This continues from Part 1 where I began discussing what Richard Horsley has to say about popular messianic movements in Israel up to the time of Jesus in Bandits, Prophets & Messiahs. Previous posts addressed the concept of a future messiah among the literate elites. This post considers what Horsley has to say about the way messianic movements among the general populace grew out of the ancient popularity of the institution of kingship. I have only two reservations about Horsley’s argument:
(1) ancient Israelite kingship, especially the stories of popular elections of kings, was mostly biblical myth without historical basis;
(2) Horsley can do no more than assume that there was widespread messianic hope among the masses – he offers “little or no evidence” for this. The primary evidence he does offer is the sudden outburst of rebellions at the death of Herod and again prior to the war with Rome. He believes that such rebellions are evidence that messianic hopes had lain “dormant” in the minds of the people for many generations up to those times.
So the evidence is very thin. In my last post on this topic I referred to William Scott Green’s claim that evidence for messianic hopes up till the Jewish rebellion of 66-70 is not unlike a proof-texting exercise. It has long been assumed there must have been such a hope in order to make sense of “a historical Jesus.”
The Tradition of Popular Kingship?
Horsley begins by arguing that the “particular tradition of popular kingship” existed on the basis of “assuming that the ordinary people, even if illiterate, had some substantial acquaintance with biblical stories and images.” It is on the basis of this assumption that we can say “it is evident that they had memories of popularly recognized kings and their followers.” And since these “memories” were “embodied in the people’s sacred traditions (the law and the prophets),” we can say that these memories were themselves the tradition of popular kingship.
I have difficulties with this. But first I’ll put it all in Horsley’s words in case my paraphrase has missed something:
Assuming that the ordinary people, even if illiterate, had some substantial acquaintance with biblical stories and images, it is evident that they had memories of popularly recognized kings and their followers which, precisely because they had become embodied in the people’s sacred traditions (the law and the prophets), constituted the particular tradition of popular kingship. (p. 92)
Has not archaeology unearthed evidence that the religion of the ordinary populace of Israel during the monarchic period embraced its asherah and other idols? I have also been persuaded by “the Copenhagen school” or “minimalists” that there was no period of judges, no united kingdom of David and Solomon, and that the biblical stories of these mythical ages were products of the Persian and Hellenistic periods.
But even if the Biblical history had been historical, are political and social ideologies realistically carried across centuries of generations in “memories”? And on top of all this, modern studies of social bandits have found that, despite the myths they may generate, they rarely rise above immediate interests and reciprocal relationships to higher levels of political consciousness.
And does the Biblical story really identify any contemporary kings as messiahs? The common assumption that ancient Jews hailed their kings as “anointed ones” or “messiahs” has been challenged in the opening chapter by Green in Neusner’s Judaisms and Their Messiahs At the Turn Of the Christian Era and others since (e.g. Thomas L. Thompson). These have argued that the term “messiah” is only used of past or future ideal kings (or priests) and never of contemporaries.
Clearly Horsley’s argument for a “particular tradition of popular kingship” rests primarily on inductions from certain interpretations about the Biblical literature. This does not strike me as a substantial foundation for an argument for messianic “memories” in the generations preceding Jesus. (Let’s not forget that there was also a considerable nonbiblical literature expressing religious ideas largely alien to the Bible.) If there were any “social memories” among the peasantry around the time of Herod the Great and soon afterwards,
Horsley explains the window through which he is going to interpret social movements he finds in the record:
The issue and our approach to it can be illustrated by examination of the source of the new social form, namely, the traditions contained in the biblical history. (p. 92)
I understand Horsley is here saying that he will interpret references to social and rebel movements through the models he finds in the Bible stories.
How valid is this interpretive model — especially given the reservations I have expressed above?
So I list below the bandit gangs that Horsley uses as supporting evidence. (I am not at all disputing these. What Josephus is alluding to is a phenomenon that was common throughout much of the Roman empire — at least where the populations were over-taxed on top of other calamities such as famines and war.)
