Debunking myths of Judas the Galilean, the Zealots, and causes of the war with Rome

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by Neil Godfrey

Jewish zeal for both liberty from foreign rule and a passion to be ruled “by God alone” are generally thought to be the causes of Judaea’s war with Rome that ended with the destruction of Jerusalem and its Temple in 70 CE. Hence, goes the common view, the many Jews who were influenced by this politico-religious liberation movement loathed not only the Roman rulers but also the corrupt priesthood whom they considered to be in league with their foreign oppressors. Add a pinch of messianic hopes to this mix and we have a powder-keg situation with the mass of restive Judaeans set against the Romans. It was only a matter of time before it all blew up in all-out rebellion and war, as it did in 66 CE.

And is not Galilee a hotbed of these messianic and nationalist rebels? We think of Jesus’ disciple, Simon “the Zealot” or “Canaanite”, and of Josephus’s account of Judas the Galilean in 6 CE apparently responsible for what became the Zealot party and a widespread “nationalist” movement against Roman rule.

This popular view of Judaea is born rather of “theological romanticism”, a “glorification of Jewish heroes who fought ‘freedom alone'”, “enthusiastic Zionism anxious to represent opposition to Rome as a spontaneous movement of united Jewish people” (Smith, 3f), than it is of a sober evaluation of the evidence.

I was reading Steve Mason’s history of the Jewish war of 66-74 CE and paused to follow up a citation of his, Smith 1971, which he portrayed as “a learned and entertaining review of key scholars” attempting to explain the origins of the war. I can’t claim to have shared the entertaining tone of Morton Smith’s article in what follows but I have attempted to extract key points.

Before we start, though, here is a reminder of what Josephus tells us in his first book (on the Jewish War) about Judas the Galilean:

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.

On Judas the Galilean, Zeal and Zealots

Judas the Galilean is often depicted as initiating a mass revolutionary movement that became known as the Zealots and that was largely responsible for war with Rome. Yet the word for “Zealots” was not used of the anti-Roman forces prior to the outbreak of hostilities in 66 CE — and Judas entered the record a full sixty years earlier.

The word for “zeal” lies at the heart of the problem because it can be used as a common adjective to describe a passionate attitude and other times be a reference to a more formal rebel organization of party. On this point Morton Smith points out, with references to works by Kaufmann Kohler and Kirsopp Lake, that

the admiration of “zeal” (exemplified by the murders committed by Phineas and those instigated by Elijah) was widespread in Judaism from Maccabean times on, that imitation of Phineas and Elijah was often spoken of, and that such thought and practice was closely connected with resistance to foreign rule. . . . . [B]ut the recognition of the wide extent of the terminology and of its background both in literature and in practice was a major contribution, most important because it indicated that private individuals might often have adopted the ideal on their own. Accordingly we cannot suppose that every individual who claimed to be a “zealot,” or was called so by his neighbors, was a member of an organization. . . .

[T]he reason for the common misconception of the Zealots [was] the long-standing and widespread admiration for “zeal” and praise of “zealots,” which undoubtedly determined the party’s choice of its name, but which, for that very reason, must have been prior to and wider than the party. (Smith, 2ff)

Josephus does not offer us any evidence for the claim that Judas the Galilean actually started the political movement that became known as the Zealot party. In his later work, Antiquities XVIII, Josephus does claim that Judas founded the “fourth philosophy” from which all the troubles of Judaea later sprang, but we should also note what Josephus fails to say:

But in describing the subsequent troubles Josephus treats them as independent incidents and says nothing of any one party’s organizing them, therefore his statements that they all grew up from the work of Judas the Galilean probably mean only that Judas was the first to make resistance to alien rulers a religious duty and to set an example of the fanaticism which later led to disaster, not that Judas started an organization which produced all the later incidents.

Yes, it is an argument from silence, but Smith adds

34 To argue, as Klausner does (IV, 202), that since Josephus’ account of the Zealots’ religious devotion, love of liberty, and self-sacrifice fits the “fourth philosophy,” therefore the two groups must have been one and the same party, is fallacious.

