The Jewish festival of Hanukkah begins tonight. I’ve written before about a reference to it in the New Testament, but as I’ve also been writing recently about some of the biblical books related to the events behind this festival I’ll repost some of that information here.

The festival of Hanukkah (חֲנֻכָּה‬ “dedication”) commemorates the re-dedication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem during the revolt against the Seleucid empire by the Maccabees (Judah Maccabee and his four brothers, and their supporters). The Maccabees were revolting against occupation by the Seleucid Empire in general, but more particularly against the desecration of the Temple (which begain in 167 BCE when Antiochus IV ordered an altar to Zeus to be erected in the Temple, banned circumcision, and ordered pigs to be sacrificed at the altar of the temple). These events are described in considerable detail in the book of Daniel and enable us to date the writing of the book fairly precisely to between 167 and 164 BCE during the Maccabean revolt. I know that some people read Daniel entirely as prophecy, written in Babylon during the exile (which is where the story is set, but not necessarily where it was written). However, I personally find it more enjoyable to read the book knowing that it was much more likely to have been written in the midst of turmoil and uprising, responding to tumultuous events and encouraging the pious to be patient and not give up hope.

The Maccabean revolt began soon after the desecration described by Daniel and the Temple was liberated in 165 BCE.  Judah Maccabee ordered the Temple to be cleansed and a new altar to be built. The Temple was re-dedicated and this re-dedication has been commemorated ever since in the festival of Dedication (Hanukkah). The custom of lighting candles every night during the eight days and nights of the festival originated in a story told in the Talmud that for the re-dedication it was necessary to find undefiled pure olive oil for the candelabrum, or menorah, in the Temple. The story goes that only one flask was found and with only enough oil to burn for one day, yet it miraculously burned for eight days, the time needed to prepare a fresh supply of oil for the menorah. An eight-day festival was declared by the Jewish sages to commemorate this miracle. Since then Hanukkah is commemorated by lighting one candle on the first day, two on the second, etc, until eight candles are lit on the eighth and final night of the festival.

The story of the revolt, the liberation of the Temple, and its re-dedication is told in the books of 1 & 2 Maccabees. The first book of Maccabees was originally written in Hebrew, but this Hebrew original has been lost and it has been preserved in a Greek translation in the Septuagint, the Greek version of the Hebrew Bible which was popular with early Greek-speaking Jews and Christians. The second book of Maccabees was written in koine Greek, the “street Greek” which was also the language of the New Testament. (The book known as 3 Maccabees which is found in some Orthodox Christian Bibles has nothing to do with the story of the Maccabees and deals with entirely different events. The book of 4 Maccabees is a later composition based on 2 Maccabees and deals more with ‘theological’ rather than ‘historical’ issues. It is not regarded as canonical by any denomination.) The story of the Maccabees is also told in The Scroll of the Hasmoneans, a text which has been preserved in both Hebrew and Aramaic and which has been read for centuries during Hanukkah in some Jewish communities.

Interestingly, the books of 1 & 2 Maccabees which tell the story of Hanukkah are not included in the canonical Hebrew Bible as these books are in Greek, not Hebrew. They are, however, included in many Christian Bibles including the canons of the Catholic and Orthodox churches, and those Protestant churches which include the Apocrypha in their Bible. It’s interesting that these books which tell the story of the origins of this important Jewish festival are found in many Christian Bibles, but not in the Jewish canon, although Christians have never commemorated Hanukkah as a Christian festival (although some other Jewish festivals are celebrated by Christians under different names, such as Passover=Easter and the Festival of Weeks  [Shavuot]=Pentecost/Whitsunday, and the ‘Maccabean martyrs’ are venerated with feast days in Catholic and Orthodox traditions).

The books of Esther and Judith, in my view, were also probably written soon after Daniel during the Hasmonean period (the period of an independant Jewish state following the Maccabean victory over the Seleucids, i.e. 140-37 BCE). While Esther is set in Persia, and Judith is set in Judah during Nebuchadnezzar’s conquests, both stories probably refer or allude to events during this time. For example, the beheading of Nebuchadnezzar’s general Holofernes by Judith (the story emphasises three times that he died “by the hand of a woman”) may have been based on the defeat and beheading of Antiochus IV’s general Nicanor in 161 BCE. For that reason Judith is often associated with Hanukkah in much the same way as Esther is associated with Purim.

There is also one more Christian connection to Hanukkah which I find interesting. The Hebrew Bible never mentions Hanukkah (as the Hebrew canon was probably completed by the time 1 & 2 Maccabees were written), but the New Testament does mention it. In the Gospel of John a casual reference is made to Jesus being in the Temple in winter during “the festival of the Dedication” (John 10:22) which is a clear reference to Hanukkah.

To all my Jewish friends חַג חֲנֻכָּה‬ שָׂמֵחַ – Happy Hanukkah!