“Under Tiberius All Was Quiet” : Or — No, Jesus was not “one of many”

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by Neil Godfrey

It is S.G.F. Brandon’s fault. At least he shares much of the blame. Way back in 1967, the year of the Six Day War and the release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, his book Jesus and the Zealots was published. Ever since then it has been de rigueur for scholars to locate the historical Jesus in a Palestine strewn willy nilly with roaming bandits, rebels and apocalyptic prophets.

In vain have I posted here and on other online discussion groups my complaint that there is simply no evidence for any of these figures in the time of Jesus, but that the only reason it is believed that such movements dotted the landscape in his time is by inferring that the zealots and prophets who appeared later (or in one case a generation earlier) were indicative of what must have being happening around the 20s and 30s CE — despite the silence in the record.

But yesterday I discovered a friend who will back me up. I don’t know him personally but I know him through his 1975 article in the journal New Testament Studies. He is Paul W. Barnett, a fellow Australian, who belonged to the Department of Ancient History at Macquarie University, Sydney. (He’s also a bishop, sorry.) The article he had published, and the reason I like him so much, is:

Barnett, P. W. 1975. “‘Under Tiberius All Was Quiet.’” New Testament Studies 21 (04): 564. https://doi.org/10.1017/S0028688500010043.

Here is his argument. From the outset he points out that

Careful analysis of the incidence of unrest and disturbance suggests that ‘revolutionary’ activity began in earnest during the Second Procuratorial period (A.D. 44-66).

Yes, yes, yes. That’s exactly what I have been trying to say.

What changed to bring on instability from that time on?

  • The unexpected and premature death of Agrippa and the evident paganism and philo-Romanism of his son must have dashed to the ground any hopes for a deliverer from the Hasmonean line.
  • Claudius’ initial policy was not unkind to Judaeans though this hardly compensated for the crises of the forties — the barely averted desecration of the Temple4 (A.D. 40), the death of Agrippa and the return to Roman rule which now extended to Galilee5 (A.D. 44), and the severe famine (A.D. 46-8).
  • However, the appointment as Procurator in A.D. 52 of Pallas’ brother Felixat the behest of ex-High Priest Jonathan was to prove disastrous in Jewish history. Under the procuratorship of Felix (A.D. 52-60) the terrorist activities of the Sicarii began, the prophetic movement waxed strong, whilst Graeco-Jewish relationships in Caesarea were allowed to reach a critical point.

(p. 565. My formatting in all quotations)

There was more.

[Nero] allowed his advisers to persuade him to revoke the Caesarean Jews’ isopoliteia and to acquit Felix, actions which must have profoundly discouraged the whole Judaean community.

Negligence rather than malice was the mark of Nero’s policies towards Judaea. Given the instability of the times, the garrison was clearly undermanned. Florus was inexperienced, coming as he did from Clazomenae, there being no tradition in the East to equip appointees for these procuratorial positions. The venality of later procurators was unchecked. The bribes to Albinus by the ex-High Priest Ananias provided a shield which enabled his retainers to take by force the tithes due to the priests. The servants of the incumbent High Priest, Jesus, son of Damnaeus, similarly violated the priests in the Temple.1 Violent factionalism erupted between the high priestly aristocracy and the poorer priests so that ‘ . . . it was as if no one was in charge of the city’. Significantly, priests were actively involved in war factions in and after A.D. 66.

(pp. 565f)

The emperor Claudius gave his friend Agrippa authority over the Temple and the power to appoint and dismiss the High Priest. Agrippa was not afraid to use his power and dismissed as many as six or seven high priests, not a good plan for stability, but a plausible indicator of instability and discontent on both sides.

Things were not looking good.

Thus, by the sixties, Judaean affairs were chaotic and an intensely revolutionary spirit was evident. On the one hand, wealthy members of the community, on account of their vested interests, desperately sought to prevent the movement towards war, whilst the poor priestly class, who had suffered at the hands of the High Priestly class, gave their support to the cessation of the sacrifice for Rome. The Sicarii faction, which had earlier assassinated wealthy collaborators like Jonathan, under Menahem’s leadership seized Masada from the Romans. On arriving in Jerusalem they not only burnt the archives where the moneylenders’ bonds were stored for the sake of gaining support from the poor, they also assassinated representatives of the wealthy class and fired their dwellings. This revolutionary mood was apparently nurtured by the confident expectation of support from Babylonian Jews and from the fiefdom of Adiabene and perhaps even from the Parthians themselves.

Thus the period A.D. 44-66 was one of escalating revolution and violence.


But note. All of the above is from the mid 40s on. None of it applies to the 30s, 20s, 10s or 00s.