This interpretation is admittedly based on an argument from silence, but the argument is a strong one because Josephus wrote in part to persuade the Romans of the innocence and loyalty of most Jews; had he been able to put the blame for all incidents of resistance on a single party and so exculpate the rest of his countrymen, he would surely have done so. He frequently tries to do so by suggestion, and the passage noted by Klausner is one of these attempts. Neither it nor the others can stand against his account of the course of events, which testifies to widespread Jewish resentment of Roman rule and to many independent cases of resistance, breaking out in all the Jewish districts.34 (Smith, 5)

The name S.G.F. Brandon is probably more familiar to many of us from his book Jesus and the Zealots and Smith addresses his attempts to associate Judas the Galilean with the revolutionary Zealot party:

He argued,

(1) as Klausner had, that Josephus “clearly associates the movement of Judas of Galilee with the politico-religious fanaticism which goaded the nation into war”;

— But we have already seen that Josephus’ statements about Judas indicate only that he set the example and provided the rationale for resistance to Rome, not that he founded the Zealot party, which Josephus never in any way connects with him.

(2) that the action of Judas must have involved actual revolt, not just seditious teaching, because both Josephus and Luke look back to it as a memorable event;

— Consequently, the question whether Judas did or did not lead a considerable revolt is immaterial.

(3) that the existence of a “zealot” among the apostles proves the existence of the Zealots as a party before 66.

— As for the notion that the presence of a “zealot” among Jesus’ disciples proves the existence of the Zealot party in Jesus’ time, that is not an argument, but a bad pun. Kohler and Farmer, as we said, have demonstrated the wide popularity of the notion of zeal and of the ideal of “the zealot” as a private individual, imitating Phineas and Elijah. This popularity makes it quite unjustified to take an isolated reference to a “zealot” as evidence that the individual referred to was a member of the party. The term is used, for example, of Phineas in IV Macc. 18:12.

(Smith, 6. My bolding and re-formatting to set Smith’s replies beside each of Brandon’s assertions)

[Roth] identified the two groups on the basis of a single passage. In War II.444 Josephus speaks of Menahem, the head of the Sicarii, as taking with him, when he went into the Temple, τούς ζηλωτάς. This of course means τούς ζηλωτάς αύτοΰ — “his fanatical followers”— as Thackeray translated it. It had so been understood in antiquity by the Latin translator . . . and by the translator-author of Hegesippus. And Josephus elsewhere consistently refers to Menahem’s party as “the Sicarii” and uses “the Zealots” to refer to a quite different party which he never in any way connects with Menahem, Judas of Galilee, or any other of Judas’ descendants. (Smith, 7f)

Fallacious arguments

A study of the Zealots by another scholar, Cecil Roth, author of The Historical Background of the Dead Sea Scrolls, are also shown to be fallacious. Thus even though Josephus only ever locates the Zealots in Jerusalem and never in Masada, Roth did locate them in Masada and as even opposed to the Jerusalem rebels. Fallacies abound but I cite just two instances:

For example: the defenders of Masada were Zealots and held out to the end; the defenders of Machaerus, Herodium, and the forest of Jardes held out to the end; therefore they too were Zealots; therefore “it appears that” the Machaerus gang had authority over them. And so on. . . . .

As a further argument for the identification he adduced the fact that both the kanna’im (zealots) and the sikarin (sicarii’) in rabbinic literature are murderers. Therefore, he argued, they must have been members of the same organization. (Smith, 7, 9)

In response to Roth’s identification of the Zealots with the Sicarii (assassins who are again erroneously related to the Zealots as a sub-faction in that linked Wikipedia entry) Smith makes it clear that Josephus understood them to be quite different groups. In his concluding (seventh) book of War Josephus lists five distinct revolutionary parties. I quote from the G.A. Williamson translation:

First to begin this lawlessness and this barbarity to kinsmen were the Sicarii, who left no word unspoken, no deed untried, to insult and destroy the objects of their foul plots.

