15 Dec 2006

Jesus the Jew & Hanukkah

Author: Bobby Valentine | Filed under: Apocrypha, Bible, Exegesis, Hanukkah, Jesus, Jewish Backgrounds

The 25th of Kislev …

Today is the 25th day of the month known as Kislev in the Jewish calendar. That means today is the first day of Hanukkah . . . the Festival of Lights. This is a wonderful time of the year that has deep meaning for all the descendants of Abraham. It is a shame that many modern, conservative Christians are not as familiar with this holiday, but we should be.

As the student of the Gospel of John knows, the Jewish festivals form an integral part of the story the Evangelist tells about Jesus. In 10.22ff we read about one of those festivals that is missed by those unfamiliar with the Apocrypha: Hanukkah. This short study will attempt three things at once: 1) emphasize the Jewishness of Jesus; 2) help us understand our Jewish “brethren” better; 3) show how the author of John used a “non-biblical” feast to teach about the nature of the Son. I will give a short overview of what Hanukkah is about and then look at John 10.

The “History” of Hanukkah

Hanukkah is observed for eight days, beginning on the 25th of the Hebrew month Kislev which usually falls in December. Hanukkah means “feast of dedication” (cf. John 10.22) and commemorates the victory of a small band of devotees of Yahweh against overwhelming odds in the person of Antiochus Ephiphanes in 165 B.C. Antiochus had tried to impose paganism upon Palestinian Jews, many of whom were happy to comply. The High Priest Joshua (i.e. “Jesus”) changed his name to “Jason” to show his assimilation into the pagan Greek culture. Antiochus imposed a number of restrictions on the People of God. He placed a pagan altar in the Temple of God for the worship of Zeus and offered swine upon it (the “abomination of desolation”). The Jews were forbidden the mark of the covenant – circumcision. The penalty for violating this law was death for the surgeon, the mother and the child. The Torah was banned and burned in large numbers. Young men were forced to have their circumcision “reversed” through a painful procedure and participate in the Greek gymnasium (which was done in the nude). The very survival of Judaism was at stake in this crises.

A small band led by an old priest by the name of Mattathias and his five sons revolted. Their struggle lasted three years and culminated on the 25th day of Kislev with the recapture and dedication of the Temple. The Jews cleansed and purified the defiled temple. The celebration culminated in the relighting of the menorah for eight days as was supposed to have been done in Solomon’s day. That is why the festival is celebrated for “eight” days. The festival has even been called “the Sukkot of the month of Kislev” (2 Maccabees 1.9; 10.6-8). It is appropriate here to quote from the writings themselves on how this wonderful event transpired:

Then Judas and his brothers said, “See, our enemies are crushed; let us go up to cleanse the sanctuary and dedicate it.” So all the army assembled and went up to Mount Zion. There they saw the sanctuary desolate, the altar profaned, and the gates burned. In the courts they saw bushes sprung up as in a thicket, or as on one of the mountains. They saw also the chambers of the priests in ruins. Then they tore their clothes and mourned with great lamentation; they sprinkled themselves with ashes and fell face down on the ground. And when the signal was given with the trumpets, they cried out to Heaven. Then Judas detailed men to fight against those in the citadel until he had cleansed the sanctuary.” (1 Maccabees 4.36-41)

Later in the same chapter we read:

Early in the morning on the twenty-fifth day of the ninth month, which is the month of Chislev, in the one hundred forty-eighth year, they rose and offered sacrifice, as the law directs, on the new altar of burnt offering that they had built. At the very season and on the very day that the Gentiles had profaned it, it was dedicated with songs and harps and lutes and cymbals. All the people fell on their faces and worshiped and blessed Heaven, who had prospered them. So they celebrated the dedication of the altar for eight days, and joyfully offered burnt offerings; they offered a sacrifice of well-being and a thanksgiving offering. They decorated the front of the temple with golden crowns and small shields; they restored the gates and the chambers for the priests, and fitted them with doors. There was very great joy among the people, and the disgrace brought by the Gentiles was removed. Then Judas and his brothers and all the assembly of Israel determined that every year at that season the days of dedication of the altar should be observed with joy and gladness for eight days, beginning with the twenty-fifth day of the month of Chislev.” (1 Maccabees 4.52-59).

