Hanukkah and Christmas

The Syncretism of “Pagan” and “Monotheistic” Religions

The winter solstice was a time of crisis in all ancient human civilizations. People believed that the Sun was a god on whose good will all life depended. In most religions he was male. The Sumerians called him Utu, his Akkadian name was Shamash, the Aztecs named him Tonatiuh, and also had Huitzilopochtli and Tezcatlipoca, the Egyptian sun god was Re, Ra, or Aten, his Greek name was Helios, and, as the ancient Hellenes imagined him, he drove a carriage that traversed the Heavens every day.

The Indians called their Sun god Surya, his Persian name was Mithra. For the Japanese, the sun was a goddess whose name was Amaterasu. The ancient Germanic peoples also had a sun goddess, whose name was Sunna or Sonne. The most important day of the seven-day Christian week is still named Sunday or Sonntag after this deity.

The ancient Canaanites adopted the Assyro-Babylonian name Shamash, but also called him Ner or Nur (like other ancient Semitic languages, Canaanite Hebrew was written with consonants only). The imperial Romans had their Sol Invictus (Unconquered Sun). The early Christians also worshiped the sun. The Vatican Library in Rome has a mid-third-century image of Jesus Christ as Sol Invictus, driving the carriage in which the Sun traversed the sky every day. The date attributed by Christians to the birth of Jesus, December 25, was the time of the winter solstice.

Which leads us to syncretism. In the science of religion, syncretism denotes the merging of different faiths, the incorporation of religious practices of one faith into another, the combining of several disparate and discrete traditions, myths, and theological beliefs. Syncretism is believed to be a universal phenomenon in the developments of religions. Polytheistic religions are syncretized into “monotheistic” ones (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Syncretism).

The notion of syncretism can help us understand how the ancient Canaanite sun-god feast of lights and fires at the time of the Winter Solstice came to merge with the Jewish Feast of Hanukkah, and with the Christian Feast of Christmas. An effort in this direction was made several decades ago by one my Israeli colleagues (see https://search.proquest.com/openview/4dc06828104677078dcde4fa58ffd575/1?pq-origsite=gscholar&cbl=1820904).

Our ancestors worshiped the Sun god, made sacrifices to him, and sought to propitiate him and to seek his favor throughout the year. Between the summer solstice and the winter solstice, the days became ever shorter the fear of the sun disappearing and of all life dying became ever stronger. At the time of the winter solstice, men made human sacrifice to the Sun god, often that of their firstborn sons.

The ancient gods, the myths about them, their cults, their temples, and the sacrifices made to them were the product of the fears and fantasies of their worshipers, which had deep roots in their emotions, both conscious and unconscious. The scholar Ernest Becker (1924-1974) thought that the universal fear of death led to the imaginary creation of immortal gods in every religion (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Denial_of_Death). The immortal gods did everything that humans did, and had their entire gamut of emotions, but could also what humans could not, such as fly, hurl lighting and thunderbolts, make the oceans rage, produce storms, and command the forces of nature.

Indeed, our ancestors attributed both divine and human qualities to the forces of nature that they feared and did not understand, of which the Sun was the most important one. Child sacrifice was due to unconscious projection. As in the Greek myth of Laios and Oedipus, or in the Hebrew myth of Abraham and Isaac, the father believed that he had to sacrifice his son in order to prevent his son from killing him and from taking his place, or in order to propitiate the angry god, or that the god had ordered him to do so. The father unconsciously wanted to kill his new rival, but this wish was too painful to admit to himself, and it was therefore unconsciously projected upon the god in whom he believed. It was as if the father told himself, “I love my newborn son, I don’t want to kill him, but I have no choice, the god wants me to sacrifice him, and if I don’t, the Sun will vanish and we shall all die.”

The word “pagan” was first used in the fourth century of the Christian era by Christians seeking to derogate the polytheistic practices of non-Christians. Ironically, those “monotheistic” Christians believed in the Father, the Holy Virgin, the Son (Jesus Christ), and the Holy Spirit, as well as in a host of patron saints that replaced the ancient gods.

As we know from the Ugaritic inscriptions, in alphabetic cuneiform, dating back to the fifteenth and fourteenth centuries BCE, the ancient Canaanites worshiped the sun god Shamash. They believed him to be the son of their father god, El, who had many other epithets and names. One of them was Yisrael, which meant “El shall reign” in ancient Canaanite Hebrew. The etymology of the name Israel in Genesis 32:28 is apocryphal and was part of the effort to erase the traces of the “pagan” Canaanite religion in Judaism when the Biblical Hebrew texts were edited, probably after the destruction of the First Temple in the sixth century BCE.

In the pre-Columbian civilizations of Mexico and Peru, sun worship was a prominent feature. The Aztecs believed that their sun gods demanded human sacrifice (see https://www.britannica.com/topic/sun-worship). The same was true of the ancient Canaanites. At the time of the winter solstice, the Canaanites sacrificed their firstborn sons to Shamash. They believed that it helped propitiate the angry god, because, after that, the Sun appeared for more time each day, and days became progressively longer.

