What is the Real Story of Hanukkah?

Part 1 of a historically accurate 8 Part Series

To read the Introduction to this 8 Part series please click below…

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Q. You say that the story of Hanukkah really begins with the death of Alexander the Great. Please map out what happened next.

A. Alexander’s death was so sudden that when reports of his death reached Greece, they were not immediately believed. Alexander had no obvious or legitimate heir.

Dissension and rivalry soon afflicted his armies and followers known as the Macedonians. Ultimately there were 40 years of war between “The Successors” and eventually, the Hellenistic world settled into four stable power blocks: Ptolemaic Egypt, Seleucid Mesopotamia and Central Asia, Attalid Anatolia, and Antigonid Macedon. In the process, various kings and leaders were murdered.

Q. So Antiochus III became the king of Seleucid Mesopotamia?

A. Yes All the wars of Antiochus III brought the region into the Seleucid Empire and Jerusalem fell to his control in 198.

Q. Did this affect Jewish life in Jerusalem?

A. For a time Jewish culture had flourished under Greek rule. Eventually, deterioration of relations between Hellenized Jews and strictly observant Jews took place under the Seleucid King Antiochus IV Epiphanes. He soon imposed decrees banning certain Jewish religious rites and traditions. Consequently, the observant Jews revolted under the leadership of the Hasmonean family (also known as the Maccabees). This revolt eventually led to the formation of an independent Jewish kingdom, known as the Hasmonaean Dynasty, which lasted from 165 BCE to 63 BCE. This successful revolt is celebrated through the modern Jewish holiday of Hanukah.

Q. Tell me more about the roots of the revolt.

A. During and after his abortive invasion of Egypt Antiochus returned from Egypt toward Antioch. During this time there were disturbances in Judea, particularly between observant and Hellenized Jews. In response Antiochus banned key Jewish religious rites and traditions in Judea. His sacked Jerusalem and removed the sacred objects from the Jerusalem Temple, slaughtering an unknown, but large, number of Jews. Then he imposed a tax and established a fortress in Jerusalem. Antiochus tried to suppress public observance of Jewish laws, apparently in an attempt to secure control over the Jews. His government established there he may have been attempting to Hellenize the region and unify his empire and the Jewish resistance to this eventually led to an escalation of violence.

According to Josephus (Titus Flavius Josephus born Yosef ben Matityahu the first-century Romano-Jewish historian who was born in Jerusalem — then part of Roman Judea)

“Now Antiochus was not satisfied either with his unexpected taking the city, or with its pillage, or with the great slaughter he had made there; but being overcome with his violent passions, and remembering what he had suffered during the siege, he compelled the Jews to dissolve the laws of their country, and to keep their infants uncircumcised, and to sacrifice swine’s flesh upon the altar.”

Q. So this wasn’t just between Antiochus and the Jews. This was a civil war of sorts among various Jewish groups?

A. Yes. Many, though not all, modern interpretations see this period as a civil war between Hellenized and observant forms of Judaism. Whatever the details and other factors including the growing influence of Rome increasing tensions between pro and anti-Seleucid Jewish factions led to the 174–135 BCE Maccabean Revolt of Judas Maccabeus (whose victory is celebrated in the Jewish festival of Hanukkah).

Q. Where does the name “Maccabee” come from?

A. There are differing views on the source of the name. Here are a few:

1. Maccabee is an acronym for the Torah verse Mi kamokha ba’elim Adonai, “Who among the gods is like you, O Adonai?”, his battle-cry to motivate troops. (Exodus 15:11).

2. Rabbi Moshe Schreiber writes that it is an acronym for his father’s name Mattityahu Kohen Ben Yochanan.

3. Some scholars maintain that the name is a shortened form of the Hebrew maqqab-ya ¯hû (from na ¯qab, ‘‘to mark, to designate’’), meaning ‘‘the one designated by Yahweh.

Q. Speak more about the civil war and the Maccabean revolt?

A. Whatever the actual causes of the war the Second Temple in Jerusalem was ultimately looted services were stopped by the orders of Antiocus, and Judaism was outlawed. In 167 BC Antiochus ordered an altar to Zeus erected in the Temple. He banned brit milah (circumcision) and ordered pigs to be sacrificed at the altar of the temple.

Q. What happened next?

A. These actions led to a large scale revolt. As I mentioned earlier Mattathias (Mattityahu), a Jewish priest, and his five sons Jochanan,Simeon, Eleazar, Jonathan, and Judah led a rebellion against Antiochus starting with Mattathias killing first a Jew who wanted to comply with Antiochus’s order to sacrifice to Zeus and then a Greek official who was to enforce the government’s behest (1 Mac. 2, 24–25[). Judah became known as Yehuda HaMakabi (“Judah the Hammer”). By 166 BC Mattathias had died, and his son the priest Judah took his place as leader. Judah Maccabee (or Judas Maccabeus, also spelled Machabeus, or Maccabaeus led the Maccabean Revolt against the Seleucid Empire (167–160 BCE).


In Part 2 of this Q & A series on Hanukkah, we will explore the early days of the revolt. Here Judah Maccabee was mindful of the superiority of Seleucid forces. Learn his strategy.

Author: Lewis Harrison is an Independent Scholar with a passion for history, personal development, self-improvement, and problem-solving. He is the creator of Harrison’s Applied Game Theory.

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I am always exploring trends, areas of interest and solutions to build new stories upon. Again, if you have any ideas you would like me to write about just email me at LewisCoaches@gmail.com

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By Lewis

“Lewis is amazing. I recommend him to anyone who wants less stress and more energy.” — Jack Canfield, Co-author, The Chicken Soup for the Soul books and films.

I offer advice on the arts, innovation, self-improvement, life lessons, mental health, game theory strategies, and love. LewisCoaches.Medium.com

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