Judas Maccabeus before the Army of Nicanor

Jesus was born at a time of social unrest when many Jews were interested in the coming of a Messiah. The unrest can be traced back to the Maccabean revolt in 167 B.C., a nationalist Jewish rebellion against Greek rulers. Many young Jewish men died as martyrs. The Maccabean revolt set off a long period of chaos, social upheaval and expectations of a Messiah.

Messiah literally means the “anointed one” in Hebrew, and was widely understood to mean “King of the Jews.” In Jesus’s time Jews regarded the ideal Messiah as a redeemer or Davidic king, who take the faithful to a peaceful world, far different from the chaotic one that people lived in at that time. As a consequence of this religion began to focus more on the destiny of the individual, meting out justice in way that righted injustice of the world and dealt with the afterlife. From out of this grew the concept of a Judgment Day, resurrection and salvation.

Jews, in Jesus's time, believed that the Messiah was more likely to be a strong military leader than a gentle, moralizing preacher. The prophet Isaiah predicting that the Messiah would be a "Prince of Peace" who conquered the Assyrians "like the mire of the streets," reduced Damascus to "a ruinous heap," transformed Babylon into a city inhabited only by owls, satyrs and other "doleful creatures," and in Egypt “turn everyone against his neighbor, city against city, and kingdom against kingdom."

The prophet Jeremiah expressed similar sentiments. According to him, God said that the Philistines "shall cry and all the inhabitants of the land shall howl," the Egyptians "shall be satiate and made drunk with their blood," and the daughters of Ammon shall "be burned in fire" when the Messiah comes.

Websites and Resources: Jesus and the Historical Jesus Britannica on Jesus britannica.com Jesus-Christ ; Historical Jesus Theories earlychristianwritings.com ; PBS Frontline From Jesus to Christ pbs.org ; Life and Ministry of Jesus Christ bible.org ; Jesus Central jesuscentral.com ; Catholic Encyclopedia: Jesus Christ newadvent.org ; Complete Works of Josephus at Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL) ccel.org Christianity BBC on Christianity bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/christianity ; Christian Classics Ethereal Library www.ccel.org ; Candida Moss at the Daily Beast Daily Beast Christian Answers christiananswers.net ; Bible: Bible Gateway and the New International Version (NIV) of The Bible biblegateway.com ; King James Version of the Bible gutenberg.org/ebooks Biblical History: Bible History Online bible-history.com ; Biblical Archaeology Society biblicalarchaeology.org

Political Situation in Galilee at the Time of Jesus

Was Galilee at the time of Jesus really a tranquil, bucolic peaceful little place? Professor Allen D. Callahan told PBS: “It looks that way, sure. But the region was known for being a hotbed of political activity and some of it violent. Now I want to nuance that a bit; especially in the last few generations of New Testament scholarship, Galilee has gotten this this reputation for being the hotbed of radicalism, the '60s Berkeley of Palestine or something. But in historical context that region was always a contested region.... From very early times... there were always a mixture of peoples in the northern region of Palestine, especially when one moves to the coast.... [Source: Allen D. Callahan, Associate Professor of New Testament, Harvard Divinity School, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]

Heliodorus is Cast Down

“Galilee had a tradition of political autonomy. The northern traditions that go into the Hebrew Bible are informed by this political sensibility of autonomy. It's a kind of quasi-anarchistic ideal, that this loose tribal confederacy is ruled directly by God. And those ideas and that ideal continues to be alive and well in northern Palestine. Now some scholars argue about this, but I think we can trace a line from the historical moment that's depicted in the Book of Judges, not when the Book of Judges was written necessarily but the kind of historical moment that it purports to depict, through the cycle of Elijah and the Elijah traditions, 1st Kings, that talk about King making and King breaking, all the way down to Jesus' time. Not necessarily an unbroken line, but a centuries old tradition of political autonomy under the God of Israel. And so this makes foreign imperialism a very problematic proposition in northern Palestine. Because people, I think, have almost a collective consciousness of this ancient Israelite ideal. Not shared by all Israelites, not all over Palestine. But I think a very good case can be made for reconstructing this consciousness in the north. And I think that's the major element by which we can explain the unusual political restiveness in northern Palestine, in the area of Galilee.

“Now I think it's important for us to understand the political logic at work. When that kind of police action is perpetrated against what we might consider harmless fanatics, the Romans are really giving us a very good historical lesson in how domination works. They didn't honor the right of assembly, as we might call it, in the provinces. Any group of people that large, even if they were out there for a picnic, constituted a threat to Roman security, and the Romans responded accordingly....

