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Jesus, the Samaritans, and 'the Egyptian'

Connecting Pontius Pilate's attack on Samaria with attempted
revolt by Jesus referenced in code as 'the Egyptian'

My initial draft of Herodian Messiah took quite a different form than the currently published work as it contained equal parts fiction and non-fiction. There seemed to be two different audiences for the fiction and non-fiction elements of the work and, also, the hybrid approach watered-down the work as a whole. Thus, I split off and expanded the non-fiction publishing same in January of 2010. More than two years later, I'm finally getting close to completing the companion historical fiction story under the title Grandson of Herod.

Writing historical fiction is an arduous undertaking. It requires investigation of the smallest details of your subject in order to recreate the world in which your story takes place. In the case of Jesus, I found this to be a valuable mental exercise. Writing the story forced me to look at the life of Jesus, his followers, and his adversaries from angles that never would have occurred to me otherwise. Josephus was an indispensable tool in this work. The problem with Josephus as a source is that he was not an impartial observer but, rather, an adopted member of the ruling Roman family (Flavians).

In collecting research material for this project, I ran across entries in Josephus that looked like they connected to the story of Jesus but were placed in the wrong historical period by Josephus. Three in particular were the stories of "the Egyptian" (Ant. XX 8:6 / Wars II 14:4-5), Pontius Pilate leading a punitive expedition into Samaria where he killed many Samaritans (Ant. XVIII 8:1-2), and a war between the Samaritans and the Galileans that required Roman intervention to quell (Ant. XX 6:1-3 / Wars II 12:2-7). I've learned over time not to take Josephus at face value regarding his historical placement of incidents that relate to Jesus.

This approach has been reinforced observing the method by which information about Jesus is presented in the Talmud. According to Prof. Peter Schafer of Princeton, the Talmud uses code names such as "ben Stada" and "ben Pandera" for Jesus. See Jesus In The Talmud at pages 16-17. The Stada tradition is linked in the Talmud to a historical figure (Pappos Ben Yehudah) who lived in the last part of the first century CE and early second century CE. Thus, the Stada tradition contains historical markers that don't match up with Jesus yet a Talmud scholar says these passages clearly refer to Jesus. There is another story in the Talmud about a frivolous disciple named "Jesus the Nazarene" of a master rabbi named "Yehoshua b. Perahya". This incident is placed in the reign of King Jannai (who just so happens to be an ancestor of Jesus, under my view of Luke). See Jesus In The Talmud at pages 34-35. King Jannai died in 76 BCE.

Josephus was a Pharisee just as were the writers of the Talmud. My takeaway from the method by which the authors of the Talmud obfuscated their criticism of Jesus is that they spoke in a code that the members of their group would understand but gave them plausible deniability. The Talmud began as an oral tradition and was not first written down until the early third century CE, by which time the Christians had become a large and important sect within the Roman Empire. Although Josephus wrote more than 100 years prior to his Pharisee brothers who created the Talmud, it is reasonable that Josephus used the same method of obfuscating references to Jesus in his histories.

The Egyptian and 30,000 followers
I previously wrote an article arguing that "the Egyptian" of Josephus was in fact Jesus despite Josephus placing this event during the time that Antonius Felix was Roman prefect of Palestine (52-56 CE). The Egyptian was said to be a sorcerer and false prophet who led Israel astray, the same crimes for which the Talmud condemns Jesus. A very interesting detail contained in the Egyptian narrative is that he had 30,000 followers camped atop the Mount of Olives and intended to overturn the government of Israel (i.e., kick out the Romans). As part of my research into writing Grandson of Herod, I tried to estimate how many lightly armed men of fighting age Jesus would need to overcome the Roman / Herodian forces in Jerusalem and the nearby fortresses of Judea when he attempted his revolution. I came up with 24,000 as the minimum necessary force. See Footnote 1 to "the Egyptian" article.

