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The prohibition of Gentiles in the main court of the temple during the first century is well known. Paul refers to a “dividing wall” of hostility between Jews and Gentiles in Ephesians 2:15, probably an allusion to the warning to Gentiles in the Temple courts that crossing into the Court of the Men would result in their death. Paul is accused of breaking this Law by sneaking a Gentile into the Temple courts (a false charge, but it nearly cost Paul his life).
But in the Torah a Gentile was permitted to bring a sacrifice in the same way any Israelite does, presumably right to the altar of the Tabernacle (Num 15:14-16).
By the third century B.C., however, Jews began to prohibit Gentiles from entering the Temple enclosure. Antiochus III made a decree to this effect (Antiq. 12.145f) and even Herod the Great respected this when he was rebuilding the temple. Priests were trained in masonry so that they could work on the sacred areas rather than the Gentile masons Herod used elsewhere (Antiq. 15.390).
What was the basis of the exclusion of Gentiles? The practice of exclusion seems linked to the results of the Maccabean Revolt. After so much effort was expending in driving the Gentiles out of the Temple and re-dedicating it to the Lord, it would seem impure to allow any Gentile back into the holy places of the temple courts. In 1 Maccabees 14:29-36 Simon Maccabees was praised for purifying the temple from Gentile impurity.
1 Mac 14:36–37 In his days things prospered in his hands, so that the Gentiles were put out of the country, as were also those in the city of David in Jerusalem, who had built themselves a citadel from which they used to sally forth and defile the environs of the sanctuary, doing great damage to its purity. 37 He settled Jews in it and fortified it for the safety of the country and of the city, and built the walls of Jerusalem higher.
One factor bearing on this issue is the long standing Jewish belief that purity laws did not apply to Gentiles even when they lived in Israelite territory. The “sojourner laws” in Deut 5:14 define these Gentiles as resident aliens and require only a few general commands for them while they are living within the nation of Israel.
Did Jews of the first century consider Gentiles impure and therefore exclude them from the inner courts of the temple? There are several Second Temple texts which indicate eating with Gentiles was a serious problem for some (many? most?) Jews. Joseph and Asenath 7:1, “Joseph never ate with the Egyptians, for this was an abomination to him”
Jubilees 22:16 And you also, my son, Jacob, remember my words, and keep the commandments of Abraham, your father. Separate yourself from the Gentiles, and do not eat with them, and do not perform deeds like theirs. And do not become associates of theirs. Because their deeds are defiled, and all their ways are contaminated, and despicable, and abominable.
Tobit 1:10–12 (NRSV) After I was carried away captive to Assyria and came as a captive to Nineveh, everyone of my kindred and my people ate the food of the Gentiles, 11 but I kept myself from eating the food of the Gentiles. 12 Because I was mindful of God with all my heart,
Judith 12:1–2 (NRSV) Then he commanded them to bring her in where his silver dinnerware was kept, and ordered them to set a table for her with some of his own delicacies, and with some of his own wine to drink. 2 But Judith said, “I cannot partake of them, or it will be an offense; but I will have enough with the things I brought with me.”
Although Gentile exclusion was not a “core belief” of Judaism in the Second Temple period, it is clear that by the first century Judaism was not a particularly open religion nor were Gentiles welcome to participate fully in worship of the God of Israel.
Bibliography: Joseph Hellerman, “Purity and Nationalism in Second Temple Literature: 1-2 Maccabees and Jubilees” JETS 46 (2003): 401-422.
While the synagogue was a place for prayer and study of scripture, the Temple was a place for sacrifice. Just as sacrifice of animals is always a part of religion in the ancient world, it played an important part of the practice of religion in Jerusalem.
Judaism differed from other pagan religious ceremonies in some very important ways. For example, unlike Greco-Roman religions, there is only one place in the world where and acceptable sacrifice can be made, the Temple at Jerusalem. This was not always the case for the Jews, even as late as the reign of Hezekiah in the 8th century B.C. there were still local shrines where sacrifices to the Lord were made. Hezekiah attempts to reform this system with limited success. In the post-exilic period there are several examples of competing temples in Egypt (at Elephantine and Leontopolis).
