Jesus before Christmas

November 14th, 2021
Available from MinistryMatters

Christmas wasn’t always part of the Christian experience. There’s no record that Jesus or his disciples or the early church celebrated Christmas at all, as they did all the Jewish holy days and holidays. In fact, the first Christmas or Christ Mass wasn’t celebrated until the 4th century.  It’s likely Jesus wasn’t even born in the winter. Rather, it’s thought that December 25 was chosen as a day to celebrate his birth because it coincided with a pre-existing pagan festival. That would make it easy for non-Christians to add a new layer of meaning to their old celebrations. Stuff happens in the history of religion.

December 25, however, wasn’t merely the date of a pagan festival. It also overlaps with a festival that Jesus did actually celebrate.

Like Jews of his time, Jesus celebrated the Feast of Dedication, which occurs on the 25th of Kislev, a month in the Jewish calendar that most closely approximates December.  “At that time,” John's Gospel relates, “the Feast of Dedication took place in Jerusalem; it was winter. Jesus was walking in the Temple in the portico of Solomon. Tell us,” the Jews said, “if you are the Messiah.”  Their comments were fitting, because the Feast of Dedication remembered the last time a deliverer had arisen to save them from oppression. It was past time for another; the Roman experience was a cruel one indeed.

The Feast of Dedication commemorates the rededication of the second Temple in Jerusalem, after its utter desecration at the brutal hands of Antiochus Epiphanes in 167 or 168 BCE. Today, that feast is known by its Hebrew name, Chanukah. Although Hanukkah (Feast of Dedication) only gets a line or two in the New Testament, it actually plays a signficant role in the birth of Jesus.

A Peek into History

To explain, we look back in history over three hundred years before the birth of Christ. Alexander the Great ruled the ancient world around the Eastern Mediterranean. After conquering the Persian Empire, Greek culture, or Hellenism, spread like wildfire. The Jews living in Israel quickly found themselves surrounded by it, and then almost swallowed up by it. Hellenism was to the ancient world what Western culture is to the modern world. Just as you can find a McDonald’s in nearly every corner of the world, not to mention American pop music, blue jeans, TV re-runs, Western style Christianity, and the English language, so in that day, you could find Greek culture, religion, and language permeating every other culture of the world. Needless to say, it wasn’t all good, especially for those in the minority, like the Jews. It put their entire distinctive way of life at risk.

After Alexander died, his empire was split into quarters and the region including Israel and Syria was eventually inherited by Antiochus IV Epiphanes.

Epiphanes means “face of God,” but a more apt description was the moniker the Jews gave him: “Epimanes” or “crazy man.”  He was the Hitler of the intertestamental period. He was obsessed with wiping out the Jewish people. He began with the slaughter of the citizens of Jerusalem and the desecration of the Temple.  Alfred Edersheim explains what happened in his book, The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah:

“All sacrifices, the service of the Temple, and the observance of the Sabbath and of feast days were prohibited; the Temple at Jerusalem was dedicated to Jupiter Olympus (a Greek god); the Torah was searched for and destroyed; the Jews forced to take part in heathen rites; in short, every insult was heaped on the religion of the Jews, and its every trace was to be swept away.”

Antiochus was bent on genocide. The final straw was the slaughter of a pig on the sacrificial altar in the Temple. Definitely not kosher. This occurred on the 25th of Kislev, the month that generally corresponds to our December.

A Jewish deliverer rose up, whose name was Mattathias. Even though they were outnumbered and overpowered, under his leadership the Jewish people began a campaign of guerilla warfare against Antiochus and his Syrian armies to reclaim the Temple.  Mattathias died fighting, but his five sons carried on, including one whose name you might know: Judah Maccabee. He led the fighting till the Temple could be purified and its services restored.

Christmas without Hanukkah

Exactly three years after its desecration, the Temple was rededicated. This took place on the 25th of Kislev, approximatey 165 years before the nativity of Christ. If Antiochus had carried out his plan for genocide of all the Jews, there would have been no Mary, no Joseph, and no Jesus. There would have been no Messiah of Israel, no Savior of the World.  Bottom line: without Hanukkah, there would probably be no Christmas.

As we prepare for Advent, let us remember the minor Jewish holiday that celebrates freedom of religion and which makes possible the major Christian one. Let’s do like Jesus did and rededicate ourselves to freedom of religious expression, to the freedom that allows our devotion to God, to the freedom that motivates us truly love each other. 

I’m hosting a fun and interactive workshop that will liberate your love.  “Platinum Rule Leadership in Changing Times” promotes forgiveness, compassion, understanding, and self-awareness.  I hope you can join me.

Adapted from "Christmas through Jewish Eyes," by Rebekah Simon-Peter

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