The story of Hanukkah begins with the Greek invasion of the known world. When Alexander the Great died, his empire was divided among his four leading generals. One of those generals was named Seleucis. Seleucis fought for and won the region that included Israel. A successor of Seleucis, Antiochus IV, eventually came to control that region. He quickly initiated severe means of persecuting the Jewish population. The persecution ranged from assigning a Hellenistic priest in the Temple to prohibiting Jewish religious expression, to outright murder of Jews. What ultimately drove the Jews to revolt was the sacrifice of pigs on the Temple’s altar. Some groups, specifically the Hasidim (no relation to the movement which began in the Middle Ages), were already opposing the Greek government because of the assimilation of many of their fellow Jews.
Two groups in particular opposed Antiochus: a nationalistic group led by Mattathias and his son Judah Maccabee, and a religious group which ended up being the forerunner of the Pharisees. They joined forces in revolt against the persecution. Their revolution succeeded and the Temple was cleansed and rededicated. The Talmud tells of the legend that, as the Jews were rededicating the Temple, a day’s portion of oil, which was all that could be found, lasted for eight days, allowing a new batch of oil to be made. After decades of fighting, in the year 129 BCE, the Jewish people achieved independence under the Hasmonean dynasty (from which the Maccabees came1), which lasted about eighty years, with the Jewish kingdom regaining boundaries not far off from those of Solomon’s time, and Jewish life flourished.
Some in the more traditional parts of the Jewish community see the Maccabees as setting a precedent. Jewish people learned a lesson that they took to heart–the God of Israel is worth dying for.2
“Even if all the nations that live under the rule of the king obey him, and have chosen to do his commandments, departing each one from the religion of his fathers, yet I and my sons and my brothers will live by the covenant of our fathers…We will not obey the king’s word by turning aside from our religion to the right hand or to the left” (1 Maccabees 2:19-22).
It was just as the pig was about to be sacrificed that Mattathias killed the Hellenistic priest and cried, “Follow me, all of you who are for God’s law and stand by the covenant” (1 Maccabees 2:27). Some even point out that the word maccabee can be an acronym for mi kamocha ba’alim Adonai, “Who is like You among the gods, O Lord” (Exodus 15:11)? This is the battle cry of the Jewish people.3
So is martyrdom a Jewish invention? Many say yes, but others point out that it could be Greek influence. The very thing that forced Jews to defend their faith was introduced in a viable way into the Jewish culture by the oppressive culture which they fought against.4 Those who claim this would point to the famous Greek martyr, Socrates. However, Jewish loyalty to their covenant with YHWH goes farther back than their association with the Greeks.
Martyrdom is born from the true internalization of faith, and the willingness to stand for righteousness. The prophets of the Old Testament and the disciples of the New died for their beliefs. So fighting for what you believe is not a Greek influence on Jewish thinking, nor is being willing to die for those beliefs. Still, we must recognize that what the Maccabees did in their day, and what they stood for, has influenced the Jewish people from that time forward, even until today. The Maccabees lived in a world that would birth Pharisaic traditions, from which later Christianity would arise. The idea of martyrdom that would come in later centuries was the result of these three.
Rashi, one the most famous of Jewish scholars, lived during the time of the First Crusade in the late 11th century CE. Having lived through that, there were many examples he could have chosen to illustrate the idea of Jewish fortitude in the face of adversity. Yet, he chooses two examples from the time of the Maccabees to make his point. He mentions a story of a woman who protests against the Greek army’s right to take the virginity of a Jewish bride by stripping herself naked in front of the community. Her statement was to symbolize the humiliation and shame Greeks brought upon Jewish women. It is said this act inspired others to revolt against the Greeks. There is also a story from the Talmud that tells of a woman who refused to bow before a Greek idol. Her punishment was to see her seven sons killed one by one, but to the end she stayed true to her God. (2 Maccabees 7)
Thus, during the time of the Maccabees, the Jewish people, more than ever, were willing to die for their faith. In the same way that the exile to Babylon dissuaded generations from following the gods of the nations, the Maccabean revolt embedded in the Jewish mind that it was not enough to simply oppose idolatry. When faced with the choice between death and idolatry, the first choice would be to fight against foreign worship, but the second choice would be death.
The subsequent centuries are filled with examples of this choice. In 613 CE, Jews were given the choice to leave Spain or convert to Christianity. Many children were forcibly taken from their parents and given a non-Jewish upbringing. This would not be the first time that Jewish people faced forced conversions. One of the most notable is the First Crusade, during which time many Jews were forced to convert to Christianity or die by the sword. One famous story is from 1099 CE in Jerusalem, where the cornered Jews were forced into the local synagogue and burned alive as the Crusaders sang praise hymns. Events such as this only strengthened Jewish resolve to stay faithful to their covenant and God’s commandments, and many, rather than give up their faith, would die praising God’s name while reciting the Shema (Deuteronomy 6:4-9), proclaiming before God and their persecutors that they worship only one God, the God of Israel.
The tenacity and dedication with which the Maccabees opposed the Greeks set in motion an understanding in Jewish thought and religious expression which was used by God to preserve the Jewish people after the expulsion from the land of Israel in 135 CE. Through the centuries, Jewish people, whether in exile or as they are now, in the Land, have remained distinct; many with the resilient understanding that they are obligated to the God of the universe.
1. “The family of Mattathias became known as the Maccabees, from the Hebrew word for “hammer,” because they were said to strike hammer blows against their enemies. Jews refer to the Maccabees, but the family is more commonly known as the Hasmoneans.” Source: Bard, M. The Maccabees/Hasmoneans: History and Overview. Retrieved from https://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/History/Maccabees.html
2. Spiro, K. History Crash Course #29: Revolt of the Maccabees Retrieved from https://www.aish.com/h/c/t/h/48942121.html?s=mpw
3. Spiro, K. History Crash Course #29: Revolt of the Maccabees Retrieved from https://www.aish.com/h/c/t/h/48942121.html?s=mpw
4. Efron, J. M. (2009). The Jews: A History (p 59). Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Pearson Prentice Hall.