It’s the end of Hanukkah, the ‘festival of lights,’ or ‘Jewish Christmas,’ as some insensitively like to say. This holiday commemorates an event during the Maccabean revolt in the second century B.C. when the candelabrum in the Jerusalem Temple miraculously burned for eight days despite only having enough oil for one. It’s for that reason, we all know, that Jews today light one additional candle of their Hanukiah (nine-armed candlestick) on each successive night of Hanukkah. Or is it?
New research into the origins of Hanukkah shows that this joyful holiday developed and evolved alongside other gentile light-based festivals like Saturnalia.
In the Books of the Maccabees, which describe the first celebration of Hanukkah, there is no reference to lights of the menorah, which we today see as the focal point of the holiday. The earliest sources make no reference to the miracle of the oil that lasted eight days. Instead, they concentrate on the military victory of the Maccabees over the Greeks and see the festival as a commemoration of the rededication of the Temple (which had been desecrated by the Greeks). Oddly, the first-century Jewish historian Josephus, who first refers to a holiday called the “Festival of Lights,” never calls it Hanukkah or explains why it is associated with light. There are some unanswered questions, therefore, about how Hanukkah moved from being a celebration of military victory to a festival of lights.
At the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature conference held in San Diego last month, Dr. Catherine Bonesho, an assistant professor in Early Judaism at UCLA, presented a paper on religious competition in the ancient world. In her research, Bonesho examined ancient traditions about Hanukkah preserved in the writings of rabbinic authors in order to see what ancient Jews thought the holiday was about. Bonesho told The Daily Beast that our traditions about Hanukkah started much later than most people know. After Josephus, “the ritual of lighting lamps does not appear in textual form until the Mishnah (200 CE), nor does the tradition of the miracle of oil appear until the Babylonian Talmud (edited between 5th-7th centuries CE),” Bonesho said.
The group known as the rabbis who would eventually write and edit the Babylonian Talmud emerged in Roman Palestine after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 A.D. They were largely located in Palestine and Sasanian Babylon and “imagined themselves as the leaders of Judaism.” Their influence grew and their writings remain foundational for many Jewish communities to this day. It’s these later traditions found in the Babylonian Talmud that provide the basis for modern celebrations of Hanukkah.
But these later discussions of the purpose of Hanukkah didn’t emerge in a vacuum. As the festival of Hanukkah grew and the ritual of candle-lighting moved to the center of its celebration, it did so alongside other religious traditions that also celebrated light and fire.
One important influence, which is often noted in conversations about the origins of Christmas, was the popular ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia. Saturnalia emphasizes the importance of light during the winter solstice. One scholar, Moshe Benovitz, has argued that in the first century B.C. King Herod turned Hanukkah into a kind of solstice festival by associating it with other popular festivals of light. He even claims that in the Roman period the lighting of candles originally marked the solstice, not the oil miracle. For the authors of the Babylonian Talmud, the local Sasanian rituals of Zoroastrianism were another important influence. Drawing upon the work of Michael Shenkar, Bonesho notes how important the worship of fire was to the ancient Zoroastrian cult.
What all of this means is that when the rabbis were discussing the origins of Hanukkah there were a number of competing celebrations of light that also occurred in close proximity to the solstice.
In their work, the authors of the Babylonian Talmud collected together some of the traditions about Hanukkah and “reinvented” it as a festival about light and control of light and fire. According to Bonesho, they linked Hanukkah not just to the miracle during the Maccabean revolt, but also to the book of Genesis and the original creation of light.
In particular, they connect Hanukkah to a story about the biblical Adam. In a story found in the Babylonian Talmud, Adam grows afraid of the growing darkness that takes place before the solstice. Understandably, Adam is afraid that the light might never return. As the days grow longer after the solstice and the sun returns, he grows increasingly joyful.
In discussing the origins and purpose of Hanukkah, the rabbis don’t ignore the fact that there are other religious festivals that are interested in light and fire; instead they explain them as a kind of perversion of the original Adamic festival. Bonesho told me that they even link the Hebrew spelling of Saturnalia with light and Hanukkah. As she puts it, “The way the rabbis explain the existence of Saturnalia is by making it a perversion of Hanukkah. Interestingly the Babylonian Talmud’s origin story for the Roman festival of Saturnalia traces the festival back to the biblical Adam and his joy because of the increase in daylight after the winter solstice. According to the passage, because of his joy, Adam establishes an eight-day festival for the sake of God, which the Romans later corrupt into Saturnalia.”
What these origins stories do, Bonesho said, is allow “the rabbis to claim that it is only their God who controls light and fire.” This is religious competition in action. Rather than ignoring the reality of and similarities with other contemporary non-Jewish religious practices, the rabbis seem to place those traditions into a relationship with their own festival. By integrating those non-Jewish practices into their version of Hanukkah they are able to neutralize any potential threat that these rituals posed to their own religious claims.
Liane Feldman, an assistant professor in the Skirball Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies at NYU, told The Daily Beast that Bonesho’s work “helps to shed light on one of the ways in which ancient Jews relied on literary production to reconstruct their origin stories to reflect the realia of the world around them. Bonesho’s argument suggests that Jewish identity, even in a seemingly minor case such as Hanukkah, is constantly being redefined to adopt and etymologize local practices as far as possible so that the rabbis can in turn argue that the local communities adopted originally Jewish practices and rendered them idolatrous.”
They say that the proof of the pudding is in the eating and in this instance that may well be true. Today there continues to be widespread (erroneous) claims that Christians ‘stole’ Saturnalia and turned it into Christmas, but there’s no popular debate about the growth and origins of Hanukkah. And that, arguably, is because the rabbis headed that accusation off at the pass.