The scholar Frank Moore Cross (1921-2012) demonstrated that Canaanite myth bears a close relationship to Biblical Hebrew epic (see https://books.google.com/books/about/Canaanite_Myth_and_Hebrew_Epic.html?id=-eOycxXAoHMC). The ancients Hebrews, Israelites, and Jews were probably a collection of Canaanites who split off from the “idolators” of El, also called Yahweh-El, believed in a new “single” god named Yahweh, and built a Temple of Yahweh in Jerusalem. Naturally, however, they continued the “pagan” practices of the Canaanites, including the worship of Shamash, even though their priests and prophets railed against child sacrifice throughout the First Temple period (tenet to sixth centuries BCE). The Biblical hero Samson (in Hebrew, Shamshon), was named after Shamash. As we shall see below, the vocalization of his name as Shimshon in the vocalized Hebrew Bible is an apocryphal tenth-century error.

The scholar Cyrus Herzl Gordon (1908-2001)) believed that Greek and Hebrew civilizations had common origins in Canaanite Ugaritic culture (see https://www.amazon.com/Before-Bible-Common-Background-Civilizations/dp/125877688X). During the Second Temple period the “pagan” Canaanite practices by Jews were gradually replaced by those of Greek culture, and the worship of the sun-god never ceased. After the conquest of the entire Middle East by Alexander the Great in the late fourth century BCE, the Jews became progressively Hellenized. The Jewish community of Judea was relatively small. The largest Jewish community was that of Alexandria in Egypt. It was there that the Hebrew Bible was translated into Greek over two centuries, producing what is known as the Septuagint. The extent to which the Jews had become Hellenized can be seen from a floor mosaic in an ancient Israeli synagogue in which the Greek sun-god Helios is shown in the middle:

After Alexander’s death, his empire was divided among the diadochi (the rival generals, families, and friends of Alexander the Great who fought for control over his empire) and Syria fell to Seleucus Nicator (Seleukos the Victor, 358-281 BCE). By the third century BCE, Judea was under the rule of his Syrian Greek descendants, the “Seleucids,” who placed statues of their Hellenic gods in the Temple of Yahweh in Jerusalem.

In the second century BCE a minority of pious Jews known as the Maccabees or the Hasmoneans rose up against Syrian Greek Seleucid rule, won some victories, “cleaned up” the Temple in Jerusalem from its “pagan idols” and inaugurated a “new” temple. The Books of the Maccabees, which were written in Greek, describe the battles of “the Jews” against “the Greeks” and the inauguration of the temple, called hanukkah in Hebrew. Nowhere do they mention the Lights and Fires we associate with the feast of Hanukkah and with its candelabra. The Feast of Hanukkah and the Feast of Lights of the winter solstice were two separate and distinct religious entities.

The Hasmoneans temporarily created a semi-autonomous kingdom in Judea which later temporarily became an independent one. But in the first century BCE the Roman armies invaded and conquered Judea and made it a Roman vassal state. The Roman vassal king Herod the Great rebuilt the Second Temple, and Christianity began, but in the year 70 of the Christian Era, Jerusalem and all of Judea were destroyed by the Romans following a tragic four-year revolt by fanatical Jews against the most powerful empire of the time. Another revolt under “Bar Kochba” in 132-135 CE brought about the worst catastrophe in Jewish history until that time.

At some time during the first centuries of the Christian era, the ancient Feast of Lights of the winter solstice was syncretized with the Maccabean feast of Hanukkah. The latter was moved to a date in the Hebrew calendar that fell at the time of the winter solstice. The same thing happened to the Christian feast of Christmas.The candles of the hanukkiah (Hanukkah candelabra) are named Ner and Shamash, both names of the ancient Canaanite sun god. The Christmas Tree has lights all over it.

In the fifth century of the Christian Era, the Hebrew Bible was translated into Latin by Hieronymus (Saint Jerome), with his translation known the Vulgata. In the seventh century, however, Palestine, along with the entire Middle East, were conquered by Muslim Arabs. In the tenth century, Hebrew grammarians in Tiberias, who knew nothing of the Greek and Roman translations of the Hebrew Bible, in which the Hebrew names were vocalized, vocalized their Bible according to Jewish tradition, influenced by the then-dominant Arabic language. Shamash became Shemesh, Shamshon became Shimshon, and in modern Hebrew shemesh is feminine. But the names Shamash and Ner remained in the hanukkiah as silent witnesses to the ancient sun-god worship, despite the efforts of rabbinical Jews to suppress, disguise and eliminate the “pagan” practices in the “monotheistic” religion. Similarly, the lights on the Christmas tree are a silent witness to the ancient festivals of light and fire and of the sun-god worship with which the birth of Jesus Christ was syncretized.