Popular Messianic(?) Movements Up To The Time Of Jesus and Beyond – Part 3

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by Neil Godfrey

Samaritan sanctuary, Mount Gerizim
Image via Wikipedia

This continues from Part 2 where I continued discussing what Richard Horsley has to say about popular messianic movements in Israel up to the time of Jesus in Bandits, Prophets & Messiahs. In the last post I covered “social banditry” in Palestine (especially Galilee) and those who were looked upon as rightful kings in the early part of the first century.

What particularly interests me is the evidence that these movements represent popular messianism. Horsley is clear: there is no evidence of popular messianism before the time of Jesus. I have read many assertions that Josephus is describing messianic movements without explicitly describing them as such. But these assertions remind me of William Scott Green’s observation that many scholars have spent a lot of time studying messianism where the word is not found. The first clearest evidence we have of popular messianic hopes relates to the period after the fall of Jerusalem in 70 c.e. When we interpret movements before then as messianic are we guilty of reading later ideas back into an earlier period?

I do not deny that any of these pre-70 movements were messianic. They may have been. But what is the evidence? Are there alternative explanations that may fit the evidence (and the evidence for the origins of popular messianism) more economically?

This post addresses the Samaritan who led followers to Mount Gerazim, Theudas and “the Egyptian”.

The Samaritan

Horsley sees the two types of popular prophetic movements at the time of Jesus as

a continuation or a revival of the principal traditional forms known from biblical history. (p. 161)

As explained in previous posts this is not messianism. Emulating figures associated with historic cultural movements — kings, prophets — is not the same as attempting to fulfil a prophetic expectation. Whether there was such an expectation beyond a few elites is the question being explored.

Here is the introduction of Josephus to these movements (copied from Horsley’s book, p 161):

Imposters and demagogues, under the guise of divine inspiration, provoked revolutionary actions and impelled the masses to act like madmen. They led them out into the wilderness so that there God would show them signs of imminent liberation. (J.W. 2.259); see also the parallel in Ant. 20.168: For they said that they would display unmistakable signs and wonders done according to God’s plan.)

The first of these movements according to Josephus was led by “the Samaritan” at the time of Pontius Pilate.

The Samaritans, Horsley explains, saw themselves as the descendants of Israel’s northern tribes, whose history went back to the Exodus and Sinai covenant with Moses. They had been conquered by the Jewish Hasmoneans and subsequently came under Roman rule. I do not have the sources for this, but Horsley further explains what one commonly reads about them, that they anticipated a new Moses (“the prophet”) who would rebuild the temple on Mount Gerizim.

Thus both the Samaritan situation and the Samaritan traditions and expectations were very similar to those of the Jews, and the prophetic movement described by Josephus appears to fit the same pattern as the parallel movements a few years later among the Jews. (p. 163)

I find such statements frustrating. I want to know the evidence. One of the reasons I have delayed continuation of this series was that I had hoped to follow up certain statements such as this (one reads them often enough) by tracking down and studying for myself the evidence on which they are based. I am not saying Horsley is wrong. I am simply wanting to know the facts available — that is, the evidence upon which our historical reconstructions are founded. I am sure it is readily available but I have simply lacked the opportunities to identify it and track it down. How do we know, for example, that those Samaritan expectations were similar to those found among the Jews? What is the evidence for Jewish popular expectations? I had thought that this is what Horsley was indicating was not in evidence at the time. Am I misunderstanding something? Has Horsley really begged the question in this instance?

Anyway, back to Horsley’s chapter. He cites Josephus’s account of the Samaritan prophet. I quote from the online text of Antiquities 18:4.1

BUT the nation of the Samaritans did not escape without tumults. The man who excited them to it was one who thought lying a thing of little consequence, and who contrived every thing so that the multitude might be pleased; so he bid them to get together upon Mount Gerizim, which is by them looked upon as the most holy of all mountains, and assured them, that when they were come thither, he would show them those sacred vessels which were laid under that place, because Moses put them there. So they came thither armed, and thought the discourse of the man probable; and as they abode at a certain village, which was called Tirathaba, they got the rest together to them, and desired to go up the mountain in a great multitude together; but Pilate prevented their going up, by seizing upon file roads with a great band of horsemen and foot-men, who fell upon those that were gotten together in the village; and when it came to an action, some of them they slew, and others of them they put to flight, and took a great many alive, the principal of which, and also the most potent of those that fled away, Pilate ordered to be slain.

