Did the Chanukah miracle of a small jug of oil lasting for eight days really happen? Or was it a Talmudic invention? While the flagrant nature of these questions is acknowledged, there has been much recent academic and historic literature on the subject, and there does not seem to be a single compendium of all the various information, along with an intellectually honest analysis of the subject and its various conclusions and perspectives. That is what I hope this will be.
We begin with the problems.
Most of our knowledge of the story of Chanukah comes from two ancient books called I Maccabees and II Maccabees. Both of these books were written shortly after the events of Chanukah transpired (2nd century BC), the former by a Jew, and the latter by an unknown author. In short, the story of Chanukah is preserved, and transmitted to us, in these two books. The story of the battle, and the Jews’s miraculous victory and rededication of the Temple, are all recorded in detail. Nowhere in either of these two books is there any mention of, nor even an allusion to, a miracle of oil lasting for eight days.
Josephus, a man living just a few generations after the story of Chanukah, and from whom we get a great deal of Jewish history as well, also records the story of Chanukah. Noticeably absent is any mention of a miracle of oil. The miracle of the war is recorded, but nothing of any miraculous oil.
We turn now to Chazal. Surprisingly, nowhere in the Al HaNisim prayer is the miracle of oil mentioned. In the one or two Mishnayos that discuss Chanukah there is similarly no mention of the miracle. Most notably, in Megillas Ta’anis — a work composed by Chazal listing and explaining celebratory days on which fasting is prohibited — speaks much of the story of Chanukah, but mentions no miracle of oil.
In short, not a single historical accounting of the events of Chanukah mention anything at all about oil miraculously lasting for eight days. These omissions seems practically unexplainable if the miracle actually occurred.
So where does the story of the miracle come from? The only source for the miracle of oil comes from a single Gemara:
What is [the reason of] Hanukkah? For our Rabbis taught: On the twenty-fifth of Kislev [commence] the days of Hanukkah, which are eight on which a lamentation for the dead and fasting are forbidden. For when the Greeks entered the Temple, they defiled all the oils therein, and when the Hasmonean dynasty prevailed against and defeated them, they made search and found only one cruse of oil which lay with the seal of the High Priest, but which contained sufficient for one day's lighting only; yet a miracle was wrought therein and they lit [the lamp] therewith for eight days. The following year these [days] were appointed a Festival with [the recital of] Hallel and thanksgiving.
In short, there exists not a single source, asides from the Gemara, that mentions any miracle of oil lasting for eights nights. This is a problem for obvious reasons. In terms of the likelihood of such a miracle actually having taken place, none of this bodes well. In all the historical works that detail the events of Chanukah — in all the works from which we know everything that we do about Chanukah — no such miracle of oil is mentioned. The only place it is mentioned is the Gemara. This is most disturbing. If such a miracle really did occur, why is the only place it is mentioned the Gemara, and not any of the above sources?
Burden of Proof
Before we truly begin, let’s take a moment to address a possible response to the above allegations. Many will suggest, simply, that the burden of proof is on those that want to overturn a historical record. If what people have believed for centuries is that a miracle occurred, then in order for academic historians to come along now and suggest that it never occurred, a proof for such an assertion would have to be offered. After all, the Gemara records many things — stories and conversation between Amoraim, to take just one example. If someone came along and claimed that a particular story never actually occurred to one of the Amoraim, are we to believe and pay creed to every claim of this variety? Surely not. Simply apply this same logic to the miracle of Chanukah, and problem solved.
This logic is fundamentally flawed, however. The situation of the Chanukah miracle is distinctly different. Unlike a random conversation between Amoraim, the miracle of Chanukah is something that — if it actually occurred — should have been recorded elsewhere. Other stories in the Gemara, indeed, we have only the testimony of the Gemara itself. But this is all we would expect. When stories in the Gemara, however, overlap with major other elements in history, we would expect to — and almost always do — find references in other contemporary records. When we do not find such references in a place in which we would expect them, the veracity of the event is indeed called into question. So, yes, in fact, it is quite logical to question the miracle of Chanukah based on the fact that all the external sources that should have recorded the miracle do not.
