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Third Book of the Maccabees

Third Book of the Maccabees
by Timothy Kenney, PhD

The Book of 3 Maccabees, is found in most Orthodox Bibles as a part of the deuterocanonical books, but Protestants and Catholics do not include it in their list of apocrypha books, except the Moravian Brethren who included it in the Apocrypha of the Czech Kralicka Bible. The book actually has nothing to do with the Maccabees or their revolt against the Greek 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). The name of the book apparently comes from the similarities between this book and the stories of the martyrdom of Eleazar and Maccabeean youths in 2 Maccabees; the High Priest Shimon is also mentioned.

Known as 3 Maccabees, this work has little historical value. It was written by a Jew of the Greco-Egyptian city of Alexandria, probably about the beginning of the Christian era. The original language was Greek. Various reasons have been given for the name of this book, which describes events in Egypt before the Maccabean revolt. Possibly the name refers to the position of the book near 1 and 2 Maccabees in many manuscript versions of the SEPTUAGINT, and to its subject matter, an account of the triumph of the Jewish people over another, slightly earlier oppressor.

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Chapters 1-2:24:

After conquering at Raphia Antiochus III, the great king of Syria (224-187 BC), Ptolemy IV Philopator, king of Egypt (221-204 BC), resolved to visit Jerusalem and to enter the sanctum ("holy of holies,") of the temple to which by the Jewish law access was allowed only to the high priest, and even to him but once a year (Day of Atonement). The Jews, priests and people, were in a paroxysm of grief and earnestly entreated him to desist, but he persisted in his plan. They then through Simon, the high priest, 219-199 BC, prayed that God might intervene and avert this desecration. The prayer is answered, the king being paralyzed before realizing his purpose.

Chapters 2:25-30:

Returned to Alexandria, Ptolemy is exasperated at the failure of his long-cherished project and resolves to wreak his vengeance upon the Jews of Egypt. He issues a decree that all Jews in Alexandria who refused to bend the knee to Bacchus should be deprived of all their rights as citizens.

Chapters 2:31-4:21:

A goodly number of Alexandrian Jews refuse to obey the royal mandate, whereupon Ptolemy issues an edict that all the Jews of Egypt, men, women and children, shall be brought in chains to Alexandria and confined in the race-course (hippodrome), with a view to their wholesale massacre. Prior to the massacre there is to be a complete register taken of the names of the assembled Jews. Before the list is complete the writing materials give way and the huge slaughter is averted.

Chapters 4:22-6:21:

The king, still thirsting for the blood of this people, hits upon a different method of compassing their ruin. Five hundred elephants are intoxicated with wine and incense and let loose upon the Jews in the race-course. Here we have the principal plot of the book, and we reach the climax in the various providential expedients, childish in their character, of preventing the execution of the king's purpose. The lesson of it all seems to be that God will deliver those who put their trust in Him.

Chapters 6:22-7:23:

At length the king undergoes a change of heart. He releases the Jews and restores them to all their lost rights and honors. In response to their request, he gives them permission to slay their brother-Jews who, in the hour of trial, had given up their faith. They put to death 300, "esteeming this destruction of the wicked a season of joy" (7:15).

We now turn to the last book, the Fourth Book of Maccabees.

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