Today begins the eight-day Jewish festival of Hanukkah, the story of which is recounted in 1 Maccabees. Christians are familiar with the eight-day festival of Hanukkah because of its proximity to Christmas. It is commemorated on the twenty-fifth day of of the Jewish month of Kislev, and falls sometime in late November or December. It is the most recent Jewish festival, dating to the second century before Christ.
In 167 B.C., the Syro-Greek king Antiochus IV Epiphanes began to persecute the Jewish people. Antiochus IV Greek forbade circumcision, burned Jewish Scriptures, forced Jews to eat unclean swine’s flesh, and desecrated the Temple in Jerusalem by commanding an un-kosher sacrifice of swine on the Temple’s altar.
Horrified by the sacrilege of Antiochus IV, an elderly priest Mattathias and his son Judah Maccabaeus (“the Hammer”) formed a militia and waged a war of guerilla tactics against the occupying Greek forces: “Every man who has zeal for the Law and maintains the Covenant, let him follow me!” (1 Macc 2:27). The revolution succeeded and the Temple was rededicated in 164 B.C. on the twenty-fifth day of Kislev. The festival commemorating the event is called Hanukkah, meaning “Dedication.”
The feast of Hanukkah lasts eight days because Judas Maccabaeus wanted to imitate King Solomon. After all, Solomon had dedicated the original temple during the eight-day feast of Tabernacles. However, the feast of Tabernacles falls in the month of Tishri, not Kislev. Instead of waiting another ten months, Judas Maccabaeus decreed that a new eight-day festival be created in imitation of the festival of Tabernacles, beginning on the twenty-fifth day of the Jewish month of Kislev. The book of 2 Maccabees records that Judas Maccabaeus instituted the eight-day festival because, “Solomon also kept the eight days,” when the original Temple was dedicated (2 Macc 2:12).
The Jewish Talmud offers another tradition to explain the eight days of Hanukkah. When the Jews recaptured Jerusalem from the tyrannous Greeks, the Jewish priests did not have enough oil to keep the Temple’s menorah lit. There was only enough sacred oil to burn for one day and it would take at least a week to mix a fresh supply of holy oil. Yet, the one-day supply of holy oil lasted for eight days by a divine miracle. For this reason, faithful Jews light the menorah during the eight days of the festival.
Many Christians are unaware of these connections. As a result, they miss the important “Hanukkah message” of Christ in John’s Gospel. The presence of Christ at the Temple during Hanukkah is important because Hanukkah recalled how the Maccabees dedicated the Temple after the Greeks had defiled it. However, the presence of God’s glory did not manifest itself at the re-dedication of the Maccabees and fill the Temple as it did in the days of King Solomon. Since the time of the Maccabees, God had not inhabited the Temple as He had before the Jews’ Babylonian exile. The presence of Christ in the Temple at Hanukkah shows that God’s presence had once again entered to the Temple.
It was the feast of the Dedication [i.e. Hanukkah] at Jerusalem. It was winter and Jesus was walking in the Temple, in the portico of Solomon. So the Jews gathered round him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us openly” (Jn 10:22-24).It was during Hanukkah that Christ answered them by boldly proclaiming: “I and the Father are one” (Jn 10: 30). Christ entered into the Temple at the feast of Hanukkah and presented himself as the God of Israel. His enemies immediately understood His claim in light of Hanukkah’s significance. We know this because they took up stones to stone him and said “we stone you for blasphemy, because you, being a man, make yourself to be God” (Jn 10:31-33). Hence, the festival of Hanukkah serves as a sign of Christ’s fulfillment of the Temple and the entire Old Covenant. Jesus was not only a gifted rabbi from Nazareth—He is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. As it turns out, Jesus’ relationship with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and all the righteous of the Old Testament sheds light on why Catholic Christians honor and revere the saints.
[This blog post was adapted from The Crucified Rabbi: Judaism and the Origins of the Catholic Christianity.]
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