Hanukkah began last night at sundown. The 8 day “Festival of Lights” commemorates the
re-dedication of the Temple after the revolt led by the Maccabees against the Seleucid (Syrian-Greek) Empire of Antiochus IV. The Maccabees (a name taken from one of the leading family members Judas Maccabeus, or Judas “The Hammer”) fought and won a surprise victory, retaking Jerusalem and the surrounding territory to create a small, independent Jewish nation, which lasted about a century before the Roman annexation.
The account from 1 Maccabees 4 gives no mention of the miraculous Menorah (nor does Josephus’ account, The Anitiquities of the Jews, 12.7.7), which burned for the eight days with only enough oil for one:
Then Judas and his brothers said, ‘See, our enemies are crushed; let us go up to cleanse the sanctuary and dedicate it.’ So all the army assembled and went up to Mount Zion. There they saw the sanctuary desolate, the altar profaned, and the gates burned. In the courts they saw bushes sprung up as in a thicket, or as on one of the mountains. They saw also the chambers of the priests in ruins. Then they tore their clothes and mourned with great lamentation; they sprinkled themselves with ashes and fell face down on the ground. And when the signal was given with the trumpets, they cried out to Heaven.
Then Judas detailed men to fight against those in the citadel until he had cleansed the sanctuary. He chose blameless priests devoted to the law, and they cleansed the sanctuary and removed the defiled stones to an unclean place. They deliberated what to do about the altar of burnt-offering, which had been profaned. And they thought it best to tear it down, so that it would not be a lasting shame to them that the Gentiles had defiled it. So they tore down the altar, and stored the stones in a convenient place on the temple hill until a prophet should come to tell what to do with them. Then they took unhewn stones, as the law directs, and built a new altar like the former one. They also rebuilt the sanctuary and the interior of the temple, and consecrated the courts. They made new holy vessels, and brought the lampstand, the altar of incense, and the table into the temple. Then they offered incense on the altar and lit the lamps on the lampstand, and these gave light in the temple. They placed the bread on the table and hung up the curtains. Thus they finished all the work they had undertaken.
Early in the morning on the twenty-fifth day of the ninth month, which is the month of Chislev, in the one hundred and forty-eighth year, they rose and offered sacrifice, as the law directs, on the new altar of burnt-offering that they had built. At the very season and on the very day that the Gentiles had profaned it, it was dedicated with songs and harps and lutes and cymbals. All the people fell on their faces and worshipped and blessed Heaven, who had prospered them. So they celebrated the dedication of the altar for eight days, and joyfully offered burnt-offerings; they offered a sacrifice of well-being and a thanksgiving-offering. They decorated the front of the temple with golden crowns and small shields; they restored the gates and the chambers for the priests, and fitted them with doors. There was very great joy among the people, and the disgrace brought by the Gentiles was removed.
Then Judas and his brothers and all the assembly of Israel determined that every year at that season the days of dedication of the altar should be observed with joy and gladness for eight days, beginning with the twenty-fifth day of the month of Chislev.
Whether we buy into the legend or not, Hanukkah is an important marker in the history of the Jewish people- a pivotal moment also for Christians, as the political, social and religious atmosphere of Jesus’ time is informed significantly by the events of the Hasmonean kingdom. There is value for Christians to know and recognize these things, but we tend to remove ourselves from the Jewish context in which Jesus came.