Another Lena Einhorn Observation — Anachronistic Crucifixions in the Gospels

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by Neil Godfrey

Josephus and the war

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.


A Shift In Time


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29 thoughts on “Another Lena Einhorn Observation — Anachronistic Crucifixions in the Gospels”

    1. Tim, while reading Einhorn’s book keep the following quote from Josephus in mind:

      War Book 1 ch.8

      7. But now as Gabinius was marching to the war against the Parthians, he was hindered by Ptolemy, whom, upon his return from Euphrates, he brought back into Egypt, making use of Hyrcanus and Antipater to provide every thing that was necessary for this expedition; for Antipater furnished him with money, and weapons, and corn, and auxiliaries; he also prevailed with the Jews that were there, and guarded the avenues at Pelusium, to let them pass. But now, upon Gabinius’s absence, the other part of Syria was in motion, and Alexander, the son of Aristobulus, brought the Jews to revolt again. Accordingly, he got together a very great army, and set about killing all the Romans that were in the country; hereupon Gabinius was afraid, (for he was come back already out of Egypt, and obliged to come back quickly by these tumults,) and sent Antipater, who prevailed with some of the revolters to be quiet. However, thirty thousand still continued with Alexander, who was himself eager to fight also; accordingly, Gabinius went out to fight, when the Jews met him; and as the battle was fought near Mount Tabor, ten thousand of them were slain, and the rest of the multitude dispersed themselves, and fled away. So Gabinius came to Jerusalem, and settled the government as Antipater would have it;

      The Josephan story of the Egyptian, set as it is 100 years after the execution/beheading of Alexander of Judaea, is more likely a political allegory of earlier history than it is a record of an event in the life of Josephus. Particularly so as there is no evidence for the historicity of the figure of the Egyptian.

      Once the idea of a time-shift is entertained – then the floor is open for other approaches to the Josephan story about the Egyptain….

  1. The crucifixion, just as it is recounted in the Gospels, cannot be considered a historic event.
    I agree with Lena Einhorn to regard the Egyptian as the possible historical figure on which was built the evangelical history, but, for me, the whole story is purely allegorical.
    In particular, the presence of the two robbers, one considered good because it will be in that same day in paradise with Jesus, having called him “right”, the other bad for having denigrated him, is purely allegorical.
    The good and evil represent a dichotomy used in all ancient religions and just think about Cain and Abel to remain in Jewish circles.
    I explored this concept in my article on this Academia.edu https://www.academia.edu/11478699/The_good_and_the_evil
    Being Jesus a solar avatar and being represented as a man, he had to die as Young Horus at the spring equinox and rise again as Old Horus or Barabbas to enlighten the world with new force generating heat, well-being and rebirth of nature after the long winter period of his death.

    1. There is the odd story from Josephus that three acquaintances were taken down from a mass crucifixion and one survived. A fabrication based on Dionysus or whatever, or yet another very cunning Christian insertion?

      1. Life 75: In the village of Thecoa,

        I saw many captives crucified, and remembered three of them as my former acquaintance. I was very sorry at this in my mind, and went with tears in my eyes to Titus, and told him of them; so he immediately commanded them to be taken down, and to have the greatest care taken of them, in order to their recovery; yet two of them died under the physician’s hands, while the third recovered.

        Make of it what you will.

        1. Hi Matt,

          Note that Thecoa is a pun on ‘theo coeus’ – god of the rational mind.
          This juxtaposes to Golgotha – empty skull.

          This all stems from Josephus’s description of the capture of the Jewish messiah on the mount of Olives who Titus orders to be ‘pruned’ – playing off of the vegetive root and branch literary theme in Jewish scripture.


  2. re *Robbers*, Bob de Jong made comments in a post on the previous blog-post that strikes a chord –


    “As Lena Einhorn points out, excessive taxation by the Romans was probably a key element. Sixty years of Roman taxation had meant that Jews had to pay money, which was spent in Italy and on the border. Judaea had become substantially poorer and many peasants had been forced first to mortgage and then to sell their land. Besides, in Jerusalem many people had become unemployed when he renovation of the temple was finished in 63. The peasants and artisans had a reason to fight, and they were willing to do so.

