In the years of tumult that followed the Roman occupation of Judea, as Rome became enmeshed in a debilitating civil war between Pompey Magnus and his erstwhile ally Julius Caesar, even while remnants of the Hasmonaean Dynasty continued vying for the favors of both men, the situation for the Jewish farmers and peasants who harrowed and sowed God’s land steadily worsened. The small family farms that for centuries had served as the primary basis of the rural economy were gradually swallowed up by large estates administered by landed aristocracies flush with freshly minted Roman coins. Rapid urbanization under Roman rule fueled mass internal migration from the countryside to the cities. The agriculture that had once sustained the meager village populations was now almost wholly focused on feeding the engorged urban centers, leaving the rural peasants hungry and destitute. The peasantry were not only obligated to continue paying their taxes and their tithes to the Temple priesthood, they were now forced to pay a heavy tribute to Rome. For farmers, the total could amount to nearly half their annual yield.

At the same time, successive droughts had left large swaths of the countryside fallow and in ruin as much of the Jewish peasantry was reduced to slavery. Those who managed to remain on their wasted fields often had no choice but to borrow heavily from the landed aristocracy, at exorbitant interest rates. Never mind that Jewish law forbade the charging of interest on loans; the massive fines that were levied on the poor for late payments had basically the same effect. In any case, the landed aristocracy expected the peasants to default on their loans; they were banking on it. For if the loan was not promptly and fully repaid, the peasant’s land could be confiscated and the peasant kept on the farm as a tenant toiling on behalf of its new owner.

Within a few years after the Roman conquest of Jerusalem, an entire crop of landless peasants found themselves stripped of their property with no way to feed themselves or their families. Many of these peasants immigrated to the cities to find work. But in Galilee, a handful of displaced farmers and landowners exchanged their plows for swords and began fighting back against those they deemed responsible for their woes. From their hiding places in the caves and grottoes of the Galilean countryside, these peasant-warriors launched a wave of attacks against the Jewish aristocracy and the agents of the Roman Republic. They roamed through the provinces, gathering to themselves those in distress, those who were dispossessed and mired in debt. Like Jewish Robin Hoods, they robbed the rich and, on occasion, gave to the poor. To the faithful, these peasants gangs were nothing less than the physical embodiment of the anger and suffering of the poor. They were heroes: symbols of righteous zeal against Roman aggression, dispensers of divine justice to the traitorous Jews. The Romans had a different word for them. They called them lestai. Bandits.

“Bandit” was the generic term for any rebel or insurrectionist who rose up against Rome or its Jewish collaborators. To some, the word “bandit” was synonymous with “thief” or “rabble-rouser.” But these were no common criminals. The bandits represented the first stirrings of what would  become a nationalist resistance movement against the Roman occupation. This may have been a peasant revolt; the bandit gangs hailed from impoverished villages like Emmaus, Beth-horon, and Bethlehem. But it was something else, too. The bandits claimed to be agents of God’s retribution. They cloaked their leaders in the emblems of biblical kings and heroes and presented their actions as a prelude for the restoration of God’s kingdom on earth. The bandits tapped into the widespread apocalyptic expectation that had gripped the Jews of Palestine in the the wake of the Roman invasion. One of the most fearsome of all the bandits, the charismatic bandit chief Hezekiah, openly declared himself to be the messiah, the promised one who would restore the Jews to glory.

Messiah means “anointed one.” The title alludes to the practice of pouring or smearing oil on someone charged with divine office: a king, like Saul or David, or Solomon; a priest, like Aaron and his sons, who were consecrated to do God’s work; a prophet, like Isaiah or Elisha, who bore a special relationship with God, an intimacy that comes with being designated God’s representative on earth. The messiah was popularly believed to be the descendant of King David, and so his principal task was to rebuild David’s kingdom and reestablish the nation of Israel. Thus, to call oneself the messiah at the time of the Roman occupation was tantamount to declaring war on Rome. Indeed, the day would come when these angry bands of peasant gangs would form the backbone of an army of zealous revolutionaries that would force the Romans to flee Jerusalem in humiliation. In those early years of the occupation, however, the bandits were little more than a nuisance. Still, they needed to be stopped; someone had to restore order in the countryside.

