The story of Hanukkah begins with the Greek invasion of the known world. A successor of Alexander, Antiochus IV, was given control of the region. He quickly initiated severe means of persecuting the Jewish population. The persecution ranged from assigning a Hellenistic priest in the Temple to prohibiting Jewish religious expression, to outright murder of Jews. What ultimately drove the Jews to revolt was the sacrifice of pigs on the Temple’s altar. Although, some groups, specifically the Chasidim (no relation to the movement which began in the Middle Ages) already were opposing the Greek government because of the assimilation of many of their fellow Jews.
Two groups opposed Antiochus: a nationalistic group led by Mattathias and his son Judah Maccabee, and a religious group which ended up being the forerunner of the Pharisees. They joined forces in revolt against the persecution. Their revolution succeeded and the Temple was rededicated. The Talmud tells of the legend that as the Jews were rededicating the Temple, a day’s portion of oil lasted for eight days allowing the full restoration of the Temple. After decades of fighting, in the year 129 BCE, the Jewish people achieved independence under the Hasmonean dynasty (from which the Maccabees came1), which lasted about 80 years, with the Jewish kingdom regaining boundaries not far off from Solomon’s time, and Jewish life flourished.
Some in the more traditional parts of the Jewish community see the Maccabees as setting a precedent. Jewish people were taught a lesson which they took to heart – the God of Israel is worth dying for.2
Even if all the nations that live under the rule of the king obey him, and have chosen to do his commandments, departing each one from the religion of his fathers, yet I and my sons and my brothers will live by the covenant of our fathers…We will not obey the king’s word by turning aside from our religion to the right hand or to the left. (1-Maccabees 2:19-22)
It was just as the pig was about to be sacrificed that Mattathias killed the Hellenistic priest and cried, “Follow me, all of you who are for God’s law and stand by the covenant.” (1-Maccabees 2:27). Some even point out that the word “Maccabee” can be an acronym: mi komocho ba’alim Hashem, “who is like you among the powers, O God,” – the battle cry of the Jewish people.3
So is martyrdom a Jewish invention? Many say yes, but many point out that it could be a Greek influence. The very thing that forced Jews to defend their faith was introduced in a viable way into the Jewish culture by the oppressive culture which they fought against.4 Those who claim this would point out the famous Greek martyr Socrates. However, Jewish loyalty to their covenant with YHWH goes farther back than their association with the Greeks. Prophets in the Old Testament and the disciples in the New died for their beliefs. So clearly this is not a “Greek” influence on Jewish thinking. However, still, we must recognize that what the Maccabees did and what they stood for has influenced Jews during the subsequent centuries. The Maccabees lived in a world that would birth Pharisaic traditions from which later Christianity would arise. The idea of martyrdom that would come in later centuries was the result of these three.
Rashi (one the most famous of Jewish scholars) mentions a story of a woman who protests against the Greek army’s right to take the virginity of a Jewish bride by stripping herself naked in front of the community. Her statement was to symbolize the humiliation and shame Greeks brought upon Jewish women. It is said this act inspired others to revolt against the Greeks. There is also a story from the Talmud which tells of a woman who refused to bow before a Greek idol. Her punishment was to see her seven sons killed one by one, but to the end she stayed true to her God.
Thus, the Maccabees, it could be said, influenced Jewish history in this way – they set a precedent. Jews more than ever were willing to die for their faith. Just like the exile to Babylon dissuaded generations from following the gods of the nations, the Maccabean revolt embedded in the Jewish mind that it was not enough to simply oppose the idolatry, but when faced with death or partaking in it one should choose death, if he could not fight.
The subsequent centuries are rife with examples. Some of the most notable regard the Crusades, during which time many Jews were forced to convert or die by the sword. One famous story is from 1099 CE in Jerusalem where the cornered Jews were forced into the local synagogue and burned alive as the Crusaders sang praise hymns. Events such as this only strengthened Jewish resolve to stay faithful to their covenant and God’s commandments. In 613 CE Jews were given the choice of leaving Spain or converting to Christianity. Many children were forcibly taken from their parents and given a non-Jewish upbringing. This would not be the first time that Jewish people faced forced conversions and many, rather than give up their faith, would die praising God’s name while reciting the Shema (Deut. 6:4-9), proclaiming before God and to their persecutors that they worship only one God, the God of Israel. (Image: Believed to be a Maccabean relic; this is kept in the Maccabees Shrine in St. Andrew’s Church, Cologne, Germany.)
The tenacity and dedication with which the Maccabees opposed the Greeks set in motion an understanding in Jewish thought and religious expression which was used by God to preserve the Jewish people after the expulsion of 135 CE. Through the centuries, Jewish people, whether in exile or as they are now, in the Land, have remained distinct; many with the resilient understanding that they are obligated to the God of the universe.
1. “The family of Mattathias became known as the Maccabees, from the Hebrew word for “hammer,” because they were said to strike hammer blows against their enemies. Jews refer to the Maccabees, but the family is more commonly known as the Hasmoneans.” Source: Bard, M. The Maccabees/Hasmoneans: History and Overview. Retrieved from http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/History/Maccabees.html
2. Spiro, K. History Crash Course #29: Revolt of the Maccabees Retrieved from http://www.aish.com/h/c/t/h/48942121.html?s=mpw
3. Spiro, K. History Crash Course #29: Revolt of the Maccabees Retrieved from http://www.aish.com/h/c/t/h/48942121.html?s=mpw
4. Efron, J. M. (2009). The Jews: A History (p 59). Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Pearson Prentice Hall.