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Why Hanukkah? (part 1 of 4)

Post Title: A Clash of Cultures

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. John 10:22-23

The event described by John occurred in the year 30 CE (or AD, if you prefer). It was in the winter, and Jesus, like other observant Jews, was in Jerusalem to celebrate this special Feast of Dedication called Hanukkah in Hebrew. This Feast is not described anywhere in the Old Testament. The events underlying this festival happened during the period between the Hebrew Scriptures (OT) and the New Covenant Scriptures (NT). Scholars call this the Second Temple Period.

We do know that by the time of Jesus, this festival had been celebrated for over 200 years. We also know that had it not been for these events—and the faithfulness of a handful of men and women in Israel—you and I would not be here today.

At a moment of great darkness that threatened to overwhelm even Judaism (the faith of Israel), these brave Israelites faced tremendous danger and took a stand. Indeed, many sacrificed their very lives. As a result, biblical faith was preserved, and biblical traditions continued with greater force than ever before. Hundreds of years later, in that fertile culture of first-century Judaism, God sent His Son Jesus, Israel's Messiah and humanity's Savior.

What were the events of Hanukkah, and what did they mean for the Jewish people? And most importantly for us, what principles can we derive from a better understanding of this festival?

Let me set the stage historically. In the latter half of the 4th century BCE, the most talented and brilliant military conqueror of all time came upon the stage of history. Alexander the Great conquered the known world in a magnificent series of military adventures. He accomplished this unprecedented feat before 33 years of age, dying shortly after. Alexander is unique for another reason, not only did he conquer people and land, but he also conquered civilizations.

Alexander was a master at spreading Greek culture throughout the known world. Everywhere he went, he turned the newly conquered peoples into a Greek-type culture with Greek-type cities and the Greek language as the common language of all. From about 323 BCE up until the time of Jesus, a Greek-speaking man could go to any part of the known world and be understood, obtain employment, see his Greek style of architecture and see his Greek gods being worshipped.

The culture, language, thought, and traditions that Alexander spread came to be called Hellenism.

At the time, Hellenism was the most attractive, sophisticated, and advanced culture in human history. Greek philosophers like Plato and Aristotle made remarkable insights in the 5th and 4th centuries. Alexandria, the cultural epicenter of Greek thought, continued producing extraordinary discoveries and advancements in mathematics and science—even into the time of Jesus.

The influence of Hellenism went everywhere with Alexander. He not only conquered nations, but he also conquered civilizations by skillfully and effectively displacing their culture. He replaced theirs with his culture, language, and—perhaps most significantly—with the Greek gods.

This story is significant because it still affects our western cultures today; we are the inheritors of Hellenism. Scholars even call ours a Greco-Roman culture because it is a direct offspring of the Hellenistic approach to the world. It still influences the way you think, the way you respond, and the way you live in the world. We will come back to this critical point.

For now, I want you to see that Alexander's military conquests also set the stage for upheaval in the region. His magnificent empire was divided into four sections at his death and distributed among his favorite generals. Two of those generals ruled in the Middle East. One ruled in Syria called the Seleucid Empire, and the other ruled in Egypt, called the Ptolemaic Empire. Caught between these two was the land and the people of Israel.

These two forces were constantly battling back and forth, contending for control of the fertile crescent. Consequently, Israel was a hotbed of political and military activity. By 195 BCE, the Seleucids established total supremacy in Israel and throughout Syria and Mesopotamia. The ruler of this period was Antiochus III, called Antiochus the Great. He had three sons, the third of which eventually succeeded him as Antiochus IV in about 175 BCE. In a foretaste of the future, he took the name Antiochus Epiphanes (Epiphanes means "God manifest").

By this time, Hellenistic culture was overwhelming Israel, especially among the wealthy and the elite. It was a particular problem among the young people because it was fashionable to be Greek-like. Typically they would take on names of Greek origin to displace their Hebrew names.

Israel's high priesthood at this time was compromised and corrupt.

When Antiochus Epiphanes came to power, the high priest Joshua, who had obtained his position by a bribe, changed his name to Jason. He was intent on Hellenizing Israel even further. He had the audacity to build a gymnasium (center of Greek education) right on the Temple Mount. The young men of Jerusalem and throughout Israel desired to attend this school if they could afford it. It proved to be an effective force in educating the Jewish people of Israel in Hellenistic ways.

Not only did the Jewish young men change their names and their conduct, they literally tried to change themselves physically. Part of Greek culture and education involved an emphasis on athletics, sport, and competition. Does any of this sound familiar? However, contestants in games would often do so in the nude, violating biblical standards regarding modesty and morality.

There was, of course, one blatant indication that a man was Jewish. So, many would undergo surgery to appear uncircumcised because they wanted to be an accepted part of this alluring Hellenistic culture. In addition, young men were typically seen wearing the broad-rimmed hat of the Greek god Hermes, this was the stylish thing to do.

The saturation of Greek culture came to a critical point. Three years after Jason became the high priest, he was outmaneuvered by another priest named Menelaus. The result was a civil war between those who supported Jason and those who supported Menelaus. Simultaneously, Antiochus was intent on conquering Egypt and extending his influence by taking over the Ptolemaic Empire.

While Antiochus was fighting his war in Egypt, a rumor circulated that he had been killed. It set off violent riots in Jerusalem. When word reached Antiochus, he was infuriated and sent 20,000 troops into Jerusalem to restore the peace and support Menelaus. His army looted the temple, stripping it of its treasure and sacred objects. They then turned on the citizenry, raping, pillaging, and burning the holy city. The death toll was in the thousands, with thousands more sent into slavery.

These were unspeakably difficult times. Yet more darkness was coming. It was not enough for Antiochus to quell the rebellion. Along with Menelaus and enabled by the wealthy elite of Jerusalem, he decided the only way to subdue and control these rebellious Israelites was to do away with their religion once and for all. The tension was building to a breaking point.

There is much in this story for us to ponder in light of our experiences with Western culture.

Here is a crucial point. One key attraction of Hellenistic thought was its liberalism. Alexander's diabolically clever strategy was to permit the worship of all the local gods as well as the Greek deities. They had nothing against the Jews worshipping Yahweh. "What's the big deal? You can have your God but have ours too. You need to be reasonable, it is irrational to be so exclusive. You need to change with the times."

To the Greek mind, the problem was not so much the God of the Jews. It was the pesky remnant that clung to His Word,

Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one. You shall love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your might. And these words that I command you today shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise. - Deut 6:4-7


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This study is from a professionally produced transcription of the audio recording. It was edited for readability by the team at JC Studies.

Dwight A. Pryor (1945-2011) was a gifted Bible teacher of exceptional clarity and depth who earned the friendship and admiration of both Christian and Jewish scholars—in the United States and Israel—as well as the respect and appreciation of followers of Jesus around the world. His expertise in the language, literature, and culture of Israel during the life and time of Jesus and the early church yield insights that nourish every area of faith and practice.

Dwight founded JC Studies in 1984 to edify the people of God. Click here to explore over fifty of his audio and video seminars.

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