Social Banditry in Palestine
The first evidence appears in the wake of the Hasmonean “civil war” in which Aristobulus was said to have attracted considerable peasant support. See Josephus, chapter 8 of his Wars I. This brings us up to the 50’s b.c.e. It was in the post-war conditions that we read of our earliest “bandit raiders”. Horsley sees these names indicative of “social banditry” and he is probably right. He relies heavily on the work of the pioneer in the study of social banditry, Eric Hobsbawm. To simplify, a social bandit is a “Robin Hood” type of figure who has some significant measure of “social support” for his response to widely experienced wrongs by powers-tha-be. (They maintain support by refraining from robbing their neighbouring poor — who have nothing worth stealing anyway — and on occasion have been known to earn allegiance through the time honoured method of bestowing gifts.)
Josephus writes of him in the Wars 1, chapter 10:
Now Herod was an active man, and soon found proper materials for his active spirit to work upon. As therefore he found that Hezekias, the head of the robbers, ran over the neighboring parts of Syria with a great band of men, he caught him and slew him, and many more of the robbers with him; which exploit was chiefly grateful to the Syrians, insomuch that hymns were sung in Herod’s commendation, both in the villages and in the cities, as having procured their quietness, and having preserved what they possessed to them . . .
It is no surprise that we find banditry thriving in the aftermath of this period of civil war and political-economic strife. . . . The Galileans who joined the brigand band led by Hezekiah were probably victims of, and fugitives from, the shifting political and economic situation as well as the newly acquired power of the local nobility. . . . This “very large gang” of brigands was raiding primarily along the Syrian border area . . . . (pp. 63-4)
A decade later we have what looks like a re-run.
Galilean cave bandits
Another outbreak of dynastic warfare saw peasants supporting the Hasmonean Antigonus. Horsley shows from the evidence in Josephus (chapter 16 of book 1 in Wars) that the Galilean brigands that appeared at this time were a major factor along with Antigonus opposing his rule. Antigonus was installed in power by the Parthians and Herod marched out to take on both him and the Galilean bandits opposing him shortly after 40 b.c.e.
Josephus gives us some idea of their strength:
[Herod] marched to take the remaining parts of Galilee, and to drive away the garrisons placed there by Antigonus.
2. But when Herod had reached Sepphoris, in a very great snow, he took the city without any difficulty . . . . After which he hasted away to the robbers that were in the caves, who overran a great part of the country, and did as great mischief to its inhabitants as a war itself could have done. Accordingly, he sent beforehand three cohorts of footmen, and one troop of horsemen, to the village Arbela, and came himself forty days afterwards with the rest of his forces. Yet were not the enemy aftrighted at his assault but met him in arms; for their skill was that of warriors, but their boldness was the boldness of robbers: when therefore it came to a pitched battle, they put to flight Herod’s left wing with their right one; but Herod, wheeling about on the sudden from his own right wing, came to their assistance . . . and so turned back and ran away.
3. But Herod followed them, and slew them as he followed them, and destroyed a great part of them, till those that remained were scattered beyond the river [Jordan;] and Galilee was freed from the terrors they had been under, excepting from those that remained, and lay concealed in caves, which required longer time ere they could be conquered. . . .
The next notices of popular resistance appear at the time of the death of Herod the Great in 4 b.c.e. The Galilean city of Sepphoris rebelled and was razed to the ground by the Rome’s governor of Syria, Varus. It was rebuilt by Herod Antipas who was made governor (tetrarch) by Rome.
After the suppression of the Galilean cave bandits we have no further indication of similar outbreaks:
We possess little or no evidence of banditry for the long reign of Herod. But this does not mean there was none at all. The presence of some brigands in the popular messianic movement in Perea following the death of Herod suggests that there may occasionally have been some bandits in the outlying areas. (pp. 63-64)
So what are these “popular messianic movements”? Horsely cites Judas the son of Hezekiah (the bandit leader described above), Simon and Athronges.