Yet even they appeared gentle by the side of John [of Gischala]. He not only put to death all advocates of just and profitable courses, treating such as his most bitter foes among the citizens: by his public actions he subjected his country to countless woes, as a man was sure to do if he had already dared to be impious even towards God. On his table he had unlawful dishes served, and the purifications observed by our fathers he set aside; so it was no longer surprising if gentleness and kindness towards men were not shown by one too mad to show piety towards God.

Think too of Simon son of Gioras. What crime did he not commit? What outrage was not done to free citizens by the men who gave him unlimited power? What friendship or kinship was there that did not increase the wantonness of their daily murders? The ill-treatment of aliens they looked on as the work of a common criminal, but thought it a proof of brilliance to savage their own kith and kin.

But even their madness was nothing to the frenzy of the Idumaeans. These disgusting people butchered the chief priests so that no trace of divine worship should be left, and then destroyed everything that remained of civil organization, permeating the whole system with utter lawlessness.

In this no one could equal the Zealots, a party which justified its title by its deeds; they followed every bad example, and there was no crime in the records that they did not zealously reproduce. And yet they gave themselves this title in view of their zeal for what was good, either mocking their victims, brutes that they were, or regarding the greatest evils as good! (p.357f)

The Zealots are listed as the chronologically last to emerge and their wickedness exceeds the others, we are told, because of their hypocrisy in claiming to be full of virtuous deeds.

The next scholar to wither beneath Morton Smith’s searing gaze for fallacious identification of parties is Martin Hengel:

After Roth’s speculations Hengel’s Zeloten seems a model of solid scholarship — that is the great German facade. When, however, one goes behind the monumental annotation and examines the actual structure, it turns out to be built on the old, unjustified assumptions . . .

Ouch! & the same hoary howlers:

. . . references to zealots and sicarii in rabbinic literature and the Gospels are taken as references to members of the Zealots and the Sicarii (the organizations); the mistranslation of War II.444 is again used — in defiance of all other evidence — to make the Zealots followers of Menahem; the worthless parallel of kanna’im and sikarin in Abot de Rabbi Natan A6 and B13 is again used to identify the parties; the disciple Simon “the zealot” is again evidence of an organization of Zealots in the time of Jesus (and the similar use of the term for Phineas in IV Macc. 18:12 is again neglected); Hippolytus’ muddling of the sects is again evidence of their identity two centuries before his time. All these hoary howlers are embedded in a mass of learned data about even more dubious details which add nothing of importance to the discussion. (Smith, 10f)

Other details I have added at the end of this post for readers especially interested in them.

No evidence of an ideological mass movement

Yes, Josephus speaks of “many messianic and pietistic revolts of Herodian times” (Smith’s words) but he also notes that these were in fact

spontaneous and unconnected outbreaks, diverse in origin and nature, and showing no signs of long preparation or unified leadership. (Smith, 13)

(I have further questioned the characterization of some of those uprisings as messianic.) Further, Smith adds

it is not surprising that there is no evidence of any major, country-wide resistance organization, even down to the beginning of the war. . . . Individual prophets attracted large followings, but they were evidently individualistic lunatics, not representatives of any organization . . . (Smith, 14)

We have no evidence to justify the view that Judas the Galilean started a movement that spread until it finally brought all of Palestine into open rebellion against Rome. Yes, Josephus does tell us that Judas’s two sons were crucified by Tiberius Alexander in 45, but he has nothing to say about any notable achievements on their part.

Yes, there were economic hardships, especially from the imposition of imperial taxation, and that sort of distress we can well imagine leading to local robber bandits, “which is just what Josephus says they did produce.”

