Sunday 25 November 2018


Fragment of Scroll of Antiochus with translation by R. Saadia Gaon, as found in the Cairo Geniza.


While the public reading of the Megillah on Purim is well-known and widespread – there is another Megillah; the Megillah of Chanukah which is hardly known at all and relatively little attention is paid to it.

This scroll – not to be confused with the Book of the Maccabees[1] – is known as Megillat Antiochus[2] or Megillat Chanukah. It is a relatively short scroll consisting of only seventy-four verses.

It tells the story of the victory of the Maccabees or Chashmonaim, over the Seleucid Empire (a Hellenistic state which ruled between 312 BCE to 63 BCE[3]) - which took place during the second century BCE, and resulted in the establishment of a Hasmonean kingdom in Jerusalem.


One of the reasons why not much is known about Megillat Chanukah is that there was a concerted effort on behalf of the Babylonian Talmud to emphasize the miracle of the lights over the miracle of the military victory of the Maccabees. Although the Megillah does end with a very overt reference to the miracle of one day’s supply of oil burning for a full eight days - nevertheless it does speak more openly about the ‘fight’ rather than the ‘light’.

It references Yochanan, the High Priest, making “a sword with a double blade. It was two cubits long and one zeret wide. And he concealed it under his clothing.” And Nikanor, the Commander-in-Chief of King Antiochus, said to Yochanan: “You are one of the rebels who rebelled against the king and doesn’t want peace in the kingdom.” Yochanan then kills Nikanor with his concealed sword and puts up a pillar in Jerusalem which states: “Maccabee Memit Chazakim” or “The Maccabean has killed the powerful.”

According to the story, the Maccabees delayed the destruction of Jerusalem by 200 years.

These are very nuanced references in a greater debate concerning how the Chanukah story was later framed in Talmudic and post Talmudic times: - Was it the ‘fight’ or the ‘light’ that was essentially commemorated? [See here for more on this matter.]

According to R. Binyamin Lau, there was "a conscious attempt to suppress the record altogether. In this context, the claim is made that during the period of the Mishna's compilation, after the Bar Kokhba revolt, there was an attempt to pacify the Roman Empire by rewriting Jewish history. They were effectively saying: 'We are not a rebellious nation. We do not seek political freedom. We despise wars.' 

Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi...the redactor of the Mishna, 'concealed' the rebellion in an effort to appease...

And so a new miracle story emerged, one which posed no threat to any empire, and which allowed us to remember and perpetuate the memory of Hanukka without any disturbance." [20]


Another reason why Megilllat Chanukah may have been neglected was because of the tarnished legacy of the Maccabees.

According to Moshe Gaster (1856-1939)[4]:

The Makkabean princes, the descendants of Matitya, soon became unlike their great ancestor. They committed first the sin to assume the title of kings, and to sit on the throne which tradition and religious feeling kept for the descendants of David alone. The Hasmonaeans were priests, and had, as such, no right upon the royal position...`

To this the Makkabaeans added another sin, no less heinous in the eyes of the orthodox, strict observers of the law. In the strife of parties which arose soon afterwards, they side with the Sadducaeans, persecuted the Pharisaeans, the orthodox upholders of the law...

Considering that the Pharisaeans represented the popular party, and that the legal prescriptions, liturgical forms and ceremonies are mostly fixed by them, one part of the mystery is cleared up. The staunch upholders of the law would not canonise...or introduce the name and memory of the Makkabaeans, as they called themselves, in the history or in the liturgy of the nation.

That explains also to a certain extent why the allusions to the Makkabaeans are so scarce in the Talmud and Midrash. This literature is that of the Pharisaeans, and the Makkabaeans were their bitterest foes.”[5]

To back this up, the Babylonian Talmud speaks of Yochanan the High Priest who served for eighty years and then became a Sadducee.[6]

According to Alan Segal, the Maccabees were "...a group of 'reformers' within Israelite society. But it is hard to know whether Antiochus and the reform group's interests were 'religious' or merely 'political'. [19]

Megillat Antiochus - the Scroll of Chanukah


Early texts of Megillat Chanukah still exist and are in both Hebrew and Aramaic, but it appears as if the original text was in Western Middle Aramaic. This suggests it was probably written in Eretz Yisrael as opposed to Babylonia. The style is very similar to that of Targum Onkelos. An original version is found in Baladi Yemenite siddurim dating back to the 1600s.

The first published version of the text was in 1557, in Mantua, Italy. It then appeared in a printed siddur from Salonica in 1568.