That someone turned out be a clever young Jewish nobleman from Idumea name Herod. Herod’s father, Antipater, had the good fortune of being on the right side in the civil war between Pompey Magnus and Julius Caesar. Caesar rewarded Antipater for his loyalty by granting him Roman citizenship in 48 B.C.E. and giving him administrative powers on behalf or Rome over all of Judea. Before his death a few years later Antipater cemented his position among the Jews by appointing his sons Phasael and Herod as governors over Jerusalem and Galilee, respectively. Herod was probably only fifteen years old at the time, but he immediately distinguished himself as an effective leader and energetic supporter of Rome by launching a bloody crusade against the bandit gangs. he even capture the bandit chief Hezekiah and cut off his head, putting an end (temporarily) to the bandit menace.

While Herod was clearing Galitlee of the bandit gangs, Antigonus, the son of Aristobulus, who had lost the throne and the high priesthood to his brother Hyrcanus after the Roman invasion, was stirring up trouble in Jerusalem. With the help of Rome’s avowed enemies, the Parthians, Antigouns besieged the holy city in 40 B.C.E., taking both the high preist Hyrcanus and Herod’s brother Phasael prisoner. Hyrcanus was mutilated, rendering him ineligible, according to Jewish law, to serve any longer as high priest; Herod’s brother Phasael committed suicide while in captivity.

The Roman Senate determined that the Most effective way to retake Jerusalem from Parthian control was to make herod its client-king and let him accomplish the task of Rome’s behalf. The naming of client-kings was standard practice during the early years of the Roman Empire, allowing Rome to expand its borders without expending valuvale resources administering conquered provinces directly.

In 37 B.C.E., Herod marched to Jerusalem with a massive Roman army under his command. He expelled the Parhian forces from the city and wiped out the remnants of the Hasmonaean dynasty.  In recognition of his services, Rome name herod “King of the Jews,” granting him a kingdom that would ultimately grow larger than that of King Solomon.

Herod’s was a profligate and tyrannical rule marked by farcical excess and bestial acts of cruelty. He was ruthless to his enemies and tolerated no hint of revolt from the Jews under his reign. Upon ascending the throne, he massacred nearly every member of the Sanhedrin and replaced the Temple priests with a claque of fawning admirers who purchased their positions directly from him. This act effectively neutered the political influence of the Temple and redistributed power to a new class of Jews whose reliance on the favors of the king transformed them into a sort of nouveau rich aristocracy. Herod’s penchant for violence and his highly publicized domestic disputes, which bordered on the burlesque, led him to execute so many members of his own family that Caesar Augustus once famously quipped, “I would rather be Herod’s pig than his son.”

In truth, being King of the Jews in Herod’s time was no enviable task. There were, according to Josephus, twenty-four fractious Jewish sects in and around Jerusalem. Although none enjoyed unfettered dominance over the others, three sects, or rather schools, were particularly influential in shaping Jewish thought at the time: the Pharisees, who were primarily lower- and middle-class rabbis and scholars who interpreted the laws for the masses; the Sadducess, more conservative and, with regard to Rome, more accommodating priests from wealthier landowning families; and the Essenes, a predominantly priestly movement that separated itself from the authority of the Temple and made its base on a barren hilltop in the Dead sea valley called Qumran.

Charged with pacifying and administrating an unruly and heterogeneous population of Jews, Greeks, Samaritans, Syrians, and Arabs–all of whom hated him more than they hated each other–Herod did a masterful job of maintaining order on behalf of Rome. His reign ushered in an era  of political stability among the Jews that had not been seen for centuries. He initiated a monumental building and public works project that employed tens of thousands of peasants and day laborers ,permanently changing the physical landscape of Jerusalem. He built markets and theaters, palaces and ports, all modeled on the classical Hellenic style.

To pay for his colossal construction projects and to satisfy his own extravagance, Herod imposed a crushing tax rate upon his subjects, from which he continued to dispatch a hefty tribute to Rome, and with pleasure, as an expression of his esteem for his Roman masters. Herod was not just the emperor’s client-king. He was a close and personal friend, a loyal citizen of the Republic who wanted more than to emulate Rome; he wanted to remake it in the sands of Judea. he instituted a forced Hellenization program upon the Jews, bringing gymnasium, Breek amphitheaters, and Roman baths to Jerusalem. He made Greek the language of his court and minted coins bearing Greek letters and pagan insignia.

