Jesus and Hanukkah: John 10:22-23

Ultra Orthodox Jewish gather next a Hanukkah menorah in Jerusalem's Mea Shearim neighborhood, Monday, Dec. 26, 2011. The Jewi
Ultra Orthodox Jewish gather next a Hanukkah menorah in Jerusalem's Mea Shearim neighborhood, Monday, Dec. 26, 2011. The Jewish festival of light, an eight-day commemoration of the Jewish uprising in the second century B.C. against the Greek-Syrian kingdom, which had tried to put statues of Greek gods in the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, started last Tuesday. (AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)

"The Festival of Dedication then took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple in Solomon's portico" (John 10:22-23).

John's Gospel is probably the fourth of the four extant first-century Gospels. It is John's Gospel that reports that Jesus came to Jerusalem for the festival of dedication -- that is, Hanukkah. Anti-Semites later abused this Gospel, but today scholars (and most other readers) recognize that anti-Semitic abuses run counter to the work's original purpose. Since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, most scholars whose research focuses on this Gospel have understood its themes and language as strongly Jewish; some have argued that it is the most Jewish of the surviving Gospels. Many scholars (including myself) regard this Gospel's accounts of conflicts with some members of the Judean establishment as an intra-Jewish debate -- a debate among Jewish people with differing visions for what their faith should mean.

Scholars explore many of these issues, but what matters most for the present purpose is a particular Jewish element in this Gospel. John's Gospel reports Jesus regularly traveling to Jerusalem for Jewish festivals, affirming his Jewish identity and continuity with his heritage. Although this Gospel focuses on major biblical festivals such as Passover (Pesach) and Tabernacles (Sukkot), it also reports that Jesus came to Jerusalem for the Festival of Dedication -- Hanukkah.

Before discussing possible historical implications, we should note that John had particular theological interests in these reports. His Gospel connects Jesus' mission with features of each of the festivals: Jesus is portrayed, for example, as a (probably) Passover lamb. Likewise, he appears as the foundation stone from which living water would flow, a hope specifically celebrated at the festival of Tabernacles. John's Hanukkah passage might also make a similar point. Some scholars suggest that this passage depicts Jesus as consecrated or dedicated to God the way this festival celebrated the altar's rededication (cf. 10:36; elsewhere this Gospel connects Jesus with the temple).

More relevant for our present subject, however, is the account's value for some discussions today. Many scholars have argued for authentic historical memories in the events in this Gospel. For example, in support of this likelihood regarding festivals, although John's interest in festivals is more extensive, the earlier Gospels also report Jesus celebrating Passover. Jesus keeping festivals was not invented by later Gentile Christians, and it is intrinsically likely historically, barring evidence to the contrary, that Jesus did in fact observe the festivals observed by most other Galileans and Judeans. Despite John's theological interest, then, his account may also tell us something about Jesus' practice. Indeed, even the reported setting of Jesus' visit to the temple for Hanukkah fits: winter could be cool in the Judean hill country, including in Jerusalem; thus Jesus was walking in the colonnaded area of Solomon's portico, sheltered from the wind. (Romans destroyed Jerusalem a quarter century before the probable time when John wrote his Gospel, so this setting was not likely an idea simply invented in his own day.)

John's historically plausible claim about Jesus' observance of traditional festivals is of interest today. After nearly two millennia of separation and often alienation between Jewish people and Christians, generated by inexcusable anti-Semitism in Christianized cultures, both Jewish and Christian readers can look back to the Jewish figure at the heart of the Christian faith. We might not always agree on the meaning of Jesus' participation in Jewish festivals, but we can agree that Jesus honored these traditions of his people. For Christians, this model should invite an appreciation for Jewish tradition. Jesus offers a bridge between what has historically evolved into two separate faiths, and an opportunity for deeper reconciliation and mutual appreciation.

The Gospels offer countless examples affirming Jesus' Jewish identity. The tradition about Jesus observing Hanukkah is merely one of these, but it is one that invites our attention at this season. Everyone recognizes that Jesus himself was never in a position to celebrate Christmas. Nevertheless, first-century memories about Jesus do associate him with one festival at this season: the festival of Hanukkah.