In this post I want to let the historical context and the accompanying literary data speak to John 10:22. Only a brief sketch of the historical circumstances can be given. But through such I hope to demonstrate that knowledge of history is of utter importance to the New Testament student.
In this pericope (John 10:22ff.) John purposefully mentions the Feast of Dedication (ἐγκαίνια; also known as Ḥanukkah as well as the Feast of Lights) because of the cultural and historical context this festival bears for the audience. The apostle is using this terminology not only for chronological purposes (i.e., to let us know when Jesus was where) but to reinforce that the true light (John 1:9) is rededicating (and redirecting!) the temple yet once again.
The post will be structured in the following way: (1) the need for a rededication in 164 BC; (2) the rededication itself; and (3) the implications for John 10:22.
(1) The Need for a Rededication in 164 BC
First we need to see why the temple needed to be rededicated in the first place. After years of turmoil and dependence on other nations, the Jewish people found themselves again in the hands of a Gentile ruler.
Antiochus Epiphanes, a Seleucid ruler, desecrated the temple in Jerusalemin 167 BC. The following writings bear witness to this event. In 1 Macc 1:20-24 we find that Antiochus IV after fighting in Egypt“went up against Israel and came to Jerusalemwith a strong force. He arrogantly (ἐν ὑπερηφανίᾳ) entered the sanctuary” from which he took many of the sacred items of the temple (e.g. the golden altar, the lampstand for the light, etc.). This he did and “shed much blood, and spoke with great arrogance.” This, however, was not the worst yet to happen. A couple of verses later the climax of the offense takes place (54-59):
Now on the fifteenth day of Chislev, in the one hundred forty-fifth year, they erected a desolating sacrilege [also called ‘abomination of desolation; cf. Dan 11:31] on the altar of burnt offering. They also built altars in the surrounding towns of Judah, and offered incense at the doors of the houses and in the streets. The books of the law that they found they tore to pieces and burned with fire. Anyone found possessing the book of the covenant, or anyone who adhered to the law, was condemned to death by decree of the king. They kept using violence against Israel, against those who were found month after month in the towns. On the twenty-fifth day of the month they offered sacrifice on the altar that was on top of the altar of burnt offering.
Thus the temple was desecrated and the need for rededication established. This rededication took place in 164 BC under Judas Maccabee (i.e., “the Hammer”).
(2) The Rededication of the Temple in 164 BC
The rededication can be found in two literary sources; one in 1 Macc 4:36-61 (cf. 2 Macc. 10:5–8) and the other in Josephus, Ant. 12.7.6 §§320–21. Josephus records the events in this manner:
Now it so fell out, that these things were done on the very same day on which their divine worship had fallen off, and was reduced to a profane and common use, after three years’ time; for so it was, that the temple was made desolate by Antiochus, and so continued for three years. This desolation happened to the temple in the hundred forty and fifth year, on the twenty-fifth day of the month Apelleus, and on the hundred and fifty-third olympiad: but it was dedicated anew, on the same day, the twenty-fifth of the month Apelleus, in the hundred and forty-eighth year, and on the hundred and fifty-fourth olympiad.
The account of 1 Macc gives us a more detailed picture of the day. In verse 36 we read “Then Judas and his brothers said, ‘See, our enemies are crushed; let us go up to cleanse the sanctuary and dedicate it’” and we see further that Judas “detailed men to fight against those in the citadel until he had cleansed the sanctuary. He chose blameless priests devoted to the law, and they cleansed the sanctuary and removed the defiled stones to an unclean place” (41). The stones then were brought to an unclean place “until a prophet should come to tell what to do with them” (46). This religious independence was then celebrated for eight days (56). It is interesting to note that the sacrifice which was offered was called “a sacrifice of deliverance and praise” (θυσίαν σωτηρίου καὶ αἰνέσεως; 56).
(3) The Implications of this Historical Event for John 10
Though not a detailed exegetical workout can be done at this point, some points of interest will be observed. The first one is that the Feast of Dedication is also called Feast of Lights. In light of this and John’s motif of light and life being represented by the Messiah it comes as no surprise that the apostle would specifically mention Ḥanukkah at this point.
Further, the question the Jews raise concerning Jesus’ identity (“How long are You going to keep us in suspense? If You are the Messiah, tell us plainly”; HCSB) is of interest. Yes, Jesus is the Messiah which he himself affirmatively claims by his response. It is, however, ironic that “Jesus the Messiah being rejected at a festival commemorating national deliverance.”
Another interesting feature is that Jesus in John 10 is walking in the colonnade of Solomon (the place where the first worshipers meet; Acts 3:1-11; 5:12-16). True, it was winter time and so this colonnade might have been chosen out of meteorological reasons, but could it not be that John depicts Jesus on the outermost district of the temple in light of his temple theology? It is the Messiah himself who is the true temple (2:21) and the literal temple itself is not the focal point of true worship (4:19-24); Jesus himself is the focal point of such (9:38; 20:28). This aspect can also be seen in the reaction of the Jews. As Jesus makes claims of divinity, the Jews are ready to kill him. Yet Jesus is the true “God made manifest” (unlike Antiochus IV who was also called “Epiphanes”)
In conclusion we can see that the events of 167-164 BC, being fresh in the mind of the first century audience, are purposefully used by the apostle to make theological statements about Jesus, the Messiah – the one who brings ultimate deliverance – the true temple.
Other posts on cultural aspect concerning Jewish and Graeco-Roman material will follow.
The translation for 1 Maccabees is taken from the NRSV throughout this paper.
See e.g. in Josephus, Ant.12.7.7 §325; BDAG 272.
The title “Messiah” is not claimed by Jesus for himself directly in John maybe because of the political connotations of his time.
Craig S. Keener, The Gospel of John. 2 vols. (Peabody, MA.: Hendrickson, 2003), 822 quoted in Andreas J. Köstenberger, John, BECNT (Grand Rapids, MI.: Baker Academic, 2004), 309 n. 59.