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Chanukah: A Survey of the Ancient Sources

The holiday of Chanukah is mentioned only briefly in the Mishnah and the Talmud. In fact, the names of the sons of Matityahu are not mentioned. How do we know the background to this holiday? The purpose of this article is to describe three of the main sources that we have and to understand the differences between them. These sources are I Maccabees, II Maccabees and Megillat Antiochus.

I Maccabees spans the period from the beginning of the reign of Antiochus IV (the Antiochus who persecuted the Jews) until the death of Shimon, son of Matityahu. These are the years 175-134 B.C.E. (The persecution by Antiochus took place during the years 167-164 B.C.E.)

The author of I Maccabees is unknown, but it is evident that he was a Jew who was an admirer of Matityahu and his sons. I Maccabees was probably composed sometime after the death of John Hyrcanus (son of Shimon) in 104 B.C.E.

The work was originally composed in Hebrew, but what has survived is only the Greek translation. The church father Jerome (4th cent.) reports that he saw the original Hebrew.

Another early church father refers to the First Book of Maccabees by the title sarbêthsabanaiel. But what does this garbled title mean? Probably, it is connected to the nickname for the priestly order Yehoyariv, the order that Matityahu came from. The nickname for this order was something like MSRBYY. See J. Talmud, Taanit 4:5. Probably, the original title was something like Sefer Beit Sarbanei El = the Book of the Dynasty of God’s Resisters.

II Maccabees is an entirely different work. It was composed in Greek, likely in the Diaspora (perhaps in Alexandria). The unknown author tells us that his work is an abridgement of the work of Jason of Cyrene. (Cyrene is a city on the northern coast of Libya.) Unfortunately, this Jason is unknown. But it is widely agreed that Jason wrote very close in time to the events he described.

II Maccabees covers a shorter time period than I Maccabees. It begins in the years before the reign of Antiochus IV and ends with Judah’s victory over the general Nicanor in 161 B.C.E.

Both I and II Maccabees were preserved because they were incorporated into the canon of the early church. Probably, the books were canonized by the early church because they modeled steadfastness in the defense of God, and because the persecuted Jews were seen as forerunners of Christian martyrs.

With regard to why I Maccabees is not included in Tanach, probably the Biblical canon was considered closed by Jewry even before I Maccabees was composed. For example, Sid Z. Leiman, in his authoritative work “The Canonization of Hebrew Scripture,” takes the position that the Jewish Biblical canon was already closed in the middle of the second century B.C.E. But even if this canon was still open at the time I Maccabees was composed (see, e.g., L.H. Schiffman, Reclaiming the Dead Sea Scrolls, pp. 162-169), I Maccabees was probably never a candidate for canonization since it did not claim to be a book composed before the period of prophecy ended. With regard to II Maccabees, it would never have been a candidate for canonization since it was composed in Greek.

The third work that I mentioned at the outset is Megillat Antiochus. This work is familiar to many in modern times because a Hebrew text of this work was included in the Birnbaum Siddur. But this work was originally composed in Aramaic, and the Aramaic text has been recovered. There are several important contradictions between this work and I and II Maccabees, and the work is generally viewed as very unreliable. See, e.g., Encyclopaedia Judaica 14:1046-47. Most likely, it was composed in the Geonic period. See A. Kasher, “The Historical Background of Megillath Antiochus,” PAAJR (1981), pp. 207-30, and Z. Safrai’s article in The Literature of the Sages, vol. 2, eds. S. Safrai, et al, pp. 238-241. According to the latter, linguistic analysis of the Aramaic indicates that the scroll dates from sometime between the sixth and eighth centuries.

Interestingly, in some communities in the time of the Rishonim and even later, Megillat Antiochus was read on Chanukah. See the article in D. Sperber’s Minhagey Yisrael, vol. 5, pp. 102-113, for some references. The earliest reference to a practice of reading Megillat Antiochus on Chanukah is a statement by R. Saadiah Gaon (10th century). In his introduction to Megillat Antiochus, R. Saadiah writes that “most of the nation read it.” R. Saadiah does not state that it was read as part of a Chanukah ritual, but that would be a reasonable interpretation of the passage.

One interesting example of a difference between I Maccabees, II Maccabees, and Megillat Antiochus is with regard to their understanding of what motivated Antiochus to issue his decrees against the Jews. According to I Macc. (1:41-42), Antiochus had a grand plan to unify his empire through Hellenism and the Jews resisted his plan. But II Macc. does not mention any such grand plan of Antiochus. Rather, according to this work, the decrees were merely a response by Antiochus to what he erroneously perceived as a revolt by the Jews of Judea. See II Macc. 5:11. Finally, according to Megillat Antiochus, Antiochus announces to his ministers, without any particular provocation, that the Jews need to be eliminated, and that the rituals of Shabbat, Rosh Chodesh and milah must be abolished. The king’s complaint was that the Jews do not sacrifice to his gods or follow his laws, and someday hope to rule the world. (In my book “Esther Unmasked,” pp. 94-117, I extensively discuss the issue of what motivated Antiochus’ decrees. Almost certainly, the approach taken by II Macc. is the correct one.)

Another ancient source that discusses the background to Chanukkah is Josephus. But he is largely relying on I Macc. (It seems that he did not have II Macc.) With regard to non-Jewish sources, Antiochus’ persecution of the Jews is mentioned in ancient sources such as Diodorus and Tacitus but the references are very brief. They are collected in M. Stern, “Greek and Latin Authors on Jews and Judaism.”

It is only through sources like I and II Macc. that we can determine the probable original Hebrew spelling of the term “Maccabee” (the nickname for Judah), a term not found in the Mishnah or Talmud or classical midrashim. The Greek letter used in “Maccabee” in I and II Macc. is kappa, a letter usually used to transliterate kof. Also, the best manuscripts of Megillat Antiochus spell “Maccabee” with a kof. The Hebrew spelling with a caf is a later erroneous spelling. It was first used by Yosippon in the 10th century, and then influenced all who came after him. (Yosippon is not Josephus; it is a much later work based on Josephus.) With the kof spelling, we now understand that the word means “hammer.” See, e.g., Judges 4:21.

Mitchell First can be reached at [email protected]. (The above article is adapted from his “Roots and Rituals,” 2018.)

For more articles by Mitchell First, and information on his books, please visit his website at rootsandrituals.org.

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