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Thursday, December 2, 2010

Did Jesus Celebrate Hanukkah?

Today (or more accurately put, tonight) marks the beginning of the Jewish festival of Chanukah (Hanukkah). Tonight Jews from around the world will gather to light candles, eat Latkes, and spin the dreidel all in remembrance of the Maccabean revolt in the second century BCE. And though Hanukkah is clearly overshadowed every year by the celebration of Christmas, I have always maintained that Christians should at least consider celebrating Hanukkah, maybe not in the same fashion as Jews, but certainly as a way to better understand the unique story that is the Festival of Lights (last year my family celebrated Hanukkah and had blast with it!). In fact, I am guessing that most Christians would be surprised to discover that Jesus himself probably celebrated Hanukkah. As a devout Jew, it would only be logical for Jesus (who participated in other Jewish holidays) to have also lit the menorah come wintertime.

When attempting to answer this question it is important that we first attempt to uncover when Hanukkah was officially proclaimed a Jewish holiday. In 167 B.C., Emperor Antiochus (we spoke of him in more detail in an earlier post) established an altar to Zeus within the walls of the Jewish temple. The consequences were dramatic to say the least. Led by Mattathias (a Jewish priest) and his five sons, the more orthodox portion of the Jewish community violently revolted against this "heathen" mockery of their holy temple. To make a long story short, by 165 B.C. the revolt had proved a complete success as the last remnants of Seleucid domination were eradicated. It was Judas Maccabee, son of Mattathias, who established Hanukkah as a national holiday. Since that day, Hanukkah has been celebrated by the Jews worldwide.

Now, the mere fact that Hanukkah had been established prior to Christ's birth does not therefore mean that Jesus himself celebrated the holiday. To prove such a claim we would have to find actual evidence of his involvement with the "Festival of Lights." Well, it just so happens that such evidence does exist; in the Christian bible of all places. In John chapter 10 Jesus gives his famous "Good Shepherd" discourse in which he speaks eloquently about his sheep and how they know and follow him. The chapter is one of the more regularly cited chapters in all of the Bible. But there are a couple of verses that don't receive a lot of attention. After Jesus concludes his "Good Shepherd" discourse we read:
19 There was a division therefore again among the Jews for these sayings.

20 And many of them said, He hath a devil, and is mad; why hear ye him?

21 Others said, These are not the words of him that hath a devil. Can a devil open the eyes of the blind?

22 And it was at Jerusalem the feast of the dedication, and it was winter.

23 And Jesus walked in the temple in Solomon's porch.
So what is the "feast of the dedication?" It can only be one of two things: either an actual dedication of the Jewish temple (which it was not, since the only temple dedication that happened near Jesus' lifetime was during the reign of Nehemiah, which occurred in the spring), or it refers to the "Feast of the Maccabees," or the "Feast of the Lights": a.k.a. HANUKKAH! If you recall, Hanukkah is known as the "Festival of Lights" and literally translates to "dedication." In addition, verse 22 points out the fact that Jesus attended this feast during the winter. The Jewish month of Kislev (Hanukkah is always held on the 25th of Kislev) takes place in the winter. Also, we read how Jesus was at the temple on "Solomon's porch," which was a place where Jews often congregated to discuss matters of faith. In addition, it was also the place where many congregated to light the candles of the menorah.

And while it may come as a surprise to many Christians that Hanukkah is alluded to in the New Testament (while Christmas is not. In fact, Christmas didn't come into existence until at least 354 A.D.), the fact remains that Jesus himself most likely participated in the "Festival of Lights."

So here is my question: if we can make a strong case for Jesus celebrating Hanukkah, why don't Christians today do the same? I'm not trying to cause theological strife here, rather I am simply asking the question. If I were to answer this question for myself I would speculate that the reason is quite simple: the early Christians, who established Christmas in an effort to counter the wide appeal of pagan holidays like Saturnalia, had no need to combat Jewish holidays. After all, Medieval Europe was overwhelmingly pagan. Any attempt to convert these pagans to Christianity would require a theological war of sorts against the doctrines of paganism. And since Judaism was not a large religion in the region, Hanukkah wasn't a threat. After all, no pagan celebrated the "Festival of Lights," so there was no need to combat it.

Either way, the fact remains: Jesus probably celebrated Hanukkah.

2 comments:

Christian said...

Brad!

How dare you! Everyone knows Jesus was a white man from Oxford, England!

/sarcasm off

Brad Hart said...

HAHAHAHA! Touche, Christian, but Jesus is an AMERICAN!!!!