Josephus On Hanukkah

The following article is by G J Goldberg about Hanukkah and the Festival of Lights

The original article can be found here

The Festival of the Dedication, The Festival of Lights
by G. J. Goldberg
The Books of the Maccabees, which record the origins of the Hanukkah story and of the Hasmonean dynasty, are represented by Josephus in the Jewish Antiquities, Book 12 Chapter 5 through Book 13 Chapter 7. These chapters are primarily a compressed version of the First Book of Maccabees, supplemented by some material from the Second Book of Maccabees War 1 37-47,  with some additional changes made by Josephus. An even more condensed version appears in the Jewish War, Book 1 Chapters 3-6.
Because the apparently miraculous Maccabean victory over powerful Syria established a free Jewish kingdom, it undoubtedly provided an example to the rebellious in the years leading up to the revolt against Rome. One sign of this is the frequent use of the word “liberty” in Josephus’ version of the story, where it does not appear in the source: for example, in the speech of Judah at 1 Maccabees 3:58, “liberty” does not occur at all, while in Josephus parallel at Antiquities 12.7.3 302 the word appears three times in a fashion similar to that of such rebels as Eleazar at Masada.

At the time of the revolt against Rome, however, the prominent descendants of the Maccabees were not counted among the rebels. Agrippa II, the great-grandson of  Herod and Mariamme, the last Hasmonean princess, was cooperative with Rome and ineffectual during the war. Josephus himself, who eventually assisted Rome, distantly traced his ancestry back to Judah Maccabee’s brother Jonathan.

Josephus’ changes to the books of the Maccabees provide useful examples of how he alters source material. For example, the speech of Judah Maccabee cited above is greatly elaborated in the Antiquities, giving evidence to support the ready suspicion that the speeches in Josephus’ works are not reported verbatim. More on this subject can be found in Isaiah M. Gafni’s “Josephus and 1 Maccabees”, in Josephus, the Bible, and History (see books).

The First Hanukkah (December 164 BCE)
Antiquities 12.7.6-7 316-325  (1 Maccabees 4:36-59)
The generals of Antiochus’s armies having been defeated so often, Judah Maccabee assembled the people and told them that after the many victories which God had given them they ought to go up to Jerusalem and purify the Temple and offer the appointed sacrifices.
But when he with the whole multitude came to Jerusalem and found he Temple deserted, its gates burned down, and plants growing in the Temple of their own accord because of the desolation, he and those with him began to lament in their distress at the sight of the Temple.

So he chose some of his soldiers and gave them an order to fight the men that guarded the upper city until he has purified the Temple. When therefore he he had carefully purged it he brought in new vessels — the menorah, the table and the incense altar, which were made of gold, and hung up the veils at the doors and restored the doors themselves. He also took down the altar and built a new one of stones that he gathered together, and such as had not been hewn with iron tools.

And on the twenty-fifth day of  the month Kislev, which the Macedonians call Apellaios, they lighted the lights [phôta] that were on the menorah, and offered incense upon the altar, and laid the loaves upon the table, and offered whole burnt offerings upon the new altar.
As it happened, these things took place on the very same day on which, three years before, the divine worship had been reduced to an impure and profane form of worship; for the Temple had remained desolate for three years after being made so by Antiochus…And the desolation of the Temple came about in accordance with the prophecy of Daniel, which had been made four hundred and eight years before; for he had revealed that the Macedonians would destroy it.

And so Judah and his fellow citizens celebrated the festival of the restoration of the sacrifices of the Temple for eight days, and omitted no sort of pleasure, but everyone feasted upon very rich and splendid sacrifices; and they honoured God, and delighted themselves with psalms of praise and the playing of harps. Indeed, they were so very glad at the revival of  their customs and, after so long a time, having unexpectedly regained their right to worship, that they made it a law for their posterity that they should keep a festival celebrating the restoration of their Temple worship for eight days. And from that time to this we celebrate this, which we call the Festival of Lights [phôta], because, I imagine, beyond our hopes this right was brought to light [phanênai], and so this name was placed on the festival.

Josephus’ account follows very closely that of the First Book of Maccabees; thus, the differences are all the more interesting, the most significant being two having to do with prophecy.

As Marcus points out in the Loeb edition, Josephus omits the detail of 1 Macc 4:46 that the stones of the desecrated altar were put away “on the temple-hill in a fitting place until a prophet should come and give a decision about them.” While Marcus associates this omission with Josephus’ belief that Biblical prophecy has ceased, I suspect that more lies behind it, as prophecy was also expected to be re-initiated by a future “prophet like Moses”, i.e., the Messiah. But it is aMessianic prophecy which Josephus ascribes as the cause that more than anything else incited his countrymen to war against the Romans.  Thus, omitting the reference is probably deliberate censorship of this inflammatory idea at a time when Josephus is hoping to improve relations between Romans and Jews — which was the only way the Temple could be rebuilt and a new dedication held.
Josephus adds, however, a description of Daniel’s prophecy of the desolation of the Temple. Daniel is, next to Moses, Josephus’ favorite prophet, and I believe his references to Daniel are thinly veiled references to what Josephus believes has been prophesied for Rome’s own future.

