hebrew Bible, not stories from the Maccabean period.

deSilva comments that the writer of 4 Maccabees is “thoroughly immersed in Hellenistic environment” and has “more than a passing acquaintance with Stoic and Platonic ethics” (deSilva, 355). The thesis of the book is stated in 1:1 and 1:13.  The writer wishes to discuss if “whether devout reason is sovereign over the emotions” (cf. 6:31, 13:1, 16:1, 18:2). While this sounds very much like Stoicism, the application of the “emotions” in this case is to continue to keep the Law in the face of physical threat and torment which culminates in death.

While the casual reader may be impressed by the faith of the martyred men in the story, the first century reader would have been impressed with the men as examples of living out one’s philosophy consistently, even to the point of death. The book is therefore aimed at the Jewish community which may face persecution as they have in the past, in order to encourage them to maintain their faithfulness to the Law in the face a dominant culture which is discouraging, and may at times employ persecution and extreme torture (deSilva, 357).

Even though the book is superficially related to 1 Maccabees, there is no mention of the great military victories celebrated by that book in 4 Maccabees.  The great victories in this book come in the form of the martyrdom of men faithful to the Jewish Law.  It is not military might which drove off the armies of Antiochus IV Epiphanies.  God’s wrath was turned away by the death of righteous men (4:19-21, 6:27-29, 17:21-22, cf., deSilva, 369).

Perhaps this is why Christians preserved the book. It was an encouragement to face torture and death rather than compromise with the Empire.


Bibliography: David A. deSilva, Introducing the Apocrypha.  Grand Rapids: Baker, 2002.

8 thoughts on “What is Fourth Maccabees?

  1. I find it interesting that 4 Maccabees puts such a heavy influence on martyrdom. According to Anthony Tomasino, “Sometimes we overestimate the changes in Jewish society effected by the Roman conquest” (p. 278). He goes on to say that “If anything, the Judean Jews in this period seem to have been more tenacious than ever about keeping their faith and culture ‘pure’, as evidenced by their sensitivity to anything that even resembled a graven image” (p. 278). Like what was stated in the original post, it encouraged the Jewish community to “maintain their faithfulness to the Law in the face a dominant culture which is discouraging, and may at times employ persecution and extreme torture” (deSilva, 357).

  2. After researching much of 2 Maccabees, it is interesting to see the similarities between the books of Maccabees in general. 2 Maccabees restates much of the same material that was in 1 Maccabees; and it is clear that the fourth book follows sort of the same style. Similar to that in 2 Maccabees, 4 Maccabees puts an emphasis on martyrdom. I find it very interesting that the writer stresses this issue in his letter to the Diaspora Jews. He is extremely detailed in his description of the severity of the methods of torture. He is possibly stressing that the Jews were in desperate need of prayer during this time of persecution. The martyrs are still great examples of what it looks like to not give up one’s faith, even in the midst of persecution. One of the seven sons who was put to death due to the fact that he wouldn’t give up his faith said, “For we are ready to die rather than transgress our ancestral commandments” (9:1).

  3. When looking at the book of 4th Maccabees, the emphasis of this text speaks heavily about the resiliency portrayed by the nine martyrs who admirably gave up their lives in a pursuit to keep their Jewish religion. When reading over 4th Maccabees, the true brutality of this torture and execution against some of these martyrs as commanded by Antiochus was truly apparent (4:6 6-10). The fact that these martyrs knew the kind of brutality, torture and slow death that would be apparent if they opposed the Gentile traditions, customs and way of life, but still decided to die for their religion, speaks volumes of how committed to the faith they truly were. The pressure to convert from Jewish ways and practices was indeed influenced by many cultures throughout history, including both Palestinian and Greek cultures (Tomasino, 222-228). But again the fact that these martyrs avoided these many temptations, was impressive, because it demonstrated their willingness to die rather than defile their sacred Jewish law. The book of 4th Maccabees then is very important in regards to a historical perspective, because in a sense it gives more insight to other aspects of the Second Temple Period. Especially aspects such as the heavily documented Maccabean revolt as mentioned thoroughly within 1 and 2 Maccabees.

  4. Although there are similarities with all of the Maccabean books, 4 Maccabees focuses a great amount of its text on martyrdom. The men who were tortured were truly fighting for their faith and religion. I think that something that can be taken from this book is just that. The people who were beaten, tortured and ultimately killed were people that were fighting for their beliefs and chose not to sway with what they truly believed.

  5. The martyrdom that is displayed in 4 Maccabees is intriguing with the theological idea that God provides for his people when righteous people die. You state that “God’s wrath was turned away by the death of righteous men.” This theological idea has no greater evidence than in the death of Jesus Christ. God took Christ’s individual death as a random for all. 4 Maccabees was encouraging to Jews facing persecution because they saw that they would be able to go through hardships, knowing that God would ultimately follow through for their nation. This is a good situation where Israel can look at their past, so that they can understand their present life of Roman rule. I can see how this would have been helpful to the early church when they also faced persecution.

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