On the twenty-third day of the second month, in the one hundred seventy-first year, the Jews entered it [Jerusalem] with praise and palm branches, and with harps and cymbals and stringed instruments, and with hymns and songs, because a great enemy had been crushed and removed from Israel. 1 Maccabees 13:51
The early church Father Tertullian (160–220 A.D.) famously quipped, “What has Jerusalem to do with Athens?” I will not attempt to answer this question, but I will try to link together two seemingly disconnected historical events. The events behind the Jewish Festival of Lights (AKA Hanukkah) with Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem (AKA Palm Sunday).
What Does Hanukkah Commemorate?
Before I give my explanation, let me first acknowledge, as a non-Jew, my gross ignorance of almost all things to do with this annual Jewish eight-day celebration that occurs near Christmas. Instead of embarrassing myself by giving too much detail, let me simply suggest: Hanukkah is the Jewish holiday that commemorates the revolt against, and ultimately the expulsion of, the Syrian-Greeks (the Seleucids) from Jerusalem in the 2nd Century B.C. led by Judas Maccabees and his brothers.
Let me emphasize this again: Hannukah = Removal of Greeks/Gentiles from Jerusalem!
A Peculiar Palm Sunday Detail?
Holy Week begins with Palm Sunday. A Sunday set aside by Christian churches around the globe, who retell the story of when Jesus was greeted by a multitude of messianic admirers, waiving palm branches, laying down their garments, and bellowing, “Hosanna! Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!”
Today (at least in pre-Covid times), it is not unusual on this particular Sunday for kids to be handed palm branches (*or construction-paper palm leaves they made in Sunday School) to wave during the morning worship service while the congregation sings a “Hosanna” hymn. Have you ever wonderer where such a strange tradition started? Did it simply spring up in response to Jesus coming to Jerusalem? Or could this tradition have antecedents that predate Jesus?
Listen to the way the writer of 2 Maccabees describes the celebration that took place after Judas “The Hammer” Maccabees evicted Antiochus Epiphanes and his Greek goons from Jerusalem, and subsequently, where the Hanukkah holiday was instituted:
It happened that on the same day on which the sanctuary had been profaned by the foreigners, the purification of the sanctuary took place, that is, on the twenty-fifth day of the same month, which was Chislev. They celebrated it for eight days with rejoicing, in the manner of the Festival of Booths… Therefore, carrying ivy-wreathed wands and beautiful branches and also fronds of palm, they offered hymns of thanksgiving to him who had given success to the purifying of his own holy place. They decreed by public edict, ratified by vote, that the whole nation of the Jews should observe these days every year. Such then was the end of Antiochus, who was called Epiphanes. 2 Maccabees 10:5–9
The waving of palm branches was a symbol used to celebrate the removal of Israel’s Greek oppressors from Jerusalem. Here is an important consideration: Is it possible, the people waving their palm fronds for Jesus, were doing so in expectation that Jesus would be the one to expel the occupying Hellenists from Jerusalem in their day?
All four gospels give the account of Jesus’ entry into the Holy City, but John’s account adds one obscure detail, so easy to miss, yet so vital, we dare not miss it: Now there were some Greeks among those who went up to worship at the Feast. They came to Philip, who was from Bethsaida in Galilee, with a request. “Sir,” they said, “we would like to see Jesus.” John 12:22–23
Jesus then responds, first, by speaking of his impending death, and then afterwards he shares these important words: “But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.” John 12:32
Palm Sunday As An Anti-Hanukkah?
For Jesus, and thankfully for all of us Gentiles too, Palm Sunday serves as an “Anti-Hanukkah!”* Where instead of celebrating a Jewish general who evicted Gentiles from Jerusalem, we now, thankfully, honour and worship a Jewish Saviour, who through his sacrifice, welcomes Jew and Gentile alike to find residence in the New Jerusalem!
I am not using the term “Anti-Hanukkah” in any way as a pejorative to the actual Jewish holiday or towards the historic events in which Hanukkah commemorates.