Historicity of the Hanukkah Miracle
By Kelly McDonald, Jr.
When we think about the Hanukah celebration, we tend to think about God’s miraculous work for the Jewish people. It is a historical account filled with amazing plot lines that we can learn many lessons from today. However, there is one event in the Hanukkah account that may or may not have happened. It involves the relighting of the menorah.
We will begin with a brief overview of the historical details leading up to the Hanukkah story. In 175 BC, there was a Greek king named Antiochus IV who ruled over the Greek Seleucid Kingdom. This kingdom spanned from modern-day Syria to near India. It went as far south as the border of Egypt. Antiochus was not content with this massive territory; he sought to conquer Egypt as well.
He tried twice and failed both times. The second failure occurred in 168. On this expedition, the Romans opposed his expansion. Antiochus had made extensive preparations for this expedition and was determined to conquer something. Since he was deterred from Egypt, he turned his fury towards the Jewish people and especially the city of Jerusalem.
Initially, Antiochus and his forces approached Jerusalem under a banner of peace. When the army entered the city, they began to slaughter innocent people. As part of his desecration, he invaded the Temple precincts. He erected a pagan altar on top of God’s altar of sacrifice. They made sacrifices to these gods with unclean animals on the 25th day of every month. He declared himself to be god.
The Jewish people did not remain silent. Antiochus sent his generals into the country side to compel Jewish people to sacrifice to the Greek gods and eat unclean animal meat. Among the first men to resist this apostasy was Mattathias. He refused to compromise his beliefs and fought back. He led a group that would later become called the Maccabees.
The Jewish people fought valiantly despite serious disadvantages. They were outnumbered, had inferior equipment and had a lack of military training compared to their Greek counterparts. Despite these apparent deficits, the Jewish people won victory after victory. It was truly miraculous how God came through for His people.
After three years of intense fighting, the Jewish people regained control of the Temple area. Once this happened, they immediately sought to purify it from Antiochus’ defilement. They cleansed it of impurities and prepared it to be used for God’s purposes once again. This included the destruction of the old altar of sacrifice; a new one was erected using stones (according to Ex. 20:24-25). They rededicated the Temple over eight days (according to the Biblical custom – 2 Chron. 29:17).
From that time to now, the Jewish people have celebrated Chanukkah (which is a Hebrew word meaning rededication) for eight days every year.
As part of rededicating the Temple, they had to relight the menorah. According to Jewish legend (found in the Talmud), they only found one container of pure oil that had not been defiled. The account goes on to say that they lit the menorah on faith and this one container of oil lasted eight days (the entire time of the rededication). This event is called the Hanukkah miracle.
When we read about Hanukkah and the revolt against the Greeks, the legend of the menorah being rekindled is usually given a prominent place. Some say that the miracle of the oil did not happen. Modern people do not place as much emphasis on the military victories – which were miracles in and of themselves. In this article, we will review the historicity of the Hanukkah miracle.
The term historicity refers to the historical legitimacy of an event. In other words, did it really happen? Another question we hope to answer: why are the military victories not as emphasized by people today when we discuss Hanukkah?
Let’s start by examining the primary sources nearest these events. A primary source is a person, artifact, or some historical record that is contemporary to the time period being examined.
The first book of Maccabees was written nearest the time of the Hanukah story. This book describes the invasion of the Greeks, the courageous resistance of the Jewish people, and their victory. In it, the re-lighting of the menorah is told.
“They burned incense on the altar and lighted lamps on the lampstand, and these gave light in the Temple” (1 Maccabees 4:50). The re-lighting of the Menorah is recounted as a significant event in the rededication of the Temple. This account also mentions how the menorah and altar of incense brought light to the Temple. Thus, the light emanating from the menorah (and the altar of incense) is a central theme of the rededication. However, there is no mention that there was a lack of oil for the menorah or that it burned eight days on a one-day supply.
Another historical work completed after the Hanukkah story is called the second book of Maccabees. The name for this work can be a little deceiving. It was a summary of a five volume series written by Jason of Cyrene (2 Maccabees 2:19-25). The author of second Maccabees describes the “mass of material” available in Jason’s work. These volumes recounted the story of Judas Maccabeus and the rededication of the Temple. Second Maccabees mentions the relighting of the menorah (2 Macc. 10:3). It does not mention a Hanukkah miracle. The five volumes by Jason might have contained more details about this event. Unfortunately, these volumes have been lost.
The next credible source describing these events comes from Josephus, a first century AD source. His account follows first Maccabees pretty closely. He mentions no miracles, but he does mention the menorah being rekindled. The other furniture pieces are also mentioned.
