3 Maccabees

By Mary Jane Chaignot

At best, 3 Maccabees is a misnomer. It begins its story with a battle that was taking place in 217 BCE in Raphia, a town in Palestine about three miles from Gaza and near the Egyptian border. Ptolemy IV (sometimes referred to as Philopator) was in the midst of a war against Antiochus III, the Syrian king. Historically, Palestine was still controlled by Ptolemy. One night a rebel, Theodotus, (who had been the commander of the Egyptian forces but had gone over to Antiochus' side) returned to assassinate Ptolemy. This attempt was thwarted by a Jew named Dositheus. Dositheus anticipated such possibilities and had the king's physician sleep in the king's tent. The king's physician was killed, but Ptolemy was safe and grateful to the Jew.

Though this Jew was a full participant in the Greek way of life, Ptolemy decided to tour Palestine, ostensibly to show his gratitude but more likely to make sure Jews were still loyal to him. Upon arriving in Jerusalem, he showered the people and the city with gifts, hoping to increase their morale and loyalty to himself. As part of this gift-giving mission, he went to the Jerusalem Temple and determined to enter the Holy Place. Needless to say, this was contrary to all the Jewish rules: only one priest could enter the Holy of Holies once a year – on the Day of Atonement. Ptolemy decided to exercise his right as king, which he thought allowed him to enter any place at any time in his kingdom.

The priests began to protest and pray. Soon the people were thronging the streets doing the same. The High Priest, Simon, appealed to God to save them from this pompous and arrogant king. With the city in the throes of panic, Ptolemy stepped forward to enter the Holy Place. At the very last moment, however, an invisible force prevented the king from going forward. In fact, he was tossed from side to side so that he lay helpless on the ground, not able to move or to speak. His bodyguards hastened to retrieve him; all were exceedingly fearful. Apparently, they left in haste. Later on, the king would make a full recovery – at least physically.

By the time he returned to Egypt, Ptolemy was furious with the Jews. He vowed to punish them for the attack upon his person while attempting to enter the Temple. He did not stop to consider that he might have been in the wrong. Thereafter, he began to oppress the Jews, much like Antiochus would do later on. He offered the Jews the option of joining the cult of Dionysus, which would have entailed full acceptance of the Greek religion. Along with it, however, was the caveat of obtaining full Alexandrian citizenship – a desired state for all those living in Egypt. Roughly, 300 Jews took him up on this offer.

The others, however, refused. Those who refused were to be branded as slaves and registered in a poll tax. This tax would essentially reduce their status in the country. And any Jews who refused to comply would be summarily executed. While, on the one hand, this appears to be a method of clarifying Jewish status in the country, the author of this book sees it as a serious Jewish persecution.

Since most Jews refused to join the cult of Dionysus, Ptolemy believed his worst fears had come to pass: the Jews were, indeed, disloyal to his government. His next idea was to gather all the Jews from the surrounding areas and bring them together in Schedia at the hippodrome. Schedia was a promontory about three miles from Alexandria. The hippodrome was located just east of the city gate. The author spends a great deal of ink in describing the reactions of the Jews – weeping and wailing, lamenting their fate, and crying out against the injustice of it all. The Gentiles, on the other hand, partied and feasted. This might be an indication that anti-Jewish sentiment was prevalent throughout the country even at the best of times.

Apparently, Ptolemy's original plan to register all the Jews was the reason he gathered them at the hippodrome. It would be easy to register people who had all been gathered in one place. Still, the Jews cried out to God. And then a very strange thing happened. The officials ran out of paper and pens. They claimed there were so many Jews that they simply could not complete their task. Needless to say, this enraged the king even more.

Filled with anger, Ptolemy summoned Hermon, the keeper of the elephants, and ordered him to prepare them for engagement. He told Hermon to give them plenty of wine so that they would be driven mad. Hermon dutifully obeyed the king, who went back to his drinking party with his friends. The next morning Hermon went to the palace to await the king’s final approval. But “the Lord sent upon the king a deep sleep,” and no one could arouse him. After waiting all day, the effects of the wine on the elephants began to wear off and they were no longer mad. Officials were finally able to arouse the king late in the day, and he was furious that the order had not been given to destroy the Jews. When the events were told to him, he brushed them off saying Hermon should prepare the elephants again for the next day. The king went back to celebrating with his friends.

