Did Josephus Fabricate the Origins of the Jewish Rebellion Against Rome?

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by Neil Godfrey

Josephus lays the blame for the Jewish rebel movement squarely on the shoulders of Judas the Galilean who led some sort of movement to oppose Roman taxes around the time of the infancy of Jesus — 6 CE. From this Judas arose what Josephus labels the “Fourth Philosophy”. The other three were the Pharisees, the Sadducees and the Essenes. The Fourth Philosophy is depicted as an undesirable conglomeration of upstart rebels who brought down ruin upon their nation.


Professor James S McLaren

Recently I was posting about my doubts concerning the evidence for Jewish messianic movements prior to the First Jewish War (66-73 CE) and Giuseppe alerted us to a study by James S. McLaren in Negotiating Diaspora: Jewish Strategies in the Roman Empire. McLaren’s chapter is “Constructing Judaean History in the Diaspora: Josephus’s Accounts of Judas“, pages 90-107. Thanks, Giuseppe. Until I read that chapter I never quite knew what to make of Judas the Galilean because though scholars often say he led the first military rebellion against Rome I have not been able to find unambiguous evidence for that claim in Josephus. It seemed some historians were simply repeating the hearsay of their guild. Hence I have held back from commenting on him when I have discussed other rebels and bandits on the Judean stage either side of the time of Jesus. McLaren’s chapter is the first work I have read that squarely confronts and addresses the ambiguities and inconsistencies that have bothered me in Josephus’s account.

Conclusion: Josephus created Judas the Galilean as a foil to bear the responsibility for the humiliation of the Jewish defeat. I’m not saying that Judas did not exist (though he may not have) but that Josephus has been forced to modify his account with each retelling of his role in starting the rebellion. These variations indicate that Josephus is creatively rewriting history to deflect blame for the war from his own class of aristocratic priests.

This study shows that we can no longer assume that this Judas presented by Josephus is an historical figure who engaged in some activity in 6 CE. It is not simply a case of claiming that Josephus may have exaggerated the account of Judas’s career and its impact by adjusting a few details here and there. Rather, Josephus’s apologetic has constructed Judas, making him a vital part of the explanation of what happened in Judaea in 66-70 CE. Who he was, what he did and what he advocated, if anything at all, need to be established afresh, outside the framework provided in War and Antiquities. (108: bolded emphasis is mine in all quotations)

Now McLaren is working like a real historian — a welcome change from some of the tendentious works we have discussed elsewhere. He examines the nature of his source material before deciding to take its claims at face value — and that means literary analysis . . .

This discussion will be presented in three parts. In the first, I offer an analysis of the textual location of the references to Judas.

and study of provenance:

The second part will be devoted to a reassessment of the geographical and socio-political location of Josephus in 66 CE and in the years that followed the revolt. The third and final part will outline how these locations result in Judas being presented as a scapegoat by Josephus. 

Further, he understands the necessity of evidence external to his source material for corroboration.

Who he was, what he did and what he advocated, if anything at all, need to be established afresh, outside the framework provided in War and Antiquities.

These are the methodological principles I have been saying ought to be applied to the gospels even if the result might lead to the conclusion that a central character has possibly been a creation of the author rather than a true historical figure. I notice that McLaren’s background is strong in ancient history and not restricted to biblical studies.

So what are McLaren’s arguments? I’ll take them in the same order as McLaren with this post covering McLaren’s analysis of the respective locations of Josephus’s references to Judas.

Warning: the following post is for those with a serious interest in the question of Josephus as a historical source.

Why scholars have assumed historicity

Three times Josephus mentions Judas in his earliest work, the War, and three times again in his later work, Antiquities.

