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.
endings. There is a definite retardation at work to make the peripeteia all the more pronounced when it does happen22.
The punishment begins in much the same manner in the two works: the gods disorder and unseat the wits of the arrogant kings. In 3 Maccabees, to use Plutarch’s evocative word, a ‘theolepsis’ takes place (Plutarch, Mor. 56e). The Bacchae relates that wine induces sleep and forgetfulness of the day’s evils (u#pnon te lh/qhn tw=n kaq' h(me/ran kakw=n [Euripides, Ba. 282]). These very things are visited upon Philopator. In an obvious parody of the Dionysiac effects of wine, YHWH induces slumber (u#pnou: 3 Macc 5,11), oblivion and forgetfulness in the dissolute king: ‘But this was the working of the God who rules over all things, who had placed into his mind forgetfulness (lh/qhn) of his former schemes’ (3 Macc 5,28)23. Yet his wits are also addled: ‘by the providence of God all his reason had been scattered’ (dieskeda/sqai pa=n au)tou= to_ no/hma: 3 Macc 5,30)24. The culmination of this process transpires when the king and the rest of the hippodrome spectators witness the angelophany: ‘a great shuddering seized the body of the king, and oblivion covered his sullen insolence’ (3 Macc 6,20), with the consequence that the ‘king’s rage was turned to pity and tears for those things he had previously devised’ (3 Macc 6,22). Through YHWH’s intervention, Philopator is brought to a state of pliancy, where he ultimately comes to recognize ‘the children of the almighty and living God of Heaven’ (3 Macc 6,28).
Dionysus’ dismantling of the wits of Pentheus is even more elaborate. He afflicts Pentheus with delusions (Euripides, Ba. 616-631; cf. 918-922), and then, playing on his obsession to see the Dionysiac orgia, inexorably drives him mad. Dionysus makes these intentions explicit in his address to the maenads: ‘Let us punish him; first unseat his wits, loosing upon him light-headed madness; for in his senses he will certainly refuse to wear a woman’s clothing, but if he is driving off the road of reason, he will wear it’ (ibid., 850-854). And Pentheus does precisely this. Once he has assumed his costume, he, too becomes compliant. He tells Dionysus that he is now reliant on him (ibid., 934), and Dionysus assures him that, although his earlier mindset had been unhealthy, he now has just the healthy state of mind that he needs (ibid., 947-948)25.
In addition to this mental disordering, the gods perform other miracles as a prelude to the peripeteia. By the providence of YHWH, the pens and paper give out in the registration of the Jews so that it cannot be completed (3 Macc 4,20). In the Bacchae, Dionysus imparts miraculous strength to his maenads (Euripides, Ba. 704-769). He reveals his own power by escaping from prison (ibid., 615-620), initiating the collapse both of the king’s palace (ibid., 585-606) as well as the king’s mind.