Josephus, Wars 1.10.5 Now Herod was an active man, and soon found proper materials for his active spirit to work upon. As therefore he found that Hezekias, the head of the robbers, ran over the neighboring parts of Syria with a great band of men, he caught him and slew him, and many more of the robbers with him.
Josephus, Wars 1.16.2 But when Herod had reached Sepphoris, in a very great snow, he took the city without any difficulty, the guards that should have kept it flying away before it was assaulted; where he gave an opportunity to his followers that had been in distress to refresh themselves, there being in that city a great abundance of necessaries. After which he hasted away to the robbers that were in the caves, who overran a great part of the country, and did as great mischief to its inhabitants as a war itself could have done. (305) Accordingly, he sent beforehand three cohorts of footmen, and one troop of horsemen, to the village Arbela, and came himself forty days afterwards with the rest of his forces. Yet were not the enemy affrighted at his assault, but met him in arms; for their skill was that of warriors, but their boldness was the boldness of robbers: (306) when, therefore, it came to a pitched battle, they put to flight Herod’s left wing with their right one: but Herod, wheeling about on the sudden from his own right wing, came to their assistance, and both made his own left wing return back from its flight, and fell upon the pursuers, and cooled their courage, till they could not bear the attempts that were made directly upon them, and so turned back and ran away.
In the first century, Judea had a problem “social banditry.” As early as Herod the Great, some Jews engaged in violence against the government. Social banditry is a “pre-political rebellion” and is usually found in agricultural societies in periods of oppression, high taxation, or famine. According to Sanders, these taxes probably did not create an environment of poverty which fed an ever-increasing revolutionary spirit and resulted in social banditry. N. T. Wright, however, notes one of the first things the rebels did when they took the Temple was to burn the records of debt stored there (JW 2.427-239). Hatred of Rome and hatred of the wealthy aristocracy motivated this “debt-forgiveness” (JVG 169).
Social bandits portray themselves as robbing the rich and giving to the poor, “righting wrongs” and other social evils, and providing justice for the oppressed lower classes. This is something like Robin Hood, or the American “gangster” of the depression era (Pretty Boy Floyd, Jesse James, etc.) The social banditry described by Josephus took place during the reign of Herod the Great, but it continued throughout the period of the New Testament, culminating on the rebellion against Rome in A.D. 66.
The phenomenon of social banditry is in the background of the New Testament when Jesus is arrested and crucified. In Mark 14:48, Jesus asks the arresting party:
Mark 14:48 “Am I leading a rebellion,” said Jesus, “that you have come out with swords and clubs to capture me? NIV
Mark 14:48 And Jesus answered and said unto them, Are ye come out, as against a thief, with swords and with staves to take me? KJV
Mark 14:48 And Jesus answered and said to them, “Have you come out with swords and clubs to arrest Me, as against a robber? NASB
When Jesus is crucified, he is placed between two thieves. The word λῃστής is used to describe Barabbas in John 18:40. This is more than simply a thief or a burglar: the noun λῃστής refers to a brigand or pirate (BDAG). Perhaps the word terrorist is a possible translation since in recent modern history a terrorist is someone who acts violently to destabilize a society.