Hannukah has what might be called a “pre-history,” and some of the events associated with the Hannukah (dedication) under the Maccabees are associated with an earlier “hannukah” in at least one significant source. The introduction to the Second Book of Maccabees, written in about 100 BCE, reports the following (in the form of an epistle):


[1] The Jewish brethren in Jerusalem and those in the land of Judea, To their Jewish brethren in Egypt, Greeting, and good peace.
[2] May God do good to you, and may he remember his covenant with Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, his faithful servants.
[7] In the reign of Demetrius, in the one hundred and sixty-ninth year, we Jews wrote to you, in the critical distress which came upon us in those years after Jason and his company revolted from the holy land and the kingdom

[8] and burned the gate and shed innocent blood. We besought the Lord and we were heard, and we offered sacrifice and cereal offering, and we lighted the lamps and we set out the loaves.
[9] And now see that you keep the feast of booths [= Sukkot] in the month of Chislev, in the one hundred and eighty-eighth year…
[17] Blessed in every way be our God, who has brought judgment upon those who have behaved impiously.
[18] Since on the twenty-fifth day of Chislev we shall celebrate the purification of the temple, we thought it necessary to notify you, in order that you also may celebrate the feast of booths and the feast of the fire given when Nehemiah, who built the temple and the altar, offered sacrifices.

[19] For when our fathers were being led captive to Persia, the pious priests of that time took some of the fire of the altar and secretly hid it in the hollow of a dry cistern, where they took such precautions that the place was unknown to anyone.

[20] But after many years had passed, when it pleased God, Nehemiah, having been commissioned by the king of Persia, sent the descendants of the priests who had hidden the fire to get it. And when they reported to us that they had not found fire but thick liquid, he ordered them to dip it out and bring it.
[21] And when the materials for the sacrifices were presented, Nehemiah ordered the priests to sprinkle the liquid on the wood and what was laid upon it.
[22] When this was done and some time had passed and the sun, which had been clouded over, shone out, a great fire blazed up, so that all marveled.

[31] And when the materials of the sacrifice were consumed, Nehemiah ordered that the liquid that was left should be poured upon large stones.
[32] When this was done, a flame blazed up; but when the light from the altar shone back, it went out.
[33] When this matter became known, and it was reported to the king of the Persians that, in the place where the exiled priests had hidden the fire, the liquid had appeared with which Nehemiah and his associates had burned the materials of the sacrifice,
[34] the king investigated the matter, and enclosed the place and made it sacred.
[35] And with those persons whom the king favored he exchanged many excellent gifts.
[36] Nehemiah and his associates called this “nephthar,” which means purification, but by most people it is called naphtha.


[1] One finds in the records that Jeremiah the prophet ordered those who were being deported to take some of the fire, as has been told,
[2] and that the prophet after giving them the law instructed those who were being deported not to forget the commandments of the Lord, nor to be led astray in their thoughts upon seeing the gold and silver statues and their adornment.
[3] And with other similar words he exhorted them that the law should not depart from their hearts.
[4] It was also in the writing that the prophet, having received an oracle, ordered that the tent and the ark should follow with him, and that he went out to the mountain where Moses had gone up and had seen the inheritance of God.
[5] And Jeremiah came and found a cave, and he brought there the tent and the ark and the altar of incense, and he sealed up the entrance.
[6] Some of those who followed him came up to mark the way, but could not find it.
[7] When Jeremiah learned of it, he rebuked them and declared: “The place shall be unknown until God gathers his people together again and shows his mercy.
[8] And then the Lord will disclose these things, and the glory of the Lord and the cloud will appear, as they were shown in the case of Moses, and as Solomon asked that the place should be specially consecrated.”
[9] It was also made clear that being possessed of wisdom Solomon offered sacrifice for the dedication and completion of the temple.

[10] Just as Moses prayed to the Lord, and fire came down from heaven and devoured the sacrifices, so also Solomon prayed, and the fire came down and consumed the whole burnt offerings.
[11] And Moses said, “They were consumed because the sin offering had not been eaten.”
[12] Likewise Solomon also kept the eight days.
[13] The same things are reported in the records and in the memoirs of Nehemiah, and also that he founded a library and collected the books about the kings and prophets, and the writings of David, and letters of kings about votive offerings.

