In my previous post I said I was wanting to explore in depth some of Lena Einhorn’s observations. One that I consider most striking concerns the climactic crucifixion itself. We are so used to hearing that crucifixion was a very common method of execution for rebels in Roman times that we don’t pause to ask questions when we read about Pilate’s crucifixion of Jesus along with two “thieves” or “robbers” (translated “bandits” in the NRSV):
Mark 15:27 — And with him they crucified two bandits [λῃστάς – lestes], one on his right and one on his left.
Matthew 27:38 — Then two bandits [λῃσταί – lestai] were crucified with him, one on his right and one on his left.
In the Gospel of John we find Barabbas, the one freed in exchange for Jesus, described the same way:
John 18:40 — They shouted in reply, “Not this man, but Barabbas!” Now Barabbas was a bandit [λῃστής – lestes].
Now λῃστής (lestes) is the Greek word for “robber”, but the historian who has left us an account of the Jewish War with Rome and the many decades prior to that event, Josephus, uses λῃσταί (the plural of λῃστής) to describe anti-Roman Jewish rebels. Josephus was writing around the same period that many scholars believe the evangelists were composing the our canonical gospels.
The gospel use of “lestai/rebels” to describe Barabbas and the two who were crucified with Jesus is not new. It is found in the scholarly literature readily enough.
Einhorn takes the next step and examines the times Josephus tells us the lestai were active. I have summed up Einhorn’s observations in the following table.
Accounts of “lestai” activity by Josephus
|63-37 BCE||15 times||Beginning of Roman occupation|
|37-4 BCE||22 times|
|4 BCE – 6 CE||6 times||Crushing of Census revolt|
|6-44 CE||No references of lestai activity||Time of Jesus|
|44-48 CE||2 times||Return of direct Roman rule after death of Agrippa I|
|48-59 CE||20 times|
|59-66 CE||21 times||Lead up to the war with Rome, 66-70/73 CE|
There is an exception that Einhorn points out:
The only hint about activity during Jesus’s time is a sentence in War, saying that “Eleazar the arch-robber,” active in the 50s, together with his associates “had ravaged the country for twenty years together.” In Antiquities, however, it only says that Eleazar “had many years made his abode in the mountains.” (A Shift In Time, p. 45)
At this point I am reminded of my earlier posts, Did Josephus Fabricate the Origins of the Jewish Rebellion Against Rome? and Josephus Scapegoats Judas the Galilean for the War?. In those posts we saw reasons to think that Josephus in Antiquities was compelled to revise certain aspects of his earlier account (War), presumably under pressure from other Jews in Rome who took umbrage at his earlier portrayals of other parties involved. Recall Josephus himself was a less than admirable self-serving traitor. If so, when thinking about Einhorn’s comparison in the quotation above we have a little more reason to give more weight to the Antiquities reference.
None of this data proves there was no “lestai” activity in the time of Jesus, but compare this datum with other general background information.
Einhorn points to two occasions of mass protest in the time of Pilate:
But on the part of the Jews there were on these occasions never any expressions of violence—much less any rebellion. As Josephus states (and Philo supports), “the people were unarmed.”24 And there are no signs of any “robbers.” (p. 45)
Then (with my bolding),
Under Roman emperor Caligula (37–41 CE), the tension and protests increased, especially when the emperor wanted to erect a statue of himself in the Temple. The danger was averted, however, by the death of Caligula.25 And then came Agrippa I, and unified the nation. For an all too brief period of time. It is after this that they reappear: the “robbers.”
The time of the re-emergence of the ”robbers” in the writings of Josephus is thus not random. When, after the death of Agrippa I, the areas returned to provincial status, the disappointment among the Jews was immense. To quote Second Temple historian Menahem Stern: “The twenty-two years from [Agrippa’s death] until the outbreak of the Great Revolt may be summed up as a period that marked the decline of that rule and the progressive deterioration of the relations between the Roman authorities and the general Jewish population.”26 (p. 47)
I have been posting in recent months/years on the lack of evidence for any spirit of popular messianic fervor in the region of Palestine at the time of Jesus (see, for example, the posts on Horsley’s Bandits, Prophets and Messiahs). But this particular point by Lena Einhorn goes right to the heart of what the Gospel narratives are all about.
|Roman Crucifixions of Jews|
|4 BCE||by Varus|
|4 BCE – 46 CE||None|
|46 – 48 CE||by Tiberius Alexander|
|48 – 52 CE||by Cumanus|
|52 – ca 59 CE||by Felix|
|64 – 66 CE||by Florus|
|60 – 73 CE||during the Jewish War|
As Roman historian Tacitus writes in his Histories: “Under Tiberius all was quiet.”12 Tiberius was Roman emperor between 14 and 37 CE. (p. 11)
The passage in Tacitus, Histories, 5.9:
Antony gave the throne to Herod, and Augustus, after his victory, increased his power. After Herod’s death, a certain Simon assumed the name of king without waiting for Caesar’s decision. He, however, was put to death by Quintilius Varus, governor of Syria; the Jews were repressed; and the kingdom was divided into three parts and given to Herod’s sons. Under Tiberius all was quiet.
Einhorn has much more to add to the above. I have not addressed her several discussions of the gospel data suggesting that
Jesus and his disciples [are] surrounded by lestai, [and] several of the disciples themselves have names which seem to imply a connection with the Jewish rebels. (p. 48)
At the very least we have some justification for relegating the crucifixion of Jesus in the context of lestai activity as anachronistic.
The question becomes more interesting when, as Lena Einhorn does, we delve into John’s account of the arrest of Jesus by a whole cohort — 600 soldiers — and compare later rebel and apparently “messianic” activity described by Josephus as taking place in the 40s and 50s CE.
My own thoughts at this moment are narrower. Why does the Gospel of John remove the Gospel of Mark’s point about Jesus being crucified between two lestai? John 19:18 simply informs us that Jesus was crucified between “two others (ἄλλους). Mark’s punch is gone. But recall that the lestes (Barabbas) had been freed in exchange for Jesus. In Mark Jesus is crucified with rebels; in John he is crucified instead of them.
Does Mark’s account owe something to the “memories” of rife rebel activity and mass crucifixions in his own recent past? (It is widely believed Mark was writing soon after the Jewish War; he was certainly writing some time afterwards, and Jewish rebel activity was widespread from the time of the War right up till the second rebellion under Bar Kochba in the second century.) Or does it owe more to an interest in portraying graphically a point of Pauline theology? I’m thinking here of his teaching that the sinner was to die with Jesus (Galatians 2:20), and John’s shifting the apparent theological emphasis to Christ dying for sinners. Either way, the theological message is surely bound up in images from a world far removed from those in which the Gospel narrative is itself set.