Jewish sacrifices were more expensive than Greco-Roman sacrifices primarily because there was a class of priests who needed to be supported by the populace. There was no professional priesthood in Greece or Rome, anyone could function as a priest (Alexander the Great and the Caesars, for example, were priests). Priests in Israel were hereditary and were prohibited from working to support themselves outside of their role as priest. See this previous post on the wealth of the Temple.
The Temple was central to the life of the “common Jew.” As N. T. Wright puts it, “At the heart of Jewish national life, for better or worse, stood the Temple” (N. T. Wright, Jesus and the Victory of God, 224). The impression one gets from reading the more extreme views of the Essenes or Jesus’ sharp critique in the New Testament is that the Temple was viewed negatively in the first century. Despite politically ambitious High Priests and possible corruption in the first century, most Jews supported the Temple through offerings willingly given. Diaspora Jews even supported the Temple through the half-shekel “Temple Tax,” a practice the Romans required to be continued after the revolts, although the money was diverted to Rome (War 7.218; Dio Cassius, 66.7).
Sanders warns us it is possible to have too positive of a view of the Temple based on Josephus (a priest), Philo (a pilgrim, in this case) and other early writers (Judaism, 54). There were wealthy, powerful priests and others who lived in poverty. The critiques of the Temple by the Essenes and the Gospels may therefore be taken as a corrective to the positive material in the Jewish sources.
Yet in the New Testament the Temple is impressive to the Disciples (Matt 24:1-2) even if the current leadership is under God’s judgment and about to be replaced (Mark 12:1-12). It is still the main place for the apostolic preaching in Acts 2 and 3, although by Acts 7 Stephen is accused of attacking the Temple. Both Paul (Eph 2:19-22) and Peter (1 Peter 2:4-5) refer to believers as stones in a living Temple.
When it comes to distinctively Jewish practices, how much did the “average Jew” care about keeping these traditions? The great majority of Jews, comments N. T. Wright, “cared sufficiently about their god, their scriptures, and their Jewish heritage to take a fair amount to trouble over the observance of at least biblical law” (Jesus and the Victory of God, 213-214). Thi would certainly be true for the practice of Sabbath in the Second Temple period.
Keeping the Sabbath was of critical importance to first century Jewish practice. The day is set aside for rest, those that willfully broke the Sabbath were to be stoned. This day of rest was considered by non-Jews to be a most peculiar practice and a practice which could be exploited. The Romans took advantage of the Jews’ refusal to shoot on the Sabbath to build earthworks near the walls (War 1.15-147).
Sabbath was not dour cessation from activity, on the contrary, most Jews tried to make it as festive a day as possible. Food was prepared ahead of time so that it was available for an evening meal after sundown when the Sabbath came in.
There were rules (often devised by the Pharisees) allowing people to carry food to a neighbor’s house, increasing the festive, community aspect of Sabbath (erub). Meals were likely fish or fowl, better than a regular mean but not the red meat of a feast day. Many Jews gathered at a synagogue for prayer and scripture reading.
Practices like Sabbath worship caused problems for Diaspora Jews. For a Palestinian Jew, it was likely more difficult to break Sabbath or to not eat kosher than to obey. But in Gentile cites far from Jerusalem, Jews were a small minority with some “strange” traditions. Why should the Jews not work once a week? Why should the Jews receive other privileges other ethnic groups did not? Rome consistently upheld the rights of the Jews to assemble and keep the Sabbath. These protections were remarkable since Julius Caesar dissolved all associations except those of very ancient practice. Philo praised Augustus for allowing the Jews alone to assemble in synagogues.
In Matthew 23:1-4 Jesus refers to these additional clarifications of Sabbath and other laws. While Jesus never breaks the Sabbath, he seems to challenge more restrictive interpretations of the Law. In Matthew 12:8 Jesus declares himself to be the Lord of the Sabbath and proceeds to heal someone who is not critically ill on the Sabbath.
