Jesus is often described as a kind of revolutionary, a political operative who was subtly working to challenge Roman authority. Historical Jesus studies often examine the Roman presence in Galilee as well as the shock of increased urbanization in an otherwise agricultural region. As Crossan points out, a first century Galilean Jew could not escape the “all-pervasive presence of Rome” (The Historical Jesus, 19). But can we fairly describe Galilee as a hot-bed of political rebellion against the Herodians and Rome? If so, how might this tense political situation affect our understanding of Jesus?
When Herod was named King of the Jews in Rome in 40 B.C, secured his kingdom with the help of troops from Marc Anthony. In 39-38 B.C. he cruelly put down rebellions in Galilee (War 1.311-313). While Josephus calls these people “brigands,” E. P. Sanders suggests these brigands were people unwilling to live under Herod, who was considered a “low-born upstart” who slaughters his own sons.
There were people just prior to the time of Jesus who were ready to fight Rome given the right circumstances. Josephus describes a “fourth philosophy” which he claims was founded by Judas the Galilean and Zadok the Sadducee in A.D. 6 (Antiq. 18.3-10, War 2.117f). When Archelaus was deposed, Rome sent a prefect to govern Judea. In order to organize and tax more efficiently, a census was ordered. Judas rallied some followers and fought against taxation because it represented foreign rule. His slogan was “no master but God,” a rather spiritual sounding phrase to be sure, but it is not exactly clear how “no master but God” gets worked out in the real world.
Thirty years after Jesus was executed there was open rebellion against Rome in Jerusalem. But did this rebellion reach Galilee? In a recent essay, Mordechai Aviam compares the archaeological record for villages and towns in Galilee with Josephus’s claim to have fortified 19 settlements in Galilee prior to the rebellion against Rome in A. D. 66. This claim was once dismissed as wishful thinking, but as Aviam observes, scholars have become more open to taking Josephus’s claim as valid (p, 30). If towns like Sepphoris and Gischala were fortified, the people of the towns did the work. While this is not evidence for widespread anti-Roman political activity, Aviam thinks it does indicate “most of the Galileans shared an approach similar to that of Josephus, as did the rebel government in Jerusalem…Galileans were no different” (p. 44).
If the people of Galilee were more closely related to Jerusalem politically, what would they have thought about Jesus in Galilee in the late 20s A. D.? Jesus selected twelve disciples to train as leaders of some sort of movement he called “the Kingdom of God.” If we replace “twelve disciples” with “twelve lieutenants” this sounds even more political! He took many of his followers out into the wilderness and re-enacted the Wilderness people of Israel’s history. Perhaps people who heard Jesus’s teaching and saw his growing movement thought of him as another challenger to Herodian and Roman authority, someone who might restore a kingdom to Israel.
While it is possible a disciple of Jesus, Simon the Zealot, was part of the same political movement as Judas the Galilean, most New Testament scholars prefer to take the word “zealot” in this context as spiritual zeal. Personally, I wonder about the word “zeal” having a modern sense of “spirituality” in the context of A.D. 30 Galilee, where only twenty years beforehand Judas led a revolt against Rome which might be described as “zeal.” Notice also, there are two men named Judas out of the twelve disciples. Judas was a patriotic name going back to Judas Maccabees, the last successful Jewish rebel against foreign power. It is possible some parents were supporters of Judas the Galilean and named their sons after him and other members of the Hasmonean dynasty (Simon, Jonathan, Matthias).
To what extent is Jesus a “political rebel”? Could a Roman official refer to Jesus as a “terrorist”? How might reading the words of Jesus challenge Herodian or Roman authority?
Bibliography: Mordechai Aviam, “People Land, Economy and Belief in First-Century Galilee and Its Origins: A Comprehensive Archaeological Synthesis,” page 5-48 in The Galilean Economy in the Time of Jesus. Ed. David A. Fiensy and Ralph K. Hawkins. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2013.