About a decade ago, the notorious atheist Christopher Hitchens published a broadside against Hanukkah. “The holiday celebrates the triumph of tribal Jewish backwardness,” his 2007 article claims. Hitchens condemned the holiday because it celebrates the victory of the traditional Temple religion over the Greek influence of literature, art, and philosophy. In other words, Israel was “modernizing” and those pesky religious folk refused to go along with it.
Hitchens had a point, but he also essentially whitewashed one of the greatest historical attacks on religious freedom. Hanukkah celebrates the miracle of light — the oil in the lamps of the Temple lasted longer than it should have when the Temple was re-dedicated after the Maccabees defeated the forces of Seleucid King Antiochus IV “Epiphanes.” “Seleucid” refers to a Greek empire that ruled Israel at the time. Many Jews had celebrated and embraced the Greek culture, but others warned that it would undermine traditional Judaism.
According to the books of 1 and 2 Maccabees, Antiochus outlawed Jewish religious rites, ordered the Jews to worship Zeus, and even desecrated the Temple, bringing in an altar to Zeus and sacrificing a pig on it. Modern historians dispute this version of events, but they admit that Antiochus outlawed Jewish rites and required Jews to worship Zeus — which is in itself a horrendous attack on religious freedom, while government oppression in religion was rather common in the ancient world.
Judas Maccabeus launched a revolt and overthrew Antiochus in Israel, re-dedicating the Temple and launching the Hasmonean dynasty. Israel was independent for decades before coming under the rule of the Roman Empire.
Hitchens glossed over the government broadside against religious freedom. He seems to have considered it irrelevant. For Hitchens, Hanukkah is a tragedy because it represented the rejection of the more advanced Greek culture.
The atheist quoted Rabbi Michael Lerner:
Along with Greek science and military prowess came a whole culture that celebrated beauty both in art and in the human body, presented the world with the triumph of rational thought in the works of Plato and Aristotle, and rejoiced in the complexities of life presented in the theater of Aeschylus, Euripides and Aristophanes.
“But away with all that, says Lerner. Let us instead celebrate the Maccabean peasants who wanted to destroy Hellenism and restore what he actually calls ‘oldtime religion,'” Hitchens wrote. “His excuse for preferring fundamentalist thuggery to secularism and philosophy is that Hellenism was ‘imperialistic,’ but the Hasmonean regime that resulted from the Maccabean revolt soon became exorbitantly corrupt, vicious, and divided, and encouraged the Roman annexation of Judea.”
Hitchens, a foe of organized religion in general and Christianity in particular, argued that without Rome’s conquest, the world would not have had to deal with that pesky Jesus of Nazareth or Islam.
“Had it not been for this no-less imperial event, we would never have had to hear of Jesus of Nazareth or his sect—which was a plagiarism from fundamentalist Judaism—and the Jewish people would never have been accused of being deicidal ‘Christ killers.’ Thus, to celebrate Hanukkah is to celebrate not just the triumph of tribal Jewish backwardness but also the accidental birth of Judaism’s bastard child in the shape of Christianity,” he wrote.
“You might think that masochism could do no more. Except that it always can. Without the precedents of Orthodox Judaism and Roman Christianity, on which it is based and from which it is borrowed, there would be no Islam, either. Every Jew who honors the Hanukkah holiday because it gives his child an excuse to mingle the dreidel with the Christmas tree and the sleigh (neither of these absurd symbols having the least thing to do with Palestine two millenniums past) is celebrating the making of a series of rods for his own back. And this is not just a disaster for the Jews,” Hitchens added.
Then the killing blow: “When the fanatics of Palestine won that victory, and when Judaism repudiated Athens for Jerusalem, the development of the whole of humanity was terribly retarded.”
Yes, according to Hitchens, Hanukkah is a tragedy on a monumental scale because in an alternate universe where the Maccabees lost to Antiochus, Jesus never would have existed and therefore the evil backwardness that is Christianity would never have replaced the bloody human sacrifices of paganism with the moral code of Christianity.
Like so much of Hitchens’ work, the article oozes his disdain for Christianity while overlooking the tremendous progress Christianity engendered. It is difficult for modern Americans to comprehend the religious practice of the ancient world. The alternatives weren’t Christianity or atheism, but a confusing pantheon of sects and government-enforced religions. Early Christians were themselves considered atheists because they would not sacrifice to the Roman emperors! They died horrendously for this insolence.
For all of Hitchens’ celebration of the Greeks’ progress, Aristotle — known with deference as “the Philosopher” for centuries — actually hampered scientific progress in the Arab world and in Christian universities. He was wrong about a great many things and he actually discouraged experimentation, preferring deductive reasoning.
While Aristotle taught that the universe was eternal and could not be different than it was, Christianity encouraged scientific experimentation on the grounds that God could have created the world however He wanted, so the purpose of science — or “natural philosophy” as it was then called — was to discover which path a free God followed in creating the world.
Christianity also sparked multiple revolutions in morality. The idea of equal individual rights was essentially unthinkable until Christianity emerged, and even then it took centuries to crystalize. Jesus’s teachings — love your enemies, to give is better than to receive, he who would be the greatest must become the servant of all — and the way He treated women and children reversed the old Roman morality. Early Christians condemned infanticide and abortion — both common practices in the ancient world — and established orphanages. They healed the sick, rather than abandoning them to die.
Yet another key difference between the ancient and modern world is the notion of freedom of conscience. There was a kind of religious freedom in the ancient world, but it was always subject to the ruling authorities.
Hitchens’ article reveals two tragically common blindspots. First, he wrongly assumed that Christian moral and scientific progress is a given. Second, he showed himself willing to support government repression of religion in the service of his idea of moral progress.
This second error is tragically common today. Opponents of religious freedom would have the government force believers to violate their consciences because — in their eyes — the LGBT movement represents moral progress. They would force Jack Phillips to bake a custom cake celebrating something he disagrees with merely because they know better than him. (Phillips gladly serves all people at his shop, but he won’t bake custom cakes to celebrate things he disagrees with.)
Some activist groups have even suggested forcing churches that teach the Bible’s definition of marriage as one man and one woman to host same-sex weddings. LGBT megadonor Tim Gill has targeted people like Jack Phillips, saying he intends to “punish the wicked.”
This is a recipe for more Antiochuses. It is as if these activists read Maccabees as a how-to guide for religious repression. Perhaps they read Hitchens and agreed that Hellenistic moral progress must be advanced even at the cost of repression.
Tragically, Hitchens was wrong — not just about the virtue of Antiochus’ repression but also about the moral progress of Hellenism. Sure, the Greeks did forward philosophy and literature and modern Americans are deeply indebted to them. But Christianity took the next steps, and modernity would be unthinkable without it.
Religious freedom is worth preserving, even at the supposed cost of holding back what some consider to be moral progress. Jews are right to celebrate Hanukkah because Judas Maccabeus was right to rebel, and Antiochus was shamefully wrong to oppress his Jewish subjects, even if some Jews egged it on.
Follow Tyler O’Neil, the author of this article, on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.