III Maccabees

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The Third Book of the Maccabees has in reality nothing to do either with the Maccabees or with their times. It received its name probably because it is a fiction concerning the persecution of the Jews by a foreign king; that king was Ptolemy Philopator (222-205 B.C.). The story runs as follows: After Ptolemy's defeat of Antiochus III. in 217 B.C., at the battle of Raphia, the former visited Jerusalem and tried to enter the Temple, but was miraculously prevented (i. 1-ii. 24). Returning to Alexandria, he assembled the Jews in the hippodrome to be massacred, but the necessity of writing down their names exhausted the paper in Egypt, so that they escaped (ii. 25-iv. 21). Next the king devised a plan for having the Jews trampled to death by elephants; this also was frustrated in various improbable ways (v. 1-vi. 21). The king then underwent a change of heart and bestowed great favor on the Jews, and the day on which this occurred was ever after celebrated as a festival in memory of the deliverance (vi. 22-vii. 23).

Authorship and Character.

The author of this fiction was certainly an Alexandrian Jew who wrote in Greek, for its style is even more rhetorical and bombastic than that of II Maccabees. The work begins abruptly and is thought to be but a fragment of a once larger whole. Whether there is any foundation for the story concerning Philopator with which the writer begins there is no means of knowing. If true, it is one of a very few grains of fact in the whole account. Josephus ("Contra Ap." ii. 5) tells how Ptolemy Physco (146-117 B.C.) cast the Jews of Alexandria, who, as adherents of Cleopatra, were his political opponents, to intoxicated elephants. When the elephants turned on his own people the king saw a sudden apparition and gave up his purpose. The Jews, it is added, celebrate the day of their deliverance. It would seem that the author of III Maccabees, anxious to connect this celebration with Jerusalem, has transferred it to an earlier Ptolemy and given it an entirely unhistorical setting. His narrative can not be regarded as a successful fiction, as it abounds in psychological as well as historical improbabilities.

This work was written later than II Maccabees, for its author made use of that book (see ii. 9; comp. II Macc. vi. 18 et seq. and xiv. 35 with III Macc. iii. 25-33; see also Grimm, l.c. p. 220). He can not have written earlier, therefore, than the end of the first century B.C. On the other hand, he can not have written later than the first century C.E. or his work would not have been used by Christians. Ewald regarded this work as a polemic against Caligula and dated it accordingly about 40 C.E.; this view has been abandoned by more recent writers, since Philopator is not represented as claiming divine honors.

Jewish Standpoint

III Maccabees purports to record a persecution of the Jews in Alexandria during the reign of Ptolemy (IV.) Philopator (222-204 B.C.). The Jews are assembled in the hippodrome, and 500 infuriated elephants are to be let loose upon them. In the event the elephants turned against the persecutors, and the Jews not only escaped, but were treated with muchhonor by the king. That there is much of the fabulous in this story is obvious, and it may well be that the similar story told in Josephus ("Contra Ap." ii. 5) concerning Ptolemy (VII.) Physcon is, as most assume, the original of III Maccabees. The book would thus belong at the latest to the first century C.E.; at the earliest to the last century B.C. Recently important new light has been thrown on the book by the discovery of early Jewish settlements in the Fayum. On independent gounds, the present writer ("J. Q. R." ix. 39) and Prof. A. Büchler ("Tobiaden und Oniaden," pp. 172 et seq., Vienna, 1899) have put forward the theory that the book refers to a persecution in the Fayum. Certainly, the rapid transference of Jewish allegiance from Egyptian to Syrian hegemony about 200 B.C. finds its explanation if the Jews of Egypt were then undergoing persecution. That the author was an Alexandrian is unquestionable. On the other hand, Willrich ("Hermes," 1904, xxxix. 244) disputes the Fayum theory and supports the view that the book is best explained as referring to Caligula.

Bibliography: In addition to the works cited in the bibliography to the second part of this article: Deissmann, Bible Studies, 1901, pp. 341-345; I. Abrahams, in J. Q. R. 1896-97, ix. 39 et seq.; Ewald, Gesch. des Volkes Israel, iv. 611-614.

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