But is this really true? Should these other sources really have recorded the miracle? Is this what we truly expect to find?
Perhaps there are good reasons why these external sources do not mention the miracle of oil. If this is indeed the case, then our problem would, for the most part, go away. The real question we are faced with — as both historians and as Orthodox Jews — is not whether or not the miracle happened (that comes later), but why external sources might not have included the miracle. This is a far more interesting, and important question, and it is to this question that we now turn our attention.
Should we find no reasons at all, our conundrum shall remain. But should we find, instead, that there are actually rather good reasons why these external sources might not have mentioned the miracle of oil, we would then have to reassess the notion that their silence is problematic.
The following is slowly becoming trite, but bears repeating as it is absolutely true nonetheless: “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” Which is to say that the lack of external sources verifying the miracle of oil is far from conclusive evidence that such a thing did not occur. This is crucial to keep in mind when dealing with things such as this.
Just because we do not find something does not mean that it does not, or did not, exist. There could be a plethora of reasons we don’t find something. And it is this that we now endeavor to explore.
I & II Maccabees
Why would I & II Maccabees not have mentioned the miracle of oil? Dr. David Berger explains:
A perusal of II Maccabees demonstrates that miracle stories regarding the Hasmonean revolt and the Temple circulated widely. It is virtually beyond question that the author of I Maccabees heard such accounts, and yet he records none at all. This means either that he did not believe them or that he excluded them as a matter of policy. In either case, the absence of a reference to the cruse of oil — which is troubling only because of the inference that the author never heard the story — poses no challenge to one who believes the account of the miracle on the authority of Hazal. Given the author's consistent historiographic approach, we can be almost certain that he would not have recorded this miracle even if he knew about it.
In the case of II Maccabees, the argument proceeds not from the absence of miracles but from their prominence. Here the author presents various miracle stories so public and so impressive (including, for example, the public appearance of angels) that the miracle of the cruse of oil, which was witnessed by relatively few observers, pales into near insignificance, and he may well have chosen to omit it along with other "minor" miracles. II Maccabees is an abridgment of a five-part work by Jason of Cyrene which has been lost. The full work almost certainly contained miracle stories that were omitted from the abridgment. To us, the story of the oil looms very large. To Jason — or to the man who abridged his work — it may have seemed trivial, particularly since he had an alternate explanation for the decision to celebrate for eight days.
In sum, there are plausible grounds to argue that the authors of both I & II Maccabees could have known the story and nonetheless omitted it from their histories.
These are both rather compelling explanations. The explanation for the omission in I Maccabees is certainly more compelling than the explanation for II Maccabees, but both are overall rather satisfying. Indeed, the omissions from I & II Maccabees are the most troubling omissions, and so to have such a satisfying explanation for the omissions is a very good thing indeed.
As stated above, it should be reiterated from the outset that Josephus not mentioning the miracle of Chanukah does not mean that he did not know about it. There may have been any number of reasons why he chose to leave it out.
For one, Josephus wrote from a distinctly anti-Chazal perspective. He sides heavily with the Sadducees throughout his writings. Considering that the war of Chanukah was largely a fight between the Sadducees and Hellenists against the Pharisees/Chazal — and that the miracle of oil would have been seen as a Divine acknowledgment that the Pharisees/Chazal were correct — it is logical that Josephus would have conveniently left this point out. Not conclusive, surely, but more than plausible.
Further, Josephus’s account of Chanukah follows that of I Maccabees extremely closely. He hardly deviates at all. Considering that I Maccabees leaves out all miracles — indeed, Josephus does not even describe the military victory as miraculous — it is logical that Josephus would not go out of his way to add in the miracle of oil.
