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.
These miracles culminate in a climactic reversal, where the theomachos is decisively bested by the god whom he opposes. The Bacchae aptly describes this process: ‘Many are the things the gods accomplish against our expectation. What seems probable does not come to pass’ (ibid., 1389-1390). Pentheus, who in his hybris threatened to destroy the maenads, is himself destroyed by them. Philopator, who confidently expected to destroy the Jewish people with his enraged elephants, sees them savage his own forces. The gods, whom the kings had formerly reviled, are now acknowledged, and their followers decisively vindicated26.
It is only at this point that the two works diverge significantly27. The outworking of the hybris/nemesis theme is profoundly tragic in the Bacchae, with the fragmentation and exile of the royal household following quickly on the destruction of Pentheus. In 3 Maccabees it is comic (except, of course, for the soldiers and apostates). The king is reconciled with the Jewish people and their god; he establishes feasts for them and finishes by valuing them more highly than he had done at the outset.
4. Theomachy: Dionysus versus YHWH
These similarities between 3 Maccabees and the Bacchae could lead to the conclusion that the Pentheus theme is simply exploited by the author of 3 Maccabees to produce a template of the theomachos. But the parallels may go deeper. The hybris/nemesis themes suggest a very different sort of theomachy, one that is literally a battle of the gods, with YHWH ranged against Dionysus. To develop this theomachy, the author of 3 Maccabees identifies Ptolemy IV Philopator with Dionysus. Such an identification would hardly have been unprecedented28 Ptolemy I on his accession, established a ruler cult, which counted both Heracles and Dionysus amongst its progenitors29. Philopator was dubbed ‘the new Dionysus’ by his contemporary, the poet Euphronius30. His Dionysian pretensions and dissolute features appear to have become proverbial largely because of an influential and scandalous work, the