How Political was Galilee?

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?

Jesus as Che GuevaraWhen 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.

25 thoughts on “How Political was Galilee?

  1. I love this cultural-political period in history from the Maccabees to the destruction of Jerusalem.

    • I do too (obviously). I think knowing the history of the period from the Maccabean Revolt through the second Jewish Revolt in AD 132-5 sheds so much light in the NT.

      • I agree! I started reading Josephus early on, as well as other books pertinent to the period. I am sure my grasp of the times and the area are nowhere what it would be without that knowledge.

      • One of my first PhD classes was a read-through of Charlesworth’s 2 volumes of OT Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha, along side E. P. Sanders big book on Judaism 63BC-AD70. That was foundation for much of the rest of my studies, along with an Intertestamental lit class that was more on the Apocrypha (Sirach, Maccabees). A major whole (I think) was that I never read through Josephus completely as I did the Apoc & Pseude literature.

      • I remember how excited I was when I bought Charlesworth’s set. I have never read it through, but I have read significant portions and I refer to it regularly. I also like to read other books on the political, apocalyptic, and religious developments of the period, and I spent a great deal of time on the Dead Sea Scrolls.

        It is impossible for me to read the New Testament and understand it the same way I did when I was a fundamentalist Baptist. I wish we could sit and talk for two or three hours; I know I would learn a lot.

      • I was never much of a fundamentalist and totally not a baptist, but it would be great to sit down for coffee sometime. You would not happen to be travelling to the ETS/SBL meetings in November?

      • No, I cannot come. The idea of talking together is nice, but I am sure it would also be one-way; I don’t have much to offer but questions.

  2. I think the Roman authority would have to be challenged by the words of Jesus. Jesus claimed to be the one and only, true King of the Jews. This definitely challenged and upset Herod, the self-proclaimed king of the Jews. The questions posed at the end make you think quite differently how some political figures may have viewed Jesus’ life and quest on earth. In a sense Jesus was a political rebel, not bowing down to the Roman leaders and way of life. Yet Jesus tells his followers to give back to the government what is theirs (Matthew 22:21, Mark 12:17, and Luke 20:225). However, it is important to point out that Jesus clearly demands that God should have the first place in our hearts – this in nonnegotiable (Matthew 6:24; 6:33; 22:37). So in a sense you could say Jesus was a rebel in that he did not place the government as top priority, but not in the sense that He acted out against it but rather told us to respect them (1 Peter 2:13-17).

  3. Jesus wasn’t a political rebel to the extent that the Jewish community during his time wanted him to be. People greatly misunderstood what Jesus’ mission truly was during the course of His life. Even Jesus’ closest followers did not understand what Jesus came to do, most of them thought that he would deliver (physically) the Jews from the Roman authorities, but Jesus’ mission was much bigger. That being said, like Danae has said, above, Jesus’ words were deeply threatening to the Roman authorities because of his claim of kingship. Roman officials, I’m sure thought Jesus was a terrorist, but Jesus’ actions spoke otherwise. He healed, spent time with the lowest of humans, and spoke a message of redemption and love–not exactly the most threatening of persons. Truthfully, Jesus didn’t interact much with the Roman officials, except in his trial and execution. In Mark 12, Jesus tells the religious leaders that to an extent “religion” and politics are separate, “giving what is Caesar’s to Caesar and what is God’s to God” (vs. 17). Jesus was much more of a threat to the religious leaders during his time than he was to the Romans (although they too would have been watchful). Jesus went to the cross both from claiming to be the Son of God, but also for claiming to be the king of the Jews. Jesus’ conflict was both one between the Romans and one between the Jews, yet Jesus’ sacrifice and grace was extended to both.

  4. Although Jesus has before been defined as a “political rebel” this was not his purpose. I can understand why Jesus could be defined as a political rebel because some of his teachings and views were different from the Romans. To some extent, Jesus was a rebel because he opposed the politics of the people of his time. But I strongly disagree that Jesus was a political rebel by using our modern understanding of a rebel. I don’t think Jesus’ teachings were against just the Romans, but everyone who wasn’t obeying God and his will. I would believe that a Roman official could refer to Jesus as a “terrorist”, but with a false understanding. A Roman official could make the argument that Jesus used his miracles to prove his power and bring terror to the Romans and their way of life. Obviously this is false, but I could see this argument being made. Jesus’ teachings challenged Roman authority in many ways because he taught to submit to God’s authority and not the Roman or Herodian powers. Jesus shows that he is submitting to God by displaying his purpose of fulfilling God’s law. Matthew 5:17 says: “Do not think that I came to destroy the Law or the Prophets. I did not come to destroy but to fulfill”.