3 Kings: Judas, Simon & Athronges
Josephus describes three outbreaks in particular that followed hard on the death of Herod the Great in 4 b.c.e. Horsley believes these were messianic claimants because they each claimed to be a king and the general peasantry hoped to be ruled once again by a Jewish king whom they considered a “messiah”.
Josephus writes of Judas in Antiquities 17, chapter 10
5. There was also Judas, the son of that Ezekias who had been head of the robbers; which Ezekias was a very strong man, and had with great dificulty been caught by Herod. This Judas, having gotten together a multitude of men of a profligate character about Sepphoris in Galilee, made an assault upon the palace [there,] and seized upon all the weapons that were laid up in it, and with them armed every one of those that were with him, and carried away what money was left there; and he became terrible to all men, by tearing and rending those that came near him; and all this in order to raise himself, and out of an ambitious desire of the royal dignity; and he hoped to obtain that as the reward not of his virtuous skill in war, but of his extravagance in doing injuries.
Here Horsley sees evidence that Judas led a popular messianic movement. This is the subtext, he believes, of the claim to be a king. However, Horsley has already explained that he believes it is correct to interpret the evidence according to a number of assumptions we hold about the biblical narratives.
I suggest we need first to find evidence linking the royal claimant to biblical ideology.
And then of Simon and the Perean rebellion immediately after:
6. There was also Simon, who had been a slave of Herod the king, but in other respects a comely person, of a tall and robust body; he was one that was much superior to others of his order, and had had great things committed to his care. This man was elevated at the disorderly state of things, and was so bold as to put a diadem on his head, while a certain number of the people stood by him, and by them he was declared to be a king, and thought himself more worthy of that dignity than any one else. He burnt down the royal palace at Jericho, and plundered what was left in it. He also set fire to many other of the king’s houses in several places of the country, and utterly destroyed them, and permitted those that were with him to take what was left in them for a prey; and he would have done greater things, unless care had been taken to repress him immediately; for Gratus, when he had joined himself to some Roman soldiers, took the forces he had with him, and met Simon, and after a great and a long fight, no small part of those that came from Perea, who were a disordered body of men, and fought rather in a bold than in a skillful manner, were destroyed; and although Simon had saved himself by flying away through a certain valley, yet Gratus overtook him, and cut off his head. The royal palace also at Amathus, by the river Jordan, was burnt down by a party of men that were got together, as were those belonging to Simon. And thus did a great and wild fury spread itself over the nation, because they had no king to keep the multitude in good order, and because those foreigners who came to reduce the seditious to sobriety did, on the contrary, set them more in a flame, because of the injuries they offered them, and the avaricious management of their affairs.
Again, is there really evidence here of a messianic ideology? A desire to replace Herod as king, certainly. And the rebellion was clearly inflamed even after the defeat and beheading. If Simon had been a messianic hopeful then would not his beheading have more likely have led to a demoralization and submission? Does not the violent reactions of his followers in the wake of the brutality following their defeat suggest it was anger rather than ideology that led the rebellion?
Athronges the shepherd king
7. But because Athronges, a person neither eminent by the dignity of his progenitors, nor for any great wealth he was possessed of, but one that had in all respects been a shepherd only, and was not known by any body; yet because he was a tall man, and excelled others in the strength of his hands, he was so bold as to set up for king. This man thought it so sweet a thing to do more than ordinary injuries to others, that although he should be killed, he did not much care if he lost his life in so great a design.
He had also four brethren, who were tall men themselves, and were believed to be superior to others in the strength of their hands, and thereby were encouraged to aim at great things, and thought that strength of theirs would support them in retaining the kingdom. Each of these ruled over a band of men of their own; for those that got together to them were very numerous. They were every one of them also commanders; but when they came to fight, they were subordinate to him, and fought for him, while he put a diadem about his head, and assembled a council to debate about what things should be done, and all things were done according to his pleasure.
