In a series of posts, I have been implicitly advancing an overarching thesis that the theological content in Paul’s letter to the Romans is largely a response to the influence that some Second Temple Literature such as Wisdom of Solomon and 1 Maccabees could have had on some Jews to embrace a more ethnocentric nationalism in response to Roman imperialism and oppression. While I have not provided the entirety of my evidence in my blog posts, my reasoning for such rests upon (1) similarities between Romans and these texts that can are best explained by direct influence from the STJ literature on Paul’s discourse and (2) as a consequence, how the ideas and narratives given in these texts can be employed to provide both a plausible and coherent account of Paul’s discourse. If these two reasons are sufficient reason to argue that Paul’s discourse is a response to both the Wisdom of Solomon and 1 Maccabees, then we have possible evidence that can be used in favor of arguing that Paul has other STJ literature in mind.
With this in mind, I think it can be similarily advanced that Paul’s discourse was also influenced by 4 Maccabees, a philosophical treatise that uses the persecution of Eleazer and of the seven brothers by Antiochus to demonstrate that reason obtained through the Torah has control over the emotional passions. 4 Maccabees can be best described as the combination of Stoicism and Jewish devotion to Torah. When wisdom is defined by “The knowledge divine and human matters and the causes of these things” (4 Maccabees 1.16), this is the same definition of wisdom offered by the Stoics (SVF 2.35; Seneca, Letters 89.45; see Long and Sedley’s The Hellenistic Philosophers, 26A and 26G). However, whereas Paul more directly seeks to refutes and directly challenge the ideas that are supported by Wisdom of Solomon and 1 Maccabees, it is argued that Paul’s response to the ideas contained in 4 Maccabees can be understood as more as a correction than refutation.
The best textual evidence for Paul’s engagement with the ideas in 4 Maccabees is Romans 3.25. There, Paul describes Jesus death as a ἱλαστήριον. Similarly, the death of the seven brothers was described as a ἱλαστήριον in 4 Maccabees 17.22. The similarities go further. Both Jesus’ death and the death of the brothers are referring to by the metonym of blood. The significance of their deaths is considered to confer benefits upon others (Jesus’ death is a release in Romans 3.24 [τῆς ἀπολυτρώσεως]; the seven brother’s death is a substitution of life [ἀντίψυχον]). Their death is understood to be necessary due to the sins of others. For Paul, everyone’s sin has made them fall short of God’s glory (Rom. 3.23) and the death of the seven brothers helps to restore the observance of Torah (4 Macc. 18.4) that has been stopped by Antiochus (4 Macc. 4.15-261). The conferral of benefits to others is necessitated by the presence of faithlessness and sin. Finally, the “divine Providence” (θεία πρόνοια), a common way the Stoic’s understood divine causality, is said to have worked through Antiochus witnessing the endurance of the seven brothers (4 Maccabees 17.33). In the same way, Jesus’ death is described as a public demonstration (προέθετο). The shared features of (1) ἱλαστήριον, (2) the metonym of blood for the death of a martyr, (3) martyrdom conferring benefits to others, (4) the faithlessness that necessitates such benefits to others, and (5) public demonstration of the martyrdom, suggests it is very probable that Paul in Romans 3.21-26 has 4 Maccabees in mind.
However, even with many of these similarities, there are noticeable differences. Whereas the blood of the seven brothers is said to be the instrumentally effective part of the divine Providence through the usage of the preposition δία, Jesus’ blood is spoken of as being the cause/source of the ἱλαστήριον by the preposition ἐν. It would be consistent with there subtly different construal of the relationship between martyrdom and God’s deliverance for Paul and the author of 4 Maccabees. This is further evident by the fact that the benefits conferred to others is describing differently: the martyrdom of the brothers evokes an idea of substitution of life, whereas Paul describes the benefits in terms of freedom. Also, whereas the benefits of the martyrdom in 4 Maccabees is conferred onto the nation as a whole, the benefits from Christ are conferred upon “all who believe” (3.22). In other words, even as the degree of similarities between 4 Maccabees 17.22 and context with Romans 3.25 and context is highly suggestive of direct familiarity on the part of Paul, the various differences in Paul’s description of Jesus’ ἱλαστήριον would suggest Paul has some disagreements in the portrayal of ἱλαστήριον in 4 Maccabees.
Assuming Paul has 4 Maccabees in mind, what then is it about 4 Maccabees and the portrayal of the martyrdom of the seven brothers does Paul reject? Is it simply that it isn’t Jesus? Is it that Israel simply wasn’t delivered by the brother’s sacrifice? Or, is there a deeper reason?
I would contend that the best explanation would be the way that the narrative of 4 Maccabees finds it as a validation of Stoic philosophy. The overall purpose of what the author is writing about in 4 Maccabees 1.6-11, where the stories of Eleazar and the seven brothers serve as an account that demonstrates (1) that reason rules over the emotions and (2) this reason gives perseverance that can overcome tyrants. In other words, reason’s control over our lives is the tool of resistance. This reason is obtained through the love of wisdom (4 Macc. 1.15) that is found Torah as the source of the wisdom (4 Macc. 1.16-17). In the end, the hearing and study of the Torah gives people reason that empowers Eleazar and the seven brothers to faithfully resist Antiochus.
