Matthew, having provided Jesus stories for the Sabbaths between Sukkoth and the final major Jewish festival of the liturgical year, is now ready to relate Jesus to this last celebration. So we turn in our analysis of this gospel to the midwinter festival called Dedication. The Jewish word for dedication is “Hanukkah,” so this celebration is also called by this name.
Dedication was not a Torah festival; it entered the liturgical life of the synagogue early in the second century BCE. It emerged out of Jewish history that we refer to today as the Maccabean period. Before we will be able to see just how Matthew related Jesus to this holiday, we need to look at a number of things, including the origin of this Jewish celebration and the various forms it has taken in synagogue practice.
No liturgical observance is ever static; it rather attracts to itself customs and practices that were not present in the moment of origin. Look at Christmas, for example. Christmas has not only been expanded to include such symbols as Santa Claus, reindeer, and the “night wind” that says to little lambs, “Do you see what I see,” but it has also added details that have been repeated so often that we actually think they were written into the original text itself. If one reads the gospel stories of Jesus’ birth carefully, however, we will discover that there are no camels in Matthew’s story of the wise men, no donkey on which Mary rode from Nazareth to Bethlehem and no stable in Luke’s story of Jesus’ birth.
So in this column, we will examine the origin of Hanukkah and next week we will look at the developing traditions that gathered around and expanded this festival. Then we will be ready to look at Matthew’s Hanukkah story itself. I hope you will be surprised, even amazed at what we find.
We begin with what may be the oldest of all human rituals. Among almost every ancient people, there was some type of religious observance that was associated with that moment in the dead of winter when the sun ceased its retreat into darkness, causing the days to stop growing shorter and to begin once more to lengthen. Our ancient forbears did not understand, as we do, the motions of the “heavenly bodies.” They were only aware that annually the sun ceased its journey into darkness and began to return to light once more. In almost all primitive human societies, this was an occasion for worship. This holiday was not, however, part of Jewish practice because the Jews regarded the worship of the sun as a remnant of paganism. So this regular midwinter phenomenon was left as something of a vacuum in Jewish life until an event in Jewish history could give this natural celebration a distinctly Jewish context. That event occurred in the second century before the Common Era. This is the story.
Following the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BCE, the Macedonian Empire was divided up among his generals. At that time, the land of the Jews was on the border between Egypt with its Pharaoh, and Syria, which at that time was ruled by the Seleucid dynasty. About the year 175 BCE, the reign of one of these Seleucids, named Antiochus IV began. He adopted the title “Epiphanes” as part of his name, a title which reflected a not altogether humble attitude, since Epiphanes meant “The Revelation of God.” As a tactic of his rule, Antiochus Epiphanes IV cultivated in Judah the support of those who might be called the secular or “Hellenized” Jews and with their encouragement he began to suppress the traditional, religious life of the Jewish people. Gentile worship practices were authorized. A Gentile gymnasium was built in Jerusalem. The practice of circumcision was all but abandoned and the sacred covenant of the Jews was at first neglected and then ignored.
All of these acts were offensive to traditional Jewish people, who saw their religious way of life as God-given and therefore as sacred. The observance of these cultic Jewish practices, they also believed, had kept the Jews separate from other people and were, therefore, the key to their national survival. Now these practices were beginning to be regarded as “old fashioned,” as no longer chic. The faithful Jews, however, believed that Jewish acquiescence in ignoring these practices was nothing less than a prelude to their disappearance by assimilation.
Antiochus, who was encouraged by the wide acceptance of these secularizing reforms even among the Jews, next moved to desecrate the sacred Temple itself. This action, he believed, would finally break the back of the rebellion that still seethed in the hearts of the traditional members of this vassal state. He removed the symbols of Judaism from the walls of the Temple. Then, in his most dastardly and egregious act, Antiochus Epiphanes installed an offensive pagan symbol in the “Holy of Holies,” thought of by the Jews as the site of God’s throne and earthly dwelling place. The “Holy of Holies” was located in the literal inner sanctum of the Temple. Some accounts suggest that what Antiochus actually did was to place the head of a swine, an “unclean” animal to the Jews, into that most sacred place in the Temple. The faithful Jews called this act “the abomination of desolation.” Its offensive presence was a daily reminder of their powerlessness, their status as a conquered nation and as a subservient people.