I have said enough in previous posts so now it’s time for the amateur to step aside and let the professional scholar speak:

But what of the earlier period, A.D. 6-44? The sources yield relatively few instances of disorder within the earlier period. The assessment conducted by Quirinius and Coponius at the time of the annexation of Judaea (A.D. 6, 7) provoked the uprising led by Judas and Saddok, which was, however, ephemeral. The census involved registration … and assessment … for the purpose of levying the tribute and it was this which was seen by Judas and Saddok as an instrument of slavery to a foreign power. In A.D. 17 the Provincials of Judaea and Syria petitioned for a reduction in the tribute. Although the outcome is not known, it is unlikely that there was any accompanying disturbance since Tacitus elsewhere specifically affirms a peaceful situation in Judaea under Tiberius. The question of the tribute was a sore point in the thirties as may be seen in the question to Jesus by Pharisees and Herodians. The nature of the question and the answer suggest that whilst still a vital issue some of the earlier passion had diminished.

The accession of Tiberius was marked by a change of prefect and a new policy in favour of a longer term. Gratus deposed Ananus and three others in quick succession before appointing Ananus’ son-in-law, Caiaphas. His tenure extended until the death of Tiberius when Vitellius dismissed him, and his brother-in-law Jonathan, in quick succession. For almost the entire duration of the First Procuratorial period the office of High Priest was occupied by members of the House of Ananus. Only in A.D. 15-16 and in A.D. 37 was there any discontinuity in this dynasty’s leadership of cult and Sanhedrin.

Whilst the beginning of the First Procuratorial period was attended by the uprising led by Judas and Saddok there is no evidence of further disturbance until the arrival of Pilate in A.D. 26. Sejanus was, in all probability, responsible for the appointment of Pilate. Sejanus emerges from the sources as antipathetic to the Jews.


But but but, I hear some of you say. There was Judas the Galilean around 6/7 CE who led a revolt that initiated the “Fourth Philosophy”! Look above again. Note the word “ephemeral”. Sorry, but that line has always left me flat. So much wishful thinking seems to be read into that gentleman or ruffian that will simply not be contained by the raw data we have. Josephus gives us nothing upon which to hang the birth of a rebel movement avalanching in violence until the 60s CE.

The ‘troubles’ which ‘subsequently’ arose are described by Josephus in general terms but in such a way as to clearly refer to the events of the War A.D. 66-73 and to those circumstances which immediately preceded it. The subsequent narratives of Josephus leave us in no doubt that whilst the potential for violence was ever present in the First Procuratorial period, it was in reality relatively peaceful. Brandon does not notice this. He fails to observe that both Judaea and Galilee had stable and continuous government – Judaea under the members of the Ananus family, Galilee under Herod Antipas.


Many of us know, if not from reading Josephus then from watching movies depicting the times, that Pilate provoked the Jews. Yet….

Yet the incidents of the standards and the shields were not accompanied by bloodshed. The only known disturbances in Judaea in Pilate’s time in which bloodshed occurred were the massacre over the desecration of the Corbonas, the slaughter of Galileans at a Passover sacrifice, and the insurrection over which Barabbas had been arrested (and in all probability, the two Lestai crucified with Jesus). These three incidents may in fact be different aspects of the one disturbance. However critical affairs in Judaea may have been, the return of Tiberius to Rome in A.D. 31 and the subsequent issue of the decree of toleration for Jews must have meant the end of acute tension for the remainder of Tiberius’ principate. Pilate was vulnerable once Sejanus was removed. The incident of the golden shields is best understood as Pilate’s naive attempt to re-establish himself with Tiberius whilst not offending the Jews.

No doubt affairs in Judaea were extremely delicate in this period between the arrival of Pilate and the fall of Sejanus. The attempt by 5,000 Galileans to make Jesus a king and the manner of his welcome to Jerusalem provide incidental confirmation of the potential for revolution. Nevertheless, the potential was not realized. Some years later, while Pilate was still prefect, Gamaliel could give no more recent revolutionary crisis than that associated with the uprising led by Judas at the time of annexation, A.D. 6, 7.


Pilate was eventually dismissed by the Syrian governor, Vitellius. S.G.F. Brandon thinks we can imagine intense confrontation between the Jews and Rome over this event but Barnett “knows better”:

But in Jerusalem Vitellius was ‘received in magnificent fashion’, and acted with goodwill towards the Jews, giving them possession of the vestments and remitting certain taxes. Later, his agreement not to bring troops bearing standards through Judaea was in response to the requests of ‘ the Jews of highest standing’. Brandon’s assertion that such requests reflected an intensification of zealotry is a baseless inference. On the contrary, when Vitellius subsequently came to Jerusalem he was ‘received with special warmth by the Jewish multitude’. Whilst there, he administered an oath of loyalty to the new Emperor Gaius in peaceable circumstances, without any hint of the massive opposition which had accompanied an oath-taking in the latter days of Herod.


