The Bible’s Viewpoint
Hanukkah—Is It a “Jewish Christmas”?
AS MILLIONS around the world prepare to celebrate Christmas, Jews usually prepare to celebrate a different holiday, the Festival of Hanukkah (Chanukah). What is Hanukkah? Non-Jews often think of it as a sort of “Jewish Christmas,” but that is far from accurate.
For example, Christmas supposedly commemorates the birth of Jesus Christ, but the celebration actually centers on such things as Santa Claus and decorated evergreen trees, things that have nothing to do with God, Jesus, or the Bible. Even the day, December 25, is the birthday not of Jesus but of the mythical sun-god Mithra! On the other hand, Hanukkah is the anniversary of a historical event that had major consequences for God’s ancient people.
In fact, it is noteworthy that Hanukkah is mentioned in the Christian Greek Scriptures. We read at John 10:22, 23: “At that time the festival of dedication [Hebrew, chanuk·kahʹ] took place in Jerusalem. It was wintertime, and Jesus was walking in the temple in the colonnade of Solomon.” Clearly, this festival was already being celebrated in Jesus’ day and apparently by Jesus himself.
What led to this celebration? To answer this question, we must consider some of the history.
Jehovah’s Temple Desecrated
As foretold centuries in advance by the prophet Daniel, at one point in their history, the Jews were dominated in succession by Greece and, after the breakup of that empire, by Egypt and Syria. (Daniel 11:2-16) While many of the non-Jewish rulers tolerated the Jews’ worship of Jehovah, one notable exception was Antiochus IV of Syria.
By 175 B.C.E., Antiochus ruled over a vast empire with peoples of diverse customs. Hoping to unify his people, he created one religion for all, with himself as “god manifest.” However, Jehovah exacts exclusive devotion, so the Jews refused to worship Antiochus. (Exodus 20:4-6) Antiochus therefore decided to eradicate this nonconformist religion of the Jews. Before long he forbade their animal sacrifices, the observance of the Sabbath, the practice of circumcision, and even the reading of the Hebrew Scriptures, all under pain of death. In fact, copies of the Hebrew Scriptures were sought out and burned!
Not relenting in his desire to wipe out the worship of Jehovah, Antiochus’ armies invaded Jerusalem and entered Jehovah’s temple, plundering the Most Holy. On Chislev 15, 168 B.C.E., Antiochus erected an altar to the Greek god Zeus on top of Jehovah’s altar in the temple courtyard. Ten days later, on Chislev 25, he delivered the final insult, using that altar to sacrifice pigs (unclean according to Jehovah’s Law). In effect, this dedicated Jehovah’s temple to Zeus.
The Maccabean Rebellion
How did the Jews react to all of this? According to the uninspired historical record now known as 1 Maccabees, many Jews cooperated with their invaders, abandoning Jehovah’s worship. Others maintained their integrity, only to be martyred for their beliefs.
That same year (168 B.C.E.) some Jews started to fight off the Syrians, hoping to secure the freedom to worship Jehovah. In 167 B.C.E., Judas Maccabeus (Judah Maccabee), a Levite priest, became leader of this resistance movement. Believing that victory would come only if they relied on Jehovah, Judas assembled his men to read the Hebrew Scriptures and to pray to Jehovah.
For three years Judas and his men battled the Syrians, despite a great disparity in numbers. Surprisingly, by 166 B.C.E., Judas had recaptured Jerusalem. Jehovah’s priests were then able to cleanse the temple and erect a new altar. Finally, on Chislev 25, 165 B.C.E., three years to the day after the temple was defiled, it was rededicated to Jehovah.
Celebrating the Rededication
Although Judas still needed to continue his fighting against the Syrians in Galilee, the joy over the temple’s rededication was so great that an annual eight-day celebration on its anniversary was instituted. This became known as the Festival of Dedication (Hanukkah).*
Even though this festival was not a part of the original covenant God made with Israel, Hanukkah became an accepted part of the Jews’ worship, much as the Festival of Purim had become in previous years. (Esther 9:26, 27) Like Purim, Hanukkah was celebrated with songs and prayers in the synagogues, unlike the three major festivals mandated by the covenant (Passover; Festival of Weeks, or Pentecost; and Festival of Booths) that required trips to the temple in Jerusalem.—Deuteronomy 16:16.
Over the years the custom of celebrating Hanukkah with lights developed. Thus, historian Josephus reports that by the first century C.E., Hanukkah was also known as the Festival of Lights. However, the origin of this custom is unclear. One story alleges that it commemorates a miracle that occurred when the temple was rededicated. According to this story, when it came time to relight the lampstand in Jehovah’s temple, although there was only enough ceremonially clean oil for one day, it miraculously lasted for eight days.*
Is this story of miraculous oil accurate or just a groundless legend? For that matter, was God supporting Judas Maccabeus’ rebellion against Syria?
Was There Divine Support?
There is no direct statement in the inspired Hebrew Scriptures that Jehovah gave Judas the victory or directed the repair and rededication of the temple. Of course, these events occurred after the writing of the Hebrew Scriptures had drawn to a close, so no comment in the Hebrew Scriptures was possible.
What about the Christian Greek Scriptures? Neither Jesus nor his apostles commented on these events, so they also did not indicate whether God supported Judas or not.
Nevertheless, the Christian Greek Scriptures do record the fulfillment of Messianic Hebrew Scripture prophecies in the ministry of Jesus Christ. Some of these prophecies required that the temple be in operation at the time of the Messiah’s appearance. (Daniel 9:27; Haggai 2:9; compare Psalm 69:9 with John 2:16, 17.) Thus, unless the temple was cleansed and rededicated to Jehovah, these prophecies could not have been fulfilled. Clearly, God wanted the temple to be rededicated. But was Judas Maccabeus his chosen instrument for accomplishing this?
In the absence of an inspired record, we cannot say for certain. Of course, Jehovah had in years past used non-Jews, such as Cyrus the Persian, to carry out certain aspects of his will. (Isaiah 44:26–45:4) How much more so might God use someone from among his dedicated people, the Jews!
What About Christians?
But what of the festival itself? Since it commemorates an important event in the history of God’s people, should it be commemorated by Christians?
The apostle Paul explained at Colossians 2:14-17: “[God] blotted out the handwritten document against us . . . by nailing it to the torture stake. . . . Therefore let no man judge you in eating and drinking or in respect of a festival or of an observance of the new moon or of a sabbath; for those things are a shadow of the things to come, but the reality belongs to the Christ.” Just as a shadow cast by an approaching object can alert someone to its arrival, the Law covenant was able to alert people to the arrival of the Messiah, or Christ. However, once this handwritten document had served its purpose, it was blotted out by God.—Galatians 3:23-25.
Thus, the Law covenant and all related festivals came to an end from God’s standpoint at Pentecost 33 C.E. Indeed, the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple by Roman armies in 70 C.E. soon underscored that fact. (Luke 19:41-44) So even though the rededication of the temple was an important event in the history of God’s ancient people, there is no reason for Christians to commemorate Hanukkah.
The Hebrew noun chanuk·kahʹ means “inauguration or dedication.” A form of the word appears in the superscription of Psalm 30.
Since the first century B.C.E., Jewish homes have displayed one lighted candle on the first day of the festival, two lighted candles on the second day, and so on for all eight days. This practice is still observed by Jews today.
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In countries where Christmas became a popular family festival, Hanukkah, particularly among Reform Jews, assumed a similar form.—Encyclopædia Judaica
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Israel Department of Antiquities and Museums; Israel Museum/David Harris