Why isn’t the Hanukkah story in the Hebrew Bible?

by Bob Schwartz

Wojciech Stattler, Maccabees (1840)

We consider Hanukkah a “minor” Jewish holiday. Unlike major holidays such as Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Sukkot, there is no mention of the celebrated events (such as the eight days of oil lamp light) in the Hebrew Bible. However, the books of First and Second Maccabees are historically precise and existed by the time the Jewish biblical canon was established. Yet they were left out of the Hebrew Bible, so the only way to read these books is to find them in Christian Bibles. Why?

In part this is due to the “real” story not fitting well into the rabbinic Judaism that evolved and that for the most part still dominates Jewish life. It is not surprising that a story of revolution, political power plays, Jewish dynastic autocracy, and rejection of divine intervention has been supplanted by a story of light and miracles (especially in a Christmas-intensive society).

As Daniel R. Schwartz writes: “Thus, all in all there is little “Judaism” in this book [First Maccabees]”

More from Daniel R. Schwartz (Professor of Jewish History, Hebrew University of Jerusalem) in The Jewish Annotated Apocrypha:

The book is clearly meant to convince its readers that the Hasmonean family, particularly Simon and his descendants, should rule Judea. This is made clear both by the structure of the book and by specific passages that proclaim that the Hasmoneans were chosen to rule or had earned the right to rule; the focus on the Simonide line comes through especially at the end of Mattathias’s deathbed speech, in ch 14, and in the book’s conclusion.

The book’s argument that it is the Hasmoneans who brought about the salvation of Israel is based on two main theses. First, foreign rulers are terrible and perfidious, and the Judeans’ neighbors hate them and want to annihilate them (whether they are doing well or doing poorly, that is, always), so the Judeans are in need of such salvation. Second, dependence on God’s providence will not solve anything. The latter thesis is emphasized in several pointed contrasts of the Hasmoneans to Judean pietists:

1. At the very end of ch 1 we read of some pious Jews (not necessarily members of any particular group) who are killed because they refuse to violate Jewish law; immediately thereafter, ch 2 introduces Mattathias and his sons and reports the beginning of their armed rebellion.

2. At 2.29–41 we read of pious Jews who refuse to defend themselves on the sabbath, and so are killed; immediately thereafter we read that Mattathias and his men decided to defend themselves if attacked on the sabbath.

3. At 7.8–16 we read that naïve pietists believe the promise of a Seleucid general and a wicked Jew that they have only peaceful intentions, and they are killed forthwith, while the open-eyed Judas and his men see through the general’s lies.

Since we know, from Qumran and rabbinic literature, that there was plenty of pietistic criticism of the Hasmoneans (although there is no firm basis for identifying the pious mentioned in 1 Maccabees as Qumranites or proto-rabbis in particular), it is easy to understand the book as responding by arguing that piety cannot solve the Jews’ problems in the real world. Correspondingly, the book makes no claims about any miracles or divine intervention helping the Hasmoneans, never refers to “God” or “the Lord,” and, after the first few chapters, has only a few references to prayer or to “Heaven”….

Thus, all in all there is little “Judaism” in this book, and although Flavius Josephus, as a historian, used it extensively (in the twelfth and thirteenth books of his Antiquities, perhaps also in his Jewish War), there is little evidence for acquaintance with the book by Jews in antiquity. The rabbis ignored it altogether, unless Rabbi Akiba was thinking of it, among other books, when he proscribed the reading of “external books” (m. San. 10.1). The book was much used in Christian tradition, especially as providing models for depictions of the crusaders who, in their way, fought for the liberation of the Holy Land. But in Jewish literature prior to the modern period, there is next to nothing to speak of, apart from the medieval Josippon. This is to be expected from a book that was so distant from what would become rabbinic Judaism. Indeed, in the nineteenth century, in the early years of modern Judaic studies, Abraham Geiger argued that the work was a Sadducean work, that is, it reflects the type of Judaism against which Pharisaic-rabbinic Judaism arose. Geiger’s argument derived from various points, such as 1 Maccabees’s lack of belief in an afterlife, angels, and providence, denial of which are said by Josephus or other sources to have characterized the Sadducees. Geiger also argued from the fact that our book ends up by justifying John Hyrcanus’s rise to power; Josephus reports that John joined the Sadducees and abolished Pharisaic law. While Geiger’s characterization of the work as Sadducean might nevertheless be too specific (and his characterization of 2 Maccabees as Pharisaic has even less to recommend it), in general Geiger’s assessment was correct. Instead, however, of characterizing 1 Maccabees as Sadducean, it seems more warranted to characterize it as “statist” (as opposed to “diasporic”).

The book should thus be understood as a work bespeaking the point of view of a Jewish state—a state that was, on the one hand, justified by the firm belief that gentiles and their rulers are inveterately hostile, and one that was, on the other hand, made possible by activist and pragmatic heroes who took their fate into their own hands and sought to establish sovereign statehood rather than waiting for God to send a Messiah to do so. As such, it is natural that the book became popular in modern Zionist literature and is a reflection of the degree to which Zionism deviates from diasporan and religious Judaism. To the extent that Zionism, especially since the Holocaust, is based on a lack of trust both in gentiles and in God, 1 Maccabees fits right in.

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