If tensions had been mounting they were easily and quickly dissipated.

A little later than the time of Jesus but still relatively close, what do we make of that effort by the mad emperor Gaius Caligula to set up his statue in the Temple around 40 CE? Isn’t this a climactic event, even, some insist, the event behind the “little apocalypse” of Matthew 24, Mark 13 and Luke 21? Weren’t these evangelists attributing to Jesus the foresight of a repeat of an even so dramatic as that of Antiochus Epiphanes defiling the sanctuary and precipitating the Maccabean revolt? No, says Barnett, quite rightly, I am sure.

This incident is a profound embarrassment for Brandon’s reconstruction. Had Jewish nationalism been screwed up to the point of tension maintained by him then a war of liberation would have occurred. Yet not one life was lost. In fact the Jewish reaction, while highly animated and nationwide, was non-violent. The plea made by the Jewish spokesmen to Petronius is extremely significant. They said that only when the passively resistant Jews had been slaughtered would there be a ‘ harvest of banditry … since the land would not have been harvested and the requirement of the tribute would not be met. Clearly, then, there was at that time little banditry … presumably because the economy was reasonably stable and the tribute paid accordingly. Although the attempted desecration was to profoundly shake Jewish confidence yet the incident itself, by the passive nature of the Jewish reaction, demonstrates how relatively stable were the public affairs of Judaea at that time.


Okay, so if the period before the Second Procuratoral period, before 44 CE, was so stable or peaceful, then why? What made it different from the later events? Well, under Nero (the later period) the Jews lost their isopoliteia (=equal) rights. Under Tiberius, before Nero, Jews were protected. For the rest, I refer you to the quotations above.

Barnett draw towards his conclusion:

At the time of the threatened desecration of the temple in A.D. 40, the High Priest was Theophilus the son of Ananus. Doubtless he figured significantly in the remonstrances with Petronius over the statue. That the reaction of the people was pacifistic and that Petronius was confirmed in his unwillingness to proceed must be attributed substantially to the Jewish leadership at the time, including that of Theophilus the High Priest.

Thus Ananus and his family dominated the First Procuratorial period, and whenever we encounter them in the ancient sources we discover qualities which enabled them to keep the peace at home whilst at the same time managing to survive as the favoured dynasty with the Romans. So far as the Romans were concerned, they must have consistently displayed the ability to keep the peace in Judaea.


Look at the evidence. The Zealots did not begin to wreak havoc until the mid to late 60s CE. If Judas and Saddok did initiate “the fourth philosophy” as Josephus claims, then on the basis of the evidence available that meant they did nothing more than plant seeds that only began to mature from the 40 or, more likely, 60s CE.

Let’s conclude with the final two paragraphs of Barnett’s article:

Josephus’ version of Judaean affairs is corroborated by Tacitus in the Histories, book v, chapters 9-10. In chapters 9-10 Tacitus gives a succinct chronological survey of Judaean history from the arrival of Pompey until the commencement of the Jewish Wars. Special attention is given to political disturbances in this survey of Roman Judaea. Thus, at the death of Herod it was necessary for Varus to put down the usurper Simon and to discipline the Jews. Next, during the principate of Gaius over the matter of the proposed statue, the Jews ‘chose to resort to arms, but the emperor’s death put an end to their uprising’. Thereafter, Claudius committed the government of Judaea to ‘Roman knights or to freedmen; one of the latter, Antonius Felix, practised every kind of cruelty and lust, wielding the power of a king with all the instincts of a slave’. Subsequently (under Nero) ‘the Jews’ patience lasted till Gessius Florus became procurator: in his time war began’.

Significantly, Tacitus notes no disturbance in the period between the death of Herod and Gaius’ proposal to desecrate the Temple. Indeed, Tacitus specifically asserts’ sub Tiberio quies’:’ under Tiberius all was quiet’


Jesus, the historical one, that is, was not one of many contemporary rebels and dissidents after all.



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Neil Godfrey

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19 thoughts on ““Under Tiberius All Was Quiet” : Or — No, Jesus was not “one of many””

  1. Josephos has most of these rebels as fathers, sons, grandsons, and cousins of one another from Judas the Galilean at the Census to Eleazar at Masada. The bird quacks, waddles, and swims; we should be surprised if it is taken for a duck?

    Josephos has the Jews confounding Gaius peacefully; Tacitus has them resorting to arms. Not only do we have conflicts between authors, we have conflicts between the different writings of each author. Neither author can be said to be neutral by a long chalk. Josephos very obviously wants to minimise things and absolve the Jews as much as possible; Tacitus’ concerns are with the Jews only incidentally and just isn’t likely to mention disturbance unless it gets to the level of impacting the Empire beyond Judea.

    You just cannot take their work as boxes of boondangles to be raided for your own gim-crack nonsense. You have to recognise they have their own purposes and exist for their own reasons, Jesus hardly being one of them!

