Why Do We Celebrate Christmas on December 25th?
Every year in the Hebrew month Kislev (December), on the 25th day of that month, Jewish people the world over celebrate Chanukkah.1 It is “nonbiblical” in origin and emerged as a result of events that occurred during the intertestament period.
Chanukkah is a popular and festive holiday commemorating the struggle of the Jewish people against Syria for national survival and religious freedom. It is viewed as secondary in importance because it was not one of the seven biblical holidays which God gave to Israel through Moses (Lev. 23). Christian scholars have largely neglected the study of Chanukkah because it originated during the intertestament period (between Malachi and Matthew) and because of its “nonbiblical” origin.
This neglect is to be deeply regretted on at least three accounts. First, just as it is impossible to understand the civilization and culture of America today by passing from colonial days to the twentieth century without giving consideration to the industrial and social revolutions, so it is impossible to fully understand the life and times of Jesus and the New Testament without an understanding of the intertestament period which gave rise to it. The apocryphal books, though not HoIy Spirit inspired and therefore not to be compared with the holy Scriptures, are, nonetheless, extremely helpful as a history of that time period.
Second, while it is true that Chanukkah is not technically a biblical holiday in that it was not initiated in the Bible, events intimately associated with Chanukkah are found in both the Old and New Testaments. The Prophet Daniel, in a text which appears obscure on the surface but which becomes patently clear when the historical background is known, wrote, “Yea, he magnified himself even to the prince of the host, and by him the daily sacrifice was taken away, and the place of his sanctuary was cast down” (Dan. 8:11; cp. Dan. 11:21-35). The Lord himself in a crucially important prophetic text related to the events of Chanukkah, said, “When ye, therefore, shall see the abomination of desolation, spoken of by Daniel the prophet, stand in the holy place (whosoever readeth, let him understand)” (Mt. 24:15). Further, the holiday is specifically mentioned in the Gospel of John, “And it was at Jerusalem the feast of the dedication, and it was winter” (Jn. 10:22).2 It should be noted that the Lord placed sufficient value upon Chanukkah to be in attendance on its observance at the Temple shortly before His death (Jn. 10:22).
Third, the events that led up to the institution of Chanukkah were an attempt to force the Jewish people away from the worship of Jehovah, the true and living God, and to assimilate them into a heathen culture. Had they succeeded, the results would have been catastrophic for the world. But a godly remnant within Israel would not succumb and resisted with all their might. Had they not, and had Israel been successfully assimilated into heathenism, then Jesus could not have been born a son of Abraham, of the tribe of Judah, of the family of David, and all men would be dying in their sins.
Every informed believer should, therefore, be desirous to understand the Jewish feast of Chanukkah – its origin, its embellishments, its prophetic importance.
Chanukkah is far more than the study of an ancient people’s courageous struggle for national and religious freedom. It is far more than the quaint and picturesque custom of burning a nine-branched candelabra in the window each year. Chanukkah is intimately related to the ultimate manifestation of the glory of God and the date chosen for the observance of Christmas.
CHANUKKAH: ITS ORIGIN
In the year 323 B.C. Alexander the Great died. Not only had he captured, in his brief lifetime, a substantial part of the world, but, with great fervor, he spread Greek culture, religion and language into that world. This Grecian philosophy of life became known as Hellenism.
With the death of Alexander, his kingdom was divided among four of his generals. One of those four generals controlled a large area to the north of Israel known as Syria and established the Seleucid dynasty. A second general ruled over the Egyptian empire to the south of Israel and established the Ptolemy dynasty.
For about one hundred years the little province of Israel was under the dominion of Egypt, but eventually, through power and political realities, she fell under the control of Syria. A state of war now existed between Syria and Egypt that would last for decades. Trapped in the middle, as though between the anvil and the hammer, the little Jewish nation existed in a state of uncertainty. At times she literally did not know to which empire she belonged and, therefore, to whom she was to render allegiance and pay taxes.
