Sapiential Literature (3 Maccabees)

(Summary of a lecture by J. R. Davila on 13 March, 1997)

I want to discuss biblical and ancient Near Eastern sapiential literature in a general way in the first part of this lecture, before turning to the specific work 3 Maccabees. A biblical passage on the wisdom of King Solomon-the paradigmatic Israelite sage-provides a nice overview of some of these sapiential traditions. We are told in 1 Kings 4:29-34 (Heb. 5:9-14) that Solomon’s wisdom surpassed that of all other nations and sages (some of whose names are dropped in order to impress us). The forms his wisdom took are also described: he spoke numerous proverbs and songs and described the plants and animals of his kingdom.

In general, it’s fair to say that there are two basic viewpoints found in biblical and ancient Near Eastern sapiential texts, both of which are found even in our earliest texts. We can call the first Conservative Wisdom. It assumes that human beings can understand how life works and that rewards and punishments for our actions come in this life. In other words, life is fair. Examples of Conservative sapiential works include the biblical book of Proverbs and the nonbiblical Ahiqar. The other viewpoint can be called Challenging Wisdom. It is more sceptical and doubts that we can understand reality and sees this life as basically unfair. The good are not necessarily rewarded or the wicked punished. Examples of Challenging sapiential texts would include the biblical books of Job and Ecclesiastes (Qohelet) and the Akkadian work _Ludlul Bel Nemeqi_ (the “Babylonian Job”).

Some of the major genres and themes of wisdom literature include:

1. INSTRUCTIONS: a wise figure passes proverbs and wisdom to his son or follower. Examples: Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and (in the OT Pseud) Pseudo-Phocylides. Compare also the reference to Solomon’s proverbs in 1 Kings 4:32 (Heb. 5:12).

2. DIALOGUES: A righteous man is suffering unjustly and he debates his own fate and the general question of theodicy (the “justice of God” or the problem of evil) with a group of companions. Examples: the book of Job, _Ludlul Bel Nemeqi_, and the Sumerian Job.

3. ONOMASTICA: a genre reflecting an early scientific interest. In Egypt and Mesopotamia scholars produced long lists of names of related natural phenomena (e.g., plants, gods, foods, celestial objects, etc.) with no commentary to speak of, evidently intending simply to classify the phenomena in the world. The reference in 1 Kings 4:33 (Heb. 5:13) to Solomon’s classification interests imply that onomastica were attributed to him as well. Evidently onomastic traditions were drawn on by the author of Job 38-39.

4. MANTIC WISDOM: or divination (the word “mantic” comes from the Greek word for divination). The idea of divination is related to the idea of prophecy and even overlaps with it to some degree. The big difference is that with prophecy the initiative mostly lies with the god, who gives more or less direct revelations to the prophet. But mantic wisdom or divination involves a diviner who takes the initiative. He or she carries out physical actions (a kind of magic, really) to elicit information from the divine world. Modern examples of mantic wisdom would include the reading of tea leaves or Tarot cards. So interpretation of dreams and omens is technically divination rather than prophecy, since both involved (or involve) set quasi-scientific rules of exegesis. Divination is officially disapproved of in the Bible (e.g., Deut 18:9-14) but appears nonetheless in approved contexts such as Joseph’s dream interpretations (Genesis 37, 40-41) and Gideon’s testing of an angelic revelation (Judg 7:36-40). And Daniel is much more a mantic sage than a prophet. Omen texts and various forms of divination were ubiquitious in the ancient Near East.

As an aside, it is interesting to note that the biblical tradition about Solomon’s wisdom in 1 Kings 1-11 and Proverbs is firmly in the Conservative camp, attributing sapiential traditions to him that would be unobjectionable from that viewpoint, but refraining from connecting him to dialogues or mantic wisdom. Yet the Solomon of Ecclesiastes is a paradigmatic Challenging sage. More significantly still, mantic wisdom and magic are never attributed to Solomon in the main biblical canons, yet Solomon the magician is famous in the noncanonical literature. (We’ll be covering one of these texts, the Testament of Solomon, in class later this semester.) My guess is that Solomon the sage originally included Solomon the magician and the mantic/magical aspect of the Solomonic tradition has been purged from the material in the major canons.

5. THE VINDICATION OF THE RIGHTEOUS SUFFERER: a sapiential Gattung isolated by George Nickelsburg in his published doctoral dissertation (see below). This genre or form comes as a storyline tied strongly to themes of Conservative Wisdom. The basic story is that a righteous wise man (often who holds a high position in a royal court) is persecuted and falsely accused by his enemies. He is imprisoned and his life is threatened, but in the end (often with the help of an ally) he is rescued, vindicated, restored or exalted to a high office in the court, and sees the downfall of his enemies. Individual exemplars may be more or less elaborate, but this is the basic structure. Biblical examples are the Joseph story and Daniel chapters 3 and 6. The same pattern appears in the nonbiblical Ahiqar story (to be covered in our next class meeting), so we are dealing with an ancient Near Eastern convention, not just a biblical or Israelite one. Nickelsburg traced this theme through the biblical tradition and found that many uses of it were filtered through the suffering servant tradition found in Second Isaiah (especially Isaiah 52-53), in which the righteous sufferer is killed but receives post-mortem vindication either at the resurrection of the dead (e.g., in Dan 12:1-3) or in the afterlife as an immortal soul (e.g., in the Wisdom of Solomon).

