What is the Real Story of Hanukkah?
Q. What happened after the successful Jewish revolt against the Seleucid monarchy in 165 BC.
A. After the successful Jewish revolt against the Seleucid monarchy the Temple was liberated and rededicated. Judah Maccabee purified the defiled Temple of Jerusalem on the 25th of Kislev (December 14, 164 BCE). He then ordered the Temple to be cleansed, a new altar to be built in place of the polluted one and new holy vessels to be made. According to the Talmud (the central text of Rabbinic Judaism and the primary source of Jewish religious law (halakha) and Jewish theology. ), unadulterated and undefiled pure olive oil with the seal of the kohen gadol (high priest) was needed for the menorah in the Temple, which was required to burn throughout the night every night. The story goes that one flask was found with only enough oil to burn for one day, yet it burned for eight days, the time needed to prepare a fresh supply of kosher oil for the menorah. An eight-day festival was declared by the Jewish sages to commemorate this miracle.
The reconsecration of the Temple became a permanent Jewish holiday, Hanukkah, which continued even after the Temple was destroyed in 70 CE. Hanukkah is still celebrated annually. The liberation of Jerusalem was the first step on the road to ultimate independence.
Q. What more is known of this miracle?
A. Not much. The version of the story in the Bible (1 Maccabees) states that an eight-day celebration of songs and sacrifices was proclaimed upon re-dedication of the altar, and makes no specific mention of the miracle of the oil.
A. Most likely it was adversarial?. It seems they competed violently over who would be the High Priest, with traditionalists with Hebrew/Aramaic names like Onias contesting with Hellenizing High Priests with Greek names like Jason and Menelaus. In particular,Jason’s Hellenistic reforms would prove to be a decisive factor leading to eventual conflict within the ranks of Judaism. Other authors point to possible socioeconomic reasons in addition to the religious reasons behind the civil war.
So what began in many respects as a civil war escalated when the Hellenistic kingdom of Syria sided with the Hellenizing Jews in their conflict with the traditionalists. As the conflict escalated, Antiochus took the side of the Hellenizers by prohibiting the religious practices the traditionalists had rallied around. This may explain why the king, in a total departure from Seleucid practice in all other places and times, banned a traditional religion.
Q. What of the “miracle” of the oil that is the foundation of Hanukah*?
A. The miracle of the oil is widely regarded as a legend and its authenticity has been questioned since the Middle Ages. However, by virtue of the famous question Rabbi Yosef Karo posed concerning why Hanukah is celebrated for eight days when the miracle was only for seven days (since there was enough oil for one day), it was clear that he believed it was a historical event, and this belief has been adopted by most of Orthodox Judaism, in as much as Rabbi Karo’s* Shulchan Aruch is a main Code of Jewish Law.
Q.What do modern archeologists and scholars have to say about the war and the Hanukah story?
A. Some modern scholars argue that the Syrian king, rather than just being an evil and repressive king was actually intervening in an internal civil war between the Maccabean Jews and the Hellenized Jews in Jerusalem. This obviously contradicts the story accepted as true by Observant and many non-observant Jews.
Q. Once the Syrians were defeated was there finally peace among the Jews?
A. No. In 164 BCE, Judah captured Jerusalem, and the Temple in Jerusalem was freed and reconsecrated: “After having recovered Jerusalem, Judah ordered the Temple to be cleansed, a new altar to be built in place of the desecrated one, and completely removed the Hellenistic statuary with new holy vessels to be made.”
Still, there was still much upheaval though ultimately it was through this revolt that the independent Jewish kingdom known as the Hasmonaean Dynasty was formed. Before this, owever, when the against the external enemy came to an end, the internal struggle between the party led by Judah and the Hellenist party continued and intensified. The influence of the Hellenizers all but collapsed in the wake of the Seleucid defeat. The Hellenizing High Priest Menelaus was removed from office and executed. His successor was another Hellenizer Alcimus. When Alcimus executed sixty priests who were opposed to him, he found himself in open conflict with the Maccabees. Alcimus fled from Jerusalem and went to the Seleucid king, asking for help.
Meanwhile, Demetrius I Soter, son of Seleucus IV Philopator and nephew of the late Antiochus IV Epiphanes, fled from Rome in defiance of the Roman Senate, arrived in Syria. Declaring himself the rightful king, he captured and killed Lysias and Antiochus Eupator, taking the throne. It was thus Demetrius to whom the delegation led by Alcimus, complained of the persecution of the Hellenist party in Judea. Demetrius granted Alcimus’s request to be appointed High Priest under the protection of the king’s army and sent to Judea an army led by Bacchides. The weaker Jewish army couldn’t oppose the enemy and withdrew from Jerusalem, so Judah returned to wage Guerrilla warfare. Soon after, it was necessary for the Seleucid Army to return to Antioch because of the turbulent political situation. Judah’s forces returned to Jerusalem and the Seleucids dispatched another army, again led by Nicanor. In a battle near Adasa, on the 13th Adar 161 BCE, the Syrian army was destroyed and Nicanor was killed. The annual “Day of Nicanor” was instituted to commemorate this victory.
Q. What happened after the Maccabes again were victorious?
A. The Idumeans were repressed at the end of the war. These citizens of the country of Edom (Mk 3:8) began to advance northward after the fall of Jerusalem in 587 BC. By 312 B.C. another tribe, the Nabataeans, established themselves in Edom, and drove them from Petra (in present-day Jordon). The Edomites were gradually pushed into the southern half of Judea, including the region around Hebron, an area that the Greeks later called Idumea.
In Part 4 of this series on Hanukkah, we will explore what happened after the successful Maccabean revolt, especially the relationship between the Maccabees and Rome
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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