Where did Jesus get all the recruits? "It is estimated that the total population of Palestine in the first century was between 1.5 and 2 million people, with about 500,000 to 600,000 Jews living in Judea." The Emergence of the Church: Context, Growth, Leadership & Worship by Arthur G. Patzia (IVP Academic 2001) at page 24. I have seen estimates for the population of Galilee in first century CE as low as 175,000. See Jesus the Galilean: Soundings in a First Century Life by David A. Fiensy (Gorgias Press LLC 2007) at page 40. Keep in mind that not everyone in Galilee was a supporter of Jesus. The residents of his reputed hometown of Nazareth tried to kill Jesus when he announced himself as the messiah in their synagogue. Luke 4:14-30. For reasons I'd prefer not to explain here (as the article is too long already), I am of the opinion that Jesus had a small following among Judeans. If so, then he relied heavily on Galilee for fighting men.

Let's be generous and say there were 200,000 residents of Galilee in the time of Jesus. Further assume 50% were women and that only 30% of the remainder were men of fighting age. Doing the math (200k x .5 x .3) gives us only a potential pool of 30,000 men of fighting age in Galilee. How many of those chose to join Jesus for his planned war against the Romans? Even those who were fervent Jewish nationalists would be hesitant to leave wives and children behind to undertake such a dangerous enterprise. I think Jesus would have done well to recruit 1/3rd of all fighting age men in Galilee or 10,000 total. Where did he get the other 20,000 if not from Judea? The logical answer is that a good chunk of the necessary total came from Samaria.

Early during his public campaign, Jesus instructed his disciples: "do not enter any city of the Samaritans." Matthew 10:5. Yet, on his final trip to Jerusalem for Passover, Jesus took his band of followers through Samaria. There, he entered towns and spent several days speaking with the Samaritan leaders. The NT says of this excursion, "many of the Samaritans believed in him." John 4:39. When Jesus finally arrived in Jerusalem, the Judeans asked him if he was a Samaritan (probably due to the large number of Samaritan followers in his party). John 8:48. I suggest Jesus recruited thousands of followers out of Samaria for his intended revolution in Jerusalem. What he promised them, one can only speculate, but my view is that it was a political arrangement. Typically, autonomy and lower taxes are the reward. Perhaps, recognition of their priesthood and the right to worship on Mount Gerizim were also offered.

Jesus Surrenders, Pilate Attacks Samaria
If you believe as I do that Jesus had 30,000 followers with him, then his arrest at the Garden of Gethsemane is mind boggling. The Gospel of Judas states that Jesus asked Judas to arrange his surrender to the chief priests in the garden. This helps explain why the Sanhedrin needed to be backed up by an entire Roman cohort (John 18:3) to arrest one scraggly Galilean rabbi then guarded by just three disciples--i.e., on the heights overlooking the garden sat 30,000 of Jesus's followers. It also helps explain why no action was taken against Peter when he drew his sword and struck off the ear of a slave belonging to the high priest. The arresting authorities were fearful of armed conflict with the followers of Jesus even with hundreds of heavily armed soldiers at their back.

But what happened to the followers of Jesus after his surrender? We are only told of the arrest of three other individuals at this time (Barabas and two unnamed individuals who were crucified with Jesus). When Josephus uses the term "robber" or "criminal" in reference to a Jew, it almost invariably means a Jewish nationalist who is fighting against Rome (that Josephus presents as the lawful government of Israel). The terms "terrorist" and "freedom fighter" are but two sides of the same coin. I suggest the NT adopted this Josephusian language and, thus, the three criminals arrested with Jesus were in fact Jewish revolutionaries who led factions that joined the Jesus movement to overthrow Rome and their Herodian / Pharisee allies. I've theorized that "Barabas" of the NT is a mangled rendering of "bar Babas" or son of Babas, a figure known to us from Josephus as a Hasmonean Jewish nationalist aligned with King Antigonus. Josephus says the "sons of Babas" were found hiding in Idumea under the protection of Costobarus, King Herod's brother-in-law who was then governor of Idumean. Both the sons of Babas and Costobarus were executed by Herod in the 20's BCE. Those familiar with Herodian Messiah know that I propose Jesus was the grandson of King Antigonus. Thus, I theorize that Barabas of the NT was of Hasmonean royal descendant connected to Idumea. Both Jesus and Barabas were reprising roles their dead ancestors played in opposing Rome during the Hasmonean revolt of 40-37 BCE. I speculate Barabas brought a large band of Idumean followers with him to Jerusalem to participate in the Jesus revolution. Thus, the core followers of Jesus that fateful Passover were Galileans, Idumeans and Samaritans. As an aside, the Idumeans were major players in the Great Jewish Revolt against Rome in 66 CE.

