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When Philopater visits Jerusalem wants to offer sacrifices at the temple in order to make his new subjects “feel secure” (1:6-16). He is greatly impressed by the Temple and wants to enter the Holy of Holies. But the priests explain this is forbidden even for the Jews. Philopater insists that as king he is above this law. The priests cry out and tear their cloths and pray that Almighty God would stop Philopater from this plan. The whole city joins in the mourning for the plan of the king, praying to God to stop the king from his “sacrilegious plan.” He refuses to be persuaded and the chaos grows in intensity (1:17-29).
The High Priest Simon makes an impassioned prayer asking God to stop this “wicked and corrupt man” who is “reckless in his effrontery” (2:1-20). He believes God is testing the people as he has done in the past and the priest is determined that the people will not fail this time. Simon’s prayer recalls other times when the wicked were destroyed (the giants, Sodom, Pharaoh). The High Priest begs the Lord not to punish the Jews for this defilement (v. 17). The Lord responds to this prayer by severely thrashing Philopater and paralyzing him (2:21-33). His bodyguards were amazed at this and pull his body out of the Temple.
Philopater recovered but was not humbled by this punishment: “he by no means repented, but went away uttering bitter threats” (v. 24). He returned to Egypt where he was “even more extravagant in his wickedness.” He sought ways to bring shame on the nation of Israel. He required the Jews to sacrifice to Dionysus and even to tattoo themselves with an ivy leaf over their hearts to show devotion to Dionysus. The Jews are to be taxed heavily and reduced to the level of slavery.
While there were some Jews who gave into these demands in order to advance themselves in society, “The majority acted firmly with a courageous spirit and did not abandon their religion; and by paying money in exchange for life they confidently attempted to save themselves from the registration” (3: 32, NRSV). The latter half of this verse is an indication there were some Jews who did attempt to capitulate to the Ptolemies.
There is very little in these events which is historical. The writer has combined elements of the abominations of Antiochus IV with Pompey’s entry into the Temple in 63 B.C. The writer created a biblical prayer and placed in the mouth of the last of the great High Priests, Simon. Although it is impossible to connect these events to any one actual event, the writer tells his generation that God will act as he has done in the past to deal with the current empire, Rome.
There are several indications the writer has Rome in mind in this text. First, it was Pompey who entered the Holy of Holies in 63 B.C. The author of 3 Maccabees pushes this sacrilege back more than a hindered years.
Second, during the Roman period Jews in Egypt were required to register in a census (λαογραφία, laographía). This tax was first introduced by Augustus, required the men of Alexandria aged 14 to 62. Those who were Greek citizens and “members of the gymnasium” were exempt. Some Jews could be considered Greek citizens by virtue of their education and were considered “Greek” for purposes of this taxation. This registration and marking (2:28-29) may be in the background of the Mark of the Beast in Revelation 13.
Third, when Simon lists other times the Lord has defeated the enemies of God’s people, he begins with “giants who trusted in their strength” (2:24). The word translated “strength” is a rare word in the LXX, ῥώμη, which is a homophone for Rome.
The writer of 3 Maccabees is therefore creating a theologically driven story to encourage readers struggling against another oppressive Empire. Just as God has acted in the past to rescue his people (whether this is Antiochus or Pompey or the present evil emperor), so too will he act again to rescue those who are “those who are downcast and broken in spirit” (2:20).
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 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?
This “historical romance” was written in Greek sometime after the battle of Raphia (217 B.C.) and before the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70. The book seems to know the additions to Daniel and possible the Letter of Aristeas as well, so it is probable the book was written in the first century B.C. The book may also have used 2 Maccabees, there are parallels in vocabulary and style. The book is often included in texts on the Apocrypha. The book is misnamed, since it does not contain a history of the Maccabean period, nor is it a continuation of the other two Maccabean books. The book concerns an incident unrelated to the Maccabean family, and is titled Ptolemaica in some manuscripts (deSilva, 306).
Some scholars date the book to the reign of Caligula because of his desire to place an image of himself in the temple in A.D. 40. This sort of fictional “reaction” to Caligula is told in the guise of a similar crisis of the not-too-distant past. The problem with this view is there nothing explicit in the text which points to Rome or Caligula as the real point of the book.
A third possibility is the book was written in response to the shift from Egyptian to Roman control of Egypt in 24 B.C. The civic status of the Jew in Egypt was in question at that time, therefore the author creates a story as a comment on the beginning of Roman rule in Egypt. The evidence for this is a hint in 2:28 to a Roman poll tax.
This is a very thin argument and cannot serve as a final proof of the date of the book either. As Anderson says in his introduction, the real problem with each of these theories is that the book does not read like a “crisis document.” It lacks nearly every important characteristic of the apocalyptic response to a crisis (judgment, retribution, overthrow of the present age by God himself).
3 Maccabees may have been written as a defense of Diaspora Jews written to a Judean Jewish audience (Williams, 17). Since they live outside the land, they are considered to be “still in exile” and are therefore still under God’s judgment. The book demonstrates that God hears the prayers of the Diaspora Jewish community and preserves them in persecution, as he did during the Jewish community in Judea during the time of Antiochus IV Epiphanies. It is possible the Jews in Jerusalem looked down on the Jews living outside the land. The Jew of the Diaspora has as close of a connection to God as of the Jewish living in the land.
The book certainly addresses the problem of apostasy in the Diaspora since the Jews who have renounced their faith in the book are judged harshly. A major theme of the book is the boundary between the Jew and the Gentile. When Gentiles appear in the story, they are prejudiced, lawless and abominable. Even in Egypt Jews are warned to keep their distance from Gentiles and to avoid apostasy at all cost.
The context of the Caligula decree seems to make the most sense, but there does not seem to be enough time for a book like this to be written and circulated to make much of a difference in that situation. It is possible the author has in mind “generic” persecution, since a number of Greek and Roman generals sought to enter the temple. Pompey did in fact enter the Holy of Holies without any judgment. It is possible the book was written after Pompey as a sort of “what should have happened” story.
The study of this book is valuable to the student of the New Testament because it describes the Jews as unwilling to compromise their faith even in the Diaspora. When Ptolemy threatens to enter the sanctuary the whole population of Jerusalem join in the protest, but it is a protest to God to step into the situation and stop Ptolemy himself. God is “the God, who oversees all things, the first Father of all, holy among the holy ones” (NRSV), therefore he can act and do what he needs to in order to defend himself.
Paul’s encounters with Jews in Asia Minor, for example, indicate that most Jews were keeping the law and not particularly interested Paul’s encouragement of Gentiles to “convert” partially by believing Jesus is the Messiah and not keep the Law. Here in this book those Jews who chose to “following their own bellies” and reject the Law in order to gain favor with the King are killed in the climax of the story. It is little wonder Paul’s gospel of freedom from the Law often resulted in riots and physical abuse (2 Cor 12).
Bibliography: David A. deSilva, Introducing the Apocrypha (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002), 304-322; David Williams, “3 Maccabees: A Defense of Diaspora Judaism,” Journal for the Study of Pseudepigrapha 13 (1995), 17-29.