Did Jesus Celebrate Christmas or Hanukkah?
“Jesus was a Jew…everyone knows that, don’t they?” asks Howard Jacobson, writing for The Guardian in 2002.1 The answer, as Jacobson goes on to point out, is not a simple yes or no. Jesus’ parents were certainly Jewish as they “did everything required by the Law of the Lord” (Lk. 2:39). His extended family, likewise, were observant (Lk. 1:6). However, there are many—both Christians and Jews—who actively or passively reject Jesus’ Jewishness. Many, seemingly without knowing that they are doing it, use “Christ” as if it were Jesus’ last name instead of a title actually meaning “Jesus the Messiah.”
So, was Jesus a Jew, and if he was, does it matter? During the winter holiday season many Christians prepare to celebrate the birth of a Jewish Messiah who also turned out to be the Savior of the world. They celebrate the birth of a man whose earthly ministry overwhelmingly encompassed Jews. His disciples were all Jewish. He observed Jewish Law and the Feasts (Jn. 2:13; 5:1; 7:2, 10; 10:22; Lk. 22:14-15), and with his last breath he spoke words from the Hebrew Scriptures.
Most, if not all, of what we know about Jesus is found in the Gospels, which narrate what happened for theological reasons. The Gospel writers transmit the “Jesus traditions” they observed with a view of meeting the spiritual needs of their audience. They are not exhaustive histories or comprehensive biographies of Jesus. Their purpose was not to satisfy intellectual curiosity, but rather to disciple the readers by bringing them selected episodes from the life of Jesus. Thus, the Gospels teach us today by showing us the theological and existential implications of the reliable words and deeds of Jesus.2
For example, the use of the Old Testament in the Gospel of Matthew shows us that the author viewed the ethical standards (Matt. 3:15; 5:17-20), historical patterns (Matt. 2:15, 18) and prophetic oracles of Israel (Matt. 2:6; 3:3) as filled with ultimate significance through the career and teachings of Jesus.3
It is as Craig Keener, Professor at Asbury Theological Seminary, states, “The Gospels offer countless examples affirming Jesus’ Jewish identity. The tradition about Jesus observing Hanukkah is merely one of these, but it is one that invites our attention at this season.”4 In John 10 we encounter one of these “Jesus traditions.”
John, just like Matthew, saw specific theological implications in the incidents he reported. Keener notes, “His Gospel connects Jesus’ mission with features of each of the festivals: He appears as the foundation stone from which living water would flow, a hope specifically celebrated at the Festival of Tabernacles [and in] John’s Hanukkah passage…[which] depicts Jesus as consecrated or dedicated to God the way this festival celebrated the altar’s rededication (cf. 10:36; elsewhere this Gospel connects Jesus with the temple).”
Hanukkah is a powerful story of God interceding on behalf of His people and showing His faithful loving kindness. When Antiochus Epiphanes, also known in Jewish history as “Antiochus the Madman,” persecuted the Jewish people and desired that they worship the Greek gods and give up their Jewish identity, the Jews revolted. As they were rededicating the Temple after an un-kosher sacrifice was made, the oil, which was only enough for one day lasted for eight.
Jewish followers of Jesus see Hanukkah as time to celebrate another gift of God to our people (and the whole world!)–Jesus the Jewish Messiah. During Hanukkah we celebrate how God provided light in the Temple for eight nights. However, how appropriate it is to also remember the Light of the World, through whom we have the Light of Life (Jn. 8:12). If God had not intervened during the first Hanukkah, a Jewish virgin would not have given birth to a child who would be raised as a Jew to fulfill God’s will for His life – to be the atonement for our sins. Hanukkah is a demonstration of God’s unfolding plan of redemption, which Christians and some Jews celebrate at Christmas.
2. For more on this see: Turner, D. L. (©2008). Matthew. Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Academic.