Why My Favorite Text of Jewish Literature is 4 Maccabees

It is not surprising to me that people consider it strange for me to suggest Paul used language from Stoic philosophy. The background for understanding the New Testament (NT) is the Old Testament (OT).

[Note: It is common for liberal Christians to say “old” is derogatory, and we should say Hebrew Bible. But I don’t think the Jews who became followers of Jesus were Jews reading the Hebrew Bible but were dependent on a Greek Bible of some sort. I’m clear in my book that I do not consider Paul to say that there’s a new religion called Christianity and it has replaced Judaism. Think of “old” as “ancient.”]

That perception may cause the reader to imagine that the words translated from Greek in the NT mean the same thing as the words translated from Hebrew in the OT. I contend that, for the most part, the Jewish followers of Jesus who wrote the NT were writing in Greek using Greek concepts and reading a Greek Bible through the lens of Greek culture. Philo of Alexandria is an example, but Philo was primarily a Platonist–one who interpreted the Bible in terms of the philosophy of Plato. A better comparison to Paul is the writing known as 4 Maccabees.

A few years I assigned my class to read 4 Maccabees. I was startled by the negative responses. I quickly realized maybe I should have only assigned the first few chapters of the beginning and the last chapters. The descriptions of martyrdom are quite gruesome. My views about courage and endurance have nothing to do with needing to be tortured and executed.

Here’s how 4 Maccabees begins.

The subject that I am about to discuss is most philosophical, that is, whether devout reason is sovereign over the emotions. So it is right for me to advise you to pay earnest attention to philosophy.  For the subject is essential to everyone who is seeking knowledge, and in addition it includes the praise of the highest virtue—I mean, of course, rational judgment.  If, then, it is evident that reason rules over those emotions that hinder self-control, namely, gluttony and lust,  it is also clear that it masters the emotions that hinder one from justice, such as malice, and those that stand in the way of courage, namely anger, fear, and pain. 

4 Macc 1:1-4 NRSV

There’s no doubt that the author is discussing the Stoic view about reason having control over the passions or emotions. One might even wonder if this was written by a Jewish person at all until you come to 4 Macc 1:17. I’ll quote it in context.

Now reason is the mind that with sound logic prefers the life of wisdom.  Wisdom, next, is the knowledge of divine and human matters and the causes of these.  This, in turn, is education in the law, by which we learn divine matters reverently and human affairs to our advantage. 

4 Macc 1:15-17 NRSV

The author refers here to the function of Torah as education (paideia). A Jew who has learned Greek and Greek culture is interpreting Jewish practice through the lens of Greek philosophy. This is what I’m saying Paul does in his letters. That he does that is disguised by theological language. That’s why I needed to create new translations of his letters.

The author of 4 Maccabees will use the examples of Eleazar and the mother and her seven sons to show by an extreme example (torture and execution) that those who remain constant in their commitment to God and Torah can through philosophical practice and application of virtue overcome the emotions associated with pain.

He takes this to another level: the response of God to such endurance, faithfulness, and constancy. Because of their actions God brought about certain consequences. One is a purification of their country by the removal of the foreign power of the Seleucids led by Antiochus Epiphanes.

All people, even their torturers, marveled at their courage and endurance, and they became the cause of the downfall of tyranny over their nation. By their endurance they conquered the tyrant, and thus their native land was purified through them.

4 Macc 1:11 NRSV

After arguing for his philosophical thesis, the author turns to his narrative of his exemplars at 4 Macc 3:19. At the end of the narrative at chapter seventeen, the author delivers his panegyric (probably an epitaphios logos, a funeral speech praising the dead). The author proposes an inscription for their tombs.

 Truly the contest in which they were engaged was divine,  for on that day virtue gave the awards and tested them for their endurance. The prize was immortality in endless life.  Eleazar was the first contestant, the mother of the seven sons entered the competition, and the brothers contended.  The tyrant was the antagonist, and the world and the human race were the spectators.  Reverence for God was victor and gave the crown to its own athletes.  Who did not admire the athletes of the divine legislation? Who were not amazed? The tyrant himself and all his council marveled at their endurance,  because of which they now stand before the divine throne and live the life of eternal blessedness

4 Macc 17:11-18

If one knows the OT well and knows Hellenistic culture, then one could see that this is a mixture of Greek and Hebrew concepts. One might even go so far as to say a mixture of philosophy and religion. What is definitely Greek is the concept that humans can become immortal, ascend to the presence of God (or the gods), and share in divine bliss.

Now for the really important part.

These, then, who have been consecrated for the sake of God, are honored, not only with this honor, but also by the fact that because of them our enemies did not rule over our nation,  the tyrant was punished, and the homeland purified—they having become, as it were, a ransom for the sin of our nation.  And through the blood of those devout ones and their death as an atoning sacrifice, divine Providence preserved Israel that previously had been mistreated. 

4 Macc 17:20-22 NRSV

This Jewish author considers that the reason the foreign oppressor was removed was directly linked to God’s response to the faithfulness of Eleazar, the mother, and her seven sons. This resulted in a purification of the nation. Their deaths were regarded by God as a “ransom for the sin of the nation” and “an atoning sacrifice.” The God of Israel is referred to as “divine providence.” God “preserved, saved” (diasōzō) Israel. We have in these brief verses the NT language of purification, ransom, atonement, and salvation all related to the Greek tradition of the death of an innocent person having benefit for others. There’s no talk here about lambs, altars, the holy of holies, or the temple sacrificial system.

When the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered, NT scholars latched on to the discovery as the stepping stone from OT to NT. Even if Qumran acted as a repository for Essenes not only living at Qumran, I still consider it to be a radical settlement devoted to returning to an ancient way. If anything, 4 Maccabees is the stepping stone (along with the Wisdom of Solomon). The effect of Protestants deciding to remove the Apocrypha from their Bibles (4 Macc is not part of the Apocrypha or Deuterocanonical works) did away with any connection the NT had with Hellenistic Judaism. The result is a skewed interpretation of the Bible and theological system. Consequently, Protestant Christianity ended up creating a Christian practice without human effort which I say is about the opposite of what Paul was saying.

I knew a guy many years ago who was arrogantly opposed to Christianity and the Church. In later years he became a Christian. Now he is an arrogant Christian.

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