Fourth Maccabees and the Fourth Philosophy

It is possible the book of 4 Maccabees represents the “fourth philosophy” mentioned by Josephus as a subgroup of Judaism in competition with the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes. It has been thought that this “fourth philosophy” referred to the Zealots, but this has been challenged by Richard Horsley in his work on first century messianic movements.

Image result for fourth maccabees martyrsThe fourth philosophy had several major teachings. First, a Jew should pay no taxes to Rome at all. Based on their interpretation 2 Sam 24, paying taxes to a foreign power was seen as equivalent to slavery, (cf. Luke 20:20-26, the question concerning paying taxes to Caesar may reflect the teaching of the fourth philosophy).

Second, Israel should be a theocracy and not be ruled by any foreign power. To submit to foreign rule is equivalent to idolatry and is a breach of the first commandment. God will work through faithful people if they actively resist their oppressors.

Third, if Israel actively resists, God will establish his kingdom on Earth. The resistance that the fourth philosophy taught was not armed rebellion (as with the Zealots), but rather a commitment to obedience to the Torah and a willingness to be martyrs. The fourth philosophy was therefore a martyrdom movement.

This description is compatible with the teaching of 4 Maccabees, especially in 10:18-21 (cf., 9:24; 11:3; 11:22-23).

4 Maccabees 10:18–21 (NRSV) But he said, “Even if you remove my organ of speech, God hears also those who are mute. 19 See, here is my tongue; cut it off, for in spite of this you will not make our reason speechless. 20 Gladly, for the sake of God, we let our bodily members be mutilated. 21 God will visit you swiftly, for you are cutting out a tongue that has been melodious with divine hymns.”

That a book like 4 Maccabees would continue to be read by the Christian church is quite understandable since the early church faced the same sorts of persecutions described in the book. The challenge to commitment to the word of God in the face of deadly persecution was attractive to the Christians facing Roman pressure to conform.


Bibliography: Richard Horsley and John S. Hanson, Bandits, Prophets, and Messiahs: Popular Movements at the Time of Jesus (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1985), 190-237; W. J. Heard, “Revolutionary Movements” in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels, edited by J. Green, S. McKnight and I. H. Marshall (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1992), 688-698.

5 thoughts on “Fourth Maccabees and the Fourth Philosophy

  1. I wonder if it is so unclear as to what the fourth philosophy group is if it could ever be properly identified with surety. Being identified by the three ideals (no taxes, independent Israel, and martyrdom) is not exactly a rare set of ideals in the time period. Perhaps this is in fact what makes it the fourth philosophy simply because it was a common set of beliefs held by many Jews who did not squarely fall into the other three groups. Such as the people today in America who do not claim Republican, Democrat, or any special third party.

  2. The Fourth Philosophy has a set of teachings that aren’t unheard of and understandably because most of these teachings are straight in the torah. Now of course there are some twisting and adding words to this Philosophy, but the basic foundations of each teaching can be connected to the Law. Simply this Fourth Philosophy is just another set of teachings that the Jews have to follow, it’s just being added on to what they are already practicing. I don’t think there was any confusion during this time; rather it was just another thing to keep the Jews on track with their relationship with the Lord. During this time there were many distractions culturally so it just makes sense that there should be another teaching or ideas given to them so they can be faithful.

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