Can Christians Observe
by: Tim Kelley
November 23, 2013
Revised November 29, 2019
Now it was the Feast of Dedication in Jerusalem, and it was winter. And Jesus walked in the temple, in Solomon's porch. So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, "How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly."
NKJ John 10:22-24
Many Christians believe that Hanukkah is strictly a Jewish festival. Some even believe that Hanukkah should not be observed by Christians at all since it is not listed with the other festivals in Leviticus 23. But is Hanukkah a legitimate festival? Can a Christian observe this Jewish festival and still be pleasing to God? In this study, I want to answer that question by answering these questions:
- Is Hanukkah rooted in idolatry?
- Is Hanukkah a Biblical festival?
- Why might we want to observe Hanukkah?
Before we get started on the questions, I want to give a very brief overview of what Hanukkah is all about and how it came to be a Jewish tradition.
The 8-day festival of Hanukkah is called such because it celebrates the re-dedication of the altar at the Temple in Jerusalem after it was desecrated a little over three years earlier by the Seleucid (Greek/Hellenist) king Antiochus Epiphanies.
Approximately 165 years before Yeshua was born Antiochus set out to change the culture of the Jewish people from that of being Torah observant Hebrews to being philosophical Greeks. He began by making certain Jewish practices illegal including the reading the Torah, the observance of New Moons and Sabbaths, and the practice of circumcision. Then to prevent the people from offering their sacrifices at the Temple, he “sacrificed” a pig on the brazen alter, thus defiling it. This event happened on the 25th day of the Hebrew month Kislev, and according the writer of the book, it was all done –
NRS 1 Maccabees 1:49 … so that they would forget the law and change all the ordinances.
After roughly three years of war, an army of rag-tag Jewish patriots led by a priest who became a general named Judah the Maccabees drove the Greek army out of Jerusalem and retook the Temple. On Kislev 25, three years to the day that the altar was desecrated, the priests rebuilt the altar and dedicated it.
Because of the significance of the events, the Jewish leaders of the day proclaimed that these days should be observed by the Jews in Judea from that day forward –
NRS 1 Maccabees 4:59 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 Chislev.
In reality, the story of Hanukkah is one of religious freedom and the preservation of the Hebrew culture in the midst of a pagan-Greek world. It is not the celebration of a political victory, but rather a commemoration of the victory God provided the Jewish people who were willing to stand up for their values and the way of God.
In our quest to determine if we can celebrate this story through its traditional observance, let's begin by looking at what some may call the 'negative points' of this traditional Jewish festival. We'll start with the common, though misguided belief that Hanukkah is rooted in the pagan worship of the Babylonian god "Chun Kah".
Pagan Origins of the word “Hanukkah”
That Hanukkah is the worship of a pagan god was a claim that was made to me back in 1997 when I co-hosted a three day seminar 1 that just happened to coincide with Hanukkah. A gentleman came up to me and said that we should have not scheduled this during Hanukkah because Hanukkah is pagan. To support his belief he later sent me an article he wrote which included this statement –
“The word CHUN KAH comes from CHUIN who was a false god in Israel and in Babylon. I Chronicles 18:8 tells us that this City named CHUN was in Samaria and that it was a Brass-making center. The Root of this word is KUIN for the false god for whom that city was named which is Strong’s Number #3594. This idol symbol was also known as Baal-Peor.”
I checked out his allegation and found it to be questionable at best. The word “hanukkah” (חֳנֻכָּה – Strong’s 2598) is not just the name of a Jewish festival; it’s a perfectly good Hebrew word! The first time we see it in the scriptures is in Moses’ discussion of the offerings that were given at the dedication of the Tabernacle in the wilderness.
ESV Numbers 7:10 And the chiefs offered offerings for the dedication of the altar on the day it was anointed; and the chiefs offered their offering before the altar.
“Hanukkah” is the noun form of the Hebrew word “chanak” ( חָנַךְ – Strong’s 2596) which means “to train, dedicate, inaugurate”. One notable use of “chanak” is in a very well known proverb –
NKJ Proverbs 22:6 Train up a child in the way he should go, And when he is old he will not depart from it.
The etymology of “chanak” is that of rubbing the palate of a newborn child with chewed up dates before it begins to suck the breast2. I would assume this was done in order to entice the baby to want more of that taste in its mouth. In regards to training our children, it would imply that we should give them reasons to want more of God’s way, so they – like the prodigal son – will want to return to it.
