Alexander the Great died in 323 BC in Babylon. He divided his kingdom between four of his generals. One of these generals was a man named Seleucus and he was given lands that included Syria. The relationship between the Jews in Israel and the Greeks in the Seleucid Empire would begin to deteriorate and we will touch on this briefly.
The true worship of God and Hellenism would conflict and come to a head in what is called the Maccabean War and the tyranny of the Seleucid king Antiochus Epiphanes. He ruled the Jews from 175-164 BC and he persecuted the Jews and their traditions. He issued a decree forbidding the Jews to practice their religion. During one of their moves to get the Jews to assimilate, a priest named Mattathias refused to sacrifice to the Greek gods. A Jew stepped forward to do it and Mattathias killed him. He rebuked the Greek official that required the sacrifice and they tried to arrest Mattathias. He fled into the wilderness rather than comply with the pagan demands forced upon him and his five sons followed after him. He called upon the Jews to rebel and many followed him.
The war that followed is the basis for the story of Chanukah, but the war began many years before in reality. In the late second century, 70 Torah scholars were commissioned to put the Torah into Greek, resulting in what is called the Septuagint. The Torah, with all its Hebrew nuances, idioms and messages was watered down in Greek and things got worse. In Greek thought, man is the center of the world, not God. As a result, many wanted to stay Traditional and Orthodox but many became religious Hellenists. This caused much friction between the two parties that carried on down to the time of Mattathias and Antiochus.
Antiochus is a picture of what the false messiah will do in the last days by persecuting the true followers of the Lord, but that is for another time. As a story, Chanukah remembers the fight between assimilation and staying true to the Lord and his Word. First and Second Maccabees tells the story of this conflict. The word “Maccabee” means “hammer” and this described many of their battles against the Seleucids. The Maccabees were known for their tactics and won many victories. As a result, they entered Jerusalem and needed to ritually cleanse the Temple because it had been defiled.
The festival of Chanukah celebrates the re-dedication of the Temple. The word “Chanukah” means dedication. When they went to rededicate the Temple, the story says that they found one vial of the sacred oil that illuminated the Menorah. This was enough for one day but the Menorah stayed lit for eight days instead. However, this “miracle” is not to be found in any historical account of the events in the book of Maccabees. It seems that this story didn’t appear till many centuries after the fact.
What you will find is that this rededication was called a delayed Sukkot. They had missed Sukkot in the previous fall and so it was considered delayed. They imitated Sukkot (2 Macc 10.6; 2 Macc 1.9, 1.18; 1 Kings 8.65-66; 2 Chr 7.8-10). The story of the miracle oil is a myth, so where did it come from. In the Talmud Shabbat 21, it is a story that dates to about 60 AD, ten years before the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple by the Romans. Here are some facts concerning Chanukah. Due to the Roman occupation, the leaders in Israel tried to downplay the victories the Jews had over a previous occupier, the Seleucid Greeks. They didn’t want the people to get any ideas about rising up against the Romans like their ancestors did against the Greeks. There was a lot of tension between the Jews and the Romans and some minor insurrections had already been put down by the Romans. In the mind of the leaders, they wanted to maintain a nation, Jerusalem and a Temple. We see their fears in their dealings with Yeshua (John 11.48) and with Paul (Acts 21.27-36).
Chanukah was being celebrated in the first century (John 10.22) and so the true story of Chanukah and the militaristic aspects of the victory was put on the back burner. The emphasis was changed to “protect” themselves and the nation. The story of the oil has been passed down after the Talmud was written and that is what is being taught today by many well meaning people, but it just isn’t true.
The Menorah is a seven-branched candelabra but at “Chanukah” it is a nine-branched candelabra called a Chanukiah. This is because Chanukah is a second Sukkot, which lasts eight days. It has nothing to do with a miracle about oil. During Sukkot, four poles were set up in the Court of the Women in the Temple. Four pots of oil were on each pole, for a total of sixteen. This was called the “light of the World” and there was dancing and all sorts of celebrations going on during Sukkot. You could see these lights for miles around Jerusalem at night. So, that is why lights were used at Chanukah.
As far as the religious calendar goes, Chanukah is a minor festival. There is no gift giving and that sort of thing. It seems that the modern practice of gift giving at Chanukah came from Christmas. The truth is, the victory at Chanukah wasn’t much of a victory because they won the battles but lost the real war, the spiritual one.
