Happy Hanukkah, Happy Christmas and Happy New Year (in advance) to those celebrating! Since I bet most of you were assuming I’d write something on the different Christmas narratives in Matthew and Luke, I thought I’d do something completely different! Plus, because Hanukkah falls this year on 24th December (sunset) to 1st January (nightfall) this year, it was the perfect time for a doubly-themed post. The story of Hanukkah links beautifully into the story of Christmas. But first…
1. What is Hanukkah?
If you’re a Protestant reader of some form, you have probably never read the Apocryphal books of First and Second Maccabees, which narrate the origin of Hanukkah in detail. These books are not part of the Tanakh (‘Hebrew Bible’), though they were a part of the Alexandrian canon called the Septuagint (‘LXX’) which later became sacred scripture to the Catholic and Orthodox churches. This was also the ‘Old Testament’ (OT) which the New Testament (NT) authors quoted from.
Judea had been a Greek territory ever since Alexander the Great conquered the area (332 BCE). When he died (323 BCE), his enormous empire was divided into four, with Judea falling into Seleucid hands. Initially, official policy towards local religions was lenient, akin to the previous approach of the Persians under Cyrus II.1
However, when Antiochus IV came to power in 175 BCE, Jewish rituals, customs and laws were suppressed. Let’s be honest, the fact that he took the name ‘God Manifest’ (Epiphanes) when he was crowned indicated that he was never going to be liked very much by pious Jews!
He forbade circumcision and possession of Jewish scriptures, set up pagan practices in the Temple and required Jewish leaders to sacrifice to idols.2 Worst of all, he desecrated the Holy of Holies by sacrificing an unclean animal (probably a pig) to Zeus on the Temple altar. This incident reverberates strongly throughout the rest of the Bible via the term ‘abomination of desolation’ (Greek: τὸ βδέλυγμα τῆς ἐρημώσεως), referred to in Daniel (9:27, 11:31 and 12:11), 1 Maccabees (1:54, 6:7) and the NT.3
Gymnasiums were built in Jerusalem, where men would exercise and socialise in the nude. This further discouraged circumcision because a man’s “state” (as it were) could not be concealed, even leading some to undergo de-circumcision!4 (I sympathise; that’s all I’m saying.)
This oppressive state of affairs did not last. In 167 BCE, a rural Jewish Priest named Mattathias killed a Hellenistic Jew (i.e. a Greek sympathiser) who had offered to make a sacrifice to an idol in Mattathias’ place. He and his five sons then fled to the desert, where his third son Judah Maccabee (‘the Hammer’) led an army of rebels using guerilla tactics to victory over their Seleucid overlords.
In 164 BCE, the Maccabees recaptured Jerusalem and rededicated the Temple, instituting Hanukkah.5 The menorah (see right) is used during Hanukkah to celebrate a supposed miracle at this time, which was that a one-day supply of oil found undefiled in the recovered Temple supplies miraculously lasted eight days. However, this miracle’s authenticity has been questioned since the Middle Ages and is widely regarded as a later legend, since neither 1 Maccabees nor 2 Maccabees mentions the event.6 The first record of this story occurring comes from the Talmud. (c. 600 years after the event.)
So, why does this matter, Harry? Good question. After all, life is short and I appreciate you reading my blog.
2. The Link to the New Testament
In the NT, we are told that Jesus celebrated the ‘Feast of Dedication’ in winter by walking in Solomon’s Porch.7 Okay, so NT references to the festival are scarce. However, the events commemorated by Hanukkah are fundamental to an understanding of the world of Jesus and by extension, the entire NT. I am not exaggerating for the sake of keeping you hooked as a reader!
Firstly, without Hanukkah, the world Jesus would have inhabited would have been profoundly different. In 129 BCE, Antiochus VII died and the Jewish people were properly liberated from Syrian rule, creating the Hasmonean Jewish Kingdom. Sadly, in 96 BCE, an eight-year civil war broke out between the Hasmonean Sadducee king Alexander Yanai and the Pharisees. (This is a contributing factor to the tension between the two groups that we see in the NT.)8
In 63 BCE, the rivalry between two brothers, Aristobulus II and Hyrcanus II, escalated to the point where both appealed to the Roman Republic in order to settle the dispute. This backfired; the renowned general Pompey the Great is sent to the region, killing c. 12,000 Jews in the Siege of Jerusalem and annexing Judea.
Roughly 60 years later, Jesus was born into a world of imperial oppression, begrudging coexistence and failed revolts. Here is a list of stories in Matthew, for instance, which would not have occurred were this sequence of events not to have unfolded as they did:
- Birth of Jesus in Bethlehem (No Census of Quirinius)
- Massacre of the Innocents (No Herod the Great)
- The Escape to Egypt (No Herod Archelaus)
- Healing of the Centurion’s Servant
- Calling of Matthew (No Tax Collectors)
- Beheading of John the Baptist (No Herod Antipas)
- Triumphal Entry into Jerusalem (Messianic Expectations)
- ‘Render unto Caesar’ Speech
- ‘Signs of the End Times’ Speech
- Betrayal and Arrest of Jesus (Messianic Expectations)
- Last Supper
- Trial before Pontius Pilate
These are only the stories from Matthew – there are more I could list from Luke and John. Feel free to disagree with the finer detail, but the general point is indisputable.