“…they lighted the lamps that were on the candlestick, and offered incense upon the altar of incense, and laid the loaves upon the table of showbread, and offered burnt offerings upon the new altar of burnt-offering…Nay, they were so very glad at the revival of their customs, when, after a long intermission, they unexpectedly had regained the freedom of their worship, that they made it a law for their posterity, that they should keep a festival on account of the restoration of their temple worship for eight days. And from that time to this we celebrate this festival and call it “Lights”. I suppose the reason was, because this liberty beyond all Hopes appeared to us; and that thence was the name given to that festival” (Antiquities, Book 12, Chapter 7).
This is a fascinating statement. Did Josephus know more than what he disclosed? He called Hanukkah ‘lights’ but gives no reason as to why it should be called that. The Greek word translated as lights in this passage literally means illumination – as emanating from a light source. His statement indicates that he may not have been completely convinced how the name “Festival of Lights” was conceived. Although, I Maccabees makes it clear the Temple was illuminated from the lights lit within.
Josephus, 1 Maccabees and 2 Maccabees are the primary sources closest to the Hanukkah story. The menorah being relit was obviously an important part of reclaiming the Temple. It is recalled by all of them. If some kind of miracle occurred regarding the menorah (or any other Temple furniture piece), maybe these authors did not know about it or chose to leave it out. The fact that they had religious freedom from the Greeks seems to be of the upmost importance. The Jewish people gained control of the Temple and could worship God.
Another very important point to consider in this discussion is the following: how many people would have actually been around to view any such miracle inside the temple? (if it happened) Only priests could enter the Temple and re-light the menorah. The writer of 1 Maccabees may not have had access to testimonies about those who witnessed it (if it actually happened). As aforementioned, we do not have the five volumes written by Jason.
The main sources that discuss any miracle of oil come later. The Babylonian Talmud was written between 200 and 500 AD. In it, we read about the miracle. This was hundreds of years after the event happened.
“…When the Greeks entered the sanctuary they defiled all the oils that were in the Sanctuary by touching them. And when the Hasmonean monarchy overcame them and emerged victorious over them, they searched and found only one cruse of oil that was placed with the seal of the High Priest, undisturbed by the Greeks. And there was sufficient oil there to light the candelabrum for only one day. A miracle occurred and they lit the candelabrum from it eight days. The next year the sages instituted those days and made them holidays with recitation of hallel and special thanksgiving in prayer and blessing” (Shabbat 21b).
How reliable is a document that recorded an event hundreds of years after it happened? First of all, we do not know all the documents that the writers of the Talmud used to compile their books. Wars, natural disasters, and time caused documents to be lost (such as Jason’s five volumes).
Secondly, consider another example. The Torah was given to Moses around 1500 BC, but the earliest manuscripts we have date to hundreds of years later. This is true for other books of the Old Testament, such as Kings and Chronicles. Both of these books have historically accurate/reliable details in them.
Third, by the time the Talmud was written, the practice of lighting a menorah to honor Hanukkah was deeply entrenched in its celebration. It was so widely practiced that it was recorded as a necessary tradition. For instance, if you only had enough money for Shabbat wine or oil during Hanukkah, you would buy the oil (Shabbat 23b, Raba). Having a Hanukkah lamp ignited was of utmost importance. It became a requirement among Jewish people. A practice of this nature does not develop overnight. It takes time for a custom to become so entrenched that it is viewed as a requirement.
The Talmud also contains a lot of commentary on the schools of Hillel and Shammai, which we know existed in the last century BC/first century AD. Between the two schools, there was a difference of practice as it relates to Hanukkah. The school of Shammai lit eight candles on the first day of Hanukkah and then decreased the amount of candles by one each day. The school of Hillel started with one candle and increased the amount of candles each day by one (Shabbat, 21b).
Archeology bears witness to these details. In 2019, The Times of Israel reported that the depiction of a nine-branch lampstand was found an ancient oil lamp in Israel. It dates to the first century AD, which is contemporary to the two schools discussed in the Talmud (to read the article about this finding, click HERE).
In other words, there are details in the Talmud that give it a degree of historical accuracy.
One last source we will consider is a document called The Scroll of Antiochus. It is a possible primary source, but it has problems. It records military victory, but also the miracle of the oil. It has some historical inaccuracies, but other correct details.
The main problem with this scroll is that scholars debate the time period in which it was written. The dates range from the first century through the eleventh century AD. This is a pretty large discrepancy. The majority of scholars settle for a fifth century to seventh century dating because it is mentioned in other writings (the Gedolos in 600 AD; Saadia Gaon in the 800s AD). Nissim b Jacob (around 1000 AD) attributed the scroll on the same level as Scriptural canon. We know that in the 1200s, the scroll was read every Hanukkah in Italy.
We have given a fair overview of sources that recount the Hanukkah story and the possibility of a menorah miracle or a lack thereof. Perhaps it is important to return to our original question: Why was the miracle of the oil found in the Talmud and emphasized by later writers, but not by those nearest it?
The earliest sources mention the great military victories with a minor focus on the Temple furniture. Perhaps the long-term fruit of the Maccabee revolt will guide us towards resolving some of the issues between sources closer to the event and those that are farther away.
