Hammering Out Hanukkah’s History

The Books of the Maccabees

The two books of the Maccabees exist outside the canon of the Torah. The prophetic impulse faded following the return from the exile in Babylon along with the rebuilding of both Jerusalem and the Temple. Although a number of the canonical books were written after 430 BCE tradition insisted on attributing the authorship of these books to a period well before that date. For example, it is believed the Book of Jonah was written in 300 B.C.E (or thereabouts) but was attributed to an author who was active around 780 BCE. Later psalms were attributed to King David, later proverbs to King Solomon, while many of the apocalyptic writings - composed during the Greek period - were attributed to authors from the period of Exile and Return, such as Daniel and Zachariah.

This meant that historical events that followed 430 B.C.E could never be directly associated as part of the canon that makes up the Torah. The events that made up the canon had to be attributed to the ancients in order to comply with Jewish tradition, and therefore had to be presented in obscure apocalyptic form or remain in the Apocrypha.

But Jewish history continued to be eventful and interesting in the centuries following, often more so in ways than before. During this time, once again an independent Jewish state existed as in the days of King David and King Solomon. Once again a catastrophe loomed inexorably as in the days of Jeremiah. Once again prophets spoke out in order to change the world as in the days of the second Isaiah.

The Books of the Maccabees are part of the Apocrypha, which now are included in the New Testament. The author of the books is unknown but he’s believed to be a Jew of rationalist tendencies. The first book does not directly mention God or divine intervention. The second book has a more theological slant, advancing several doctrines followed by the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches. Book 1 Maccabees was written in Hebrew and later translated into Greek. Scholars believe that the author was a Palestinian Jew who was intimately familiar with the events described. The author opposed the Hellenization of the Jews and clearly supported and admired the Jewish revolutionaries led by Judah Maccabeus and his brothers. A copy of that Hebrew version was seen as late as 400 A.C.E by the Latin church scholar Jerome. The Hebrew version did not survive to our day, and our oldest versions are in Greek which has been used as the basis for modern translations.

The Second Book of Maccabees was written in Koine Greek (“Common Greek”), most likely around 100 BCE. This work is connected with 1 Maccabees, but it is written as a theological interpretation of the Maccabean Revolt. In addition to outlining the historical events, 2 Maccabees discusses several doctrinal issues, including prayers and sacrifices for the dead, intercession of the saints, and resurrection on Judgment Day. The Catholic Church has based the doctrines of purgatory and masses for the dead on this work. However, an important tenet of the Protestant Reformation (1517 ACE) insisted that scriptural translations should be derived from the original Hebrew and Aramaic texts for the Old Testament and Greek for the New Testament, rather than upon the Septuagint and Jerome’s Vulgate. Statements were included in the Protestant Bibles directing that the Apocrypha was not to be placed on the same level as the other documents.

Assimilation to Extermination

Books 1 and 2 Maccabees outline the history of the Maccabees, the Jewish leaders who led a rebellion against the Seleucid Dynasty from 175 BCE to 134 BCE. The first book portrays the effort by the Jews to regain their cultural and religious independence from Antiochus IV Epiphanes after his desecration of the Jewish temple.

In the second century BC, Judea (located within the same area as modern-day Israel) was sandwiched between the Egyptian Ptolemaic Kingdom and the Syrian Seleucid Empire — kingdoms that were formed following the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE. Judea fell under the control of the Seleucids in approximately 200 BCE. During this time, many Jews began to adopt the Hellenistic lifestyle and culture in order to gain economic and political influence. They began to avoid the practice of circumcision and advocated abolishing Jewish religious laws.

Antiochus IV Epiphanes became the ruler of the Seleucid Empire in 175 BC. He disregarded the views of the traditional Jews in Judea. In Antiochus’s view, the office of high priest was a mere local appointee within his realm, while to orthodox Jews the high priest was divinely chosen. Antiochus appointed a high priest, a Hellenized Jew named Jason, who promptly abolished the Jewish theocracy. Jason was followed by Menelaus who had the rightfully elected high priest, Onias, murdered. After Menelaus’ brother stole sacred articles from the temple, a civil war broke out between the Hellenized Jews and the religious Jews. Subsequently, Antiochus attacked Jerusalem, pillaged the temple, and killed or captured the women and children. He banned traditional Jewish religious practice, outlawing Jewish sacrifices, Sabbaths, feasts, and circumcision. He established altars to the Greek gods upon which “unclean” animals were sacrificed. He desecrated the Jewish temple and possession of any Jewish Scriptures became a capital offense.

Hammer Time

In a small rural village named Modein, the elderly priest Mattathias lived with his five sons — John, Simon, Judah, Eleazer, and Jonathan. Sometimes referred to as the Hasmoneans (derived from Asmoneus, one of their ancestors), this family more frequently have been called the Maccabeans (a nickname which means “hammerer”). In 167 BCE Antiochus sent some of his soldiers to Modein to compel the Jewish inhabitants to make sacrifices to the pagan gods. Mattathias, as a leader in the city, was commanded by the officers to be the first to offer a sacrifice to set an example for the rest of the people. He refused with a powerful speech (1 Maccabees 2:15–22).

Fearing retaliation against the people for Mattathias’s refusal, another Jew volunteered to offer the sacrifices to the pagan gods in his place, but Mattathias killed the man as well as the soldiers of the king. He then destroyed the altar to the pagan gods, after which his family and a number of followers fled to the mountainous wilderness. These men formed a large guerrilla warfare army and began to launch raids against the towns of the land, tearing down the pagan altars, killing the officials of Antiochus, and executing those Jews found worshiping the pagan gods.

Mattathias passed away in 166 BCE, just as the revolt was gaining momentum, leaving his son Judah in charge of the rebel forces. Although greatly outnumbered, Judah and his rebels defeated Antiochus’s army in battle after battle, winning decisive victories against overwhelming odds. The rebels won a tremendous victory south of Mizpah against a combined army of 50,000 troops after which the people of Judea gave Judah the nickname “Maccabeus” in light of his success in “hammering” the enemy forces into the ground.

Antiochus, who had initially underestimated the extent of the revolt, now understood how serious the rebellion in Judea had become. He dispatched Lysias, the commander-in-chief of the Seleucid army, along with more than 60,000 infantrymen and 5,000 cavalry, to annihilate the Jews. This powerful army came against Judah, whose force was composed of only 10,000 poorly-equipped rebels, in the town of Emmaus. Judah prayed to G-d for strength and deliverance (1 Maccabees 4:30–33). G-d answered and the Jewish army won a huge victory over the Seleucid army.

Following their victory, the Maccabees marched into Jerusalem, cleansed the temple of Antiochus’s defilement, and resumed traditional Jewish religious practice. Hanukkah, which means “dedication,” commemorates the miracle of light that occurred when Judah rededicated the Temple to the Hebrew god. According to the Talmud the Seleucids left only one intact vial of oil, just enough to light the Temple’s candelabrum for one day. But it burned for eight days—enough time for the victorious Judeans to secure more oil—and the miracle became the foundation of a beloved holiday to thank G-d and celebrate the victory of light over darkness.

Judah’s brother Jonathan became the new high priest after the rededication of the temple and ultimately succeeded Judah as commander of the army. Another brother, Simon, assumed control from 142 to 135 BCE, followed by Simon’s son, John Hyrcanus. With the death of Simon, the last son of Mattathias, the Maccabean Revolt came to an end.

Leave a comment

Please note, comments must be approved before they are published