What miracle of the oil?

Hanukka story assumes high priest was a person of impeccable integrity.

second temple model 88 (photo credit: )
second temple model 88
(photo credit: )
As children we all knew about the miracle of the oil that was the basis of the festival of Hanukka. When the Maccabees conquered the Temple, they found only one cruse of oil with the unbroken seal of the high priest. It was enough to fuel the holy menora for one day but by miracle it lasted eight days, and thus the Festival of Lights, the festival of Hanukka, is celebrated for eight days. This is the story in the Talmud, based on earlier versions in Megillat Ta'anit (which records all the days when we are not to fast) and repeated in the Scroll of Antiochus, which was read in medieval times. It has been pointed out by scholars, Orthodox and otherwise, that this account is full of difficulties. There is no other record that the oil for the menora was ever sealed by the high priest, nor that he even had such a seal. The oil was said to burn for eight days, but it would have been impossible to produce fresh pure olive oil in that time. As the temple had been polluted by the Seleucids, the menora would not have been usable and, although the claim is made that the Hasmoneans made a temporary one out of their weapons, Maccabees mentions nothing about the oil or the miracle. Above all, who was the high priest whose seal was so important to the Hasmoneans? The story assumes that the high priest was a person of impeccable respectability, who would have upheld the laws of purity in a meticulous manner. He was the spiritual head of the Jewish people and most reliable in keeping the holy laws. That is the assumption made by the writers of the Talmud and the two other sources mentioned. TO EXAMINE the matter further we have to consult the two Books of Maccabees. They both tell the same story but in a different way and with different details. The First Book is more down-to-earth in its account, while the Second Book takes a more religious tone seeing the hand of God behind the events. The First was written in Palestine perhaps 40 or 50 years after the events and the Second at about the same time in Alexandria, in Egypt. Today both exist only in Greek, and the Second was written in Greek in the original, as the Jews of Alexandria had forgotten their Hebrew. But the First Book was probably written in Jerusalem in Hebrew, as it is in the style of the Books of Samuel and Kings. The First Book ascribes the Maccabean Revolt to the aged Mattiyahu, who resisted the Greek officer who came to Modi'in to persuade him to sacrifice and eat the entrails, but Mattiyahu killed the officer and the Jew that sprung forward to do the officer's bidding. That started the Revolt, and the old man and his sons fled into hiding. That is the story that we all know, but it is not mentioned at all in the Second Book. THE SECOND Book tells a more complicated story, based on the actions of the high priests. One should remember that the high priest was the only leader permitted to the Jews since the time of the return to Zion in 538 BCE. The Persians were then in charge and provided the civil administration, while the Jewish high priest was allowed to run our affairs as best he could under the Persian governor. He was not only the spiritual head of the Jews but also the political head, in charge of the taxes, foreign affairs and the home front. After Alexander the Great, this situation continued under the Ptolemies and their successors the Seleucids and, at the time in question, the Second Book tells us, we at first had excellent High Priests, like Shimon Hatzaddik and his son and grandson, but the situation soon changed. Hellenization was in the air, and in 175 BCE a certain Jason, original name Joseph, bribed the Seleucid Emperor Antiochus III to the tune of 360 talents of silver to wrest the position from his brother Honia (Onias), the legitimate high priest. Antiochus III had been good to the Jews, as they had opened the gates of Jerusalem to him when he conquered the Ptolemies. He gave them three years free of taxes and a constitution that guaranteed their rights of religion and the sanctity of the Temple. Jason was a Hellenizer and promised the Emperor he would turn Jerusalem into a Greek-type city or polis, by building a gymnasium and theater, and he did this without changing any of the laws of his people. Making Jerusalem into a polis, and calling it Antioch-in-Jerusalem, gave it autonomy and relieved it of state taxes. It worked in favor of the urban Jews, they were free to practice their religion and also to enjoy Greek entertainment, though Second Maccabees condemned those young