The Rabbis explained where the tradition of the eight days and the menorah comes from. The Talmud states:

What is Hanukkah? Our rabbis stated: ‘Commencing on the twenty-fifth day of Kislev, there are eight days during with mourning and fasting are forbidden. When the Greeks entered the Temple, they defiled all the oils therein, and when the Hasmonean dynasty prevailed against them and defeated them, they made search and found only one cruse of oil, sufficient for but one day’s lighting, which lay with the seal of the High Priest. Yet a miracle was wrought therein and with it they lit the lamp therewith for eight days. The following year these days were appointed a Festival with the recital of Hallel and thanksgiving.’” (Babylonian Talmud, Shab. 21b).

Through the years Hanukkah has celebrated the faith of a few in the power of God to work wonders through powerless and weak. Thus the Festival celebrates God’s yeshua (“salvation” . . . also the name of “Jesus”). This faith was not only on the part of men but of the incredible sacrifice of women. This is especially evident in the book of Second Maccabees which relates the story of Hannah, a Jewish mother. I must summarize this great story.

The king tried to force Hannah, and her seven sons, to transgress the Torah and forfeit her faith in Yahweh. Rather than transgress (by eating pig meat). Rather than cave in she exhorted her sons to endure through gruesome torture and death. All seven sons died as Hannah watched and finally she herself was killed by the king. But as Hannah put it she gave her sons and her own life in “sanctification of God’s name” (2 Macc. 7.1-41).

The authors of the books of Maccabees believe that Mattathias, his sons, Hannah and her sons, could never have “witnessed” without the “hidden miracle” of God. God was present, God was active, it was who God delivered. For God is the God of the Covenant of Love. Thus during the celebration of Hanukkah, a Jew has often read the story of Judith and meditated on the passage in Zechariah . . . “Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit [shall you prevail], says the Lord of hosts” (4.6). Not a bad passage to associate with the Festival of Lights.

There are other traditions associated with the Festival like the dreidel but detailing them all will make this “short” summary . . . way to long.

If you want to delve further in First Maccabees see my article: Book of First Maccabees, God’s Family of Deliverance

Jesus, the King of the Jews and Savior of Creation

Jesus and Hanukkah

Since most Christians in the Churches of Christ often have little knowledge of the Feast of Lights or where it came from the above summary was necessary background for this part of my blog. This festival, though it has no “authority” as such in the Hebrew Bible, it was important not only in the life of Jesus but also to the apostle John as he tells his story in the Gospel of John. John explicitly roots the encounter of Jesus with some Jewish leaders against the background of Hanukkah in 10.22-39. He even notes it was “winter.”

As G. R. Beasley-Murray writes, “In the festival that celebrated the deliverance of Israel from a destroyer of true religion and the consecration of the temple for true worship, Jesus affirmed that God had consecrated him as the true Redeemer, whose deliverance issues in the kingdom of God and with it the worship of God under the new covenant.” Indeed, Jesus is the “fulfillment of the Festival of Dedication.” (Word Biblical Themes: John, pp. 84-85).

Commentators of such stature as B.F. Westcott, F.F. Bruce and Leon Morris say much the same thing. Jesus is not only observing the feast but fulfills its meaning in his life (in John’s argument).

Against the backdrop of a burning menorah, the illuminated testimony to the “miracles” or “signs” of God’s “salvation” of Israel, John tells us the living Yeshua was standing in front of the Jewish leaders . . . who did not “believe” his “miracles” (John 10.38). God is continuing to deliver his people. Not simply through the Maccabees but through the Son. Jesus is truly the “light of the world.” He is God’s shining “menorah.”

The only person who casts a different perspective on this text is, almost predictably, one of “our own.” B. W. Johnson in both his “People’s New Testament” and his “Commentary on John” (p. 164) says “Nay!” Johnson’s argument is surely not rooted in the Greek text of John rather it seems to be rooted in a prior assumption — Jesus would not observe a festival that “lacked biblical authority.” He writes, “The feast of Dedication was not one of the divinely appointed festivals, and there is nothing in the Savior’s ministry to create the idea that he would observe it . . .”

Westcott clearly blows that perspective out of the water. John wants to link what Jesus says with the Festival — purposefully. Anyway Johnson demonstrates what a prior commitment to an assumption can do to a rather obvious intention in the text — blind it. Jesus is a Jew and he thought giving God the credit for the deliverance through the Maccabees was a good thing. He did not have a problem endorsing this tradition just as he did not have one with the synagogue. And the Apostle thought it provided a “brilliant” opportunity to say something deep about who Jesus is and what he has done.