That robbers had the sympathy of the peasants of their neighborhood — often, no doubt, their relatives — proves nothing as to their ideology (Smith, 14)

No sign of Zealots in Galilee

In particular, Josephus’ two detailed accounts of his attempt to organize the war in Galilee contain no mention of either Zealots or Sicarii. Yet he would have been happy to shift all the blame he could onto them. Evidently neither group was of importance in that part of the country.

The nickname “the Galilean” bestowed upon Judas probably indicated his base of operations was outside Galilee:

. . . Judas’ nickname, “the Galilean,” probably indicated the district from which he had come to Jerusalem. Since he raised his revolt in opposition to the introduction of the census in 6 A.D. and the census at that time was introduced in the former kingdom of Archelaus — mainly Judea — the probability is that he worked in Judea, and that is the only place where the Sicarii are found — there is no good reason to connect them with Galilee. (Smith, 15)

Judas the Galilean, a mere curiosity in his time

Over a decade later Martin Goodman undertook a further study of the origins of the Jewish revolt against Rome and similarly concluded of Judas the Galilean:

In sum, it seems to me most likely that Judas did indeed teach some novel ideas in A.D. 6, or at least revive some long-buried ancient notions, but that he founded no sect and that his philosophy was of marginal effect in the increasingly violent confrontations in Judaea. (Goodman, 96)

Messianic hopes, widespread anti-Roman nationalism, zeal to throw off all human rule and submit only to God ….. much more can be said and will be posted to demonstrate that such notions have been generated more in the imaginations of modern interpreters than in a clear and close attention to the evidence.


Fallacious arguments (continued from above)

Smith sets out Hengel’s arguments in seven points, adding his own comment to each in parenthesis:

  1. misinterpretation of Josephus’ statement that all the troubles began with them. (See above, Smith 2ff)
  2. that Judas’ party had a clear succession of leadership through the whole period (but this does not indicate that it controlled the other groups);
  3. that there are no traces of party conflict till late in the revolt (but this probably indicates that the early incidents were largely spontaneous, not managed by any organized party);
  4. that Menahem’s claim to become leader of the whole movement must have been based on his recognized authority over it (but this is false; it was based on his armed followers, and the other revolutionists did not recognize it);
  5. that the murder of Menahem began the breakup of the movement (but Josephus says nothing of this, and he would have been delighted to report it);
  6. that Josephus’ failure to say more about Judas’ sect is due partly to unwillingness, partly to ignorance (but ignorance is unlikely and unwillingness inexplicable; he would have been happy to blame most of the trouble on a single sect);
  7. that the sect must have had a strong organization because two procurators had to resign themselves to negotiating with its leaders (but Ant. XX.215, 255, which Hengel cites, say that the procurators were bribed to cooperate; a terrorist organization can be effective, even though small; and even a large organization would not imply direction of the whole revolutionary movement).

In sum, this collection of arguments is worthless.

Smith, Morton. 1971. “Zealots and Sicarii, Their Origins and Relation.” The Harvard Theological Review 64 (1): 1–19.

Josephus, Flavius. 1959. The Jewish War. Edited by Betty Radice and Robert Baldick. Translated by G. A. Williamson. Penguin Classics. Penguin.

Goodman, Martin. 1987. The Ruling Class of Judaea: The Origins of the Jewish Revolt Against Rome, A.D. 66-70. Cambridge University Press.



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Neil Godfrey

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  • 2018-12-04 13:23:51 UTC - 13:23 | Permalink

    When the word “zealous” is discussed, I always flash back to I Maccabees and Josephus’ account of Mattathias who dwelt at Modin…who refused to offer sacrifice for the Greek king and “another went up before the eyes of all them to offer sacrifice as the king commanded…

    “And Mattathias saw him and was filled with zeal, and his heart was stirred, and he was roused very properly to anger, and ran up and slaughtered him upon the altar…and he tore down the altar. Thus he showed his zeal for the Law, just as Phineas did to Zimri, the son of Salom. Then Mattathias cried out in a loud voice…’Let everybody who is zealous for the Law and stands by the agreement come out after me.’ And he and his sons fled to the mountains and left all they possessed in the town. I Maccabees 2:17-28, Antiquities XII.VI.2