    “There were also several incidents with a religious background, such as the confiscation of the Temple treasure by Gessius Florus, which escalated when the governor – instead of punishing the usurpers – had random passers-by arrested and crucified.”

    Gessius Florus was essentially a greedy man and a thief. From the wikipedia entry for him –

    “One notable instance of provocation occurred while the Jews were worshiping at their local synagogue and a Hellenist sacrificed several birds on top of an earthenware container at the entrance of the synagogue, an act that rendered the building ritually unclean. In response to this action, the Jews sent a group of men to petition Florus for redress. Despite accepting a payment of eight talents to hear the case, Florus refused to listen to the complaints and instead had the petitioners imprisoned.[2]

    “Florus further angered the Jewish population of his province by having seventeen talents removed from the treasury of the Temple in Jerusalem, claiming the money was for the Emperor. In response to this action, the city fell into unrest and some of the Jewish population began to openly mock Florus by passing a basket around to collect money as if Florus was poor.[3] Florus reacted to the unrest by sending soldiers into Jerusalem the next day to raid the city and arrest a number of the city leaders. The arrested individuals were whipped and crucified despite many of them being Roman citizens.[4]”

    1. “in Jerusalem many people had become unemployed when he renovation of the temple was finished in 63. The peasants and artsians had a reason to fight, and they were willing to do so.

      “There may have been a portent that gave them hope. There was a prophecy in the book of Numbers (24.17) that ‘a star shall come forth out of Jacob, a scepter shall rise out of Israel’, which was commonly taken to be a prediction of the Messiah. At the end of 64, there had been a comet (Tacitus, Annals, 15.47), which must have made a discontent populace even more discontent.

      “For some time, the Temple authorities had been able to check the peasant’s anger. But in the third quarter of the first century, most people considered the high priesthood corrupt.” http://www.livius.org/ja-jn/jewish_wars/jwar03.html

      ” At this time it was that the enterprises of the seditious at Jerusalem were very formidable; the principal men among them purchasing leave of Albinus to go on with their seditious practices; while that part of the people who delighted in disturbances joined themselves to those who had fellowship with Albinus. Every one of these wicked wretches was encompassed with his own band of robbers, while Albinus himself, like an arch-robber or a tyrant, made a figure among his company, and abused his authority over those about him, in order to plunder those that lived quietly.

      ” The effect of which was this, that those who lost their goods were forced to hold their peace, when they had reason to show great indignation at what they had suffered; but those who had escaped were forced to flatter him that deserved to be punished, out of the fear they were in of suffering equally with the others.

      ” Upon the whole, nobody dared speak their minds, but tyranny was generally tolerated; and at this time were those seeds sown which brought the city to destruction.” http://www.josephus.org/causesOfWar.htm#Albinus

    2. ” …the conduct of the procurators is not presented by Josephus as being outrageous, until the moment Nero became Emperor in 54 CE.

      ” From then on it seemed there was nothing to hinder the procurators from whatever action they desired for their personal gain and power. These men — Felix (52-60), Festus (60-62), Albinus (62-64), and Florus (64-66) — produced twelve years of corrupt government that provoked the populace and was ill-equipped to contain revolution.” http://www.josephus.org/causesOfWar.htm#procurators

      Jay Raskins has an interesting argument that “Tacitus originally wrote [in Annals 15.44] that Nero sent the Procurator Porcius Festus to put down the Christians/Chrestians.

      “Christian interpolators, misunderstanding[?], changed it to Pontius Pilate, and they changed Chrestus to Christ and Nero to Tiberius.”


