Hanukkah’s Historical Dilemma
Who can retell the things that befell us,
Who can count them?
In every age a hero or sage
Came to our aid.
When most people think of Hanukkah, they recall the story of how the menorah remained lit for eight days on just one day’s worth of oil. Or they think of dreidels, latkes and gifts. However, the greater narrative of Hanukkah is how the events surrounding it were predicted hundreds of years earlier by the Jewish prophet Daniel.
The fact that Hanukkah was foretold centuries before the events surrounding it transpired creates for historians Hanukkah’s historical dilemma. How can they explain that the events surrounding this popular Jewish holiday were clearly predicted in the Hebrew Scriptures? Many scholars admit it is rationally inexplicable apart from accepting the Bible as supernatural. As a result, they have wrestled with Hanukkah’s historic dilemma, especially since the eighteenth century.
Hanukkah celebrates the Maccabean victory over the Syrian general Antiochus IV (Epiphanes). When Alexander the Great died in 323 b.c., his Greek empire was divided into four parts. The Antiochian dynasty ruled Judea up until the second century b.c., when Antiochus tried to forcibly convert the Jews to the Greek religion. The tyrant went so far as to place a statue of Zeus in the Temple and establish a puppet priesthood to lead converted Jews in a Hellenistic perversion of Judaism. However, the Maccabees defeated the general and rededicated the Temple in 165 b.c. Hanukkah is the Hebrew word for dedication.
The Hanukkah Story Foretold
Who first recorded the story of Hanukkah? Most of the account is found in the apocryphal books of I and II Maccabees, written around the middle of the second century.  Flavius Josephus, writing in the latter part of the first century, described its celebration. The earliest description of the celebration of Hanukkah is found in the first century a.d. in the New Testament, when Yeshua (Jesus) celebrated it:
At that time the Feast of Dedication took place at Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the colonnade of Solomon. So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” (John 10:22-24)
The earliest reference to the miracle of the lights is found in the Talmud, over 500 years after the events: “Yet a miracle was wrought therein and they lit [the lamp] therewith for eight days. The following year these [days] were appointed a Festival” (b. Shabbat 21b).
The dilemma modern historians wrestle with is that the earliest description of Antiochus IV and the Maccabean revolt is found in a document predating Hanukkah by 365 years! In Babylon, the Jewish prophet Daniel described in detail the emergence of Antiochus IV, his campaign to convert the Jews, his desecration of the Temple, and the heroic revolt that overthrew his regime. Written three centuries before Alexander the Great was born, it defies rational explanation that Daniel could foretell that Alexander would conquer the Middle East and that his empire would be divided into four kingdoms after his death:
And the goat is the king of Greece. And the great horn between his eyes is the first king [Alexander]. As for the horn that was broken, in place of which four others arose, four kingdoms shall arise from his nation. (Daniel 8:21–22)
Equally perplexing is how a Jew in Babylon could foretell that Antiochus IV would ascend to power and oppress the Jews:
And at the latter end of their kingdom, when the transgressors have reached their limit, a king [Antiochus IV] of bold face, one who understands riddles, shall arise. His power shall be great—but not by his own power; and he shall cause fearful destruction and shall succeed in what he does, and destroy mighty men and the people who are the saints [the Jewish people]. (Daniel 8:23–24)
Daniel even described the way in which Antiochus would desecrate the Temple, prohibit Jewish worship and place a foreign deity in the Temple:
He shall… be enraged and take action against the holy covenant. He shall… [favor] those who forsake the [Torah]. Forces from him shall appear and profane the temple and fortress, and shall take away the regular burnt offering. And they shall set up the abomination that makes desolate. (Daniel 11:30–31)
Finally, Daniel foretold that many Jews would be deceived and practice a Greek perversion of Judaism: “He shall seduce with flattery those who violate the covenant.” However, a band of Jewish freedom fighters would remain faithful to God and repel the oppressor: “But the people who know their God shall stand firm and take action” (Daniel 11:32). His historic detail of the Hanukkah story in the Jewish Scriptures centuries before the births of Alexander the Great, Antiochus, and Judah the Maccabee has perplexed contemporary scholars.
A German scholarly critic of the Jewish Bible, Johannes Bleek, argued in 1875 that the only rational explanation for the Hanukkah dilemma is that the second half of Daniel must have been written at the time of the Maccabees and quietly inserted into the book. His theory emerged at a time when many German critics of the Jewish Scriptures were making similar assertions. He wrote, “This phenomenon… presents the greatest difficulties under a supposition of their genuineness, and cannot easily be explained in a natural way.”
Rabbi Emil Hirsch, professor of rabbinic literature at the University of Chicago, came to agree with Bleek. He reasoned that it was impossible for Daniel or any sixth century b.c. writer to have known such detail about Antiochus Epiphanes and the Maccabees centuries before they lived.
But not all historical scholars came to agree with Bleek and the German higher critics. Cyrus Gordon (1908–2001), professor of Near Eastern studies and chair of Mediterranean studies at Brandeis University, protested that these scholars made subjective assertions based on their own biases. He particularly objected to the way in which German scholars “chopped” up the Jewish Bible into a tapestry of pieces, ascribing multiple authorship to single books: “The urge to chop the [Jewish] Bible and other ancient writings up into sources is… due to… false assumption.” Did Daniel miraculously describe the events of Hanukkah before they happened? Or were chapters 8–11 Maccabean propaganda covertly inserted into the Jewish Bible?