    When Mattathias was about to die I Maccabees repeats that statement in his “final words” to his sons…”Arrogance and reproach have now grown strong; it is a time of disaster and hot anger. Now, my children, you must be zealous for the Law, and give your lives for the agreement of our forefathers…” I Maccabees:2:49-50 and a longer version in Antiquities XII.VI.3 Thus began the career of another earlier “zealous” Judas…

    • 2018-12-04 16:14:19 UTC - 16:14 | Permalink

      Exactly. “Zeal for the Law” goes back way before Judas the Galilean.

      • 2018-12-04 16:32:33 UTC - 16:32 | Permalink

        Yes, but also recall that Paul took the opposite view. Paul was attacking the law. Whereas Judas is described by Josephus as one with zeal for the law, Paul was saying that the law was being abolished the Lord Jesus Christ!

  • 2018-12-04 16:30:44 UTC - 16:30 | Permalink

    I’m reading more about possible relationships between the Gospel of Mark and The Jewish War and I wonder, could the Judas of the GMark story be based on Judas the Galilean?

    If “Mark” used The Jewish War it would seem to make sense. My take on GMark is that Jesus is based on Paul and the story presents Paul’s view that Jews and Gentiles should live in harmony as the right view. Judas the Galilean could then be representing the opposing view, the Jewish separatist view.

    This would, in a sense, agree with the claim that there was a Zealot among the disciples, but of course the narrative is fictional, it’s not that there was a real group of Jesus followers with a real Judas Zealot in it, it’s that the author of Mark was using Josephus’ description of Judas as a counterpoint to Paul’s message of harmony.

    I don’t know if this is right, but it seems like a possibility.

    • Neil Godfrey
      2018-12-04 21:03:49 UTC - 21:03 | Permalink

      There are three features in the Gospel of Mark that I find myself wondering about (no more than only wondering — I don’t know what, if anything, to make of them) in relation to Josephus’ War:
      1. the narrative of the mad Jesus who cried Woe, Woe, Woe to Jerusalem _ see http://www.vridar.info/xorigins/josephus/2jesus.htm for Weeden’s details.
      2. the names Joseph of Arimathea and Josephus of Matthias (and a few biographical details though these apply to Luke more than Mark)
      3. (and this one is related closely to 2) the three crucified persons, one of whom was taken down at Josephus’s request.

      • 2018-12-04 21:33:48 UTC - 21:33 | Permalink

        Interesting. That’s for that summary, that’s helpful. I wonder if Judas the Galilean can explain why Mark uses Pilate? If Mark was using The Jewish War then why not have Jesus go before Albinus? But, if Judas is supposed to be Judas the Galilean, then that could explain why Mark sets the story in the time of Pilate, as that would be when Judas the Galilean was around (I believe I’ve got that right).

        If so, then the story is pitting a pseudo-Paul in the form of Jesus against Judas the Galilean. Paul being the advocate of harmony between Jews and Gentiles, who preaches abolition of the authority of the law vs. Judas the Jewish nationalist who is zealous for the law.

        • Booker
          2018-12-04 23:16:19 UTC - 23:16 | Permalink

          Judas the Galilean’s activities were around 6-7 CE, so he would have been before Pilate. Interestingly, two of his sons were allegedly crucified around 46 CE by Tiberius Julius Alexander.

          • MrHorse
            2018-12-05 01:38:35 UTC - 01:38 | Permalink

            Yes, but various people have shown that characters in the NT that are very likely to either be characters in the works of Josephus or based on those characters have been time-shifted or are out of sync (or both) in the NT.

        • Steven C Watson
          2018-12-10 07:36:18 UTC - 07:36 | Permalink

          Last Man Standing. We have stray references to Jesus being active in other eras than the reign of Tiberius. Why Pilate? His prefecture has the one instance I can think of when pacifism defeated the Eagles: When Jews in their thousands beared their throats to the sword before Pilate’s palace at Caesarea and forced the Standards out of Jerusalem. “Under Tiberius all was quiet”. After the fact to the naive it might seem deliberate but there were perhaps dozens of competing Christ Cults and Jesus People. Evolution works with what it is given.

