Hanukah: Prequel to the Gospels

By Major Adam E. Frey, USAF


I loved the Star Wars prequels. While we can debate the quality or lack thereof of the three prelude chapters of the Star Wars saga, I think that part of their draw is that they allowed audiences to revisit—however imperfectly—the magic of the original films.  We were reintroduced to familiar old characters—Darth Vader, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and the Droids—even if they weren’t quite yet who we remembered from the classic films.  We delighted when we got a familiar prelude of things to come from the originals.  Who didn’t get a slight rise out of seeing the Death Star plans in Episode II, or watching the Clone Troopers walk in formation to the Imperial March?

My point is that we take a certain delight in seeing a prelude to the classics.  It shouldn’t surprise us that prequels have taken off in popularity in the last decade.  The Hobbit films are letting us dip back into the wonder of the Lord of the Rings trilogy.  X-Men: First Class revisited the mutant team in their original 1960s element, and did a good job of it considering that the cast of the original X-Men films had moved on by that point.  Last year’s Prometheus gave us a flawed prequel to Ridley Scott’s “Alien,” but we got to see a sharp-jawed xenomorph climb out of an alien’s chest, so I guess that’s something.


I’m reflecting on prequels because of the prominence this week of the Jewish holiday of Hannukah, which is our prequel.  The feast typically falls around the Christmas season and, at least in the United States, has gained notoriety as a Jewish equivalent to Christmas in terms of festivals and gift-giving.  It’s had a particular notoriety this year because of its extremely rare convergence with Thanksgiving this year.  But to me, Christians have an opportunity to reflect on the fact that Hanukah falls two days before Advent.  In a sense, it’s also a spiritual “prequel” to the Christmas season.

Has Frey gone meshuggah?  Hopefully not!  Let’s back up and explain what Hanukah is and how it relates to the Gospels.  A little history will show how the story has incredible significance for the New Testament despite the fact that most Christians seldom reflect on it.

Two Books Nobody Notices, but Mother Church insists be there

Part of the problem is that the story of Hanukah is recorded in the two Books of Maccabees, an important and yet unfortunately unpopular part of scripture.  (We’ll come back to Hanukah itself in a bit.)  These books are important to Jews, but not given religious significance.  Nor do most Protestant sects consider them to be canonical, siding with Martin Luther’s decision to excise them from scripture centuries ago.  The various Catholic rites do consider 1 and 2 Maccabees to be inspired and sacred (the Orthodox churches including a third book as well), but even then, we Catholics seldom discuss them.  Only one brief story from Maccabees appears in the Sunday lectionary, and we often point to certain lines of the books as supporting the doctrine of Purgatory, but that tends to be the extent to which we use it.

As a part of history, the 1 and 2 Maccabees fill an incredible gap in the story of salvation history.  If the various books of the Old Testament were arranged in a chronological order, then Protestant Bibles would cover a period from Genesis to the Jewish return from the Babylonian exile in 538 B.C., as recounted in the Books of Kings and Chronicles.  The dual books of Ezra and Nehemiah tell how the Jews rebuilt Jerusalem and Solomon’s Temple and continues the Jewish story to about 438 B.C.  Some scholars speculate that the events described in the Book of the Prophet Joel take place around 400 B.C., but that’s it for the Protestant Bible.  Between the return from exile and the birth of Christ, there’s a 400-year gap in the Bible.

The Catholic Bible fills this hole quite nicely by including the two books of Maccabees.  Although they specifically recount events taking place from 180 to 135 B.C., they do provide an additional historical context for world events between 438 and 180.  Namely, 1 Maccabees opens with a rapid review of world history.  Recall that the poor Jews of the Old Testament were often caught in the crossfire of invading kingdoms.  They faced the rise of the Assyrians, who were conquered later conquered by the Babylonians, who themselves were defeated by the Persian Empire of the proto-messiah Cyrus the Great.  1 Maccabees continues the story of world conquest by recounting the eventual rise of Alexander the Great in the late 300s, whose Greek empire conquered a greater swath of the world than any prior kingdom.  Yet after Alexander’s death, his various descendants and successors fought over the remains of his kingdom—Jerusalem again caught in the crossfire.  By 180 B.C., the largest of these factions was led by King Antiochus IV Epiphanes, ruler of the Selucid Empire.  Around this time, Antiochus set his sights on Jerusalem, and it is against that background that Hanukah is set.