I chose to use 3 Maccabees as an example of a sapiential text, although one might debate this classification. The contents of 3 Maccabees correspond well to the genre “hellenistic romance” (not covered in this course, but an example in the OT Pseud is Joseph and Aseneth), so one could just as well consider it under that heading. But Charlesworth puts it in the category “Wisdom and Philosophical Literature,” with some justification since it also fits the Gattung “Vindication of the Righteous Sufferer.” It is analysed as an example of this genre in this lecture. (I had originally planned to use 4 Maccabees as my sapiential example, but then decided that the hellenistic philosophical elements in it might prove to be a distraction and so switched to 3 Maccabees. I do hope to return to 4 Maccabees, perhaps the year after next when this course is taught again.)

Nickelsburg argues that 3 Maccabees shows a literary dependence on the Wisdom of Solomon’s formulation of the Isaianic tradition, even though it reverts to the other scenario where vindication and punishment occur in this life. In any case, it is an excellent example of the Gattung of the Vindication of the Righteous Sufferer. I present below Nickelsburg’s breakdown of the elements of the genre with minor modifications and commentary.


  • REASON FOR PERSECUTION: (1:1-2:27; 3:2-7) King Ptolemy IV Philopater’s ill-fated attempt to enter the Jerusalem temple led him to try to destroy Egyptian Jewry, aided by others hostile to the Jews,
  • CONSPIRACY: (3:2) who seized this opportunity to discredit them
  • ACCUSATION: (7:3-5; 3:2) by accusing them of bearing ill-will to all other nations.
  • CHOICE: (2:28-33) The Jews were offered a choice of slavery and branding with a pagan symbol or else being initiated into the pagan mysteries and being rewarded with full Alexandrian citizenship. A few accepted his offer but most stood fast in their ancestral religion.
  • HELPERS: (3:10) A few neighbours, friends, and business associates pledged secretly to help the Jews.
  • CONDEMNATION: (3:25) Ptolemy published a royal decree that the Jews were sentenced to be fettered and executed cruelly.
  • PROTEST: (6:1-15) The venerable priest Eleazar protested the innocence of the Jews in his prayer.
  • TRUST: (2:33) The Jews continued to hope for relief even in the face of their persecution. (Implied also in the prayers in 5:6-9, 13, 25, 35, 51; 6:1-15.)
  • RESCUE: (5:11-20, 25-34; 6:18-21) The book narrates three divine rescues from destruction: (1) the king overslept on the day appointed for the mass execution, so it had to be rescheduled for next day; (2) but that day the king forgot the plan entirely and was outraged by it when he heard of it. But later on the same day he forgot that he had forgotten it and commanded that the executions be carried out the next morning, swearing that he would also destroy the temple in Jerusalem. (3) When the king finally actually tried to carry out the genocide, two angels rescued all the Jews and turned the elephants back on the king’s troops.
  • REACTIONS: (6:19, 21, 33, 34) Their enemies were terrified by the deliverance of the Jews, but the cowed king held a banquet and gave thanks for their rescue.
  • VINDICATION: (6:24-29; 7:7-8) The Jews were vindicated and absolved of all blame by the king himself.
  • ACCLAMATION: (6:28; 7:6-9) The Jews and their God received acclamation from the king.
  • PUNISHMENT: (6:21, 23; 7:6) The king’s army was trampled by the elephants and the accusers of the Jews were harshly reprimanded by the king.
  • EXALTATION: (7:10-23) The Jews were honoured by the king, given permission to kill hundreds of their own who had apostatized, and they were held in awe by their enemies.

Some bibliographical notes:

For information on mantic wisdom in the ancient Near East and the apocalyptic literature see James C. VanderKam, _Enoch and the Growth of an Apocalyptic Tradition_ (CBQMS 16; Washington D.C.: The Catholic Biblical Association of America, 1984).

Nickelsburg’s work on the genre of the Vindication of the Righteous Sufferer is found in _Resurrection, Immortality, and Eternal Life in Intertestamental Judaism_ by George W. E. Nickelsburg, Jr. (Cambridge Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1972). His treatment of 3 Maccabees is on pp. 90-92.

As far as I know, the first to suggest that the biblical Solomonic tradition has been purged of magical elements was Margaret Barker in _The Older Testament_ (London: SPCK, 1987) 31, 33.

Additional note: the masculine pronouns scattered through this lecture are not meant to be sexist. I use them because I am unaware of any cases of texts involving women in these situations. I would be very grateful if listmembers who know of such cases would point them out. [Sigrid Peterson was kind enough to post some material on this question and I include her messages here with her permission.]

(c) 1997
Reproduction beyond fair use only on permission of the author.

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