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.
enticingly-titled Stories about Philopater by Ptolemaios of Megalopolis31. Four centuries later, Clement of Alexandria, Protr. 47, is still able to state flatly, when speaking disparagingly of those who had proclaimed themselves gods: ‘Ptolemy the fourth was called Dionysus’.
The author of 3 Maccabees promotes this identification in a variety of ways. One is obviously Philopator’s repeated associations with wine, revelry, symposia and Dionysiac festivals32. Of a piece with these features is his edict promoting the conversion of the Jews to the Dionysian mysteries: ‘Those who were enrolled should be branded by fire on their body with an ivy leaf, the symbol of Dionysus’ (3 Macc 2,29)33.
A second tack is to attribute to Philopator the very mental attributes of Dionysus. The king vacillates from extremes of rabid ferocity to tractable benevolence. Like Dionysus, he is a figure ‘most terrible and most sweet to mortals’ (Euripides, Ba. 861) or, in this context, most terrible and most sweet to the Jews34.
The king’s terrible aspect is further developed through his association with wild animals (qhri/a), specifically elephants35, where his savage temper is consistently mirrored in the demeanor of his elephants36. The elephants are pitiless (a)nhleei=j [3 Macc 5,10]) just as he is (3 Macc 5,47)37. The elephants are made to drink drugged wine so that they become savage (3 Macc 5,2.10.43)38, just as he drinks wine and becomes savage (3 Macc 5,16-20; 5,36-44).
The elephants suggest a further correlation with Dionysus. Under the Ptolemies, elephants came increasingly to be identified with Dionysus39.