In 176 B.C., Antiochus led both a military and a cultural invasion of Jerusalem.  Antiochus believed in “Hellenization,” the forcible imposition of Greek culture upon conquered people.  For the Jews, this meant a criminalization of the worship of Yahweh.  Solomon’s temple was desecrated and the altar was replaced with a statue of Zeus.  (Another disadvantage of the Protestant Bible is that the events of 1 Maccabees explain the prophecy of the “abomination of desolation” warned of in the Book of Daniel.)  The Levitical law, including the kosher diet and the sabbath rest, were oppressed by Antiochus under penalty of death.  The Jews—who undoubtedly hoped to re-establish themselves as an independent kingdom after the return from Babylon—now faced cultural and physical extinction under Greek conquest, a threat that would be repeated all too often over the next two millennia.

Superhero Stories of the Maccabee Brothers

Against this threat rose a set of heroes who almost seem to have been drawn out of comic books: the Jewish leader Matthias, and his sons Jonathan, Matthias, and the famous Judas Maccabeus.  These heroes inspired a Jewish rebellion which led to a national revolt against the Greek invaders.  Through a series of military campaigns and, according to the events in 2 Maccabees, the divine intervention of some avenging angels, Judas and his family slaughtered the Greeks and re-established an independent Jerusalem.  Though Judas himself died in 160 B.C., his brother Jonathan was established as a new high priest for Judea.  Matthais’ son Simon Maccabeus later succeeded Jonathan as the high priest, and in 142 B.C. also became the first Hebrew king of the Jews since the Babylonian exile.  Though not of the Davidic bloodline, the Maccabees created a long-sought independent Judea, at least for a few decades.

Hannukah itself celebrates Judas’ capture and rededication of Solomon’s temple around 164 B.C.  Remember that to Old Testament Jews, the Temple was the people’s most sacred and holy site, where God himself dwelt above the Ark of the Covenant and where the high priest offered sacrifice on the Day of Atonement.  To Americans, Antiochus’ capture of the Temple would have been akin to Hitler capturing the White House and decorating it with Nazi décor, though the Jews undoubtedly found it indefinitely more distasteful.  Thus, 1 Maccabees tells us of the pain that Judas felt on finding the Temple desecrated, and the lengths to which he restored it:

Then Judas and his brothers said, “Now that our enemies have been crushed, let us go up to purify the sanctuary and rededicate it.”  So the whole army assembled, and went up to Mount Zion.  They found the sanctuary desolate, the altar desecrated, the gates burnt, weeds growing in the courts as in a thicket or on some mountain, and the priests’ chambers demolished.  Then they tore their garments and made great lamentation; they sprinkled their heads with ashes and prostrated themselves. And when the signal was given with trumpets, they cried out to Heaven.

Priests, the alter, and purpose

Judas appointed men to attack those in the citadel, while he purified the sanctuary. He chose blameless priests, devoted to the law; these purified the sanctuary and carried away the stones of the defilement to an unclean place.  They deliberated what ought to be done with the altar for burnt offerings that had been desecrated.  They decided it best to tear it down, lest it be a lasting shame to them that the Gentiles had defiled it; so they tore down the altar.  They stored the stones in a suitable place on the temple mount, until the coming of a prophet who could determine what to do with them.  Then they took uncut stones, according to the law, and built a new altar like the former one.  They also repaired the sanctuary and the interior of the temple and consecrated the courts.  They made new sacred vessels and brought the lampstand, the altar of incense, and the table into the temple.  Then they burned incense on the altar and lighted the lamps on the lampstand, and these illuminated the temple.  They also put loaves on the table and hung up the curtains. Thus they finished all the work they had undertaken.

