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.
recognize’12. Since our author appears to be somewhat familiar with Greek tragedy and has pretensions to literary artistry, allusions to the subject matter of the Bacchae are certainly possible13. I assume either that the author was familiar with the work or had attended some performance of the play14.
This examination will begin by focussing on two themes present both in 3 Maccabees and the Bacchae: hybris and divine nemesis or retribution. It will argue for strong parallels between Pentheus and Ptolemy IV Philopator, and then consider the extent to which Philopator is represented as the embodiment of Dionysus himself.
2. Philopator as Theomachos
The defining situation of both 3 Maccabees and Euripides’ Bacchae is a king who recklessly opposes a God. Both Pentheus and Philopator are portrayed as theomachoi, god-fighters who persistently engage in acts of hybris and impiety15. In the two works this hybris and impiety are manifested in several ways16. First of all, each of the rulers is fixated on seeing those things that are forbidden for him to see. Philopator, notwithstanding the Jews’ fervent pleas, indulges his desire to enter into the Holy of Holies, an act forbidden to all but the High Priest, and permitted even to him only once a year 17. Scorning the law, the king in his arrogance holds that even if others ‘are deprived of this honour, it is not fitting that I should be’ (3 Macc 1,12). Pentheus, too, is told that, as an impious man (Euripides, Ba. 475), it is not lawful (qe/mij) for him to learn of the rites of Dionysus (ibid., 471, 474), and Dionysus addresses Pentheus in similar terms: ‘You...are so