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The activity of the Zealots and Sicarii further destabilized the political situation. The name Sicarii comes from a short sword that could be concealed under clothing. The Sicarri would mingle into a crowd and assassinate their enemies. They were not really a religious sect, but rather a group of nationalist who advocated revolt against the Romans. They were “urban assassins,” primarily attacking the Jewish aristocracy who were pro-Roman. Eventually they took to burning estates and taking hostages. Jonathan the High Priest was their first victim. [Note that the word is used in Acts 21:38 to describe the activities of “The Egyptian,” the NIV translates the word as “terrorist” to avoid confusion with the later sicarri movement.]
Josephus, JW 2.13.3 (cf. Ant 20.8.10) (254) When the country was purged of these, there sprang up another sort of robbers in Jerusalem, which were called Sicarii, who slew men in the daytime, and in the midst of the city; (255) this they did chiefly at the festivals, when they mingled themselves among the multitude, and concealed daggers under their garments, with which they stabbed those that were their enemies; and when any fell down dead, the murderers became a part of those that had indignation against them; by which means they appeared persons of such reputation, that they could by no means be discovered. (256) The first man who was slain by them was Jonathan the high priest, after whose death many were slain every day, while the fear men were in of being so served, was more afflicting than the calamity itself; (257) and while everybody expected death every hour, as men do in war, so men were obliged to look before them, and to take notice of their enemies at a great distance; nor, if their friends were coming to them, durst they trust them any longer; but, in the midst of their suspicions and guarding of themselves, they were slain. Such was the celebrity of the plotters against them, and so cunning was their contrivance.
Their terrorist activities helped to bring on the revolution. The random assassinations lead to a distrust among the aristocracy and a general fear from the ruling class, leading to a breakdown of social order.
The Zealots were a radical group that believed the Maccabean revolt was the “golden age” of Israel and struggled to start a revolution against the Romans. There may be no New Testament examples, although Simon, one of Jesus’ disciples, was called the “Zealot.” Luke 6:15, Acts 1:13. It is unlikely that this term means that Simon was a member of this party, which was not formally a party until A.D. 67-68.
A possible New Testament reference is the disciple of Jesus, Simon the Zealot. Is this disciple a political zealot, a revolutionary? Most New Testament scholars think not, preferring 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 these men were born during the activities of Judas the Galilean.
The Jewish Christians living in Jerusalem were therefore in a dangerous place. If they appeared to be too open to Paul’s Gentile churches they ran the risk of real persecution from these more radical elements, yet they clearly preached Jesus was the Messiah, that he was crucified and raised from the dead, and that he was coming back soon to render judgment (on the temple officials, the Romans, etc.) and re-establish Messianic Kingdom expected by the prophets.
In addition to Jesus, there were other people claiming to be the messiah in the first century. Each of this examples are from humble origins (shepherds, etc.), sought to set themselves up as kings, and developed a peasant following.
Under the procurator Fadus (44-46) a messianic prophet appeared. Theudas convinced many Jews he could part the Jordan River. The Romans attacked the crowd, killing many, and beheaded Theudas. (Antiq. 20.97-99, Acts 5:36). Theudas is known from Josephus (Antiq. 20.5.1 §97-98). In this passage, Theudas led a revolt during the reign of Fadus, A.D. 44-46. This is obviously a problem, since Gamaliel is giving this speech at least ten years before Theudas rebelled. For someone like Bruce Chilton, this makes the account in Acts anachronistic and unreliable, despite the
fact that Gamaliel’s standing in the Council is consistent with other sources (ABD 2:904). This problem is usually explained by noting that the name Theudas is a common name in first century inscriptions. In addition, the period after the death of Herod the Great saw many rebellions, so it is likely that Gamaliel refers to a leader of one of these earlier rebellions. Judas the Galilean lead a tax-revolt about A.D. 6, described by Josephus (Antiq 18.1.6, §23). Like Thuds’, he died and his followers dispersed.
Under the procurator Felix (52-60), prophets once again lead people into the wilderness promising that God was about to send signs of deliverance. Felix sent troops and once again killed large numbers. As Josephus says, “But the number of the robbers whom he caused to be crucified was incalculable, as also that of the citizens whom he arrested and punished as having been in league with them” (JW 2.13.2).
Another messianic pretender, known only as “The Egyptian” led a crowd in an attack on Jerusalem. Josephus reports 30,000 were in the crowd, but Acts 21:38 indicates only 4000 were involved. The Romans arrested many, but the Egyptian escaped. (JW 2.13.5, Acts 21:38).
Simon Bar Giora (Simon, son of the proselyte; died in A.D. 70). Simon represents the largest of the messianic movements (Josephus, JW, 4.9.3). He fought against the Romans and helped unite the Zealots to a certain extent. He eventually controlled Jerusalem, and took to wearing a white tunic and purple cape and called himself the “King of the Jews.” He eventually surrendered to the Romans and was taken to Rome and ceremonially executed.
Josephus, JW, 4.9.3 (503) And now there arose another war at Jerusalem. There was a son of Giora, one Simon, by birth of Gerasa, a young man, not so cunning indeed as John [of Gischala], who had already seized upon the city, (504) but superior in strength of body and courage; on which account, when he had been driven away from that Acrabattene toparchy, which he once had, by Ananus the high priest, he came to those robbers who had seized upon Masada. (505) At first they suspected him, and only permitted him to come with the women he brought with him into the lower part of the fortress, while they dwelt in the upper part of it themselves. (506) However, his manner so well agreed with theirs, and he seemed so trusty a man, that he went out with them, and ravaged and destroyed the country with them about Masada; (507) yet when he persuaded them to undertake greater things, he could not prevail with them so to do; for as they were accustomed to dwell in that citadel, they were afraid of going far from that which their hiding-place; (508) but he, affecting to tyrannize, and being fond of greatness, when he had heard of the death of Ananus, left them, and went into the mountainous part of the country. So he proclaimed liberty to those in slavery, and a reward to those already free, and got together a set of wicked men from all quarters.
The story of Simon Bar Giora has several similarities to the execution of Jesus, although Jesus never made his claim to be the king of the Jews as explicit as Simon did. Each of these men portrayed themselves as a new Joshua or David and managed to gain a following large enough to attract the attention of the Romans, and in each case the Romans treat these false prophets and messianic pretenders as rebels against Roman power.
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.