      • Sam Lartrip
        2018-12-12 23:58:31 UTC - 23:58 | Permalink

        You could add to your list these Jewish War coincidences with Matthew and Luke:

        The Joseph and Miriam who were executed by order of Herod the Great for suspected adultery (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mariamne_I).

        The various rebels who hid underground (for three days in at least one case) in order to hide from the Romans:
        Josephus at Jotapa
        The rebel who emerged from under the burned tower to the joy of his followers
        The rebel (Simon?) who tried to dig his way out of Jerusalem after it fell to the Romans
        (Finding the chapter and verse for these in Jewish War is left as an exercise for the reader)

        Josephus’ speech (sermon) on the plain in “Life”.

  • Peter Grullemans
    2018-12-05 01:04:20 UTC - 01:04 | Permalink

    Thank you very much indeed to all for these discussions and your work in research. Among qualified ancient historians around the world is there not a consensus we can trust about the political and religious backdrop ? As a novice, maybe I’m still focused on Caesar’s Messiah themes, but it does seem to me that the above discussions stem from the contention that the Jews had strong motives to overthrow Roman rule and that the Romans had consequential motives to diffuse that Jewish antagonism and military threat. Sorry folks if I am a step or three behind you but I am trying to see the big picture here as it relates to the Jesus myth theory. A related question is about the motives to destroy the evidence i.e. the history books – as winners write history, and the Roman church did win the battle for control and related propaganda, the can we deduce that they would have left us only with what they wanted us to know ? And if so, at what point in the history did they destroy the evidence ? The answer could be vital : if it was in the Flavian emperors period then we need to take a step further back, but if in Constantine’s time, then the historicity of Jesus may have more credibility. I regret I cannot contribute in more factual and historical detail, but could someone from the learned group please comment and help me out on these things ?

    • Steven C Watson
      2018-12-10 07:48:13 UTC - 07:48 | Permalink

      All that is needed is neglect. Before the printing press books were very, very expensive and copying long winded and tedious. If it isn’t to your taste or interests or that of people you are cultivating, why copy it as opposed to works that do? Rinse and repeat, very soon there will be little left to copy but the stuff to your taste and interest. Take the Gospel of Mark, that very nearly met with that fate as Matthew and Luke largely repeat it with modifications and additions that rendered them the superior product in Christian eyes. Mark was seen as a superfluous epitome.

    • Neil Godfrey
      2018-12-12 13:48:18 UTC - 13:48 | Permalink

      Most if not all non Romans had a motive for wanting to overthrow Roman rule but the reality was that for most if not all the very idea of attempting to rebel was obviously suicidal — speaking here of the time of the Julio-Claudians, Flavians, Antonines. A disturbance that resulted in the need for Roman legions to intervene was more likely the outcome of frustrations and misjudgements at local levels that simply got out of control beyond anyone’s intentions or plans. As evidence of this in the case of the Judean war from 66 to 70/74, there was very little actual fighting. The countryside was not in armed rebellion against Rome — most of the countryside submitted immediately to the approaching Roman military.

      The only ‘histories’ that the Roman emperors sought to destroy were any that were deemed insulting to the Roman living emperor, and needless to say very few of those were ever written. Those who were caught had either thought they had cleverly hid their criticisms by clever alternative figures or events meant to hide the real target (wink wink type works) or were hated and falsely accused for other reasons.

  • Peter Grullemans
    2018-12-12 22:23:46 UTC - 22:23 | Permalink

    Great, thanks gents. I may have more to say and ask when I finish reading RGP’s book “Deciphering the Gospels”. It has an interesting new angle : that the Jesus stories arose out of misunderstanding rather than propaganda.

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