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.
Merkelbach suggests that there is an aretalogical component to Greek novels, and while the miraculous features in 3 Maccabees differ in some respects, they are open to the same interpretation48. YHWH’s climactic miracle is witnessed by an entire hippodrome full of hostile spectators. The miracle is sufficiently marvellous that the Jewish people later secure glory and awe from their enemies (3 Macc 7,21). The Jews themselves immediately move from lamentation to praise of God ‘the deliverer and wonderworker’ (teratopoio/n). The miracles accomplished by YHWH show him to be the antithesis of idols ‘impotent to answer or help’ (3 Macc 5,16). When the Jewish people beg him to respond with a glorious manifestation (megalomerou=j e)pifanei/aj [3 Macc 5,8]), he answers in precisely that way.
We may even suggest that 3 Maccabees is designed as a response to the claims and pretensions of the ruler cult by offering an ‘anti-aretalogy’, demonstrating that Dionysus and Philopator, called Dionysus, are anything but divine. Whether Philopator is a Pentheus or even a Dionysus, he is still just a poor player strutting in the grand drama authored by YHWH. As a grateful audience, the Jewish people are inexorably brought to the conclusion that, with YHWH ruling, they need have ‘nothing to do with Dionysus’.