For a brief time Antiochus was diverted by an Egyptian rebellion led by Ptolemy, whom he routed, defeating Egypt and securing his borders on all sides. It was out of this Egyptian conflict that the phrase drawing “a line in the sand” emerged. Then he turned his attention back once again to the Jews, intending to deliver the final coup de grace to this troublesome people. For the Jewish leaders this seemed like the final and ultimate confrontation.
There was no way the Jews could match Antiochus in power so they did what all oppressed people do when confronted with an overwhelming enemy, they turned to guerilla tactics in their struggle to survive. The Jews called these guerillas “freedom fighters.” The Syrians called them “terrorists.”
The heir of a priestly family, whose name was Mattathias, became the self-appointed leader of this guerilla movement. He had five sons and together they organized underground tactics of civil disobedience. The movement broke into public notice, however, when Mattathias watched a Jew, in obedience to the command of Antiochus, offer a pagan sacrifice on a Jewish altar. Infuriated he killed one of the king’s officers, tore down the desecrated altar and issued a public call to all Jews who are “zealous for the law” and who support “the Covenant” to join him in this resistance movement. (I Macc. 2:27). Hundreds of new recruits rushed to Mattathias’ side. In the classical style of guerilla warfare they lived in the protection of the mountains, where they organized their movement and began to conduct clandestine hit and run attacks.
When Mattathias died, the leadership of this movement fell to his son, Judas, who appears to have been a brilliant military strategist. So successful was Judas in keeping Antiochus at bay that he achieved the nickname “the Hammer.” The Aramaic word for “hammer” is “maccabeus,” so he was called Judas, the Hammer; Judas Maccabeus. In time this nickname was used to designate this period of Jewish history. It was called “the age of the Maccabees.”
In a series of well-organized, stunning surprise victories on terrain that favored a smaller, mobile guerilla force against a massive army, Judas finally forced the Syrians to withdraw from Jerusalem. Then his ragtag guerilla army marched into Jerusalem in triumph. This occurred in the midwinter month of Kislev. The Maccabees then began to reclaim their holy places systematically. The purpose of the Maccabees, it was stated, was to restore “the light of true worship to the Temple.”
They removed the “abomination of desolation” from the Holy of Holies. They restored Jewish symbols to the walls and Jewish vessels to the holy places. In the words of the text from Maccabees, “The Reproach of the Gentiles” was removed. (I Macc. 4:1-8). Then they celebrated their great victory for eight straight days. They lit the candles in their refurbished Temple. The eight-pronged candelabra, called “the Menorah,” was said to have burned the entire eight-day period without ever consuming its supply of oil. They sang, they danced, they worshipped, celebrating the fact that the “light of God” had been restored to the Temple. When the celebration was over, Judas Maccabeus issued a proclamation enjoining the people to observe this “Festival of Light” annually from that moment forward till the end of time. This was how the day the Jews called “Dedication” came into being. In the briefest of descriptions, that is the story of Hanukkah’s birth.
Once this day was established in the Jewish calendar and became part of Jewish expectations, these leaders began to bring other narratives from their history into the meaning of this day. As a consequence, the traditions surrounding this holiday were broadened until it was thought to be related to many other important moments from their Jewish past. Indeed they tended to move into their observance of Hanukkah every episode they could find in which a story was told that identified God with light and that related light to the Temple. This allowed Hanukkah to be rooted far more deeply in Jewish history than just in the Maccabean period.
We shall look at how these expanding traditions were added to Dedication when the series continues. For now, all we need to do is to embrace the primary symbol of this Holy Day, namely to celebrate how the light of God was restored to the Temple. Only then will we be prepared both to see and to understand the Jesus story that Matthew will tell to incorporate this Jewish holy day into his gospel narrative. That is what he has always done. The original readers of Matthew’s gospel, the Jews for whom this book was written, would have understood these symbols. Later Gentile readers of this gospel, however, would not and they were the ones who would begin to literalize the stories in the gospels.
Biblical fundamentalism always originates in Gentile ignorance of Jewish practice. Stay tuned. Perhaps someday we will escape the Gentile captivity of the Christian gospels which, after 2000 years, still plagues us.