A Christmas topic: I have thoughts regarding Chanukah and need logic help from Atheists

Essen­tially, I want to make sure my logic is sound, from the point of view of smart ra­tio­nal peo­ple who do not be­lieve in the ex­is­tence of su­per­nat­u­ral mir­a­cles.

The Chanukah story: 175-134 BCE. Hel­lenic Assyr­i­ans (An­ti­ochus IV) had con­quered Is­rael, and passed a va­ri­ety of laws op­press­ing the free­dom of wor­ship of the Jews there. They defiled the Tem­ple and for­bade the study of sa­cred texts. The Mac­cabees led a Jewish re­volt against the Assyr­i­ans, and even­tu­ally drove them out of Is­rael. Im­me­di­ately upon re­tak­ing the Tem­ple, they cleaned and reded­i­cated it; they re­lit the sa­cred flame us­ing a small vial of kosher oil and sent for more oil (which was 8 days dis­tant). The small vial was ex­pected to last only one night, but mirac­u­lously lasted 8 days un­til more sup­plies ar­rived.

Now re­cently, sev­eral Re­form rab­bis have stated that the fact that the first sur­viv­ing writ­ten record of the mir­a­cle is from the Ge­mara (500 CE) in­di­cates that the mir­a­cle was in­vented around 500 CE. I am not an Ortho­dox Jew, but I do be­lieve that the Ge­mara rep­re­sents the sages writ­ing down oral tra­di­tions, and am an­noyed by the ten­dency among cer­tain Re­form rab­bis to as­sume that ev­ery­thing was in­vented at the time it was writ­ten re­gard­less of the ev­i­dence for or against it.

The texts with the po­ten­tial to doc­u­ment events fol­low:

Mac­cabees 1 (~100 BCE): purely his­tor­i­cal/​non­re­li­gious. The book was origi­nally writ­ten in He­brew, but that text does not sur­vive. A Greek trans­la­tion ex­ists, and the text avoids all men­tion of re­li­gious and spiritual mat­ters. For in­stance, it speaks briefly and eu­phemisti­cally about the tem­ple, stat­ing that the Jews cap­tured the “tem­ple hill” and reded­i­cated the “citadel”, avoid­ing men­tion of the tem­ple it­self.

Mac­cabees 2 (~30 BCE): we pos­sess what claims to be a 1-vol­ume abridge­ment of a 5-vol­ume origi­nal (which does not sur­vive and is not refer­enced el­se­where). The sur­viv­ing abridge­ment men­tions the tem­ple reded­i­ca­tion and a va­ri­ety of bizarre mir­a­cles in­clud­ing the pub­lic ap­pear­ance of an­gels. It does not men­tion the mir­a­cle of the oil, how­ever. The abridged text in­cludes a num­ber of the­ologic in­no­va­tions which bear more similar­ity to Catholic be­liefs than to Jewish or Protes­tant ones; it is un­known whether these were pre­sent in the origi­nal.

Nei­ther of the above are con­sid­ered canon­i­cal sources by Jews or Protes­tant, but they are by Catholics.

Megillat Taanit (7CE): a suc­cinct list of red let­ter dates from 200BCE-7CE; men­tions that Chanukah is 8 days but gives no de­scrip­tions of any of the listed holi­days.

Jose­phus, The Jewish War (75CE). Men­tions that Chanukah was the Fes­ti­val of Lights last­ing 8 days, but does not give a rea­son for this. He says that he “sup­poses” it is be­cause of the un­ex­pect­e­d
restora­tion of free­dom to wor­ship. Else­where his text is ex­tremely com­plete, well-re­searched, and ac­cu­rate.

So there are two pos­si­bil­ities be­ing con­sid­ered:

1. The mir­a­cle of the oil was de­scribed by the Mac­cabees who reded­i­cated the tem­ple. Such an in­ter­pre­ta­tion has to make the fol­low­ing leaps:

a. That a text which avoids all men­tion of re­li­gious mat­ters would not men­tion this one.

b. That a text which men­tions dozens of mir­a­cles would not men­tion this one. Well, it’s clearly not writ­ten by a main­stream Jew be­cause the the­ol­ogy is so un­usual. The writer had to pick and choose mir­a­cles when abridg­ing from 5 to 1 vol­ume, and may have left out the oil one be­cause it’s less spec­tac­u­lar than the oth­ers.

c. That Jose­phus wouldn’t men­tion the mir­a­cle. But a goal of his in writ­ing The Jewish War was to con­vince the Ro­mans that the Jews could make good sub­jects and would not be eter­nally re­bel­lious. Had he con­nected the Jewish obli­ga­tion to kin­dle lights to the idea of the reded­i­ca­tion of the Tem­ple (which the Ro­mans had just de­stroyed), he would have risked caus­ing the Ro­mans to for­bid the kindling of lights; this would have in­creased fric­tion and re­bel­lion.

2. The mir­a­cle of the oil was in­vented cen­turies later. Such an in­ter­pre­ta­tion has the fol­low­ing prob­lems:

a. That the Jews chose 8 days to cel­e­brate Chanukah with­out any par­tic­u­lar rea­son. 8 would be a strange num­ber, longer than other Jewish holi­days [un­re­lat­edly, an ex­tra day would later be added to other holi­days due to cal­en­dar un­cer­tainty]. No rea­son other than the oil mir­a­cle has been un­earthed for this num­ber 8.

b. That Jose­phus, who is oth­er­wise so eru­dite, shrugs off the rea­son for call­ing Chanukah the “Fes­ti­val of Lights”. His given ex­pla­na­tion (the restora­tion of the free­dom to wor­ship) doesn’t do much to ex­plain light, and cer­tainly doesn’t ex­plain the plu­ral lights. Fur­ther, his say­ing he “sup­poses” this ex­pla­na­tion (where he is oth­er­wise ac­cu­rate, de­tailed, and cer­tain in his his­tory) is difficult to ex­plain un­less he is de­liber­ately avoid­ing giv­ing the real ex­pla­na­tion. Cer­tainly one would ex­pect him to give a rea­son for the fes­ti­val’s 8 day length if he felt it pru­dent to do so.

c. The fact that those who dis­pute the stan­dard ac­count have no ac­tual ev­i­dence that the sages in­vented the mir­a­cle, but do have a poli­ti­cal goal in say­ing so.

d. The claim rests on the sup­po­si­tion that the Sages wanted to re­duce the poli­ti­cal im­por­tance of Chanukah by deem­pha­siz­ing the mil­i­tary vic­tory and turn­ing the mir­a­cle into a spiritual one. But had they wanted to do this, they could sim­ply have abol­ished the cel­e­bra­tion en­tirely; ac­tu­ally they abol­ished the cel­e­bra­tions listed in Megillat Taanit ex­cept for Chanukah. Why keep that holi­day while in­vent­ing a story to re­duce the as­so­ci­ated poli­ti­cal im­pli­ca­tions? Just to provide them­selves with an ex­cuse to eat jelly donuts?

Any­way, I was won­der­ing what athe­ists might be­lieve the most plau­si­ble ex­pla­na­tion:

That the mir­a­cle of the oil last­ing 8 days was in­vented cen­turies later?

Or that the Mac­cabees some­how se­cured a se­cret stash of sacra­men­tal oil be­yond the one vial they ini­tially found?

And, am I overem­pha­siz­ing/​un­der­em­pha­siz­ing the im­por­tance of any­thing?