Martin McNamara writes: "The title of this book is a misnomer since it treats of the sufferings of the Egyptian Jews under Ptolemy IV Philopator (221-203 B.C.) rather than of the persecution of the Palestinian Jews under Antiochus IV at the time of the Maccabees. It describes how Ptolemy IV attempted to enter the holy of holies in the temple in Jerusalem and how he was miraculously repelled (1:1-2:24). Then, on his return to Egypt he revenges his humiliation on the Jewish community there and attempts to impose the pagan cult of Dionysius on them. He even orders punishment and death on all who refuse to forsake Judaism (2:25-5:51). However, after Eleazar an aged preist prays for his people, the king repents and becomes the protector of the Jews." (Intertestamental Literature, p. 230)
James C. VanderKam writes (An Introduction to Early Judaism, pp. 78-79):
The title of 3 Maccabees is curious because the book has nothing to do with the Maccabees (who are never mentioned in it). The principal feature that it shares with 1-2 Maccabees is that it is a story about a situation in which the Jewish people, this time in Egypt, were in danger of being annihilated by a Hellenistic monarch, in part for their religious convictions and practices. The book was composed in Greek and relates a story set in the time of Ptolemy IV Philopater (221-203 BCE).
After his victory over Antiochus III (223-187 BCE) in the battle of Raphia (217 BCE), Ptolemy, according to our story, visited the cities in Coele-Syria (the area that Antiochus was trying to take from Ptolemy) to boost their morale and give gifts to their temples. Naturally he came to Jerusalem. While there, he was so impressed with the temple that he wanted to enter it, including the holy of holies. The Jews desperately tried to stop thiw violation of their law. Amid the great uproar that broke out in the city, the high priest Simon offered a prayer in which he appealed to past cases of divine deliverance from danger and to the promise that if his people prayed in their distress from the temple God would hear them (see 1 Kings 8:33-34, 48-50). The Lord answered his prayer swiftly by striking King Ptolemy with temporary paralysis that forced him to withdraw from Palestine and return to Egypt, though he went uttering curses and vowing revenge for such humiliating treatment.
His plan for revenge involved the Jews of Alexandria. The king decreed that they were to be subjected to a registration that involved a poll-tax and reduction of status to the level of slaves. In addition the registration included being branded with an ivy leaf shape, a symbol of the god Dionysus. The monarch also decreed through a letter that the many Jews outside Alexandria were to be delivered to the city in chains after undergoing other forms of harsh treatment. Those who handed Jews to the authorities were to be given substantial monetary rewards. During the process of registering this large number of Jews, the second divine intervention in the story occurred: God made the writing materials used by the scribes run out so that the registration was impeded.
When Ptolemy saw that his plans were being frustrated by exhaustion of scribal materials, he angrily commanded that his five hundred elephants be given an intoxicating drink and that, when drunk, they be let loose to trample the Jews who were bound and held within the enclosed hippodrome. On the day when the plan was to be carried out, the king miraculously overslept so badly that the event had to be postponed until the next day. However, on the next day God plagued the king with forgetfulness so that he was unable to remember his plan, reversed himself, and defended the Jews as loyal subjects. Indeed he claimed it was only his own benevolence that kept him from letting loose the elephants on his own employees who had made them drunk to trample Jews. Later the king did another about-face and vowed irrevocably to kill the Jews the next day and swore that he would also level Judea and its temple. When it seemed that all was lost, Eleazar, an elderly Jewish priest, prayed; like Simon the high priest, he cited biblical examples of past deliverances and asked God to intervene on behalf of his people in these dire circumstances. Once more God responded by sending two angels (unseen by the Jews) who terrified the elephants and made them turn back on the soldiers (and on Ptolemy) who were conducting them to the hippodrome.
