The Jewish 8-day holiday of Hanukkah began last Tuesday. It has a remarkable story that inspired both Jews and Christians for centuries.
When I was a kid in the 1950’s, it was usually spelled Chanukah with the “ch” pronounced “kh”. I was taught in Hebrew religious school that it was a minor holiday for most Jews. My rabbi complained that only American Jews made a big deal of it because it took place around Christmas. Hanukkah is not mentioned anywhere in the Jewish Old Testament. It is barely mentioned in the Jewish Mishna and Talmud, the two other sets of books that define the modern Jewish religion.
However, the complete story of Hanukkah is found in the Apocrypha section of Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox Christian Bibles. The English word macabre probably comes from plays that told the Hanukkah story in Catholic churches during the Middle Ages. The Gospel of John describes how Jesus preached in Jerusalem during the “Feast of Dedication” (the English translation of “Hanukkah”). It seems like Jesus went to the capital and its wealthy and powerful elites during major holidays, when he was protected by large crowds of common people from rural areas like his native Galilee.
Hanukkah is not like the Jewish holidays of Passover or Sabbath. There are no special synagogue services. It is a regular day of work and school. Jews light candles at home and praise God for “making miracles for our ancestors during this season”.
What were those miracles? The Jewish Talmud describes only one. When the Greeks were driven out of the Jewish Temple, there was only enough pure olive oil to keep the seven branch menorah lit for one day. However, that one day supply of oil miraculously burned for eight days, until new oil could be pressed.
The Books of the Maccabees in Roman Catholic and Greek Orthodox Bibles tell a far more detailed and dramatic story. It begins when Alexander the Great died after conquering most of the known world. His top commanders and their descendants then fought each other for the next 200 years over who should run it.
The Greek commander who became emperor of the territory that included Israel used religion as a weapon. He ordered every nation under his control to publicly worship Zeus and the other Greek gods. Everyone complied except the Jews. Although they paid taxes and obeyed all other laws, Jews stubbornly clung to their Bibles. They refused to work or compete in athletics on Sabbath, refused to eat pork, and refused to offer sacrifices to the Greek gods.
The Greek emperor Antiochus then decided to eliminate this subversive religion. Any Jew they caught with a Bible was tortured and killed. So was any Jew who refused to work or compete on Sabbath, eat pork, or sacrifice to Greek gods.
Eleazer was an elderly philosopher who was respected in the Greek community. When he refused to publicly eat pork, he was arrested, beaten, his skin was stripped off with sharp instruments, and he was burned alive.
Hannah and her seven sons were thrown into pans of boiling oil when they refused to renounce their faith.
Slowly, Israel’s leading citizens began to comply. It seemed as if the Jewish religion was doomed. But then one priest and his five sons escaped from Jerusalem and hid in caves in the desert. They taught military skills and tactics and 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 surprised the Greeks by fighting on the holy Sabbath. The Maccabees negotiated a military alliance with the non-Jewish Roman Republic, and forced the Greeks to divide their forces.
After years of struggle, the Maccabees won, and drove the Greeks out of Jerusalem. Most Jews celebrated the survival of the Jewish religion as the miracle of Hanukkah.
The Maccabees then became kings of an independent Jewish kingdom. This also 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.
One hundred years later, two spoiled great-grandsons of the Maccabees ruined the miracle. While fighting with each other over who should be king, one invited Pompeii, the commander of a nearby Roman army for help. Pompeii marched into Jerusalem and instead made Israel another conquered Roman province.
Later, Jews inspired by the Hanukkah story rebelled against Rome three times. This 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”. Israel was now named after the Philistines — their ancient enemies. This was when the Maccabee books telling the story of Hanukkah disappeared from the Jewish Bible.
Ironically, early Christians were inspired by the Hanukkah story that so many Jews wanted to forget. During the year 64, the Roman Emperor Nero declared Christianity to be a subversive religion. He tried to wipe out Christianity just as the Greeks previously tried to wipe out Judaism. 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 to entertain 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 Books of the Maccabees in their Bibles.