What is Hanukkah?

What is Hanukkah? Hanukkah is the holiday celebrated by the Jewish people to mark the “Feast of Dedication.” It commemorates the rededication of the temple after the Maccabees defeated the army of the king Antiochus IV Epiphanes, who had desecrated God’s temple. Though the Jewish people only had enough oil to burn their lamp for one night to clean the temple, God made that oil last 8 nights! That miracle is celebrated by the lighting of a menorah – a special candlestick – over the course of 8 nights in December.

Introduction

Within Judaism, Hanukkah is the most popular feast instituted after the time period of the Old Testament.[1] The word itself means “dedication” in Hebrew and so is sometimes referred to as the “Feast of Dedication.” This is the name it is given in John 10:22, the only place the festival is mentioned in the New Testament: “At that time the Feast of Dedication took place at Jerusalem. It was winter . . . .” It is also sometimes called the “Festival of Lights” because of its ceremonial lighting of eight lamps, with a new one added each day,[2] and is designated this way by the ancient Jewish historian Josephus (Antiquities of the Jews, 12.325).

The Origin of Hanukkah

The holiday was instituted by the Jewish leader Judas Maccabeus in 165 B.C.[3] It originates in a story found in sources we have from the intertestamental period, the era of history that occurs between that recorded in the Old and New Testaments. The story is found in 1 Maccabees 4:42-59 and 2 Maccabees 10:1-8, as well as in the works of Josephus (Ant. 12.316-22), though Josephus is largely dependent upon 1 Maccabees.[4] Both books of Maccabees are deemed apocryphal by Protestants, which means they are not considered to be Scripture, though they are still important historical and theological works. They are included in the Catholic Scriptures, however, and can be found in some English translations of the Bible such as the Revised Standard Version (all references below are to the RSV).

In the story, the Jewish people are being persecuted by Antiochus IV Epiphanes, king of the Seleucid Empire, an empire that sprawled over lands east of Israel. Antiochus had conquered them and implemented laws that violated Jewish law, such as forbidding circumcision, sacrificing swine, breaking the Sabbath, profaning the temple in Jerusalem, dedicating it as a temple to the Greek god Zeus, and forcing Jews to participate in pagan celebrations (1 Maccabees 1:44-50; 2 Maccabees 6:1-11). Eventually Antiochus decided to send his military commander to wipe out the Jewish people. However, Judas Maccabeus and his men rose up and defeated the army of Antiochus. Judas goes on to purify the temple and the priesthood, and institutes the festival of Hanukkah as a remembrance.

In 1 Maccabees we read: “Early in the morning on the twenty-fifth day of the ninth month, which is the month of Chislev, in the one hundred and forty-eighth year they rose and offered sacrifice, as the law directs, on the new altar of burnt offering which they had built . . . . So they celebrated the dedication of the altar for eight days, and offered burnt offerings with gladness; they offered a sacrifice of deliverance and praise . . . . Then Judas and his brothers and all the assembly of Israel determined that every year at that season the days of dedication of the altar should be observed with gladness and joy for eight days, beginning with the twenty-fifth day of the month of Chislev” (1 Macc 4:52-53 56, 59).

In the Jewish Talmud, it is said that the festival “was instituted for eight days because the pure oil found in the Temple, though sufficient for one day only, miraculously burned for eight days until new supplies could be added.”[5] While many scholars believe the eight days more likely corresponds to the eight days of Israel’s Feast of Booths, the tradition has nevertheless been important for the Hanukkah celebration.[6] The lighting of the Hanukkah menorah, a lamp for each day of the celebration, serves to “publicize the miracle” of the oil lasting eight days as well as symbolize the cleansing of the temple by Judas Maccabeus.[7]

Christmas and Hanukkah

In more recent times and particularly in America, Hanukkah has become a popular Jewish holiday, especially for children.[8] As the 1 Maccabees text mentions, the date of Hanukkah is the 25 of Chislev, which in our calendars falls somewhere between November 29 and December 27, and is eight days in length.[9] Because its timing falls so close to that of Christmas, it has been influenced in some ways by similar social elements, such as gift-giving and greeting cards.[10] However, despite it proximity to Christmas today, Hanukkah actually predates the birth of Christ by over one hundred years and any celebration of Christmas by even more. At the time of Jesus, the Feast of Dedication (mentioned in John 10:11) “with its festive candles, was joyously commemorated in Jewish homes as well as in the temple.”[11] It occurred near the winter equinox and as a “popular family celebration, it provided a stark contrast with the pagan Saturnalia, which were celebrated during the same period.”[12] Thus, as a faithful Jew, Jesus would have participated in the celebration of Hanukkah in the same way as all the Jewish people.


[1] Everett Ferguson, Backgrounds of Early Christianity, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2003), 560.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Adele Berlin, ed., The Oxford Dictionary of the Jewish Religion, 2nd ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 323.

[4] James C. VanderKam, “Hanukkah: Its Timing and Significance according to 1 and 2 Maccabees,” Journal for the Study of the Pseudepigrapha 1 (1987): 23.

[5] Berlin, Dictionary of the Jewish Religion, 323.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Geoffrey Wigoder, ed. The New Encyclopedia of Judaism (Washington Square, NY: New York University Press, 2002), 339.

[8] Berlin, Dictionary of the Jewish Religion, 323.

[9] Ferguson, Backgrounds, 561.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Andreas J. Köstenberger, John, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004), 309.

[12] Ibid.

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