The Festival of Hanukkah (“The Dedication”) begins at sunset tomorrow, December 7. This eight-day Jewish holiday begins on a different day each year in our solar calendar. However, it always falls on the 25th day of the mid-winter month of the Hebrew lunar calendar, just as Christmas is always on the 25th day of December, our mid-winter month. Is this more than a coincidence?
Hanukkah today is a minor Jewish religious holiday. It is not mentioned in the Jewish Bible or the Mishna. It is barely mentioned in the Talmud. Jews rely exchanged gifts or decorated their homes on Hanukkah until they came to America and were immersed in Christmas.
However, Hanukkah was a major holiday in the days of the Holy Temple. Jesus usually went to Jerusalem during major holidays when he was protected by crowds from his native Galilee. The Gospel of John at 10:22, tells of Jesus being in Jerusalem in winter during Hanukkah, “the Feast of the Dedication”.
The Book of Maccabees, which tells the complete Hanukkah story is included in the Apocrypha Bible of Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox Christians.
During the Middle Ages, plays telling the Hanukkah story were often performed in Catholic churches. The word “macabre” may come from “Macabee”.
Why would the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah be more important to early Christians than Jews? The short answer is that faith in the Hanukkah miracles helped Christians, but brought death, destruction and misery to most Jews.
The Book of the Maccabees tells a long story with brutal and tragic details. It begins when Alexander the Great is about to die after conquering much of the world. His vast Greek empire includes all what is now Greece, the Middle East, Egypt, Iran, and much of India. Before he dies, Alexander divides his empire among his three top commanders.
About 150 years later, a Greek leader named Antiochus inherited the part of Alexander’s empire that contained Judea, now known as Israel.
Antiochus tried to conquer the other two parts of Alexander’s empire. He wanted to create one worldwide Greek empire with one ruler, one language, one culture, and one religion. He ordered every nation under his control to publicly worship Zeus and the other Greek gods. The people of every nation in his empire complied except the Jews in Judea, now known as Israel. Although Jews paid taxes and obeyed all other laws, they stubbornly clung to their Bibles and religion. They refused to work or compete in athletics on Sabbath, refused to eat pork, and refused to offer sacrifices to the Greek gods. They also continued to circumcise their sons.
Antiochus then ruled that Judaism was subversive, and that any Jew who observed its laws and customs was an enemy of the state. Any Jew caught teaching the Bible, or even having one in his or her home was tortured and killed. So was any Jew who circumcised his or her sons, refused to work or compete in games on the Sabbath, eat pork, or sacrifice to Greek gods.
The Book of Maccabees tells the story of Eleazer, an elderly philosopher who was respected in the non-Jewish Greek community. He was ordered to publicly eat pork, and set an example for the rest of the Jewish community. He refused and was arrested and beaten. Later, he was offered a chance to save his life by just pretending to eat pork. Eleazer also refused to that. Greek soldiers tortured him by stripping his skin off with sharp instruments. Then they burned him alive.
The Book of Maccabees also tells of a Jewish woman named Hannah. Greek solders arrested her and her seven sons and brought them to the Emperor. One by one the sons were ordered to publicly eat pork. Each one refused. One by one, their tongues were cut off, then their arms and legs. Finally they were thrown into pans of boiling oil. After all seven of her sons were tortured and killed, Hannah was tortured and killed in the same way.
If any infant boy was found to be circumcised, the baby and mother were killed, and the bodies were publicly displayed with the body of the dead baby tied to his mother’s neck.
Slowly, Israel’s leading citizens , even the “kohans” or priests in the Temple, began to comply. The Jewish religion seemed doomed. However, one priest named Mattathias Hasmoni and his five sons escaped from Jerusalem. First they fled to the nearby town of Modin. Later they hid in caves in the desert. They learned, taught, and practiced military skills and tactics. They learned how to make swords, spears, shields, armor, and other weapons of war. Then they fought back against the Greeks. They attracted thousands of followers, and soon became known as “The Hammers” (“Maccabees” in Hebrew).