After the crucifixion of Jesus, we have no record of Roman reprisals against either Galilee or Idumea for their participation in the attempted revolt. Apparently, these were the surrender terms Jesus negotiated with the Jewish authorities. What about Samaria? Who were the other two individuals crucified with Jesus? Samaria appears to have gotten the short end of the stick when Jesus folded up his tent and surrendered. The Gospel of Nicodemus (aka Acts of Pilate) gives the names of the two individuals crucified with Jesus as Dismas and Gestas. The legend goes that Gestas bad-mouthed Jesus while on the cross but Dismas asked to be within Jesus in the kingdom of God. Was Dismas the good Samaritan? The Roman Catholic Church has made Dismas a saint. Was Gestas then a bad Samaritan? Other than speculation, there is not anything in the NT or apocryphal gospels (to my knowledge) directly connecting the two individuals crucified with Jesus to Samaria. However, events described in Josephus lead me to conclude these two "robbers" were in fact Samaritan national leaders.

I date the Jesus revolt to Passover in 36 BCE. See excerpt from Ch. 6 of Herodian Messiah. Pontius Pilate was removed from office in the first months of 37 CE. Just prior to reporting the removal of Pilate from office, Josephus tells us about a strange incident in Samaria. "The man who excited [the Samaritans] to [revolt], was one who thought lying a thing of little consequence." Ant. XVIII 4:1. "The man" is never identified by Josephus. Note that Josephus accused 'the Egyptian' of being a "deceiver", another way of way of calling him a liar. The Pharisees are recorded as calling Jesus a liar in the The Apocryphon of John: "The Pharisee said to him, "With deception did this Nazarene deceive you, and he filled your ears with lies." Josephus goes on to tell us that the Samaritans intended to go up to Mount Gerizim and view holy relics there that "the man" would show them. I'm not sure what was criminal about this activity but, in response, Pilate attacked the Samaritans with "a great band of horsemen and footmen" killing many Samaritans and ordering the leaders to be slain. Notice how different the actions of Pilate are here in Josephus as opposed to the restrained and cautious Roman magistrate portrayed in the NT. The Pilate of Josephus was a ruthless administrator of Roman justice. This view of Pilate comports with the writings of Philo of Alexandria, who called Pilate a "corrupt" and "cruel" official responsible for "continual murders of people untried and uncondemned". On The Embassy to Gais (302).

Circling back to "the Egyptian" episode found elsewhere in Josephus, I note that it records Prefect Felix attacking the followers of "the Egyptian" up on the Mount of Olives. Felix defeated and disbursed the multitude. If we substitute Pilate for Felix, I suggest the two stories match up to a substantial degree and the full story is that, after crucifying Jesus and other leaders of the Jesus movement in Jerusalem, Pilate chased remnants of the Samaritans who participated in the failed Jesus revolution into their home country and killed many of them as retribution for having joined the revolt. The political settlement reached with the Idumeans and Galileans allowed the Romans to isolate the Samaritans, against whom Rome possessed sufficient forces in country to strike out against. Proconsul Vittelius had not yet returned to the Syria province with the two legions he took east to confront the Parthians. This temporarily diminished Roman legion strength inside the province and helps explains the readiness of Pilate to negotiate with the Galileans and Idumeans.

Animosity between Samaritans and Galilean
After the dust settled from the botched Jesus revolution (assuming the above theory is correct), one can surmise the Samaritans were none too pleased with Jesus and his band of Galileans for leading them on this mission then aborting it at Jerusalem. There was long-standing animosity between the Galileans and Samaritans even before the Jesus revolution. Galilee was substantially destroyed during the major revolt that followed the death of King Herod. Samaria, on the other hand, sat out that war and were rewarded by Herod Archelaus with lower taxes. Obviously, that didn't sit well with the Galileans. Later, we have Jesus' Galilean led revolt that ends in disaster for the Samaritans. We say of Germany and England that "they don't like each other" on the soccer (football) pitch. I suggest the feelings between Samaritans and Galileans after the aborted Jesus revolt ran to a much hotter degree.

