This post is the sequel to Did Josephus Fabricate the Origins of the Jewish Rebellion Against Rome? It is my take on Professor James S. McLaren’s chapter, “Constructing Judaean History in the Diaspora: Josephus’s Accounts of Judas” in Negotiating Diaspora: Jewish Strategies in the Roman Empire.
In the previous post we covered McLaren’s analysis of the contexts, style and contents of the respective references to Judas the Galilean in both Wars (written shortly after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 CE) and Antiquities (completed some twenty years later).
McLaren’s next step is to assess the situation (both geographical and socio-political) of the author of these references.
When the war broke out Josephus was in Jerusalem. He was in a position to have a fair idea of what was going on. The war itself was initiated by the priests of Jerusalem refusing to sacrifice to the Roman emperor.
It was the priests who were among the prime movers at the start of the war when they ceased offering sacrifices on behalf of Rome and the emperor, not nameless revolutionaries or insurgents. Josephus should be placed among these priests who publicly rejected Roman rule in 66 CE. He, therefore, went to Galilee, the likely direction from which the Romans would attack, as an active rebel leader commissioned by those in Jerusalem who had decided to defy Rome.25 (101)
McLaren insists that Josephus himself was one of the rebels who initiated the break with Rome. In 66 CE he was not a moderate trying to soothe ruffled feathers or a reluctant participant.
The key contention is that Josephus and his fellow rebel priests advocated rebellion against Roman authority, using as a rallying-point the claim of ‘God alone as master’. No direct evidence for this view remains in the War account of 66. It has been deliberately edited out of 66 CE and the war cry has been relocated to another time, group and place, namely, Judas from Galilee and the supposed fourth philosophy.26 (102)
McLaren argues that the conflict sprang up quickly. It was not apparently an eventual eruption that had been building up through pressures for decades prior. Human folly of the moment was more likely the culprit.
In the wake of the recent census in 65/66 (War 6:422-23) and the subsequent dispute regarding the outstanding tribute (War 2:293-96, 404-407) some of the Jerusalem priests decided to take drastic action. (102-103)
That coins were minted to mark the beginning of the revolt and the decision to stop sacrifices for Rome are strong indications that the Temple establishment was a principal actor. The symbols and inscriptions on the coins and Josephus’s discussions elsewhere (especially in Apion) point to the priests leading the revolt under with the ideological belief in the rightness of God’s rulership through his priests. Josephus, after the war as a de facto captive in Rome, transferred the slogan to a group as far from himself and his associates as possible. Josephus needed to justify the mercy shown to him in allowing him to live and prosper anew in the city of his nation’s destroyers so his the former ideological rallying cry of “no master but God” had to be sloughed off and planted on others.
Judas the Scapegoat
McLaren now joins the two stages of his argument together. The textual analysis is interpreted through the situation Josephus found himself in firstly during the war, then soon afterwards when he was in Rome, and finally after some decades when he wrote Antiquities. But first, soon after the fall of Jerusalem, Josephus presented the story he needed to remove all responsibility for the rebellion from the Jerusalem priests in Wars 2:
2:8:1. 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 of his own, and was not at all like the rest of those their leaders. . . . .
2:17:8. In the mean time, one Manahem, the son of Judas, that was called the Galilean, (who was a very cunning sophister, and had formerly reproached the Jews under Cyrenius, that after God they were subject to the Romans,) took some of the men of note with him, and retired to Masada, where he broke open king Herod’s armory, and gave arms not only to his own people, but to other robbers also.
There. The perpetrators of the war were far off from Jerusalem, they came up with some new fangled ideas that had nothing in common with respectable God-fearing society, they were led by upstart nobodies. That settled it. Or so Josephus surely thought at the time. So why did he shift his position and make changes to the above straightforward scenario in his later writing?
Soon after the war itself and after arriving in Rome Josephus must have been pounded with questions about what had happened. People had seen the triumphal march, the prisoners, the loot. But despite Josephus’s explanation in War questions and disputes surely continued. Josephus had his opponents who questioned his role and account of the war, as we know from his own attempts to respond to them. The passages quoted above did not universally satisfy Josephus’s readers.
Okay, Josephus eventually had to yield to some extent. He was forced to admit that the rebels were not so extreme as to be beyond the pale of any other normal social group. Yes, they included Pharisees, too — many were indistinguishable from Pharisees. Yes, okay — there was also a Saddok a Pharisee who was part of the leadership along with Judas. Yes, all right, you might insist that it was mixed group who were calling out for independence from Rome, not just followers of Judas. Okay, but do you know anything about just how fanatical the people of Gamala were (of course not — only two women survived there); well, that was the den that Judas came from.
Such is McLaren’s explanation for the changes and contradictions we find in the Josephan accounts. Josephus clung as hard as he could to his original story, but he was obliged to give grudging ground at least to some extent. His original tale was not so neat and simple after all. Those involved in the revolt were not so unlike many of the mainstream Jews either. Okay, just one person alone was not entirely responsible for these rebel ideas.
But Josephus did manage to cling to the geographical and chronological distancing of the revolt from his own class. Rather than the folly of Jerusalem elites in response to Roman actions the blame lay far away from Jerusalem, up north, among a group of outsiders, sixty years earlier. It was all about bandits, nameless rebels and riff-raff infecting an otherwise good and decent nation.
The facts of the Jerusalem aristocracy deciding to stop sacrifices to the emperor in the wake of recent events and the minting of coins commemorating their own right to rule for God were flushed down the memory hole.