Omitting the Maccabees

Why the books that tell the Hanukkah tale are not in the Hebrew Bible.

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The First and Second Books of Maccabees contain the most detailed accounts of the battles of Judah Maccabee and his brothers for the liberation of Judea from foreign domination. These books include within them the earliest references to the story of Hanukkah and the rededication of the Temple, in addition to the famous story of the mother and her seven sons. And yet, these two books are missing from the Hebrew Bible.

In order to begin addressing the question of this omission, it is important to understand the formation of the Hebrew biblical canon. The word "canon" originally comes from the Greek and means “standard” or “measurement.” When referring to a scriptural canon, the word is used to designate a collection of writings that are considered authoritative within a specific religious group. To the Jewish people, the biblical canon consists of the books found in the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible).

The canonization process of the Hebrew Bible is often associated with the Council of Jamnia (Hebrew: Yavneh), around the year 90 C.E. Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai managed to escape Jerusalem before its destruction and received permission to rebuild a Jewish base in Jamnia. It was there that the contents of the canon of the Hebrew Bible may have been discussed and formally accepted. However, this is a scholarly proposition that has lost adherents in recent years. Be that as it may, some of the debates surrounding these discussions--whenever and wherever they may have taken place--do appear in rabbinic literature, although we have no complete surviving record of these debates. Therefore, we can only speculate on why some materials were excluded from our canon and others included.

In spite of the fact that various non-canonical writings did not make it into the Jewish canon, they nonetheless contain much of value and are worthy of study, even if the rabbis did not consider them to be divinely inspired or as holy as the Bible. Many of these writings appear in a category of documents known as the Apocrypha. The apocryphal writings contain books that existed at the putative time of Jamnia, but for whatever reason were not included in the biblical canon. It is in this category that we find the books of the Maccabees.

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Rachael Turkienicz

Dr. Rachael Turkienicz teaches at York University and is affiliated with York's Centre for Jewish Studies and its Faculty of Education. She also serves as director of a beit midrash in Toronto, Canada.