      1. A difficulty with these sorts of explanations, I think, is that they seem to interpret ancient propaganda or ideological slants (as distinct from more balanced history) through modern socio-economic concepts we use to explain conflicts in our day. A study I may post on one day seeks do a study of anti-Roman rebellions from around about the contemporary period and to place the Jewish War in that context.

  3. I don’t know if Einhorn makes this point, but there appears to be some reference to Judas of Galilee in the crucifixion story. The two sons of Judas (also ‘robbers’) were crucified together (by Tiberius Julius Alexander in 46 CE). Could they be the two ‘robbers’ with Jesus (in a time shift)? They were called James and Simon…

    Their father, Judas, was an active ‘robber’ against the census of Quirinius, which Luke references to date Jesus’ birth. Too many coincidences?

      1. Acts 5:37 also mentions Judas the Galilean as rising up against the census of Quirinius. Why would the author of Acts fabricate the same story that Josephus would have fabricated?
        Furthermore, Acts refers to Judas as someone who was well-know to its readers, as a failed rebel.

        Hence, seems probable to me that Judas was a historical figure, and did rise up against the census. To what extent he carries responsibility for the break out of the 1st Jewish war is a matter of historical interpretation.

        Neither Josephus nor Acts describes how he died; but the usual method of execution for insurgents was crucifixion, although he may have died in some kind of battle.

        1. There has been no suggestion that Judas the Galilean was not a historical figure. What is questioned is his role in history. Josephus is vague about the nature of his “revolt”. He does not say, for example, that he led a band that was confronted and scattered by the Romans, etc. We are left uncertain about what his “revolt” actually entailed. Was it more ideology or passive resistance than direct militant action? Given Josephus’s vagueness here against his precise descriptions of other revolts we have to wonder.

          Also in Acts 5:37 – some of J’s inconclusiveness is maintained (Acts, for example, does not explicitly say he rose up “against the census”) and if I recall correctly it adds to J’s account to make it fit the occasion of the speech.

          There is no reason to think Judas the Galilean was ever captured or executed by the Romans. It would be odd of Josephus had not said so if he knew that to be the case — given J’s interest in describing such things.

          Josephus has built around him the reputation for starting the Fourth Philosophy that led to ruin for the Judea. There is no evidence that this fourth philosophy became a violent rebel or terrorist type of organization until ca 46 CE.

          We may wonder with you, however, about the significance of the fate of the two sons of this Judas.

          1. There is no historical evidence for the Josephan figure of Judas the Galilean. Josephus has placed this figure around 6 c.e. That is about 70 years from 63 b.c.e. That year saw Pompey enter Jerusalem and the Holy of Holies of the Temple. It was also the year in which Aristobulus and his two sons, Alexander and Antigonus, were captured. Two sons that were later executed by Rome. Aristobulus himself was poisoned.

            Just as gospel writers have used OT stories in their Jesus story – so, likewise, Josephus has used Hasmonean history in his later ‘historical’ accounts.

            Judas the Galilean and the Egyptian are literary figures used by Josephus in remembrance of Hasmonean history. Historical events that played an important part in Jewish history. Under Roman occupation it would not have been wise to remember Hasmonean history.

            Historical events that played an important role in our own history are remembered. This summer the Battle of the Somme will be remembered – 100 years ago. Just as in 2015 the end of the Second World War was remembered – 70 years later.

            The Jews, under Roman occupation, did not have the freedom for openly remembering their history. Josephus found a way to do so, to keep Hasmonean history in the minds of his readers. He did so by marking the relevant anniversaries with a literary story, a political allegory, of earlier Hasmonean history.

            1. Mary, you are expressing your interpretation of the evidence dogmatically as a fact. You allow no room in your presentation for the possibility of any doubt.

              1. Josephus had no problem writing about (“remembering”, even glorifying it as an honourable period for boasting and edification of his readers) the Hasmonean history in its full literal details. Much of what you know about Hasmonean history probably comes from Josephus himself! That mere possibility pulls the rug from beneath your rationale for your theory.