While not a prevalent theme in Roman Stoicism, overcome the control of tyrants was occasionally given as a situation that distinguished those livng their lives by wisdom from others. For instance, the Stoic Epictetus said:
‘Perhaps not, but Caesar has the power to take my life.’
Then tell the truth, you wretch, and instead of bragging as you do, don’t claim to be a philosopher, and don’t fail to recognize who your masters are, but as long as you let them have this hold on you through your body, place yourself at the beck and call of everyone who is stronger than you. Now Socrates had learned to speak as one ought, to be able to speak as he did to the tyrants, to his judges, and in prison. Diogenes had learned to speak as one ought, to be able to speak as he did to Alexander, to Philip, to the pirates, to the man who bought him as a slave. Leave these matters to those who are properly prepared for them, to those with courage. As for you, turn to your own affairs and never depart from them. Go and sit in a corner, and construct syllogisms, and propose them to others—‘ In you assuredly there is no captain of a state.’2
It is this resistance to tyrants that is given as an explanation as to how the brother’s control over their emotions as they faced death courageously overcame Antiochus on behalf of the nation (4 Macc. 17.22-23). However, a closer look at 4 Maccabees can show us that the events that took place does not seems to neatly fit into explanation that the martyrs were a mercy seat/atonement for the nation. The author’s argument essentially suggests that Antiochus solider’s were emboldened (4 Macc. 14.24) as a result of their examples and that because Antiochus could not get the Jews to give in on their ancestral custom, he diverted his focus to war with Syria, that is the Parthians (4 Macc. 18.5-6), when in fact Antiochus diverted to Syria because the Parthians began to take advantage of his weakness. In short, 4 Maccabees seems to go to great extent to try to fit his Stoicized view of Torah, reason, and wisdom as an explanation as to why Israel prevailed over Antiochus,
Paul, however, does not share the confidence reason through the Torah that the author of 4 Maccabees does. In fact, if one compares their two accounts of how a hearer of the commandment about not coveting from Exodus 20.17, it becomes clear that Paul does not think that the Torah enables a person to be wise.
4 Maccabees 2.1-6:
Whereas the author of 4 Maccabees believes the commandment against coveting is evidence that reason can control human desires, Paul presents it to be the opposite case: the Torah is good but it does not indicate anything about the power of human reason and volition over the passions (see further in Romans 7.14-25). The Torah provides a person the capacity to recognize and understand something as sin (Rom. 3.20; 7.7), but it doesn’t empower them. Instead, the passions are overcome through the believer’s baptismal union with Christ in His death and resurrection (Romans 6.1-14).
This helps us to begin to comprehend what the distinction is between Paul and 4 Maccabees when it comes to the ἱλαστήριον. For 4 Maccabees, the brothers function as a ἱλαστήριον ultimately by being a demonstration of the wisdom of the Torah amidst the cessation of Temple service and Torah obedience. Through their example, the capacity to control one’s life in accordance to the Torah is witnessed and observed. One could say that in a sense they are seen as functioning as a substitute for the Temple, as ἱλαστήριον was used in the LXX to refer to the mercy seat, the golden plate on the Ark of the Covenant. By contrast, Jesus does not exemplify the wisdom of the Torah, but rather God’s righteousness. In Christ, God reveals Himself in such a way that the people themselves can come to be empowered to live righteously in Christ through the Spirit (Rom. 8.1-4). Jesus is not instrumental (δία) in being a ἱλαστήριον, but rather it is in His sacrificial death (ἐν τῷ αὐτοῦ αἵματι) that people are united and formed to overcome the passions that lead to sin. Jesus as the mercy seat on the ark of the covenant, into which God’s people are united through baptism. Jesus is the Temple that believers are located in through the Spirit.
In summary, then, Paul’s letter to the Romans may be considered to address some of the ideas expressed about Torah, wisdom, and martyrdom in 4 Maccabees, in addition to other STJ literature such as the Wisdom of Solomon and 1 Maccabees. By comparing and contrasting sections that have similar language and content, it can be argued that Paul om Romans 3.21-8.39 is primarily focused on uprooting a certain view of Torah that saw it as enabling people to be wise and to overcome the passions. In the cognitive gap that Paul portrays between Torah and the righteous life, Paul sees Christ bridging the gap for Jewish Christians through the leading of the Spirit. The Torah helps people to recognize what in their life is resistant to the will and purposes of God, but the Torah itself is not a source from which people can find the strength and resources to find power over sin, much less death.
- As a side note, it bears observing here a potential note of propaganda in 4 Maccabees. Whereas the author states that Antiochus’ attempts to end Jewish observance of Torah was not effective in 4 Maccabees 4.24, it is said that the brother’s death was instrumental in bringing back observation of the Torah in 4 Maccabees 18.4. One could suggest that the restoration of the services at the Temple, but the author makes a clear distinction between temple service and observance of Torah. The better explanations seem to be the case that the author wanted to show that the Torah as a source of wisdom made its followers adhere to Reason, but if his portrayal started off by suggesting Antiochus attempts to end Torah observance were largely successful, it would be a huge mark against this philosophical argument about how Torah-enabled reason allows for the conquering and control of the passions.
- Epictetus, Disc. 2.13.22-26.