They rose early on the morning of the twenty-fifth day of the ninth month, that is, the month of Kislev, in the year one hundred and forty-eight, and offered sacrifice according to the law on the new altar for burnt offerings that they had made.  On the anniversary of the day on which the Gentiles had desecrated it, on that very day it was rededicated with songs, harps, lyres, and cymbals.  All the people prostrated themselves and adored and praised Heaven, who had given them success.

For eight days they celebrated the dedication of the altar and joyfully offered burnt offerings and sacrifices of deliverance and praise.  They ornamented the facade of the temple with gold crowns and shields; they repaired the gates and the priests’ chambers and furnished them with doors.  There was great joy among the people now that the disgrace brought by the Gentiles was removed.  Then Judas and his brothers and the entire assembly of Israel decreed that every year for eight days, from the twenty-fifth day of the month Kislev, the days of the dedication of the altar should be observed with joy and gladness on the anniversary.  (1 Mc. 4:36-59)

And thus was Hanukah born.

Setting the Stage for Jesus:  Maccabees recount the situation

So what has this story to do with the New Testament?  After all, the New Testament only mentions Hanukah once, in passing.  (Jn. 10:22)  As I mentioned earlier, the importance of the two Books of Maccabees is that they serve as a prequel for the New Testament.  They put certain players and cultural events in place. It’s not so much that we get an early appearance of Jesus as that we come to understand how the Judaism of the Old Testament morphed into a world ripe for Christ in the New.  A thorough read of both books show us the following:

  • Jews in Egypt: The Second Book of Maccabees is actually framed by a letter being written by a Jew in Jerusalem to a Jewish community in Egypt in the year 124 B.C.  The larger purpose of the letter was to remind those Jews to continue their observances and to remember the events of the Maccabean revolt.  This framing device has little significance for Christians…except that it reminds us that there were Jews living well outside of Jerusalem.  Recall that when the infant Jesus was threatened by Herod, Joseph’s angel warned him to flee to Egypt.  Now it makes sense why God chose that particular hiding place.  Not only was there a symbolic reason—allowing Jesus to come from Egypt just as the Israelites did as well—but there was a practical purposes as well.  We can take comfort in knowing that not only did Mary and Joseph go outside Herod’ reach, but they may very well have been living comfortably among other Jews.
  • The Split in Jewish Philosophy.  The two Books of Maccabees famously recount two types of Jews: those who readily abandoned their faith to cooperate with Antiochus, but more importantly, those who became martyrs for the faith.  The lone story from 2 Maccabees appearing in the Catholic lectionary recounts a Jewish mother and her seven sons who all died under Antiochus’ cruel reign rather than eat pork.  Though the kosher diet may seem a trivial matter to Christians who are not required to observe it, to these Jews it was literally a matter of (eternal) life and death.  (2 Mc. 7:1-2, 9-14)  An earlier story in the same book recounts the story of the faithful scribe Eleazar, who not only refused to eat pork, but refused to pretend to eat pork for fear of being deceptive.

We need to put these stories in context, given that most of us would recoil at the choice of death over pork under our 21st-century sensibilities.  The Second-Century Jews were in all probability still recoiling over the Babylonian Exile.  Remember, the Bible tells us that between David’s reign and the Exile, the Israelites fell away from the Law and increasingly turned to paganism and idolatry.  The fall of the Northern Tribes to Assyria in 721 B.C. and the fall of the south to Babylon in 587 were both viewed as divine punishment.  The return from Exile brought a renewed emphasis on adherence to the Law, lest God punish his people with another captivity.  To the Jewish martyrs, choosing death was sensible because the alternative was far worse.

However, the rise of such religious adherence likely gave birth to the Jewish groups prominent in the New Testament: the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Zealots.  The Pharisees in particular—you know, the scholars in the New Testament who were always trying to prove that Jesus wasn’t following the Law—are descended from the Maccabees’ school of religious purity, though their New Testament counterparts were corrupted by greed and merciless adherence to doctrine.

The Zealots—mentioned in passing a few times in the New Testament—were rebels who advocated open revolt against Rome.  Though the connection isn’t clear, it’s believable that the Zealots were inspired by Judas Maccabeus and his successful revolt against a world empire centuries before.