Even if only brief, they are concrete accounts and consequently there is an inherent tendency within scholarship to assume that Judas was a historical figure of at least some importance. (91)

McLaren directs readers to his 1998 book, Turbulent Times? Josephus and Scholarship on Judaea in the First Century CE, for his fuller discussion of the reasons we need to be very cautious in accepting Josephus’s narrative of a gradual avalanching of turbulence and rebellion throughout first century Judaea. Josephus’s claims need to be substantiated, not assumed, McLaren explains in his Introduction in his 1998 work. I have not yet read beyond the Introduction of Turbulent Times? but look forward to doing so. As readers know, I have been troubled by the absence of clear evidence being cited to substantiate supposed popular messianic movements at the time of Jesus. It is through an examination of the textual locations of key references in Josephus’s works and an analysis of the particular details provided within each context that McLaren has come to believe that several of the “facts” presented by Josephus are in reality creative (fictional/ideological) propaganda.

Analysing Josephus’s direct and indirect references to Judas

It is mistake to simply set up side by side Josephus’s six references to Judas and add up all the bits of data as if of equal value in order to portray a “complete picture” of Judas. The reason is this: only two references (one in each of War and Antiquities) are direct accounts of Judas; the remainder are indirect allusions reminding readers of what the author wants them to recollect about Judas. It is evident that the direct references are what Josephus wants readers to view most prominently and it is those two references that need to be compared with one another. The indirect “reminder” citations should be understood and compared within the literary context in which they appear. Despite Josephus citing Judas six times — an indication that he wants readers to understand the importance of Judas in the events leading to the war with Rome — very little detail is actually given the reader about this Judas. We are not told what eventually happened to Judas; we are not told exactly where his protest took place nor are we told of its exact nature; we are not told what the response of the Romans was to his activity.

We are left with the question of why Josephus should want to place emphasis on Judas’s career but not provide some of the basic detail of that career. (94)

I can only provide a bare outline in this blog post of McLaren’s argument so will simply add by way of note (without the explanation provided by McLaren on p. 94) that Josephus’s manner of reminding readers of Judas in each of his indirect references is unique. Josephus singles out Judas as particularly important for the reader to keep in mind. Next, McLaren points to significant differences between Josephus’s direct accounts of Judas’s career in War and Antiquities. There is little significant overlap when all the accounts are placed side by side. Finally, we run into difficulties when trying to explain the differences among the respective accounts, why their different emphases in points of detail and contradictions.

Two differences in the accounts are singled out for potential significance.

Difference 1: Galilee/Gamala?

Josephus in his direct reference to Judas in Wars tells us that Judas was from Galilee. In his direct reference in Antiquities, however, he locates him in Gamala in Gaulanitis. The obvious solution is to assume Gamala is part of Galilee but McLaren points out that other evidence in Josephus won’t allow this:

  • Josephus tells readers that as general he was assigned the two Galilees in addition to Gamala (2:568)
  • Josephus distinguishes between Galilee and Gaulinitis (2:573-574)
  • Josephus tells us that Gaulanitis borders Galilee to the east (3:37)
  • Josephus specifically sets Gamala in Gaulinitis (4:2)

The other indirect references to “Judas the Galilean” use the epithet as a nickname and should not be interpreted as direct explanations of his origin. Some scholars have attempted to reconcile the conflict by assuming Judas originated from Gamala but extended his active career across into Galilee and thus was nicknamed the Galilean, with his real place of origin only being noted later. The problem with this explanation is that only in exceptional circumstances does Josephus identify a person by their geographical origin. Besides, many people mentioned in Josephus’s histories hailed from Galilee.

McLaren then turns his focus on the other uses of “Galilean” by Josephus. The label has very positive associations when Josephus is describing his military leadership of the Galileans. The Galileans obey him; they rally to his support when he opposes a political opponent and fights the Romans.

But when Josephus is not present the Galileans take on negative associations. The Galileans who appear in Jerusalem are responsible for murder, plunder, rape etc. Similarly, when the Galilean city of Japhna (without Josephus present) surrenders in a weak-willed and cowardly manner to the Romans they are described as “Galileans”; but the defenders of Jotapata (another Galilean city) under Josephus’s direct command are labelled Judaeans. Two particularly noble brothers who excelled themselves in defence of Jotapata are called Galileans from Ruma.

