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The Access Bible New Revised Standard Bible, written and edited with first-time Bible readers in mind.

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3 Maccabees - Introduction

Third Maccabees has nothing to do with the Maccabees. It is a story about the Jewish community in Egypt in the third century BCE, a melodramatic account of the danger that beset that community and its miraculous deliverance. While the story may preserve some historical details, it has a legendary * character. Its literary genre * resembles the story of Esther, or some of the stories in Dan 1–6 . All these stories concern Jews outside the land of Israel (that is, in the Diaspora, * or scattering of the Jews in the gentile * world). In each of them, the Jews are endangered by hostile gentiles but are wonderfully delivered in the end. In this case, the story narrates three episodes involving Ptolemy IV Philopator, king of Egypt (221–204 BCE). The first is an introductory paragraph that describes how the king was saved from being assassinated by a Jew named Dositheus ( 1.1–5 ). The second episode tells of the king's unsuccessful attempt to enter the Jerusalem Temple * ( 1.6–2.24 ). The third episode concerns the king's persecution of the Jews of Egypt. This episode occupies the bulk of the book ( 2.25–6.15 ). The king is repeatedly thwarted by divine intervention and is eventually brought to his senses. The book concludes with a celebration of the deliverance of the Jews.

Unlike 1 and 2 Maccabees, 3 Maccabees was not included in the Latin Vulgate, * or in the canon * of the Roman Catholic Church. It is, however, regarded as canonical in Eastern Christianity.

Third Maccabees was written in Greek, most probably in Alexandria. It refers to the battle of Raphia (217 BCE) and so must have been written after that date, but it may have been written much later. The story of the persecution, the main episode in the book, is also found in Josephus, Against Apion 2.53–55 , but according to Josephus, the Ptolemy in question was not Ptolemy IV Philopator but Ptolemy VIII Euergetes (who was known as Physcon, “pot-belly,” 144–117 BCE). It appears, then, that 3 Maccabees incorporates elements of legend and folklore that were associated with different figures at various times. The book itself can scarcely have been written before the Roman era. There are parallels with 2 Maccabees and the Greek editions of Esther and Daniel, which would hardly have been possible before the first century BCE. A key factor in establishing the date of the book is the statement in 2.28 that the Jews should be reduced to the popular census (laographia) and slave condition. The only census that entailed a reduction in status for the Jews was associated with a poll tax introduced by the Emperor Augustus in 24/23 BCE. Citizens of Alexandria were not subject to this tax, but Egyptians and Jews were. Jews, who considered themselves on a par with the Alexandrians, and who despised the Egyptians, bitterly resented this tax. The issue of equality with the Alexandrians is mentioned in 3 Macc 2.30 . If 3 Maccabees is alluding to the imposition of the poll tax, it cannot have been written before the Roman era.

Third Maccabees combines incidents that were probably originally independent. The combination here of a story of a threat to the Temple with the persecution of the Jews in Egypt may reflect the actual context in which the book was put together. In 38 CE the Emperor Caligula attempted to have his statue placed in the Temple in Jerusalem. At the same time, there was a riot against the Jews in Alexandria that has been described as the first pogrom * in history. (Our main account of these events is in the treatise on The Embassy to Gains by the Jewish Alexandrian philosopher, Philo * ). The crises of the time of Caligula provide a plausible context for 3 Maccabees.

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