Stephen Gabriel Rosenberg, a great-grandson of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, is a fellow at the Albright Institute for Archaeological Research in Jerusalem. Rosenberg deals with the "miracle of oil" and the differing versions of events in 1 and 2 Maccabees this way:
… THERE IS no reason to doubt the First [Maccabees] or the Second [Second] version of the Hasmonean Revolt. [The first] is written from the point of view of the countryside, from Modi'in, and [the second] from the capital, from Jerusalem. One mentions Mattiyahu defying the Seleucid officer, and one the machinations of the high priests Jason and Menelaus. Neither version mentions the miracle of the oil.
According to First Maccabees the eight days of Hanukka were to consecrate the new altar, such a ceremony taking eight days as in the time of Moses, of Solomon, of Hezekiah and Ezra.
According to Second Maccabees, the eight days were in commemoration of the Festival of Tabernacles, that the Hasmoneans had been unable to celebrate properly in Tishrei, while they were still fighting and living in caves like animals.
So what about the story of the miracle of the oil? We see that it assumes that the high priest was a person of impeccable integrity. Second Maccabees tells us quite clearly that this man was Menelaus, a rogue of the first water.
This information was never given us by our traditional teachers and we must assume that the Talmudists did not know the Second Book of Maccabees. It could either be that they never knew it or that they ignored it as it was written in Greek.
On the other hand the First Book, with the story of Mattiyahu they knew. This is not unexpected, for we know that Josephus Flavius, the Jewish historian of the first century, was in a similar position. He knew First Maccabees, which he copies extensively for the Hasmonean battles, but it seems he did not know the different versions in the Second Book.
It is therefore quite possible that the rabbis had only First Maccabees to go on, they knew of Mattiyahu but not of Menelaus. They did not know that the High Priest at the time the Hasmoneans forced their way into the Temple was Menelaus, who was guilty of bribery, stealing the Temple gold, and murdering the former high priest Honia. If they had known that, would they have seen the seal of the high priest as a guarantee of purity, would they have seen a miracle in a cruse of oil sealed by such a high priest?
In other words, to believe in the "miracle of oil" as propagated by the rabbis of the Talmudic period, one would have to either dismiss 2 Maccabees or accept the idea that Menelaus – a murderer, thief and charlatan, a man who plundered the Temple and sold its golden vessels – would be trusted with regard to the purity of oil.
Further, Rosenberg makes a very valid point. If 1 and 2 Maccabees are viewed as originating in different locations – 1 in the small countryside villages and 2 in cosmopolitan Jerusalem – it puts the entire Mattityahu Maccabee legend in its proper perspective. Much the way oral histories, folk tales and urban legends vary in sophistication based on geographic area of origin, so do 1 and 2 Maccabees.
That leaves 2 Maccabees as the most authoritative source on the Hasmonean revolt.
And that, along with much other evidence, including evidence from 1 Maccabees, leaves the "miracle of oil" decidedly in the realm of Elvis sightings and the like.
Should this dampen your Hanukka spirit?
No, of course not. Celebrate the military victory and remember the eight days have real meaning – both as a late Sukkot festival that fateful year and as a rededication ceremony for the Temple.
Neither has anything to do with rabbis, and that is just fine with me.