“And I think that Josephus has a number of motivations for telling us this, but one of Josephus' motivations and one of his apologia for these stories, ostensibly, is that he wants to show that there were a bunch of fanatics in Palestine who were running around causing trouble, whipping up the local yokels. And that these people were irresponsible and they weren't representative. And that the Romans could deal with them and dispatch them quickly. Josephus' point is that they are fanatics; they're not responsible people. They're not people, for example, like Josephus.”

Politics of Galilee

Galilee, throughout the time of Jesus, was ruled by one of Herod's sons — Herod Antipas — and thus was ruled pretty much as his father's kingdom had been, as a kind of small client kingdom. This distinguishes the local politics in Jesus' home region from those in Judea under the Roman Governors.

Professor L. Michael White told PBS: “In a client kingdom, the King, himself, is the absolute overlord. He's given a lot of freedom by Romans, insofar as all he has to do, basically, is raise his own taxes. And then he's in charge of everything else. So the control of the north was, in some ways, more independent, and indeed the trade and commerce that we see in this northern region shows us the degree to which the intersection of the different cultures of the north were really starting to become very important in the developing life of that region. [Source: L. Michael White, Professor of Classics and Director of the Religious Studies Program University of Texas at Austin, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]

Army Appears in the Heavens

“The term Galilean seems to have been used in a variety of ways in this period. To some, it just might mean an outsider, or someone who's not really an old Jew of the traditional sort. Precisely because the Galilee had traditionally not been Jewish at the time of the Maccabean Revolt a hundred or 150 years before Jesus. But from another perspective, "Galilean" also took on the coloration of being rebellious, or insurrectionist. Precisely because we know of some people in that region who resisted first, Herod's rule, and then that of his sons and the Romans themselves. So for some, the term Galilean might also mean something political.


Apocalypticism, the hope that divine intervention would vanquish the enemies of Israel and establish a new age, fueled political tensions with Rome. Professor Paula Fredriksen told PBS: “Jews had a special way of shaping reality. And that way of shaping reality was the Bible. The Bible contoured time. History had a beginning. God creates the world... and God has a certain moral relationship to the world. God creates things and sees that it's good. God is defined morally within Judaism, and therefore, God has a stake in social justice. A lot of what the laws of the Torah are about is social justice. In the period between — again these are approximations, the periods are the creations of historians, not of the people who live in the ancient world. But in the period, roughly, from minus 200 to plus 200, there is a growing sensibility, which we as historians can track in different types of writings, that pronounces the expectation that God will intervene in history or make sure that good triumphs over evil. [Source: Paula Fredriksen, William Goodwin Aurelio Professor of the Appreciation of Scripture, Boston University, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]

“You get different types of descriptions of what this triumph will be. You have descriptions, for example, of a battle between good and evil. Sometimes it's led by angels, sometimes there's a figure designated the Messiah who leads the forces of good. Often, God himself, or maybe a chief angel, does the fighting. In some of these writings you get a description of the resurrection of the dead. Some of them talk about Jerusalem being rebuilt and refurbished, or the Temple being made splendid and beautiful. Some of the prophets who were in the Jewish canon or, the for Christians, the Old Testament, are read apocalyptically in this period so that passages in Isaiah are seen as describing the end of time.

20120504-Shabbatai4a messiah.jpg
Medieval vision of the
coming of the Jewish Messiah
“I think what this means is that people who have this conviction believed that God, as being all good and all powerful, would intervene definitively in history. And sometimes the idiom used is that God would establish his kingdom. And that would be the end of evil. Sometimes you have a resurrection of the dead,... [or] an in-gathering of Israel which has been scattered in exile. And also in some traditions, you have discussions of gentiles; once the God of Israel reveals himself in glory, gentiles bury their idols and they turn and they all go up together with Israel and there's a great big party at the Temple. But the pressure is taken off the Priests, because according, I think, to Isaiah 25, God himself does the cooking, and he serves the meal for Jews and gentiles to eat together at the Temple, once his kingdom is established. “The interesting thing about an apocalyptic sensibility is that we find it scattered throughout the Diaspora writings. We have it in writings done in Greek, we have it in Semitic language writings. It's something that's not specific to a locale. Although, with the Qumran library, and with certain writings that show up in the New Testament, it's clear that there were pressures brought to bear. If one was living in the land of Israel, that would make a religious interpretation of current politics lean in the direction of an apocalyptic resolution.

“For example, Caligula, the Roman Emperor in the year 40 ...wanted to put his own statue in the Temple. He wanted to be worshipped as a god in his own lifetime. This made any right thinking Roman blanch, and ultimately Caligula was assassinated by Romans. But it was an unthinkable thought for Israel. And... in the effort to have his statue rolled down from Syria Jews, basically the entire country has a sit-down strike. Jews just go and sit in the way of the statue and they refuse to move... trying to make themselves understood that it is absolutely unacceptable. They cannot have a statue in their Temple, which makes them odd in their Mediterranean cultures. But, if you had that kind of temperament, [such an episode] might trigger apocalyptic expectation. [I]t's something that would be so unthinkable that you'd think that things couldn't get any worse.