Josephus does not use the term ‘Galileans’ in relation to many people in his narrative. What is evident, however, is that, when used without direct connection with Josephus, it tends to carry a negative connotation in War. As such, it begs the question of whether the application of the term to identify Judas should also be deemed a negative slur, deliberately chosen by Josephus. (97)

These locations [Galilee, Gamala] are geographically distant from Jerusalem, falling outside the territory that came under direct Roman rule in 6 CE. 16

16. This last point highlights an important question: if either of these geographical references is historical what is a person not directly associated with Judaea doing instigating the protest? In practical terms the census only directly impacted upon what had been Arhcelaus’s territory. Why a person not from these regions should be the only one who leads the protest is intriguing. (97-98)

So why the Gamala reference? McLaren returns to this reference in the final part of his essay where he discusses the particularly fanatical resistance to the Romans in Gamala.

Difference 2: The ‘Fourth Philosophy’

AND now Archelaus’s part of Judea was reduced into a province, and Coponius, one of the equestrian order among the Romans, was sent as a procurator, having the power of [life and] death put into his hands by Caesar. Under his administration it was that a certain Galilean, whose name was Judas, prevailed with his countrymen to revolt, and said they were cowards if they would endure to pay a tax to the Romans and would after God submit to mortal men as their lords. This man was a teacher of a peculiar sect [philosophy] of his own, and was not at all like the rest of those their leaders.

2. For there are three philosophical sects among the Jews. . . . (War, 2:4:1-2)

And later in Antiquities:

Such were the consequences of this, that the customs of our fathers were altered, and such a change was made, as added a mighty weight toward bringing all to destruction, which these men occasioned by their thus conspiring together; for Judas and Sadduc, who excited a fourth philosophic sect among us, and had a great many followers therein, filled our civil government with tumults at present, and laid the foundations of our future miseries, by this system of philosophy, which we were before unacquainted withal, concerning which I will discourse a little, and this the rather because the infection which spread thence among the younger sort, who were zealous for it, brought the public to destruction.

2. The Jews had for a great while had three sects of philosophy peculiar to themselves . .  .

6. But of the fourth sect of Jewish philosophy, Judas the Galilean was the author. . . (Antiquities 18:1:1-2)

The fourth philosophy is said to have begun at a specific point in time, with the census in 6 CE. It was distinct from all the other philosophies. Further unlike the others it had a single founding figure.

Josephus thus stresses how utterly unlike the other Jewish sects the fourth philosophy was. And Judas is identified as the primary culprit. Note that there is no name given to the philosophy he is accused of founding. It is known only by his own name. The fourth philosophy is an unnatural intrusion into the life of the Judaeans.

Notice some differences of treatment in Josephus’s earlier and later accounts:

War 2:117-118

Antiquities 18:4-10

Antiquities 18:23-25

Summary of Judas’s activity and brief outline of 4th philosophy are placed together. Judas is said to have founded the 4th philosophy . . . . . .  but the description of the 4th philosophy is separated in this subsequent location.
Judas’s activity (not his philosophy) is said to have been a call for Jews to cast off their Roman rulers because they should have God alone as their ruler. Mentions the census as an indication of slavery but no reference to an ideology. The same information used to describe the activity of Judas in War is here included as a description of the 4th philosophy and Judas is only indirectly mentioned.
Josephus adds a large amount of commentary at this point, waxing at great length about the disaster brought upon the Jews by Judas.


Josephus is much more expansive in his criticisms of Judas in Ant. 18:4-10 than he is in War 2:117-118, yet he is also far less explicit in the detail provided. (99)

What is the explanation for these variations?

Another peculiarity arises with Josephus’s contradictions in that founding figure. In War it is Judas alone who is its founder; in the direct reference in Antiquities the sect is founded jointly by Judas and Saddok the Pharisee. Subsequently an indirect reference in Antiquities Judas is once again said to be the sole originator of the fourth philosophy. Again, the uniqueness and unnaturalness of the fourth philosophy is emphasized.

There is also a stark contrast in the ways Josephus described the different philosophies in War and Antiquities. He changes their order and in the later volume he cuts back on the amount of detail assigned to the first three sects, especially the Essenes, but elaborates at much greater length on the disruptive fourth philosophy.

