4 Maccabees is a philosophical treatise in the form of a diatribe which, like 3 Maccabees, has no link to 1-2 Maccabees in the sense that 3 and 4 Maccabees are not continuations of 1-2 Maccabees like 2 Samuel is a continuation of 1 Samuel or 2 Kings is a continuation of 1 Kings. Its subject is the superiority of reason over the passions and reflects the ideas of the Stoic school of Greek thought.
1:13-3:19 Old Testament examples of the superiority of reason
3:20-4:26 The innovations of Antiochus and Jason
5:1-17:24 The reason and courage of Eleazar
18:1-24 Exhortation to Israel
Date and authorship
The volume is anonymous but seems to have originated with a Jewish resident of either Alexandria or Antioch who was fully immersed in Stoicism. Although scholars have sometimes suggested multiple hands, there are no good reasons to suppose it to be from any but a singular author. Tradition has assigned the text to Josephus and though certainly possible, it seems improbable given the fact that Josephus liked to append his name to works he wrote as well as various linguistic factors and historical errors.
It was composed, in all likelihood, some time around the end of the 1st century CE.
The book attempts to address philosophical rather than theological issues. As such, it is best read, and understood, along the same lines as the work of Marcus Aurelius or Epictetus. The theme of the book is stated at 1:13: “The question, then, which we have now to determine is, whether the Reason be complete master of the Passions.” The Greek of 4 Maccabees is, by and large, quite good and there is very little evidence of ‘Hebraicization’. The book’s purpose, like the purpose of 1 and 2 Maccabees, is to encourage the Jews to remain faithful to the Law of Moses in spite of attempts by their enemies to abandon it. Two of the more interesting aspects of the book are that its author asserts the immortality of the soul (16:13; 17:12; 18:23) and the vicarious atoning power of the martyrs (6:28-29).
There is scarcely any use made of the book in later Jewish or Christian tradition. It has also received scant scholarly attention, primarily, doubtless, due to the fact that it is neither original in its thought nor engaging in its style, though Anderson would disagree since he asserts that the book is unique and fascinating. It is found in Codex Sinaiticus and Alexandrinus and the Syriac Peshitta, but Codex Vaticanus does not contain a copy. It is also absent from the Vulgate which means that no Catholic edition of the Bible contains it either. Erasmus of Rotterdam, did, though, make a paraphrase of the book, which he published in 1524. He seems to have admired the philosophical tone of the book enough to do so.
Emmet, Cyril. The 3rd and 4th Books of Maccabees. New York: Forgotten Books, 2012.
DiTommaso, Lorenzo. A Bibliography of Pseudepigrapha Research 1850–1999. JSPSup 39. Sheffield, England: Sheffield Academic Press, 2001.
Collins, John J. Between Athens and Jerusalem: Jewish Identity in the Hellenistic Diaspora. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000.
DeSilva, David. 4 Maccabees. Guides to the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha. London: Bloomsbury, 1998.
Fischer, Thomas, and Hugh Anderson. “Books of the Maccabees.” Pages 439-54 in vol. 4 of The Anchor Bible Dictionary. 6 vols. Edited by David N. Freedman. New York: Doubleday, 1992.
Anderson, H. “4 Maccabees.” Pages 531-64 in vol. 2 of Old Testament Pseudepigrapha. 2 vols. Edited by James H. Charlesworth. New York: Doubleday, 1985.