The Maccabean Revolt and the Birth of Hanukkah

All we have left of the Maccabees books are Greek translations, the original Hebrew texts from the 2nd Century BC are lost. The books describe, in detail, the restoration of the Jewish nation under the Hasmonean Dynasty, after the Seleucid Empire’s tyrannical rule over Judeah (the Seleucids were an empire that formed from the break-up of the Macedonian global empire under Alexander the Great). Protestants and Jews view the two books of Maccabees as non-canonical, while Catholics and other Eastern Orthodox Christian sects accept them.

Maccabees notably mentions Alexander the Great, son of Philip of Macedon in 1:1 that he smote the Persians and the Medes and ‘reigned first over Greece.’ He reigned 12 years, and then died, dividing his kingdom among his loyal servants. One notorious servant was Antiochus, whom many of the Hebrew nations made a pact with, until he conquered Egypt and then Israel and Jerusalem, desecrating the temple. The city was thus conquered and made “strange” and the “beauty of women was changed” (1:26).

The repression leads Mattathias along with his family and followers to flee the city of Jerusalem into the wilderness. They cause an uprising -why? Because the otherwise “heathen” will destroy their livelihood. Mattathias dies at the end of Chapter 2, but his sons carry on his rebellion, particularly his son Judas, also called “Maccabeus” (which means something like “hammer” in Hebrew). He was like a “lion” and was hell-bent on renewing the grandeur of Israel and the nations of Judah, as it was prior to the rule of Antiochus. Chapter 3-16 (the conclusion of Book 1)  describe his warring activities with surrounding nations.

The tensions between Hellenism and its practices against circumcision and embracing mysterious religious cults like Bacchanals, and the opposing Orthodox Jewish beliefs are rife throughout the works of Maccabees. However, a great victory is won in Chapter 4 when Judas (“Maccabeus”) restores the temple and its altars. So they “kept the dedication of the altar for eight days” and also gave burnt offerings (4:59) like Moses and Solomon before them, which is the story of the origins of Hanukkah (a Hebrew verb meaning something like “to dedicate”) also called the “Festival of Lights” for the eight lights of the menorah that are lit each day in memory of the re dedication of the temple in Jerusalem after the Maccabean revolt

At the end of Book 1, Judas’s brother Jonathan becomes the high priest of Israel, and he is followed by Simon who leads Israel and founds the future ruling family -the Hasmoneans, a dynasty that ruled the region until Rome conquered Judeah and the new era.

2 Maccabees opens with a letter to the Jews of the surrounding Mesopotamian region. It tells a more detailed story of the Maccabean revolt under Judas, called “Maccabeus.” It is described as a kind of abridgment of a larger volume of five books by Jason of Cyrene, a text that is now lost and forgotten (2:23). The text of 2 Maccabees is far more theological than the first. It attempts to interpret events of the revolt as prophecy, in the context of the ancient Mosaic story. 2 Maccabees, totaling 15 chapters, is a much better written summary of the events of the first book, likely written and summarized by an Alexandrian scholar in the 2nd Century BC.

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