Yet Herod was also a Jew, and as such he understood the importance of appealing to the religious sensibilities of his subjects. That is why he embarked on his most ambitious project: the rebuilding and expansion of the Temple of Jerusalem. It was Herod who had the Temple raised on a platform atop Mount Moriah–the highest point in the city–and embellished with wide Roman colonnades and towering marble columns that gleamed in the sun. Herod’s Temple was meant to impress his patrons in Rome, but he also wanted to please his fellow Jews, many of whom did not consider the King of the Jews to be himself a Jew. Herod was a convert, after all. His mother was an Arab. His people, the Idumeans, had come to Judaism only a generation or two earlier. The rebuilding of the Temple was, for Herod, not only a means of solidifying his political dominance; it was a desperate plea for acceptance by his Jewish subjects.

It did not work.

Despite the rebuilding of the Temple, Herod’s unabashed Hellenism and  his aggressive attempts to “Romanize” Jerusalem enraged pious Jews who seem never to have ceased viewing their king as a slave to foreign masters and a devotee of foreign gods. Not even the Temple, the supreme symbol of Jewish identity, could mask Herod’s infatuation with Rome. Shortly before its completion, Herod placed a golden eagle–the sign of Roman domination–over its main portal and forced his handpicked high priest to offer two sacrifices a day on behalf of Caesar Augustus as  “the Son of God.” Nevertheless, it is a sign of how firmly Herod held his kingdom in his grip that the general odium of the Jews toward his reign never rose to the level of insurrection, at least no in his lifetime.

When Herod the Great died in 4 B.C.E., Augustus split his realm among his three sons: Archelaus was given Judea, Samaria, and Idumean; Herod Antipas–known as “the fox’–reigned over Galilee and Peraea (a region in the Transjordan northeast of the Dead Sea); and Philip was handed control over Gaulanitis (modern day Golan) and the lands northeast of the Sea of Galilee. None of Herod’s three sons were given the title of king: Antipas and Philip were each named tetrarch, meaning “ruler of a quarter,” and Archelaus was named ethnarch, or “ruler of a people”; both titles were deliberately meant to signal the end of unified kingship over the Jews.

The division of Herod’s kingdom proved a disaster for Rome, as the dam of anger and resentment that had been built during his long and oppressive reign burst into a flood of riots and violent protests that his nebbish sons, dulled by a life of idleness and languor, could hardly contain. The rioters burned down one of Herod’s’ palaces on the Jordan River. Twice, the Temple itself was overrun: first during Passover, then again at Shavuot or the Festival of Weeks. In the countryside, the bandit gangs that Herod had beaten into submission once again began tearing through Galilee, slaughtering the former king’s associates. In Idumea, Herod’s home region, two thousand of his soldiers mutinied. Even Herod’s home allies, including his own cousin Achiab, joined the rebellion.

These uprisings were no doubt fueled by the messianic expectations of the Jews. In Peraea, a former slave of Herod’s–an imposing giant of a man name Simon–crowned himself messiah and rallied together a group of bandits to plunder the royal palaces at Jericho. The rebellion ended when Simon was captured and beheaded. A short while later, another messianic aspirant, a poor shepherd by named Athronges, placed a crown upon his head and launched a foolhardy attack against Roman forces. He, too, was caught and executed.
The chaos and bloodshed continued unabated until Caesar Augustus finally ordered his own troops into Judea to put an end to the uprising. Although the emperor allowed Philip and Antipas to remain in their posts, he sent Archelaus into exile, placed Jerusalem under a Roman governor, and, in the year 6 C.E., transformed all of Judea into a province ruled directly by Rome. There would be no more semi-independence. No more client-kings. No more Kings of the Jews.  Jerusalem now belonged wholly to Rome.

According to tradition, Herod the Great died on the eve of Passover in 4 B.C.E., at the ripe age of seventy, having reigned over the Jews for thirty-seven years. Josephus writes that on the day of Herod’s death, there was an eclipse of the moon, an inauspicious sign, perhaps presaging the tumult that would follow. There is of course, another tradition told about the demise of Herod the Great: that sometime between his death in 4 B.C.E. and the Roman takeover of Judea in 6 B.C.E., in an obscure hillside village in Galilee, a child was born who would one day clam for himself Herod’s mantle as King of the Jews.

The Fourth Philosophy

It was around this time that a new and far more fearsome group of bandits arose in Galilee, led by a magnetic teacher and revolutionary known as Judas the Galilean. The traditions say that Judas was the son of the famed bandit chief Hezekiah, the failed messiah whom Herod had captured and beheaded forty years earlier as part of his campaign to clear the countryside of the bandit menace. After Herod’s death, Judas th Galilean joined forces with a mysterious Pharisee name Zaddok to launch a wholly new independence movement that Josephus terms the ‘Fourth Philosophy,” so as to differentiate it from the other three “philosophies”: the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Essenes. What set the members of the Fourth Philosophy apart from the rest was their unshakable commitment to freeing Israel from foreign rule and their fervent insistence, even unto death, that they would serve no lord save the One God. There was a well-defined term for this type of belief,one that all pious Jews, regardless of their political stance, would have recognized and proudly claimed for themselves: zeal.