In 1868 the Megillat Chanukah was included in the Ashkenazi siddur, Avodat haShem, with the following ironic introduction:

It should be known that this scroll, the Scroll of Antiochus, was also translated into German and published in Venice in 1548, and reached the hands of Rabbi Behr Frank of Pressburg, who knew nothing of its existence in Hebrew or in Aramaic.   He therefore saw fit to translate the German into the Holy Tongue (Hebrew) and bring it to press in 1806.”[7]

Thus the original Aramaic got translated into Hebrew, which later got translated into German, which again got translated back to Hebrew. It would be interesting to compare both of those Hebrew translations.


According to some scholars, the original scroll is dated from around 100 to 400 CE. Sefaria suggests 100-700CE.

Either way, it is first mentioned in the 700s by Shimon Kiara[8] who, also known as the Bahag, in his Baal Halachot Gedolot.[9] He claims it was written by the elders of Beit Shammai and Hillel, which would place it around the first century. It is also suggested that this Megillah will only be elevated to its proper status and be read on Chanukah ‘when there is a Cohen with the Urim and Tumim’ (i.e. during the messianic era).

Another view is from Rav Saadia Gaon (882-942) who confirms it was first composed in Aramaic, under the title Ketav Beit Chashmonai. He then translated it into Arabic.

Rav Saadia wrote in his introduction that just as we read Megillat Ester on Purim: “I saw fit to append...the story of what occurred in the time of the Greeks, the Levites [the Hasmoneans were Levites[10]] being charged with rescuing the people from what had befallen them.” [11]

Rav Saadia believed that the original Aramaic scroll was written by the Maccabees themselves, and “that the Hasmonean sons Judah, Simeon, Johanan, Jonathan and Eliezer, sons of Mattathias, wrote a book about what they had experienced”.[12]

R. Yosef Kapach (1917-2000) the great Yemenite scholar, published Megillat Antiochus together with Rav Saadia Gaon’s Arabic translation. He based his publication on old manuscripts which he found in the Bodleian Library in Oxford.

Gaster points out that the Festival’s name, ‘Chanukah’ is not mentioned at all in the scroll “though the feast is known from very ancient times under that name...This ignorance of the official name goes a long way to prove the antiquity of the chronicle.”[13]


According to Jewish Encyclopaedia, however, it is based on ‘unhistorical sources’, although it does acknowledge that it is a major source for dating the building of the Second Temple.
"At any rate, it may be asserted that the Megillat Antiochus was written at a time when even the vaguest recollection of the Maccabeans had disappeared."

Similarly, according to R. Benjamin Zvieli: “...there is still great doubt and the Scroll of Antiochus which we have today is still far from being considered an ancient scroll beyond doubt, attesting to the history of those great days.”


Megillat Chanukah was read in Italian synagogues on Chanukah, just as Megillat Ester was read on Purim.

According to the Kaffa rite of Crimean Jews from around the 1700s, Megillat Antiochus was read during Mincha on the Shabbat of Chanukah.

The Baladi Yemenites also have a similar custom of reading the scroll on Chanukah.
Isaiah (Yitzchak?) di Trani also records the custom of reading this Megillah in synagogues on Chanukah.[14]

Even Chayyim Nahman Bialik comments on Megillat Chanukah:  
“...the Bible lacks one precious and most wonderful book. Why was that book condemned to oblivion? The book that tells the history of the greatest victory, the victory of the spirit and the might of the Jewish people – the Book of the Hasmoneans [he was not referring to the Book of Maccabees but to Megillat Chanukah][15].
Interestingly, Bialik by carefully selecting the words 'spirit' and 'might' - seems to accept the legitimacy of both the 'light' and the 'fight' as equal components which ultimately determine the story of the Jewish people: 



King Antiochus, who has already conquered many countries, decides in the 23rd year of his reign to destroy the Jewish people, because it adheres to another law and other customs and secretly dreams of dominating the world.

He sends to Jerusalem his commander in chief Nicanor, who instigates a massacre there, sets up an idol in the Temple and defiles the entrance hall with pigs' blood.

On the pretext of being willing to submit to Antiochus' commands, *Jonathan [or Yochanan][16], a son of the high priest Mattathias, gains a secret audience with Nicanor, and kills him with a sword concealed under his robe; he then attacks Nicanor's army, which is now without a leader, and only a few of the soldiers succeed in escaping and returning by ship to Antiochus.

In commemoration of the victory, Jonathan has a pillar erected in the town, bearing the inscription "The Maccabean has killed strong men."

