Digging Deeper: A Hanukkah Confrontation

Author: Mr. Kenneth Frank | Faculty in Theology, Living Education

Estimated Reading time: 8 min., 19 sec.

Did you know that Jesus was almost stoned (literally) on a Jewish holiday?

The Gospel of John makes the only reference to an added Jewish holiday from the second century BC. This was not one of God’s original festivals and Holy Days but an eight-day special national observance, somewhat comparable to many countries’ national holidays. In 2020, the Jewish people will observe Hanukkah between December 11-18. This Digging Deeper explores the significant backstory to this holiday and Jesus’ presence during its AD 30 observance in Jerusalem.

This article’s focus verses are: John 10:22-23 KJV  “And it was at Jerusalem the feast of the dedication, and it was winter.  (23)  And Jesus walked in the temple in Solomon’s porch.” Two or three months have transpired since Jesus observed the Feast of Tabernacles in Jerusalem in AD 30 (John 7). What happened on the Feast of the Dedication contributed to His crucifixion a few months later in the spring of AD 31. The rest of John 10 seems to have occurred during this national feast.

History of Hanukkah

To understand what happened in John 10, we need to explore some history of this observance. In the Intertestamental Period (the roughly 400 years between the Books of Malachi and Matthew), Jewish authors composed several books, known as the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha, that were not considered inspired by God and thus were not included in the Old Testament canon. Two of these books were 1 and 2 Maccabees. These books do, however, provide historical background for this holiday.

Albert Barnes’ Notes on the Bible summarizes from the Books of Maccabees the carnage in Jerusalem as the result of an invasion by a Seleucid king during the Greek period :

The temple and city were taken by Antiochus Epiphanes in the year 167 b.c. He killed 40,000 inhabitants, and sold 40,000 more as slaves. In addition to this, he sacrificed a sow on the altar of burnt-offerings, and a broth being made of this, he sprinkled it all over the temple. The city and temple were recovered three years afterward by Judas Maccabaeus, and the temple was purified with great pomp and solemnity.

(e-Sword 12.2)

Antiochus Epiphanes also erected an image of Zeus in the Temple. After the Jews conquered and cleansed the Temple, the altar was rededicated to the God of Israel with a special observance of 8 days.

Hanukkah Traditions

Today, this Feast of the Dedication is commonly called Hanukkah, but that is only one of several names:

  1. Feast of the dedication (Heb Hanukkah) – Hebrew name
  2. Feast of the renewing or the renovation – Greek name
  3. Feast of lights (lamps) – Josephus
  4. Feast of the Maccabees – Jewish name
  5. Feast of Illumination – Talmudic name

The New Unger’s Bible Dictionary informs us how Hanukkah was originally observed: “This feast began on the 25th Chisleu (December) and lasted eight days but did not require attendance at Jerusalem. Assembled in the Temple or in the synagogues or the places where they resided, the Jews sang ‘Hallel,’ carrying palm and other branches; and there was a grand illumination of the Temple and private houses” (Kindle App). 

One may wonder what was the reason for celebrating it for 8 days. The New Unger’s Bible Dictionary continues:

The origin of the illumination of the Temple is unknown, although tradition says that when the sacred ‘lampstands’ of the restored Temple were to be lighted only one flagon of oil, sealed with the signet of the high priest, was found to feed the lamps. This was pure oil, but only sufficient for one day—when by a miracle the oil increased, and the flagon remained filled for eight days, in memory of which the Temple and private houses were ordered to be illuminated for the same period. No public mourning or fast was allowed on account of calamity or bereavement.

(Kindle App)

National Observances

Several centuries earlier, another added national observance, called Purim, originated from a successful rebuff of a Persian attempt at genocide of the Jews, as chronicled in Esther 9. Some Jews believed that Numbers 10:10 authorized them to observe these national days besides those mandated by God when it refers to “any day of national thanksgiving.” The cleansing of the Temple in 164 BC was an occasion of special thanksgiving and celebration. However, it was one of other altar dedications in the Holy Scripture:

  1. That of Solomon’s Temple (1 Kings 8:2; 2 Chronicles 5:3);
  2. the dedication of the Temple in the days of Hezekiah (2 Chronicles 29:3-19); and
  3. the dedication of the Temple after the Captivity (Ezra 6:16).