Zeal implied a strict adherence to the Torah and the Law, a refusal to serve any foreign master–to serve any human master at all–and an uncompromising devotion to the sovereignty of God. To be zealous for the Lord was to walk in the blazing footsteps of the prophets and heroes of old, men and women who tolerated no partner to God, who would bow to no king same the King of the World, and who dealt ruthlessly with idolatry and wit those who transgressed God’s law. The very land of Israel was claimed through zeal, for it was the zealous warriors of God who cleansed it of all foreigners and idolaters, just as God demanded. “whoever sacrifices to any god but the Lord alone shall be utterly annihilated” (Exodus 22:20).

Many Jews in the first-century Palestine strove to live a life of zeal, each in his or her own way. But there were some who, in order to preserve their zealous ideals, were willing to resort to extreme acts of violence if necessary, not just against the Romans and the uncircumcised masses, but against their fellow Jews, those who dared submit to Rome. They were called zealots.

These zealots should not be confused with the Zealot Party that would arise sixty years later, after the Jewish Revolt in 66 C.E. During Jesus’s lifetime, zealotry did no signify a firm sectarian designation or political party. It was an idea, an aspiration, a model of piety inextricably linked to the widespread sense of apocalyptic expectation that had seized the Jews in the wake of the Roman occupation. There was a feeling, particularly among the peasants and the pious poor, that the present order was coming to an end, that a new and divinely inspired order was about to reveal itself. The kingdom of God was at hand. Everyone was talking about it. But God’s reign could only be ushered in by those with the zeal to fight for it.

Such ideas had existed long before Judas the Galilean came along. But Judas was perhaps the first revolutionary leader to fuse banditry and zealotry into a single revolutionary force, making resistance to Rome a religious duty incumbent on all Jews. It was Judas’s fierce determination to do whatever it took to free the Jews from foreign rule and cleanse the land in the name of Israel’ God that made the Fourth Philosophy a model of zealous resistance for the numerous apocalyptic revolutionaries who would, a few decades later, join forces to expel the Romans from the Holy Land.

In 4 B.C.E., with Herod the Great dead and buried, Judas and his small army of zealots made a daring assault on the city of Sepphoris. They broke open the city’s royal armory and seized for themselves the weapons and provisions that were stored inside. Now fully armed and joined by a number of sympathetic Sepphoreans, the members of the Fourth Philosophy launched a guerrilla war throughout Galilee, plundering the homes of the wealthy and powerful, setting villages ablaze, and meting out the justice of God upon Jewish aristocracy and those who continued to pledge their loyalty to Rome.

The movement grew in size and ferocity throughout the following decade of violence and instability. Then, in the year 6 C.E., when Judea officially became a Roman province and the Syrian governor, Quirinius, called for a census to tally, resister, and properly tax the people and property in the newly acquired region, the members of the Fourth Philosophy seized their opportunity. They used the census to make a final appeal to the Jews to stand with them against Rome and fight for their freedom. The census, they argued, was an abomination .It was affirmation of the slavery of the Jews. To be voluntarily tallied like sheep was, in Judas’s  view, tantamount to declaring allegiance to Rome. It was an admission that the Jews were not the chosen tribe of God but the personal property of the emperor.

It was not the census itself that so enraged Judas and  his followers; it was the very notion of paying any tax or tribute to Rome. What more obvious sign was needed of the subservience of the Jews? The tribute was particularly offensive as it implied that the land belong to Rome, not God. Indeed, the payment of tribute became, for the zealots, a test of piety and allegiance to God. Simply put, if you thought it lawful to pay tribute to Caesar, then you were a traitor and apostate. You deserved to die.