In War Josephus simply identified the fourth philosophy as having an agenda to oppose Roman rule and in Antiquities he reinforced this single-agenda character of the philosophy by again directly associating it with Judas. But notice the difference from the other three. Not a word is given about the attitudes of Pharlsees, Sadducees and Essenes towards the Romans or their rule.

Again, by the nature of the content included, a subtle distinction is made between the fourth philosophy and the other three. (100)

There is another subtle contradiction. In the indirect Antiquities reference Josephus writes of the fourth philosophy that they shared the views of the Pharisees in all areas but one:

6. But of the fourth sect of Jewish philosophy, Judas the Galilean was the author. These men agree in all other things with the Pharisaic notions; but they have an inviolable attachment to liberty, and say that God is to be their only Ruler and Lord. . . . 

Contrast the account in War 2:

This man was a teacher of a peculiar sect of his own, and was not at all like the rest . .

Why did Josephus feel a need to modify what he had earlier written about the utter uniqueness of the anti-Roman fourth philosophy?

How can one account for Josephus’s variations and contradictions?

McLaren thus identifies a number of details in the literary or textual structure of the text that call for explanation. There are distinctive variations of detail in relation to both the types of references and their content. Judas was clearly a most important figure for Josephus but his descriptions of his role shift from one narrative to another. The details consist of variations and contradictions. Why?

The preceding discussion points toward the need to explain the inclusion, location and the nature of the references as the result of authorial choice. It is not sufficient to suggest that Judas was cited primarily because he was a figure of historical significance to the political history of Judaea. He was clearly important to Josephus; hence the annotations in the indirect citations. However, there are substantial gaps regarding Judas’s career. Furthermore, it is implausible to suggest that, although Judas was historically important, major details about his activity did not survive. The presence of the four annotated indirect references also negates any attempt to explain the variations and contradictions as the result of different sources and/or Josephus being a sloppy, inconsistent writer. Josephus clearly wants to make Judas appear important, yet he is also open to making numerous changes to his accounts, especially in terms of the link between Judas and the fourth philosophy. The most plausible avenue by which to explain why Josephus explains Judas in this way is by reference to authorial choice. In other words, Josephus has deliberately constructed the accounts. The question is in what manner and to what extent this has occurred. (100-101)

Next post in this series will address McLaren’s discussion of Josephus’s location and personal interests.

Next post: Josephus Scapegoats Judas the Galilean for the War?




  • flummoxed
    2016-04-05 14:49:35 UTC - 14:49 | Permalink

    Daniel Unterbrink thinks that the Testimonium Flavianum is where Josephus originally wrote about Judas’ execution. I have no idea!

    • Neil Godfrey
      2016-04-05 15:13:22 UTC - 15:13 | Permalink

      I have my doubts because the TF intrudes into a passage relating a series of disasters. The death of Judas would have been as much an unwelcome anomaly in a list of disasters as is the TF itself.

      It is sounder method to go with the evidence we do have (or lack) and not speculate (in the absence of textual argument) on what might have been where we now find something quite different.

    • Mark Erickson
      2016-04-06 03:56:06 UTC - 03:56 | Permalink

      Due to the Alexander the Alabarch reference in Josephus, I eventually came across Unterbrink’s books, and happened to recall the name here. What I read was not impressive. https://books.google.com/books?id=KJ4E24RyVpgC

      • Mark Erickson
        2016-04-06 03:59:26 UTC - 03:59 | Permalink

        I should have included the title, which might interest some. “The Three Messiahs: The Historical Judas the Galilean, The Revelatory Christ Jesus, and The Mythical Jesus of Nazareth”.

  • Giuseppe
    2016-04-05 18:28:05 UTC - 18:28 | Permalink

    Now this case of prof McLaren would raise a curious question:

    if an article which shows that Judah was invented at a desk by Josephus (to hide its involvement in the war) is considered academic (and not a crackpot theory), then, ceteris paribus, this recent book by Lena Einhorn should also be considered in turn an academic book (where a case is made that Mark invented ”Jesus” in order to hide the ”Egyptian” ‘s involvement in an act of sedition) ?

