Wait, isn’t that Jewish? Well, yes it is. It isn’t one of the Feasts God told us (or even Jewish people) to do. It’s one of those “extras.” Should Christians celebrate Hanukkah? Since Jesus was Jewish and we are to be followers of him, let’s just see what he did.
At that time the Feast of the Dedication took place at Jerusalem; it was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple in the portico of Solomon.
(John 10:22-23 NASB)
So, Jesus was at the temple during the Feast of Dedication. But you can look at all of the Biblical feasts commanded in the Torah (see Leviticus 23) and you won’t find any “Feast of Dedication” listed. To find out what was really going on, we need to look at the original languages of the Bible.
What Is Hanukkah?
In Greek, the original language of the book of John, the word translated “dedication” is egkainia, Strong’s Greek word #G1456. John 10:22 is the only time the English word “dedication” or the Greek word egkainia appears in the New Testament. In fact, this word is actually translated as the phrase “Feast of Dedication.” There are no additional words in this verse that mean “Feast of…” The definition of egkainia is
“dedication, consecration – in particular the annual feast celebrated eight days beginning in the 25th of Chislev (middle of our December), instituted by Judas Maccabaeus [164 BC] in memory of the cleansing of the temple from the pollution of Antiochus Epiphanes” (Thayer).
That, my friend, is Hanukkah (or perhaps more accurately, Chanukah). It is the only time the holiday is mentioned in the Bible. In fact, there are some translations that actually say that.
Then came the Feast of Dedication2 at Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was in the temple area walking in Solomon’s Colonnade.
(John 10:22-23 NIV – Footnote : That is, Hanukkah)
It was now winter, and Jesus was in Jerusalem at the time of Hanukkah, the Festival of Dedication.
(John 10:22-23 NLT)
Why was Jesus at the Temple during Hanukkah? Was he celebrating it? Well, we don’t really know. But he was there.
Chanukah (Strong’s Hebrew word #H2598) is the Hebrew word for “dedication.” It appears in the Old Testament eight times, but never in reference to the Festival of Hanukkah. That’s because the events described above occurred after the time of the Old Testament and before the time of the New Testament during what has become known as the “400 silent years.” But were they really silent?
The Apocrypha and the Maccabees
The story of Judas Maccabaeus, the defilement of the altar by Antiochus Epiphanes, and the cleansing of the Temple are found in the books of Maccabees, part of the Apocrypha. Maccabees is found in some Bibles, notably those used by the Roman Catholic Church, and some translations used by Protestants like the Revised Standard Version. We won’t debate whether or not it belongs in the canon of Scripture. We are only using it for it’s historical value.
During the time of the Greek empire – about 168 BCE – Antiochus Epiphanes, a Seleucid Greek king, entered Jerusalem. He outlawed Jewish religious practice, installed an altar to Zeus in the Temple, and sacrificed pigs on it. A small army of Jews, led by Judas Maccabeus, rebelled against the Greek persecution. In about 165 BCE, they regained control over the Temple, removed the image of Zeus, and erected a new altar. The new altar was dedicated on the twenty-fifth day of Kislev, and the celebration continued for eight days.
Now Maccabeus and his followers, the Lord leading them on, recovered the temple and the city; and they tore down the altars which had been built in the public square by the foreigners and also destroyed the sacred precincts. They purified the sanctuary and made another altar of sacrifice; then, striking fire out of flint, they offered sacrifices, after a lapse of two years, and they burned incense and lighted lamps and set out the bread of the Presence. And when they had done this, they fell prostrate and prayed earnestly to the Lord that they might never again fall into such misfortunes, but that, if they should ever sin, they might be disciplined by him with forbearance and not be handed over to blasphemous and barbarous nations. It happened that on the same day on which the sanctuary had been profaned by the foreigners, the purification of the sanctuary took place, that is, on the twenty-fifth day of the same month, which was Chislev. And they celebrated it for eight days with rejoicing, in the manner of the Feast of Booths, remembering how not long before, during the Feast of Booths, they had been wandering in the mountains and caves like wild animals. Therefore bearing ivy-wreathed wands and beautiful branches and also fronds of palm, they offered hymns of thanksgiving to him who had given success to the purifying of his own Holy Place. They decreed by public ordinance and referendum that the whole nation of the Jews should observe these days every year.
Such then was the end of Antiochus, who was called Epiphanes.
(2 Maccabees 10:1-9 ESV)
You can read the full story in the first four chapters of 1 Maccabees. For a good, accurate modern Bible translation with the Apocrypha, I recommend the English Standard Version Diadem Reference Edition with Apocrypha. Or you may want to consider just the stand-alone English Standard Version Apocrypha.
The Legend of the Oil
There is a Hanukkah story you won’t find in the Bible anywhere. This legend of Hanukkah is found in the Talmud (Shabbat 21b):
“When the Greeks entered the Sanctuary they defiled all the oils that were in the Sanctuary by touching them. And when the Hasmonean monarchy overcame them and emerged victorious over them, they searched and found only one cruse of oil that was placed with the seal of the High Priest, undisturbed by the Greeks. And there was sufficient oil there to light the candelabrum for only one day. A miracle occurred and they lit the candelabrum from it eight days.”
Did this actually happen? Maybe. Maybe not. But it is the reason for eating deep fried foods during Hanukkah, things like latkes (fried potato pancakes) and sufganiyot (jelly doughnuts).
On the Birth of the Messiah
Something else significant may have happened at Hanukkah. Most Bible scholars agree that Jesus wasn’t born on December 25, what later came to be known as Christmas Day. Though the Bible does not tell us exactly when he was born (did you know birthdays are not important in the Bible?), there are several things that strongly hint he was born during Sukkot, or the Feast of Tabernacles, in the fall – specifically the 15th through the 22nd of Tishrei on the Jewish calendar.
Backing up 40 weeks or 280 days, the normal time of human gestation, brings us to the time of Hanukkah in the Jewish month of Kislev. It is very likely that the angel Gabriel appeared to the young virgin Miriam (Mary) during Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, to announce the conception of the Light of the World, Yeshua (Jesus). What could be more appropriate?
How to Celebrate Hanukkah as a Christian
Should Christians celebrate Hanukkah? I can’t think of any reason why not! This year (2021), Hanukkah starts on Sunday evening, November 28, and goes through Monday evening, December 6.
It is traditional to light a hanukkiah – a nine-branched candelabra – each night. Start with lighting one candle, the shamash or servant candle, and with it light one more candle for the first night. On the second night, light the shamash and with it light two more candles. On the third night, use the shamash to light three more, and so on until the eighth night when you light the shamash and all eight candles. Each time let them burn all the way out, at least 30 minutes.
By the end of Hanukkah, you will have used 44 candles. And if you buy a box of Hanukkah candles, there will be 44 candles in the box (or sometimes 45 for good measure).
You could also eat your fill of latkes and sufganiyot, and you could play a little game with a spinning top known as a dreidel. Some people give small gifts to children each night.
But whatever you do, always keep the focus on Jesus. Here are a few Hanukkah devotionals to help you do that.