Inadvertently helping Judas’s cause was the bumbling high priest at the time, a Roman lackey name Joazar, who happily went along with Quirinius’s census and encouraged his fellow Jews to do the same. the collusion of the high priest was all the proof Judas and his followers needed that the Temple itself had been defiled and must be forcibly rescued form the sinful hands of the priestly aristocracy. As far as Judas’s zealots were concerned, Joazar’s acceptance of the census was his death warrant. The fate of the Jewish nation depended on killing the high priest. Zeal demanded it. Just as the sons of Mattathias “showed zeal for the law” by killing those Jews who sacrificed to any but God (Maccabees 2:19-28), just as Josiah, King of Judah, butchered every uncircumcised man in his land because of his “zeal for the Mighty One” (2 Baruch 66:5), so now must these zealots turn back the wrath of God upon Israel by ridding the land of treasonous Jews like the high priest.

It is clear from the fact that the Romans removed the high priest Joazar from his post not long after he had encouraged the Jews to obey the census that Judas won the argument. Josephus, who has vey little positive to say about Judas the Galilean (he calls him a “sophist,” a pejorative that to Josephus signifies a troublemaker, a disturber of the peace, a deceiver of the young), notes somewhat cryptically that Joazar was “overpowered” by the arguments of the zealots.

Josephus’ problem with Judas seems not to have been his “sophistry” or his use of violence, but rather what  he derisively calls Judas’s “royal aspirations.” What Josephus means is that in fighting against the subjection of the Jews and preparing the way for the establishment of God’s reign on earth, Judas, like his father Hezekiah before him, was claiming for himself the mantle of the messiah, the throne of King David. And, like his father before him, Judas would pay the price for his ambition.

Not long after he led the charge against the census, Judas the Galilean was captured by Rome and killed. As retribution for the city’s having given up its arms to Judas’s followers, the Romans marched to Sepphoris and burned it to the ground. The men were slaughtered, the women and children auctioned off as slaves. More than two thousand rebels and sympathizers were crucified enmasse. A short time later, Herod Antipas arrived and immediately set to work transforming the flattened ruins of Sepphoris into an extravagant royal city fit for a king.

Jesus of Nazareth was likely born the same year that Judas the Galilean–Judas the failed messiah, son of Hezekiah the failed messiah–rampaged thorough the countryside, burning with zeal. He would have been about ten years old when the Romans captured Judas, crucified his followers, and destroyed Sepphoris. When Antipas began to rebuild Sepphoris in earnest, Jesus was a young man ready to work in his father’s trade. By then practically every artisan and day laborer in the province would have poured into Sepphoris to take part in what was the largest restoration project of the time, and one can be fairly certain that Jesus and his brothers, who lived a short distance away in Nazareth, would have been among them. In fact, from the time he began his apprenticeship as a tekton to the day he launched his ministry as an itinerant preacher, Jesus would have spent most of his life not in the tiny hamlet of Nazareth, but in the cosmopolitan of Sepphoris: a peasant boy in a big city.

Six days a week, from sun up to sundown, Jesus would have toiled in the royal city, building palatial houses for the Jewish aristocracy during the day, returning to his crumbling mud-brick home at night. He would have witnessed for himself the rapidly expanding divide between the absurdly rich and the indebted poor. He would have mingled with the city’s Hellenized and Romanized population: those wealthy, wayward Jews who spent as much time praising the emperor of Rome as they did the Lord of the Universe. He certainly would have been familiar with the exploits of Judas the Galilean. For while the population of Sepphoris seems to have been tamed and transformed after Judas’s rebellion into the model of Roman cooperation–so much so that in 66 B.C.E., as most of Galilee was joining the revolt against Rome, Sepphoris immediately declared its loyalty to the emperor and became a Roman garrison during the battle to reclaim Jerusalem–the memory of Judas the Galilean and what he accomplished did not fade in Sepphoirs; not for the drudge and the dispossessed; not for those, like Jesus, who spent their days slogging bricks to build yet another mansion for yet another Jewish nobleman. And no doubt Jesus would have been aware of the escapades of Herod Antipas–“that Fox,” as Jesus calls him (Luke 13:31)–who lived in Sepphoris until around 20 C.E., when he moved to Tiberias, on the coast of the Sea of Galilee. Indeed, Jesus may have regularly set eyes upon the man who would one day cut off the dead of his friend and mentor, John the Baptist, and seek to do the same to him.

*excerpts from Zealot: The Life And Times Of Jesus Of Nazareth by Reza Aslan (pg.17-24 & 40-45).

 Note: We do not agree with Reza Aslan’s opinions and conclusions concerning any doctrine, nor do we respect his general ignorance of the God of Abraham. However, the book contains bits of history that paint vividly the environment that existed in Israel after Roman occupation in the 60s B.C. For this reason we share these excerpts.