“And therefore, a political episode interpreted religiously would give you a hint that you might know what time it was on God's clock. The worst things got, the better they were about to be. And this kind of response to different kinds of political episodes is something that characterizes a certain stream within Jewish religious sensibility from minus 200 to plus 200. That's why we begin to get the development of traditions about a Messiah who's going to come, or prayers and synagogues that talk about the resurrection the dead. Because of the conviction that since God is good, he won't allow evil to triumph indefinitely.”

Jewish Bandit- Guerrilla

Mattathias Appealing to Jewish
Refugees during the Maccabean period
At the time of Jesus's birth, the Holy Land was crawling with militant Jewish groups engaged in a prolonged guerrilla-style warfare against the Roman army. The districts of Palestine, where Jesus lived and worked were major centers of insurgent activity.

Militants Jewish groups and “bandit-guerrillas” were active in the decades before the birth of Christ and they continued being active decades after his death until a full scale Jewish revolt in A.D. 68 when a leader named Manahem took control of the temple area by driving out the Roman troops and executing the high priests. Six Roman legions were required to put the revolt down. Josephus chronicled five major Jewish military messiahs, not including Jesus or John the Baptist, between 40 B.C. and A.D. 73.

The Romans referred to the Jewish insurgents as bandits even though most of their targets were absentee landlords and tax collectors. They were also sometimes called "zealots" (a reference to their zeal for Jewish law and the promise of God's covenant). Bandit-guerrillas who were caught were often crucified or beheaded in public.

Callahan told PBS: “This word bandit is very problematic. It has all kinds of pejorative connotations in English. And one man's banditry may be another man's terrorism. And it's difficult to tell under certain economic and political conditions where banditry as we usually define it leaves off and where terrorism begins. If you're just rolling people on the highway, I mean that's banditry, as most people define it. But if you're robbing from the rich to give to the poor, that's not quite banditry. Or at least that's banditry with a political edge to it, that means it just can't be dismissed as a problem of law and order per se. And I think this is the difficulty that we enter when we try to historically reconstruct what was going on there. I mean some people were engaged in violent resistance against the status quo and that means under this regime, as most, certain kinds of lawbreaking. [Source: Allen D. Callahan, Associate Professor of New Testament, Harvard Divinity School, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]

“I think the Romans were perhaps even more astute than many scholars and historians after the fact.... Josephus, the Jewish historian, tells us a number of stories about characters whose career could be crudely summarized as [the] following: some guy wakes up in the morning and he thinks he's the Messiah or something. Or he's a prophet and he gets a group of people to follow him. He says we're going to go out in the desert and we're going to an empty place. We're going to go out there and we're going to wait for God to do something for us. So a whole bunch of people may go with him, maybe thousands, go with him out to this deserted, unsecured place, and they wait for what Josephus calls "the tokens of their deliverance." And the Romans send a vicious police action out there and kill everybody.

Tactics of Jewish Guerrilla Movements

Mattathias and the Apostate

The zealot-bandits practiced guerrilla tactics that would have made Mao proud: they seized armories, staged hit and run attacks and assassinations and carried out suicide mission and terrorist attacks on the palaces of important leaders. Many of the fighters lived in caves or mountain hideouts. Some urban guerrilla fighter were known as "dagger men," because they carried knives in the folds of their robes.

From time to time these guerrilla leaders lead uprisings that were quickly dashed by the Roman military. Herod made a name for himself by ambushing two threatening Jewish leaders. One leader was executed in front of a cave in full view of his wife and seven children. In 4 B.C. Jews angry over the execution of students caught trying to remove a Roman eagle from temple decoration launched a city-wide riot. Eventually some 2,000 Jews were crucified.

A violent protest broke out over the Roman transgression of the Jewish taboo on graven images and the use of temple funds to build an aqueduct to supply the Romans with water for their bathes. During a Passover feast in 50 A.D. a Roman centurion raised his tunic and farted into a group of pilgrims. "The less restrained of the young men and the naturally tumultuous segments of the people rushed into battle," Josephus reported. The Roman infantry was called in and Josephus claimed 30,000 people were trampled to death.

The rebels had a few victories. In A.D. 26, Jews confronted Roman soldiers over the raising of a flag with Caesar’s face near the central shrine of The Temple. The Jews bared their necks and dared the Romans to attack them. The result: the flags were taken down.

Essenes: A Pre-Christian Group?

Death of Eleazar during
the Maccabean period
About a century before Jesus, a man called the "Teacher of Righteousness" formed a sect, called the Essenes, with several hundred members that lived in the desert awaiting the imminent arrival of the Messiah. They were based in around Qumran, a region near the northern shore of the Dead Sea, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found.