As a result of these geographical/political realities, two Jewish parties arose. One party, more conservative, favored Egyptian rule because Egypt, as a unified nation, was less Hellenistic and gave the Jews a greater measure of religious freedom. The other party, more liberal, favored Syrian rule with its attendant Hellenistic culture, which was needed to unify its expanding empire. This latter group was little concerned about the negative Hellenistic impact on Jewish religious life and the worship of Jehovah. Many of these Hellenistic Jews, mostly among the aristocracy, changed their Hebrew names to Greek names, instituted Greek athletic games and began to dress according to Greek fashion.
Into this electrified atmosphere arose a Syrian leader by the name of Antiochus Epiphanes. He would rule Syria from 175 to 164 B.C.
Antiochus had launched a successful military campaign against Egypt. In the year 168 B.C. he returned a second time. The purpose of this expedition was to consolidate his earlier victory and bring Egypt under Syrian domination. History records that on this occasion he was met by a courier empowered by the senate in Rome who, for political reasons, opposed Syria’s conquest of Egypt.
The choice he was offered was clear: He must break off his attack against Egypt or face war with Rome. Frustrated in his attempt to expand his kingdom at the very moment of apparent success, he started home. On the way Antiochus stopped in Jerusalem. He had a pig killed on the brazen altar at the Temple. And then Antiochus committed, to the religious Jew, the ultimate offense – he had his soldiers carry a statue of Zeus OIympius, the chief Syrian deity, into the holy of holies.3 He then demanded that the people bow down to worship his god. Many Jews would not give allegiance to a heathen deity, and history (some suggest exaggeratedly) records that as many as 80,000 people were slain. The purpose of Antiochus in desecrating the Temple and then substituting his god for the worship of Jehovah had as its goal the assimilation of the Jewish people. (See Dan. 11:21-35 for a biblical description of these events.) He thought that by one bold stroke he would strengthen the Jewish party that favored Syrian rule and thus bring about the complete Hellenization of the Jewish state. This would insure Jewish loyalty to him, fill his coffers with tax money and provide a natural military buffer should Egypt, in due course, decide to launch a counterattack against Syria. Antiochus Epiphanes thought wrong. His plans would not go unchallenged.
In the little village of Modin, fifteen miles northwest of Jerusalem, a priest by the name of Mattathias and his five sons rebelled. Under the leadership of the eldest son, known in history as Judah the Hammer, a guerilla-style war was launched against Antiochus Epiphanes and his Syrian army. Its purpose was to force the Syrians out of Israel, resist Hellenism and restore worship of Jehovah. After a three-year struggle, the Jews drove the Syrian army out of the promised land. For the triumphant Jews, the first order of business was the Temple of Jehovah at Jerusalem. Both the altar and the holy of holies had been desecrated. A pig had been slain on the altar, and the image of a heathen deity had been carried into the Temple. This desecration had occurred on the 25th day of the Hebrew month Kislev (corresponding to December 25th), and exactly three years later, to the day, the altar and Temple were cleansed. The first book of Maccabees records it this way:
Then said Judas [Judas Maccabee] and his brethren, “Behold, our enemies are discomfited: let us go up to cleanse and dedicate the sanctuary.” Upon this all the host assembled themselves together and went up unto Mount Zion. . . . Then they took whole stones according to the law, and built a new altar according to the former; and made up the sanctuary, and the things that were within the temple, and hallowed the courts.
It was this defeat of a pagan army, the cleansing of the altar and Temple and the rededication of that Temple to Jehovah which gave rise to the Jewish holiday of Chanukkah – for the word Chanukkah literally means dedication.