It should also be noted that Josephus, uniquely amongst historical sources, refers to Chanukah as “The Festival of Lights” (it is from Josephus that the modern English name for the holiday derives). This is curious for many reasons, given all that we have stated here. Why would Josephus call the holiday “Lights” when he did not even mention anything about any such miracle or the lighting of a menorah? The reason for the holiday given by Josephus is that the “freedom to worship was concealed in darkness but was now brought to light” (although he admits, oddly, that this is only a guess on his part). By this logic, though, the holiday should have been dubbed “Light”, in the singular and symbolic, not “Lights”. This has lead most scholars to explain that Josephus’s name of the holiday was a concession to the Romans for whom he was writing. He did not want to associate the lighting of the menorah with any sort of re-enacting of a dedication of the Temple that the Romans had destroyed. By calling it the less idealistic “Lights” he separated the act of lighting the menorah from any sort of covert rebellious act. However, the mere fact that Josephus called the holiday “Lights” at all should tell us something. Perhaps he was aware of the miracle, and thus felt compelled to follow along those lines.
Additionally, it is clear and important to realize that Josephus was not shy about editing and altering facts so as to better appeal to his Roman audience.
Each point alone is certainly a plausible explanation for why Josephus would have omitted the miracle of Chanukah — or at the very least a reason why we should take his account of the story with a grain of salt — but when added together, I think it all the more so.
The omission of the miracle from Al HaNisim need not trouble anyone at all. The prayer is one of thanksgiving. The war requires giving thanks, the miracle of oil does not. As such, it is left out.
The precise authors of Al HaNisim as we have it today are unknown, but one would have to imagine that they were believers in Chazal (or members of Chazal themselves), had the Gemara that mentioned the miracle, and believed that the miracle of oil occurred. The omission is thus very clearly intentional.
The fact that the Mishnah does not include any mention of a miracle should not trouble at any level. The Mishnah hardly speaks of Chanukah at all to begin with. It doesn’t even include the laws, much less a recounting of the events that instigated the holiday. We absolutely would not expect to find a mention of the miracle here.
Of Secondary Importance
There is another crucial component to all of this that must be explained: The miracle of oil would have only occurred to a select few individuals. Only a handful of people would have witnessed it. If those elite few chose not to spread the miracle, or make a big deal out of it, it is absolutely likely that other sources would not have known about the miracle at all — not because it didn’t happen, but because it wasn’t publicized. Thus, while one avenue of explanation for the omissions is to explain why each source knew about the miracle but chose to omit it, another interpretation would be that sources didn’t even know about the miracle — but not because it didn’t happen, but rather simply because it just wasn’t yet well-known. Or, similarly, perhaps these sources did indeed know about the miracle, but chose to omit it for the simple reason that it was perceived at that time as utterly inconsequential. The focus of the holiday of Chanukah was primarily the miraculous military victory, and only secondarily the miracle of oil. This in and of itself can explain the omissions.
We have, thus far, provided adequate — or better — explanations for why various external sourced might have omitted the miracle of oil despite the fact that they could have been very well aware of it occurring. Thus, we could very well take the Gemara’s account of the miracle at face value, understanding why external sources would not have mentioned the miracle. The military victory and the rededication of the Temple was what was of primary concern. The question now shifts to how we are to explain the Gemara’s mention of the miracle in the face of all of this.
You’ll note that we saved Megillas Ta’anis for last. This is because it seems to me that the issue of the miracle of oil, and the Gemara’s place in it, largely hinges upon Megillas Ta’anis. It is the key to all of this, and requires an understanding of all the above first.
A brief overview of the book is required: Megillas Ta’anis is a compendium of 35 “holidays” on which fasting is prohibited due to some happy event in history that occurred on that day. It was written towards the end of the Second Temple period, which would make it Tannaitic literature. Ta’anis itself is essentially just a list of days without much, or any explanation. As such, we would not expect to find any mention of the miracle of oil there, as there isn’t even mention of why the holiday is celebrated to begin with.
There is, however, also a running commentary, or scholium, to Ta’anis that elucidates and expounds upon the dates listed in Ta’anis itself. The trouble is that we do not know precisely when all the various scholia were written. There were certainly parts that were already known in the times of the Gemara, as there are often quotes and allusions to various scholia. There are other parts of the scholia, however, that are more difficult to date. One of these parts is, of course, the section dealing with Chanukah.
