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Messianic claimants (4)


Judas the Galilean (6 CE)

Sources: Flavius Josephus, Jewish War 2.433 and Jewish Antiquities 18.1-10 and 18.23; Acts of the apostles 5.37.

Story: The Jewish king Herod Archelaus was an incapable ruler, and the Roman authorities decided to dispose him in 6 CE. His realm, Judea, Samaria and Idumea, was annexed as the province Judaea. The new governor, a man named Coponius, tried to establish new taxes, but a large rebellion was the only result. Its leader was Judas the Galilean, and when the high priest Joazar had shown himself incapable of overcoming the rebellion, the governor of adjacent Syria interfered and conducted the census. This was Publius Sulpicius Quirinius, well known from the census mentioned in the Gospel of Luke (2.2).

There was one Judas, a Galilean, of a city whose name was Gamala, who, taking with him Zadok, a Pharisee, became zealous to draw them to a revolt. Both said that this taxation was no better than an introduction to slavery, and exhorted the nation to assert their liberty; as if they could procure them happiness and security for what they possessed, and an assured enjoyment of a still greater good, which was that of the honor and glory they would thereby acquire for magnanimity. They also said that God would not otherwise be assisting to them, than upon their joining with one another in such councils as might be successful, and for their own advantage; and this especially, if they would set about great exploits, and not grow weary in executing the same. So men received what they said with pleasure, and this bold attempt proceeded to a great height.
[Flavius Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 18.4-6]


Judas the Galilean was the author of the fourth branch of Jewish philosophy. These men agree in all other things with the Pharisaic notions; but they have an inviolable attachment to liberty, and say that God is to be their only Ruler and Lord. They also do not value dying any kinds of death, nor indeed do they heed the deaths of their relations and friends, nor can any such fear make them call any man lord.

[Flavius Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 18.23]
Comment: This 'fourth branch of Jewish philosophy' is called Zealotism; the other three sects were the Sadducees, Essenes and Pharisees. Flavius Josephus hated the Zealots, because he held them responsible for the fall of Jerusalem and the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE; consequently, their leader Judas is not treated kindly. He continues his story as follows:
All sorts of misfortunes sprang from these men, and the nation was infected with this doctrine to an incredible degree. One violent war came upon us after another, and we lost our friends, which used to alleviate our pains. There were also very great robberies and murder of our principal men. This was done in pretense indeed for the public welfare, but in reality for the hopes of gain to themselves; whence arose seditions, and from them murders of men, which sometimes fell on those of their own people (by the madness of these men towards one another, while their desire was that none of the adverse party might be left), and sometimes on their enemies. Famine also came upon us, and reduced us to the last degree of despair, as did also the taking and demolishing of cities; nay, the sedition at last increased so high, that the very temple of God was burnt down by their enemies' fire. Such were the consequences of this, that the customs of our fathers were altered, and such a change was made, as added a mighty weight toward bringing all to destruction.
[Flavius Josephus, Jewish Antiquities 18.7-9]
It is unclear what happened exactly. For instance, we do not know whether Judas conducted military operations or was merely the intellectual leader of the revolt. However, the revolt is absent from the catalogue of armed interventions by the Syrian governor of the Roman historian Tacitus (Histories, 5.9); Quirinius' measures were probably harsh, but not military in nature. Josephus does not tell us what became of Judas, but the author of the Acts of the apostles tells us that he perished by the sword.
Some time ago, Theudas appeared, claiming to be somebody, and about four hundred men rallied to him. He was killed, all his followers were dispersed, and it all came to nothing. After him, Judas the Galilean appeared in the days of the census and led a band of people in revolt. He too was killed, and all his followers were scattered.
[Luke, Acts of the apostles 5.36-37]
This is a quotation from a discussion among the Jewish leaders about Jesus. We know that both Jesus and Theudas, together with Judas' (grand)son Menahem, were called Messiahs, and this makes it extremely likely that this title was given to Judas too. An additional argument is that Judas made a bid for national independence, something that was expected from the Messiah. In about 47, Judas' sons Jacob and Simon were arrested and crucified by governor Tiberius Julius Alexander. The story is told by Flavius Josephus.
Then came the successor of Fadus, Tiberius Alexander. He was the son of Alexander, the chief customs officer of Alexandria, one of the most influential men of his age, both for his family and wealth. He was also more eminent for his piety than his son Alexander, for the latter did not continue in the religion of his country. Under this prefect a great famine happened in Judaea, and queen Helena of Adiabene bought grain in Egypt at a great expense, and distributed it to those that needed it. Besides this, the sons of Judas the Galilean were executed; I mean that they were the sons of that Judas who caused the people to revolt when Quirinius came to take an account of the estates of the Jews. The names of those sons were James and Simon, whom Alexander commanded to be crucified.
[Jewish antiquities 20.100-103]
We do not know why they were arrested, but it is reasonable to assume that they were fierce nationalists as well.
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