The Book of Maccabees


Is there a reason as to why Hanukkah is celebrated in Judaism even though Jews do not consider Maccabees part of the Tanakh? Probably a dumb question but from what I’m reading Maccabees is considered “apocryphal” to Jews as it is to Protestants. When did Maccabees get “dropped” from the Jewish canon and when was Hanukkah warranted to widespread celebration as a commemorative holiday in the Jewish calender?


The Books of the Maccabees were dropped from the Tanakh in the Council of Yavneh, AD 90.

Hannukah was already in the Jewish calendar, from the 160s BC, but was a rather minor feast until North American Judaism boosted it as a Jewish equivalent to Christmas.



Just because they do not accept the texts that we know as 1 and 2 Maccabees does not mean they don’t believe in the historicity of a Maccabeean Revolt and the events the festival celebrates.


Maccabees is generally accepted by the Jews and usually read from each Chanukah by many of them. It is referred to as one of the Greek Scriptures (meaning texts originally written in Greek or usually part of the Septuagint) or Scriptures of the Second Temple period.

For a brief time in history until the 1960s many believed that the Jews held a council in the year 90 AD/CE. to determine their own canon, but this turned out to be a hypothetical model. Maccabees never got “dropped” from the Jewish canon because there was never a Jewish canon.

The “Tanakh,” which matches the Christian “Old Testament” is the collection of texts before the Second Temple which were written in Hebrew (or Aramaic transliterated into Hebrew script). Being that the Books of Maccabees are from the Second Temple era and generally held to be written in Greek (though Hebrew copies were recently discovered), they aren’t included in the Tanakh. But Jewish holy writ includes more than just the Tanakh. There are works like the Books of Maccabees and the Talmud and the Mishnah. Just because something isn’t in the Tanakh doesn’t mean it isn’t accepted by the Jews.

Chanukah has been celebrated since its inception at the time of the Maccabean Revolt against the Seleucid Empire of the 2nd century BC/BCE. Though not a High Holy Day, it became very popular when Jews settled in the United States. Interestingly, Chanukah (also spelled Hanukkah) is a bit more festive of an occasion in America than in Israel.


I thought I read on an article here that the whole “Hanukkah became popular as the Jewish equivalent of Christmas” thing is not true.

The history of Hanukkah and the history of Christmas are completely un-related.

I forgot that Jesus supposedly celebrated Hanukkah?


As a Catholic of Jewish heritage, I hear that a lot. And there’s some truth to what both sides say and deny.

Chanukah is a celebration of Jewish culture and the fact that it has survived despite so much antisemitic opposition throughout the centuries. You will find Jews of all types–secular, religious, Hebrew Catholics, even Jews who have become atheist–celebrating this holiday because, like Cinco de Mayo and St. Patrick’s Day, it’s as much a remembrance of history as it is a celebration of heritage.

In America to celebrate one’s heritage is a big thing. So Chanukah has become a far greater celebration over the years here in the United States because of the way Americans encourage and celebrate diversity. All culture wars aside, Americans pride themselves in our unique melting pot, and thus Chanukah has become a way for non-Jewish Americans to celebrate the Jews in their midst (its even become traditional to light a hanukkiyah–the 9-branch menorah–each year at the White House). For many Christians in the USA, it’s not Christmas without some Chanukah decorations somewhere.

Now some Jews in other countries do accuse American Jews for making it somewhat of a substitute for Christmas. If and where this may be true, that would be understandable, especially when people are usually talking about the secular trappings of Christmas. Christmas trees, decorations, lights, merrymaking, all that has no connection to the actual Church observance of the Nativity of our Lord, and these secular trappings differ from culture to culture. Americans are big Christmas celebrators, so it’s very American to do this with lots of lights and decor. One might say Jews are not so much copying Christmas as they are just being Americans.

In America the secular demands to celebrate the cultural Christmas are hard to hide from and reject too (as a Jehovah’s Witnesses how hard it is for them–they don’t celebrate Christmas). So it may have become easier for many Jews to transfer some of this into their personal Chanukah celebrations. And how many Christian parents who have kids and live in areas where there are many Jewish family, how many times have they heard: “I wish we were Jewish. Then we could get presents for 8 nights instead of just on one day!”

But it isn’t a “Jewish Christmas,” and the celebration is older than Christmas itself. Yes, Jesus celebrated it, and his famous “I am the light of the world” speech in John 8 is said to have occurred on the last night of Chanukah. He was likely using the occasion due to the fact that a giant hanukkiyah used to be set up in the Second (Herod’s) Temple and illuminated for each night of Chanukah. Reportedly the brilliance of the lights would not only make walking around Jerusalem at night possible but could be seen hundreds of miles away (and thus the significance of the “I am the light of the world” expression). Take that Rockefeller Center Christmas Tree!

