Chanukah: The Real Story

A year ago, Andrew Margolis gave a talk about the real origins of Chanukah to a small group of friends attached to Muswell Hill Synagogue in North London. Much of our best thinking goes unrecorded. On this occasion, Andrew kindly agreed to make available to the Times of Israel the following transcript.

The historical accuracy of the Jewish Chanukah Story

The traditional version of the Chanukah story is that the Greeks instituted a programme of forced Hellenization as part of a policy to extinguish Jewish culture and religion; the Maccabees fought back, won a famous victory, and rededicated and restored the temple.

There’s actually a substantial amount of evidence to indicate that this account of Chanukah is not historically accurate.  Unlike other festivals that commemorate past events such as Pesach and Purim, for which we have solid biblical foundations but no real historical evidence of what actually happened, for Chanukah we have no biblical foundations but considerable historical evidence. And what we find is quite different from the story of evil antisemitic empires trying to exterminate us.

What we find is that the main conflict at the root of the Chanukah story actually results from a series of disputes between Jew and Jew, with Antiochus and his armies being dragged by the Jews into a conflict that they did not really seek.

A good place to begin the historical account is with with the conquests of Alexander the Great, and his early death in 323 BCE.  His empire was split between his generals, with Judea initially being taken over by the Egyptian Ptolemies, who followed Alexander’s policy of administering the country with the aid of the Oniad dynasty of High Priests.

Some 30 years before the Maccabean revolt, the Syrian Seleucids conquered Judea at the Battle of Panium.  They didn’t interfere with the governance of Judea until Antiochus IV Epiphanes usurped the Seleucid throne in 175 BCE, when a pro-Hellenist faction in Jerusalem took the opportunity of denouncing the High Priest Onias III for alleged Ptolemaic sympathies, and with the aid of a substantial bribe, replaced him with his brother Jason (who had changed his name from Joshua to better indicate where his political and cultural sympathies lay).

Jason was subsequently ousted from office by a rival priestly family known as the Tobaids, who obtained the military support of Antiochus by offering him the contents of the temple treasury and forcibly installed their own candidate, one Menelaus, as High Priest.  Antiochus went on to try and conquer Egypt, only to withdraw when the Romans told him they’d oppose any such attempt.  Unfortunately for Menelaus, the report that reached Jerusalem was that Antiochus had been killed, and Jason took the opportunity to attack Jerusalem, evict the military garrison that Antiochus had installed there, and reappoint himself as High Priest.

Menelaus actually escaped to Antiochus, who, having just been frustrated in Egypt, attacked Jerusalem in a rage with the aim of restoring his royal authority.  He restored Menelaus, who cooperated with the subsequent reign of terror and anti-Jewish measures.   According to Lawrence Schiifman:

“It is probable that at this time, foreign deities were introduced into the Temple, creating further friction. The Jewish Hellenizers, Menelaus and his party, saw these gods as equivalent to the God of Israel. To them, this was not really foreign worship. They regarded the ancestral God of Israel as simply another manifestation of the supreme deity known in Syria as Baal Shamin (Master of Heaven) and in the Greek world as Zeus Olympius. In this way they rationalized their behavior.” (From an essay in Tolerance, Dissent and Democracy, pub. Aronson, 2002).

It was at this point that the Maccabean Revolt began, in 167 BCE; three years later the Maccabees, led by Judas, conquered Jerusalem and entered the temple and rededicated it.

So at least one part of the Chanukah story that we all learnt at cheder, that everything was the fault of the wicked Antiochus and his Empire, is clearly not true. Lawrence Schiffman goes on to point out:

“In effect, we have to face the reality that these great struggles, generally assumed to be part of the heroic history of the Jewish people, were to a great extent inner Jewish struggles in which revolutionaries fought the Jewish ruling classes—the establishment—who were allied with the foreign interests.”

Of course, this is not really a reason for us not to light our candles and eat our latkes. After all, irrespective of what led up to it, the facts are surely that the temple was desecrated, and there were religious persecutions, and so there is every reason for us celebrate on Chanukah, because it marks the rededication of the temple and the regaining of our religious freedoms.

But it turns out that even in purely religious terms, there are significant problems with the traditional Jewish version of the Chanukah story, because what happened after the conquest of Jerusalem wasn’t at all a restoration of the Jewish ante-bellum religious establishment.  That, of course, would have entailed the restoration of the legitimate line of High Priests in the person of the son of the now-dead Onias.

In fact, Antiochus sought a negotiated end to the war at this point, and in pursuit of this he restored the religious freedoms that the Jews had had before his reign, which would have left the door open to an Oniad restoration, had that been what the Maccabees really wanted.  This policy was confirmed by the Seleucids after Antiochus died in 163 BCE and was succeeded by his nine-year-old son.  Not only did they confirm the restoration of religious freedom for the Jews, but the Seleucids also killed Menelaus on the grounds that he was the cause of all their trouble.