  5. Being in the position of Roman government I could see how Jesus could have been labeled a rebel or a terrorist, but Jesus wasn’t here to overthrow the government. Jesus was here for his ministry and to be the sacrifice for our sins. Jesus even came out to say that he was not here to over throw the government. If we look at John 18:36 it says, “Jesus answered, “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews. But my kingdom is not from the world.” Jesus is basically telling everyone that I already have a kingdom that I rule, but it is not here on this earth. This government here doesn’t come close to destroying my kingdom, so why overthrow this government. I think that is why Jesus told his disciples to respect the government and told them to pay the taxes of Caesar, but everything that is God’s give to him. (Luke 20:25). So yes Jesus could have been qualified to be labeled a rebel/terrorist, but that was not Jesus’ intentions.

  6. I think that it is a stretch to label Jesus as a political rebel during his time on earth. The Roman government was not the cause of Jesus being crucified. The Pharisees and the religious leaders were the initiators of the push to have Jesus killed (Mark 3:6, Matthew 27:2). The Roman government was definitely aware of the attention that Jesus was receiving, but they did not have any reason to consider Him a major rebel. In Matthew 27 when Jesus meets with Pontius Pilate, Pilate sees nothing wrong with Jesus, but he delivers Him over because of the crowd. If anything the Roman government would have supported Jesus. All Jews during that time hated Romans, they hated paying taxes most of all. Jesus tells the his listeners to pay to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s in Matthew 22:21. Why would the Roman government view Jesus as a rebel when He is encouraging his followers to pay their taxes? If Jesus was considered any type of rebel during His time, He would have been considered a religious rebel.
    One way that Jesus could have been seen as a political rebel is through the words that He said. He continually spoke of the Kingdom of God that was going to be established. A Roman/Herodian officer overhearing the language being used might become concerned of an uprising. As soon they saw or heard of what He did it wouldn’t add up though. He healed the sick, casted out demons, and reached out to all people.

  7. Jesus was a rebel, and I think politics was definitely an area where he showed it. Of course, we need to first remember that Jesus was not anti-government. In Mark 12:17, for example, he tells the people to “give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.” Jesus is not equating Caesar to God, but he is acknowledging that, in some ways, Caesar is an authority figure, like God, who deserves a certain amount of money. This was in response to a question from the Pharisees regarding paying taxes, and this was an answer that pleased everyone, in a sense. But Jesus was not pro-Roman or Greek government. The very fact that he spoke on following an authority besides the government (God) showed this. Speaking out against the government in power in those days could have meant death. Jesus was a political rebel simply for claiming to be God, a higher authority than the government.

  8. Well, this is a hard question, but I can see Jesus being labeled as a terrorist in a Roman perspective. However, there are for sure some other circumstances where Jesus is kind of the exact opposite of someone that would call a terrorist (at least I think so anyway). First off, it’s hard to imagine a man who is healing people and preaching of good moral things be labeled as a terrorist. There is plenty of scripture demonstrating the importance of citizens obeying/following the law and authority as long as it doesn’t obstruct with following God. Jesus also made it a point to share the importance of paying taxes (Mark 12:17). So in that sense, I can’t imagine Jesus being considered as a serious threat let alone a terrorist. When you put it in terms of political threat and causing a stir, then I can understand it a little more. A man hurting political and social economic status by flipping tables can for sure be considered a threat (Matthew 21:12). If you think about this from a Roman perspective, Jesus did disturb the roman order and spoke often of a coming kingdom other than the kingdom of Caesar. The people were calling him “king of the Jews”. Jesus was causing a stir during Passover, in Jerusalem of all places, and in the company of Pilate and the temple control under his grasp. Jesus being crucified would be an authoritative warning that might keep other Jews from doing the same things. So from the biblical/Christian perspective, Jesus changed the world and wasn’t a terrorist or deserved to be called one. From a Roman official perspective, even though he may have not been seen as a huge threat alone, could have probably been referred to as a terrorist.

  9. Although Jesus was not necessarily a “political rebel”, he was probably seen this way by the Romans. This would be because he was claiming kingship and that would be very threatening to the Roman rule. Also Jesus’ teachings would have been threatening to Roman rule, because a lot of what he preached was contrary to what the Roman culture was like. Jesus’ teachings were considered radical and they caused an uproar with the Pharisees and Roman officials. People were calling Jesus, “the king of the Jews”. This probably did not help his case with the Pharisees and Roman officials who believed Jesus to be a political rebel. Jesus says when he is being arrested, “Am I leading a rebellion, that you have come out with swords and clubs to capture me? Every day I sat in the temple courts teaching, and you did not arrest me” (Matt. 26:55). The Romans even arrested Jesus like he was a political rebel, who had been acting contrary to what they wanted.

