The Chanukah Story
168 - 165 BCE
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The Jewish "Festival of Lights", held every year in December, celebrates the victory of a heroic band of Jewish guerillas, led by the legendary Judah Maccabee, the "Hammer of God", over the forces of the Syrian (Seleukid) King, Antiochos IV. It's a joyful and beautiful celebration, a simple story of victory over tyranny, of the triumph of religious freedom, with just a hint of the miraculous thrown in.

But the full story is a bit more complex ...


In the early 160's BCE, the Jewish people were undergoing an identity crisis of a sort. The powerful influence of the Greek, or "Hellenistic", culture was drawing many away from what others saw as the correct path of the Jewish religion and culture. These differences of opinion, more and more frequently, led to violence.

The dominant power in the region was the Seleukid kingdom, centered in Syria. It was a piece of what had been Alexander the Great's empire some two hundred years before.

Antiochos IV of Syria, 175-164 BCE
This silver tetradrachm ("tetra-dram") is roughly the size of a U.S. half dollar coin. The front features the portrait of Antiochos IV, and the back features Zeus, the Greek god to whom Antiochos IV rededicated the Jewish temple.

Alexander's vision had been to spread Greek culture throughout the world. In keeping with this vision, when Antiochos IV learned of the fighting in Jerusalem, he used the pretext of protecting the "Hellenized" Jews as an excuse to invade Jerusalem in 168 BCE. He banned the Jewish religion and took over the Temple, rededicating it to Zeus and sacrificing animals that Jews considered "unclean" (pigs) there.

The rebellion caught fire when a Jewish priest, Mattathias, killed a fellow Jew who was about to give in to the Seleukids' demand to sacrifice at a pagan altar. He and his five sons then killed the royal commissioner, destroyed the pagan altar, and escaped to the nearby hills. Mattathias died of natural causes shortly thereafter, but left his third son Judah, known as The Maccabee ("Hammer" of God) in charge.

Under Judah, the "Hassidim" (Pius Ones) waged a guerilla campaign from the mountains against Seleukid soldier and Hellenized Jew alike for three years, finally driving the Seleukid troops out in 165 BCE. Antiochos IV died shortly thereafter while campaigning in Parthia, so we don't know whether he would have been able to reestablish his authority in Jerusalem.

The victory against Antiochos IV is celebrated each year in the Jewish holiday, Chanukah (or Hanukka). According to tradition*, after cleansing the Temple, there was only enough oil to light the sacred lamp for one day, but it would take eight days to get more; however, miraculously, the available oil lasted the full eight days, so the light never had to be extinguished. This is the modern explanation of why candles are lit for each of the eight nights of Chanukah.

Second Temple of Jerusalem
This modern Jewish "Tzedakah bank"* is a model of the Second Temple in Jerusalem. It is based on some mixture of historical fact and speculation. I’m not clear on how much of each went into its design.

* Tzedakah refers to the Jewish religious requirement for all to give to charity. This bank is intended to be used by the children of the household to collect their contributions.

And this is where the Chanukah story ends, with an implied "... and they lived happily ever after". But in reality, the struggle against the Seleukids continued. Judah himself was killed, along with two of his brothers. The two surviving brothers were driven from Judaea, but eventually were allowed to return.

Internal struggles among the Seleukids eventually provided them with the opportunity to establish a nearly independent Jewish state again, headed by Judah's brother Simon, which would last (with one brief interruption) for nearly a century.


* Note that the earliest written version of the victory of the Hasmoneans bears no mention of the legend of the oil. It was a later addition, and is regarded as a fable.


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