You know, I was going to try to be unpredictable and not make a Chanukah post. But as I was writing my Big Fucking Christmas Post (That Isn’t About Paganism), I realized that this one couldn’t be avoided.
Today, Chanukah is kind of a cute holiday about god’s pyromania saving the Jewish people from cultural genocide with lots of songs about candles and spinning tops. With presents. But at its barest of bones, Chanukah is a celebration of the fact that a bunch of guerilla fighters beat the Greek establishment out of Yehuda while using spinning tops as an instrument of subversion. Which begs the question: how did candles and spinning tops come to dominate this holiday which arose from the ousting of an empire of the hands of a few Jews?
First we have to ask what actually happened. Modern scholars fall into two main camps on this issue. One camp views the uprising told of in 1 and 2 Maccabees not as a revolt against the Greeks, but as the result of a civil war between orthodox and reformist Jews. Meaning, there was a civil war between Jews who did not wish to assimilate to the Hellenistic way of life, and Jews who did. The Greek leadership responded to this war by punishing the Orthodox camp (by doing stuff like letting their pigs defecate in the temple). The Maccabean uprising, according to this theory, was the result of Greek intercession in the civil war.
The other camp argues that the revolt began as a religious one, and simply grew into a nationalistic one. Now, because this isn’t my field of study within Jewish history I cannot argue in favor of either camp. I will, however say that, in light of subsequent inter-Jewish conflicts, and in light of conflicts within the present day global Jewish community, the first theory—the one which states that the revolt began with a war between orthodox and modernized Jewry—rings true to me.
The Maccabees, who founded the ruling Hasmonean dynasty, ruled the land independently from 140 BCE to 37 BCE, at which point it was completely dominated by Roman power*.
It would seem that an event of this magnitude would have been deemed worthy enough to merit inclusion in the Biblical canon, but instead, 1 and 2 Maccabees were banished to the Apocrypha**. Because I assumed that this was an issue of later Jewish theology, I asked my college rabbi about it, and what he said was pretty interesting. He explained that the Hasmoneans were corrupt leaders whose policy led directly to Roman conquest (which in turn led to the destruction of the Second Temple).
For this reason, later rabbinical scholars, not wanting to glorify the Hasmoneans, relegated 1 and 2 Maccabees to the Apocrypha and emphasized the role of god and miracles in the uprising over the Maccabees themselves. That is why, today, we have a holiday about latkes, dreidels, and candle lighting; American Christmas is obviously to blame for the part about presents (not that I’m complaining, and more on that in a day or two).
*Rome conquered and divided the land in 63 BCE, but the Hasmoneans retained a semblance of independence until Herod the Great strengthened his rule in 37BCE.
**These books are apocryphal in the Hebrew Bible, and in the Protestant scriptures; they are canonical within the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox texts