Jesus and Hanukkah

The passing of Thanksgiving moves us into the Christmas season, with Advent being the four Sundays preceding Christmas Day. This Jewish festival of Hanukkah typically occurs during this time as well, with December 2-10 the 2018 dates for the holiday. Many people wonder about the origin of this holiday and how (if at all) it relates to the Christian faith. Therefore, I thought it wise to give some background on the festival and point out some things I find interesting about it as a follower of Jesus.

The Origins of Hanukkah

Most of the festivals of the people of Israel (the Jews) were established as the people left Egypt and entered the promised land, as we see Leviticus 23 mention Passover, the Feast of the Firstfruits, the Feast of Weeks, the Feast of Trumpets, and the Feast of Booths. There are two notable Jewish holidays that were established later: Purim and Hanukkah. The origins of the festival of Purim are found in the Old Testament book of Esther; this holiday remembers how God saved His people while they were living in exile when their existence was threatened by the plot of Haman through the actions of Esther (see Esther 9:20-32).

The festival of Hanukkah, however, is not found in the Old Testament. The origins of this holiday are described in 1 and 2 Maccabees, books included in Catholic Bibles but not deemed to be authoritative by Protestants (the books in this category are often known as the Apocrypha or Deuterocanonical books); these books were written in Greek and thus are not part of the Hebrew Bible (the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings). 1 and 2 Maccabees record essentially the same events (thus they are different from 1 and 2 Samuel and 1 and 2 Kings, as those books narrative a sequence of events) that occured around 160 BC when the Jewish people were living under the rule of what was known as the Seleucid Empire. When Antiochus IV was king, his hatred of the Jewish people was so strong that he prohibited the Jewish people from practicing their religion. He also did two things that were extremely offensive in the eyes of the Jewish people: he sacrificed a pig (which the Jews saw as an unclean animal) on the altar in the Jewish temple in Jerusalem and he erected an image of the god Zeus in the temple. He thus descreated the place that the Jewish people deemed most holy.

These actions promoted a revolt led by a group of brothers known as the Maccabees. They defeated Antiochus and his forces and regained control of the Jewish temple, with the purification and the re-dedication of the temple lasting eight days (see 1 Maccabees 4:36-59 and 2 Maccabees 10:1-8). Later traditions (found in the Megillat Antiochus, often dated between the 2nd and 5th centuries, as well as the Talmud) noted that the Maccabees could only find enough pure oil to light the Menorah for one day, but it lasted eight days (which allowed them to find more oil). The Jews remembered this occasion with an eight day festival known as Hanukkah, which the Jewish historian called the Festival of Lights and was also known as the Feast of Dedication.

Jesus’s Words on the Occasion of Hanukkah

The only reference to Hanukkah in our Bibles is actually found in the New Testament. We read about the Feast of Dedication in John 10:22-23, as it is the occasion for a confrontation between the Jewish leaders and Jesus. Therefore, it seems that Jesus celebrated this festival. This is not surprising, as Jesus was a faithful Jew of the time (and thus would celebrate the Jewish holidays).

In this encounter, the Jewish leaders ask Jesus to tell them if he is the Messiah (10:24), Jesus points them to his works that show who he is but then notes that they fail to believe because they are not of his sheep (10:25-29). Jesus makes a promise that he will give all his sheep eternal life and none will fall away, and then makes the bold claim that he is one with the Father (see 10:30).

Jesus thus makes a bold claim on a day in which the people of Israel celebrated their holy place being reclaimed and made holy; he is actually accused of blasphemy on that day in which the blasphemy of a foreign king was overcome. Jesus’s works, however, show us that he is not committing blasphemy; he is the image of the true God who has come to save his people. Just as there were great miracles that occurred to establish Hanukkah, so Jesus’s s miracles established something greater - that God Himself had come!

Another Relevant Story of Jesus and the Temple

The Gospel of John also points out an interesting story related to the temple in John 2:18-22. Jesus goes to the temple and ejects those who were buying and selling in the temple. When asked what sign he would do to show his authority to do this, Jesus’s answer was, “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up”  (2:19). John notes that at the time, the people did not know that he was talking about the temple of his body, but his disciples remembered this later on (2:20-22). This incident reminds us that the temple points us to Jesus, who is the true temple. Jesus is the temple and Jesus is the one who cleanses God’s people so they can worship Him.

Hanukkah and Christmas

Therefore, while Jesus and the Jews of his time would remember the work of the Maccabees at Hanukkah, we can look to what Jesus has done for us, purifying us to be worshippers of God by giving us the true temple. Christians are under no obligation to celebrate Hanukkah, but they are free to do so. If a Christian celebrates Hanukkah, it can be used as a teaching opportunity about Jesus being the true temple and the one who brings ultimate cleansing -- not just to a place, but to a people, and not through violence, but through his death and resurrection.

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