After they defeated the Greeks, the Jews were united. The Traditional Jews and the Hellenists got along for awhile but the “army” continued the war. A split happened when the Hellenistic Jews went to Syria, mainly Antioch and Damascus. They harassed one of the sons of Mattathis named Judah. The Maccabees wanted to extend the revolt to other lands with Jewish populations or to convert the people there. Four years after their victory, the Syrians killed Judah and defeated the Jews.
Another son named Jonathan started another revolt and had success, but the Syrians killed him also. The last remaining son of Mattathias was named Shimon and he took over in 142 BC. A lasting peace was accomplished with the Seluecid King Demetrius Nicator. An assembly of priests and elders made Shimon ruler, High Priest and military commander of Israel. The Maccabean Kingdom, known as the Hasmoneans (the family name), began and was recognized by Rome.
Shimon was later murdered by a son-in-law and replaced by his son. Later, Alexander Janneus was the great grandson of Mattathias. He had 800 opponents killed after forcing them to watch the murder of their wives and children. While the slaughter was going on, Alexander had a Greek-like orgy. The moral decline of the Maccabees is the reason why there is almost no mention of them in the Talmud.
The intrigue continued up to the time of Herod the Great. The true story of Chanukah is that the Jewish people defeated outside enemies who wanted them to assimilate into a pagan religion away from the Torah, but they could not establish the peace. The later Hasmonean kings were not true shepherds and Yeshua makes this very point at the time of Chanukah in John 10.1-42. The more successful the Hasmoneans were, the more Hellenistic they became.
They began by standing up to Hellenism and in the end embraced it. The forerunners of the Pharisees were called the Chasdim and they were hated by the Hasmoneans because they called them out for what they were. They formed a new sect called the Pharisees and wanted nothing to do with the now Hellenistic Hasmoneans. The Pharisees evolved into the scholars that wrote the Mishnah and the Talmud and kept their contempt for Hellenism going.
The Pharisees believed that the Hasmoneans had committed great offenses against the Lord by combining the priesthood with the kingship in Israel. Another sect was called the Sadducees and they were mainly priests. This accounts for their antagonism with each other. The Pharisees realized that glorifying the past military victories was not in the best interest of Israel, the people or themselves.
The warlike Maccabean past was no longer seen as a reminder of a glorious past but dangerous, especially with the Romans around. In order to maintain the festival of Chanukah in a Roman presence, they downplayed the militaristic beginnings of Chanukah. By replacing the truth and facts with a “politically correct” festival, they watered-down the essentials and made it an innocuous celebration of a spiritual nature, trying to protect what they thought was valuable. In time, the miracle of the oil was invented centuries later.
The New Testament, especially the book of Acts, is full of references to the conflict between the Traditional Jews and the Hellenistic Jews. When you see the persecution of believers, it is usually the Traditional Jews who gave trouble to the Hellenistic Jews. The persecution of believers in Judea, Samaria and Damascus began, but they left the Traditional Jews, like the Apostles and the believers in Jerusalem, alone (Acts 8.1).
Stephen was a Hellenistic Jew (Acts 6.1-5) who was chosen to help distribute food to Hellenistic widows who were being overlooked by the Traditional Jews. He was killed by Traditional Jews (Acts 7.58).
This Maccabean struggle against Hellenism came down all the way to the first century believers. How do you celebrate Chanukah today? Remember that it does not relate to Christmas at all. It is about the fight against paganism and about people becoming outlaws rather than assimilating into something away from the Torah. You may need to go against the world if you have to. It’s about the rededication of the Temple back to a House of Kedusha, and a time to think about the Lord. It is about how a militia army went up against the most powerful army in the world and defeated them. But, tell the truth about it.
There was no “miracle of the oil” and explain why. Light a Chanukiah and count the days and talk about how this festival was celebrated like a delayed Sukkot because they were unable to keep it earlier because the Temple was in pagan hands. Read the account as given in First and Second Maccabees and Josephus. Remember the prophetic implications of Chanukah as revealed in the Scriptures (Dan 8.9-14; 11.21-25; 12.11-12; Hag 2.18-23).
You can discuss how Yeshua was probably conceived around Chanukah and born at Sukkot, which links the two festivals together in a prophetic scenario. Downplay the gift-giving, its not an issue and never was. Read the first century practices surrounding Chanukah that you can find in books like “The Temple” by Alfred Edersheim and other publications.
Whatever you do, tell the facts and tell the truth and everything else is beyond your control. It is an inspiring story and definitely has a place in the life of a believer as long as it is put into its proper historical setting and without all the rabbinical “garnish” that goes along with it.