Hanukkah and National Myths

Hanukkah and National Myths December 23, 2019

I posted about the gospel passage concerning Jesus and the feast of Hanukkah, which is no longer a Christian celebration. Its origins were however recorded in the first Book of Maccabees, which remains canonical for a majority of the world’s Christians, and Christians long regarded Judas Maccabeus as one of the mightiest Biblical heroes. But looking at that story in detail suggests quite a wide gulf separating historical reality from later religious myths.

The basic story is famous. The evil Greek king Antiochus IV prohibits Jewish worship and profanes the Temple. Heroic Jewish rebels revolt under the Maccabee family, and in 164 BC, they retake Jerusalem. They rededicate the Temple, and we have the miracle of the small jar of oil sufficing to light the lamp for eight nights. As I Maccabees says, “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” (4:52–53). Jews celebrated the festival of the Dedication or consecration, Hanukkah.

I wrote a lot about these events in my 2017 book Crucible of Faith, and the underlying story is much more complex. You can see something is very wrong about the standard story from the idea of a Hellenistic king prohibiting a local faith, which is something they absolutely did not do, except under extreme pressure. Greek rulers were pretty much endlessly accommodating, and they were delighted to bring any local god into the fold by proclaiming him a form of Zeus or Heracles. Their sculptors were in hand to turn that local deity into something appropriately handsome and Greek-looking, but the worshipers could do as they pleased.

Mainly, this was not so much a straightforward revolt of Jews against pagan Greeks. Rather, it was a vicious civil war between Jewish factions, who hotly debated how far they could and should accommodate Gentile ways and ideas. The pro-Hellenistic faction then invited Antiochus IV to come to its aid. Also at issue was the Temple treasury, which Antiochus desperately coveted to bail him out after some hideously expensive defeats.

The war pitted the militant traditionalists against Hellenized Jews, the “lawless and godless men” of the patriotic accounts (1 Macc. 7:5). Guerrilla forces attacked loyalist villages, forcibly circumcised boys, and destroyed pagan altars. Besides these internal Jewish conflicts, Jewish rebels were at war with the Gentile inhabitants of the land as much as against royal forces. The war devastated the country, with frequent acts of massacre and ethnic cleansing.

Despite these complexities, partisan texts like 1 Maccabees depict the struggle in heroic and religious terms, as a straightforward campaign of Jews against Gentile oppressors. Much of that reflects the interests of the Maccabean family, who came to dominate the land, and formed the Hasmonean dynasty. As the rulers, they got to write the history, and they wrote it to suit themselves. 1 Maccabees itself was probably written around 130 BC, under the aggressive and ambitious Hasmonean king John Hyrcanus. The Hasmonean princes and lords were often themselves locked in political and sometimes military battle with ultra-religious dissidents. It greatly behooved later writers to write the history of the revolt in pious terms, to show that those Maccabee ancestors had indeed been fighting a holy war rather than merely seizing power in a putsch.

That religious interpretation inevitably focused on the purging and restoration of the Jerusalem Temple in 164. By the way, the story of the lamps miraculously burning is found only centuries later, in Talmudic sources. As the Babylonian Talmud (Tractate Shabbat) says,

On the twenty-fifth of Kislev [commence] the days of Hanukkah, which are eight on which a lamentation for the dead and fasting are forbidden. For when the Greeks entered the Temple, they defiled all the oils therein, and when the Hasmonean dynasty prevailed against and defeated them, they made search and found only one cruse of oil which lay with the seal of the High Priest, but which contained sufficient for one day’s lighting only; yet a miracle was wrought therein and they lit [the lamp] therewith for eight days. The following year these [days] were appointed a Festival with [the recital of] Hallel and thanksgiving.

In popular memory, the Hanukkah legend distorts the nature of the Maccabean rising, but also (very much) its time span. The Temple’s cleansing seems like such a perfect conclusion to the story that surely, modern readers might think, it must have marked a final victory in a decisive war of liberation. We’ve won, and we can all go home. Actually, the process of winning national independence was a prolonged affair, with wars and crises enduring for a full generation.

Far from ending his life as a lionized national liberator, Judah the Maccabee perished in a crushing defeat in 160. Peace of a kind followed shortly, as Seleucid leaders offered acceptable terms that ended religious intervention. Two of Judah’s brothers succeeded him, Jonathan Apphus and Simon Thassi, whose campaigns merged into wider power struggles within the larger empire. Both men also perished violently, and the book of 1 Maccabees takes its story up to Simon’s assassination in 134. Think of it as a thirty-plus year struggle. In fact, a time scale not unlike the extended wars in Vietnam between 1945 and 1975.

If there was a point at which the Hasmoneans formally and decisively broke with the Seleucid Empire, it was not until the 130s, and even then, the dynasty remained very Hellenistic in style, and in names, with their kings taking names like Alexander. The Hasmoneans even minted coins with the anchor symbol, which they plagiarized directly from the Seleucids.

Meet the new boss – quite a bit like the old boss.

When I Maccabees says that the Temple was liberated “in the one hundred and forty-eighth year,” that in itself is an interesting twist. It is based on the dating system of the “kingdom of the Greeks,” that is, the Seleucid era, which marked time from the conquest of Babylon in 312 BC by the Greek general Seleucus I. Although that specific act of conquest is now largely forgotten (and who remembers the foes from whom he conquered it?), the long shadow it cast points to the lasting impact of those Greek dynasts – not least on the independent Jewish kingdom.

So Hanukkah recalls a very significant event, but it was much more ambiguous than we might think.

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