Tag Archives: Jewish War

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

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

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Constructing Jesus and the Gospels: Messianism and Survival post 70 CE

Black Elk Speaks
Black Elk Speaks (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the previous post we saw how Clarke W. Owens (Son of Yahweh: The Gospels as Novels) drew the inference that the evangelists created the type of Jesus they did because of the impact of the Jewish War.

Just as the Jewish people and their centre of worship had been destroyed through fire and mass crucifixions, and just as many were subsequently finding new hope and a new life in Christianity, so Jesus, the suffering servant who was resurrected, was a personification of the ideal Israel. That would explain why Jesus was depicted as the Temple, destroyed physically but restored spiritually; why he was depicted as an antitype of Israel thrust into the wilderness for forty days; and why hosts of other such allusions were attached to him.

There are additional supports for Owens’ inference.

One of these is the nature of messianism “as a cultural survival tactic”. He writes

Messianism as a cultural survival tactic is attested to as recently as 1889, when the Lakota people . . . were threatened with extinction.

The Jewish people were being threatened with “cultural extinction” with the destruction of the physical and ideological centre of their cult along with the rest of the bloodshed. Owens quotes the 8th, 9th and 10th paragraphs of the Messiah chapter from Black Elk Speaks to

[demonstrate] the same sort of collective, cultural need and motivation described by Spong, Josephus, and other writers who describe or acknowledge the effect on the Jewish War on the First Century Jews.

A book I read many years ago reflects similar social responses to distress, although at a class level rather than a cultural survival one. The Pursuit of the Millennium by Norman Cohn is a fascinating study of millennial movements among distressed peasantry of Europe through the Middle Ages.

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