Hanukkah is a strange one.
After the emergence of Judaism, set out below, Hanukkah was historically a very minor festival until almost into living memory, and in much of the Jewish world it still is. But it does provide an opportunity to pre-empt this year’s round of lazy claims that Christmas is a taking over of some pagan winter festival.
There is of course a universal need for winter festivals. But the dating of Christmas derives from Hanukkah, not from the pagan Saturnalia or anything else. No British or Irish Christmas custom derives from paganism. There is little, if any, fokloric pagan continuation in these islands, and little, if anything, is known about pre-Christian religion here.
Most, if not all, allegations to the contrary derive from Protestant polemic against practices originating in the Middle Ages, and usually the Late Middle Ages at that. The modern religion known as Paganism is an invention from scratch, the very earliest roots of which are in the late nineteenth century.
Furthermore, the dating of Christmas from that of Hanukkah raises serious questions for Protestants, who mistakenly exclude the two Books of Maccabees from the Canon because, along with various other works, they were allegedly not considered canonical at the time of Jesus and the Apostles.
In fact, the rabbis only excluded those books specifically because they were likely to lead people into Christianity, and they are repeatedly quoted or cited in the New Testament, as they were by Jewish writers up to their rabbinical exclusion.
Even thereafter, a point is made by the continued celebration of Hanukkah, a celebration thanks to books to which Jews only really had access because Christians had preserved them, since the rabbis wanted them destroyed.
Indeed, far from being the mother-religion that it is often assumed to be, a very great deal of Judaism is actually a reaction against Christianity, although this is by no means the entirety of the relationship, with key aspects of kabbalah in fact deriving from Christianity, with numerous other examples set out in Rabbi Michael Hilton’s The Christian Effect on Jewish Life (London: SCM Press, 1994), and so on.
Hanukkah bushes, and the giving and receiving of presents at Hanukkah, stand in a tradition of two-way interaction both as old as Christianity and about as old as anything that could reasonably be described as Judaism.
As Rabbi Hilton puts it, “it is hardly surprising that Jewish communities living for centuries in Christian society should be influenced by the surrounding culture.” There are many, many, many other examples that could be cited.
These range from the Medieval adoption for Jewish funeral use of the Psalm numbered 23 in Jewish and Protestant editions; to the new centrality within Judaism that the rise of Christianity gave to Messianic expectations (the Sadducees, for example, had not believed in the Messiah at all) or to the purification of women after childbirth; to the identification in later parts of the Zohar of four senses of Scripture technically different from, but effectively very similar to, those of Catholicism; to Medieval rabbis’ explicit and unembarrassed use of Christian stories in their sermons.
Many a midrash – such as “to you the Sabbath is handed over, but you are not handed over to the Sabbath” – is easily late enough to be an example of the direct influence of Christianity, yet Jewish and Christian scholars alike tend to announce an unidentified common, usually Pharisaic, root, although they rarely go off on any wild goose chase to find that root. I think that we all know why not.
But the real point is something far deeper, arising from the definition of the Jewish Canon in explicitly anti-Christian terms, and from the anti-Christian polemic in the Talmud.
Judaism hardly uses the Hebrew Bible directly rather than its own, defining and anti-Christian, commentaries on it and on each other. Jews doubting this should ask themselves when they last heard of an animal sacrifice, or which of their relatives is a polygamist.
Judaism, I say again, is not some sort of mother-religion.
Rather, I say again that it is a reaction against Christianity, specifically, like Islam, a Semitic reaction against the recapitulation in Christ and His Church of all three of the Old Israel, Hellenism and the Roman Empire; there are also, of course, culturally European reactions against that recapitulation by reference to Classical sources, as there always have been, although they are increasingly allied to Islam.
Thus constructed, Judaism became, and remains, an organising principle, again like Classically-based reactions, for all sorts of people discontented for whatever reason with the rise of Christianity in general and the Christianisation of the Roman Empire in particular, including all the historical consequences of that up to the present day, without any realistic suggestion of a common ethnic background.
Above all, Judaism’s unresolved Messianic hope and expectation has issued in all sorts of earthly utopianisms: Freudian, Marxist (and then Trotskyist, and then Shachtmanite), monetarist, Zionist, Straussian, neoconservative by reference to all of these, and so forth.
They are all expressions of Judaism’s repudiation of Original Sin, Christianity’s great bulwark against the rationally and empirically falsifiable notions of inevitable historical progress and of the perfectibility of human nature in this life alone and by human efforts alone.
It is Christianity that refers constantly to the Biblical text. It is Christianity in general, and Catholicism in particular, that has a Temple, Jesus Christ, Who prophesied both the destruction of the Temple and its replacement in His own Person.
It is Christianity in general, and Catholicism in particular, that has a Priesthood. It is Christianity in general, and Catholicism in particular, that has a Sacrifice, the Mass.
It is Christianity in general, and Catholicism in particular, that is the religion of the Hebrew Scriptures. Including the two Books of Maccabees, the origin of Hanukkah.
The true form of which, as of so much else, is Christmas.