And this man retained his power a great while; he was also called king, and had nothing to hinder him from doing what he pleased. He also, as well as his brethren, slew a great many both of the Romans and of the king’s forces, and managed matters with the like hatred to each of them. The king’s forces they fell upon, because of the licentious conduct they had been allowed under Herod’s government; and they fell upon the Romans, because of the injuries they had so lately received from them. But in process of time they grew more cruel to all sorts of men, nor could any one escape from one or other of these seditions, since they slew some out of the hopes of gain, and others from a mere custom of slaying men.
They once attacked a company of Romans at Emmaus, who were bringing corn and weapons to the army, and fell upon Arius, the centurion, who commanded the company, and shot forty of the best of his foot soldiers; but the rest of them were aftrighted at their slaughter, and left their dead behind them, but saved themselves by the means of Gratus, who came with the king’s troops that were about him to their assistance.
Now these four brethren continued the war a long while by such sort of expeditions, and much grieved the Romans; but did their own nation also a great deal of mischief. Yet were they afterwards subdued; one of them in a fight with Gratus, another with Ptolemy; Archelaus also took the eldest of them prisoner; while the last of them was so dejected at the other’s misfortune, and saw so plainly that he had no way now left to save himself, his army being worn away with sickness and continual labors, that he also delivered himself up to Archclaus, upon his promise and oath to God [to preserve his life.] But these things came to pass a good while afterward.
Again, is there any indication of royal/messianic ideology in here? There appears to be no interest in taking Jerusalem, but only in subduing authorities in his own geographical “territory”. Horsley sees significance in Athronges starting out as a shepherd like David. But Josephus is relating this to show what an up-start he really was. He was a shepherd “only” and “not otherwise known by anybody”.
And the rest:
8. And now Judea was full of robberies; and as the several companies of the seditious lighted upon any one to head them, he was created a king immediately, in order to do mischief to the public. They were in some small measure indeed, and in small matters, hurtful to the Romans; but the murders they committed upon their own people lasted a long while.
This sounds to me like evidence against Horsley’s interpretation. The three names accounted for are three names representative of a larger and very immediate social problem.
The Gap Years
The above all pertains to the immediate aftermath of the death of Herod the Great in 4 b.c.e.
For the next forty years we have no information about any further disturbances.
Our principle source, Josephus, provides little information about the period from the Roman deposition of Herod’s son and successor in Judea, Archelaus, to the end of the reign of Agrippa I (6-44 C.E.). Perhaps his own lack of sources for the period partly explains why he does not report any significant bandit activity until nearly mid-first century. Consequently, it is also difficult to determine just how typical may have been the brigand troop led by Tholomaus toward the end of this period, or what circumstances may have surrounded such bandit activity. (p. 66)
But Horsley does inform us of a number of clearly relevant circumstances: double taxation, dispossession and provocations by the Romans against religious customs. It is also worth noting the evidence for the different regions of Galilee and Judea. Can events in Judea be assumed to be a window to what was happening in Galilee under different governance?
But Horsley argues that two names are evidence of some activity for messianism or banditry during, in effect, the “Jesus decade”. (My term for the 30’s, not Horsley’s.) Tholomaus and Eleazar ben Dinai.
Josephus speaks of him in Book 20 of Antiquities, chapter 1.
Tholomy also, the arch robber, was, after some time, brought to him bound, and slain, but not till he had done a world of mischief to Idumea and the Arabians. And indeed, from that time, Judea was cleared of robberies by the care and providence of Fadus.
The term “arch robber” or “brigand chief” is the same descriptor Josephus uses of Hezekiah before him and Eleazar (contemporary/after him) — both of whom led very powerful forces.
