Did Jesus celebrate Hanukkah?

It should come as no surprise that I follow a number of YouTube channels about history. One of my favorites is History Matters, a channel that makes short videos, usually about four minutes long, to ask and then answer the sorts of odd questions about history that make you go, “Gee, I never thought about that before, but now I really want to know the answer!” Questions such as “How did the international community react to the U.S. Civil War?”, “Who picked the five permanent nations on the UN Security Council?”, or “How did ancient philosophers earn a living?”

Well, yesterday, while I was getting ready to go to work, I had a question like this pop into my head and refuse to leave. I had glanced at my calendar and noticed that it was the first day of Hanukkah, and I reflected on the fact that Hanukkah always falls somewhere close to Christmas every year. Then, my brain went, “I wonder if Jesus celebrated Hanukkah.”

To be clear, the fact that the celebrations of Christmas and Hanukkah are so close is pure coincidence. Hanukkah falls on the 25th day of Kislev on the Jewish calendar, a calendar that was developed in the early Middle Ages, based on the calendar used in Biblical times by the ancient Israelites, and still used today to calculate the dates of important Jewish religious holidays. Meanwhile, we celebrate Christmas in December because this Christian holiday supplanted the ancient Roman pagan holiday of Saturnalia, as we have covered on Cat Flag before.

Given that Jesus lived in ancient Roman times, He would have been aware of Saturnalia, though He obviously would not have honored any such pagan festival. In ancient Judea, religious life would have centered around the Temple of Jerusalem, where the most important Jewish religious rituals would have been conducted by the high priests. In those days, the timing of those celebrations would have been based on a calendar that would eventually become an ancestor of the modern Jewish calendar. So, the first question is, was Hanukkah celebrated back then?

The History of Hanukkah

When Alexander the Great died, his top generals split his empire between themselves. They and their descendants frequently warred with each other for control of various lands, with the descendants of Ptolemy, who reigned in Egypt, and those of Seleucus, who took over Persia and Syria, frequently fighting over Judea. In the end, the Seleucid Empire won, and their king, Antiochus IV, attempted to assimilate the Jews into Greek culture. They attempted to impose Greek customs and traditions, including the worship of the ancient Greek gods. This was rejected by many devout Jews, who rallied around the Maccabee family and rebelled, eventually winning Judea’s independence.

When the victorious rebels entered the Temple in Jerusalem, they were disturbed to find that it had been used in the worship of Zeus. They set out to cleanse the Temple and rededicate it to God. According to legend, all the containers of oil for the lighting of the menorah, the sacred candelabra that dated from the time of Moses, had been tainted by the priests of Zeus. Well, all except for one, but that one container had only enough oil to last one night, while the acquisition more oil for the menorah would take eight days. Miraculously, the story goes, the oil managed to last all eight days, and this is the miracle that Hanukkah celebrates.

So, we have established that the events Hanukkah celebrates took place before Jesus’s birth, but was the holiday celebrated when He was alive? Hanukkah today incorporates many far more modern traditions, some deriving from Christmas, like gift-giving, or decorating a “Hanukkah bush”. Even that most beloved of Hanukkah traditions, the dreidel, has modern origins: it began life in the 19th century as a party game in England and Ireland, and originally used English letters, not Hebrew ones.

The game was imported to Germany, where it became popular at Christmastime, and German Jews would adopt the game for their Hanukkah celebrations, changing the letters to Hebrew ones.

While these traditions may be modern, we actually do have concrete evidence that the holiday itself is ancient. The ancient Jewish historian Flavius Josephus, who was born just a few years after Jesus’s ministry and whose writings on Jewish history is an invaluable resource, wrote about the Maccabean Revolt. In The Jewish Antiquities, after recounting the story of the rededication of the temple, he wrote “And from that time to this we celebrate this, which we call the Festival of Lights, because, I imagine, beyond our hopes this right was brought to light, and so this name was placed on the festival.”

So, what would Hanukkah have looked like in Biblical times?

Well, unfortunately, sources from this time period are quite scarce. Since yesterday, I have dug and dug for a source describing how Hanukkah would have been celebrated back then, to no avail. Part of the issue is that, of all Jewish holidays, Hanukkah is a considered to be a pretty minor one. It isn’t even a holiday that Jews are obligated to take any time off of work or school for. The only reason it’s so famous and popular these days is, again, it just so happens to fall at Christmastime, raising its profile in the public imagination.

The oldest description of the actual religious practices of Hanukkah that I could find comes from a part of the Talmud called the Gemara, written between the 4th and 6th centuries, and all it states is that it one shouldn’t fast or give eulogies during Hanukkah, out of respect for the sacred Temple oil that was tainted by the Greeks. Speaking of oil, one popular Hanukkah tradition is frying food in oil in celebration of the miraculous last container of oil. It’s plausible that this could have been practiced in Biblical times, too, as frying food in olive oil was sometimes done in the ancient Mediterranean.

One thing I am quite confident in saying is that there would not have been menorahs in Jewish homes. Back then, there was THE menorah, in the Temple of Jerusalem. However, the Romans destroyed the Temple in AD 70 as part of their suppression of a Jewish rebellion, and they carried the menorah back with them to Rome, where it then disappeared from history. The modern menorahs you see associated with Hanukkah celebrations are symbolic representations commemorating the original, lost menorah.

Does the Bible mention Jesus celebrating Hanukkah?

Yes!

“And it was at Jerusalem the feast of the dedication, and it was winter. And Jesus walked in the temple in Solomon’s porch. Then came the Jews round about him, and said unto him, ‘How long dost thou make us to doubt? If thou be the Christ, tell us plainly.’ Jesus answered them, ‘I told you, and ye believed not: the works that I do in my Father’s name, they bear witness of me.’

-John 10:22-25, KJV

“Hanukkah”, in Hebrew, means “dedication”.

That settles it, then. Jesus went to the Temple in Jerusalem to celebrate Hanukkah, where He spoke to those who were refusing to listen to Him.

Well, there you have it, Cat Flaggers, the answer to the strange question that popped into my mind, that I just had to share with all of you. Happy Hanukkah to those who celebrate it, and a very Merry Christmas to all of you! I hope you all have a wonderful holiday season!