If the Sabbath was so important to some Jews that they were willing to place themselves in mortal danger to keep it, how might Jesus’ words and actions be understood? Is he challenging the Sabbath itself, or the accumulating traditions about the Sabbath?
After the national tragedy of 586 B.C. the study of the Law became a critically important practice for the Jews. They went into exile because they did not follow the Law, therefore they devoted themselves to the study and practice of Law. The first two divisions of the Hebrew Bible, Torah, Nebiim (Prophets) were “compelte” by the end of the exile, and the Kethubim (Writings) was likely completed by the beginning of the second century B.C. (depending on the date of Daniel).
All of the books were considered Scripture, but not all equal in authority. The Law was primary, the rest was commentary (Ferguson, Backgrounds, 540). By the first century the Pharisees attempted apply Torah to every aspect of life by developing an oral tradition, a “fence around the law,” a halakah or interpretation of the Law. Some of the oral traditions appear to be designed to circumvent some aspects of the Law, such as the prosbul (a method of making a loan near a Sabbath year which allowed for the loan to be collected rather than forgiven).
E. P. Sanders makes a good case showing this “relaxing of the law” is in the favor of the common people and was not intended as a way to get out of keeping the law. Modern (western) readers tend to think of some rabbinic discussions as overly legalistic, but most of these are interpretations the Law which apply the ancient Law to a new situation.
Because most of the early Christians were Jewish, the church inherited some of the methods of exegesis used by the Jews in the first century. Since Paul was a Pharisee he often engages in interpretation of Scripture using methods similar to the rabbis.
These methods included:
- Literal. The straightforward meaning of the text, such as Galatians 3:16 interpreting the word “seed” as a literal child.
- A Targum is an “interpretation by paraphrase” or running commentary on Scripture, usually in Aramaic.
- A Typological interpretation uses some correspondence between older texts and some present situation. In 1 Corinthians 10:1-11 Paul uses the Exodus and Wilderness experience as an analogy for the experience of the Corinthian church.
- Occasionally New Testament writers will interpret the Old Testament as Allegorical. Although this method should not be confused with the later methods used by the medieval church, Jewish writers did tease out spiritual truth and meaning without any connection to the original historical context. The allegorical method is best demonstrated by Philo of Alexandria, but Paul creates an allegory using Sarah and Hagar in Galatians 4:21-31.
- Midrash and Pesher. Paul often connects Scripture to teach something new about Jesus. His synagogue sermon in Acts 13 is a clear example of midrash techniques, as are the two sermons preached by Peter in Acts 2 and 3. A pesher reading discovers meaning by means of a one-to-one correspondence between a word or phrase and some current situation. This method was used at Qumran and in the New Testament by Matthew and the book of Hebrews.
These Jewish views of Scripture and how to interpret Scripture were adopted by the early Church writers. To what extent ought these Jewish views on Scripture guide Christian exegesis today? For example, I think a high view of Scripture is essential for Christian exegesis, but is it necessary to have a “center” of the canon? If a Second Temple Jewish interpreter looked at the rest of Scripture through the lens of the Torah, should a Christian interpreter read the rest of Scripture through the lens of Jesus? Paul? The Sermon on the Mount? The book of Romans?
Although some of the methods of reading Scripture are similar to the modern grammatical historical method, most modern scholars would reject an interpretation which allegorized a text to mean something the original author could not possibly mean. But there are several postmodern approaches to Scripture which do just that. Is it possible reader-response hermeneutics reflect an ancient allegorical method and are somehow legitimate?
“Yet out of the whole human race He chose as of special merit and judged worthy of pre-eminence over all, those who are in a true sense men, and called them to the service of Himself, the perennial fountain of things excellent” (Philo Spec. Laws 1.303).
