Chanukah or Hannukah is Hebrew for “dedication.” It is an eight-day festival celebrated among God’s people from the second century before Messiah Yeshua (B.C.). It commemorates the rededication of the God’s temple in Yerushalayim (Jerusalem) in B.C. 165 after the Greek Seleucid king Antiochus IV desecrated it about nine years earlier during a campaign to stamp out the worship of the LORD in Israel.
Highlights from 1st Maccabees 1:
- 1Macc. 1:11: “In those days lawless men came forth from Israel, and misled many, saying, ‘Let us go and make a covenant with the Gentiles round about us, for since we separated from them many evils have come upon us.'”
- 1Macc. 1:30: “Deceitfully he spoke peaceable words to them, and they believed him; but he suddenly fell upon the city, dealt it a severe blow, and destroyed many people of Israel.”
- 1Macc. 1:41–43: “Then the king wrote to his whole kingdom that all should be one people, and that each should give up his customs. All the Gentiles accepted the command of the king. Many even from Israel gladly adopted his religion; they sacrificed to idols and profaned the sabbath.”
- 1Macc. 1:54–56: “Now on the 15th day of Chislev, in the 145th year, they erected a desolating sacrilege upon the altar of burnt offering. They also built altars in the surrounding cities of Judah, and burned incense at the doors of the houses and in the streets. The books of the law which they found they tore to pieces and burned with fire.”
- 1Macc. 1:62–63: “But many in Israel stood firm and were resolved in their hearts not to eat unclean food. They chose to die rather than to be defiled by food or to profane the holy covenant; and they did die.”
That spiritual environment mirrors that around various temple “abomination that causes desolation” foretold by the prophet Daniel (Daniel 7–12).
Chanukah is celebrated on the 25th day of the ninth lunar month of God’s calendar, which begins first New Moon around the time of the spring equinox (Ex. 12:1). That timing varies on secular calendars from late November to late December.
After Antiochus IV’s forces were beaten back, the temple was rededicated (cleaned up) on the 24th and 25th day of the ninth month. The followers of God then commemorated the Feast of Tabernacles two months late that year — for eight days — because they couldn’t celebrate it in the temple.
Why is it eight days long?
This is the origin of the eight days of Chanukah, rather than the tradition that developed about one day’s worth of consecrated oil for the temple menorah lasting for eight days (see Shabbat 21b in the Talmud).
2nd Maccabees 10:1-8 — Now [Judas] Maccabeus and his company, the Lord guiding them, recovered the temple and the city: But the altars that the heathen had built in the open street, and also the chapels, they pulled down. And having cleansed the temple they made another altar, and striking stones they took fire out of them, and offered a sacrifice after two years, and set forth incense, and lights, and shewbread. When that was done, they fell flat down, and besought the Lord that they might come no more into such troubles; but if they sinned any more against him, that he himself would chasten them with mercy, and that they might not be delivered unto the blasphemous and barbarous nations. Now upon the same day that the strangers profaned the temple, on the very same day it was cleansed again, even the 25th of the same month, which is Chislev. And they kept the eight days with gladness, as in the feast of the tabernacles, remembering that not long afore they had held the feast of the tabernacles, when as they wandered in the mountains and dens like beasts. Therefore they bare branches, and fair boughs, and palms also, and sang psalms unto Him that had given them good success in cleansing his place. They ordained also by a common statute and decree, that every year those days should be kept of the whole nation of the Jews.
Why should followers of Messiah Yeshua care about a ‘Jewish holiday’?
One of the last prophets before Yeshua arrived, Haggai, related a curious prophecy about a messianic figure named Zerubbabel and the dedication of a new temple with a “greater glory” that would bring peace (see Haggai 2).
The 24th day of the ninth month is mentioned three times in that chapter. Repetition that many times usually is reserved for very important teachings in the Bible. Only once in history — during the time of the Maccabees — was the physical temple to be dedicated on that date, so a parallel fulfillment of the prophecy must have been intended.
Yeshua and His students associated Him with God’s temple. Apostle Yochanan (John) said the Word of God became flesh and “tabernacled” among us (John 1:14). Yeshua kept referring to Himself as the temple, especially in the context of “tearing down” His body so He could rebuild it. Yeshua celebrated Chanukah and conveyed one of His most bold statements of Who He was and why He came (see John 10 and these studies on that passage).
Messiah is further associated with Chanukah in the timing of His birth. Time references in the gospels suggest the births of Yochanan the Baptizer and Yeshua were around Passover and Tabernacles, respectively, and the timing of Gabriel’s visit to Miriam was in the latter part of the ninth month of the year.
The Nativity narratives in Matthew 1 and Luke 1–2 need to be understood in the context of the workings of the priesthood, namely the scheduling of priests such as Yochanan’s father, Zechariah of the division of Abiyah, to work in the temple (1 Chron. 24:1-19). The accounts give important clues to the timing of the births (see these studies for details), based on when Zechariah’s division would have been serving in the temple, the normal timespan of pregnancies, the six-month earthly age difference between Yochanan and Yeshua, and the role Yochanan would play for Yeshua’s work.
Because of the likely timing of the birth of Messiah around the Feast of Tabernacles, the conception of Messiah by God’s Spirit in Miriam would have come around the end of the ninth month. That’s around the time of the Festival of Dedication.
However, despite the evidence that points to the timing of the births of Yochanan and Yeshua, the date of Messiah’s birth isn’t specifically mentioned. Likely, it wasn’t stated because it wasn’t as important as the date of His death, on a Passover. Given the rabid commercialism that has crowded out Christ from Christmas, we should be thankful the real date of His birth was hidden.