The scholium to Ta’anis’ mention of Chanukah that we have today is a combination of different works and comments written at different times. This is where things get mildly complicated. The focus of the scholium is very clearly on the victory in war and the re-dedication of the Temple (as we would expect given all the above), but the miracle of oil is indeed mentioned as it is found in the Gemara in the copies of Ta’anis and scholia that exist today. However, in some manuscripts of the scholium the miracle is not mentioned at all, while in others, only a simpler, more primitive version of the story is told.
Now, it is clear that the Gemara’s famous question of “Mai Chanukah?” quoted above is a quote from Megillas Ta’anis. The problem becomes whether or not the answer — which is the miracle story — is a quote from Megillas Ta’anis as well. The Gemara shifts from Aramaic to Hebrew as soon as it gets to the answer, and the full text of the scholium that we have today mentions the miracle following the same language as the Gemara. The question, of course, is which came first. The answer to this question has radical ramifications here.
On the one hand, the Gemara could have had the scholium’s mention of the miracle as we have it now, and thus the entire Gemara, question and answer, would be a quote from said scholium. If this is the case, the Gemara’s mention of the miracle does not mean to imply that the focus of the holiday is the miracle of oil alone. Rather, they simply asked the question of what Chanukah is, and then quoted the first few lines of the source that explains it. They simply did not want to quote the entire entry from the scholium, for obvious reasons, and instead presumed the reader would see the original source for further details (and would also already have the cultural focus on the war and rededication that existed at that time). That is one way to explain the Gemara’s mention of the miracle.
On the other hand, perhaps the scholium as we have it today was only composed much later (an eminent scholar indeed dates it post-Talmudicly all the way to the 7th century). Whoever wrote the scholium as such was simply copying from the Gemara, and that would explain the match in language. In this interpretation, the Gemara was only quoting its question from the scholium, while its answer was original, and was meant to either emphasize, exaggerate, or invent the miracle of oil (for reasons we will not delve into at present). This is the other way of explaining the Gemara, and is the one favored by many academics.
Now, it should be noted that even under this second perspective in which the Gemara did not have the scholium that mentions the miracle (or had only the one with the more primitive version of the miracle story) we do not have to conclude that the Gemara’s mention of the miracle was a complete fabrication. One could also explain the Gemara as simply recording a tradition that until that point existed only orally. As was explained above, the fact that the scholium might not have mentioned the miracle does not have to mean that it did not occur. Further, while the Gemara in the second interpretation is certainly meant to draw attention to a facet of the holiday that was previously only thought to be of periphery importance, we would not have to go so far as to say it meant to replace the miracle of the war entirely — but rather only that the holiday be viewed through the prism of a Divine revelation and approval.
(There is obviously a lot more to say about academic perspectives in relation to a topic such as this, as well as specific points here that ought to be dwelt on in greater depth, but this is not the time or place for such things.)
If the Gemara in Shabbos is, in its entirety, a quote from Ta’anis as we have it today, then things are relatively simple. The explanation of the Gemara’s mention of the miracle is simply that it was quoting a snippet of an extant tradition in response to its question, without any intent beyond that.
If the Gemara in Shabbos had only the primitive version of the miracle story, then the explanation of the Gemara’s mention of the miracle would be to increase the focus on the miracle of oil, either based on some oral tradition, or via an exaggeration (perhaps some form of drash) of their own volition.
If the Gemara had no source for the miracle at all, then the Gemara’s mention of the oil must be explained as either simply recording what was only an oral tradition to that point, or as an invention of the miracle story entirely (again, the potential reasons for this we are not going to address here). Either way, from this perspective, the Gemara must be seen as some sort of increase in focus on the miracle.
Did It Happen?
I think any of these conclusions and explanations are certainly more than plausible.
For one, the omissions of the external sources certainly seems awkward at first confrontation; upon further investigation, though, perhaps they’re not quite as awkward as originally presumed. Am I certain that the explanations above for each source are the real reasons the miracle of oil was omitted? Surely not. And some are certainly more compelling with others.
In terms of Ta’anis, I think all options are feasible. I am not learned enough to pass judgment on the veracity of the later dating for the scholium. My inclination is that the evidence is not as strong as proponents believe, but even if absolutely correct, the Gemara could very well have been recording an oral tradition of an event that actually occurred.
