Hanukkah and Christmas: A History of Consequences

Posted on December 17, 2014
by Joel M. Hoffman

History is in large part the story of consequences—both intended and unintended—as is the case for two of this season’s most celebrated holidays, Hanukkah and Christmas.

It is well known that when Alexander the Great conquered his known world in the 4th century BC, he left a permanent mark in the form of cities that bear his name: Alexandria in Egypt, for example, and, 2,000 miles away, Kandahar in Afghanistan. It’s equally well known that, as with many matters of importance during those years, Alexander’s most lasting contribution lies not in what he did but in what he failed to do: He did not plan for own succession.

At the young age of 32, Alexander was the undisputed leader of both Europe and the East. He was married to two women. His favorite, Roxana, was seven months pregnant with his child. Alexander had no way of knowing that he wouldn’t live to see that child’s birth, or that the power vacuum left by his untimely death would ultimately lead to the creation of both Hanukkah and Christmas.

Illness took Alexander’s life in the year 323 BC. Foreshadowing the turmoil that would follow, Roxana murdered her dead husband’s second wife even before giving birth to his son. Eventually, Roxana and her son with Alexander were also killed. The newly conquered world was left without any prospect of a recognized leader.

Natural geographic centers form where natural axes (in green) terminate or meet. Image courtesy of the author.

Three men from Alexander’s fighting force stepped in: Antigonus, Ptolemy, and Seleucus. And because Greece, Egypt, and Syria form natural geographic centers, the new leaders eventually consolidated their power in those regions. Antigonus took Greece. Ptolemy got Egypt. And Seleucus ended up with Syria. In the conceptual middle of these three sites lies a city called Jerusalem.

The Jewish capital was thus left at the mercy of three competing leaders and their descendants. Worse, the dynasties of Antigonus, Ptolemy, Seleucus were frequently unstable, so Jerusalem was buffeted by a series of lengthy military campaigns, ill-fated political deals, and violent insurrections.

For about a hundred years, the Ptolemies of Egypt ruled Jerusalem. Then around 200 BC, the Syrian leader Antiochus III (“the Great”) won the holy city. (Here’s how: The descendants of Seleucus and the descendants of Antigonus ganged up on the descendants of Ptolemy when the sixth king of the Seleucid dynasty in Syria, Antiochus III, plotted in secret with Philip V of the Antigonid dynasty back in Europe to attack Ptolemy V in Egypt. In other words, Syria and Greece waged war on Egypt.)

A complex turn of events then brought the famous Hannibal to Syria after Rome defeated him. Hannibal convinced Antiochus III—the new owner of Jerusalem—to continue the struggle against Rome. Not surprisingly, Antiochus lost, and in the year 190 Rome won Syria, and, therefore, Jerusalem. As part of the terms of surrender, Antiochus III sent his own son, Antiochus IV, to Rome as a prisoner.

This may be why Antiochus III is known by the epithet “the Great” but his son Antiochus IV was called “the Insane.” When Antiochus the Insane escaped from Roman captivity and returned to rule Syria, Jerusalem found herself under the control of a madman.

Among his other steps, Antiochus the Insane rededicated the great Jewish Temple in Jerusalem to the Greek god Zeus. Largely in response, a group of people called the Maccabees mounted an insurrection. A Jewish priest named Mattathias took his family to the hills, from where they waged a guerrilla offensive against Antiochus the Insane.

Mattathias died in 166, and his son Judah “the Maccabee” took over the cause. In 165, Judah and his troops succeeded in recapturing the Temple and in rededicating it back to the Jewish God. This is the triumph that is celebrated to this day in the form of the Jewish holiday of Hanukkah.

Unfortunately, the Maccabees—also called the Hasmoneans—ruled just as viciously as the Seleucids. Judah was followed as leader by his brother Jonathan, then by his brother Simon, then, in 135, by John Hyrcannus I, one of Simon’s sons. (Simon’s other two sons were unavailable because Simon’s son-in-law had murdered them, along with Simon himself.)

John Hyrcannus continued the expansionist military campaign that his father and uncles had begun. Among the cities he occupied was Idumaea, the site of biblical Edom. And as was his practice, the Hasmonean leader forcibly converted the locals to Judaism. John Hyrcannus had no way of knowing that, in so doing, he was paving the way for Jerusalem’s destruction.

Starting around the year 67, two of Hyrcannus’s nephews vied for control of Jerusalem, and in 63 the Roman leader Pompey had to step in to mediate. An Idumaean power-broker named Antipater sided with the victorious Hasmonean brother, and, by extension, with Pompey. Then when Julius Caesar usurped control of the Roman Empire, Antipater shifted his own allegiances to the new Roman leader.

Caesar wanted to reward Antipater by giving powerful posts to his two children, Phasael and Herod. An obvious candidate was leader of Jerusalem, but that position had to be filled by a Jew, As it happens, though, the Hasmonean leader John Hyrcannus had already converted Antipater’s father, technically making his descendants Jewish, and as a result allowing an otherwise Pagan Herod to rule Jerusalem.

Herod was an especially vicious tyrant—the mention of his name for an ancient reader was akin to a modern reference to Stalin or Hitler—and is the same ruler mentioned in Matthew 2:1: “In the time of King Herod,” wise men, or magi, came to Jerusalem after Jesus was born.

Matthew’s mention of Herod is not simply a matter of reckoning time. It is a way of emphasizing Jesus’s birth as the Messiah just at the time when the denizens of Jerusalem most need Him. This is the event that is celebrated to this day in the form of the Christian holiday of Christmas.

Had Alexander the Great planned better for his death, Antiochus the Insane would never have ruled, in which case the Maccabees would never have mounted the insurrection commemorated by Hanukkah, so the Hasmonean leader John Hyrcannus would never have converted Herod’s grandfather, so Herod could never have ruled Jerusalem, and Jerusalem might have enjoyed prosperity instead of suffering the turmoil into which Jesus was born, as commemorated by Christmas.

Unintended consequences.

JOEL M. HOFFMAN PH.D., is the author of In the Beginning and And God Said. He is the chief translator for the series My People’s Prayer Book (winner of the National Jewish Book Award) and for My People’s Passover Haggadah. He is an occasional contributor to The Jerusalem Post and The Huffington Post and has held faculty appointments at Brandeis University and at Hebrew Union College—Jewish Institute of Religion. He lives in New York. His latest book is The Bible’s Cutting Room Floor.

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