Eleazar ben Dinai
Josephus informs us of this bandit as follows (Antiquities Book 20, chapter 6):
1. NOW there arose a quarrel between the Samaritans and the Jews on the occasion following: It was the custom of the Galileans, when they came to the holy city at the festivals, to take their journeys through the country of the Samaritans; and at this time there lay, in the road they took . . . . fought with the Galileans, and killed a great many of them. But when the principal of the Galileans were informed of what had been done, they . . . . took their weapons, and entreated the assistance of Eleazar, the son of Dineus, a robber, who had many years made his abode in the mountains, with which assistance they plundered many villages of the Samaritans. . . . . whereupon those that were the most eminent persons at Jerusalem, and that both in regard to the respect that was paid them, and the families they were of, as soon as they saw to what a height things were gone, put on sackcloth, and heaped ashes upon their heads, and by all possible means besought the seditious, and persuaded them that they would set before their eyes the utter subversion of their country, the conflagration of their temple, and the slavery of themselves, their wives, and children, which would be the consequences of what they were doing; and would alter their minds, would cast away their weapons, and for the future be quiet, and return to their own homes. These persuasions of theirs prevailed upon them. So the people dispersed themselves, and the robbers went away again to their places of strength; and after this time all Judea was overrun with robberies.
And finally Eleazar meets his end (Antiquities Book 20, chapter 8:
5. Now as for the affairs of the Jews, they grew worse and worse continually, for the country was again filled with robbers and impostors, who deluded the multitude. Yet did Felix catch and put to death many of those impostors every day, together with the robbers. He also caught Eleazar, the son of Dineas, who had gotten together a company of robbers; and this he did by treachery; for he gave him assurance that he should suffer no harm, and thereby persuaded him to come to him; but when he came, he bound him, and sent him to Rome.
Horsley says that Eleazar began his career 20 years earlier, hence in the latter 30’s. This is indicated in the Jewish War, Book 2, chapter 13
This Felix took Eleazar the arch-robber, and many that were with him, alive, when they had ravaged the country for twenty years together, and sent them to Rome; but as to the number of the robbers whom he caused to be crucified, and of those who were caught among them, and whom he brought to punishment, they were a multitude not to be enumerated.
Felix was procurator from 52 to 58 c.e. (The passage in Antiquities 20:6 does open with a refrain that evokes a parable in the Gospel of Luke.) It does appear that a time traveler returning to any decade in the centuries either side of the b.c.e/c.e. divide could expect to encounter bandits of some sort in the regions — as probably one finds in many other places throughout the empire.
Mid First Century C.E.
There is little reason to think of the brigand gangs as messianic hopefuls. What they do indicate is the social unrest at the time, so that when leaders do appear claiming to be “king” Horsley believes we have good reason to expect them to be symptomatic of a peasant attachment to memories of royal ideology harking back to the days of David and sustained through acquaintance with the Bible stories.
I suspect this is an ideologically generated interpretation of a phenomenon that was common enough throughout the empire. The evidence we have for an interest in a Davidic messiah of future hopes is elitist, remote and theological. It seems to me that such ideas, being far removed from realities of day to day that peasants facing desperate survival conditions endured, would have little appeal beyond those elites. I could be wrong, but Horsley does not give any evidence apart from the simple fact that there were three claimants to royalty when the first king Herod died. He says that Josephus was reluctant to spell out the full ideological implications of these claims. But may be so, but is there not more than one way to interpret this silence?
But from the first century C.E. onwards the bandit activity increased sharply. This becomes a problem that seems to have itself partly fueled the eventual outbreak of the war in 66 c.e. So what was going on from this period onwards that led to such an increase in this activity, more claimants to be king, and eventually to full-blown mass hopes for a Davidic Messiah to rescue them all?
Horsley points the finger at a “natural” calamity:
Banditry increased sharply around mid-first century. This is almost certainly due to the severe famine that occurred under the procurator Tiberius Alexander (46-48 c.e.). Famine, as has been noted, is one of the special economic circumstances almost certain to result in an upsurge of bandit activity — especially in the case of the Jewish peasantry already bearing the burden of double taxation, alien rule, and occasional provocations. (p. 67)
To continue in a future post.
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