Horsley interprets this passage as indicating that the Samaritan leader was seen as a divinely inspired “prophet”. That makes sense. He further interprets it to indicate that the prophet was understood as an eschatological restorer, a counterpart to Moses himself. Horsley further suggests that the crowd may have been expecting some sort of “eschatological holy war” since they were armed. (But what narratives of Moses come to mind when we link Moses commanding armed groups? The Levites in the wake of the golden calf episode? Amalekites? Are they “messianic”? )

But he goes further.

The report that they proceeded up the mountain despite being blocked by Roman troops suggests that the yearning for liberation had reached a fevered pitch and emphasizes their absolute trust in the prophet’s message of divine deliverance. (p. 164)

I don’t read Josephus saying that the followers proceeded up the mountain. Josephus only says that this was their intention and that the Romans attacked those who had assembled in the village. Horsley is to some extent at least reading a little too much into the evidence.

But so far there is nothing in this account to suggest messianic expectations among the people. Quite the contrary, this is a non-Jewish movement that appears to have been  emulating a “prophet like Moses”. But I see nothing here that indicates an expectation of a messiah, certainly not among the Jews. Maybe I am being too strict? But if so, I would like to see that argued and not merely asserted. I want to be sure we are not imputing anachronistic concepts into these events.

We have a right to be cautious whenever a historian — whether Josephus or even Horsley relying on Josephus — claims to inform us what certain historical persons were thinking, intending, believing, motivated by. Without evidence how do we know such assertions are anything more than gossip or narrative flourish?

Theudas (ca 45 c.e.)

This is “the second major prophetic movement described by Josephus”:

NOW it came to pass, while Fadus was procurator of Judea, that a certain magician [charlatan], whose name was Theudas, persuaded a great part of the people to take their effects with them, and follow him to the river Jordan; for he told them he was a prophet, and that he would, by his own command, divide the river, and afford them an easy passage over it; and many were deluded by his words. However, Fadus did not permit them to make any advantage of his wild attempt, but sent a troop of horsemen out against them; who, falling upon them unexpectedly, slew many of them, and took many of them alive. They also took Theudas alive, and cut off his head, and carried it to Jerusalem. (Antiquities, 20:5.1)

Why did this movement happen at this time? For Horsely the answer is straightforward:

We are not confined to mere speculation as to why such a movement occurred under Fadus (44-46). During the previous five years, Palestinian Jews had gone through an experience of alternating extreme tension with Roman rule, a relaxation of that tension, and a restoration of direct and repressive Roman rule. (p. 165)

That is:

  1. The Caligula crisis (the emperor’s attempt to place his statue in the Jerusalem temple)
  2. Agrippa I’s rule as (Jewish) king over Judea and Galilee. (Though probably also economic exploitation with building projects and lavish gifts to gentile cities. Note also his claim to divinity.)
  3. Governor Fadus’s brutal suppression of Perean Jews and Judean brigand groups.

All this is plausible. But the nature of the evidence does not allow us to be definitive. We need to keep in mind that we are relying on few sources and one might wonder if in other circumstances or contexts similar evidence might be interpreted quite differently. Would we not expect relief at the suppression of brigands? Or if the brigands are “social bandits” then why would their suppression inspire popular revolt — unless we have evidence that many innocents were also caught up in the retribution? Might not Agrippa be seen as a popular hero for his claim to divinity? I am not suggesting that these alternatives are necessarily better interpretations than Horsley’s. I am trying to highlight the problem we are faced with the nature of the evidence available.

At the same time, if (as seems not unlikely) we do have a localised explanation for the eruption of the Theudas movement, then do we not also have evidence that this movement was not necessarily a symptom of broader messianic expectations?

Horsley partly interprets Josephus’ account here through Acts. He sees Gamaliel’s speech in Acts 5 as evidence that these events recorded by Josephus were well remembered as late as the end of the first century when Acts was written. This, along with its association or comparison with a similar movement led by an Egyptian and the “Jesus movement” “must mean” it had been “an important event”.

But what if this passage in Josephus had been known to the author of Acts? This passage in Acts is sometimes cited as evidence of Luke’s knowledge of Acts. If so, then we cannot say that the event itself was important enough to have been remembered by an independent author at the end of the century. Nor can we wonder if Acts is attempting to downplay the size of the movement by numbering its followers at 400. The 400 would appear to have been mistakenly transferred from recollection of Josephus numbering those killed as part of the similar Egyptian movement.

