Third Maccabees tells the story of Jewish persecution under King Ptolemy Philopator, likely Ptolemy IV, who lived from 245 to 202 BCE and ruled from 211 to 202 BCE.
After Philopator defeats Antiochus, he has a celebration tour. He visits Jerusalem and wants to enter the temple, which Jewish Law prohibits. Though he doesn’t care about the Law and tries to proceed anyway, he is supernaturally stopped. As a result, a hatred for the Jews erupts. When he returns to Alexandria in Egypt, he rounds up the Jews with the intent to kill them in a grand public spectacle in the hippodrome.
Though several times the death of the Jews seems imminent, each time God intervenes and spares them for another day. After trying to crush them with 500 enraged, drunk elephants, the king finally gives up. He frees the Jews and has a conversion experience of sorts, affirming that “we have come to realize that the God of heaven surely defends the Jews,” (3 Maccabees 7:6, RSV).
Some people claim the name of 3 Maccabees is a misnomer, since the Maccabees are never mentioned by name. Yet Judas Maccabees, part of the priestly line, has a brother Simon. In 1 and 2 Maccabees, Simon (presumably Judas’s brother) is high priest. In 3 Maccabees 2:1, Simon is the high priest. Judas also has a brother Eleazar. An Eleazar is mentioned in 3 Maccabees 6:1-16.
Third Maccabees is not found in all versions of the Bible or even all versions of the Apocrypha. However, the Eastern Orthodox and Ethiopian Bibles include 3 Maccabees. The Septuagint, an ancient Greek translation of the Jewish scriptures, which was widely used in Jesus’s day, also contains 3 Maccabees, as does the various versions of the RSV (Revised Standard Version) and the CEB (Common English Bible).
For more information, see why “Christians Should Consider the Entire Bible.”
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