Lastly, the Sadducees were a social-religious group dedicated to the maintenance of the Temple—an obviously important task after Judas reclaimed it from the Selucids.  What’s notable for Biblical purposes is that the Sadducees specifically denied the doctrine of the resurrection which was at the cornerstone of Jesus’s teachings.  To the Sadducees, the present life was all that mattered, and it extinguished at death.  For them, the resurrection of the dead was a heresy.  Speaking of which…

Foreshadowing the Resurrection

  • The Resurrection of the Dead: The idea of the resurrection seldom appears in the Bible before the New Testament.  Pre-Jewish philosophy had no notion of eternal life: God’s justice and mercy was carried out in terms of the immediate.  Thus, the denial of the Promised Land was sufficient and immediate punishment for Moses and the disobedient Israelites, while the gift of the land was enough for Joshua and the faithful.  David’s adultery was punished with the death of his and Bathsheba’s son; Israel was ultimately exiled for its total decay into idolatry.  The resurrection factored nowhere into this.

The concept of resurrection as a reward for those faithful to God doesn’t appear anywhere in the Bible before the Book of Daniel, which prophecies that “Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake; Some to everlasting life, others to reproach and everlasting disgrace.”  (Dn. 12:2)  Though the events of Daniel are set several hundred years before the Maccabean revolt, modern scholars believe that Daniel was actually written during the revolt as a piece of apocalyptic literature meant to inspire the oppressed Jews of the day.

In fact, the doctrine of the resurrection appears with even more explicit prominence in the aforementioned stories of the Jewish martyrs.  In the story of the seven martyred sons, each proudly goes to his death confident in their belief that God will resurrect them someday for their fidelity: “It is my choice to die at the hands of mortals with the hope that God will restore me to life; but for you, there will be no resurrection to life.”  (2 Mc. 7:14)

So when Jesus appeared almost 200 years preaching the resurrection, he wasn’t bringing a new idea.  He was fulfilling what the Jews had long-expected: that God had a more permanent reward for the faithful.

  • The Wrong Kind of Messiah?: It’s often been speculated that the Jews rejected Jesus specifically because they were expecting the Messiah to be a military leader, not a religious one.  Keep in mind that the Jews were living under the oppression of Rome for nearly 100 years, an occupation which came after a century of independence under the Maccabees.  The Jews had to have been longing for the days of David, where they were a free and independent kingdom oppressed by no outside powers.  There was almost certainly an expectation that the Jewish messiah would cast out the foreigners and restore David’s throne.

This “Maccabeean expectation” is almost palpable in New Testament attitudes.  It adds a tremendous context to Jesus’ entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.  Why did the crowds wave palm branches at Jesus when he entered the city?  It was probably inspired by a scene 200 years earlier, when Judas Maccabeus made his own triumphant entry:

 “On the twenty-third day of the second month, in the one hundred and seventy-first year, the Jews entered the citadel with shouts of praise, the waving of palm branches, the playing of harps and cymbals and lyres, and the singing of hymns and canticles, because a great enemy of Israel had been crushed.

The palm branches should be very familiar to Christians familiar with the Our Lord’s passion.  The crowds in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday were expecting Jesus to be another Maccabean style leader, so they waved the branches in imitation of their ancestors from 200 years earlier.  It’s a small wonder, then, that they abandoned him a short time later when he turned out to be a religious leader rather than a conquering hero.  Similarly, Peter was all too willing to grab the sword when Jesus was threatened with arrest, undoubtedly hoping that it would have been the moment that a new Maccabean revolt launched.  Peter, too, was content to hide in the shadows when the revolution turned out to be standing in silence in the face of death rather than glorious warfare.

 Rome and Herod

There are two final elements of the Books of Maccabees that really bridge the Old Testament to the New Testament.  As we enter into Advent next week, it’s helpful to remember these last two points.