Consider these four facts: First, Daniel identified himself as the author of chapters 8–11: “In the third year of the reign of King Belshazzar a vision appeared to me, Daniel” (Daniel 8:1). The writer identified the reign of King Belshazzar, whose rule ended in 539 b.c. Why doubt the writer who identifies himself and gives his own dateline? Isn’t he innocent until proven guilty? In chapters 8–11, the author identified Babylonian geography that an exilic writer such as Daniel would be familiar with, whereas the Maccabees and their community resided in Judea 550 miles away.
The caves in Qumran where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found
Second, the texts of the book of Daniel were discovered among the Dead Sea Scrolls in 1949. In 1989 they were published, including chapters 8–11. Scholar Peter W. Flint dates the fragment 4Q114 containing Daniel 10:1–11:29 to the late second century b.c., placing the document before the Maccabean revolt in 165 b.c.
Historians realized that the entire book must have been circulating as one volume among the Qumran community at the time of the revolt. These discoveries forced historians to date Daniel before the Hanukkah story. Old Testament scholar Gerhard Hasel explained:
For those supporting the [Maccabean] date of the book of Daniel new issues are being raised…Supporters of the Maccabean dating hypothesis of Daniel will be hard put to explain [these discoveries]…The verdict seems to be negative, and an earlier date for Daniel than the second century is unavoidable.
The Destruction of Jerusalem Foretold
Third, a first-century Jewish rabbi living in Judea publicly identified Daniel as the writer of the second half of the book. Yeshua cited Daniel as the author of the prophecy of Antiochus when he made another prophecy pertaining to Judea. He referred to Daniel’s prior prophecy of Antiochus’ desecration of the Temple when he prophesied the future destruction of Jerusalem, which came to pass in 70 a.d. Once again, historians were forced to wrestle with a prophecy. They had to explain how Yeshua could have known, decades before the event, that the Romans would destroy the Temple.
Yeshua said: “So when you see the abomination of desolation spoken of by the prophet Daniel, standing in the holy place (let the reader understand), then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains” (Matthew 24:15-16). He more specifically stated, “When you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near. Then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains, and let those who are inside the city depart” (Luke 21:20–21). As Yeshua foretold, 40 years later the Romans besieged and destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple.
Once again, historians sought to explain away predictive prophecy in a rational way. Many argued that this passage was redacted into the Gospels by Christians in the second century. The weakness of that argument is that when the Roman armies surrounded Jerusalem in 70 a.d., Jewish followers of Yeshua living in the city recalled his prophecy and fled, as he had instructed. The historian Eusebius, writing in the third century a.d., recounted that the Jewish followers of Yeshua remembered his prophecy and fled to the city of Pella, on the east bank of the Jordan River:
But the people of the church in Jerusalem had been commanded by a revelation, vouchsafed to approved men there before the war, to leave the city and to dwell in a certain town of Perea called Pella.
Yeshua’s citation of Daniel, its discovery among the Dead Sea Scrolls, and the internal evidence within the book all testify to a single authorship of the book. A secondary challenge to historians who reject predictive prophecy is that the Gospels contain Yeshua’s foretelling of the destruction of Jerusalem. These facts defy rational historiography and are the source of Hanukkah’s historic dilemma.
Hanukkah celebrates the end of Syrian tyranny, the hope of religious freedom and the Jewish will to survive. But it also points to a greater miracle than a candelabra, to a God who granted us a glimpse at events that would transpire and assured us that He oversees the course of history.
Hanukkah’s historical dilemma can only be explained by embracing that an all-powerful God of history gave us His book, the Scriptures, which foretold these events and explained their meaning. God cannot be naturally explained, nor can the events of Hanukkah, nor its message to us today. By knowing the God of history personally through His son, Yeshua, we can know His purpose in our own lives and discover true hope in a hopeless world.
2 C. Toy, G. Barton, J. Jacobs, & I. Abrahams, Maccabees, Books of. In Jewish Encyclopedia (online, volume 8,239–244), (New York, NY: Kopelman Foundation, 1906), 240. Retrieved from #anchor4
6 E. Hirsch & E. Konig, Daniel, Book of: In Jewish Encyclopedia (online, volume 4, 430–432), (New York, NY: Kopelman Foundation, 1906), 430. Retrieved from http://jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/4874-daniel-book-of
10 Peter W. Flint, “The Daniel Tradition at Qumran,” in The Book of Daniel: Composition and Reception, edited by John Joseph Collins and Peter Flint, 2:329–67 (Boston, MA: Brill Academic Writing, 2002), 333.
Stan Meyer is a missionary at the Phoenix branch of Jews for Jesus. Stan received his theological training at Fuller Theological Seminary. Stan and his late wife adopted their daughter, Carrie-Fu, from China in 2005. Stan married Jacqui Hops, a Jewish believer in Jesus, in August 2014.