Antiochus then sends to Jerusalem a second commander, Bagris[17]; he metes out a terrible revenge upon the town and upon those Jews who have returned to the faith (here the scroll includes the story related in I Macc. 5:37–40 and II Macc. 6:16 of the devout people in the cave who were killed on the Sabbath because they would not fight to defend themselves).

Jonathan and his four brothers defeat Bagris, who escapes and returns to Antiochus. He is equipped with a new army and armored elephants and then makes an attack on Judea.

Judah Maccabee now appears in the story for the first time; and Jonathan, the third son of Mattathias, henceforth remains in the background. At the news of Bagris' approach, Judah proclaims a fast and calls for prayers in Mizpah (cf. I Macc. 3:46ff.); the army then goes into battle and wins several victories, though it pays for them with the death of its leader.

Now old Mattathias himself assumes command of the Jewish soldiers; the enemy is decisively defeated, and Bagris is taken prisoner and burned. When Antiochus is told the news, he boards a ship and tries to find refuge in some coastal town; but wherever he arrives he is greeted with the scornful cry: "See the runaway!" so that finally he becomes desperate and throws himself into the sea.

At this same time, the Jews are reconsecrating their Temple; while searching for pure oil for the lamp, they find a vessel bearing the seal of the high priest and dating back to the time of the prophet Samuel. By a miracle the oil, which is sufficient in quantity for only one day, burns in the lamp for a full eight days; and this is why Ḥanukkah, the festival commemorating the reconsecration of the Temple, is celebrated for eight days.[18]


For a full translation of the entire text see the TORAHLAB and the translation of Megillat Antiochus by R. David Sedley here.       For a version with Hebrew vowels and English translation, see Sefaria here.        

[1] The Book of the Maccabees, was part of the Apocrypha literature which was not formally accepted into the Biblical canon. It was originally written in Hebrew but only survived in Greek translation. It discusses the history of the Maccabees (175BCE to 134BCE).
[2] Also known as Megillat Antiochus, Megillat Yavanit, Megillat Chashmonaim, Megillat Chanukah, Megillat Matityahu, Ketav Benei Chashmonai, Sefer Beit Chashmonai.
[3] The Seleucid Empire became a major centre of  Hellenistic culture – it maintained the pre-eminence of  Greek customs where a Greek political elite dominated, mostly in the urban areas. See here with reference to cosmopolitan Machoza (Baghdad) and more rural Pumpedita (Fallujah).
[4] Moshe Gaster was a Romanian-born scholar who became the Chacham (Rabbi) of the Spanish community of London. He was a collector of, and an expert in, manuscripts, particularly Megillat Chanukah.
[5] Transactions of the Ninth International Congress of Orientalists 1893, Moshe Gaster.
[6] Berachot 29a.
[7] See The Scroll of Antiochus, by Rabbi Benjamin Zvieli. (Bar Ilan University)
[8] Although he lived during the Gaonic Period, was never appointed as a Gaon, hence the title Gaon is absent from his name.
[9]According to R. Moshe miKotzi, a thirteenth-century French Tosafist, who wrote the Semag (SeferMitzvot Gadol), it was Yehudai Gaon who authored Halachot Gedolot, a key source for the Semag. If indeed it was Yehudai Gaon who wrote Halachot Gedolot, then it may be possible to infer that Megillat Chanukah was targeted as a Palestinian/Maccabean work which did not serve the Babylonian political agenda of Yehudai Gaon, the aggressive marketer of the Bavli (see link for more details). That may be why it relegates the scroll to only be read when there is a "Cohen and Urim and Tumim".
[10] I do not know why Rav Saadia refers to the Maccabees as Levites when they appear to have been Cohanim – including the Cohen Gadol.
[11] Ibid. The Scroll of Antiochus.
[12] Ibid. The Scroll of Antiochus.
[13] Ibid. Moshe Gaster.
[14] See his additions to Sukkot 44b.
[15] Parenthesis mine. See Zvieli who comes to this conclusion.
[16] Parenthesis mine.
[17] Bagris only appears in the scroll of Antiochus and not in any other literature on this subject. (Sedley).
[18] Jewish Virtual Library.
[19]Rebbecca's Children: Judaism and Christianity in the Roman World, by Alan F. Segal, p.30.
[20] The Sages - Character, Context and Creativity, Volume 1, Maggid Books 2007, p. 166.


  1. Another clear example f the tyranny of the rabbis. The Book of Maccabees could have become part of Jewish cannon. (It is part of the Catholic cannon, that why there is still record of what happened) here is little recorded dissent against the Hashmoniam becoming High Priests and Kings, save of the incident of Alexander Yannai and the etroggim. However after the fall then the excuses come in.