  10. I do not think that Jesus was a “political terrorist” because he was not trying to overthrow the Roman government. He made no effort to go out of his way to take over the government. He only collected followers, and that did not cause other people to rise up and try to overthrow the government and to name Jesus as their ruler. He was doing good for the people. In Matthew 21:1-11 when Jesus comes out riding a donkey, I think people understand that Jesus is not a person trying to overtake the government, but that He is the Messiah, their creator. Most people have used this verse but it shows that Jesus sees himself as above the government instead wanting the government for himself. Matthew 22:15-22 illustrates Jesus’ example of showing respect to the government instead of showing disrespect towards the government. If anyone thought that Jesus was going to overthrow anything it would be the pharisees and high priests because they were always making a big deal about the things that Jesus was doing. They were always questioning him and trying to point out his flaws, but Jesus obviously always pointed out their flaws.

  11. I had not really ever thought about Jesus in a political sense. I feel like the modern church does not talk about how Jesus was viewed in his time and in light of the political situation that existed. If it is talked about, it is very brief and kind of a poor coverage of what was really happening in that time period. Usually what I hear about this is that so many people struggled to follow Jesus and think of him as the Messiah because they were expecting a fierce warrior to come in and destroy their enemies and oppressors. This gives me the impression that was not political enough and did not pose a big enough threat to the Roman oppressors as many Jews wanted to happen. But this blog post seems to describe it differently. It suggests that Jesus was seen in a very political light and that many of his actions could be viewed as acts of rebellion, both secretly and very publicly. To call the twelve disciples ‘twelve lieutenants’ really does make Jesus sound like a political threat. Connecting the names of his disciples with leaders and influential people in acts of rebellion makes it very easy to see why the Pharisees and those who wanted to get rid of Jesus would plot him as a political enemy of Rome in order to get the Roman government to execute him. While the religious leaders had their own problems with Jesus, it would be easy for them to present him in a way that would make the Romans think of him as a terrorist. It was the Roman soldiers who mocked Jesus and called him the ‘king of the Jews’ in Matthew 27:27-31. They were mocking his ‘attempt’ to take the place of a Roman official. The Jews’ charges made Jesus seem like a political and religious opponent, so they had no trouble executing him.

  12. Something that I thought was really interesting from this was that the two men named Judas that were a part of the twelve disciples, may have been named after Judas Maccabees. This is something that has crossed my mind from time to time because it would make sense being that Judas Maccabees was a major figure in Jewish history. There is also the possibility though that the parents who named their children Judas may have just liked the name or it was a popular name to name their children at that time. I also thought that the slogan, “no master but God” was really interesting. Like the blog post says, I also think that it is a very spiritual sounding slogan. I feel like the slogan gets across what Judas believes, as well as what he is fighting for. I personally think that it is a pretty cool slogan. The slogan makes sense because Judas did not want Rome to have the authority over him and the people, especially when taxes were getting involved. One more thing that I found interesting was Simon the zealot possibly being associated with Judas the Galilean rather than a spiritual kind of zeal like many people believe. To me, I still think of Simon the zealot referring to a spiritual zeal. This may just be because this is what I have always thought of, but it does make sense to me. It would be interesting to know for sure what zealot is referring to in regards to Simon.

  13. I wouldn’t say he wasn’t a big political rebel but he did not follow the law strictly. Jesus didn’t tell the disciple they had to wash their hands every time they ate. I could see why a Roman official would refer to Jesus as a “terrorist” because in Matthew 21:12-13 it says how Jesus overturned the money from the temple and then Matthew 11:18 that the chief priests and teachers were looking for ways to kill him. The Roman authority was ruled over by Herod at this time and Herod did not care what stood in his way. So I would say yes Jesus’ word would challenge the Herodian and Roman authority just because Herod did not like to follow laws. He was insensitive to the things that happened around him and only cared about if the throne was going to be taken from him.

  14. 4/9- Speaking as a Christian, no I don’t feel as though Jesus was a political threat or a terrorist, but as a Law Keeper or Priest I can see how He could be seen like that. It was made perfectly clear that the Sabbath must be kept and followed strictly / religiously. During the time of Christ, He did keep the Laws in mind but while doing the work of the Father Jesus didn’t put a stop to that just because of it being the Sabbath. In John chapter 5 the man at the pool was healed by Christ on the Sabbath but he was told to go and tell no one; unfortunately the man did exactly the opposite and told the Priest who had healed him. This went against the law and Jesus was then seen as a threat politically.
    I had to take some time to think about how Jesus could be viewed as a terrorist because I didn’t think it would even be a possibility. But then I thought of the story in Matthew chapter 21 where Jesus overturned the tables in the temple, and got righteous anger towards the teachers of the law and the merchants. This could be viewed as a terrorist attack indefinitely, most common people would interpret that “overturning” the tables would be when Jesus physically flipped them over. This is destruction of the things that were set in place / okayed the selling in the temple so Jesus coming in to destroy this is viewed as a terrorist attack by definition.