The next day, Hermon again had the elephants crazed with drink. This time when he went to the palace, the king could not remember why he was there. When Hermon and the king's friends reminded him of the plan, Ptolemy was outraged "because by the providence of God his whole mind had been deranged concerning these matters." The king threatened not only Hermon, but also his friends with destruction. Needless to say, they were all completely confused, and the king began to party once again. Later in the evening, he wondered aloud why Hermon had not completed his assignment. Both Hermon and the king's friends tried to explain to him what he had said earlier in the day. 

This displeased the king even more. Finally, he determined that the next day the elephants would be let loose upon the Jews and would trample them all. At dawn the elephants, Hermon, and the king's army all approached the hippodrome. The streets were also filled with citizens who expected to see a veritable slaughter of the Jews. 

When the Jews saw the dust raised by the elephants and the people, they cried out to God in terror and chaos, believing they were near death. An elderly priest, Eleazar, called them to silence and offered a public prayer for their deliverance. The result was that two angels appeared and so confused the elephants that they turned around and trampled the soldiers in their efforts to get away.

When the king saw these events, he had an immediate change of heart. His anger was turned to tears and pity for all that he had considered doing to the Jews. He blamed his friends for leading him in the wrong direction, accusing them of treason and cruelty beyond tyrants. He was very upset that Jews had been forced from their homes and tied up and threatened with extinction. He ordered them to be untied and allowed to return to their homes.

Before they had a chance to leave, however, he feted them with wine and everything needed for a festival that would last for seven days. (Some scholars think this was the institution of another unnamed, but annual, festival celebrated in Egypt.) Along with this, he issued another decree restoring the rights of Jews throughout his kingdom. Before they left, however, the Jews asked for the right to execute those who had originally apostatized. This was done, and the Jews "purged" the land of those apostates. Whatever they had lost was returned to them in even greater abundance by the end of the story.

Most scholars think this book was composed sometime during the Roman occupation of the first century. It was intended to edify Jews and to explain a particular Jewish festival celebrated in Egypt. By the end of the story, Jews and Egyptians are shown working together in harmony. The hardship they had endured was the result of an arrogant king who had been brought to his senses. And, in spite of his arrogance, God had, once again, delivered them in response to the prayers of the priests and the people. The fact is that the Jews were good citizens, as long as they were able to maintain their separateness – a lesson that the king had to learn.

There are roughly six sections to this letter: 1:1-7 – Battle of Raphia; 1:8-2:24 – Ptolemy Attempts to Enter the Temple; 2:25-4:15 – Ptolemy's Persecution of the Jews; 4:16-5:51 – God Thwarts Ptolemy's Plans; 6:1-29 – Eleazar's prayer and the reversal of fortunes; 6:30-7:23 – Restoration of the Jews.

I – 1:1-7 – The Battle of Raphia

  • 1:1-7
    • The battle at Raphia took place in 217 BCE
    • Philopator is Ptolemy IV, king of Egypt
    • He served from 221-204 BCE
    • Antiochus III is the king of Syria
    • He served 223-187 BCE
    • The story seems to begin in the middle
    • Philopator found out that Antiochus had taken some of his territories
    • Along with his sister, Arsinoe, he marched with his troops to Raphia
    • Antiochus and his troops were camped at Raphia
    • Theodotus (Philopater's commander-in-chief) had previously defected to Antiochus
    • He took the best arms and two men with him and snuck into Philopater's camp
    • He intended to assassinate the king
    • An apostate Jew (Dositheus) had "an insignificant man" sleep in the king's tent 
    • This man was actually Philopater's physician and, therefore, not insignificant at all
    • He led the king to a secret place
    • Theodotus killed the physician
    • A great battle broke out, which seemed to be turning in Antiochus' favor
    • Philopater's sister went to the troops with promises of gold if they won the battle
    • Apparently this did the trick because the tide turned, and Antiochus was routed
    • Ptolemy was so pleased that he visited local cities and "encouraged" them
    • He also sent many gifts, thereby strengthening the morale of his people 
    • (And possibly endearing himself to them even more)