priests who neglected their Temple duties and ran off to exercise in the gymnasium. It also worked for the Emperor who could settle his own people and soldiers in another "modern" Greek-type city, with good education and entertainment facilities, and who now had another city named after him. So Jason became High Priest, but he was not to be in office long. WHEN HE sent his trusted deputy Menelaus of Bilga (who was probably not of the priestly class) to Antioch on an errand to the emperor, this Menelaus made himself out to be a great leader who could offer larger bribes to the emperor than Jason, and he had himself appointed high priest, while Jason was forced to flee. This was just the time when the new Seleucid Emperor Antiochus IV Epiphanes came to the throne. On his return in triumph to Jerusalem, Menelaus found he could not pay the bribes he had promised so he plundered the Temple and sold off gold vessels to pay the Emperor. The people were appalled and the former legitimate high priest Honia went to Antioch to report this crime to the emperor, but Menelaus arranged for him to be murdered at the synagogue of Daphne before he could do so. The Emperor was furious and had the hired assassin killed but he was really too busy with matters in Egypt to be concerned further with Jerusalem, and Menelaus maintained his position by dint of further bribery to the emperor's minions. ANTIOCHUS Epiphanes was busy with battles in Egypt which he was trying to conquer from the Ptolemies, but he was stopped in his tracks by the up-and-coming Romans and the rumor started that he had been killed in Egypt. The people of Jerusalem rejoiced and ousted the unpopular Menelaus, while Jason made a comeback from exile. Very soon Antiochus Epiphanes returned, still very much alive, and determined to punish the Jews who had celebrated his death. He killed many thousands and restored Menelaus as high priest. But he had a problem. Antiochus needed peace and quiet in Jerusalem, which was on the doorstep to Egypt, but how could he control the rebellious Jews? Naturally for an answer he turned to the high priest. Menelaus advised him to abrogate the Jewish laws, to forbid circumcision, to annul the Sabbath and to force Jews to eat the entrails of the pagan sacrifices to show their loyalty to the emperor. It was these harsh measures, which could be legally imposed as Jerusalem was now officially a Greek polis, that forced Mattiyahu and his sons to go into hiding and start the Revolt. THERE IS no reason to doubt the First or the Second version of the Hasmonean Revolt. One is written from the point of view of the countryside, from Modi'in, and one from the capital, from Jerusalem. One mentions Mattiyahu defying the Seleucid officer, and one the machinations of the high priests Jason and Menelaus. Neither version mentions the miracle of the oil. According to First Maccabees the eight days of Hanukka were to consecrate the new altar, such a ceremony taking eight days as in the time of Moses, of Solomon, of Hezekiah and Ezra. According to Second Maccabees, the eight days were in commemoration of the Festival of Tabernacles, that the Hasmoneans had been unable to celebrate properly in Tishrei, while they were still fighting and living in caves like animals. So what about the story of the miracle of the oil? We see that it assumes that the high priest was a person of impeccable integrity. Second Maccabees tells us quite clearly that this man was Menelaus, a rogue of the first water. This information was never given us by our traditional teachers and we must assume that the Talmudists did not know the Second Book of Maccabees. It could either be that they never knew it or that they ignored it as it was written in Greek. On the other hand the First Book, with the story of Mattiyahu they knew. This is not unexpected, for we know that Josephus Flavius, the Jewish historian of the first century, was in a similar position. He knew First Maccabees, which he copies extensively for the Hasmonean battles, but it seems he did not know the different versions in the Second Book. It is therefore quite possible that the rabbis had only First Maccabees to go on, they knew of Mattiyahu but not of Menelaus. They did not know that the High Priest at the time the Hasmoneans forced their way into the Temple was Menelaus, who was guilty of bribery, stealing the Temple gold, and murdering the former high priest Honia. If they had known that, would they have seen the seal of the high priest as a guarantee of purity, would they have seen a miracle in a cruse of oil sealed by such a high priest? The writer is a Fellow of the Albright Institute of Archaeological Research in Jerusalem.