Josephus Scapegoats Judas the Galilean for the War?

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by Neil Godfrey

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.

25. The view that it was Jerusalem-based aristocratic priests who were instrumental in starting and leading the revolt concurs with the general picture of ‘native’ revolts in the Roman Empire (Dyson 1975 = “Native Revolt Patterns in the Roman Empire”, ANRW II.3: 138-175). The silver coinage issued in the first year of the revolt helps confirm the crucial role of priests in instigating and leading the revolt. See McLaren 2003 = “The Coinage of the First Year as a Point of Reference for the Jewish Revolt (66-70 CE)”, Scripta Classica Israelica 23:135-52.

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.

For McLaren,

26. Obviously there are pitfalls with any interpretation that incorporates an argument from silence. However, given that the only eyewitness account is trying to suppress what actually happened, the absence of direct evidence is no surprise. If anything, what could be seen as most puzzling is why there is any reference to the war cry at all; surely no mention at all would be better. Clearly that would be one way of dealing with the problem, unless others were still alive who could counter the oversight with their own version, especially as Josephus had no guarantee that his would be the only account written. Another approach would be to find a scapegoat, as suggested here. 

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.





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Neil Godfrey

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17 thoughts on “Josephus Scapegoats Judas the Galilean for the War?”

  1. Josephus definitely exaggerated some details about Jewish rebellion , but the events of rebellion are also confirmed by Tacitus .
    In general , Jewish writings do not match anybody’s historical accounts so why bother discussing them .

  2. Interesting. How does this relate to Acts 5:37, where this Judas is mentioned as leading a failed revolt?

    I also note that Acts puts these words about Judas the Galilean in the mouth of Gamaliel; could this be a pun on Gamala, Judas’ birthplace?

    1. Niel has posted on Luke’s borrowing from Josephus: “Acts 5:36-37 refers to insurrectionists Theudas and Judas in incorrect historical order. Interestingly, Josephus also refers to them in reverse chronological order, despite being clearly aware that he was doing so. See chapter 5 paras 1 and 2 in Antiquities book 20. Josephus reversed their order for his own narrative reasons. It appears that Luke has recollected the order as he heard them from a reading of Josephus.”

      1. Thanks for pointing to the earlier post on Josephus & Luke.
        However, to say that “Josephus also refers to them in reverse chronological order” is not the same as “incorrect historical order”. In fact, Josephus mentions the SONS of Judas following on Theudas, which is entirely consistent with other chapters and his other books. Josephus didn’t ‘reverse’ anything incorrectly.

        The only other mention of Theudas and Judah (known to me) is in Acts, where we do see a reverse chronology. Based on this internal evidence only, I would say that Josephus’ chronology is the correct one. There’s quite some literature on this apparent error in Acts. Apologists propose that there was another Theudas, who lived earlier than Judas. Without supporting evidence.

        My favourite explanation (I think it stems from F.F. Bruce) is that Acts 5:37 is corrupted: ‘Theudas’ should actually read ‘Judas”. Why is this probable?
        Josephus mentions an insurrection of a Judas, son of Hezekiah, and another one by Judas the Galilean.
        These two were ‘real’ revolts’, which upset the Roman authorities quite a bit. In contrast, Theudas was not a revolutionary, he was a charismatic prophet.
        In Gamaliel’s speech in Acts, it makes sense if he refers to violent revolts, not to Jewish prophets.
        An overzealous scribe could have easily switched Theudas for Judah: it would look like a (scribal) error for Gamaliel to mention Judas twice, and Theudas could be seen as the Greek translation of Judas.

    1. Of course in the back of my mind I can’t avoid lurking speculations, entirely without foundation I am sure, purely gratuitous and deserving of the trash bin, that the name Judas was a neat figurative composition used by both Josephus and the creator of the Gospel of Mark to represent the betrayer/failure of the Jews.

      And then there’s Mark’s neat exchange between Jesus and the Pharisees over taxation and Jesus renouncing the very claim that appears to have been central to the outbreak of the War in 66 CE — (is it lawful to pay tribute to Caesar….?)

      And someone else on Facebook even linked to a hint between Gamaliel and Gamala.

      But these can be nothing more than fleeting shadows from the corner of an eye in the dark. Quite possibly nothing at all.

  3. “Niel has posted on Luke’s borrowing from Josephus”

    How certain are we that Josephus wrote when he said he wrote? Could Josephus actually have borrowed from Luke, which could imply a later date of authorship for Antiquities and Wars?

      1. Wikipedia cannot help you answer my question. All the details about Josephus’ life found there were provided ultimately by Josephus himself in his autobiography. What, if anything, did Josephus’ alleged contemporaries know about him? Who was the first author known to have mentioned Josephus and when?

  4. Hi Neil,

    Prof McLaren refers in the his book Power and Politics in Palestine to this article of P.E.Guillet, titled “Entrée en scène de Pilate’, CCER 24 [1977], pp. 1-24


    I have found only this short abstract:
    Pierre -E. Guillet. “Entree en scene de Pilate,” CahCercErnRen 24 (98, ’77) 1-24.Nothing in the Talmud or the genuine Pauline letters attributes a role to Pilate in the death of Jesus. Pilate entered the scene of the passion story in the edition of Mk that was strongly influenced by Jewish-Christian animosity toward the emperor Hadrian’s measures in putting down the Bar Kokhba rebellion.


    It only makes me more curious. The author is often mentioned as a proponent of the idea that Alexander Ianneus didn’t crucify 800 pharisees but only impaled them. (Les 800 ‘ crucifiés’ d’Alexandre Jannée. In: Cahiers du Cercle ErnestRenan 100, 1977).

    1. I have not seen Guillet’s article either. Two questions I would have if I were to read it: 1. Do not the gospels depict Pilate as a reluctant executioner of Jesus? Hence how plausible is it that Pilate was introduced as part of an anti-Rome agenda? 2. Is there a meaningful difference between being impaled and crucified?

      1. I know that about the your first question, a possible answer is that in the Earliest Gospel Pilate is not a reluctant executioner of Jesus, but he kills willingly Jesus just he realizes that Jesus proclaims/confirms himself as king of the Jews sic et simpliciter. For example, so Jean Magne reconstructs the earliest version of the Passion:

        They led Jesus to the high priest,

        and the elders and the scribes gathered and,

        the morning come, they took counsel and,

        having bound him, they brought him to Pilate.

        Pilate asked him: “Are you the king of the Jews?”

        Jesus asked, “You say so”.

        Then Pilate handed Jesus, having him flogged, to be crucified.

        Note that later the same titulus crucis put by Pilate specifies the his only possible motivation to crucify the “man”.

        But from that very few things I have read above about, it seems that Guillet is arguing something of different: that Pilate didn’t appear at all in the earliest version of Mark. That he was introduced to make a Gentile share the responsability of the Death of Jesus. It sounds as a Jewish version of the Greek “stain of guilt”:

        A miasma can fall upon an entire city when one man in that city is guilty of a murder and has not atoned for it. A miasma can infect everyone on board a ship if one man on that ship is guilty of murder

        Something as:
        If also a Roman Governor becomes responsable of the death of Christ, then all the gentiles will share the his guilty, also.

        About the your second question, a difference between impaled and crucified would be that the impaling could concern only the corpse, while the earthly crucifixion would have a typical Roman signature.

  5. I think what was suppressed is the Parthian influence in Judea. They were backing the Hasmoneans and the revolt claiming the kingdom belonged to Herod’s brother. Six thousand Pharisees were with the Hasmoneans.
    Judea was caught in the middle of a war between Parthia and Rome.
    Interesting that Jesus always depicted arguing with Pharisees

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