John 10 is a gem of a text that allows us to deal with many things at once. And since Hanukkah is being observed this time of year it also creates a sense of understanding of our Jewish roots — that are all too often buried and forgotten.

Bobby Valentine
Milwaukee, WI

29 Responses to “Jesus the Jew & Hanukkah”

  1. Bobby Cohoon Says:

    Thank you brother. It is always good to be reminded from where we came. I think to many times we tend to overlook our Jewish roots.


  2. Gallagher Says:

    Excellent historical, informative and inviting post. My wife and I were talking in Target, of all places, how we should celebrate Hanukkah next year and let our children know more of teh culture of the Scriptures.

    Great post. I may share it with our Bible class on Sunday.

  3. Paula Harrington Says:

    Thank you so much for this! I’m going to pass it on and I hope others do the same!

  4. Stoogelover Says:

    I’ve forgotten so much of what I’d known. Much of this I’ve studied and taught, and forgotten. Thanks for an excellent post / reminder. I got rid of my Johnson’s Notes many years ago. Now I remember why!!!

  5. Mike Exum Says:

    Great stuff.

    I read 1 Macc a few weeks ago. I was impressed by Judas. I thought if I were choosing a messiah, I would have chosen him. I think most of us would. He rocked.

    I suppose a comment like that only complicates the discussion. But in the end, I am a Jesus guy.

    Your post is very enlightening an educational. Thanks for sharing.

    Many blessings…

  6. MommyHAM Says:


    I love this stuff…love it, love it.

    Thank you for sharing.

    We’ve come to celebrate the passover at our church prior to easter, I wonder if, with your lesson here, hanukkah might be forseeable in the future?

  7. Steve Puckett Says:

    Hey bro. Thoughtful insights. Thanks for sharing and for leaving the first comment at the new and improved (??) ZZPuck.

    You caught me with my curtains open!! I’m totally revamping ZZPuck and the blog part is still under construction. I am totally okay with anyone looking around though and offering any suggestions they might have. I will email everybody when I get it totally ready.


  8. Mark Says:

    Thanks for stopping by the blog, Bobby! Yes, old Antiochus IV Epiphanes was a pretty rotten guy. Having pigs offered in the temple to a false God is pretty much as bad as it can get.

    I hope things are going well as you’re trying to lighten your book load. A Harding professor told me about when he got a leak in his office that destroyed most of his Library. He now has a rule that he cannot buy another book until he reads the one he most recently bought. That’s slowed down his spending, and has helped him get quite a bit more out of his library, from what he says.

    I hope things go well for you in your new ministry setting.

  9. Kevin Burt Says:


    Most Christians in American have little awareness of the Christian Calendar, much less the Jewish one. How many of us have been fasting since November 15, the beginning of “Winter Lent” (Advent)? How many of us are in a time of intensified penitence as we “make ready a people prepared for the Lord”? How many of us will celebrate Christmas for 12 days, and know why? How many of us will celebrate January 1st as “New Year’s Day” rather than the Christian feast on January 1st? On and on we could go…

    Unfortunately, our time is increasingly dictated by a secular state and the new priesthood of it, the advertisers. Our days are marked by “hours of McDonald’s” rather than “hours of prayer.”

    Have you read Webber’s book, Ancient-Future Time? Very good and helpful in this regard. Also Thomas Howard’s Evangelical is Not Enough: Worship of God in Liturgy and Sacrament, and Scot McKnight’s Praying With the Church, and Fr. Alexander Schmemann’s The Christian Year.

    Wishing you a penitential Advent filled with hope! 🙂

  10. Matt Says:

    I love how Jesus used the festivals as teachable moments concerning his identity – John 7:37-38 (if my memory is right) where Jesus talks about being the living water is found in the background of the water libation given at the Feast of Tabernacles. Jesus proclaims himself as the fulfillment of what they had been carrying out for centuries.

    Thanks for the perspective.

  11. Stoned-Campbell Disciple Says:

    Kevin I have not read that Webber book but I did read Ancient-Future Faith and I have scanned “Evangelical Is Not Enough” but have not sunk my teeth into it.