3. Messianic Expectations (a.k.a. Why Jews aren’t Dumb)
Secondly and more crucially, Messianic expectations would have been totally different. I really get riled when Christians imply something along the lines of, “Oh how silly the Jews are – they don’t understand their own scriptures”. Not only is this approach demeaning, it’s also false; typically they understand their scriptures in the Hebrew Bible far more than their Christian cousins, at least in my experience!
Still, most Christmas sermons even today contain something like: “The Jews wanted a political messiah, but Jesus brought a peaceable kingdom. The Jews wanted someone to destroy Rome, but Jesus came to destroy sin.”
A Messiah (‘anointed one’) in the Hebrew Bible was typically a King or a High Priest who was to play a part in the liberation of the Jews from oppression of some kind. Fascinatingly, Messiahs did not need to be Jewish! Cyrus the Great, a pagan Persian monarch who let the Jews go free from Babylonian captivity, was called a Messiah by Isaiah (45:1). This sheds some light on the Messianic prophecies, most of which are taken from Isaiah, which in turn also explains why it is the 9th most popular book of the Bible.9
Isaiah 53 (‘The Suffering Servant’), for instance, seems incontrovertibly to be about a dying-and-rising Messiah (read it!), until you realise that every single one of the three previous Servant Songs (ch. 42, 49, 50) and every single one of the 17 references to ‘my servant’ (through chapters 40 to 66) is clearly to Israel as a nation.10 Moreover, nobody other than Israel is identified as ‘my servant’.11 One example, Isaiah 41:8, is typical of all the others.
8 But you, Israel, my servant,
Jacob, whom I have chosen,
the offspring of Abraham, my friend;
Or Isaiah 49:3 below:
3 And he said to me, ‘You are my servant,
Israel, in whom I will be glorified.’
The other verses are listed in the footnotes if you’re interested.12 Remember that the scrolls which Jews in the time of Jesus would have been reading would have had no headings or chapter and verse numbers – a key reason why everyone must read the Hebrew Bible in context!!! As for why Jewish people imagined a political Messiah, events like Hanukkah set the historical context, yet the textual justification was hardly absent, as can be seen from the second Servant Song (ch. 49).
26 I will make your oppressors eat their own flesh,
and they shall be drunk with their own blood as with wine.
Then all flesh shall know
that I am the Lord your Saviour,
and your Redeemer, the Mighty One of Jacob.
The context here of ‘Second Isaiah’ (550–539 BCE) is one of bitter oppression, during the height of the Babylonian Exile. (Please read up on the Babylonian Exile – it is so important for understanding the ‘Old Testament’.)
To get an understanding of the violence expected from the Messiah, we could turn to Psalm 110. It has long been understood both by Jews and Christians to be a Messianic text. Its dating is contentious, though most modern scholars have centred on the United Monarchy era (i.e. Saul, David & Solomon).13 Funnily enough, this makes the Psalm unlikely to be Messianic in original authorial intention, since there was no need for deliverance in this historical period.
Regardless, the point is that this text was – and is – interpreted as Messianic. Furthermore, Psalm 110 ‘is the psalm most frequently quoted by [NT] writers, with the clear intention of affirming that Jesus Christ is the Messiah.’14 Here are two verses from it:
5 The Lord is at your right hand;
he will shatter kings on the day of his wrath.
6 He will execute judgement among the nations,
filling them with corpses;
he will shatter heads
over the wide earth.
Wow – that’s grim stuff. In fact, according to Matthew’s Gospel (22:41-46), Jesus implicitly refers to himself as the Messiah via a quotation of verse 1 of this passage during a dispute with the Pharisees.
1 The Lord says to my lord,
‘Sit at my right hand
until I make your enemies your footstool.’
The fact that Jesus used verses like this is a critical factor for understanding why the Sanhedrin and Roman authorities considered Jesus such a threat.
The classic rebuttal I’d expect at this point from some of my conservative readers is: ‘But that’s the second coming of Christ when he arrives in judgement at the end times!’
How would any reader know that coming to these texts blind? Where does it ever refer to a first and a second coming of the Messiah? Every single ‘anointed one’ in the Hebrew Bible refers to someone who has come once, died once and wasn’t going to be returning, e.g. Cyrus II of Persia.
From now on, I’d encourage you to identify with the Jews of Jesus’s day, as hard as it is because of the presentation of the Gospels, in their longing for freedom from their oppressors. That goes for atheists bashing the texts as violent and warmongering as well as for Christians longing to bash Jews for their apparent stupidity and inability to interpret their own holy texts. One of the reasons I love history is trying to understand people of the past, putting myself into their shoes. Try and do so this Christmas!
