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.
author draws on the literary heritage of the Greeks in order to pillory Philopator’s Dionysiac pretensions5.
1. Familiarity with the Bacchae
Can we assume that the author of 3 Maccabees would have had some familiarity with the story of Pentheus and with the Bacchae? There are three reasons for supposing so. First, the story of Pentheus was celebrated in the Greek world6. Not only was Euripides’ Bacchae justly renowned7, its subject matter also appeared in a tetrology by Aeschylus and in the works of other Athenian dramatists, including possibly Thespis himself8.
Second, both the myth of Pentheus and Euripides’ Bacchae itself appear to have been very familiar in Alexandria. Theocritus, Idyll. 26, in probable dependence on the Bacchae, recounts the detection of Pentheus as he spies on the teleta/i of his mother and aunts. In addition, Callimachus describes a mask of Dionysus yawning with boredom at hearing schoolchildren endlessly parrot lines from the Bacchae: ‘And here I am set, gaping twice as widely as the Samian [Dionysus], the tragic Dionysus, hearkening to children as they say "Sacred is the lock of hair", repeating "my own dream to me"’9. The final phrase — ‘repeating my own dream to me’ — as Gow and Page suggest, means ‘stale news to me’10. The implication is that these lines would have been as familiar to his audience as our own national anthem is to us.
Third, it is entirely probable that a contemporary Jewish author should be familiar with these Greek traditions. The Exagoge of Ezekiel the tragedian, for example, is infused with echoes of the fifth-century dramatists11. Moses Hadas remarks — not, perhaps, without hyperbole — that ‘Every work in the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament has expressions from or allusions to tragedy which the reader was obviously expected to