  15. I think that to equate Jesus to a political rebel reveals tones of truth, but does not quite grasp the heart of Christ. It doesn’t appear that Jesus’s goals on earth were political, but that he had the heavenly goal of saving sinners (1 Tim 1:15). Anything that violated God’s will for His people, Christ was against; this happened to include several aspects of Roman leadership. However, Christ also taught people to respect governing authorities, so long as they were not violating the will of God (Rom 13:1). Jesus’s submission to God however, did cause him to oppose actions of political authorities at times. I had not considered before this post the close ties that Jesus had with political rebels though, and I would have to agree with you on your interpretation of the meaning of “zealot” in the case of Simon. As you mentioned, Jesus was part of a movement to expand the “Kingdom of God;” it seems to me that his thinking and intentions within this context are much larger than that of the Zealots, so while he might have been affiliated with this group, I do not see reason to believe that he could also be considered bound by such political dynamics. Tomasino (2003) in “Judaism Before Jesus” describes the origin and beliefs of this Zealot group, and while they essentially believe in the primary authority of God over Roman rule, it was still centered around a Roman resistance, which was not the ideology around which Christ was centered (John 6:38).

    Tomasino, A. J. (2003). Judaism before Jesus: The events & ideas that shaped the New Testament world. InterVarsity Press.

  16. I would say that Jesus was a political rebel, but under special context. Normally when I think of a rebel I am picturing someone who is out here fighting or bringing out violence against a tyrant, but as we know Jesus did not bring out violence. A comparison that I would have for Jesus, that is most definitely not one hundred percent accurate, is a stereotypical peace loving hippie of today. What I mean by this is that Jesus was not out here instigating violence against the leaders, but He most certainly did not agree with a lot of what the empire did. I do believe that a Roman commander could refer to Jesus as a terrorist because His words could be easily twisted because of the time Jesus was in. Jesus was not able to come out and make official statements to the entire world, so it would be easy for a Roman commander to say that Jesus meant something He did not mean. This would give them cause to label him as a political terrorist. I believe all of this even though Jesus was not out here committing acts of violence as we would believe by the word terrorist. Reading the words of Jesus might challenge Roman authority because Jesus often talks about who is really in charge, God the Father above. This could make the Romans believe that Jesus was challenging them because He would not say that they were the most in power.

  17. Though I think Jesus was a political rebel, I don’t think it was to just be politically devient in the way that we think of today. Jesus made it clear that he came to seek and save the lost, and through his many teachings, that he came to convert hearts. When I think of a political rebel, I think of all of these big political issues where it’s like a game of people trying to make their voice about an issue the loudest. While Jesus did address big issues like so, he came as a much more of a ‘personal person’ who taught about how you should live from your heart. If you tried to argue that he was intently political, then you would at least be able to say that getting people at their hearts is a genius means to another end. But I think converting hearts was Jesus’ end, while political upheaval may have occurred as a result of changing hearts. Jesus even asked people to love their enemies and pray for those who were persecuting them (Matt. 5:44). So, it doesn’t seem evident that Jesus’ first intent was to be a political rebel, even though many of the words he says may come across as a threat to the Roman government. An example of this is Jesus’ teaching on a kingdom not of this world: “Jesus answered, ‘My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jewish leaders. But now my kingdom is from another place'” (John 18:36). I’m sure this seemed to imply that the Herodian or Roman authorities did not have ultimate authority over his followers, but there was a kingdom coming that would threaten the power of Rome.

  18. I would not consider Jesus to be a political rebel but rather a leader for change. Jesus was labeled as a rebel because he contradicted what was considered to be Roman law. Because of this reason, Jesus was labeled as a “rebel.” Instead of falling in line, Jesus taught about God and talked about how he was the Messiah. This did not go over well with the Romans. The Romans hung Jesus on a cross because of this claim of being the Messiah. The Romans did not like the fact that Jesus claimed to be more powerful than them. It is understandable why the Romans would consider Jesus to be a “rebel”, but I would argue that Jesus’ intentions were heavily misunderstood by them.

    I would argue that there is a lesson to be learned here even today. In society today we are quick to judge others based on what they say and we use that as a basis to show hatred towards others just like the Romans did with Jesus. In this case, Jesus is the perfect example of how we should all strive to be. Despite being ridiculed and put down, he chose to sacrifice his life for the greater good. Without that sacrifice, there would be no forgiveness of sins for sinners. 1 John 2:6 says “Whoever claims to live in him must live as Jesus did.” This does not mean that we are to be crucified for the sake of others, but rather that our lives resemble Christ. When push comes to shove, we need to evaluate how we react. Do we act like the Romans and persecute those that we do not agree with or do we choose to be peacemakers like Jesus?

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