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Fourth Book of Maccabees

The Fourth Book of Maccabees is an apocryphal book, included in the Septuagint. It presumably dates from the first century C.E., and is erroneously ascribed by Christian tradition to Josephus. It does not deal with the warriors of the Maccabean revolt, but with the story of the martyrs of the preceding religious persecution, as related in II Maccabees 6–7. It is of special interest as the only surviving major piece of Greek rhetoric in Jewish literature. IV Maccabees is a philosophical sermon on the theme “pious reason masters passion.” This theme, stated at the outset, is frequently repeated during the sermon. After an initial inquiry along the lines of standard Stoic doctrine into the nature of reason and the varieties of passion, the preacher offers historical examples of the ability of reason to control passion. He finally comes to examples provided by the “occasion of this day,” the heroic death of the victims of Antiochus’ persecution. After a short historical exposition, he describes old Eleazar and the mother (later known as Hannah) with her seven sons, whom the king tries to force to eat ritually forbidden food. They refuse and each defends his refusal in a fervent speech in the face of cruel torture before being put to death. It seems that the details, as far as they are not drawn from II Maccabees, emanate from the author’s own imagination. He spares no pains to excite the emotions of his audience, incorporating detailed descriptions of the torture instruments, delicate analysis of the mother’s inner struggle, and great exclamations of admiration for the martyrs. This sermon is one of the outstanding specimens of the “Asianic” school of rhetoric, known for its linguistic excesses, neologisms, redundance of language, and overemphasis.

A most interesting feature is the interweaving of Greek philosophical and Jewish traditional motifs. Not only are moral conflicts and temptations illustrated by biblical stories but in line with the concept that the Torah is the “philosophy” of the Jews, biblical laws are presented as practical means of Stoic self-education and are thus classified according to the different cardinal virtues they help to develop. It passes unnoticed that during this presentation the ideal of the Stoic sage is replaced by that of the God-fearing man, and that heroism is interpreted as the endurance of hardship. The martyr reaps all the glory. He is called an athlete and his ability to endure suffering is the apex of all the moral virtues. The author regards firmness in bearing pain as the victory of reason and as virtually destroying the tyrant’s power. The principal religious motivation of the martyr is loyalty to God’s law. Eleazar makes no distinction between greater and lesser commandments. Violation of either constitutes contempt for the Lawgiver. The martyrs are certain that God will reward their faithfulness after their death and that He will inflict eternal punishment on the godless king.

The sermon was obviously intended for delivery; otherwise, the mention of its “occasion” would be meaningless. However, it may not have been a synagogue sermon, since, in Hellenistic (as in rabbinical) Judaism, such sermons seem always to have been based on a biblical verse. Perhaps it was a Chanukah sermon, but in the absence of any known association of that festival with the martyrs, it may be more correct to think of it as intended for an assembly at their supposed tomb (at Antiochia?) on a traditional commemoration day.

No traces of IV Maccabees have been detected in later Jewish tradition, but Christianity adopted it, together with the “Maccabean Saints,” to whom both the Eastern and the Western Church dedicated a Commemoration Day. Sermons delivered on that day, sometimes referring expressly to IV Maccabees, have been preserved from Gregory of Nazianzus, Augustine, and other Church Fathers. The heroism of the “Maccabees” left its mark on Christian martyr worship, although the Jewish source lacks the special note of longing for torments characteristic of Christian martyrology.


Charles, Apocrypha, 2 (1913), 653–85; M. Hadas, The Third and Fourth Books of Maccabees (1953), including detailed bibliography. 

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.