Further on the nature of the evidence, we need to keep in mind that Josephus does not explain how he knows his details about this movement. How secure in fact is his claim that Theudas believed he would part the Jordan River? Can we be sure that this was not a rumour that quickly grew among enemies of the movement? Again I am not saying that Josephus is wrong. But we cannot assume everything he says is “gospel truth”. The best we can do is accept it tentatively. We can speculate extrapolations from this comment. But we cannot establish indisputable historical facts from it.

If Josephus is correct when he says that the followers of Theudas took their possessions with them out to the Jordan then we do have a significant detail.

Horsley’s speculative extrapolations are as follows:

The precise historical analogy does not come through from Josephus’ account, but possibilities are suggested. Theudas, parting the waters of the Jordan as the new Joshua, can be seen as leading a reverse conquest, a retreat into the wilderness in order to be purified and prepare the way of the Lord. Or Theudas can be seen as leading a new exodus: parting the waters of the Jordan, as Moses had the Red Sea, thus liberating the people from the bondage imposed on them (in their own land!) by the Romans. Or Theudas’ movement can be seen as a combination of exodus and conquest. (p. 166)

Whatever of these options one prefers, we are far from an analogue to the earlier Samaritan movement that apparently sort to restore the Mosaic temple on Gerizim.

Yes, the motif of crossing waters as a precursor to a new beginning is found in the Jewish literature. Horsley points to Isaiah 51 bringing together the crossings of the Red Sea and Jordan as well as the actions of Elijah and Elisha in miraculously crossing the Jordan. But does emulation of these necessarily indicate messianism?

Horsley also reminds readers that

It is worth recalling that during the period of the judges, the Israelites apparently celebrated a ritual conquest of the promised land, damming up the Jordan so that, symbolically, the liberating exodus from Egyptian slavery was juxtaposed with the entry into the land of promise. (p. 166)

To me this is irrelevant. The period of the Judges is, I believe, a literary-theological construct of the Persian or Hellenistic era. I find it difficult to imagine how there could be any tie to this supposed celebration and the action of Theudas on the available evidence.

Conclusion: I find nothing in Josephus’ account nor Horsley’s discussion to point to the Theudas event being a case of popular messianic expectations. Even if Theudas was seen as some revived Joshua, what evidence do we have that Joshua was a messianic (anointed) figure? What evidence is there of an expectation of such a figure of which Theudas was the apparent fulfilment?

I also think that Josephus’s reference to the followers of Theudas taking their possessions with them — and not weapons! — counts against him being thought of as an expected conqueror.

The Egyptian

Horsley refers to two accounts by Josephus. The first one is from Antiquities 20 written around 94 c.e. The second Horsley describes as more “sharply worded and exaggerated” is from the Jewish War 2 composed around twenty years earlier. It is also worth noting, I think, a major difference between the two accounts — that the intention of the Egyptian was to miraculously arrange for the fall of the walls of Jerusalem is not found in the earlier narrative:

Moreover, there came out of Egypt about this time to Jerusalem one that said he was a prophet, and advised the multitude of the common people to go along with him to the Mount of Olives, as it was called, which lay over against the city, and at the distance of five furlongs. He said further, that he would show them from hence how, at his command, the walls of Jerusalem would fall down; and he promised them that he would procure them an entrance into the city through those walls, when they were fallen down. Now when Felix was informed of these things, he ordered his soldiers to take their weapons, and came against them with a great number of horsemen and footmen from Jerusalem, and attacked the Egyptian and the people that were with him. He also slew four hundred of them, and took two hundred alive. But the Egyptian himself escaped out of the fight, but did not appear any more.

And the earlier account:

But there was an Egyptian false prophet that did the Jews more mischief than the former; for he was a cheat, and pretended to be a prophet also, and got together thirty thousand men that were deluded by him; these he led round about from the wilderness to the mount which was called the Mount of Olives, and was ready to break into Jerusalem by force from that place; and if he could but once conquer the Roman garrison and the people, he intended to domineer over them by the assistance of those guards of his that were to break into the city with him. But Felix prevented his attempt, and met him with his Roman soldiers, while all the people assisted him in his attack upon them, insomuch that when it came to a battle, the Egyptian ran away, with a few others, while the greatest part of those that were with him were either destroyed or taken alive; but the rest of the multitude were dispersed every one to their own homes, and there concealed themselves.

