Toward A Unified Theory Of Hanukka Candle Lighting And An Accurate Dating Of The "Miracle Of Oil"
As we have seen, the "Miracle of Oil" often given as the reason for Hanukka candle lighting did not take place. It is a later myth with no historical basis. So, why this myth? Where and when did it come from?
As Hasmoneans became Hellenized, they celebrated the Roman holiday of Saturnalia, centered around the winter solstice. Observance of this pagan holiday seems to have eventually spread throughout most of the Jewish community.
Saturnalia's 7 day candle lighting often coincided with part of Hanukka. This may have caused the populace to confuse the two celebrations, much in the way many American Jews in our times had "Hanukka bushes." The story of the "miracle of oil" was probably added by the rabbis to give a Jewish "spin" to the lighting, by moving the custom to the 8 days of Hanukka and giving it a new reason – the "miracle of oil."
But the beginning of the custom should be properly attributed to the Hasmonean's victory celebration and the rededication of the Temple. The first celebratory year may have included 8 days of candle lighting, and it is highly probable that the custom continued, at least in in Priestly families, after that. As the populace became more Hellenized, the practice was merged with Saturnalia and broadened throughout the Jewish community.
If the original Hanukka did have 8 days of candle lighting (again, not based on the "miracle of oil" myth), and if the custom continued after that, gradually merging with Saturnalia, the addition of the oil myth would have helped to remove pagan influence while at the same time supplanting the core of the Hanukka miracle, the military victory, with a myth that emphasizes God's role and downplays man's – a winning proposition for the rabbis.
This may be further demonstrated by the rabbinic ban on studying Maccabees 1 & 2, Jewish books that document the Hasmonean victory, the rededication of the Temple, and the continuing war against the Greeks. The ban was probably first instituted during the late Herodian or early Roman period and reissued after the failure of the Bar Kokhba revolt. It would not have had much effect at its first issuance, because the rabbis were few in number and had little influence.
I suspect the ban therefore did not take hold and was largely forgotten by the time of the first revolt against Rome and the Destruction of the Temple. This may be seen by reviewing Josephus's account of the Hasmonean victory, which seems to be based in part on 1 & 2 Maccabees. Josephus, who wrote after the Destruction and before Bar Kokhba, was a student of the rabbis and considered himself to be a Pharisee. Again, he knows nothing about the oil myth. But he does know the details of the military victory and the celebration that followed. He also knows the holiday's common name – Lights – apparently a reflection of the common custom to light candles.
I believe this indicates the ban on 1 & 2 Maccabees was not reinstituted until after the Bar Kokhba revolt failed, when the rabbis needed to quiet anything that might promote or endorse revolution against Rome. It would have been then, not long after the death of Josephus, that the oil myth was first widely taught.
It's purpose would then have been several-fold: To lessen the role of the now disgraced and Hellenized Maccabees, who in their end had also became close to the hated Saducees; to emphasize God's role in the victory; to remove pagan elements (Saturnalia) that had crept into the holiday's observance; to shift focus away from a victorious war in which the rabbis did not prominently participate; to shift focus from a failed, disastrous war in which the rabbis did prominently participate; and to dampen down any further attempt to revolt against Rome. This may also be seen by the Talmud's lingering memories of a reason underlying Hanukka candle lighting other than the "miracle of oil," and the complete lack of any mention of that same "miracle" in the Mishna or other early rabbinic texts.
In short, while the creation of the oil myth may possibly be dated to the early Roman period, the widespread propagation of that myth most likely began at or just before the beginning of the redaction of the Mishna. Two hundred years later, at the time of the beginning of the redaction of the Talmud, the myth had become an accepted "truth" (even though the rabbis could find no written source for that "truth") – in large part because the rabbis themselves had successfully banned 1 & 2 Maccabees and Josephus 200-plus-years earlier.
And so the "Miracle of Oil" became the focus of Hanukka, as we see to this day.