II – 1:8-2:24 – Ptolemy Attempts to Enter the Temple

  • 1:8-15
    • Ptolemy attempts to enter the temple
    • The Jews were among those who received gifts and welcomed
    • Ptolemy as he visited the area
    • Ptolemy was anxious to visit Jerusalem
    • Upon his arrival, he offered sacrifices and thank offerings to God
    • When he saw the temple, he was taken aback by its excellence and its beauty
    • After marveling at it, he wanted to enter the sanctuary (Holy of Holies)
    • The Jews told him this was not permitted since only the high priest could enter once a year
    • Ptolemy was not persuaded
    • The Jews read the law that clearly stated who could enter the temple and when
    • The king replied that that only applied to other people – he was the KING!
    • He pointed out that he had not been prevented from going into any other temple
    • The Jews did not back down
    • Neither did the king – after all, could he not do what he wanted whether they liked it or not?
  • 1:16-29
    • The reaction of the Jews
    • The priests began to cry out to God, prostrating themselves before him
    • They begged God to intervene, to prevent this violence from happening
    • They filled the temple with cries and tears
    • The citizens of Jerusalem gathered to see what was happening
    • Young women who had been secluded rushed out with their mothers
    • Young women preparing for marriage left their bridal chambers
    • Mothers and nurses abandoned their children
    • All gathered at the site of the holy Temple
    • All were praying that the king would not do what he was plotting to do
    • Men decided the king should be stopped from carrying out his plan
    • They called to compatriots to take up arms
    • They joined the women outside in supplication and created a huge uproar
    • The elders did everything they could to convince the king to change his mind
    • The king ignored them all and began to approach the Temple
    • All the people then cried out to God to prevent this atrocity from happening
    • The uproar increased in volume and intensity
    • It seemed as though the very stones were participating in the supplications as the people's cries echoed off the walls
    • The people would rather have died than allow the king to enter and violate the sanctity of the Temple
  • 2:1-20
    • The supplication of the High Priest Simon
    • Then the High Priest, Simon, prayed with utter calm and dignity
    • He prayed that God who was the creator of all would save them from a "puffed up" ruler
    • As the God of justice, God would judge those who acted insolently
    • Recipients of God's previous justice included the people of Sodom, who acted arrogantly, and the Pharaoh, who had enslaved the Israelites
    • When the Israelites heard what God accomplished with the Egyptians, they sang His praises
    • God had chosen them to be His people and had sanctified His dwelling place among them
    • God had promised to listen to their prayers from His holy Temple
    • They were praying now
    • They were praying that God would prevent this audacious ruler from defiling His holy place
    • But if he should defile it, they prayed that God would not hold it against them
  • 2:21-24
    • God punished Ptolemy
    • God answered their prayer by "scourging" the king
    • He shook him from one side to another until he lay helpless on the ground
    • He was even unable to speak
    • His bodyguards, fearing for his life, quickly dragged him out of the Temple area
    • Eventually Ptolemy would make a complete recovery
    • But he did not repent; instead he went away filled with bitterness and uttering severe threats