CHANUKKAH: ITS EMBELLISHMENTS
There are three major sources outside of the Bible that shed light on Chanukkah, its origin and significance. These sources are 1 and 2 Maccabees and Flavius Josephus in his Antiquities of the Jews. The former two books are of primary significance because of their chronological proximity to the events they describe. Chanukkah occurred in 165 B.C., and 1 and 2 Maccabees were written in the second century B.C., shortly after the events occurred. Today the major event surrounding the observance of Chanukkah is the lighting of the candles on the nine-branched Chanukkah candelabra; however, in neither 1 nor 2 Maccabees is there any mention of Chanukkah lights. The entire emphasis in these books revolves around the Maccabeans’ victory, cleansing and rededication of the Temple.
The first person to make lights an integral part of Chanukkah was Josephus, and he wrote nearly two hundred years after the events had occurred. This Jewish general turned traitor and then Roman historian refers to Chanukkah as the “Feast of Lights.” Still later in time, in the Jewish writings called the Gemoro, an attempt is made to explain the origin of the lights. It suggests that when the Maccabees returned to cleanse the Temple they found only one small flask of oil (olive oil) bearing the seal of the high priest, containing only enough oil to light the menorah for one day. But a miracle occurred, and the oil lasted eight days allowing the priests to cleanse the Temple and properly sanctify more oil. From this story the nine-branched Chanukkah candelabra arose. The one candle taller than all the others is called the Shammas (meaning servant), and with the Shammas candle each of the remaining eight candles is lit on the successive nights of Chanukkah.
The Jewish historian Hayyim Schauss, in his excellent book The Jewish Festivals, makes this important statement, “The very fact that legends were created in an effort to connect the festival [of Chanukkah] with the lights arouses suspicion. Had this connection existed from the beginning, from the time that Chanukkah became a festival, there would have been no need to invent tales about them.” And then Schauss is forced to make this significant statement, “All these facts call for explanations and in accordance with what we know of the customs, there can be but one explanation – that the Chanukkah lights, originally, had nothing to do with Chanukkah. . . .” But this honest and excellent Jewish historian must go further. He states, “Why the Chanukkah lights began to play an important role in the generation before the destruction of the second Temple we cannot be sure.”4
These two historical facts are undeniable: First, Chanukkah lights had no part in the origin of the festival. Second, Chanukkah lights, as an important part of the festival, originated sometime shortly after the life of Christ and continued after the destruction of the Temple in 70 A.D. The obvious question is, Why were the lights added? There is only one logical answer. The Jewish historian quoted above flirted with the solution but could not bring himself to say it.
The Word of God is not so reserved. Jesus said of Himself, “. . . I am the light of the world; he that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life” (Jn. 8:12). And again. He said, “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world” (Jn. 9:5). And once more, “. . . Are there not twelve hours in the day? If any man walk in the day, he stumbleth not, because he seeth the light of this world” (Jn. 11:9). And once again, because the repetition was needed, “Then said Jesus unto them. Yet a little while is the light with you. Walk while ye have the light, lest darkness come upon you . . .” (Jn. 12:35). Two points are extremely relevant: First, each of these references to Jesus as the light of the world in John chapters 8, 9, 11 and 12 surround chapter 10 where the feast of dedication (Chanukkah) is being observed. Second, in each of these references where Jesus refers to Himself as the light of the world, He is at the Temple. To sum up this point, then, at Chanukkah at the Temple Jesus refers to Himself as the light of the world. And it will be demonstrated under the upcoming discussion of the date of Christmas that Jesus and the Temple had something of the greatest magnitude in common.
It does not strain credibility to understand how, following the death, burial and resurrection of the Son of God, Hebrew Christians would identify light with Christ and the Temple at Chanukkah. Nor is it difficult to understand why one candle standing higher than the rest for the purpose of lighting the others is called the servant candle, for John wrote of Jesus, “That was the true Light, which lighteth every man that cometh into the world” (Jn. 1:9). The lights of Chanukkah were not ancient luminaries pointing to Christ; they were added after His death to point back to the One who alone is the light of the world.
