Blast from the Past: Hanukkah: Opening Shot in the Culture Wars

This piece originally dates from 2005.

Christmas is over. The cat (and probably the children too) has found that the boxes and the wrapping paper are more fun than the presents were. Now we turn to the celebration of Hanukkah, late this year but better late than never.

Hanukkah is not the greatest Jewish feast—that honour is left for Passover and Yom Kippur—but has become magnified in importance because it falls so close to Christmas. But in its own way Hanukkah is painfully relevant for us today in a way that few understand. As with many things, we need to understand a little history.

The holiday celebrates the cleansing of the Temple in Jerusalem in 165 B.C. (B.C.E., for our Jewish and Jehovah’s Witness friends.) Part of this was the lighting of the seven-branched candle stand, the menorah. In setting things up again, the priests found enough oil for one day of burning, but by miracle the lamp burned for eight days until they could obtain more oil. So now we light a candle each day of the feast, in like manner to an Advent wreath.

But the need for the cleansing of the Temple begs the question: how did it get dirty, or more accurately defiled, in the first place? The best source for this is the First Book of the Maccabees, canonical to neither Jew nor Protestant but an important document in the understanding of the crucial point in Jewish—and Middle Eastern—history.

In the year 334 B.C. Alexander the Great, having subdued the Greek states, began his conquest of the Persian Empire. In less than eleven years he succeeded in doing just that; he would have gone further into India if his weary army had allowed him to do so. By his conquest the Greeks not only subdued a vast collection of territory and people, but also brought their culture and way of life.

After Alexander’s death, his vast empire broke up; after an extended period of warfare, three ruling families basically divided the empire. The Antigonids took Macedonia and Greece, the Ptolemies (the last of whom was Cleopatra) took Egypt, and the Seleucids took what was Babylonia and parts of Asia Minor.

At the time of Alexander’s conquest, the Jews were scattered throughout his empire,but the core of them were back in the land God had promised them and had a temple in Jerusalem. For many years the Ptolemies ruled the land of Israel from Egypt; subsequently it fell into the hands of the Seleucids. One of these, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, decided that the time had come to “integrate” the Jews into the Greek way of life, with the help of some willing locals:


In those days there went out of Israel wicked men, and they persuaded many, saying: Let us go and make a covenant with the heathens that are round about us: for since we departed from them, many evils have befallen us. And the word seemed good in their eyes. And some of the people determined to do this, and went to the king: and he gave them license to do after the ordinances of the heathens. And they built a place of exercise in Jerusalem, according to the laws of the nations: And they made themselves prepuces, and departed from the holy covenant, and joined themselves to the heathens, and were sold to do evil. (1 Ma 1:12-16)

The “place of exercise” was of course the gymnasium. So what’s the big deal about building a gym in Jerusalem? The meaning of “gymnasium” is the place where people are nude, which is the way the Greeks exercised and competed in the various athletic competitions, including the Olympics. Public nudity had been forbidden in Judaism since Adam and Eve, but for the Greeks the lack of clothes had one additional “bonus:” it gave a chance for the men to check out the boys, because pederasty was a favourite vice amongst these people. In Plato’s Symposium (literally the “drinking together”,) Pausanias has a long speech that could pass today for NAMBLA’s prime position paper.

Paedophilia wasn’t just a pastime either, as Plutarch illustrated in his Parallel Lives of the Greeks and Romans:


During the year that he (Agesilaus) spent in one of the companies of boys who were brought up together under the Spartan system, he had as his lover Lysander, who was especially struck by his natural modesty and discretion. (Agesilaus, 2)

This of course facilitated Agesilaus’ advancement in the Spartan system. Such a system redefines what we think of when we consider the term “mentoring.” One is reminded of Alan Bloom’s tart comment on Pausanias’ speech in his own Love and Friendship: “To put it shamelessly…the boy is a prostitute.”

Lest we think that the Greeks restricted homosexual activity to men and boys, we need to examine Plutarch’s account of the Sacred Band, Thebes’ crack military unit:


The Sacred Band, we are told, was originally founded by Gorgidas. It consisted of three hundred picked men, who were given their training and lodging by the city and were quartered on the Cadmeia…But according to some accounts, this force was composed of lovers and beloved…Tribesmen or clansmen do not feel any great concern for their kinsfolk in time of danger, but a band which is united by the ties of love is truly indissoluble and unbreakable, since both lovers and beloved are ashamed to be disgraced in the presence of each other, and each stands his ground at a moment of danger to protect the other…The legend has it too that Iolaus, who was beloved by Hercules, accompanied him during his labours and shared them with him, and Aristotle says that even down to his own times the tomb of Iolaus was a place where lovers exchanged their vows. (Pelopidas, 18 )

Here we see a prototype of both gays in the military and gay marriage at the same time!