Thus, there are a few ways things can be viewed. One: The miracle occurred, was recorded in Megillas Ta’anis in full, but was omitted from other external sources for any number of the reasons expounded on above, until it was quoted by the Gemara as the first few lines in an answer to the question of why Chanukah is celebrated. Two: The miracle occurred, was recorded in Megillas Ta’anis in only a primitive fashion, but was fleshed out by the Gemara so as to draw attention to the Divine “seal” on the rededication of the Temple. Three: The miracle occurred and was preserved only orally until it was recorded in the Gemara to draw attention to the Divine “seal” on the rededication of the Temple. Four: The miracle never occurred and was a story told only by Chazal for any number of feasible reasons. In short, the precise origins of the holiday of Chanukah are elusive.
Historically, the question of whether the miracle of oil actually happened is an interesting one. However, as Jews living in the 21st century, as unsatisfying an answer as this may be, it shouldn’t matter to us whether the miracle actually occurred or not. It is impossible for us to know conclusively what happened from a historical perspective. But we know, no matter what actually happened, that the focus of the holiday is primarily the military victory, and only secondarily the miracle of oil; we know Chazal wanted us to view the military victory through the prism of the miracle of oil; we know what the great scholars of Judaism throughout the generations have accepted and taught about the holiday and its meaning.
That is all I think we need.
Addendum on Megillas Antiochus (11/12/15): Despite all of my research on this topic, I seem to have missed entirely another aspect of this discussion, namely, the ancient scroll of Megillas Antiochus. It is an ancient document recounting the events of Chanukah that actually used to be read on Chanukah in various Jewish communities. Much like all other accounts of Chanukah, Megillas Antiochus focuses primarily on the military victory and the subsequent rededication of the Beis HaMikdash. However, interestingly, it does indeed include the miracle story in (practically) full form.
Recall, our whole question is essentially whether Chazal created the miracle story (/embellished it), or whether they were simply recording an extant tradition of the miracle. There are a few problems, though, with jumping to this enticing latter conclusion based on Megillas Antiochus.
For one, the scroll is not at all a historical document. Unlike works like Josephus or the Books of Maccabees, Megillas Antiochus seems simply to be recording public perception and practice at the time it was written. It hardly quotes from historical sources, takes many liberties, and gets many facts wrong. Thus, putting too much stock into what it says in terms of recording actually historical traditions is not wise. Further, the entire premise that Chazal had the scroll really seems dubious as they never once mention it anywhere.
Second, it is unclear who wrote the scroll. The scroll is first mentioned in Shimon Kiara’s Halachos Gedolos (7th century) in which he ascribes the scroll to the schools of Shammai and Hillel. Saadia Gaon (9th century) treated the scroll very seriously as well, but actually ascribed it to the Chashmonaim themselves. Either way, although certainly with the latter view, Megillas Antiochus would certainly count as an extant tradition prior to the Gemara in Shabbos.
However — and this is where things, once again, get sticky — the dating of Megillas Antiochus is utterly uncertain. It could have been written anywhere from the 2nd century CE all the way to the 11th. Many scholars date it earlier along that timeline (with one or two even dating it to the 1st century), but many peg it at closer to the 5th or 7th century.
If we presume a more recent dating — specifically, post-Talmudic — then this does not alter anything whatsoever as the miracle story in the scroll was clearly written simply in accordance with the Gemara, and not from some separate, original tradition. If, however, we presume the earlier dating, then we could indeed potentially have a source for the miracle that predates the Gemara (a point that would also need to be confronted and pondered by those that are certain of how, and when, Chazal “shifted the focus of Chanukah” — an idea that I am less than certain of, and is also not really our topic here.)
Thus: If Saadia Gaon was correct about the dating and authorship of the scroll, the miracle account in Megillas Antiochus not only predates the Gemara, but even predates Chazal. This is extremely unlikely, but I suppose possible. If the earlier scholarly dating of the scroll is correct, then we very well might have a source — however unofficial a scroll it may be — that predates the Gemara. If the later dating of the scroll is correct, then Megillas Antiochus is not even a factor in this discussion.
In sum, it seems, even more so than before, that the precise origins of Chanukah are shrouded in mystery.