The Hanukkah Story

Miniature Reconstruction of Second Jewish Temple
Miniature Reconstruction of Second Jewish Temple.

David Rubinger / Getty Images

The Hanukkah story is based on a series of historical events that occurred around 167 BCE. At that time, several great empires were vying for power: the Romans, the Greeks, the Egyptians, and the lesser-known but equally vast Seleucid Empire. In 167 BCE, the then-ruler of the Seleucid Empire, Antiochus IV (sometimes called The Madman) was induced for political reasons to target the Jewish people. His actions against the Jews included the desecration of the holy Second Temple in Jerusalem and the placement of a political ally in the role of High Priest.

One incident turned the tables on Antiochus. A Jewish priest named Mattathias was told to make a sacrifice to a pagan god in the holy temple. Mattathias refused and murdered the official. A battle ensued, during which Mattathias and his five sons, also called the Hasmoneans, took both military and political leadership of the Jews. Mattathias' family became known as the "Maccabees," meaning "the hammer" (for the hammer blows they struck against the Seleucids).

Upon entering the re-captured temple in 164 BCE, the Jews immediately lit the sacred menorah (candelabra), but they had only enough oil to keep the flames lit for a single day. Miraculously, according to the Hanukkah story, the oil lasted for eight days, long enough for additional oil to be delivered to the Temple.

Timeline: The History of Hanukkah

  • 175 BCE: Antiochus IV ("The Madman") becomes ruler of the Seleucid Empire
  • 168 BCE: Antiochus IV gives orders to loot the Temple and outlaw Judaism
  • 167 BCE: After Antiochus has an altar to Zeus erected in the Temple, Mattathias refuses to further desecrate it. Mattathias kills a Greek and a collaborating Jew. With his five sons and a group of allies, they lead a rebellion against Antiochus. Judah becomes known as Judah Maccabee ("Judah the Hammer"), based on a Biblical reference and his military prowess.
  • 165 BCE: The Jewish revolt against the Seleucid monarchy is successful in recapturing the Temple.
  • 164 BCE: The Temple is rededicated with a new altar and new sacred vessels. A menorah is lit, but there is only enough holy oil available for one night. Miraculously, the menorah burns for eight nights—until a new supply of oil can be found. This miracle, described in Maccabees I, is the reason for and basis of the Hanukkah celebration, which is often called the "Festival of Lights."

The Seleucid Empire

The story of Hanukkah is set in the Seleucid Empire, an area that included Babylonia as well as much of Anatolia, Persia, the Levant, Mesopotamia, and the areas now known as Kuwait, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Turkmenistan. The empire was founded by Seleucus I Nicator after the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE. Alexander had acquired vast areas of land (the Macedonian Empire) but had left no clear instructions as to how the land should be divided.

Seleucus I, one of Alexander's generals, became the leader of a very large, diverse empire that incorporated the culture of many different civilizations and religions. While the Seleucid Empire's leadership and culture were largely Greek, its political status was influenced by the neighboring Roman and Egyptian empires. During his lifetime, Seleucus I expanded his territory considerably and founded a dynasty.

Seleucus' son, Antiochus I, became the leader of the Seleucid Empire in a period of unrest. The Egyptian leader Ptolemy II, as well as the Celts, were threats at the Seleucid border. Antiochus I, however, with the support of his son Antiochus II, was able to make peace with or defeat his enemies. This set the stage for Antiochus III (ruled 223-187 BCE, known as The Great) who expanded the empire even further to include Judea and Syria (which had been held by Egypt).

By the end of Antiochus III's reign, however, the Roman Empire had become a serious threat to the Seleucids. Antiochus III had a large war debt to pay off, and Antiochus IV became ruler as the Romans insisted on receiving payment.

Judaism Under Antiochus IV

In 175 BCE Antiochus IV ascended to the throne, calling himself Epiphanes (meaning God Manifest). Many others, however, referred to him as Antiochus Epimanes (“The Madman”). Antiochus IV knew the Romans well (having lived in Rome as a hostage for many years). Despite this, he was ambitious enough to attack Egypt, a Roman trading partner. At the same time, he decided it was in the interest of his own empire to become a fully Hellenistic society; this meant squelching other religious and cultural groups including the Jews.

Antiochus IV withdrew from Egypt under Roman threat, and quickly turned his interest to the Jews who were a powerful force within the Seleucid Empire. At that time the Jewish community was split between a more conservative faction and those who were more loyal to Hellenistic culture and politics.