III – 2:25-4:15 – Ptolemy's Persecution of the Jews

  • 2:25-33
    • Demands against the Jews
    • Embarrassed by events in Jerusalem, Ptolemy sought revenge against the Jews
    • He gave many evil reports, inciting others to agree with him
    • He put up a stone decree on the wall 
    • He basically decreed that before anyone went into the Temple, they had to sacrifice to Greek gods
    • Additionally, he imposed a registration tax on Jews and reduced them to the status of slaves
    • Those who objected to this would be put to death
    • Those who registered would be branded with the ivy-leaf symbol of Dionysus
    • Any who would apostate would be granted full citizenship in Alexandria
    • Some took the offer; most remained faithful
    • Needless to say, the faithful abhorred those who acquiesced
  • 3:1-10
    • Slanders against the Jews
    • That some resisted the king's decrees infuriated Ptolemy even more
    • He then decreed that all Egyptian Jews should be put to death
    • Rumors were flying that by remaining separate, the Jews were preventing others from worshiping the gods
    • Some believed that the Jews wanted to do them harm
    • As the rumors spread, Ptolemy was swept up in them so that he included in his pogrom anyone who might want to shelter a Jew
  • 3:11-30
    • Ptolemy's decree against the Jews
    • Taking it to the next level, Ptolemy wrote a letter to his generals and all his people
    • He reviewed events that happened in Jerusalem
    • He claimed he wanted to enter the Temple to honor it with magnificent offerings
    • Yet the Jews prevented it by their traditional arrogance
    • He didn't force the issue "because of the benevolence we have towards all"
    • Nonetheless, in maintaining that attitude, they were the only people who held their heads in defiance of the king
    • Because they were ill-disposed towards people in every way, precautions needed to be taken
    • As soon as the letter was received, citizens should send all Jews to Alexandria, bound securely with iron fetters
    • Any citizens harboring Jews would be subject to extreme torture
    • Anyone giving information re: the Jews or those who harbor them would be rewarded
    • Every place sheltering a Jew would be burned
  • 4:1-15
    • Imprisonment of the Jews
    • When the letter arrived, Gentiles feasted and Jews mourned
    • They were sent off by the generals and forced to march at a swift pace
    • All the people were taken under dire circumstances to a place known as Schedia
    • Schedia was a peninsula about three miles from Alexandria
    • There they were assembled in the hippodrome
    • The Jews lamented their fate
    • Any sympathizers were thrown in with them
    • The intent was to register each individual person
    • After they were registered, the king intended to torture and kill them
    • After forty days, they still had not registered all the people

IV – 4:16-5:51 – God Thwarts Ptolemy's Plans

  • 4:16-21
    • Registration is disrupted
    • The king feasted and reveled in his plans
    • After forty days, the officials told the king they could not continue the registration 
    • The king was furious, thinking they had been bribed
    • Finally, they convinced the king, saying they had run out of paper and pens!
    • The Jews attributed this to God's intervention
  • 5:1-51
    • The king instituted plan B
    • Undaunted, Ptolemy summoned Hermon, keeper of the elephants
    • The next day he ordered the drugging of 500 elephants, hoping to make them mad
    • The Jews were again bound for the night
    • They all cried out to God, asking Him to rescue them
    • The next morning Hermon went to report to the king that all was ready
    • However, the Lord sent a potion of sleep onto the king who would not wake up
    • Because the Jews had been spared again, they praised God
    • Late in the day, the king woke up and was furious that the Jews had been spared
    • He summoned Hermon, who told him he had followed his orders to the letter
    • The king swore and instructed him to prepare the elephants for the next day
    • The king then feasted with his friends and they plotted new insults for those doomed on the morrow
    • The next day Hermon approached the Jews with the elephants
    • The Jews cried out to God to help them once again
    • Hermon went to the king and invited him to come out
    • But it was very early in the morning and the king couldn't remember what was supposed to happen
    • This was again seen as God's intervention
    • Hermon explained the plan to the king, who was suddenly filled with an overpowering wrath
    • He threatened Hermon, saying he and his family would make a good feast for the elephants because the Jews had given him no grounds for complaint
    • Both Hermon and the friends of the king slipped away
    • The Jews continued to give gratitude to God
    • Then the king returned to his feasting and summoned Hermon one more time, asking why he had not carried out the king's orders against the Jews
    • This time the friends interceded and told the king he was causing instability by ordering the Jews' destruction and then rescinding the order
    • The king reacted with renewed fury, saying the Jews would be trampled immediately
    • The friends departed in joy, thinking the end was near
    • The next morning the king accompanied the crazed elephants to the hippodrome
    • The Jews, upon seeing the crowds and hearing the noise, prostrated themselves on the ground, crying out in a loud voice for God to manifest Himself