[14] In the same way Judas also collected all the books that had been lost on account of the war which had come upon us, and they are in our possession.
[15] So if you have need of them, send people to get them for you.
[16] Since, therefore, we are about to celebrate the purification, we write to you. Will you therefore please keep the days?

As you can see, perhaps the earliest account of the Maccabean Hannukah begins by tying it to traditions of earlier Hannukahs, when there were also, according to accounts that then circulated, miracles of fire and oil. In addition, you can also see that Hannukah was understood to be Sukkot in Tishrei. The first dedication of the Temple, at the time of Solomon (10th century BCE), had taken place on Sukkot. The second one, said to be at the time of Nehemiah (we would say “as recounted in the book of Ezra-Nehemiah,” since the rededication actually took place in the late 6th century BCE, decades before Nehemiah’s return to Jerusalem, but we can forgive an anachronism here), also took place on Sukkot. So Sukkot—referred to in late biblical books and by the rabbis as “Hag” = Hajj = the pilgrimage—is the holiday of the (re-)dedication of the Temple, as it will be, according to Jewish tradition, in the Messianic future.

Second Temple

In fact, the earliest accounts of the Hannukah of the Maccabees make no mention of the miracle of the oil, which later becomes so crucial. The account of 1 Maccabees 4:52-59 reads:

Early in the morning on the twenty-fifth day of the ninth month, which is the month of Kislev, in the one hundred forty-eighth year, they rose and offered sacrifice, as the law directs, on the new altar of the burn offering that they had built. At the very season and on the very day that the Gentiles had profaned it, it was dedicated with songs and harps and lutes and cymbals… So they celebrated the dedication of the altar for eight days, and joyfully offered burnt offerings… Then Judas and his brothers and all the assembly of Israel determined that every year at that season the days of dedication of the altar should be observed with joy and gladness for eight days, beginning with the twenty-fifth day of the month of Kislev.

The account in 2 Maccabees 10:5-9 also lacks any mention of an oil miracle, making it clear, instead, that those celebrating the dedication intend to observe the occasion as a Sukkot:

It happened that on the same day on which the sanctuary had been profaned by the foreigners, the purification of the sanctuary took place, that is, on the twenty-fifth day of the same month, which was Kislev. They celebrated it for eight days with rejoicing….therefore, carrying ivy-wreathed wands and beautiful branches and also fronds of palm, they offered hymns of thanksgiving to him who had given success to the purifying of his own holy place. They decreed by public edict, ratified by vote, that the whole nation of the Jews should observe these days every year.[4]

Basing his account on I Maccabees, the first century CE Jewish historian, Josephus, writes as follows (Antiquities 12.7.6-7 316-325); his is the first telling that describes Hannukah as the “festival of lights”:

And on the twenty-fifth day of the month Kislev, which the Macedonians call Apellaios, they lighted the lights [phôta] that were on the menorah, and offered incense upon the altar, and laid the loaves upon the table, and offered whole burnt offerings upon the new altar.

As it happened, these things took place on the very same day on which, three years before, the divine worship had been reduced to an impure and profane form of worship; for the Temple had remained desolate for three years after being made so by Antiochus…And the desolation of the Temple came about in accordance with the prophecy of Daniel, which had been made four hundred and eight years before; for he had revealed that the Macedonians would destroy it.

And so Judah and his fellow citizens celebrated the festival of the restoration of the sacrifices of the Temple for eight days, and omitted no sort of pleasure, but everyone feasted upon very rich and splendid sacrifices; and they honored God, and delighted themselves with psalms of praise and the playing of harps. Indeed, they were so very glad at the revival of their customs and, after so long a time, having unexpectedly regained their right to worship, that they made it a law for their posterity that they should keep a festival celebrating the restoration of their Temple worship for eight days. And from that time to this we celebrate this, which we call the Festival of Lights [phôta], because, I imagine, beyond our hopes this right was brought to light [phanênai], and so this name was placed on the festival.

Note: though Josephus knows of Hannukah as the “Festival of Lights,” he clearly knows nothing of the story of the miracle of oil, for if he did, he would not have to speculate about the origins of the name nor would he offer the explanation he offers.

By the first century of the common era, Hannukah was a well established holiday, as Josephus makes clear. A casual mention in the New Testament book of John (10:22) also supports this recognition:

At that time the Festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the Temple, in the portico of Solomon.