Lastly, I’d like to clear up briefly on the issue of the Virgin Birth; nobody in Jesus’s day expected the Messiah to be born of a virgin.
4. Who is that Young Woman?
The other classic Messianic sections from Isaiah are 7:14 and 9:2-7, both of which tend to get read out at Christmas and neither of which are generally read in context. The proper translation of 7:14, is given below as per the NRSV.
14 Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.
Helpfully, the footnote provided by the NRSV (‘Gk the virgin‘) tells us that the Greek Septuagint – which all the NT writers would have been familiar with – had made a translation error from the original Hebrew texts, which used the term ‘young woman’ (almah) instead. This is why the verse is incorrectly cited by Matthew at 1:21-23 in his nativity account. My evidence is a scan of the amazing Isaiah Scroll (c. 125 BCE), one of the original seven Dead Sea Scrolls in 1947.
One can believe theologically that Jesus was born from a virgin mother, but one cannot reasonably believe that the Hebrew Bible predicted that he would be. If the writer wanted to prophesy concerning virgins, the text would use the Hebrew word betula instead. In context, this verse is talking about Isaiah’s wife, who bore him three sons, each of which was called something odd: Shear-Jashub (‘the remnant shall return’), Immanuel (‘God with us’) and Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz (‘he has made haste to the plunder’). Each was named to prophesy concerning the impending doom marching towards Israel and Judah in the form of the Assyrians under Shalmaneser V and then Sennacherib. Since the almah here is Isaiah’s wife and Immanuel was her second son, we can be pretty sure she wasn’t a virgin!
Happy Hanukkah, Merry Christmas, Joyous New Year to all my readers! I hope you enjoyed my historical ramblings; if not let me know in the comments! If you do comment, however, please keep it as peaceful and merry as you will want your holidays to be!
And subscribe!!! (Button below or via the fabulous Facebook page.)
I love all of you; you deserve the bestest of holidays. ❤
- E.g. Ezra 1:1-8; Isaiah 45:1-3 (Cyrus is an “anointed one” or “Messiah” no less!); Josephus’s Antiquities of the Jews, Book XI and the amazing Cyrus Cylinder in the British Museum. ↩
- 1 Maccabees 1:10-64. ↩
- Mark (13:14), Matthew (24:15-16) and Luke (21:20-21). The concept is also referenced in the Apocalypse of John (a.k.a. the Book of Revelation). ↩
- Hodges, Frederick M. (2001). ‘The Ideal Prepuce in Ancient Greece and Rome: Male Genital Aesthetics and Their Relation to Lipodermos, Circumcision, Foreskin Restoration, and the Kynodesme’. Bulletin of the History of Medicine. 75/3. pp. 375-405; see also Rubin, Jody P. (1980), ‘Celsus’ Decircumcision Operation: Medical and Historical Implications’. Urology. 16/1. pp. 121-124. ↩
- 1 Maccabees 4:36-61. ↩
- Skolnik, Berenbaum and Fred, Michael (2007). Encyclopaedia Judaica, Volume 9. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA. pg 332. ↩
- John 10:22-23. ↩
- Numerous NT verses support the idea of conflict between the Sadducees and Pharisees: Mark 12:18-27 (repeated in Matthew and Luke); Acts 5:17-18; Acts 23:8. Beyond this, there is the Mishnah, e.g. Yadayim 4:6-8 and Josephus in his Antiquities of the Jews (93 CE). Disputes typically revolved around the “purity” of various trivial things, though there were other differences: Sadducees emphasised patriarchal descent as important in legal rulings, rejected the concept of the resurrection of the dead and refused to acknowledge spirits or angels. ↩
- http://overviewbible.com/popular-books-bible-infographic/ ↩
- Isaiah 41:8; 41:9; 42:1; 42:19 (x2); 43:10; 44:1; 44:2; 44:21 (x2); 44:26; 45:4; 48:20; 49:3; 49:5; 49:6; 50:10. Isaiah 52:13 has been excluded because it is evidently part of the same passage we are examining here. While I have listed them (and linked them) individually here, I would encourage you to read the whole chapters for the sake of context. I begin my count at Isaiah 40 because the Book of Isaiah is widely believed to be the work of at least two authors: “proto-Isaiah” (ch. 1-39) and “deutero-Isaiah” (ch. 40-66). Some scholars add a third “trito-Isaiah” (ch. 56-66), limiting the scope of “deutero-Isaiah” (ch. 40-55). See: Petersen, David L. (2002). The Prophetic Literature: An Introduction. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press. pp. 47–48. (The whole book is good!) ↩
- This excludes one reference to Moses (Isaiah 63:11), who is clearly not being referred to in Isaiah 53. ↩
- See footnote 10 above. ↩
- Davis, Barry C. (2000). ‘Is Psalm 110 a Messianic Psalm?’. Bibliotecha Sacra. Vol. 157. p. 160-173; see also Hardy, E. R. (1945). ‘The Date of Psalm 110’. Journal of Biblical Literature. 64/3. pp. 385-390. (JSTOR) ↩
- Davis, ibid. p. 172. ↩