When was the story of the miracle of the oil to light the lamp first told? Is it true that the story was only first told years later by the rabbis of the time so as to create a role for G-d in the Chanukah story?
I love studying this question with adults and older children because it takes the Chanukah story out of the realm of the supernatural, where many progressive Jews find it difficult to cultivate a mature faith consistent with their worldview, into the multiple disciplines of history, politics, literature, theology, and history of ideas.
It is impossible to say with certainty that the first telling of the story of the miracle of the oil is the one found in the Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 21b, our first extant record of it.This is for the simple reasons that (1) our ancient Jewish library as we know it today represents an incomplete record of the literature that was produced and at one time embraced by the Jewish community and that (2) our Biblical and ancient Rabbinic texts are known in many cases to have grown from even earlier oral traditions.Furthermore, it is difficult to date the writing of the Talmud with great accuracy, let alone the origin of many of its stories.What we can say with complete confidence is that the story of the lone cruse of oil bearing the seal and blessing of the High Priest, discovered among the rubble of the ruined Temple, that miraculously burned for eight days though it contained only a single day’s supply, cannot be found anywhere in the texts considered most contemporaneous with and historically most faithful to the events commemorated by Chanukah.These texts, the first and second books of Maccabees, are thought by scholars to have been written between 60 and 100 years after the rededication of the Temple in 164 BCE.The Talmud, on the other hand, records conversations among rabbis who lived from the third to the sixth centuries CE—in other words, four hundred years or more after the Maccabees’ victory over Antiochus IV.
Why is the Talmudic tale so well-known while the history contained in the Books of Maccabees remains so obscure?First, I and II Maccabees never made it into the Hebrew Bible, probably because they were not very popular with the rabbis who compiled the Hebrew canon, c. 100 CE. Second, the historical Maccabees were anti-assimilationist zealots who shed a good deal of Jewish blood on the way to purging the people and the land of Hellenistic influences. This didn’t fly well with a tradition that by the end of the first century existed entirely in exile—physical or political—and needed to get along and at times assimilate with gentiles in order to survive, let alone thrive.
Does this mean there’s no truth to the story of the miracle of the oil?Of course not.Not all truths, secular or religious, are based in fact.The rabbis of the Talmud may have wanted to elide the facts of history, but they uncovered other truths with their story of light.For an engaging, clarifying, thought-provoking, and extremely well-written explanation of the various meanings of Chanukah, see this blog entry by the Velveteen Rabbi.
Happy Chanukah!May the lights of the season kindle in you lightness of spirit and a renewed dedication to the values you hold most dear.
 The Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) offers us tantalizing references to such missing volumes as the Book of Yashar (see Joshua 10:13 & 2 Samuel 1:18) and the Book of the Wars of Yahweh (Numbers 21:14).
 Thus, Hanukkah is one of only a few holy days in the Jewish calendar not mentioned in Tanakh.
 Which brings us back to how the Books of Maccabees didn’t make it into the canon.
Your question has both an historical and a faith component, and it is only in separating them that we can get to a full answer. The first question, when the miracle of the oil story was first told is impossible to answer; what historians discuss is when we first have a record of it. I am not at all an expert on that question, but I do know that traditional Judaism and historians differ on the central question underlying this discussion, how much we can expect to see written records of major events of Jewish history. Historians will note the absence of records and assert, confidently, that such an event would necessarily leave a written trace, so the silence implies it did not happen. If so, the later references to it must be attempts to fabricate a history for whatever reason.
Without, again, claiming any specific knowledge of this incident, I think it's important to note how far from traditional Judaism that attitude lies. Our belief in the history presented by the Torah, for example, is largely independent of the historical record (which has no evidence, I believe, for the Exodus or, certainly, for the miracle of the Splitting of the Sea); the same applies to our belief in the existence of an extensive oral tradition of law that accompanied the Written Torah from Sinai, where historians will often argue that it all came about later. So, as a first step, the question of the lack of historical evidence is not taken the same way in the two intellectual traditions.
Further, when we do have a source for the miracle, it claims to be an older source, a rabbinic tradition of history. While academic historians dismiss the accuracy of such traditions, we in Orthodoxy certainly do not-- we believe in many stories surrounding Scripture as well despite their lack of written attestation. In fact, one of the significant questions of Jewish faith is which of those stories to understand as being claimed to be historical (such as with Abraham smashing the idols and then being thrown in the furnace by Nimrod) and which are probably there to make a point (such as the reasons the Talmud gives for why Vashti refused to attend Ahasuerus' feast). In the case of Hanukkah, I believe, the story is meant to be historical.