    1. Josephus is far from wanting to absolve Jews as much as possible. His theme is to demonstrate how bad were those who did not follow the conservative line of the authorities such as himself. I think any commentary will point to this agenda.

      Tacitus wrote an entire “chapter” on the Jews, explaining their customs, their history, and their recent history. He said “all was quiet in the time of Tiberius” in that context.

      Josephus’s account of Judas the Galilean is very vague and fizzles out as soon as it begins. He gives us no evidence for any rebellions until the 40s and 60s. None. Barnett goes further and explains from the evidence why the struggles began at those late times- – the catalysts for them then.

      Zilch before the 40s.

      1. (This is a very late post)
        I had occasion at an SSEC annual conference at Macquarie Uni a couple of years ago to briefly engage Bishop Barnett and I recall that he smirked at my suggestion that there was no historical Jesus. I will try to contact him for a meeting later in 2021. That’s the great benefit about SSEC, that we can talk to these brilliant and committed men and women. Last month (December 2020) my wife and I were able to meet informally for morning tea with Emeritus Professor Edwin Judge for an hour to discuss Roman and Jewish times in the first century. It was a great privilege.
        Anyway, I think that the “zilch” rebellion before the 40’s is not inconsistent with the Caesar’s Messiah thesis as I understand it, as fabricating a Jewish Messiah Jesus who lived fro 0 to 33AD still serves a purpose to manipulate Jewish thinking after 70AD, by interfering in their official history.

        1. My introduction to scholarly discussions and exchanges was in the 1990s and various scholarly discussion forums at that time — some of which are now defunct. I recall reflecting on what an amazing experience it was to be able to check in on those discussions, raise questions, etc — a great education.

  2. One of the procurators of Judea under Claudius was Philo’s nephew Tiberius Julius Alexander (c. 46–48).

    Josephus condemned him because he “did not remain in his ancestral customs” (Antiquities 20.100) This has traditionally been taken to mean this Alexander became an apostate from Judaism. He is also reflected as a character in two of Philo’s philosophical dialogues in which Philo portrayed him as making arguments against divine providence (which Philo attempted to refute; On Alexander and On Providence).

    1. Tiberius Alexander was Titus’s second-in-charge during the siege of Jerusalem. When the city walls had been overcome, the defenders held out in the Temple. Alexander’s father had donated the gold and silver for the Temple gates ( Josephus, War 5.205), yet he found himself at the forefront of having those very gates being burnt down (they had despaired at any operation against the Temple’s massive walls).

      At an ensuing council of war, when it was debated whether to destroy the entire Temple, Alexander is said to have voted with the majority to favour preservation (Josephus, War 6.236-243), but, as the fighting raged the following day, the Temple was consumed by the flames after a Roman soldier hurled a burning brand into a its chamber.

  3. My view is that Jesus (at least as he is presented in the gospels) existed during the time of the Fourth Philosophy and exhibits traits shared by other Fourth Philosophers (rejection of the Pharisee’s oral Torah while embracing what Josephus calls other “Pharisaic notions” (such as belief in the resurrection of the dead). So I don’t think it matters if Jesus lived during a lull period of militancy, since Jesus himself (again, at least as he is presented) claims to not have been leading a rebellion (Mk. 14:48). There can be such a thing as a relatively peaceful Fourth Philosopher, even if Jesus is the only example of one. And as far as the later “prophets” and such that Josephus mentions, as Jesus says in Mk. 13:6, “Many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am he,’ and will deceive many,” which is at least in keeping with what Josephus says.

  4. Why Jesus appeared just the 15° year under Tiberius:

    A great light-power descendeth on Jesus.And it came to pass then, on the fifteenth day of the moon in the month Tybi, which is the day on which the moon is full, on that day then, when the sun had come forth in his going, that there came forth behind him a great light-power shining most exceedingly, and there was no measure to the light conjoined with it.

    Just when Jesus was exalted to heavens. Since the original crucifixion coincided with the ascension (so in the Fourth Gospel also, where the Transfiguration is absent).

  5. I think this assessment is actually good for the historical accuracy of The Gospels. The concern the Priests the discus in John 11 is that Jesus will disturb a good situation, not be a log thrown onto an already raging fire.

    Meanwhile Simon the Zealous and Judas the Issacharite had nothing to do with any rebel groups formed decades later.

    It is modern Hollywood films that wants to Judea of this period as as being as tense, not The Gospels.

      1. Josephus says the Pharisees were the majority sect everywhere, they were never limited to one region. Nothing in The Gospel implies the Sanhedrin was anywhere other then Jerusalem, John 7 in fact confirms that the leadership in Jerusalem looks down on Galiee.

        The New Testament is using the name of Nazareth for Sepphoris.

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