    In some of my earlier blogs I wrote several on praying with the saints and church. I am unfamiliar with McKnight’s book but it sounds like one I will have to look at.

    Thanks for the suggestions.

    Bobby Valentine

  12. JD Says:

    Bobby, you fill a unique role in blog world and in the Churches of Christ. I do not think that is too big of a statement. Thanks for sharing yourself with us … always with kindness … always focused on Jesus.

  13. Vonnie Says:

    I never knew the connection between Hannukah and Jesus’ teaching – must have been taught by teachers who read Johnson :). I am so looking forward to your arrival. We had a few clouds today, but no rain.

  14. Darin L. Hamm Says:

    Great post. Thanks.

  15. Josh Says:

    Good Post.

    It’s important to understand the traditions of the Jews… besides… Jesus was a Jew.

    Interesting post.

  16. Josh Says:

    Good Post.

    It’s important to understand the traditions of the Jews… besides… Jesus was a Jew.

    Interesting post.

  17. Josh Says:

    Sorry for the studder.

  18. Kevin B. Says:

    I imagine you’ve noticed this before, but for anyone who hasn’t, it is probable that the writer of Hebrews, in 11.35 (“…Some were tortured, refusing release, that they might rise again to a better life”), was referring to the story in 2 Mac. 7 of the seven brothers who were, along with their mother, tortured and killed.

  19. belinda Says:

    I am thrilled to see you quoting Maccabees . . . my husband has his Bible with that book in it. Along with many others that someone in the 1600’s decided to delete from our versions. He came from Russia – contrary to popular belief – he knows the Bible much better than I do. Sad isn’t it? After going to church for more than 40 years and a church of Christ school . . . I’d challenge anyone to go a round with him . . .

  20. Kevin B. Says:


    The Russian Church has a very, very rich and interesting history. Some of the great Saints of God’s Church have been Russians. Some of my favorite writers are Russian, among them Dostoevsky (his Crime and Punishment is not only a classic, it is a beautiful story of sin, redemption and hope).

    I wish I could chat with your husband; I’ve been intently looking into Orthodoxy for some time now.

    Incidentally, as the thread of this subject is centered around the Jewishness of Jesus, there is no other Church in the world which is more Jewish in its liturgy and calendar than the Eastern Orthodox.

    Kevin B.

  21. cwinwc Says:

    I remember the first Promise Keepers rally I attended. A fairly large group of “Jews for Jesus” were in attendance. In fact, they opened the conference with the blowing of some kind of Hebrew horn. Later as 50,000 men were singing and praising God, they were waving their horns in praise to God. It was a moment that somehow reminded me of Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem.

    Thanks for reminding us of our “Jewish heritage.”

  22. Danny Says:

    Bobby, your scholarship blesses us all. Thanks for this post.

    Happy Hanukkah!

  23. Stoned-Campbell Disciple Says:

    Kevin you are quite right about Hebrews and Maccabees. You have encouraged me to make a Traditions in Hebrews post.

    Don’t forget Tolstoy in naming great Russian authors … his works are very much rooted in a Christian worldview as well.

    Bobby Valentine

  24. belinda Says:

    For those of you interested, my Russian husband can be reached at bpbishop@aol.com.

  25. Bob Hendren Says:

    Of course, Jesus shared in the history of his people, otherwise why did he bother to be in synagogue, an idea unknown in Hebrew Scripture? Completely understanding the “Ego eimi to phos tou kosmou” is impossible without a knowledge of the events you write about. Thanks so much…

    Bob Hendren, Florence, Alabama

  26. Stoned-Campbell Disciple Says:

    Bob thanks for your comments. I could not agree more. Jesus’ participation in the synagogue certainly calls into question a number of false assumptions we impose upon him … as does his participation in the Festival of Lights … as you point out he is the “light of the cosmos/world.”

    Bobby Valentine

  27. Bruce Says:

    Bobby thanks for the nutrition your words bring to our faith. “Jesus you are the fulfillment of all things. Praise your holy name!”

  28. Warren Says:

    Thanks for calling our attention to this in Pulpit Preview. I’m justg reading it now (2012). Good overview with great application. I may be using this for this season. Thanks!


  29. Johnny D. Hinton Says:

    Hey Bobby,

    Have you ever thought about the possible connections between Hanukah and Christmas?

    Kislev 25 / December 25
    Giving of gifts
    All the lights

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