The Chanukah Story: Ritual and Myth

Jonathan pointed out a couple of days ago that the well-known and beloved Chanukah story — the miracle by which one day’s worth of holy oil burned for eight days to light the rededication (Channukah) of the Temple after it was purged of Greek ritual images (“idols”) — has no basis in the contemporaneous and near-contemporaneous accounts of the Maccabeean revolt that constitute the first two Books of the Maccabeees.

They do, however, make a beautiful fit with the equally well-known and beloved ceremony of the (thoroughly minor) festival: burning one candle the first night, two the second night, on on up to eight.

So here’s a theory, without any independent factual basis, to combine the two observations. Maybe the Chanukah story is an instance of Robert Graves’s theory that ritual precedes, and generates, myth. The ceremony of the candles is obviously fitting for a solstice festival, where the natural theme is light increasing. So perhaps the ceremony came first, and the miracle tale was a retrofit, a “just-so” story to explain the ritual.

As I say, this is pure conjecture. As far as I know, there’s not much evidence about how or when either the ritual or the story developed.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: