The Third Book of Maccabees is an apocryphal book, included in the Septuagint, probably dating from the first century B.C.E. It has nothing to do with the Maccabees, but relates a legend to explain why the Jews in Egypt have a Purim-like festival in the summer (the Egyptian date is given). It may have been grouped with the books of the Maccabees, because it, too, relates a persecution of Jews by a Hellenistic king and their miraculous rescue. In it, Ptolemy IV Philopator (221–204 B.C.E., after his victory over Antiochus III at Rafa, visited neighboring temples. When he insisted upon entering the Temple of Jerusalem by force, the high priest's prayer brought down upon him the scourge of God. Returning to his capital, he took his anger out on the Alexandrian Jews. He ordered a census of the Jews, which was an infringement of their civil rights, and ordered that they be branded with the emblem of Dionysus. Those resisting initiation to Dionysus' mysteries were to be put to death, and those consenting were to be granted full citizenship. As most Alexandrian Jews remained loyal to their faith, the king ordered all the Jews of the country to be brought to Alexandria and put to death. Clerks attempted to register them but failed for shortage of writing material. Crowds of Jews were then concentrated in a hippodrome where they were to be trampled to death by intoxicated elephants. Their destruction was twice miraculously averted. On the third attempt two angels appeared and struck terror into the king, his army, and the elephants, the beasts turning about and falling upon the soldiers. In the end the king repented and prepared a banquet in honor of the rescued Jews.
There are serious objections to the historicity of this story. The king's decree combines an infringement of civil rights that could apply only to Alexandrian Jews, with a census of the Jews of the whole country. Moreover, the only purpose of the census could be to institute a poll tax. However, this would become meaningless if the whole Jewish population were to be put to death; it is probably for this reason that the author had to find a device to stop it. The story of the elephants is told by Josephus (Apion, 2:53–55), but about another Ptolemy. The account of the two angels, as well as that of the king's intrusion into the Temple of Jerusalem, is derived from II Maccabees 3. The theme of the king who is instigated by his counselors to annihilate the Jews is from the Book of Esther. These and other details of the story can be put down as commonplaces of persecution literature. By prefacing his patchwork with a description, albeit irrelevant, of the battle of Rafa, taken from a reliable historian, the author manages to concoct an etiology for a festival, the original meaning of which had been forgotten. The book was written in Greek and its style is characterized by its many rare words and neologisms.
Charles, Apocrypha, 1 (1913), 155–73; M. Hadas, The Third and Fourth Books of Maccabees (1953), includes bibliography.
Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2008 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.