Then came Hanukkah in Yerushalayim. It was winter, and Yeshua was walking around inside the temple area, in Shlomo’s colonnade. So the Judeans surrounded him and said to him, “how much longer are you going to keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us publicly!”
Yeshua answered them, “I have already told you, and you don’t trust me. The works I do in my Father’s name testify on my behalf, but the reason you don’t trust is that you are not included among my sheep. My sheep listen to my voice, I recognize them, they follow me, and I give them eternal life. (John 10:22–28a CJB)
People are often surprised to hear that Hanukkah is mentioned in the New Testament, and even more surprised that this is the earliest mention of the holiday in any literature. The books of the Maccabees are earlier than John’s Gospel, but they don’t mention Hanukkah itself, only the events surrounding it. Now, that’s a nice bit of biblical trivia—not that anything biblical is trivial, of course—but it doesn’t explain the connection between Hanukkah and the story that follows in John 10. Was there a Hanukkah-related reason for the Judeans to challenge Yeshua, “If you are the Messiah, tell us publicly,” or for Yeshua’s response about the sheep?
One of the more plausible Hanukkah connections is Yeshua’s repeated reference to his “works” (10:25, 32, 37, 38), the miracles of healing and deliverance that he had performed among them. Miraculous works are a theme of Hanukkah, cited in the blessing, “… for the miracles, the redemption, the mighty deeds, and the victories in battle which You performed for our ancestors in those days, at this time” (Koren Siddur). Yeshua is telling his critics, “We’re celebrating past miracles right now; how about recognizing the present-day miracles happening right around you?”
There’s another Hanukkah connection, though, that I haven’t heard so much.
The blessing continues, “You delivered the strong into the hands of the weak, the many into the hands of the few.” The Maccabees led a minority movement within Israel. The Jewish majority was ready to go along with the oppressive decrees of the emperor Antiochus, and some even embraced them. Why would they do that? Because Antiochus’s goal wasn’t just wiping out Jewish practice, but assimilation; he was promoting solidarity with the dominant Hellenistic culture that had already won over many Jews. Of course, when Antiochus over-reached and desecrated the temple it strengthened the resolve of the anti-assimilationists and war broke out. Many more Jews were won to the Maccabean cause. Even then, however, they waged guerrilla warfare and eventually won by forming small, nimble bands that could harass the imperial forces and flee to safety, not by numerical superiority.
So Hanukkah celebrates a minority victory, and Yeshua points out that he’s leading a minority movement too—the sheep who listen to his voice and follow him, not such a big crowd at that point in the story.
A few years back, when I was part of a big UMJC tour in Israel, a European journalist interviewed me for a Christian magazine. He asked about the size of our movement and I said, “We’re small, but pivotal.” His face lit up at that and I thought he liked my use of “pivotal” to describe the movement. But, no, he wasn’t impressed with my cool word choice. Instead, he said, “ I’ve never heard an American describe something they’re involved in as ‘small.’” But, of course, Hanukkah reminds us that God doesn’t shy away from smallness, even if the typical American might.
I don’t remember if I said this to the journalist, but I’ve had other occasions to describe the community of Yeshua-believing Jews as a minority within a minority, something like one-quarter of one percent in Israel and probably not much higher in the USA, if you count Jewish Yeshua-believers who are actively maintaining a Jewish identity. This brings me to a second Hanukkah-related point. As a celebration of minority, Hanukkah is also a statement against assimilation. In fact, David Stern points out that the holiday “has become a Jewish refuge and defense against absorption into and assimilation by the Gentile majority: ‘We don’t celebrate Christmas; we celebrate Hanukkah because we’re Jewish’” (Jewish New Testament Commentary on John 10:22; also the reference for this verse as the earliest mention of Hanukkah).
This is a recent development, as Stern points out, but it’s totally consistent with the original meaning of the holiday. Back in the second century BCE, many Jews went along with Antiochus, at least at first, because of the allure of assimilation. In the 21st century, Jewish continuity is more threatened by assimilation than any other force. The mission of Messianic Judaism as we envision it within the UMJC —to promote Jewish loyalty as well as Yeshua loyalty—is often frustrating, but well worth the struggle. We’re not looking to vanquish our foes, but we are looking for a victory that only God can bring.
Happy Hanukkah in Yeshua!