Astonishingly, the king changed his mind yet again and chided his subordinates for how they had treated the Jews. He released the imprisoned Jews and provided the resources so that they could celebrate a seven-day festival of deliverance. He then dismissed them and wrote a letter to governmental officials in Egypt. He blamed all the misfortunes suffered by the Jews on malicious friends of his, and credited their salvation to his own actions and his awareness of the true situation. Some sentence in the letter are thematic for 3 Maccabees: "Since we have come to realize that the God of heaven surely defends the Jews, always taking their part as a father does for his children, and since we have taken into account the friendly and firm goodwill that they had toward us and our ancestors, we justly have acquitted them of every charge of whatever kind" (7:6b-7; see also v. 9). The Jews requested and received permission from the king to execute any Jews who had apostatized to save themselves from the king's earlier edicts; they killed about three hundred and also kept that day as a holiday. The Jews from the countryside were then transported home, where there was more celebrating and all regained their confiscated property.
Emil Schürer writes: "As to the date of the author, the utmost that can be ventured is a conjecture. The contents and tendency of the book seem to presuppose a persecution of the Alexandrian Jews, on account of which the author desires to comfort and encourage his co-religionists. This leads our thoughts to the time of Caligula, when such a persecution on a large scale took place for the first time. Hence Ewald, Hausrath, Reuss and others place the composition of the book in his reign. But then it would be strange, that the author does not make Ptolemy lay claim to divine honours, which was the chief stumbling-block in th case of Caligula. On the whole we should expect in it more special references to events under Caligula. Hence we can but approve of Grimm's reservation, though he has every inclination to agree with Ewald's hypothesis (Exeget. Handb. p. 218 sq.). In general, we may say, that the book originated at the earliest in the first century before Christ, at the latest in the first century after Christ; the former, because the author already knows the Greek additions to Daniel (vi. 6); the latter, because it would otherwise have found no acceptance with the Christian Church." (The Literature of the Jewish People in the Time of Jesus, p. 218)
Raymond F. Surburg writes: "Waxman says there is a possibility that the story was written around A.D. 30, when the first persecution took place against the Jews under Caligula. There is, however, no evidence to corroborate this theory, because 3 Maccabees contains no reference to Caligula. Ferrar places its origin around 100 B.C., at the same time that The Letter of Aristeas and 2 Maccabees originated, with both seemingly linked by literary similarity. Hadas would have the book originate in the year 25-24 B.C., when the privileges of the Alexandrian Jews were in danger of being lost." (Introduction to the Intertestamental Period, pp. 148-149)
Leonhard Rost writes: "Although it is likely that there was some historical occasion for the celebration of the festival in Alexandria (it is mentioned also by Josephus), and although the description of the historical events at the battel of Raphia is accurate and the journey to Jerusalem appears reasonable, the rest of the story is highly unlikely. At the very least it is highly exaggerated. Furthermore, in Contra Apionem ii. 5 Josephus ascribes the attempt to take all the Jews captive and have them stand naked in readiness to be trampled by elephants to Ptolemy VII Physcon (146-117). It is naturally possible to draw the conclusion that the history of the Jews in Egypt includes situations in which the very existence of Jews was endangered and even that on some occasion command was given to have certain Jews, or the Jewish population of one or more cities, trampled by elephants. But there is no certain evidence of such an event. The permissions to slay apostate Jews is probably wholly legendary, although it is likely that such illegal executions were occasionally carried out." (Judaism Outside the Hebrew Canon, pp. 106-107)
Emil Schürer writes: "This narrative is not only almost throughout a mere fiction, but it belongs, among productions of the kind, to those of the weakest sort. The author evidently revels in keeping up psychological impossibilities. The style also corresponds, being bombastic and involved. The only foundation for the author's fiction seems to have been an old legend which we still read in Josephus. For he relates (contra Apion. ii. 5) that Ptolemy VII. Physcon cast the Jews of Alexandria, who as adherents of Cleopatra were his political opponents, to intoxicated elephants, who however turned instead against the friends of the king, whereupon the king gave up his purpose and the Jews of Alexandria celebrated the day in remembrance of the event. According to this account the celebration of this festival, which is also mentioned in the third Book of Maccabees (vi. 36), seems at all events to be historical. And some unascertained fact may certainly be the foundation of the legend, the older form of which seems to have been in the hands of Josephus, since all is in his account simpler and more psychologically comprehensible, and he was evidently unacquainted with the third Book of Maccabees. When then the latter refers the history to Ptolemy IV. instead of VII., this is already a divergence from the older legend, and still more so are the other additions with which the author has enriched his narrative." (The Literature of the Jewish People in the Time of Jesus, pp. 217-218)
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