But Judas rejected all these attempts at a peaceful resolution and the Maccabees carried on fighting until they managed to take advantage of a series of succession disputes and civil wars in the Seleucid Empire to have themselves, in the person of Jonathan (the brother of Judas), appointed to the High Priesthood.

Given that one of the main causes of the Maccabean revolt was the refusal of the Jews to accept the right of Antiochus and the other Seleucid kings to appoint the High Priest, it is ironic to see that at the end of 20 years of war, the Hasmonean leader Jonathan accepted the High Priesthood from a Seleucid king.

What Chanukah marks is a change in both the structure and practice of Judaism

Questions about the legitimacy of those in charge of the Jewish religion are not a modern preoccupation. They date back to the biblical stories of Aaron and Miriam slandering Moses, and to the rebellion of Korach. But these concerns do not seem to have been a preoccupation in the days before the Maccabean revolution. The High Priesthood before 175 had been an entirely hereditary office. Onias III could trace his ancestry back via Zadok and Pinchas to Aaron.

Zadok was High Priest at the time of the building of the first temple; as for Pinchas, we read in Bamidbar, 25:11 that his dynasty was awarded the priesthood in perpetuity directly by God.

It is also plain from sources such as the book of Ezekiel, Ezra and Chronicles that the descendants of Zadok the Priest were the leaders of a hereditary temple aristocracy. Even though he was not himself a High Priest, Ezra in Chapter 7 traces his own ancestry back to Zadok, Pinchas and Aaron precisely to establish his credentials for the job he was doing.

The belief was that priests in general, and High Priests in particular, had a divine right to authority in religious matters.  No matter how bad or incompetent they happened to be, their legitimacy was firmly based in the Torah.

Yet we have seen that the Maccabees, who were Cohanim but were not descended from Zadok, made no attempt at all to restore the legitimate line of the High Priests, and that the son of the deposed Onias III (predictably enough called Onias IV) was not recalled to Jerusalem to officiate as a newly restored High Priest in the rededicated temple.

In fact, around the time that Jonathan was appointed High Priest, Onias IV gave up all prospect of returning home, fled to Egypt, and built his own temple at Leontopolis, where he and his successors continued with the same sacrifices and rituals that had previously been practised in Jerusalem.

Most of the displaced priests from the temple did not accompany Onias IV to Egypt.  According to Professor Rachel Elior, they went to live at Qumran; the Dead Sea Scrolls consisted of their priestly library together with their polemical tracts, which revealed that they were bitterly opposed to the Hasmonean regime, and that their opposition was primarily religious.

Elior writes:

“The scrolls reveal an alternative memory exceeding the biblical tradition and yet based profoundly on its foundations. This alternative memory was created, for the most part, in a time of persecution and struggle against the perceived illegal and unholy seizure of power, the unlawful dethronement of those maintaining the legitimacy of the High Priesthood and their banishment. The Seleucid conquest and persecutions (175 -164 BCE) including the dethronement of the High Priest of the family of Zadok, and the nomination of the Hasmonaean dynasty to High Priests and local rulers (152 -37 BCE) by the Seleucid kings, generated a profound resentment in the deposed priestly circles, that defined themselves in historical terms substantiated by the Biblical tradition, as the Priests from the dynasty of Zadok, and in mystical terms as Sons of Light.” (From The Three Temples, pub. Littman, 2005)

Changes in the Jewish religious calendar

One thing that’s really interesting is that one of the primary differences between the Bnei Zadok and the Hasmomeans was that they used different religious calendars.  It’s long been known from apochryphal works such as the Book of Jubilees and the Books of Enoch that there were at least some Jews who used a solar calendar.  What is plain from the Dead Sea Scrolls is that it was used by the Bnei Zadok, and that they regarded it as being divinely revealed – 15 copies of Jubilees were found at Qumran, which is more than any other book except for Psalms, Deuteronomy, Isaiah, Exodus and Genesis.

Compared to our current lunar calendar, the Jewish solar calendar was a thing of great beauty, built around the mystical numbers 4, 7 and 13. The year was 364 days long and was divided into four seasons, with each season of 13 weeks being divided into three months, two of 30 days and one of 31 days.  Every date in every year always fell on the same weekday: 15th Nisan (Pesach) and 15th Tishrei (Succot) always fell always on a Wednesday, and Shavuot always fell on Sunday 15th Sivan (and not the date we now keep).* There were none of the complications we now have when working out the Chagim in our lunar calendar.

Alexander the Great adopted the lunar counting system when he conquered the Babylonians and it spread throughout his empire. In fact, Rachel Elior traces the entire Chanukah story back to the way this calendar was imposed on the Jews. She writes:

“The Zadokite priests and their supporters lost the hegemony in 175 BCE: they never served again in the holy place on Mount Zion. With the banishment of the traditional priestly circles the pre-calculated permanent holy solar calendar of 364 days divided into 52 Sabbaths, commencing in the Spring [and] celebrated together with the angels, also disappeared, never to return, after Onias III, the last High Priest from the dynasty of Zadok, refused to install the Seleucid lunar calendar of 354 days … which commenced in the autumn, in the Jerusalem Temple, and was thus deposed by Antiochus IV.”

