Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat MiKetz-Shabbat Hanukkah  5766/ December 31, 2005

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity. Prepared for Internet Publication by the Computer Center Staff at Bar-Ilan University. Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible,



The Scroll of Antiochus


Rabbi Benjamin Zvieli




In Devarim she-be-al Peh (vol. 1, p. 106), Chaim Nahman Bialik says:  “The Bible lacks one precious and most wonderful book.   Why was that book condemned to oblivion?   The book that tells the history of the greatest victory, the victory of the spirit and the might of the Jewish people – the Book of the Hasmoneans.”

Underlying Bialik’s state we hear reverberations of the view that in ancient times there was once such a book, such a scroll, that succinctly recounted in a special style the story of the holiday of Hanukkah, just as we have a scroll of Esther, telling of the events celebrated in the holiday of Purim.  It should be noted that Bialik was not referring to what we call today the Book of Maccabees, which is part of the Apocrypha, originally written in Greek.   These books are written in a relatively lengthy and clumsy style, and of the four books only the first two deal with the activities of Mattathias the Hasmonean and his sons in general, and of Judah the Maccabee in particular.  The rest of the books bear this name only because other heroic deeds are recounted there, but have nothing to do with Judah the Maccabee and his brothers.

Nor was Bialik referring to the Book of Judith, a book in the Apocrypha which tells of a beautiful widow who succeeded in breaking through the siege laid to the city of Bethulia in Judea, and having managed to reach Holofernes, commander of Assyrian king Nebuchadnezzar’s troops, then made him drunk and in his drunken state beheaded him and fled back to her people.   Neither the holiday of Hanukkah nor the name Hasmonean are mentioned in this story, and it is entirely shrouded in mystery. Nevertheless through the generations Judith came to be seen as the daughter of Mattathias the Hasmonean High Priest and sister of Judah the Maccabee.  Hence it became customary to read the Book of Judith on Hanukkah, and its contents also worked their way into the legends of Hanukkah, the edicts of Holofernes becoming melded with the edicts of Antiochus.  This is further testimony to the desire for an ancient scroll that would ceremoniously recount in an original style the story of the Feast of Lights which, since the Second Temple period, has been celebrated for eight days.

Various books from the Middle Ages were found to contain allusions to the existence of such a scroll, but it is not clear whether it was written in Hebrew or some other language. Today we have an Aramaic and Hebrew version of a scroll which goes by several names: the Scroll of Antiochus, or the Scroll of the Hasmoneans, or the Scroll of Hanukkah, and sometimes the Greek Scroll.  It is found mainly in manuscript form and in Yemenite prayer books.

Several years ago, the late Yemenite scholar Rabbi Joseph Kapah put out an edition of the Scroll of Antiochus with a translation into Arabic by Sa’adiah Gaon (ninth century), and with his own annotations based on ancient manuscripts that he found in the Bodleian Library in Oxford. Several ancient manuscripts of the Book of Daniel (in which about half the chapters are in Aramaic) coming from Yemen that contain Sa’adiah’s translation into Arabic, often had appended to them the Scroll of the Hasmoneans, better known in Yemen as the Scroll of Antiochas (not Antiochus).

All the ancient prayer books (tiklal) in the original Yemenite tradition, the Baladi rite, included this scroll as part of the prayer service for Hanukkah, since at one time it was customary to teach it to young schoolchildren during Hanukkah.

Sa’adiah Gaon wrote in the introduction:

I saw fit to append to this story (Purim) of what occurred in the time of the Persians, Mordechai and Esther being charged with rescuing the people from what had befallen them at that time, the story of what occurred in the time of the Greeks, the Levites [the Hasmoneans were Levites] being charged with rescuing the people from what had befallen them.

The Scroll of Antiochus was also included in the Ashkenazi prayer book Avodat Yisrael, redacted in 1868 by Rabbi Isaac ben Aryeh Joseph Dov (a.k.a. Yitzhak Baer), with the following introduction:

This precious scroll, which appears in an ancient mahzor printed in Salonica, is one of the rare texts which has survived from our scribes of antiquity, and was written primarily in clear Aramaic and later translated from this language into Hebrew, and was thus brought to print; but the Aramaic version became shrouded in mystery, until in 1851 the scholar Philipovsky [1] printed it in both languages – Aramaic and Hebrew – according to the manuscript which he found in the library in the capital city, London, and noted aptly that it is dated to the same time as the Book of Maccabees, in the Apocrypha.

The same introduction in Avodat Yisrael says:

It should be known that this scroll, the Scroll of Antiochus, was also translated into German and published in Venice in 1548, and reached the hands of Rabbi Behr Frank of Pressburg, who knew nothing of its existence in Hebrew or in Aramaic.   He therefore saw fit to translate the German into the Holy Tongue (Hebrew) and bring it to press in 1806.

The scroll of Antiochus was printed many times by various scholars, often accompanied by learned articles on its history, language and style, and even a comparison of the events recorded in it with what is recorded in other historical documents.

The Hebrew linguist, Professor Menahem Zvi Kaddari (Leshonenu 23) tried to establish when the hypothesized original might have been composed and to identify the scroll which we have in our hands today.  He claims that the attempts at identification were not supported by close examination of the language of the scroll, rather by historical, geographical and literary considerations alone; this, presumably, is the reason for the lack of a decisive answer.   The scroll could have been written anywhere from the first century C.E. until the eleventh century, and may have come from Babylonia, Syria, or even Europe.   Kaddari asserts, however, that there is reason to narrow the dating the Scroll of Antiochus to somewhere between the second and fifth century C.E., most likely in the second century itself.

Nathan Fried, in his exhaustive study of the Scroll of Antiochus (Sinai 64), expresses doubt regarding the date of composition.  He cites the opinion of Sa’adiah Gaon, who held that the Scroll of Antiochus (in Aramaic) was written by the Hasmoneans themselves, “that the Hasmonean sons Judah, Simeon, Johanan, Jonathan and Eliezer, sons of Mattathias, wrote a book about what they had experienced, similar to the book of Daniel in the language of the Caldeans.”  There is a difficulty with this description, because according to the scroll Judah and Eliezer were killed at the beginning of the war with the Greeks.   The scroll differs in certain details from what is told in the apocryphal works and in the books of Josephus Flavius.   A marked difference of great importance is that Judah the Maccabee was killed in front of his father at the beginning of the battle waged by Mattathias’ sons against the Greek forces, whereas according to other sources Mattathias himself died before the war broke out.   It should further be stressed that the miracle of the oil is given prominence in the scroll as the primary miracle commemorated by the commandment to kindle lights on Hanukkah, whereas in other sources this detail is not stressed at all.

In time the scroll came to be included in manuscripts of the Bible and prayer books of various Jewish communities.   Printed books (save for the first printed edition) only contain the Hebrew version.   Handwritten Yemenite tiklal prayerbooks contain the Aramaic version with verse by verse translation into Arabic.

Little by little the Hebrew version of the scroll is coming to be considered the original and viewed as if it were indeed the ancient version of the scroll. Nevertheless, there is still great doubt and the Scroll of Antiochus which we have today is still far from being considered an ancient scroll beyond doubt, attesting to the history of those great days. As of now, Chaim Nahman Bialik’s longings still go unanswered…

[1] Tzvi Hirsch Philipovsky was a Lithuanian Jewish prodigy in Talmud, a mathematician and scientist, who also devoted himself to studying Jewish sources.   He lived in London most of his life.