              2. Josephus is himself evidence for the historicity of Judas the Galilean and The Egyptian. I have discussed the grounds for accepting or doubting historicity many times before. Even if you disagree with Josephus’s evidence one cannot deny it is at least evidence.

              3. You suggest Josephus is writing a kind of midrash on the history of the Hasmonean period that he just wrote about at length. Haggadic midrash was applied for a very good reason to writings that were considered scripture. It was designed not to preserve the earlier stories but to create entirely new ones. There is no way a story about an Egyptian prophet overcome by Roman authorities can be interpreted as a secret form of a preservation of a story about a Roman general who left Egypt to crush a rebellion in Palestine — as your theory would have us believe. The Egyptian prophet story completely loses, destroys, the original memory.

              Comment policy discourages using this forum as a soapbox for dogmatically and persistently evangelising one’s own pet theories as if they are fact.

  4. Another anachronism is the manner in which Jesus is portrayed as crucified: nailed to a cross, or tropaeum.

    Gunnar Samuelsson in his work* found almost no correspondence in the historical record to the manner in which Jesus was supposedly crucified. John Granger Cook**, in attempting to prove that there was a certain method to Roman-crucifixion, based on research by scholars since the 19th Century and which Samuelsson greatly discounted based on his findings of the semantics of the historical texts, concludes that Jesus was historically crucified in the same manner as everyone else. In other words, not in the anachronistic manner portrayed in Christianity, since, like, evah.

    * Crucifixion in Antiquity, 2010
    ** Crucifixion in the Mediterranean World, 2014.

  5. “Recall Josephus himself was a less than admiral self-serving traitor”

    So he was a captain self-serving traitor? No that can’t be right. Wasn’t Josephus a general? He wan’t in the navy at all!

  6. To read Josephus as plain history is a slippery trek, whether the Wars or the Antiquities. He had no trouble revising, exaggerating, or fabricating, and not only about Judas of Galilee (e.g. diff with Philo on the Embassy to Gaius and trouble with Judeans right after the ‘peace’ of Tiberius). Just means it is all with a dose of salt. Hold what may be verified where possible, and hold the rest very loosely.

    1. Agreed to a point. Josephus is comparable to other historians of his day, and even Thucydides (“the first scientific historian”) would fabricate narrative when he was without sources and had an idea of what he believed “would have happened” (one set of posts illustrating the way ancient historians worked — http://vridar.org/?s=thucydides).

      The reason I take Judas the Galilean and the Egyptian as historical (and I presume you are responding to my exchange with Mary above) is the context in which they appear in Josephus.

      Josephus is signalling through his genre and tone that he expects us to think of them as historical. That alone is obviously not enough but it is a start. We can confirm from other sources the historicity and veracity of other events and situations from around the same period of time: Pharisees, Essenes, high priests, Jewish rebels, the war with Rome and its outcome, etc. So it appears we have a positive probability that his account of Judas the Galilean is historical, too. Certainly his place in the history has explanatory power that is not refuted when he repeats his reference to him in his later work.

      I fully grant that none of the above gives us iron-clad certainty of the historicity of such figures, but it does shift the probabilities in favour of their historicity.

      The conclusions drawn from these probabilities will always maintain their consciousness of the fragility of our knowledge and for that reason remain tentative.

  7. A curious clue is emerged in this discussion: just where, according to Mark, Jesus prays to be freed from his impending fate, he uses for the first time the word ABBA, that we find some time later to indicate the other Jesus — BarABBAs —, who is able to free himself from death, [i]in extremis[/i].

    Just as “the Egyptian”.

  8. Neil and Tim:

    It would be great if one or both you could join Dr. Einhorn — and perhaps Dr. Price (can’t give any assurances on that!) — for a anticipated lively discussion on Saturday, June 4, 2016 @ 12:00 pm (US-CDT) re: A Shift in Time book, on Google Hangouts, to be recorded live to the Bible Geek Listeners youtube channel.

    The live link to join the hangout will be posted there and on the Google Plus event page:


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