Once this toehold was established, Antiochus Epiphanes proceeded to go for the jugular:


And after Antiochus had ravaged Egypt, in the hundred and forty-third year, he returned and went up against Israel. And he went up to Jerusalem, with a great multitude. And he proudly entered into the sanctuary, and took away the golden altar, and the candlestick of light, and all the vessels thereof, and the table of proposition, and the pouring vessels, and the vials, and the little mortars of gold, and the veil, and the crowns, and the golden ornament that was before the temple: and he broke them all in pieces. And he took the silver and gold, and the precious vessels: and he took the hidden treasures, which he found: and when he had taken all away, he departed into his own country. And he made a great slaughter of men, and spoke very proudly. (1 Ma 1:21-25)

This was followed by persecution:


And the king sent letters by the hands of messengers to Jerusalem, and to all the cities of Judah; that they should follow the law of the nations of the earth. And should forbid holocausts and sacrifices, and atonements to be made in the temple of God. And should prohibit the Sabbath, and the festival days to be celebrated. And he commanded the holy places to be profaned, and the holy people of Israel. And he commanded altars to be built, and temples, and idols, and swine’s flesh to be immolated, and unclean beasts, And that they should leave their children uncircumcised, and let their souls be defiled with all uncleannesses, and abominations, to the end that they should forget the law, and should change all the justifications of God. And that whosoever would not do according to the word of king Antiochus, should be put to death. (1 Ma 1:46-52)

Finally came the ultimate insult to God and Judaism:


On the fifteenth day of the month, Casleu, in the hundred and forty-fifth year (8 December 167 B.C.), king Antiochus set up the abominable idol of desolation upon the altar of God, and they built altars throughout all the cities of Judah round about: And they burnt incense, and sacrificed at the doors of the houses and in the streets. And they cut in pieces, and burnt with fire the books of the law of God: And every one with whom the books of the testament of the Lord were found, and whosoever observed the law of the Lord, they put to death, according to the edict of the king. Thus by their power did they deal with the people of Israel, that were found in the cities month after month. And on the five and twentieth day of the month they sacrificed upon the altar of the idol that was over against the altar of God. (1 Ma 1:57-62)

The “abominable idol” was one of the Greek god Zeus, more generally referred to as the “abomination of desolation.”

The Jews had had enough. Under the leadership of the brothers from Modin, the “Hasmoneans” or “Maccabees,” the Jews showed the Greeks the hard way that “clansmen” were perfectly capable of matching the armies of the Greeks, especially when the God of Israel was at their back. They won the Jews’ independence, effected the cleansing of the Temple celebrated at Hanukkah, and established the last independent Jewish state until the modern State of Israel.

Hellenisation—the propagation of Greek culture and institutions outside of Greece proper—came as a general shock to most of the Middle East, just as the diffusion of “Western” values and culture has done today. As was the case before, there has been a stiff reaction, although today it more frequently comes from the children of Ishmael rather than those of Isaac.

The successors of those who won the first time aren’t what they used to be. Today we have open gay pride marches in places such as Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. The British occupy Basra while back home their celebrities unite in homosexual civil partnership; such things are excellent recruiting tools for Sunni and Shi’ite extremists alike. The Americans up the river can plead that their own gay unions are for the most part forced on them by unelected judges, but such subtleties are lost on those who oppose them. Meanwhile, closer to the original events, Hamas promises a “gay-free Gaza” if they are victorious, which makes one wonder why the left continues to be enamoured by the cause of Palestinian statehood.

When one visits areas with large homosexual populations, one sees the rainbow flag unfurled and flying. Such a flag suggests comprehensive unity, but the reality is that, as is the case too often, the cry of freedom for some is the forerunner of repression for others, just as the gymnasium was the prelude to the abomination of desolation in the days of Antiochus Epiphanes. Followers of Allah have taken to war; followers of Jesus have not, and that difference is more significant than their opponents understand. But everyone understands that the stakes are high.

So as we celebrate—or at least commemorate—Hanukkah, we understand that the struggle between the Seleucids and the Hasmoneans is not just a historical artefact, but a present reality with different players. As Christians, may God grant us the strength both to persevere in the face of ultimate coercion while at the same time to act in accordance with the commands of the “author and finisher of our faith.” (Heb. 12:2)


  • Some parts adapted from Born to be Alive.
  • Quotations from Plutarch taken from Plutarch: The Age of Alexander, translated by Ian Scott-Kilvert. London: Penguin Books, 1973.
  • Quotations from 1 Maccabbees taken from the Douay-Rheims version of the Bible.
  • Quotation from Allan Bloom, Love and Friendship. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1993.

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