The miracle of oil isn't really mentioned until the Talmud, and is absent from all earlier sources for Chanukah like the Books of Maccabees, Josephus, and others. I have seen historians claim that this shows that the miracle was created by the rabbinic class to counteract celebration of the Hasmoneans' victory.

What is the traditional/Rabbinic explanation for why the miracle of oil isn't mentioned until hundreds of years after the first sources for Chanukah?

Highly Related:Why doesn't Al Hanisim Mention the Miracle of the Oil?

  • Megillat Hachashmanoim, which according to many great Rabbis was composed around the same time or a little later than the Book of Maccabees does mention the miracle of the oil. See wikipedia for some of the opinions when the Megilla was written: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Megillat_Antiochus – Menachem Dec 26 '14 at 19:46

This question assumes that the Rishonim or Acharonim grappled with this question. Most were not aware of contemporary sources omitting this miracle, such that they would ask the question and answer it.

If you want, instead, a defense of the existence of the oil miracle, here are two.

  1. That "II Maccabees is, as is well known, an abridgement of a five-book work by Jason of Gyrene" (which has been lost). And the miracles that are listed in II Maccabees are a lot more ostentatious, with angels coming down to fight the battles. It is then quite possible for the less dazzly miracle of the cruse of oil to be left out of the abridgment.

  2. There are two ways to parse מאי חנוכה דתנו רבנן. One way (the correct way, imho) is that the Talmud is citing Megillat Taanit as a brayta and asking what the basis is for Chanukka which is mentioned in Megillat Taanit, and the Talmud answers that it was the cruse of oil. However, another way of parsing the gemara is that the explanation of the cruse of oil is part of the brayta, the תנו רבנן, answering the question of מאי חנוכה. If so, a brayta is Tanaaitic and is thus an earlier source.

  3. Understand that the miracle of the cruse of oil was always intended as a metaphor. The Chashmonaim preserved their purity, just like the cruse of oil. This was due to the seal (and fortitude) of the kohen gadol, Yochanan Kohen Gadol. And despite natural order saying they should not succeed, due to overwhelming physical odds, Hashem's assistance allowed them to prevail, just as He allowed a little bit of oil to last as long as it did.

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    Josh, I took the liberty of editing point 1, as I completely misread it until I checked your source. Feel free to revert/correct if I got something wrong. (+1) – Yishai Dec 26 '14 at 16:15
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    +1 for 2, -1 for 3 = 0. Understand that the miracle of the cruse of oil was always intended as a metaphor. Source? – Shmuel Brin Dec 26 '14 at 18:36
  • Source = apply sechel to see the parallels. Kra lama li, sechel hu – josh waxman Dec 27 '14 at 23:29
  • Also, different answers will speak to different sorts of people, which is why I offered three. Yes, I would expect that some people will appreciate #3,and others, not so much – josh waxman Dec 27 '14 at 23:33
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    If I were voting, I would give a point for 3 and deduct a point for 2,for the same reason. ;) but I wonder whether most allegorizations are mashma from the text, or why having a source (Acharon suggesting it) would really mitigate the concern. (Whether it resonates is imho a subjective measure.) As well as if a separate concern is that is doesn't sound frum to say this... – josh waxman Dec 28 '14 at 23:56

The following is the suggested explanation of Professor David Berger as to why the miracle is not mentioned in either Book of Maccabees or Al Hanissim. (Here is a link to the article on Hirhurim but I think it originally appeared elsewhere, though I can't find it at the moment.)

This question has disturbed many religious Jews. In 1969, a student at Yeshiva University asked me whether the miracle was attested outside of the famous Talmudic account, and I replied that it was not. At the time, I did not have a satisfying explanation for this, and one individual took my response as a denial that the miracle occurred. This was not my intention, but this episode along with questions over the years from other Jews perplexed by the problem led me to struggle with it more than might otherwise have been the case. I now believe that I can propose an explanation that is absolutely convincing with respect to I Maccabees and reasonably satisfying with respect to II Maccabees.

  1. A perusal of II Maccabees demonstrates that miracle stories regarding the Hasmonean revolt and the Temple circulated widely. It is virtually beyond question that the author of I Maccabees heard such accounts, and yet he records none at all. This means either that he did not believe them or that he excluded them as a matter of policy. In either case, the absence of a reference to the cruse of oil--which is troubling only because of the inference that the author never heard the story--poses no challenge to one who believes the account of the miracle on the authority of Hazal. Given the author's consistent historiographic approach, we can be almost certain that he would not have recorded this miracle even if he knew about it.

  2. In the case of II Maccabees, the argument proceeds not from the absence of miracles but from their prominence. Here the author presents various miracle stories so public and so impressive (including, for example, the public appearance of angels) that the miracle of the cruse of oil, which was witnessed by relatively few observers, pales into near insignificance, and he may well have chosen to omit it along with other "minor" miracles. II Maccabees is an abridgment of a five-part work by Jason of Cyrene which has been lost. The full work almost certainly contained miracle stories that were omitted from the abridgment. To us, the story of the oil looms very large. To Jason--or to the man who abridged his work--it may have seemed trivial, particularly since he had an alternate explanation for the decision to celebrate for eight days.

In sum, there are plausible grounds to argue that the authors of both I and II Maccabees could have known the story and nonetheless omitted it from their histories. The absence of a reference in Al ha-Nissim, which is a thanksgiving prayer, need not trouble anyone. The miracle of victory requires thanksgiving; the miracle of the oil does not, and it is appropriately omitted.

See also the many sources collected by Professor Marc Shapiro in this article on The Seforim Blog (some of which argue that the miracle of the oil is in fact ahistorical), and this article by Devir Kahan on Daf Aleph.

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