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.
The 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.