How Christianity influenced the celebration of Chanukah

Why did it take so long for the rabbis to start talking about Chanucah? Here's a fresh explanation


Most of our festivals enjoy largely stable lives. From the moment of its inception Pesach has consistently featured as the annual celebration of freedom. Succot is and was always a time of rejoicing featuring the four species. The story of the observance of Chanukah is, however, different.

All seems to start well enough with the two historical accounts Maccabees 1 and 2 both written within 40 years of the Hasmonean Revolt in 165 BCE. What follows seems almost inexplicable. The following four centuries are remarkable for the almost complete absence of any mention of Chanukah. During this time one of the glories of Jewish literature, the Mishnah of Rabbi Judah the Prince, is written. Nearly each festival has its own section. The glaring exception is Chanukah.

We will have to wait until third-century Babylonia is established as the centre of Jewish legal and literary life. An unattributed voice in the BabylonianTalmud of that time wonders plaintively “What is Chanukah?” as if it is some previously unseen rare fruit. Four hundred years after the Books of the Maccabees there is a break in the Chanukah silence.

The Talmud does answer its own question but the answer given exacerbates more than it solves. In the Books of Maccabees the celebration is a recognition of the great military victory over the mighty Seleucid Empire. The new rebranded Chanukah is a celebration of a miracle. How did they manage to rededicate the Temple without pure oil?

We are familiar with the answer which has inspired millions of doughnuts and latkes over nearly two millennia. There was insufficient oil for the eight-day process of rededication but miraculously one small jar lasted beyond its usual one day, fuelling the menorah for a whole eight days.

How do we understand this extended silence and why is the rebranded Chanukah so different in emphasis from the original celebration? One of the most favoured solutions was formulated by the legendary and prolific librarian of the Rambam Library in Tel Aviv, Rav Reuven Margoliot. The original Chanukah celebrates the overthrow of an evil foreign occupying power. With the Romans installed as the real power in first century BCE Judea, would it have been wise to 
promote a celebration of liberation from foreigners?

Perhaps not, but surely even from the Roman perspective the defeat of the Seleucids was worthy of celebration as it paved the way for Roman legions to guarantee the Pax Romana. Chanukah marks the start of the process wherein Judea becomes part of the Roman Empire. Would we seek to hide such a festival from one of its principal benefactors?

I would like to offer a new solution based on the emergence of Christianity as an aggressive challenge to the hegemony of Judaism as the premier religion not only in Judea but also in the substantial Jewish diaspora. The first three Gospels have little to say about the rival claims of Jews and Christians to be Israel Elect, God’s Chosen People.

The fourth Gospel, that of John,w hich was written in around 100 CE is considerably different. As early as the first chapter, the author expropriates a Jewish motif for Christological purposes. John the Baptist is reported as describing Jesus as the “lamb of God” who “takes away the sins of the world”. Traditionally a lamb is brought as the paschal sacrifice but the Jews are no longer elect and Christianity has replaced Judaism and adopted many of its practices.

In the second chapter, John describes the state of relations between the Jews and Christians. If someone admits to the messianic status of Jesus, then they are banned from the synagogue. Confirmation that a new aggressive dynamic has emerged between the two groups is confirmed from a Jewish perspective. In 116CE the leading rabbis return to Yavneh where the 19th blessing of the Amidah is written. It’s a blistering attack on heresy focused on the new enemy, Christianity

Suddenly the Chanukah story takes on a new significance. The great military victory in which God again shows His love for his people. In return corruption and evil characterise the Hasmonean Kings. God finally loses patience and the Temple is destroyed. Surely this is not just a story — it is the story which underpins the new theology of the fourth Gospel.

From the moment the claim of Christian replacement begins to circulate, the Chanukah story is moved from centre stage into the wings. It can only return when Jews are living away from Christians and their claims to be the new elect.

Safe in Zoroastrian Babylonia, Jews renew their observance of Chanukah. Away from Jerusalem, the tale of national liberation around the restored Temple has little resonance for generations of Jews who have never seen Jerusalem.

A change of emphasis to feature a miracle of the oil — perhaps a metaphor for the indestructible nature of the Jewish people or perhaps a sign of God’s perpetual providence. In either event a powerful message for the new time. One is nevertheless left thinking if only Jesus had eaten latkes… it could have been so different.

Rabbi Pollak is educational consultant to Pajes and head of philosophy at JFS


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