In John 7, Jesus observed the Feast of Tabernacles during which the Temple ceremony included special water and light processions. A few months later, He was again in Jerusalem for the Feast of the Dedication, also called the Feast of Lights. Our readers may have already noticed that both of these feasts included special light ceremonies. The New Unger’s Bible Dictionary explains: “The similarity between this festival and the ‘feast of Booths’ [Tabernacles] would seem to indicate some intended connection between the two. Without doubt, our Lord attended this festival at Jerusalem (John 10:22). It is still observed by the Jews” (Kindle App). John chapters 8-10 occurred between these two festivals. Notice this significant assertion from Jesus: “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world” (John 9:5 KJV). He may have deliberately referenced these special light ceremonies as typical of His mission.

Jesus may have alluded to Hanukkah in other ways in John 10. Notice John 10:36: “Say ye of him, whom the Father hath sanctified, and sent into the world, Thou blasphemest; because I said, I am the Son of God?” The word sanctified means “set apart, consecrated or dedicated to God.” He was dedicated to God, just as was the Temple altar in the days of the Maccabees. Additionally, notice: John 10:30-31 KJV ” I and my Father are one.  (31)  Then the Jews took up stones again to stone him.” Clearly, the Jewish rulers understood Jesus had asserted His divinity so they accused Him of blasphemy (John 10:33). This was not the first time they tried to stone Him between Tabernacles and Dedication: “Then took they up stones to cast at him: but Jesus hid himself, and went out of the temple, going through the midst of them, and so passed by” (John 8:59 KJV). Stoning to death was the Jewish form of capital punishment. However, in the first century, the Jews had to gain approval from Roman authorities before executing anyone. It may also be significant that the Temple altar that had been defiled but later cleansed by the Maccabeans was composed of stones.

There may be yet another reference to Hanukkah in this account in John. We have already seen that Jesus claimed divinity. The one who defiled the Temple altar was the Seleucid king Antiochus IV Epiphanes who ruled from 175-164 BC. A Commentary on the Bible by Arthur S. Peake describes him as: ” … an arbitrary and eccentric king, half magnificent and half buffoon. His very name (the god manifest) speaks of Greek religion debased by Eastern king-worship, and there was a further departure from the old Greek ways of thinking when he used persecution to ‘reform this most repulsive people,’ as Tacitus calls the Jews” (Bible Analyzer If Jesus was making a connection to Antiochus Epiphanes’ claim, He drew a sharp contrast since this king was merely a man.

Not the appointed time

John 10:22 does not directly inform us that Jesus observed this national holiday, though this is implied. Nonetheless, Christians have drawn from this verse an example of His approval of observing national holidays. What is certain is that Jesus took advantage of the occasion to advance His kingdom message by referring to His divine identity and association with the Father. He had already begun to predict his coming death as a sacrifice for sins. Things He said and did on that Hanukkah contributed to the vitriol of the Jewish rulers that would culminate in His death the following spring. However, He would not remain dead. Speaking of His coming resurrection, He referenced the Temple when He  ” … said unto them, Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19 KJV). He spoke of the temple of His body that would be resurrected after three days and three nights (Matthew 12:40). However, the Jews would later accuse Him of threatening the Temple (Mark 14:58).

The Jewish rulers were no match for Jesus during this Hanukkah confrontation. He informed them they were not of His sheep (John 10:26-29) and He escaped from their attempt to kill him by fleeing to Perea to continue His ministry before His coming sacrificial death on Passover, AD 31 (John 10:38-42). Hanukkah was not the assigned time for His death – Passover was, as stated in 1 Corinthians 5:7 KJV: ” … For even Christ our passover is sacrificed for us.”

Kenneth Frank headshot

Kenneth Frank was born and raised in New Jersey, USA, and attended Ambassador College, graduating in 1973. He served in the Canadian ministry from 1973-1999, after which he returned to the USA to pastor churches in Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina for 15 years. Having earned a BA degree from Ambassador College he later earned a MA degree from Grand Canyon University before being assigned to the Charlotte office to teach at Living University, now Living Education. Currently, he teaches the Survey of the Bible course to the on-campus students and writes the Digging Deeper column for our online Bible study program. He is married, has four children, and seven grandchildren.