The Maccabee books that tell the Jewish Hanukkah story are in the Roman Catholic Bible but not in the Jewish Old Testament.
The 8 day Jewish holiday of Hanukkah has begun at sunset, the 25th day of the month of Kislev in the Jewish lunar calendar. Normally, Hanukkah takes place closer to Christmas Day, December 25 in the European solar calendar.
Like Passover-Easter, Shavuot-Pentacost, and Sukkot-Thanksgiving, the Hanukkah and Christmas holidays are examples of the close connection between Judaism and Christianity.
Hanukkah is not mentioned in the Jewish Bible or Old Testament. The Mishnah and Talmud, the next most important books in Judaism barely mention it. They simply tell Jews to light candles for eight days to remember the miracle of a one day supply of pure oil burning in the menorah for eight days when the Holy Temple was re-dedicated.
The full story of the events surrounding that miracle are written in two books called “Maccabee I and II. Those books were not included in the Jewish Old Testament, Mishnah, or Talmud. However, they are both part of the “Apocrypha” of the Roman Catholic Bible. Why?
The Hanukkah story begins when Alexander the Great conquered most of the ancient world some 2,300 years ago. When he died, he divided his massive Greek Empire among his three top generals and their descendants.
Sometime later, one of them ordered each of the different nations in his part of the Empire to adopt the language, customs, dress, and religion of the Greeks. Everyone complied except many Jews in a small province now known as Israel. Although these Jews agreed to support the Greek rule in every other way, they refused to stop teaching and following the laws of the Bible. They refused to worship Greek gods, eat pork, or work on the Sabbath.
As a result, the Greek Emperor Antiochus declared Judaism to be an outlaw religion. Any Jew caught teaching the Bible or observing its laws was arrested, tortured, and put to death. The Book of Maccabees describes the torture and execution of Hannah and her seven sons, and of Eleazer, the old scribe in gruesome detail.
When it seemed like Judaism could not possibly survive, a father with five sons started a rebellion that lasted 30 years. That family became known as “The Maccabees”, which means “The Hammers”. In the end, the Jews of Israel defeated the Greek armies, won their independence, and were free to practice their religion.
The miracle of Hanukkah was not just one day’s supply of oil burning for eight days. It was also about a handful of faithful Jews putting together a fighting force that defeated one of biggest and most powerful armies in the ancient world. The victory of “the few against the many, the weak against the strong, the pure against the corrupt” was a key part of the miracle.
The Books of Maccabees are well-written and tell compelling stories. Their details on political strategies, insights into human nature, and military tactics were taught in most schools, widely read, and well known and applied by America’s leaders during the Revolution.
Click here for Maccabee I which gives background and a general history. Click here for Maccabee 2 which gives insider details of political intrigue and how Jews caught practicing their religion were tortured and killed.
About a hundred years after the Hanukkah miracle, Rome defeated the Greeks and seized most of their empire, including what is now Israel. Soon afterwards, Nero and later Roman Emperors declared Christianity to be an outlaw religion. Any Christian who refused to publicly renounce Jesus was arrested, and publicly tortured and executed.
During these terrible years of persecution, early Christians were inspired by the Hanukkah story. They included two Books of Maccabees in their Bibles. The Hanukkah story gave early Christians hope that God would remember them as He remembered Jews who had been persecuted by Greeks 220 years earlier
Is it coincidence that early Christians chose to celebrate the birth of Jesus on December 25, just as Jews celebrated the miraculous rebirth of their religion and nation on the 25th day of their winter month?
Unfortunately, Jews had a different experience with the Hanukkah story. After years of corruption, brutality, and crushing taxes by Emperor Nero’s provincial governors, Jews in Israel began an armed rebellion against Rome. Inspired by the Hanukkah story, they believed God would also help them defeat the much larger and better trained Roman legions who occupied and surrounded their country.
They were wrong. Their rebellion was poorly planned, poorly led, and ended in total disaster. Jerusalem and the Holy Temple were destroyed, tens of thousands of Jews were killed in battle, executed or died of starvation. Most who survived were sold into slavery.
Perhaps rabbis removed the Maccabee books from the Jewish Bible to prevent it from inspiring future rebellions. Perhaps they did it to avoid further Roman punishment.
I discovered this by accident several years ago. I attended a “Lunch and Learn” presentation on Hanukkah by a rabbi from a well known Orthodox Yeshiva in Lakewood. I genuinely surprised when he kept referring to a Roman Catholic Bible during his presentation.
As we enjoy this holiday season, we should think of how much struggle, sacrifice, and suffering it took over thousands of years for us to reach the level of freedom, safety, and comfort we have today.