The Eight Days
Hanukkah is celebrated for eight days, which is the length of the celebration recorded in the First Book of  Maccabees and which is affirmed by Josephus. In Talmudic times there was related a story of the miracle of finding a small amount of ritually pure oil that beyond expectation burned for eight days. Neither the books of Maccabees nor Josephus, however, tell this story, although that cannot be taken to mean Josephus does not know it. But Josephus also does not describe any ritual lighting of a menorah as part of  the annual celebration of Hanukkah; for him, the “miracle of Hanukkah” refers not to burning oil but to the gaining against all odds of the freedom to worship and to follow ancestral customs.

The Name Of The Festival
The holiday in 1 Maccabees is instituted to celebrate the “dedication of the altar” (1 Macc 4:59), and the Hebrew word for “dedication” is Hanukkah. It is by this name the festival appears in Rabbinic literature. But even today the name Hanukkah is usually “translated” into English as the “Festival of Lights”, the name given ascribed to it by Josephus, who is the only ancient author to do so.

Why does Josephus call Hanukkah the Festival of Lights? In modern times we assume the term refers to the custom of lighting the Hanukkah menorah, a nine-branched candelabrum to which one candle is added each night during the eight nights of the festival (there is a ninth, central candle used to light the others). But Josephus says nothing about this custom, and in fact he seems to be unaware of it, for he invents his own explanation of the name: the freedom to worship had been concealed in darkness and is now brought to light. (Translation note: “freedom to worship” isexousiai…tês thrêskeias in line 324, to which tên exousian refers in the last sentence.)

But Josephus’ explanation of the name seems contorted and even illogical, for his symbolism would imply the name “Festival of Light”, using an abstraction, and not “Lights”, plural; the latter clearly indicates a collection of actual lights. The Greek word for lights, phota, Josephus uses not only in the name of the festival but also a few sentences before: “they lighted the lights [phota] of the menorah.” So one would think (as Marcus notes in the Loeb edition) that Josephus could easily associate the name with the lighting of the Temple menorah.  Could there be a reason he does not? Or why he does not call it by the term we know was in use at the time, the

Festival of the Dedication (as in the New Testament)?
If we again look to the obvious and, for Josephus, uncomfortable parallels between the Hanukkah story and the recent revolt against Rome, two speculations suggest themselves. One is that Josephus wants to make the point to his readers that Jews should have freedom to worship, that it is something that delights them and which they celebrate as “light” each year; as elsewhere in his works, he has one eye to gaining sympathy from the Romans so that the Temple can eventually be restored.

The other, more concrete speculation is that Josephus did not want the celebration of Hanukkah and the lighting of its lamps interpreted as a rebellious act against Rome. The very menorah, supposedly, that Judah Maccabee had lit had been taken from the Temple by Titus and was spectacularly paraded through Rome at the time of the triumph celebrating the defeat of Judaea:
“But those that were captured in the Temple of Jerusalem made the greatest figure of them all. These were the golden table, of the weight of many talents, and a lampstand also, that was made of gold, but constructed on a different pattern from those we use in daily life; for fixed upon a pedestal was a central shaft, from which there extended slender branches arranged trident-fashion, a wrought lamp being attached to the extremity of each branch. These lamps were in number seven, and represented the dignity of the number seven among the Jews. And the last of all the spoils was carried the Law of the Jews.” (War 7.5.5 148-150)

The menorah is depicted on the Arch of Titus which was built a decade before the Antiquities was written and which still stands in Rome. Note that Josephus distinguishes the shape of the Temple menorah from that ordinarily used by Jews. In addition, he repeats that this menorah has seven lamps. It is unstated here, but the Hanukkah menorah has nine lamps, so the Hanukkah menorah is not a representation of the Temple menorah. Perhaps both in this description and in the explanation of the term “Festival of Lights” Josephus wants to separate the Jews’ lighting of the Hanukkah lights from any concept that they are re-enacting the dedication of the Temple that Rome destroyed. In this way, he separates the lighting of the Hanukkah lamps from any semblance of a covert rebellious act. Perhaps this effort to hide the ritual was widely made by the Jews of Josephus’ day to avoid friction with the Romans.

Hanukkah in the New Testament
Did you know the New Testament mentions that Jesus observed Hanukkah?
John 10:22
At that time the Festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the Temple, in the portico of Solomon.


Note that John calls the festival “Dedication” [egkainia], and not “Lights” as does Josephus. In this sense John is closer to Rabbinic literature and to 1 Maccabees than is Josephus. Is Josephus more familiar with the usage of ordinary Jews, while John uses the “official” name? Or is it that Josephus deliberately avoids associating Hanukkah with restoring the Temple (as surmised above) in order not to cause friction with the Romans, whereas John deliberately reminds his audience of this.

There is no obvious symbolic or historic reason why John places this scene at the time of Hanukkah.  This seems only to be a way to date the episode, serving John’s goal of placing Jesus’ preaching within a continuous one-year time span.

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