The Temple was rededicated around 165 BC. In 142 BC, the Jewish people finally won their political independence from the Greeks. Simon was proclaimed the leader and high priest of the Jewish people forever until a faithful prophet should arise. Just three years later, the Roman Senate recognized their dynasty. So many good things seemed to be happening.
Regrettably, these good times did not last.
Simon was murdered in 135. John Hyrcanus then became the ruler until 104. He wanted to make his wife queen after his death and his oldest son, Aristobulus, the high priest. Aristobulus did not like this plan. Once his father died, he cast his mother and other brothers in prison. His mother starved to death, and he put one of his brothers, Antigonus, to death. He died about one year after becoming king.
From 103 to 76, Alexander Jannaeus, a different son of John Hyrcanus, ruled. After his death, his wife Alexandra became queen for a short time. Not long afterwards, a civil war raged across Judea. The Roman general Pompey intervened in the conflict and put the country of Judea under Roman supervision. The Jewish lost some political freedoms and were forced to pay tribute.
From 63-40 BC, Hyrcanus II supervised the government on behalf of the Romans; he was the high priest. The Parthians briefly conquered Judea around 40. They proclaimed Antigonus as king and high priest over Judea. For the next three years, there was contention as Herod, the pro-Roman antagonist, fought for control of the throne against Antigonus. Herod eventually gained control of the country in 37 BC. He became the founder of the Herodian dynasty. The Romans allowed Antigonus to be put to death; he was the first king the Romans put to death (they usually kept kings captive). The Hasmonean dynasty ended.
In 66 AD, the Jewish people revolted against the Romans. About Four years later, they were defeated. The city of Jerusalem and the Temple were destroyed. Hundreds of thousands of people either died or were sold as slaves. About 60 years later, the Bar Kokhba revolt began. Jerusalem was devastated again; the Jewish people were banned from the city and surrounding country side. Over 585,000 Jewish people died from fighting. They would not be allowed to return to the city for almost 300 years.
This is a brief overview of the events that occurred immediately after the Maccabean revolt. Thus, the initial revolt was successful and involved great military exploits. However, the long-term actions of the Hasmonean dynasty were marred with failure. There was betrayal, murder and civil war. The country lost its sovereignty and became subject to another empire – Rome. The city was destroyed twice and the Jewish people banned from even approaching it. These events sound like a combination of accounts from the Biblical books of Judges with 1 and 2 Kings.
Now that we have reviewed these details, we can have a better perspective of Hanukkah.
Here are some final things to remember when you consider the historicity of the Hanukkah miracle. The people who lived immediately after the Jewish victory focused on battles. Those who lived a few hundred years later saw the long-term fruit of that Maccabeean revolt, which was contrary to the very purpose of it (freedom to worship God). They did not value the military victories as much.
If you were writing, what events might you emphasize?
The fact that the menorah was rekindled (along with the altar of incense and the altar of sacrifice) is recounted by primary sources. It is a significant part of the Temple regaining its light. Josephus even calls it the Feast of Lights. The Bible calls it the Dedication in John 10:22 (literally, “in newness” or “in refreshing”). This is a reference to the rededication of the Temple.
A few hundred years after these events, the lighting of a menorah is the central focus of the Hanukkah celebration. Considering all the details gives the miracle story a little bit more merit – but its still not clear what happened.
The concept that there was an insufficient supply of Levitically clean oil is not absurd. If there was a shortage of oil,then it would have taken a miracle to keep the menorah burning for the dedication process. The holy oil for the Temple required a special process and time to refine it.
We know the menorah was relit; we know the Temple was cleansed and rededicated. Our minds are still left to wonder the specific details and conditions surrounding the menorah when it was rekindled.
At the very least, let us consider their struggle to rededicate the Temple as we rededicate our own. What miracles have happened in your life as you sought to dedicate yourself to God?
Babylonian Talmud. Accessed through https://www.sefaria.org.
Flavius Josephus. The Complete Works of Flavius Josephus. Translated by William Whiston. 1737. Antiquities of the Jews. Book 12, Chapter 7. p 302.
First and Second Book of Maccabees (Revised Standard Version). 1946, 1952, and 1971 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.
Jewish Encyclopedia 1905: Antigonus Mattathias, Aristobulus I, Aristobulus II, Scroll of Antiochus, Hasmoneans, Hyrcanus, John.
Moore, George Foot. Judaism in the First Centuries of the Chris-tian Era the Age of the Tannaim. Vol. 2 Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1932. pp 49-51.
Times of Israel. “2,000-year-old image of 9-stem menorah found in rare Jewish site in Beersheba”. April 4, 2019. Accessed online: https://www.timesofisrael.com/2000-year-old-image-of-9-stem-menorah-found-in-rare-jewish-site-in-beersheba/