Then came Hanukkah in Yerushalayim. It was winter, and Yeshua was walking around inside the Temple area, in Shlomo’s Colonnade. (Yochanan (John) 10:22,23 Complete Jewish Bible)
Most often translated as the Festival, or Feast of Dedication, many Gentiles, and perhaps an equal percentage of Jews, have held the annual celebration of Hanukkah to be not much more than “a Jewish response to Christmas.” There are, after all, gifts given, and the holiday’s falling each year in December seems beyond coincidence. And yes, as it happens, Hanukkah’s anniversary is beyond coincidence, but from an unanticipated direction. Some scholars believe that, without the well-documented heroics of Judas Maccabee in Judea, 160 years before the birth of Yeshua (Jesus), the celebration of Christmas would have never come into being.
Per Craig S. Keener, Professor, Asbury Theological Seminary, “John’s historically plausible claim about Jesus’ observance of traditional festivals is of interest today. After nearly two millennia of separation and often alienation between Jewish people and Christians, generated by inexcusable anti-Semitism in Christianized cultures, both Jewish and Christian readers can look back to the Jewish figure at the heart of the Christian faith.
“We might not always agree on the meaning of Jesus’ participation in Jewish festivals, but we can agree that Jesus honored these traditions of his people. For Christians, this model should invite an appreciation for Jewish tradition … The Gospels offer countless examples affirming Jesus’ Jewish identity. The tradition about Jesus observing Hanukkah is merely one of these, but it is one that invites our attention at this season. Everyone recognizes that Jesus himself was never in a position to celebrate Christmas. Nevertheless, first-century memories about Jesus do associate him with one festival at this season: the festival of Hanukkah.”
A well-known story
Most of us know the Hanukkah story, the historicity of which has been well-established by historian, Titus Flavius Josephus in the Antiquities of the Jews as well as First and Second Maccabees, two deuterocanonical books, writings considered by the Roman Catholic Church as part of the Christian Old Testament but not present in the modern Hebrew Bible.
First Maccabees recounts the history of the Maccabees from 175 BC until 134 BC, while Second Maccabees, a Greek abridgment of an earlier history written in Hebrew, primarily focuses on the principal character in the revolt, Judas Maccabaeus.
Rabbi Daniel F. Polish, in an online article appearing at Americanmagazine.org in December of 2017, Hanukkah is not the Jewish Christmas—but they are cousins, summarizes, “By the time the events of the Gospels took place, Jews had been celebrating [Hanukkah] for almost two centuries. The holiday began as a national celebration of the victory of Jewish guerillas over the forces of the Syrian-Greeks.
“In the second century BCE, a remnant of the army of Alexander the Great had come to dominate the Jews then living in their own land. In an effort to consolidate his power and to impose a cultural uniformity on his subjects, the Syrian-Greek ruler Antiochus Epiphanes insisted that the Jews worship him as the rest of his subjects did and demanded that a statue of himself be erected in the Jews’ Temple in Jerusalem. A family of priests known as the Hasmoneans (who came to call themselves the Maccabees) rebelled against Antiochus. Though they were far outnumbered, this guerilla band fought valiantly and defeated the oppressor’s army…
“The rabbis who came somewhat later and were not enamored of the Hasmoneans changed the focus of the holiday from a national celebration of the dynasty’s military victory to a celebration of the ‘great miracle that happened there,’ the one-day supply of oil that burned for eight days.”
“The flame of selfless sacrifice blazed beyond a moment of truth, beyond a day of reckoning,” according to the teachings of Menachem Mendel Schneerson, known by many as the Lubavitcher Rebbe. “That the small pure cruse of oil burned beyond its one-day lifespan for an additional week … This was no mere flash of light in a sea of darkness, but a flame destined to shed purity and light for all generations, under all conditions … Thus the Talmud relates that it was only on the following year that these eight days were established as the festival of Hanukkah.”
“Without Judas Maccabee and Hanukkah”
But the interval between the Maccabean revolt and the miracle of the cruse of oil, characterized above by Rabbi Polish as occurring “somewhat later,” is estimated by Erich Gruen, Professor of Classics, University of California, Berkley, as much longer.