The only connection between Christmas and Chanukah in the customs is the use of light. The lights of Chanukah and the use of other lamps in the Temple were used liturgically by the Jews for metaphoric reasons. Catholics borrowed this from their Jewish connections in the first century. The fact that the Chanukah lights break through during the darkest nights of the year is the same reason lights are used at Christmas time. John 1 plays on this theme of “light shining in the darkness, and the darkness not overpowering it” extending it throughout his account, with Jesus words at John 8 being a respite and reflection of this at the mid-point of this gospel.


I’m back for the moment.

Scholars still argue today about whether a biblical ‘canon’ existed during Second Temple period Judaism (530 BC-AD 70). Some argue that yes, a canon consisting of the 23 (or 39, if we go by the Christian reckoning) book protocanon was already in place at least by the 1st century AD, while others would be wary, preferring instead to say that there was still a very loose definition of what canon is. But as far as I know, almost no one would say that the canon is already ‘closed’ at that point. Even those who prefer to think that the protocanon was already in place by that time would still accept that a few books within the canon was still under some dispute (read: Ecclesiastes, Song of Songs).

I should point out that 1 and 2 Maccabees are really two separate works: one was probably composed in Hebrew or Aramaic (although only the Greek version survives today), while the other - an epitome, or a condensed version of a five-volume work by a Jason of Cyrene - was an original Greek composition.

I could think of a number of reasons why both books of Maccabees didn’t make the cut. In the case of 2 Maccabees, there’s the fact that it’s a Greek work. Unlike books such as Tobit or Sirach (which were originally composed in Hebrew/Aramaic), documents in Greek like say, 2 Maccabees or Wisdom of Solomon apparently didn’t become popular in Palestine as they did in the Jewish diaspora.

Even within Palestine, the Maccabees are very polarizing figures. Most people praised them as heroes of course because they managed to liberate Jews from the Seleucid yoke (which is what the author of 1 Maccabees was doing - he was casting them as God-sent deliverers fight against the evil oppressor who was trying to eradicate the traditional Jewish way of life in the style of earlier biblical narratives), but there were Jews who didn’t like them at all, mostly because of the dynasty of high priests-slash-kings they subsequently founded (the Hasmonean dynasty). For instance, you have the Community at Qumran. The fact that the books of Maccabees is not attested in the Dead Sea Scrolls has been taken to be a confirmation of what the Community claimed: that their founding members (particularly the so-called ‘Teacher of Righteousness’) were originally priests from the high priestly Zadokite line who were usurped from their positions by the Hasmoneans - something which the Maccabees originally could not do. (The Maccabees were priests, but only priests from the Zadokite line could become high priests.)

That’s really what’s controversial. For some Jews, the Maccabees, in their struggle against Antiochus, seemed to go overboard: the Jewish rebels decided to break the Sabbath in self-defense (1 Maccabees 2:39-42), something which would have seemed to be an arrogant decision, plus when they finally drove the Seleucids out they claimed both the kingship and the high priesthood - something which (if we go by the biblical promises) properly belonged respectively to the houses of David and Zadok - with Roman backing no less.

There’s probably also the fact that Judah Maccabee made a treaty with Rome against the Seleucids (1 Maccabees 8:17-20) - which wouldn’t have sat down well to Jews, especially after all the events of the late 1st-early 2nd century. The author of 1 Maccabees even goes on to great lengths praising the Romans. Not exactly the type of thing you’d want to hear after the same people conquered your country, slaughtered all your freedom fighters and burnt your Temple to the ground.

And that’s what also may have contributed to Maccabees not being accepted into the Jewish canon: the works have a positive view of the idea of holy war, of nationalistic and religiously-motivated uprising against the foreign oppressor - which the Jews (especially after the failed Bar Kochba revolt of AD 120) were trying to distance themselves from. You’d notice that the books of Maccabees and the later Rabbis (who really helped develop the modern Jewish perception of Hanukkah) emphasize different aspects of a single event (the retaking and the rededication of the Temple): the books celebate the divinely wrought victory of the small Judaean forces over the more powerful pagan enemy, while the Rabbinic sources choose to ignore the military side of the event and focuses instead on an entirely different aspect (which does not appear in both 1 and 2 Maccabees), the miracle of the oil that never ran out.


The story of Hanukkah (the miracle of the oil) is even not in the the Books of Maccabees—it appears in the Talmud.


The Council of Yavneh is entirely fiction.


As I pointed out in the last post, the reorientation of Hanukkah to celebrate the relatively harmless miracle of the oil seems to be a conscious effort by the Rabbis to distance the festival (which originally celebrated a military victory) from anything that might be construed as offensive and seditious (e.g., the celebration of the concept of holy war against the pagan oppressor), especially when people who tried to repeat what the Maccabees had done (read: the Zealots in the 60s-70s, Bar Kochba in the 120s) ended up causing national disaster.


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