Christian Hanukkah Tradition

Jews across the world are about to celebrate Hanukkah, the Jewish festival of lights. Few know that Christians also claim the story as part of their tradition.

Adherents of both faiths agree on the basics. About a century and a half after Alexander the Great’s conquests, Israel was ruled by the Seleucid dynasty, established by one of Alexander’s successors. The Seleucid king, Antiochus IV, aggressively persecuted Jews and erected a pagan altar in the middle of the Temple in Jerusalem. A band of Jewish fighters led by Judas Maccabeus mounted a resistance to Antiochus’ forces, and the Maccabees eventually recaptured the Jerusalem Temple.

Jewish literature, compiled by rabbis in late antiquity, preserved and retold these stories. Two Jewish works from the Hellenistic era, known as the First and Second Books of the Maccabees, also inform our understanding of the events. While these works didn’t become a part of the Jewish scriptures, they comprise part of the biblical canon for the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches.

These Christians focused almost exclusively on the theme of martyrdom. In particular, they were fascinated by a narrative found in 2 Maccabees about an anonymous Jewish woman and her seven sons who allowed themselves to be tortured and killed by Antiochus rather than violate their faith. Early Christian writers understood the Jewish martyrs as role models, who achieved the ultimate goal of escaping this world for a better one. According to Ambrose, the fourth-century bishop of Milan, the mother could have encouraged her sons to avoid death, “but she considered that her maternal love lay in [urging] her sons to a life that is everlasting rather than an earthly one.”

The authoritative story of the Maccabean era in Jewish tradition is quite different. Jewish rabbinical literature in antiquity didn’t focus at all on the Maccabean martyrs in the context of Hanukkah. Instead it emphasized the role of the Jewish fighters and what happened after their victory. Like the Christian retellings, Jewish tradition focused on the partnership between man and God. But rather than locating that partnership in heaven, it identified it here on earth.

Jewish tradition’s emphasis on the Hanukkah miracle of the oil reinforces this point. In a story popularized in American culture by Jewish celebrities like Adam Sandler, rabbinical literature records that when the Jewish fighters finally recaptured the Temple in Jerusalem, they sought to rekindle its seven-branched oil lamp, best known by its Hebrew name, menorah. Although they only had enough oil for one night, it lasted miraculously for eight nights until the Jews were able to procure a new supply. This tradition focuses on temporal existence. The miracle of the menorah allows the Jews to work at resuming their regular lives here on Earth.

While Christian tradition connected the story of the Maccabean era to the Temple’s menorah, it did so in a different way. In praising the Maccabean martyrs, the Syriac Christian writer Severus of Antioch wrote: “Not so [truly] did the candlestick of seven lights which made glorious the temporal Temple give light, as did this woman with the seven human lights, her sons, give light to the Church.” Severus played down the significance of the Temple’s menorah by comparing its seven branches with the seven martyrs who left this world behind.

These two ways of remembering the Maccabees reflect larger differences between modern Jewish and Christian storytelling. Many have noted the deep Christian influence on high fantasy, like “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Chronicles of Narnia.” These epics stage the battle between good and evil in worlds not our own. By contrast, Jewish influence is most conspicuous on the comic superhero genre. The authors of these stories also narrate the struggle between light and darkness. Yet they do so not by imagining new worlds but by reimagining this one.

When Hanukkah arrives and Jews across the globe place menorahs in their windows or in front of their homes, remember that they are not merely commemorating the story of the Maccabees. They are making an important argument about that story and the lessons it holds for society. While a basic element of many faith traditions is that humanity should join with God, the Jewish message of Hanukkah is that such partnership should be anchored right here on Earth.