Roots of the Rebellion: Social Banditry

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).

Image result for Robin HoodSocial 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.

8 thoughts on “Roots of the Rebellion: Social Banditry

  1. Good and important info here, Phillip. Thanks for quoting Josephus. I have his works, but never bother to crack them open.

    Indeed, few non-scholar Christians have much sense of the “life and times” of Jesus or of Judea and Galilee of the period… and it is CRITICAL to good interpretation of the Gospels and NT overall. (I’m very pro religious literacy, and Evangelicals are notably low on the scale vs. Mormons, Jews and even atheists.)

    The passages you site, along with a few others, give us some real puzzles as to the real nature of Jesus’ following: hints of at least a former, if not active “Zealot” among them; account of at least intimidation, if not actual violence in the “cleansing” incident. That is a fascinating thing to come to grips with, either if it’s historical (in the Synoptics, particularly… John being the outlier on it) or if it’s mostly literary device. I’ve written a couple posts on it as you may have read. I think it bears a lot more attention, especially relative to Jesus’ arrest and execution, and the presence of “bandits” or even “terrorists” at his crucifixion… from an “insurrection” (Mark, or maybe Matt., I forget) that probably coincided with or in close timing with the cleansing incident.

    • Josephus is used more than you think outside of Christian circles. Martin Goodman’s Rome and Jerusalem is a good example, a history of the Jewish War cannot be written without a critical examination of Josephus. Within NT scholarship there is now a full recognition of how political the message of Jesus could be (the anti-imperial reading of Jesus and Paul, just about everything Richard Horsley writes, etc.)

      Gone are the days of Jesus as a poet who just told people to love each other, he fits too well within the radical mid-first century in Judea!

      • The author I’ve read who takes political/economic interpretation of Jesus, his parables, etc. further than others, I think (my knowledge is certainly incomplete), is Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer. He may go too far on some, but I imagine his views are often as likely to be right as more traditional interpretations. As I recall, the book, “Jesus Against Christianity”, is not heavily footnoted and I don’t recall how much he cites people like Horsley, Rieger, Crossan, Meier, etc., though certainly some of them. And it was prior to some of their works, around 2002 I think, relatively early in the turn you speak of.

        Are you familiar with Joerg Rieger? I’ve only read a little by him but met and heard him at a couple conferences and he is a “gentleman and a scholar” with a compassionate heart. He moved from SMU to Vanderbilt Divinity/Grad School about a year ago. (Obviously not a conservative or traditionalist, but strong scholar.)

  2. Interesting how to some of the Jews, this social banditry lead to falsified Messianic hopes. The radical and activist approach that these rebels had taken could have very easily been seen as qualities of the revolutionary Messiah that the Jews had been waiting for. For some of the peasants, they were finally seeing what they wanted to consider “justice” against their oppressors. Anthony Tomasino says, “Sometimes these romantic figures have been seen viewed as messiahs, the hope for the liberation and salvation of the nation” (Tomasino, 285). Certainly to some Jews, the wrong doings of these social bandits were easily justified acts, made to annoy the Romans.

    Tomasino, Anthony J. Judaism Before Jesus. Downers Grove, IL, InterVarsity Press, 2003.

  3. Thank you for those quotations from Josepheus as I was just wondering last week about what the primary sources were that pointed to “bandits” were more than just thieves but were as you put it “pre-political rebels” or insurrectionists.

  4. Whenever I think about the social banditry that took place during that period I find that I always link it back to the messianic hopes of the Jews of that day. Their general belief that the messiah would be this great militaristic liberator, someone who would reclaim the throne of Israel and rule like king David. I also wonder how many of those people had the mindset that they needed to pave the way for his arrival or that he would not come unless they set these things into motion themselves. It is an interesting thought but it is also clear that the Jews were simply eager to be rid of the Romans.

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