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.
beyond the sphere of Dionysus. By replacing the Bacchic a)logi/a with a benevolent swfrosu/nh, the God of Israel subdues and tames the devotee of Dionysus, transforming him into a tractable and more rational figure.
Once he is gifted with reason, Philopator moves from his former derision of the ‘power of the supreme god’ (to_ tou= megi/stou qeou= kra/toj [3 Macc 3,11]) to a fervent acknowledgment of him. The very last words attributed to him reveal that he has no further thoughts of theomachy:
Be sure of this, that if we devise any evil scheme against them [the Jews] or cause them any trouble, we shall have not man but the most high God, who is ruler of all power, as our adversary to exact vengeance for what is done, inexorably in all circumstances, and for all time 45.
The victory goes to YHWH.
The echoes that have been outlined above give expression to a different theomachy, one that is profoundly ironic46. Ptolemy is able to serve Dionysus only at YHWH’s pleasure. The Jewish people in Egypt may well be subject to the whims of Ptolemy, but Ptolemy can rule only by the authority of the God of Israel. The author of 3 Maccabees, therefore, draws on the literary heritage of the Greeks to skewer the Ptolemaic ruler-cult and particularly Philopator’s Dionysiac pretensions. Ptolemy, though he purports to be a Dionysus, is really only a Pentheus after all. But then, YHWH is not a Dionysus47. Foregoing the latter’s customary sparagmo/j, YHWH contents himself with whipping the impudent king, and making him appear ridiculous. In the end, however, he bequeaths to the king a hitherto absent sobriety and swfrosu/nh and, what is more, a host of loyal Jewish subjects.
The work’s comic ending also promotes this evaluation. It is true that the tragic ending of the Bacchae accentuates the dynamis of Dionysus: his power is not to be doubted. Yet the play also closes with Cadmus’ reproach that Dionysus should not resemble humans in the severity of the punishment he metes out (Euripides, Ba. 1346, 1348); Dionysus should be more godlike. In this respect, the comic ending of 3 Maccabees reveals a figure more like a god. YHWH’s miracles are understated, and performed almost with reluctance. His seeming unwillingness to manifest his power, ironically, is suggestive of a far more profound dynamis.
This contrast may help to explain part of the purpose of 3 Maccabees. R.