V -- 6:1-29 – Eleazar's prayer and the reversal of fortunes

  • 6:1-15
    • Eleazar's prayer
    • Eleazar's name means "God has helped"
    • Eleazar was an elder and famous among the priests
    • He called for calm and prayed to God
    • He recalled the many deliverances granted by God through their history
    • He went from Abraham down through the three young Hebrew boys in the fiery furnace, including Daniel and Jonah
    • He prayed that God would reveal Himself now to the nation of Israel
    • He prayed that the arrogance of their enemies would not prevail
  • 6:16-29
    • Fortunes are reversed
    • Just as he was ending his prayer, the king arrived at the hippodrome
    • The Jews cried out in terror, raising their voices to heaven
    • Suddenly the heavens opened and two glorious angels appeared
    • They opposed the forces of the enemies and filled them with confusion and terror
    • The elephants turned around, trampling the armed forces behind them
    • Then the king's anger turned to pity and tears for his wrongdoing
    • He suddenly saw the Jews in a new light – they were the best friends Egypt ever had
    • He ordered that they all be untied and allowed to return to their homes in peace
    • Needless to say, the Jews praised God for rescuing them from certain death

VI – 6:30-7:23 – Restoration of the Jews

  • 6:30-41
    • The celebration
    • After the king returned to the city, he decreed a celebration for the Jews
    • They were to celebrate for seven days in the hippodrome
    • He made all the arrangements for a banquet of deliverance
    • The Jews stopped lamenting and began to sing songs of praise to God
    • The king was right there along with them
    • The "friends" who thought the Jews would be killed were overcome by disgrace
    • After seven days of feasting and celebrating, the Jews requested to be sent home
  • 7:1-9
    • Ptolemy's decree on behalf of the Jews
    • Ptolemy wrote another letter, this time on behalf of the Jews
    • He berated those who encouraged the idea of gathering all the Jews in order to punish them
    • They had wrongly believed the kingdom would never be safe as long as Jews were punished
    • He lamented the fact that the Jews had been gathered without due process
    • Fortunately, their God had come to their rescue
    • He then acquitted the Jews of any and all possible charges against them
    • They were allowed to return home and decreed that any who devised evil against them would also be fighting the Most High God
  • 7:10-16
    • Punishment of the apostates
    • Instead of leaving, the Jews asked for permission to punish those who had defected against the law of God
    • Those people would never be favorably disposed to the king's government
    • The argument seemed wise to the king
    • He granted them license to do what they thought was right to those people
    • The Jews found and punished roughly 300 defectors on that very day
    • Then they began leaving the city
  • 7:17-25
    • The Jews depart
    • Ships were waiting for them to return them to their homes
    • They continued to celebrate their great fortune for the king had given them provisions for their travels
    • They inscribed the event on a pillar and dedicated the festival site
    • Hereafter, they possessed greater prestige among their enemies
    • They all recovered all of their property because people were afraid of them
    • So the supreme God delivered them
    • "Blessed be the Deliverer of Israel through all times!"

Once again, the intriguing question comes up – are these true events? Most scholars think there is truth in them, but the author was not writing a historical account. Many call this a "historical romance." Some think it is loosely based on historical facts recorded by Polybius in Histories. Others claim the idea that Ptolemy might have entered Jerusalem and wanted to enter the Temple is entirely within the realm of possibilities. Some think the episode involving the elephants didn't happen until a century later – around 144-117 BCE during the reign of Ptolemy VII. And the poll tax seems to have been a Roman invention, not coming until 24/23 BCE. Nonetheless, the story does give a glimpse into the life of Jews living outside Palestine. And basically, it reminds the reader that loyalty to the Torah is always the best plan, that God can protect his people wherever they live, and that anti-Jewish sentiment has no basis in fact.


deSilva, David. Introducing the Apocrypha. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic. 2002.

Harrington, Daniel J. Invitation to the Apocrypha. Grand Rapids, MI: William B Eerdmans. 1999.

Meeks, Wayne, ed. The Harper Collins Study Bible. San Francisco, CA: HarperCollins Publishers. 1993.

Mills, Watson and Richard Wilson, Eds. "Deuterocanonicals/Apocrypha." Mercer Commentary on the Bible. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press. 1995.

Old Testament Apocrypha

Christian Apocrypha