The holiday of Chanukah almost disappeared from the Jewish calendar.
The early Christian community had a role in helping save it.
Therein lays a complex and ironic tale, but one well worth recounting. The church’s role in the preservation of ancient Jewish writings excluded from the Hebrew Bible is remarkable and underappreciated. I have only recently come to a fuller awareness of this historical phenomenon as publisher of a new three volume anthology of Second Temple literature, “Outside the Bible: Ancient Jewish Writings Related to Scripture.” (The Jewish Publication Society will publish the book next month.)
How did it come to pass that Chanukah almost disappeared? As a “new” holiday, not commanded in the Torah, Chanukah’s status was shaky from the start. Indeed, I and II Maccabees, the earliest sources that mention the festival, portray the first Chanukah, in 164 B.C.E., as nothing other than a belated celebration of the all-important eight-day holiday of Sukkot. The name Chanukah nowhere appears; instead, the festival is called “Sukkot in Kislev.”
When the text says that “Judah, his brother and the entire community of Israel decreed that the days of rededication of the altar should be celebrated with a festival of joy and gladness at this time every year…” (I Mac. 4:59) it is likely hinting that subsequent Hasmonean rulers desired to establish a new festival to perpetuate the memory of their exploits. That this did not sit well with the Pharisees and their rabbinic heirs is quite evident. Chanukah as a special name for the holiday only appears in the first-century C.E. Megillat Ta’anit, which already was two hundred years after the Maccabean revolt. Josephus refers to a “Festival of Lights” but is unsure about the name’s origin. The well-known miracle story of the little jar of oil that lasted for eight days still is unknown to him; that story does not make its first appearance in the sources until the Talmud, more than 500 years after the revolt.
The Talmud declines to give Chanukah its own tractate, like the other holidays. Discussion of the festival is embedded in Tractate Shabbat, with the telling opening “Why Chanukah?” That is where the miracle story emerges, perhaps to justify the popular practice of the holiday and to draw attention away from the Hasmoneans’ militaristic exploits. Elsewhere in the Talmud, a story records how two prominent sages, Rabbi Eliezer ben Hyrcanus and Rabbi Joshua ben Hannaniah, went out of their way not to comply with a fast declared during Chanukah, and castigated the community that wanted to do so. “A thorough survey of the evidence,” Professor Moshe Benovitz writes, “suggests that despite the origin of the festival in Israel…Chanukah was not widely observed in rabbinic circles in the land of its origin from the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE until the third century.”
To add insult to injury, the sages excluded the Books of the Maccabees from their biblical canon, thereby proscribing the key historical source relating to the holiday. To this day, many Jews are surprised to learn that the Maccabees are mentioned nowhere in the Hebrew Bible.
And this is where the role of the Jewish diaspora, and the early Christian community that arose in it, enters the tale.
For the Jews in post-destruction Judea, it is understandable that a festival proclaimed by the very rulers who dragged the country into chaos would be suspect. It is likewise understandable that whatever popular sentiment clung to the celebration was extinguished after the catastrophe of 70 C.E. As Dr. Benovitz adds, “Is it conceivable that in the shadow of the destruction Jews would continue to joyously mark a period of independence that ended 107 years earlier, when all hope for its renewal has been shattered?”
But popular backing for the holiday remained largely intact in the great Jewish communities of Egypt and Babylonia. When the Jews of Alexandria translated the Hebrew Bible into Greek, they retained the Books of Maccabees. The earliest Christians adopted this Hellenistic biblical canon. The original Hebrew version of I Maccabees and the original Jewish II Maccabees – written in Greek – disappeared from history, but the church preserved them in its own copies of the Septuagint – the Greek Old Testament. Clement of Alexandria commented on them in the second century, and Origen did the same in the third; we have surviving texts from the fifth-century Alexandrinus Septuagint and the eighth-century Venetus Septuagint.
In another ironic twist, the early church saved another text that the medieval Jewish community in Europe later used to bolster its celebration of Chanukah. The Book of Judith, written in the Maccabean period, also was excluded from the Hebrew Bible. Jerome translated the popular text from the Greek (or possibly Aramaic) into Latin. In the tenth or eleventh century, Jews availed themselves of the Latin Vulgate to render the story back into Hebrew. At the same time, they rather audaciously reinterpreted the tale, set during the Assyrian conquest, into a Maccabean exploit. Judith became a central figure in prayers and stories about Chanukah, and even became a common figure adorning European Chanukah menorahs.
In the last 50 years, scores of remarkable Second Temple-era Jewish texts have come to light with the discoveries of the Dead Sea Scrolls and the Cairo Genizah. The manuscripts found in remote monasteries around the world, like Santa Katarina in the Sinai desert, are less well-known.
Were it not for the church, these scriptures and commentaries would have been lost to history. Instead, the sacred library of ancient Israel is once again coming to light. Maybe that too is part of the miracle of Chanukah.