  • Rome.  Remember, the New Testament begins with Advent, the setting of which is a Roman-occupied Judea under the Rule of King Herod.  During the Maccabean Revolt, Judea’s concern was the Greece, while Rome was undergoing a political transition.  However, Judas secured an alliance with Rome to gain an ally against the Selucids, and his brother Jonathan reaffirmed this alliance decades later.  (1 Mc. 12)  A better scholar than I could explain whether these alliances had any influence over Rome’s later conquest of Judea in 67 B.C.  What is clear is that Rome’s political allegiance with Judea during the revolt would eventually transform into a betrayal and conquest.  This conquest was, of course, spearheaded by….
  • Herod the Great and the Fear of the Coming King.  It’s a little-known fact that the story of Herod really closes out the Maccabean history and brings us into the New Testament.  Because the Books of Maccabees end around the year 120 B.C., this history is not explicitly stated in any version of the Bible.  Nonetheless, it lends tremendous insight into Herod’s character.  After the close of the Maccabean scriptures, Judas’ family continued to hold the throne of Judea in what was now known as the “Hasmonean Dynsasty.”  The power of the Hasmoneans gradually declined over the next century as its rulers weakened and Rome rose in power under Pompey and Caesar.  Herod was born into this declining Jewish society in 74 B.C. and gradually grew in power, initially as a Jewish convert and eventual governor of Galilee.  Though raised Jewish, Herod clearly had designs on Roman politics, and eventually secured the throne of Judea by marrying one of the last surviving Maccabean descendants, the princess Marriame.  Given that he executed Marriame and her family shortly after taking the throne, it was clear that he ruled Judea in the name of Rome rather than any Jewish tradition.

Again, these revelations about Herod should should even more light on his behavior in the Christmas story.  When Herod learned that a new Jewish king was to be born, he had to have been more than worried about being replaced.  Knowing his adopted family’s history, Herod had to have feared that a successor to Judas Maccabeus was in his future.  He likely saw less displacement and more open religious warfare.  Undoubtedly, he ordered the slaughter of the infant boys to prevent the renewed rise of the Hasmoneans—not even realizing that Jesus was the furthest thing from Judas Maccabeus in terms of his religious approach.

As a matter of practice, Christians don’t celebrate Hanukah.  Indeed, we don’t celebrate any Jewish feasts—the two that we have in common (Passover and Pentecost) are really separate events that share a name and a theme, but really are separate feasts.  For us, Hanukah is a minor moment on the calendar, a recognition that millennia ago, a brave group of Jews successfully revolted against a foreign power and reclaimed God’s sacred temple.  It’s remembered, but not important: we celebrate Jesus Christ and the Temple he will establish in his future, everlasting kingdom.

Nonetheless, Hanukah may be an opportunity for us to reflect on how the world got the way it did before the birth of Jesus.  Augustine famously taught, and the Church affirms, that “the New Testament lies hidden in the Old and the Old Testament is unveiled in the New.”  The two Books of Maccabees make this notion very clear as we see the final pieces of the Old Testament get into place for the incarnation and birth of Our Lord—as we must do with our own hearts this and every Advent season.

Thus, in these final days before the First Sunday of Advent, the faithful might do well to put down the pumpkin pie and the Black Friday shopping list.  Instead, pick up a Bible and dwell on the lives of Judas Maccabeus and the Jewish martyrs as they readied the way for Jesus.

Chag Chanukah sumach, ready the way of the Lord, and make straight his paths.


[ed. note: it seems St. John the Baptist had heard about the Maccabees!]

Major Adam E. Frey is a judge advocate in the United States Air Force.  He is a graduate of Villanova University and the Ave Maria School of Law, and is a current student in the University of Dallas’ Catholic Biblical School.  He resides in Maryland with his wife and daughter.

This article, Hanukah: Prequel to the Gospels is a post from The Bellarmine Forum.
Do not repost the entire article without written permission. Reasonable excerpts may be reposted so long as it is linked to this page.

Adam E. Frey

  • Didn’t see any mention of John 10:22-23 in the article. Jesus celebrated Hannukkah

  • Thanks, David! There is a mention of it in the first part of the “Setting the Stage…” section.

    See: “So what has this story to do with the New Testament? After all, the New Testament only mentions Hanukah once, in passing. (Jn. 10:22)”

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