    Which is the difference between Josephus inventor of Judas (as foil for himself and pro-Zealot Pharisees) and Mark inventor of ”Jesus” (as foil for the ”Egyptian Prophet” and/or for the entire Israel) ?

    Frankly, I don’t see no difference.

    In fact, I read:

    Most readers of this book, and especially New Testament scholars, will find its thesis unpalatable and even unacceptable. They should for that reason take its evidence and argument seriously, not just as positive historical proposals but as a challenge to traditional reconstructions of the life and precise setting of Jesus of Nazareth. Those who trust the Gospel portraits as reasonably accurate historically will encounter an alternative that challenges such trust; those who consider these portraits to be substantially products of social memory will also find valuable clues to historical events that may have fashioned that memory. At the very least, this book should make us think. Professor Philip R. Davies, former president of the European Association of Biblical Studies, author of “The Complete World of the Dead Sea Scrolls”

  • 2016-04-05 19:31:50 UTC - 19:31 | Permalink

    IIRC (I’m writing from my phone, so I can’t check) weren’t some followers of Judas’ fourth way executed a few decades (40s?) later? Or at least, Josephus says they were part of Judas’ movement.

    I only remember because (again, IIRC) their names were Simon and James. Does McLaren mention other ascribed followers of the Galilean?

    • Neil Godfrey
      2016-04-06 00:16:14 UTC - 00:16 | Permalink

      Yes — in Antiquities 20:5:2 — I don’t think McLaren does mention them. I’m relying on a non-OCR’d text, in a place with a weak internet connection, and laid up with a heavy cold — so maybe later I will learn otherwise.

    • Nonie
      2016-04-08 12:49:12 UTC - 12:49 | Permalink

      Was Judas the prototype for the Judas of the gospels? Was the story of Jesus, the better Jew betrayed by Judas, really a garbled version of Josephus vs. Judas the Galilaen?

  • Kunigunde Kreuzerin
    2016-04-06 06:34:41 UTC - 06:34 | Permalink

    Very interesting. I’m looking forward to the next post in this series! Thanks Neil and Giuseppe

  • Matt Cavanaugh
    2016-04-08 01:30:48 UTC - 01:30 | Permalink

    It seems pedantic to chastise Josephus for blaming Judas for the Great Revolt instead of those many others involved. For in Book XVIII of Antiquities, Josephus lays out what he views as the legacy of the Fourth Philosophy founded by Judas’: decades of lawlessness, growing unrest, sedition, etc. — all which prepared the fertile ground out of which the revolt of AD 66 eventually sprung.

    Similarly, one could well chiefly blame John C. Calhoun and his ‘Nullification Philosophy’ for the US Civil War, despite the man being long dead before the guns fired on Fort Sumter.

    • Neil Godfrey
      2016-04-08 13:08:58 UTC - 13:08 | Permalink

      I think we see evidence that Josephus’s neat division of four philosophies, with the implication that all the mayhem and rebellion was confined to one of these, is simply a cover-up. There was no such neat four-fold division of society. Pharisees and priests were as much mixed up in all the turmoil as anyone else. It was the survivors at the end of the day who wrote the history in a way to exonerate themselves from all taint of responsibility.

  • Andrew
    2016-04-10 18:05:11 UTC - 18:05 | Permalink

    I wonder if the “fourth philosophy” was Judaism, and thus Josephus simply invented an eponymous name as the “founder” (much like Christians later invented “Ebion” as the founder of the Ebionites). If that were the case, it’s inexplicable why he wouldn’t come out and simply name it in the text. This could also have echoes in the gospels — Judas symbolizing Judaism itself.

    • Neil Godfrey
      2016-04-11 23:18:19 UTC - 23:18 | Permalink

      I think we should not take the four-fold philosophical division of the Jews too seriously. Josephus, I understand, was artificially creating such a scenario to present the Jews on a comparable par with the Greco-Roman world and its major philosophical divisions (Stoics, Pythagoreans…) The evidence of Second Temple literature alone belies Josephus’s neat division.

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