J.R.C. Cousland, «Dionysus theomachos? Echoes of the Bacchae in 3 Maccabees», Vol. 82 (2001) 539-548
3 Maccabees demonstrates some suggestive affinities with
Euripides’ Bacchae. The protagonists of both works are kings who become
theomachoi. Pentheus and Ptolemy IV Philopator rashly attempt to spy on
things that they ought not, and each suffers for his repeated hybris.
Each king also attempts to kill the devotees of the god against whom he
struggles, and each is punished with a disordering of his mental state.
3 Maccabees further develops the theme of theomachy by stressing the associations between Dionysus and Ptolemy IV Philopator — the ‘New Dionysus’. YHWH effortlessly triumphs over the ‘New Dionysus’ with Dionysus’ own devices — sleep and oblivion. Ironically, Philopator is only able to serve Dionysus at YHWH’s pleasure. The Jewish people in Egypt may well be under the authority of Philopator, but Philopator only rules by the authority of the God of Israel. The author, therefore, draws on the literary heritage of the Greeks to pillory Philopator’s Dionysiac pretensions.
The Sophist Zenobius records the Athenian proverb ‘nothing to do with Dionysus’ (ou)de_n pro_j to_n Dio/nuson). This proverb probably accounted for the absence of Dionysiac elements in Greek drama1. Yet, if the proverb can be said to refer to the absence of Dionysus in drama, it can also be taken to apply to the recent interpretation of 3 Maccabees: it, too, has ‘nothing to do with Dionysus’ and the Dionysiac elements present there have been largely overlooked in favour of other concerns.
Traditionally, these concerns have been historical: this work has been mined for information about the Jews in Egypt, with considerably less attention having been devoted to its literary features2. Even when literary issues have been taken into account, source-critical questions have tended to predominate3. My purpose, then, is to leave historical and source-critical questions to one side, and to argue that 3 Maccabees does have something to do with Dionysus. I shall examine the presence of suggestive literary and thematic echoes of Euripides in the work, particularly Pentheus’ hapless opposition to Dionysus4. In adducing these echoes, I shall argue that the