In two days, Americans will celebrate Independence Day. Fireworks will commemorate the “rockets’ red glare” described by Francis Scott Key as he watched the explosions over Fort McHenry at the Battle of Baltimore. Sad to say, however, for most Americans, the historical connection will probably be lost. Illegal fireworks will abound; the 4th of July is now little more than an excuse to blow things up at home.
But Independence Day provides a fitting backdrop to the story of Jesus’ last public confrontation with the Jewish leadership in Jerusalem before his final, fatal return to the city. Here’s how John begins the story:
The time came for the Festival of Dedication in Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was in the temple, walking in the covered porch named for Solomon. The Jewish opposition circled around him and asked, “How long will you test our patience? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.” (John 10:22-24, CEB)
The Festival of Dedication: we know it as Hanukkah. It’s not unlike Independence Day, celebrating a time when the Jews threw off the yoke of foreign oppression.
Two centuries before Christ, Judea was under the Ptolemaic Empire, an offshoot of Alexander the Great’s earlier mission to spread Greek culture throughout the known world. The Ptolemies (the last and most famous of whom was Cleopatra) ruled from Alexandria in Egypt. Under their influence, more and more Jews became Hellenized; in other words, they became increasing secular, replacing the old traditions with Greek ways and ideas.
But then came the Seleucids. Under the leadership of Antiochus III of Syria, the Egyptians were defeated and Judea was annexed to the Seleucid Empire. Things went relatively well for a while — until Antiochus III died and his son Antiochus IV took the throne. Antiochus IV looted the temple and desecrated it by setting up a statue of Zeus there and ordering that pigs — unclean animals! — were to be sacrificed to Zeus on the sacred altar. Many Jews were killed, and Judaism itself was outlawed.
A Jewish priest named Mattathias decided that enough was enough. He and his five sons began a guerrilla campaign against the Seleucids. When Mattathias died, his son Judah took over, and became known as Judas Maccabeus — “Judah the Hammer” — for his exploits (his story is told in 1 and 2 Maccabees). A year later, the Seleucids were beaten back. The Hammer built a new altar, cleansed the temple of defilement, and ordered the temple to be rededicated. That ceremony of dedication is the origin of Hanukkah.
With Judas Maccabeus, the Hasmonean dynasty began. It would be decades before the Hasmoneans would rid themselves of the Syrians completely. But under their reign, the Jews experienced a temporary time of prosperity, until the Romans laid siege to Jerusalem in 63 BCE.
Why is this important?
Imagine the scene that John describes in John 10. It’s Hanukkah. This is not a pilgrimage feast, but Jesus is in Jerusalem nonetheless, walking in a covered colonnade alongside the temple. His opponents see him and surround him, then pressure him with a question: Once and for all, Jesus, just tell us straight out — are you the Messiah or not?
With Hanukkah and the memory of the Hammer in the air, what kind of messiah do you think they had in mind?
Their question has no simple answer. Because it’s not just a matter of whether Jesus is the Messiah — but whether he’s the Messiah they want him to be.
That’s a question worth pondering in any age.