“I will give my light to the world and illume their dwelling places and establish my covenant with the sons of men and glorify my people above all the nations” (Pseudo-Philo Bibl. Antiq. 11.1f)
One of the foundational assumptions of the Hebrew Bible is that the one creator God chose Israel out of the nations to be his own people. For example, Deuteronomy 7:6, “The LORD your God has chosen you to be a people for his treasured possession.” God rescued his people from their slavery in Egypt, brought them to Mount Sinai and entered into a special covenant with them. And despite the rebellion in the wilderness, God gave them a special land promised to Abraham.
With respect to the basis of this election (works or grace), it is best to use a both/and approach. There is no reason given for the choice of Abram in Genesis, but there are responsibilities within the covenant which will result in continued blessings for the elect people of God. Paul says in Romans 9 the basis for God’s choice of Jacob over Esau was the “electing purpose of God” rather than foreseen faith or good works on the part Jacob.
In Sifre Deuteronomy 343 God offers the Torah to other nations, but they all refuse.
“At first God went to the children of Esau. He asked them: “Will you accept the Torah?” They said right to his face: “What is written in it?” He said: “You shall not murder.” They replied: “Master of the universe, this goes against our grain. Our father, whose hands are the hands of Esau (Genesis 27:22), led us to rely only on the sword, because his father told him, ‘By your sword shall you live’ (Genesis 27:40). We cannot accept the Torah.”
The text goes on to say “not a single nation among the nations to whom God did not go, speak, and, as it were, knock on its door, asking whether it would be willing to accept the Torah.” But finally God came to Israel and they said, “We will do and hearken” (Exodus 24:7).
The basis of Israel’s election was a matter of some discussion in the Second Temple period. The Testament of Abraham describes Abraham’s realization the gods his father Terah crafts are nothing but wood and stone. His father asks him to sell five idols of Marumath, but Abraham loses three in the river. Later, while cooking his father’s dinner he sarcastically asks the god Barisat to watch over the cooking fire while he went to ask his father what he should cook. When he returns, the fire was still going and the god was burning himself. Abraham and Terah argue over this; Abraham says the god is nothing and says the gods are only honored because Terah made them well. While Abraham is pondering the gods, a voice from heaven calls to him and says he is the God of gods and commands him to leave the house of Terah (Test.Ab. 8). The story was likely written to offer an explanation of why God chose Abraham, but also to encourage Jews in the Second Temple to avoid idolatry.
It is little wonder many other nations thought Israel was exclusivist. They were, to some extent, separate from the nations because they alone were the elect of God. Monotheism alone requires exclusivism. But his exclusivism was not snobbery (or at least should not have developed into snobbery). The nation was set apart in order to be preserved from false beliefs and therefore raise the whole world.
Bibliography: Simon Gathercole, “Election,” pages 571-23 in Eerdmans Dictionary of Early Judaism (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 2010).
The belief in only one God is the most basic aspect of Judaism. As expressed in Deuteronomy 6:4-6, the shema. The first four of the Ten Commandments clarify how Israel was to worship God (worship God alone, without a graven image, without using his name in vain, by honoring the Sabbath). The first four of the Ten Commandments clarify how Israel was to worship God (worship God alone, without a graven image, without using his name in vain, by honoring the Sabbath).
The Shema was fundamental to daily practice of Jewish. The word refers to Deut. 6:4-5 (which begins “Hear O Israel,” shema is Hebrew for “Hear.”) The passage directs Jews to keep the commandments upon their heart and to teach them to their children. These commands are the Ten Commandments which immediately precede this command, but essentially the whole law is to be kept in mind and taught to the next generation.
Tamid 5.1 The superintendent said to them, “Say one blessing.” They said a blessing, pronounced the Ten Commandments, the Shema [Hear O Israel (Dt. 6:4–9)], “And it shall come to pass if you shall hearken” (Dt. 11:13–(21), and “And the Lord spoke to Moses” (Num. 15:37–41). They blessed the people with three blessings: True and sure, Abodah, and the blessing of priests. And on the Sabbath they add a blessing for the outgoing priestly watch. (Translation, Neusner)
Although the practice of reciting the shema is well-known in rabbinic sources, it is not possible to date those sources earlier than the second century. Avery-Peck, for example, suggests “there is no reason to posit a long history of legislation concerning its recitation” (Alan J. Avery-Peck, “Oral Tradition: Early Judaism,” ABD 5:35). Tan, on the other hand, argues the practice of reciting the shema dates to the pre-A.D. 70 period on the basis of b.Berakhot 21a.
