3 Maccabees is entirely unrelated to 1 and 2 Maccabees, except in its general theme, and does not relate to the persecution of Jews in Palestine under Antiochus IV; rather, it relates the story of a persecution of Jews in Egypt under Ptolemy IV Philopator (221-203 BCE). For this reason scholars are uncomfortable with the traditional title of the book since it miseleadingly suggests that its contents are connected to and a continuation of the materials found in 1 and 2 Maccabees. It should be read by modern students of the text as an independent writing.
1:1-2:24 Philopator’s attempted entry into the Temple and its defilement is not realized because of divine punishment.
2:25-30 In an act of revenge, Philopator punishes the Jews of Egypt.
2:31-4:21 In advancement of his plan he assembles all the Jews in Alexandria.
4:22- 6:21 His various plans foiled, Philopator hatches another scheme to kill the Jews, and it too fails due to divine providence.
6:22- 7:23 The king has a change of heart and the Jews who had collaborated with him are killed.
Date and authorship
The author was, in all likelihood, a well educated Jew (his Greek is superb) living in Alexandria itself. The book was composed between the last decades of the 1st century BCE and 70 CE. There are strong resemblances between its story and that of the book of Esther, especially in its Greek version, but it is uncertain whether there is any direct literary connection.
The story is largely fictional, with some elements of fantasy. It lacks the serious semblance of historicity and can be viewed as lacking in historical support or evidence. However, Philip Alexander considers that it refers to a genuine decree of Philopator, which the author has misinterpreted. The main aim of the book is to promote a festival apparently held by the Jews of Egypt every summer; along with this it promotes the ideas that prayer is powerful, providence is real, and those who battle God’s providential plans, particularly in terms of his concern for the Jews, will be divinely punished. The story follows a pattern that appears in several Jewish (and other) writings of the Hellenistic period (3rd to 1st centuries BCE), not only Esther, but 2 Maccabees and a story in Josephus the Jewish historian’s Against Apion.
3 Maccabees is found in Codex Alexandrinus but it is absent from Vaticanus and Sinaiticus. This suggests that while it was preserved and apparently valued among Egyptian Jews (and Christians) it was not as widely accepted as 1 and 2 Maccabees. It has been recognised as part of the Bible by the Greek Orthodox Church, but it has played very little part in either Jewish or Christian literature or art and no major treatments of its themes are apparent.
Alexander, Philip S. “3 Maccabees.” Pages 865-75 in Eerdmans Commentary on the Bible. Edited by James D. G. Dunn and John W. Rogerson. Grand Rapids, MI; Cambridge, England: Eerdmans, 2003.
Anderson, H. “3 Maccabees (First Century B.C.).” Pages 509-29 in vol. 2 of The Old Testament Pseudepigrapha. 2 vols. Includes a new translation. Edited by James H. Charlesworth. London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 1985.
Johnson, Sara Raup. Historical Fictions and Hellenistic Jewish Identity: Third Maccabees in its Cultural Context. Berkeley, CA; London: University of California Press, 2004.
Pearce, Sarah. “3 Maccabees.” Pages 773-75 in The Oxford Bible Commentary. Edited by John Barton and John Muddiman. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001.