Wednesday, December 21, 2011

In defense of the Chanukka Miracle

First published December 3, 2010  

There are some blogs that make a big deal each year about the fact that the Chanukah miracle is only mentioned in late rabbinic sources.

For instance, it does not appear in:
  • Macabees 1 (written in Hebrew, at the end of the second century BC) Click here to see how Mac 1 tells the story. In this book, the holiday is called Dedication. 
  • Macabbees II (written in Koine Greek probably in Alexandria, Egypt, c 124 BC)  This book provides a slightly less detailed account of the Chanukka story, but includes what are claimed to be two letters sent by Jews in Jerusalem to Jews of the Diaspora in Egypt about the new holiday. In one of them, Chanukka is described as a delayed Sukkos and given the name Sukkot B'kislev, i.e., December Sukkot [="Scenopegia in the month of Casleu"]. Click here to see this letter. Though he wrote in Greek, the author's theology mostly adheres with Rabbinic Judaism. 
  • Antiquities of the Jews: (written in Koine Greek around 94AD) This history of the Jewish people, written by Josephus, tells the story of the war, and calls the holiday "Lights" [phôta]. Rather significantly Josephus does not link the name of the holiday with the oil miracle. Instead he writes:  I suppose the reason was, because this liberty beyond our hopes appeared to us [or "came to light" =phanênai] and that thence was the name given to that festival. Josephus is regarded as a Pharisee, that is, as a rabbinic Jew.  ***
  • The Book of John (written in Koine Greek at the end of the first century) The last, most overtly antisemitic Gospel is also the only one to mention Chanukka. Though he lived at around the same time as Josephus, the name he used for the holiday is "Dedication", or the same name that appears in Migillat Tannit and later Rabbinic works. *** Click here to read more about why John and Josephus employ different names for the holiday. 
  • Megillat Taanit *  An Aramaic chronicle of  35 eventful days on which the Jewish nation either performed glorious deeds or witnessed joyful events (probably written in the first century CE) 
  • The Mishna (Redacted around 220 CE)
The first, indeed the only, mention of the oil miracle is found in BT Shabbat 21b**
What is Chanukah? The Rabbis have expounded: Beginning with the 25th of Kislev, eight days of Chanukah are observed, during which no eulogies are delivered, nor is fasting permitted. For when the Greeks entered the Sanctuary, they defiled all the holy oils used for the Menorah in the temple, and when the Hasmonean house prevailed and vanquished them, they searched and found only one remaining jar of oil with the Kohen Gadol's seal. Although it contained only enough oil to burn for one day, a miracle occurred, and the oil burned for eight days. A year later they  designated these days as a holiday on which praise and thanksgiving were to be said."
***Additionally, as far as miracles go, the one alleged to have occurred on Channuka is really quite shabby. A lamp lasting for a few extra days -- let's be honest - is not that impressive. It's easy to deny, easy to fake, and the spiritual significance of such a miracle is hard to interpret. If God wanted to let people know he was still around, why not reveal Himself to more than a small group of believers? Why not scrawl His signature across the sky? Letting a few insiders witness a lamp burn a bit more slowly seems categorically similar to crying statues and other modem day Catholic miracles in that they persuade no on who isn't already a believer, while inviting scorn from outsiders. We reject such cheap miracles when they are claimed by other faiths. What are the grounds for accepting them when our own faith announces them?

I explain why none of this should matter after the jump:

Why should we assume the earlier sources would have reason to mention the miracle? Macabees 1 and 2 are about war and politics. Megillat Tannit is about how holidays were observed. There's no special reason to assume that the authors of any of those three books would have thought the oil miracle needed to be mentioned.  Likewise, the Talmud mentions the miracle but not the war or the politics. Using the argument from silence argument employed by oil miracle debunkers should we say the authors of the Talmud were unaware of the war?

Also, perhaps we make a mistake in how we imagine the miracle. The Talmud doesn't say what specifically happened in the Temple during those eight days. All we're told is that "the oil burned for 8 days". (By the way, this is a pretty lousy miracle so far as miracles go.) It does not say, for instance, that the one remaining jar of oil stayed full; indeed no supernatural claim is made.

So, perhaps the miracle the Talmud is remembering is a secular miracle?  What if the Maccabees simply managed to make the oil last via various manners of scrimping and saving? What if they felt a sense of deliverance now that they were (as Mac 2 tells it) no longer living in "caves like wild animals"?

Couldn't any of that also be described as a miracle?

Notes:

* Megillat Taanit itself says nothing about any miracles. however, the miracle is mentioned in the Scholium, a commentary of Megillat Taanit which is of medieval origin. Early versions of the Scholium mention nothing about the oil miracle either.

** The Talmudic reference is in Aramaic and Hebrew. The Aramaic part is taken from Megillat Taanit. The Hebrew part is from a Breita that was later included in the Scholium

*** Paragraph added December 21, 2011

The words "An Aramaic chronicle of  35 eventful days on which the Jewish nation either performed glorious deeds or witnessed joyful events" and "written in Koine Greek probably in Alexandria, Egypt, c 124 BC" are from Wikipedia. The words "Megillat Taanit itself says nothing about any miracles. however, the miracle is mentioned in the Scholium, a commentary of Megillat Taanit which is of medieval origin. Early versions of the Scholium mention nothing about the oil miracle either" are from a comment Lurker left on this blog three years ago.


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