The Essenes were a breakaway, apocalyptic Jewish sect that lived around the Dead Sea. Regarded as the authors of the Dead Sea scrolls, they moved to the desert to await the Messiah and believed in baptism and redemption. Since their monasteries were so close to John's baptismal site many believe they were early purveyors of Christianity. Most everything that is known about the Essenes has been derived from the Dead Sea scrolls.

The Essenes believed that they had been chosen to fight the "sons of darkness" as end of the world approached. They founded the earliest known monasteries and were led by leader called the Teacher of Righteousness. Their calendar was different from that of mainstream Jewish sects associated with the Temple of Jerusalem. They were highly secretive and conducted ritual bathes. Many lived in manmade caves dug into marl. Excavations by archaeologists of numerous bathing facilities at the Dead-Sea-scroll of Quamran suggests that these proto-Christians practiced baptism.

The Essenes allowed couples to live together without marriage. The relationship was only solemnized if the woman became pregnant. The Essenes may have influenced some of Jesus' teachings. The sect preached the idea of salvation but only to a few, not all of humanity like Jesus did. The Essenes were conquered in A.D. 68 by the Romans.

Some archaeologists now believe that the Essenes did not actually live in the Dead Sea area when the scrolls were written. They believed that when the scrolls were found the area was inhabited by ordinary farmers. This theory is based on findings that suggest that seasonal workers lived in Qumaran and there is no direct evidence that the Essenes or a people of “any uniqueness” lived there. They suggest the scrolls were written in Jerusalem and hidden in Qumran. Others disagree. One archaeologist found vessels — like those used to store the Dead Sea schools and bones — which appeared to have been laid out in some order, suggesting a religious ritual, possible evidence that the Essnes did live in the area.

Roman Response to Political Unrest

Professor L. Michael White told PBS: “Because of its position away from Jerusalem, Galilee may have become a center of, not only social dissent, but economic protest. There seems to be a rise of what we might describe as social banditry. One of the most famous characters this sort is a fellow by the name of Judas the Galilean. [Source: L. Michael White, Professor of Classics and Director of the Religious Studies Program University of Texas at Austin, Frontline, PBS, April 1998 ]

Roman legionnaires

“Judas the Galilean, himself, was eventually captured and executed by Herod's sons, but his own family continued his tradition. We hear of two more of his sons in the mid-40's A.D. who were captured and crucified by the Roman Governor, Tiberius Julius Alexander. This is kind of an ironic story. Here is this ongoing tradition of protest against Roman rule, but the Governor, himself, Tiberius Julius Alexander, is actually a Jew by birth. He is the nephew of Philo, the Jewish philosopher of Alexandria. And yet, he's the one who orders them executed because of their political rebellion.

“We hear of a number of other characters during this period who reflect this growing social banditry and political protest. One of the most interesting, and famous cases is a character known as The Egyptian. We don't know his real name. He seems just to have come from Egypt. But according to Josephus, he's someone who had magical powers and garnered an enormous following among the popular folk. It seems that at one point he led a mass of people up on the Mount of Olives, literally looking down into the Temple from across the way. And Josephus says that as a kind of false prophet ... and that's Josephus' favorite way of putting it ... as a kind of false prophet, this Egyptian promised them that he would lead these common people into Jerusalem, to take the Temple. They would make him their King, and they would, in turn, become his royal honor guard.

“Well, the Romans have a fairly standard response to this kind of individual. They immediately dispatch the cavalry, and any support units of the military that are at hand. Their response is quick and certain. Go first for the leader, and disperse the rest. The leader is usually arrested, or executed on the spot. The rest of the mob, as they appeared to be to the Romans, would have been dispersed, in some cases with a great deal of brutality.

“The Egyptian seems to have escaped in this case. Most others did not. And so, the Egyptian is a kind of a namesake of someone who lives on in the memory for a number of years, precisely because he wasn't executed. “

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, Schnorr von Carolsfeld Bible in Bildern, 1860

Text Sources: Internet Ancient History Sourcebook: Christian Origins sourcebooks.fordham.edu “World Religions” edited by Geoffrey Parrinder (Facts on File); “ Encyclopedia of the World’s Religions” edited by R.C. Zaehner (Barnes & Noble Books, 1959); King James Version of the Bible, gutenberg.org; New International Version (NIV) of The Bible, biblegateway.com; Christian Classics Ethereal Library (CCEL) ccel.org , Frontline, PBS, “Encyclopedia of the World Cultures” edited by David Levinson (G.K. Hall & Company, 1994); Wikipedia, BBC, National Geographic, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Live Science, Encyclopedia.com, Archaeology magazine, Reuters, Associated Press, Business Insider, AFP, Library of Congress, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated March 2024

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