Though “train up” is an interesting use of the word, the most common use is that of dedicating a facility that’s used in the service of God such as the altar of burnt offerings at the Tabernacle3 as well as at the Temple4. Once we understand the purpose of the sacrifices, we can see why the altar was “chanak” - dedicated – so that the people would be drawn to it in the same way a child is drawn to its mother’s breast.
So we can see that the words “chanukkah” or “hanukkah” are not derived from any pagan god, but are simply good Hebrew words that mean “dedication”. A study of the word would show that the same Greek word 'egkainia' (ἐγκαίνια - 1456) is used throughout the Greek translation of the Tnakh as well as in the New Testament any time you see the word “dedication”.
Pagan Practices in Hanukkah
Back in 1995 I was at home - standing at our kitchen sink - discussing a certain scriptural passage with a fellow who had once taught that we should uphold the Torah, but was now turning away from it. I was trying to make the case that if the pagans do it, we should not do it and I used this scripture to support my case -
ESV Deuteronomy 12:29-31 29 "When the LORD your God cuts off before you the nations whom you go in to dispossess, and you dispossess them and dwell in their land, 30 take care that you be not ensnared to follow them, after they have been destroyed before you, and that you do not inquire about their gods, saying, 'How did these nations serve their gods?- that I also may do the same.' 31 You shall not worship the LORD your God in that way, for every abominable thing that the LORD hates they have done for their gods, for they even burn their sons and their daughters in the fire to their gods.
His response was simply – “The pagans pray to their god, so you’re saying that we should not pray to ours?” I was taken back. I did not have an answer. Sometime later I realized that everything has to be taken in context. As we discuss the various traditions of Hanukkah, we should do the same.
Let’s take a look at some of the claims that Hanukkah is based on paganism.
Pagan Customs Added to Hanukkah
Over the years, many Reform and (to some degree) Conservative Jews have added additional customs to the traditional Hanukkah celebration in order to make it look like Christmas. Those customs include the exchanging of gifts, the “Hanukkah bush”, and various colorful decorations. The addition of these customs by some in the Jewish community does no more to make Hanukkah “pagan” for the rest of us than does the stringing of lights in a sukkah or the giving of gifts during the Feast of Tabernacles 5 make that festival pagan.
Judah Maccabee Patterned Hanukkah After a Pagan Festival
There are some who claim that Judah Maccabee’s intent in establishing this festival was to align it with ancient saturnalia worship, but unlike the case with Christmas, there is no evidence of that intent.
So is Hanukkah rooted in paganism? Though some have added "Christmas-looking" customs to it, that does not’t make Hanukkah pagan. We simply need to discard those customs and observe it in its intended meaning.
Let’s face it; HaSatan has tried to introduce his idolatrous culture into practically everything. But does that mean we have to avoid everything? Does our fear of paganism keep us from doing good things? Let me give you an example of what I mean.
Yeshua and the Gates of Hell
By implication,Yeshua himself claimed that He was born into a “wicked and idolatrous6 generation”. Not only had Hellenism permeated the culture, but the Romans had also brought in their own form of idolatry in the form of temples to the 'gods'. It appears that Yeshua did not avoid these places, in fact one of his most well known statements was made at the foot of a specific pagan temple –
NKJ Matthew 16:18 "And I also say to you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.
The text preceding this quote shows that they were at a part of Samaria called Caesarea Philippi, a place named after the Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus and after Herod the Great’s son Philip. It lies at the foot of Mount Herman and was previously known as Paneas after the Greek god Pan. There was a large cave at Paneas out of which a large volume of water would flow. This water, along with two other streams, filled the Sea of Galilee, out of which flowed the Jordan River – the river in which Yeshua was baptized.
The pagans believed that this cave from which the water flowed led to the underworld and was thus called “the gates of hell” They would thus build statues and temples there to honor the Greek and Roman gods. Paneas was also a place for idol worship, including child sacrifice.
This place – steeped in idolatry, was where Yeshua choose to show His disciples that it was their job to begin the restoration of God’s people back from the idolatry that they had become so steeped in themselves. As we can see, He did not avoid the place even though it had been used for pagan purposes.
Since we now know that Hanukkah is not the worship of a pagan god, nor is it founded in paganism, let's go on to see why a non-Jew might want to observe it.
Being Part of a Restoration
In many ways, Hanukkah is the celebration of a 'restoration'. The 2nd century BCE Jewish people had seen their culture slip into Hellenism. Being a Jew was not popular. Many of the Jewish people had given up the Torah and some had even tried to have their circumcision reversed. With the desecration of the Temple, the people began to see how far their Hebrew culture had slid, and they took steps to restore it.