The Destruction Of Jerusalem And The Temple
19th century depiction of the Siege of Jerusalem in 70 AD, during which the Second Temple was burned.  Print Collector / Getty Images

Desecration of the Temple

Antiochus IV replaced the conservative high priest at the Jewish Second Temple in Jerusalem with a political ally, Joshua. Joshua, who was a supporter of the Greeks, changed his name to Jason (a Greek name). Jason encouraged the practice of Greek cultural activities at the Temple, including many that flew in the face of conservative Jewish beliefs. Most significant was the construction of the gymnasium (where men exercised in the nude) within the Temple precinct. Jason also gave Antioch IV access to the Temple treasury to help fund military actions.

Things grew worse when Jason's messenger, Menelaus, carried Temple funds to Antiochus IV and convinced the emperor to help depose Jason in his favor. Menelaus had promised to increase the flow of money from the temple, but while he was away he appointed his brother, Lysimachus, to manage the post of high priest. Lysimachus robbed the Temple of several holy objects—an action that led to rioting among the Jewish people.

As a result of the chaos and strife around the temple, Antiochus IV outlawed Judaism, including the basic Jewish rites of circumcision, Torah study, and kashrut (keeping of kosher dietary laws). He then placed a statue of Zeus in the Temple, stripped it of its holy objects, and ordered the sacrifice of pigs (a non-kosher animal) in the Temple.

The Maccabean Revolt

Mattathias Appealing to the Jewish Refugees
'Mattathias Appealing to the Jewish Refugees' engraving by Gustave Doré (1832 - 1883).  Culture Club / Getty Images

While most Seleucid history is supported by a variety of records, the details of the Jewish rebellion are mainly known through the Books of the Maccabees. These are "deuterocanonical" books of the Bible, meaning that most of the content of the books is non-biblical. They were, however, written at or near the time of the events, and were treated as legitimate sources by well-regarded historians.

According to the Books of the Maccabees, a group of Greek officers came to Mattathias, a well-regarded Jewish leader. Mattathias was offered political benefits to desecrate the Temple further through pagan sacrifices; Mattathias not only refused but also killed another Jew who attempted to obey the command and one of the Greek delegates from the emperor. Mattathias then fled to the mountains with his friends and five sons (John, Simon, Eleazar, Jonathan, and Judah).

For the next three years, Mattathias and his sons led a series of battles against the Seleucid army. At first, the Jews were mainly fighting a guerilla war, but over time the sons of Mattathias began organizing a true army and making strategic alliances with Sparta and then, impressively, with Rome. Judah, one of the sons of Mattathias, was given the name Yehuda HaMakabi or "Maccabee," meaning "The Hammer," a biblical reference to his ability to destroy their enemies.

In 164 BCE, the Maccabees and their followers retook the Temple of Jerusalem. This marked the point at which the Jewish state began rebuilding its power. The Maccabees finally enlarged the state to include all of Israel.

The Hanukkah Miracle

When the Maccabees and their followers retook the Temple, they quickly reinstituted Jewish law, though some Jews maintained their allegiance to Greek traditions. The new Jewish state reimposed Jewish laws and purified the Temple.

A new altar was built, and new sacred vessels were crafted. One of the most important ways to rededicate the Temple was to light the menorah, or seven-branched candelabra, which was to remain lit all night, every night. Ordinary oil couldn't be used for this purpose; according to the Talmud, only purified, blessed, and properly sealed oil could be used. Only one flask of such oil, however, remained in the Temple.

The Jews lit the menorah, knowing that there was only enough oil for the lamp to stay lit for a single night. According to 1 Maccabees, however, the oil miraculously burned for eight full nights until a new supply of holy oil could be delivered. This miracle led to the creation of the eight-day Hanukkah "festival of lights."

Alternative Version of Hanukkah Story

Contemporary knowledge of the Maccabees is based on Jewish sources—and, of course, victors write history in their own way. Modern scholars have a slightly different perspective on the story, based not on the book First Maccabbees but instead on the book Second Maccabbees.

Rather than battling the Seleucid Empire, they suggest, the Maccabees and their followers were battling against the Hellenized Jews. From this perspective, Antiochus IV was actually intervening in a Jewish civil war on the side of Hellenists (who had always been a majority group and political force in the Seleucid Empire. While this perspective provides a very different historical slant, it has no impact on the way in which Jews around the world celebrate the Hanukkah holiday.

Sources

  • Mark, Joshua J. “Seleucid Empire.” Ancient History Encyclopedia, Ancient History Encyclopedia, 28 Nov. 2019, https://www.ancient.eu/Seleucid_Empire/.
  • Ross, Lesli Koppelman. “What You Need to Know About the Hanukkah Story.” My Jewish Learning, https://www.myjewishlearning.com/article/the-maccabean-revolt/.
  • US Conference of Catholic Bishops. Scripture, http://www.usccb.org/bible/1maccabees/0.