Horsley does not address the fact that the miracle of the falling walls is missing from the earlier report. But one does wonder if what we are seeing here is gossip about what the rebel intended (recall the mind-reading warning — what is the evidence of him really having said anything like this?) growing like Chinese whispers over a twenty year time span. Is Josephus later influenced by messianic hopes that were really emerging post 70? I cannot say that that is the explanation for the difference between the accounts. But it is surely a legitimate doubt to entertain.

But let’s for the sake of argument accept that this was the intention of this Egyptian and the conviction of his followers.

Again, if the prophet is emulating Joshua (compare the walls of Jericho collapsing) what evidence do we have that Joshua was a messianic figure. Obviously he was known as the historic conqueror, but a messiah?

It is attractive to think that a Joshua/Jesus-Messiah figure was a popular idea from the mid-first century c.e. but I’ve been bitten by attractive ideas before. What is the evidence that this movement was also messianic?

Horsley wonders if the “roundabout route by which the prophet led his followers to the Mount of Olives” may have deliberately symbolized either a ritual march around the city or a reenactment of the wanderings in the wilderness. Maybe. Also maybe a gathering of supporters. Apparently the people of the city were not persuaded he was from God. And we are not told that the followers carried weapons as did the armies of Joshua and Moses.

But even if we imagine — and it does seem most likely — that these people believed they were in some sense following the steps of Joshua or one like him in order to liberate themselves and Jerusalem, I don’t know of any reason to think that “messianism” was part of the scenario.

The Mount of Olives function may be a messianic indication, as Horsley also points out. We have the passage in Zechariah 14 that Jerusalem would be delivered when the Lord stood on the Mount of Olives. But that also opens up questions about the relationship between the Egyptian and the Lord himself. One cannot out-guess an apocalyptically minded person but it is worth noting that though the Zechariah passage says the Lord will stand on that place, when he does so the mountain will not be a particularly habitable environment. And once again, how likely was it that these “peasants” from the countryside were familiar with Zechariah 14? But we also need to keep in mind that the canonical texts were not the only writings of the Jews of this time. There appear to have been a wide range of cults with writings expressing variant messages.

In fact I think the closest indication that there might have been any messianism at all is in one possible analogy that Horsley does not mention. It was David who conquered Jerusalem and who made the Mount of Olives famous as a place of refuge and prayer. Were the followers unarmed and were they re-enacting David’s plight when fleeing from would be oppressors? Is not such a speculation as valid as the others? (At least David was an anointed, a messiah, unlike Joshua. We also have a link with an Egyptian in that a successor to the Davidic-Solominic kingdom did emerge from Egypt. But this is also highly speculative.)


So it looks to me as though the earliest possible hints (not definitive evidence) of popular messianic expectations date from the mid-century period on, and they were catalyzed by external factors such as famines and fluctuating economic stresses (see earlier posts).

Were the liberation or rebel movements seeking a new order necessarily messianic, though? Certainly their leaders may have turned to their own cultural heritage and revitalized images of Moses or Joshua, but that is not a messianic movement as I understand it from the evidence. Besides, do we not also have a hint in Josephus’s own writings that some of his biblical comparisons of those movements were being influenced by ideas and gossip that were mushrooming after the fall of Jerusalem?

It’s a murky field evidence-wise. It is very easy to read such evidence in a way to fit a theory — including mine.



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  • 2011-10-13 13:34:04 UTC - 13:34 | Permalink

    This has been an excellent series of articles.

    I think that Christianity began as a religion that was interested primarily in purification of human beings. The mystical vision of Jesus on a cross purified a polluted person just as seeing a bronze snake on a pole purified a poisoned person. Then this mystical vision was elaborated with a baptism ritual, which seems to be based on the ancient ritual for purifying lepers.

    I think that the idea that Jesus Christ descended to Earth developed much later, and then the idea that Jesus Christ was the Messiah for the Jewish people was one of the very last developments.

    The Messiah idea is important mainly because it made the religion interesting and attractive to many more people. The Messiah idea incorporated all the ancient Jewish scriptures into the religion’s new scriptures (the gospels, epistles and revelations) and so created a tremendous canon that had to be studied, analyzed and discussed. Thus Christianity became an intellectually respectable religion that could completely occupy a life of the mind.

  • Pingback: Examining the Evidence for Jesus as an Apocalyptic Prophet |

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