Those being drawn back to the Torah and the Hebrew walk of Messiah Yeshua believe they are a part of a restoration as well. They want to separate themselves from the "Greek" understanding of the scriptures and gain a more "Hebrew" understanding of them. They are leaving behind the mindset of the pagan Greek philosophers – Philo, Aristotle, and Plato - and are becoming more literal based. They believe that if God said to do it, then make every effort to do so.
We glean encouragement from the Hanukkah story because “there is no new thing under the sun”7, what happened before will happen again – and just as God enabled a small band of Jewish zealots to drive the Syrian army out of Jerusalem, He will fight our battles for us as well.
Preservation of the Hebrew Culture
Though it ties in with the above topic, the Maccabees helped preserve the Jewish culture into which Yeshua was born. If they had not stood up to the onslaught of (ellenism., then – in the words of Richard Spurlock -
" The battle over G-d's Word would have not occurred . . . Instead, G-d's people would have quietly disappeared into the melee of Hellenism.8
Yeshua needed to be born into a visible Jewish culture. He had to have an audience that believed in the God of Israel, who respected His Torah, and who were educated in the Biblical prophecies pertaining to the Messiah. He also needed the Jewish infrastructure of synagogues that were spread throughout Asia Minor that would serve as platforms for His gospel message of Restoration. He even needed the sect of the Pharisees – the separatists who came on the scene about 100 years after the Maccabean revolt as they played a huge part in spreading the Gospel as well as seeing to it that the prophecies of the “suffering servant” Messiah would indeed come to pass.
Insight Into Prophecy
The Hanukkah story is widely understood to be a fulfillment of the Daniel 11-12 prophecy of the “abomination that makes desolate”. A similar end-time prophecy was given by Messiah Yeshua in Matthew 24 and again in Mark 13 (two witnesses to the same account). This happened while Yeshua was in Jerusalem just days before He was crucified. A partial fulfillment of Yeshua’s prophecy took place when the Romans destroyed the second Temple. Because the Jewish believers heeded Yeshua’s warning to 'flee to the mountains' just as the Maccabees did, they escaped death.
Though the Hanukkah story and the destruction of the Temple were partial fulfillments, the greater fulfillment of Daniel’s prophecy will be at the end time, thus it’s important to know the Hanukkah story so we’ll recognize what’s happening.
Make Judah Jealous
While explaining to the congregation in Rome why so many “Gentiles” (non-Jews) were being called into the congregation, Paul made this statement –
NKJ Romans 11:11 I say then, have they stumbled that they should fall? Certainly not! But through their fall, to provoke them to jealousy, salvation has come to the Gentiles.
In essence he was saying that one of the roles of the non-Jews is to provoke the Jews to a better Hebrew walk. In other words, we should become “better Jews than the Jews”. For 2000 years, the small percentage of religious Jews have kept pretty much to themselves, while at the same time, those who are more secular have adopted many of the Greek – Hellenist ways and have mixed with society at large. With the coming of “Torah-based Christians”, both groups have begun to take notice. No longer can they say that all Christians are anti-Torah. No longer can they claim that our Messiah taught against the Torah. The Jewish people now have to consider our arguments because we are now quoting out of the same book they are – the Tnakh.
We Torah-based believers should exhibit a walk that portrays our Messiah in a more Hebraic light than the current Greek image that’s been portrayed for better than 1700 years. In so doing, we can help tear down the barriers created by 1700 years of “Christianity” that keep Judah from accepting Yeshua as the Jewish Messiah. And what better way to do that than to honor the faithfulness of the Jewish people in the Hanukkah story. Instead of condemning their yearly celebration, we can join with them in celebrating their stand against the forces of evil, and thus open up avenues of dialog by which they can come to see Yeshua from a different point of view.
These are four compelling reasons why we should observe Hanukkah, but there is still one more question we need to answer.
Hanukkah in the Scriptures
What about Biblical characters observing this festival. Is there evidence that any Biblical characters participated in Hanukkah? Yes, there is.
We know that the 1st and 2nd Book of Maccabees are not included in most English Bibles, so technically – the books that teach us about Hanukkah are not in the Bible, and therefore the characters in those books are not “biblical” characters. Did you know that the books of Daniel and Esther were nearly excluded from the Bible as well?
