A Christmas topic: I have thoughts regarding Chanukah and need logic help from Atheists

by Marius3 min read25th Dec 201011 comments


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Essentially, I want to make sure my logic is sound, from the point of view of smart rational people who do not believe in the existence of supernatural miracles.

The Chanukah story: 175-134 BCE.  Hellenic Assyrians (Antiochus IV) had conquered Israel, and passed a variety of laws oppressing the freedom of worship of the Jews there.  They defiled the Temple and forbade the study of sacred texts.  The Maccabees led a Jewish revolt against the Assyrians, and eventually drove them out of Israel.  Immediately upon retaking the Temple, they cleaned and rededicated it; they relit the sacred flame using a small vial of kosher oil and sent for more oil (which was 8 days distant).  The small vial was expected to last only one night, but miraculously lasted 8 days until more supplies arrived.

Now recently, several Reform rabbis have stated that the fact that the first surviving written record of the miracle is from the Gemara (500 CE) indicates that the miracle was invented around 500 CE.  I am not an Orthodox Jew, but I do believe that the Gemara represents the sages writing down oral traditions, and am annoyed by the tendency among certain Reform rabbis to assume that everything was invented at the time it was written regardless of the evidence for or against it.

The texts with the potential to document events follow:

Maccabees 1 (~100 BCE): purely historical/nonreligious.  The book was originally written in Hebrew, but that text does not survive.  A Greek translation exists, and the text avoids all mention of religious and spiritual matters.  For instance, it speaks briefly and euphemistically about the temple, stating that the Jews captured the "temple hill" and rededicated the "citadel", avoiding mention of the temple itself. 

Maccabees 2 (~30 BCE): we possess what claims to be a 1-volume abridgement of a 5-volume original (which does not survive and is not referenced elsewhere).  The surviving abridgement mentions the temple rededication and a variety of bizarre miracles including the public appearance of angels.  It does not mention the miracle of the oil, however.  The abridged text includes a number of theologic innovations which bear more similarity to Catholic beliefs than to Jewish or Protestant ones; it is unknown whether these were present in the original. 

Neither of the above are considered canonical sources by Jews or Protestant, but they are by Catholics.

Megillat Taanit (7CE): a succinct list of red letter dates from 200BCE-7CE; mentions that Chanukah is 8 days but gives no descriptions of any of the listed holidays.

Josephus, The Jewish War (75CE).  Mentions that Chanukah was the Festival of Lights lasting 8 days, but does not give a reason for this.  He says that he "supposes" it is because of the unexpected
restoration of freedom to worship.  Elsewhere his text is extremely complete, well-researched, and accurate.

So there are two possibilities being considered:

1.  The miracle of the oil was described by the Maccabees who rededicated the temple.  Such an interpretation has to make the following leaps:

a.  That a text which avoids all mention of religious matters would not mention this one. 

b.  That a text which mentions dozens of miracles would not mention this one.  Well, it's clearly not written by a mainstream Jew because the theology is so unusual.  The writer had to pick and choose miracles when abridging from 5 to 1 volume, and may have left out the oil one because it's less spectacular than the others.

c.  That Josephus wouldn't mention the miracle.  But a goal of his in writing The Jewish War was to convince the Romans that the Jews could make good subjects and would not be eternally rebellious.  Had he connected the Jewish obligation to kindle lights to the idea of the rededication of the Temple (which the Romans had just destroyed), he would have risked causing the Romans to forbid the kindling of lights; this would have increased friction and rebellion.

2.  The miracle of the oil was invented centuries later.  Such an interpretation has the following problems:

a.  That the Jews chose 8 days to celebrate Chanukah without any particular reason.  8 would be a strange number, longer than other Jewish holidays [unrelatedly, an extra day would later be added to other holidays due to calendar uncertainty].  No reason other than the oil miracle has been unearthed for this number 8.

b.  That Josephus, who is otherwise so erudite, shrugs off the reason for calling Chanukah the "Festival of Lights".  His given explanation (the restoration of the freedom to worship) doesn't do much to explain light, and certainly doesn't explain the plural lights.  Further, his saying he "supposes" this explanation (where he is otherwise accurate, detailed, and certain in his history) is difficult to explain unless he is deliberately avoiding giving the real explanation.  Certainly one would expect him to give a reason for the festival's 8 day length if he felt it prudent to do so.

c.  The fact that those who dispute the standard account have no actual evidence that the sages invented the miracle, but do have a political goal in saying so.

d.  The claim rests on the supposition that the Sages wanted to reduce the political importance of Chanukah by deemphasizing the military victory and turning the miracle into a spiritual one.  But had they wanted to do this, they could simply have abolished the celebration entirely; actually they abolished the celebrations listed in Megillat Taanit except for Chanukah.  Why keep that holiday while inventing a story to reduce the associated political implications?  Just to provide themselves with an excuse to eat jelly donuts?


Anyway, I was wondering what atheists might believe the most plausible explanation:

That the miracle of the oil lasting 8 days was invented centuries later?

Or that the Maccabees somehow secured a secret stash of sacramental oil beyond the one vial they initially found?


And, am I overemphasizing/underemphasizing the importance of anything?

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