    The battle against the Assyro-Greeks did not end with the re-dedication of the temple. The war still continued. Hence it would be very strange for the Maccabees to have declared a holiday at that time, and indeed they did not.

    Book 2 of the Maccabees deals with the continued struggle against the enemy after Jerusalem is regained and how Judah (yes he was still alive) defeated the mighty commander Nikanor.

    And here's where the parallels between Purim and Chanuakah become strikingly similar. Judah defeats Nikanor on 13 Adar (ring any bells?) The book ends off with a vote and a declaration from Judah and his associates that Nikanor day would always be observed just before Purim. In the same way Purim is observed with a megillah so would be Nikanor day.- The Chanuakah megillah.

    The rabbis of the later generation then decide that Nikanor day will not be a day to be celebrated in perpetuity. Suddenly Nikanor day is Taanit Ester and blame is heaped upon on the Hashmoniam for the fall of the Jewish State.

    Nikanor day disappears. Aren't the question that must be asked :
    1. Are we actually celebrating Chanuakah when we are supposed to be celebrating it?
    2. Why didn't the Jewish State at that time celebrate the miracle of the menorah at the time, rather than choosing to celebrate Nikanor day?

    Maybe that's why the book of Maccabees is not part of Jewish cannon!

  2. One may wonder about the enormous popularity of Chanukkah. My answer is that Chanukkah celebrates a truth behind the Tsedukim and the Perushim and whatever groups of Jews. Chanukkah Sameach!

  3. regading this: [10] I do not know why Rav Saadia refers to the Maccabees as Levites when they appear to have been Cohanim – including the Cohen Gadol.

    The reason is because Kohanim, we are also Levyim. In many parts of the torah says the kohanim levyim


    2. Someone did suggest that it may have been an expediency which made it easier for them to become Kings.

  4. A question: so when the temple was rededicated with the oil, miracle/ Yehuda was death but Matityahu not?
    Is anywhere written which of the brothers was the one that actually lighted the Menorah?

  5. Why does nobody believe Maccabees (book 1)? At Chanuakah we say "Mattityahu, son of Yohannan kohan gadol" The only Yohannan who was a kohan gadol lived in the time of Darius- ie before Alexander had even divided his kingdom.
    It was accepted from King Solomon's time that only the descendants of Zadok would be the kohan gedolim. Mattitiyahu certainly did not stem from that scion. It is clear from the time gap, that he could not even have Yohannan's son!
    Onias lll was the high priest during Philopator's rule and had to give up his position to his brother Jason during Antiochus' reign.- at the time the Maccabees are gaining prominence (the rabbis imply that Yohannan was the high priest) Saadia Gaon was not the gaon of his generation for nothing! (he as too diplomatic and smart to say that at most Mattitiyahu of the distant hamlet of Modiin was from a minor kokan/levite clan)
    Maccabees chapter 4 talks of the Temple being purified and how the defiled altar was taken apart and the defiled stones were taken away for storage, awaiting the time of a faithful prophet who would attend to them. A new altar was build and on 25 Kislev (as per the book of Maccabees), the new altar was dedicated and used for burnt offerings. Eight days of celebration followed. No mention of any oil miracles! Nor donuts, nor latkes nor any other high cholesterol foods etc!

    Simon, son of Mattityahu, the Hasmonian and Kohan Gadol, having finally obtained liberation for the Jewish state, was appointed as nassi as well. Not a unilateral appointment, but by consensus of the kohanin, the elders and the populace of Jerusalem. His appointment was only until the arrival a good and faithful prophet. (who would come and anoint the new leader/messiah)[ maybe that's the miracle of the oil] The problem of one person being both priest and king was discussed and resolved. It could be done and was acceptable.

    All good and well so far? Yes? But somewhere along the line the Hasmonians chose the Sadducees over the Pharisees. So oys the Book of Maccabees as part of the canon. Vengeance is mine....
    Channuakah may celebrate the difference between the two group, but whether it is the truth is a matter of opinion.

    History is ultimately written by the victors. The Pharisees wrote the book and over a century after the rededication of the temple told us about the miracle of the oil, did away with the the Channuakah megilah and Nikanor day. Then they blamed the Hasmonians for the fall of the Jewish state because they were priest-kings.

    Would the rabbis rewrite our history, materially distorting it for their own ends? ...Could one dare to think there might be a tyranny of the rabbis....?