Why does our modern Bibles exclude them? There are a number of theories about this, but the most plausible is that when the Tnakh was confirmed at Yavneh, the rabbis (mostly Pharisees) opposed the books of Maccabees because they supported the Hasmonean dynasty, from which came Herod the Great. To many, that doesn't make much sense that you would exclude the story from the scriptures, but celebrate the festival that grew out of the story.
Never-the-less, if indeed they had decided to include the book of Maccabees, all those characters would have been “biblical”.
Even though the rabbis excluded the story from the canon, the apostle John included a reference to it in his account of Yeshua's life by showing that He observed Hanukkah at least once during His lifetime.
Yeshua Observes Hanukkah
The Apostle John wrote about an event in Yeshua’s life where the Jewish leadership was ready to stone Him. They alleged that He has blasphemed God by calling Himself the Son of God 9, but when Yeshua reminded them that the psalmist also made the same claim in regards to the rulers of the day10, they relented for a moment and He escaped.
Yeshua had been in Jerusalem just weeks earlier, during which time He had observed the Feast of Tabernacles and had performed His most notable miracle – giving sight to a man who had been born blind. His fame had spread throughout Judea and Samaria, and now He was at the Temple in Jerusalem, in the middle of the winter, and during the celebration of Hanukkah –
NKJ John 10:22-24 Now it was the Feast of Dedication in Jerusalem, and it was winter. 23 And Jesus walked in the temple, in Solomon's porch. 24 Then the Jews surrounded Him and said to Him, "How long do You keep us in doubt? If You are the Christ, tell us plainly."
We don’t know if He made the roughly 110 mile trip from His home in Capernaum to Jerusalem just for Hanukkah, or if He had simply stayed in Jerusalem after Sukkot. In either case, He was there and the Jewish leaders caught up with Him on the Temple Mount11, and in the Hanukkah theme, asked Him if He was the 'Christ', the promised Messiah. Now, I say “in the Hanukkah theme” for a reason.
Keep in mind that one of the themes of Hanukkah is freedom from oppression. The Jewish people had been under the oppressive hand of the Romans for about 100 years and they were looking for a champion, a hero, a Judas Maccabees to free them from the Romans. The prophecies indicated that the 'Christ' (Greek for 'messiah') would rule on the Throne of David, and David was a mighty warrior. “So” they said to Yeshua, “If you’re that warrior, would not Hanukkah be a great time to free us?”
We, of course, know that was not Yeshua’s intent at the time, so instead of freeing Israel, He headed back home and continued to provide different signs of His Messiahship.
So why do I observe Hanukkah? I believe there are some very compelling reasons to do so including:
- It helps to reinforce our walk, especially as more people are drawn back to this way of life
- It commemorates a people who were willing to stand up against great odds to preserve the Hebrew way of life
- It provides insight into prophecy
- It provides an avenue whereby we can fulfill our role to making Judah jealous for YHVH
- It’s not based in a previous pagan practice, that is – as long as we don’t bring paganism into it
- Yeshua observed it.
There’s one more reason which I’d like to add before finishing up . . .
A very good case can be made that Messiah Yeshua was born during the fall festival season, and possibly on the first day of Sukkot. If that’s the case, and we count back 40 weeks from Sukkot, it’s quite possible that the Light of the World was conceived during Hanukkah - the Festival of Lights.
Hanukkah is a good Jewish festival that - just like the 4th of July - celebrates God’s hand in bringing freedom to a small group of people against much greater odds. I believe God looks down on us and is pleased when we celebrate these days, and as we do, I hope we can all appreciate the sacrifices our forefathers made to preserve our freedom and our Hebrew way of life.
1 “Footstep of the Messiah”, Waggoner, Oklahoma;
2 Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon; Hendrickson Publishers Peabody, MA; pg. 335;
3 Numbers 7:10;
4 2 Chron. 7:9;
5 The giving of gifts during Christmas is an outgrowth of the fact that the 'wise men from the east' gave gifts to the 2-year old baby Jesus. A good case can be made that Jesus was born during Sukkot.;
6 Ezekiel 23:35;
7 Ecclesiastes 1:9;
8 Richard Spurlock - http://www.bereansonline.org/studies/Wisdom_vs_philosophy.pdf- pg. 7;
9 John 10:31-39;
10 Psalm 82:6;
11 Some claim that He was not there to observe Hanukkah because He was not actually at the Temple, but merely on the Temple Mount. One must keep in mind that Hanukkah is an 8-day event, and unlike Sukkot, not Temple based, i.e. – there were no sacrifices involved and thus no requirement to be at the Temple.;