However, there are several indications in the New Testament that the shema was used as a prayer even in the first century. Jesus alludes to the shema in Matt 22:34–40//Mark 12:28–34, Paul alludes to the 1 Corinthians 8:4, “there is no God but one” (See Erik Waaler) and James 2:19 appear to quote the shema. This is not evidence of twice-daily prayers, but the prayer was familiar neough to appear in three diverse contexts in the New Testament,
According to Berakhot 1.1-3. The shema was placed in doorways (the modern mezuzot) and in tephillin, boxes strapped to the hand and forehead during prayer. We know the tephillin were used in the first century since the pharisaical practice of making wide straps is criticized in Matthew 23:5. Aristeas 158 refers to the “words” posted on gates and doors and Josephus refers to the practice of binding scripture on the arm (Antiq. 4.213).
At the very least, the evidence suggests Jewish people in the Second Temple period recited the shema regularly and were ultimately committed to the idea of one God. There are obviously ramifications of this belief (rejection of other gods, for example). But there are other implications as early Jewish Christians described Jesus as divine (Phil 2:5-11, for example). How did Second Temple Jewish believers integrate their new believing Jesus into their understanding of “one God”?
Bibliography: Kim Huat Tan, “Jesus and the Shema,” pages 2677-2707 in Handbook for the Study of the Historical Jesus (ed. Tom Holmén and Stanley E. Porter; Leiden: Brill, 2011); “The Shema and Early Christianity,” Tyndale Bulletin 59 (2008): 181-206. Erik Waaler, The Shema and the First Commandment in First Corinthians: An Intertextual Approach to Paul’s Re-reading of Deuteronomy. WUNT 2/253. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2008).
In 4 Maccabees the role of the law as nearly equivalent to reason. Although God created humans with emotions and passions, he also “enthroned the mind among the senses as a sacred governor over them” (2:21). The mind was given the Law, in order to “rule a kingdom that is temperate, just, good, and courageous.” Temperate (σώφρων) refers to prudent thinking and self-control and is one of the virtues required of elders in the Pastoral Epistles (1 Tim 3:2; Titus 2:2).
4 Maccabees 7:21-23 What person who lives as a philosopher by the whole rule of philosophy, and trusts in God, and knows that it is blessed to endure any suffering for the sake of virtue, would not be able to overcome the emotions through godliness? For only the wise and courageous are masters of their emotions (NRSV)
The “temperate mind” restrains the impulses of the body, what Paul calls “self-control” in Galatians 5:23. That Paul and 4 Maccabees both have a high view of the Law and the virtue of self-control is not necessarily and indication Paul knew the book or vice versa. Likely as not both the author of 4 Maccabees and Paul are drawing on implications of the wisdom literature drawn through the intellectual grid of a first century worldview which includes elements of Stoicism and other Greek philosophical streams.
Self-control was perhaps the most important of the Greek ethical terms. Remarkably, the Greek world valued controlling one’s passions and acting moderately in all things. Any activity could devolve into a vice if it is not practiced with moderation. For example, eating a proper amount of food is good thing; too much is glutton and too little is starvation. Paul claims here that the one who is walking by the spirit will walk moderately in everything that they do. In fact, Paul points out that the person who belongs to Christ Jesus “crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.”
This is an important point that should probably be argued at length, but this sort of paper cannot do so. There are a number of works on Paul and the Stoics which make this point, although the probability of direct borrowing is very low. I prefer to think in terms of an intellectual grid made up of the Old Testament and various Jewish writings as a primary database through which Greco-Roman philosophy is drawn, elements which are compatible with the database are retained, others are rejected.
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.
The 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.
4 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.
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.