As for whether the story would be made up in order to create a role for God, that question misunderstands the traditional experience of the holiday greatly. While the oil miracle was remarkable, there is every reason to believe that just the military victory and the right to cleanse and renew the Temple would themselves have been events in which God's Presence was felt enough to justify a holiday. In prayers, for example, our Hanukkah references focus only on God's role in the military victory.
So that I end up thinking that the tradition of the miracle claims to be historical (meaning: a tradition passed down from the time at which it occurred), that the lack of written records is not, in Jewish terms, a proof of anything, since so much of the religion was oral at that time, and that the miracle was not in any way needed for us to appreciate the hand of God in the events. Even had the Jews had to light that one cruse of oil and then wait a week to re-light the Menorah, we would have known that we had been saved by God, aided by God in rededicating ourselves to God's worship. As we hope to be each and every day. A Happy Chanukah to all.
Thank you for your question and happy Chanukah!The first time we find the ‘traditional story’ of Chanukah is in the Talmud which was edited approximately six to seven hundred years after the Maccabean revolt. The story of the oil appears as an afterthought; the Talmud discusses the proper way to light the Chanukah candles and parenthetically asks, Mai Chaunkah, “What is (the reason) for Chanukah? (See the Babylonian Talmud, Shabbat 21a)
In earlier sources on the origins of Chanukah, such as the Book of Maccabees, there is no mention of the oil that burned for eight days. Rather, Chanukah is presented as a celebration of the Maccabean victory and a commemoration of the rededication of the Temple. The word, Chanukah, means dedication. Ironically Jews do not consider this book part of our sacred texts even though it was most likely written by Jews sometime between the completion of the Hebrew Bible and the beginning of Christianity. The Book of Maccabees is part of the Apocrypha, a set of books that are considered sacred by Catholics.
So why was this feast celebrated for eight days? According to Maccabees,“They (the Maccabees)celebrated it for eight days with rejoicing in the manner of Sukkot, mindful of how but a little while before during the festival of Sukkot they had been wandering about like while beasts in the mountains and caves.” According to this book, Chanukah is a belated celebration of the holiday of Sukkot. It is even more surprising that the one passage in our liturgy about Chanukah, the Al Ha-nissim prayer, never mentions the oil that burned for eight days. It says that the miracle of Chanukah was the victory of the few against the many: “In the days of Mattathias, son of Yohanan the Hasmonean kohen gadol, and in the days of his sons, a cruel power rose against Your people Israel demanding that they abandon your Torah and violate Your Mitzvot. You, in great mercy, stood by Your people in time of trouble. You defended them, and avenged their wrongs. You delivered the strong into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few, the corrupt into the hands of the pure in heart, the guilty into the hands of the innocent….”
So what can we conclude from these sources? First, the fact that the story of the oil that burned for eight days wasn’t recorded until the fifth or sixth century does not mean that it was not a more ancient tradition. We cannot be certain when this story originated or by whom. What is clear from this story is that the sages wished to make Chanukah more of a sacred occasion and less of a victory against our oppressors. Elias Bickerman, a leading Jewish historian, writes:“Among the Greeks it was usual for a generation, when it regarded an event in its own history as important, to believe that it should be commemorated for all time.” Chanukah then was a victory against Hellenism but it was influenced by Hellenistic practices.The sages were not fond of the Maccabees: in the years to come they would become terribly assimilated, they usurped the monarchy which rightfully belonged to the Davidic household and they were violent. In the first century before the Common Era, they were responsible for inviting the Romans into Jerusalem which ultimately led to the destruction of the Temple. Still, the people of Israel seemed to have loved this holiday and so the sages found a way to make it into a theocentric holiday rather than a war victory.
I believe that God is present in the story of Chanukah though we may not all agree how. For some, God is present in the miracle; for others, in the miraculous victory of the Maccabees. And for others, God is present in the bravery and audacity of the Maccabees who believed that Judaism was worthy saving. In some ways we are still fighting this battle, sometimes with more success and sometimes with less success. Chanukah has become a celebration of Jewish continuity which is no less miraculous to day than it was two thousand years ago.
So did the oil which the Maccabees poured into the Menorah really burn for eight days? We may never know. But the true miracle was that the Maccabees and their followers did not give up hope in their survival and were prepared to light the Menorah in the first place!
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