Critics agree that the author of this book was an Alexandrian Jew who wrote in Greek.

Although some parts of the story, such as the names of the Jews taking up all the paper in Egypt, are clearly fictional, parts of the story cannot be definitively proven or disproven and many scholars are only willing to accept the first section (which tells of the actions of Ptolemy Philopator) as possibly having an historical basis. Josephus notes that many (but certainly not all) Jews were put to death in Alexandria under the reign of Ptolemy VIII Physcon (146–117 BC) due to their support for Cleopatra II, and this execution was indeed carried out by intoxicated elephants. This may be the historical center of the relation in 3 Maccabees and the author has transferred it to an earlier time period and added an ahistorical connection to Jerusalem if this theory is correct.

Another theory about the historical basis of the book was advanced by Adolf Büchler in 1899. He held that the book describes the persecution of the Jews in the Fayum region of Egypt. It is certain that the Jews abruptly changed allegiance from Egypt to Syria in 200 BC. This author presumes that the change must have been due to persecution in Egypt.

The book was presumably written some time after the events it purports to describe and its use in the Orthodox Church also might suggest it was composed before the 1st century AD. It may be a product of very late Judaism or very early Christianity. One theory, advanced by Ewald and Willrich, holds that the relation is a polemic against Caligula, thus dating from around AD 40, but this theory has been rejected by more recent authors, because Ptolemy in the book does not claim divine honors as Caligula did.