But how do these facts bear on the setting of December 25th as the day to commemorate the incarnation of the Son of God? December 25th is almost certainly not the actual date for the incarnation. Shepherds in Israel would not have been out in the fields tending their flocks at night in December. Therefore, why choose this date? First, it was on the 25th day of the Hebrew month Kislev (corresponding to our December) that Antiochus chose to desecrate the Temple and establish worship of his god because it was already an existing heathen holiday. Therefore, 1 and 2 Maccabees go out of their way to stress the fact that it was exactly three years later, to the day, that the Temple was cleansed and rededicated (the 25th of Kislev). Light had defeated darkness; Jehovah had defeated the heathen deity, Zeus Olympius. What was the purpose of Israel’s ancient Temple? Was it not this, that deity should dwell within and Israel would know that the glory of God was present in their midst? And what was the flesh of the Lord Jesus Christ? Was it not a human shell in which deity abode and out from which the divine glory shone? Did not the beloved Apostle John write, “No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father [the place of intimacy], he hath declared him” (Jn. 1:18)? That is, the glory of the invisible God could be seen in the visible Son. The writer to the Hebrews described the Lord Jesus this way, “Who, being the brightness of his [the Father’s] glory, and the express image of his person . . .” (Heb. 1:3). That is, Jesus was an outshining of God’s glory (not simply a mirror-like reflection) and an exact representation of His nature. The glory of God shone out of the Temple – the glory of God shone out of the flesh of Jesus. So close was the relationship between the Temple on Mount Moriah, in which God dwelt, and the flesh of Jesus, in which deity abode, that when pressed for a sign to authenticate His life and teaching to the Jewish leadership, Jesus said, “. . . Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (Jn. 2:19). And then this commentary is added, “But he spoke of the temple of his body” (Jn. 2:21). The Temple had housed the glory of God; so too had the flesh of Jesus. That is why, in a description of the new Jerusalem, the Apostle John wrote, “And I saw no temple in it; for the Lord God Almighty and the Lamb are the temple of it” (Rev. 21:22).
Now when the Church, long after the actual date of the incarnation had been lost in antiquity, chose the date to commemorate the incomparable occasion when deity dwelt within a human body, what better association than the Temple, where deity had also dwelt, and the 25th of Kislev, which was an already established date commemorating the cleansing and rededication of the Temple as a dwelling place for God?
The Church did not choose December 25th because it was an ancient heathen holiday, but because of the Jewish feast of Chanukkah that occurred on that date, and the added significance that Jesus gave to it. This date eloquently testified to the fact that at the birth of Jesus deity was dwelling in a human body (Temple) and shining out to give light in the midst of darkness. The great Hebrew-Christian scholar, Alfred Edersheim, whose writings on this period of time are still classic, shared this thought, “The date of the feast of Dedication (Chanukkah) – the 25th of Kislev – seems to have been adopted by the ancient church as that of the birth of our blessed Lord – Christmas – the dedication of the true temple which was the body of Jesus.” 5
In simplest of terms, the early Church chose December 25th to remind the world that God came down to dwell in human flesh. And from out of that flesh He gave light and life to all those who would put their trust in Him.
In the next issue of ISRAEL MY GLORY, as the Lord gives strength, the author will deal with Chanukkah: Its Prophetic Implications.
- The spelling of the name in English, if strictly transliterated from the Hebrew, is Chanukkah; however, other spellings are sometimes used, among them Hanucca, Channukkoh and Hanukkah.
- Scholars are largely agreed that Chanukkah means in Hebrew dedication, and this was the feast in view in John 10:22.
- It should be remembered that the glory of God, which had dwelt within the holy of holies, had left the Temple before the Babylonian captivity in 606 B.C. (Ezek. 11). There is no mention of the glory returning to the rebuilt Temple. Had the glory of God been there when these men entered, they would have been slain, consumed by the very presence of infinite holiness.
- This would be the years immediately following the time of Christ.
- AIfred Edersheim, The Temple: Its ministry and services as they were at the time of Jesus Christ, p. 334.