The Maccabees offended many traditional Jews. The Maccabees made unexpected, surprise attacks on the Greeks by disregarding certain Bible laws. They worked and fought on Sabbath day of rest. Judah Maccabee explained that God commanded Jews to live by God’s laws, not die by them.
At first, the Maccabees used hit and run tactics to ambush larger Greek units. They fought like Americans at Lexington and Concord during our Revolution.. Later, the Jews fielded full armies and defeated the Greeks in conventional pitched battles.
The Maccabees also sent ambassadors to Italy and negotiated a military alliance with the non-Jewish Roman Republic. The Maccabees forced the Greeks to divide their forces and fight a multi-front world war against Rome and its allies, rather than concentrate on one small rebellious Jewish province.
After years of struggle, the Maccabees won, and drove the Greeks out of Jerusalem. They thoroughly cleaned the Holy Temple of impurities, and re-lit the “eternal flame” of the seven branch menorah. They used the last remaining container of pure olive oil. It was only enough oil to burn for one day. However it miraculously burned for eight days until a fresh supply arrived. The Maccabees then rededicated the Temple and declared that day to be a new holiday known as the Feast of Hanukkah — the Feast of Dedication.
Later, this Jewish prayer of Thanksgiving was composed.
“And [we thank You] for the miracles. . . You delivered the mighty into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few, the impure into the hands of the pure, the wicked into the hands of the righteous, and the wanton sinners into the hands of those who occupy themselves with Your Torah. . .”
The Maccabees then became kings of an independent Jewish kingdom. This offended Jews who believed only a descendant of King David from the tribe of Judah could be king. The Maccabees were from the priestly tribe of Levi. For centuries, Jewish tradition did not permit priests to also be political leaders.
One hundred years later, two spoiled great-grandsons of the Maccabees ruined the miracle of Hanukkah. While fighting with each other over who should be king, one invited Pompeii, the commander of a nearby Roman army to help. Pompeii marched his army into Jerusalem and instead made Israel another conquered Roman province.
Later, Jews inspired by the Hanukkah story rebelled against Rome three times. During these rebellions, time, there were no miracles. The Romans destroyed the Jewish Temple and all Jerusalem. They sold hundreds of thousands of Jewish men, women, and children as slaves throughout the Roman Empire. The Romans even gave the ruined Jewish province a new name — “Palestine”. The Jewish land of Israel was now named after the Philistines — the ancient Biblical enemies of Jews During this time, Jewish leaders blamed these rebellions on “causeless hatred”, and excluded The Book of Maccabees, and its stories of Hanukkah from the Jewish Bible.
Ironically, early Christians were inspired by the Hanukkah story and its miracles that so many Jews wanted to forget. During the year 64, the Roman Emperor Nero declared Christianity to be a subversive religion and Christians to be criminals. He tried to wipe them out Christianity just as the Greek Emperor Antiochus tried to wipe out Judaism and any Jews who followed its laws and customs. For the next 300 years, Roman soldiers arrested, tortured, and killed Christians throughout the Empire who refused to renounce their faith. Some were covered with tar and burned alive as human torches. Others were fed to hungry lions in stadiums before cheering crowds.
Those early Christians kept their hope alive by remembering how God redeemed the Jews from the Greeks hundreds of years earlier. They kept Book of Maccabees in their Bibles.
The Jewish holiday of Hanukkah is celebrated on a different day each year in the Western Calendar. However, it always celebrated on the 25th day of the month of Kislev, the first winter month in the Hebrew calendar. Each month of the Hebrew calendar starts with the new moon and has 29 or 30 days. To catch up with a calendar based on the yearly cycle of the sun, a 13th month is added to the Hebrew calendar every few years. That is why Jewish holidays determined by the Hebrew calendar based on the moon’s monthly cycle fall on different days each year on our Roman calendar based on the sun’s yearly cycle. The New Testament does not specify the day Jesus was born. However, roughly 300 years later, Christians began celebrating the birth of Jesus on the 25th day of the first winter month of the Roman calendar. Coincidence?
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