“The miracle of the oil burning for eight days that was allegedly found in the temple after it was cleansed is a story that doesn’t appear in any of our ancient sources,” Gruen said in a 1997 interview aired in an A&E segment from the popular series, Mysteries of the Bible, Maccabees: Revolution and Redemption. “It doesn’t appear in First or Second Maccabees [or] anywhere in the sources of antiquity. We don’t know where it comes from.”
Gruen estimates that the miracle story was written by Jewish scholars over 500 years after the rededication of the temple, explaining that the actual events of the rededication “are not terribly exciting,” and somehow needed “a little beefing up.”
No matter when the account of the miracle of the oil originated, Robert Eisenman, Professor of Religion and Archaeology at California State University, Long Beach, in the same Mysteries segment, summarized the impact of the Maccabean revolt as having changed history.
“Out of the blue,” Eisenmann said, “we had once again the revival of an independent Jewish State. Without this resistant spirit, without this independent polity, you would not get [future] charismatic leaders like Jesus. Without Judas [Maccabee] and Hanukkah, I don’t believe there would have been a Christianity.”
Modern Modi’in, contradictions and a common theme
As happens so often over the span of millennia, the site of the birthplace of what has been called the planet’s ultimate battle for religious freedom was an obscure plot of abandoned, unexceptional terrain in central Israel until 1997, when the modern city known by Israelis as Modi’in was established as a planned development. Now home to about 90,000 residents and, for the most part a bedroom community, it lies only 30 kilometers west of Jerusalem, connected by Israel’s Highway 443 and, while driving by, one would never suspect that, 2,000 years earlier, an impactful revolution began there.
But the city’s full, official name, Modi’in-Maccabim-Re’ut, provides one with hints. The word Modi’in is said to derive from the name of the village of the high priest, Mattathias, and his sons; Maccabim is the plural form of a Hebrew word for mallet or hammer (מַקֶבֶת, ma-ke-vet, in modern Hebrew), the family’s famous nickname; the Hebrew word, Re’ut (רֵעוּת), per Reuben Alcalay’s Hebrew-English dictionary, means “friendship, companionship, comradeship, camaraderie.”
In the midst of modern Modi’in’s many parks, playgrounds, schools and small commercial centers, lie the remains of ancient Umm el-’Umdan, where, according to a 2017 article in Bible History Daily entitled, Modi’in: Where the Maccabees Lived, excavations have uncovered evidence of a Jewish village beneath which lies a structure dated to the time of the Maccabean revolt, uncovered during salvage excavations conducted by the Israel Antiquities Authority during development of Modi’in’s Buchman neighborhood.
The findings include ancient gravesites, a bathhouse and synagogue from the second century BCE. Archaeologists Alexander Onn and Shlomit Vexler-Bedolah, dig directors, believe the remains to be part of the ancient hometown of the Maccabees and that the site’s Arabic name, Umm el-’Umdan, contains its place name, Modi’in, albeit a bit changed.
Sadly, Modi’in’s Maccabim neighborhood is not recognized by the European Union as being within Israel because it lies in a no man’s land spawned by the 1949 Armistice Agreement and the imprecision of the infamous Green Line.
“Each side thought it was temporary and would ultimately be modified as an orderly boundary line, so they weren’t all that careful about marking it,” Professor Gideon Biger explained in a 2017 Haaretz article. The temporary border line was drawn using “a green grease pencil two to three millimeters thick, which represents 60 meters on the map, and [the uncertainty within the line’s thickness] begins to be a problem.”
Every year at Hanukkah in West Jerusalem, it is common to walk down streets and past homes decorated with hanukkiahs, menorahs having not seven but nine branches commemorating the eight-day miracle of the oil. These range from elaborate decorative art of bronze and other fine metals to others of inexpensive wood and plastic, handmade by children, and everything in between. Often these appear side-by-side with strings of what could only be called Christmas lights, with full knowledge of those who placed them of both the contradictions and commonality of their themes.
This article was written for and first appeared in the November/December issue of The Messianic Times and is reprinted here with permission.
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