The imposition of the lunar calendar is referred to in the Book of Daniel, 7:25, which speaks about Antiochus IV:

“And he shall speak words against the Most High, and shall wear out the saints of the Most High; and he shall think to change the seasons and the law; and they shall be given into his hand until a time and times and half a time.”

Depending on your point of view, this is either a prophecy about Antiochus or a record of what he did. Most scholars think Daniel was the last book of the Tanach to be written, and that it was composed during the Maccabean revolution. The evidence is quite simply that the allegories in the second half map very accurately on what happened before 165 BCE but are completely wrong about what happened afterwards.

Why we kept the lunar calendar

The final Chanukah question is therefore: why did we keep the lunar calendar if it was was imposed by Antiochus against religious opposition? Why did we not go back to the divinely-revealed solar calendar that was used in the temple?

The answer is quite straightforward and comes in two parts: a pair of short-term reasons and one long-term one.

The first short-term reason is that far from restoring the Jewish religious institutions such as the High Priesthood as they existed before the Maccabean revolt, what the Hasmoneans really wanted was to institute a completely new order in which they controlled both civil and religious authority, and in which the previous Zadokite priestly aristocracy was completely excluded.

Rejecting a return to a priestly solar calendar virtually guaranteed that the Zadokites would remain excluded: neither the Hasmoneans, nor the Herodians who followed them, had the slightest interest in doing anything to encourage a religiously motivated opposition.

The second short-term reason is that for the majority of Jews, even religious Jews, the issue of the calendar was not really important. It made no difference to the Jewish observances celebrated at a local level, such as Shabbat, circumcision or Kashrut. And for most people, observance of the festivals was primarily something celebrated by priests in the temple, not by them.

It is very likely that the events surrounding Chanukah mark the point at which the Zadokite High Priesthood lost its legitimacy as a source of spiritual authority: they had not been able to cope with the turmoil that they had partially caused, and it took the Hasmoneans to lead the Jews to independence.

The long-term reason is that the exclusion of the Bnei Zadok from the new religious order left a permanent vacuum at the heart of Temple Judaism, and marked the start of a process that enabled the development of Rabbinic Judaism as it appears in the Talmud and as we know it today.

That new form of Judaism relied not on divine inspiration as exemplified by the solar calendar used in the temple but on the interpretation of the Torah, specifically the Oral Torah, by human agency, as exemplified by the tradition of rabinnical learning that slowly developed in the generations between the Maccabean Revolution and the destruction of the temple.

And the lunar calendar, determined by human observation with a new moon that could be witnessed by the humblest shepherd, was a much better paradigm for Rabbinic Judaism than the solar calendar, which was not open to human intervention and was divinely revealed to a select few only.

Especially in the days before literacy and numeracy, a lunar calendar was fundamentally more democratic, and a solar calendar inherently more aristocratic. The Rabbis airbrushed both the the priestly solar calendar and the role played by the High Priests in Jewish life before the Maccabean Revolution out of Jewish history.

We can see this from the account of Jewish religious history given in the opening words of Pirke Avot:

“Moses received the Torah from Sinai and gave it over to Joshua. Joshua gave it over to the Elders, the Elders to the Prophets, and the Prophets gave it over to the Men of the Great Assembly.”

It’s very apparent that no High Priests are mentioned at all. The men of the Great Assembly did say that temple service – avodah – was one of the pillars on which the world rested, but there is nothing recorded about Cohanim. When we read in the next verse that Simon the Just (Shimon HaTzadik) was one of the last survivors of the Great Assembly, there is no mention at all that he was also a High Priest (probably Simon II, grandfather of Onias III).  In fact, in Yoma 9a, the Talmud explicitly denigrates all but three of the High Priests of the Second Temple.

Finally, if the Maccabean Revolution really had not only rededicated the temple but had also enabled Onias IV and the Bnei Zadok to return and resume the temple service as it was before 175, it is almost certain that much of Jewish history would have been very different. My own guess is that the restoration of a newly-legitimized temple would have left no space for the Rabbinical tradition to develop; and without it, I am not sure that Judaism would have been able to survive 1,900 years after the destruction of the temple.

So when we celebrate the rededication of the temple this Chanukah, we should also give thanks that the Hasmoneans did not ensure a complete restoration of what had gone before, because if they had, it is unlikely that anyone would now be celebrating Chanukah at all.

©Andrew Margolis 2014-15

*Shavuout fell on 15th Sivan in the solar calendar. This is because the counting of the Omer always started on the day after the Shabbat following Pesach.  Since Pesach always occurred on Wednesday 15 Nisan, the first day of the Omer was always Sunday 26th Nisan.

About the Author
Stephen Games is a designer, editor and award-winning architectural historian, formerly with the Guardian, BBC and Independent. He was until spring 2018 a member of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, has been involved in synagogue activism for many years, and is in his spare time editing various volumes of the Tanach.
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