Apocrypha Now: The Book Of Maccabees

Discovering the two narratives of the Chanukah story.

Chanukah is one of the most well-known Jewish holidays. Annually, we excitedly celebrate our salvation from the Greeks and the oil that burned in the menorah for eight days—instead of one—with candles, dreidels, latkes, sufganiyot and gelt. Consequently, many of us assume that if Chanukah doesn’t appear in the Torah (having occurred many years later than the events therein), it must at least appear somewhere in one of the other books of Tanach. The five books of the Torah, which according to tradition were given to the Jewish people by God and recorded by Moshe, were grouped together by the Rabbis with the books of the prophets (Neviim) and other writings (the Ketuvim, which include the Five Megillot and Tehillim, among other works) to form Tanach. These are the canonical works of the Jewish people, encompassing our core commandments, values and history. However, Chanukah does not appear anywhere in Tanach!

A few different historical accounts of the Chanukah story exist, including Megillat Antiochus and the account of a historian named Josephus. The most famous and detailed primary source is the book of Maccabees, volumes one and two, which appears in the Apocrypha. The Apocrypha is a set of books originally written in either Hebrew or Greek, but only the Greek versions have been found and preserved. Though these books were not accepted by the Rabbis as part of the Jewish canon for reasons which are the subject of much speculation.

The name “Apocrypha,” originally meaning hidden or secret, retains that meaning when referencing these specific books. Although in general use the word apocrypha has taken on the connotation “of dubious authenticity,” that is not the intended meaning here. These books include the book of Judith, who killed the evil general Holofornes, which may have been written around the time of the Chanukah story; additions to the book of Esther which didn’t make it into the version that appears in Tanach; and other stories which took place either overlapping with or after the time of the stories in Tanach. 

Dr. James VanderKam, a respected professor at the University of Notre Dame, has spent many years studying and teaching the Apocrypha and the Dead Sea Scrolls. He is intrigued by Jewish history and even learned Ancient Hebrew and Greek to study the original texts. Maccabees one and two are some of his favorite books in the Apocrypha. During a recent phone interview with Fresh Ink for Teens he explained, “I found it very informative to read about that period, and these are some of the only sources we have for that time. They tell a story about a crucial event in Jewish history, at a time when it was quite possible that Judaism would end, and it was saved by this particular family. It’s a really exciting story.”

Dr. VanderKam’s perspective on the Chanukah story is somewhat different from the one most Jewish children grow up with and provides a way for us to look at the story through a new lens. He views the Chanukah story from the historical perspective, where there is an incredible military victory led by brave and skilled generals with a very limited but determined force. The contrast with the traditional story that many Jews go by, one of an inspiring spiritual moment, with the oil of the menorah burning for eight days representing the eternal flame of Torah, Judaism and God, a miracle directly from God Himself. The difference in the accounts of the stories is also evident in the book of Maccabees, which does not contain any mention of oil that miraculously burned for eight days. This famous aspect of the story only surfaces in later accounts, such as Josephus’s.

While Chanukah might be over, it is important to learn about both sides of the Chanukah story: everything that God has done and is still doing to keep the Jewish people alive, and everything we’ve done and are still doing, too. The flame burns on because we have fought a difficult battle to light the menorah, God has helped us keep it lit and we are still lighting it together with Him.

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Rena Max is a senior at Hebrew Academy of Nassau County. She is a Staff Writer for Fresh Ink for Teens.

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