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.
eager to see what you should not see and seek things that must not be sought’ (ibid., 912-913). Yet, Pentheus is unrepentantly obsessed with catching a glimpse of these rites, having earlier confessed: ‘I would give a great weight of gold for that’ (ibid., 812). Each king, therefore, wilfully disregards what is lawful and puts his own gratification above honouring divinely appointed laws.
The two kings’ hybris is such that they are not simply negligent of the god’s cult — they strive to eradicate it altogether. Philopator vows to destroy the Jerusalem temple with fire and ‘for all time to empty it of those who sacrificed there’ (3 Macc 5,43), while Pentheus actively resists the introduction of Bacchic rites into Thebes and promises to ‘put an end quickly to this destructive Bacchism’ (Euripides, Ba. 232)18. Their hybris, therefore, brings them to persecute the gods’ true worshippers. In a remarkable series of parallels, each king condemns the devotees of the god he scorns. Each advocates a mass arrest, binds the god’s devotees in chains, imprisons them within his city, and, ultimately, threatens them with death19.
The magnitude of their hybris is expressed in a striking common metaphor, where the godfighter’s hybris is likened to that of the giants. In 3 Maccabees the high priest Simon praises god as ‘a righteous ruler who condemns all who act with hybris and arrogance ... among whom were the giants relying on their strength and boldness’ (3 Macc 2,3-4). In the Bacchae the chorus of maenads entreats Dionysus to ‘put an end quickly to the hybris of this murderous man’, who, ‘like a murderous giant fights against the gods’ (Euripides, Ba. 543-4,555)20. In both works the giants function as archetypal examples of violent and disobedient figures, who range themselves against the divine. Like giants, both Pentheus and Philopator arrogate for themselves positions to which they are not entitled. And, like the giants, they are unrelenting in their hybris21. The repeated supplications of the maenads, on the one hand, and the Jewish people on the other, establish the need for the gods to intervene and exact divine retribution.
3. Divine Retribution
The gods will clearly not tolerate such hybris. YHWH is mi/subrij ‘hybris-hating’ (3 Macc 6,9). Dionysus, too, assures Pentheus that he will exact punishment for these acts of hybris (u(brisma/twn). Nevertheless, the gods are slow to punish. Although the two deities do intervene, they do so in intermittent fashion, and fail to act decisively until the works’ climactic