This brings us to a mini-war between the Samaritans and the Galileans recorded in Josephus at Ant. XX 6:1-3 and Wars II 12:2-7. These two accounts are jumbled. Apparently the Samaritans started it by attacking some Galilean on the way to a festival in Jerusalem and this prompted a group of "Jews" to travel to Samaria from Jerusalem on a mission to kill Samaritans in revenge. Ventidius Cumanus, prefect of Palestine from 48-52 CE, pulled a Pilate in response. He marched a military force into Samaria. One of the leaders of the Samaritans who started the trouble was named by Josephus as "Eleazar, the son of Dineus, a robber." So we know anti-Roman Samaritan nationalists were involved in this battle, perhaps survivors of the Jesus revolt. Jewish Wars, as is most often the case, gives more details than Antiquities. Therein, Eleazar ben Dineus is said to be "thievish and seditious". Wars II 12:4. Even more curious, the Galileans / Jews said to be conducting revenge attacks in Samaria are there "to avenge themselves upon [the death of] one Galilean only." War II 12:5 (237). Who could this one Galilean have been such that his death sparked a war between Galilee and Samaria? Another strange fact about the incident is that the arrested leading men of Samaria were sent to Rome for trial by Caesar together with the Roman prefect Camanus, the Jewish high priest, and other chief priests. How could a scuffle between Samaritans and Galileans ostensibly involving one Galilean killed during a highway robbery turn into a Roman imperial incident requiring adjudication by Caesar himself? And, further, require the Roman prefect and Jewish high priest be sent before Caesar in Rome? Bizarre.

More interesting information comes from the Slavonic version of this incident: "For the bandits on the road to Beth Horon attacked a certain Stephon. And Cumanus sent his men around to nearby villages and arrested everyone, 'Why did you not pursue the bandits and capture them?'" Slavonic Jewish Wars II XII.2; Josephus' Jewish War and Its Slavonic Version at page 271. The Roman prefect Cumanus sent his soldiers into Samaria in response to the death of "Stephon" the Galilean and arrested villagers for not pursing the perpetrators? Even more bizarre. What was so important about Stephon the Galilean? Stephanos is a Greek word meaning crown. I suggest this individual was of Jewish royal blood. Given he was Galilean, I further speculate Stephanos was Hasmonean. And given the hyper concern of Prefect Cumanus and, later, Caesar himself, to the incident, I suggest that Stephanos was also a Herodian and member of the family of Jesus. Many (including Robert Eisenman) believe that the stoning by the Sanhedrin of the individual called Stephanos in Acts was really a pseudonym for James the Just. If so, we find Josephus using the same convention of the name Stephanos as a pseudonym for a member of the family of Jesus in the Samaritan murder incident.

That brings us to Eleazar ben Dineus, the brigand who allegedly killed Stephanos. Does Dineus = Dismas (i.e., the good Samaritan from the crucifixion of Jesus)? If so, then the murder of Stephenos by Eleazar ben Dineus could have been a revenge killing for the surrender of Jesus that resulted in the execution of Dineus and a Roman massacre in Samaria. One final point along these lines. The standard version of Josephus gives the impression that the various Jewish nationalists who lead uprisings in the years after the crucifixion of Jesus were in no way connected to Jesus. Slavonic Josephus blows apart that illusion. Just prior to this passage regarding the mini-war between the Samaritans and the Galileans, we find this--
At this time there appeared many servants of the previously described wonder-worker, telling the people about their master, that he was still alive although he had died. And they said, "He will free you from servitude." And many of the people listened to them and paid attention to their instructions, not because of their renown. For the apostles were from the lowly folk; for some were sailmakers, some were sandal-makers, some where manual works, [others were fisherman]. But they performed wonderful signs, in truth whatever they willed.
Slavonic Jewish Wars II XI.6; ibid at page 269. Could the connection to Jesus be more clear?


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