The book of 3 Maccabees is found in most Orthodox Bibles as a part of the Anagignoskomena. Catholics consider it to be an example of pseudepigrapha and do not regard it as canonical. Protestants, with the exception of the Moravian Brethren who include it in the Apocrypha of the Czech Kralice Bible and Polish Gdańsk Bible, likewise regard it as non-canonical. It is included in the Bible used by the Armenian Apostolic Church. The Apostolic Canons approved by the Eastern Council in Trullo in 692 but rejected by Pope Sergius I cited as canonical the first three books of Maccabees.
Despite the title, the book has nothing to do with the Maccabees or their revolt against the Seleucid Empire, as described in 1 Maccabees and 2 Maccabees. Instead it tells the story of persecution of the Jews under Ptolemy IV Philopator (222–205 BC), some decades before the Maccabee uprising. The name of the book apparently comes from the similarities between this book and the stories of the martyrdom of Eleazar and the Maccabeean youths in 2 Maccabees; the High Priest Shimon is also mentioned.
The contents of the book have a legendary character, which scholars have not been able to tie to proven historical events, and it has all the appearances of a romance. According to the book, after Ptolemy's defeat of Antiochus III in 217 BC at the battle of Raphia, he visited Jerusalem and the Second Temple. However, he is miraculously prevented from entering the building. This leads him to hate the Jews and upon his return to Alexandria, he rounds up all the Jews in the kingdom to put them to death in his hippodrome. Those Jews who agree to abandon their faith are to be spared.
An attempt to register all the Jews before their execution is thwarted by the sheer number of the Jews. Ptolemy then attempts to have the Jews killed by crushing by elephant and orders 500 elephants to be intoxicated in order to enrage them. However, the execution is repeatedly thwarted, as God first causes Ptolemy to oversleep, then causes him to miraculously forget his anger against the Jews. Ptolemy finally attempts to lead the elephants and his own army into the hippodrome to destroy the Jews personally, but after an impassioned prayer by Eleazar, God sends two angels who prevent this.
Ptolemy abruptly forgets his anger with the Jews and honours them with various immunities and a banquet, with several dates being established as commemorative festivals. The Jews request and receive permission to return home and to kill all the Jews who chose to abandon their faith in order to be spared. The book includes a letter, ostensibly by Ptolemy, to this effect. Finally, the Jews return home.
Authorship and historicity
Critics agree that the author of this book was an Alexandrian Jew who wrote in Greek. In style, the author is prone to rhetorical constructs and a somewhat bombastic style, and the themes of the book are very similar to those of the Epistle of Aristeas. The work begins somewhat abruptly, leading many[who?] to think that it is actually a fragment of a (now-lost) longer work.
Although some parts of the story, such as the names of the Jews taking up all the paper in Egypt, are clearly fictional, parts of the story cannot be definitively proven or disproven and many scholars are only willing to accept the first section (which tells of the actions of Ptolemy Philopator) as possibly having an historical basis. Josephus notes that many (but certainly not all) Jews were put to death in Alexandria under the reign of Ptolemy VIII Physcon (146–117 BC) due to their support for Cleopatra II, and this execution was indeed carried out by intoxicated elephants. This may be the historical center of the relation in 3 Maccabees and the author has transferred it to an earlier time period and added an ahistorical connection to Jerusalem if this theory is correct.
Another theory about the historical basis of the book was advanced by Adolf Büchler in 1899. He held that the book describes the persecution of the Jews in the Fayum region of Egypt. It is certain that the Jews abruptly changed allegiance from Egypt to Syria in 200 BC. This author presumes that the change must have been due to persecution in Egypt.
The book was presumably written some time after the events it purports to describe and its use in the Orthodox Church also might suggest it was composed before the 1st century AD. It may be a product of very late Judaism or very early Christianity. One theory, advanced by Ewald and Willrich, holds that the relation is a polemic against Caligula, thus dating from around AD 40, but this theory has been rejected by more recent authors, because Ptolemy in the book does not claim divine honors as Caligula did.
- Jewish Encyclopedia: III Maccabees
- Early Jewish Writings: 3 Maccabees
- III Maccabees, audio reading in mp3 file format
- biblicalaudio: III Maccabees 2012 Revised Translation with Audio Dramatization
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Books of the Bible