|Jul/Aug 2003 • Miscellaneous|
An Ancient Revolutionary Idea
For almost two centuries, biblical theologians and historians have attempted to "find" the historical Jesus behind the gospels, with minimal results. This historical reality can be most closely grasped by embracing a Zealot revolutionary model.
As our exercise in examining the Passover week and the crucifixion unfolds, every historical detail in the gospels must be examined carefully, comparing it with outside sources to check its accuracy. In addition, we must deal with hundreds of years of censorship on the part of the church and the Roman Empire, which found it necessary to syncretize Christianity's doctrines with the paganism surrounding it so that its survival could be assured.
In particular, Christianity's initial militant Zealot nature had to be suppressed and minimized. While tantalizing glimpses are left, they are unintelligible unless examined by way of a commonsense comparison with the Al Qaeda movement of Osama bin Laden. This is preferable to others' approaches that attempt to analyze the Zealot movement using twentieth century revolutionary models. In addition to cultural, religious and political incongruencies, the sociological construction of such models is wrong.
Like Al Qaeda, the Zealot/Sicarii ideology saw an imminent apocalyptic victory of true believers over the infidels. Both movements have millenial tendencies and depend upon a messianic figure to deliver the faithful. Both make use of family and clan networking for operations stretching over decades of time. Like the Al Qaeda zealots of the 21st century, their counterparts years ago made use of familial and dynastic ties in the homeland and in the Diaspora to attack those they perceived as the great Satan and its smaller allies. The comparison is striking, even in terms of geographic detail. Like Al Qaeda in the 20th and 21st centuries, Egypt was an important base for the Sicarri and Zealot factions in their struggle against the Romans in Judaea.
The Christian Rewriting of History
Especially troubling to church officials is how their savior is so attached to his own people who rejected him and to whom he is so indebted for his teachings and philosophy, including militant philosophies of revolution that have been carefully hidden and glossed over. Modern historical/critical scholarship has shown that Jesus was anything but the meek lamb of God. Especially embarrassing to supporters of church orthodoxy are militant images created by verses such as Matthew 10:14 where Jesus says he has come not to bring peace but a sword, betraying a considerable seditious following and sympathies.
These Jewish, explicitly Zealot roots are the most logical yet seemingly the least recognized part of early Christianity. Certainly, Jesus' statement in Matthew 10:14 is a blatant contradiction to the Sermon on the Mount. The censorship of militant statements by Jesus and the accentuation of peaceful claims remain a hallmark of Christianity to this day. The purpose of this paper will be to return Jesus to the context of the militant Zealot/terrorist roots that spawned his movement, specifically by examining the uncensored material available in the Gospel of Peter and related Gnostic works.
I believe that the Gospel of Peter represents authentic Zealot traditions that were not yet censored out of the text by the time of its second century authorship where it is likely copied and revised from an autograph document. Surely, it was not meant to be seen again but has fortunately reached us due to efforts of its monk protector who had it buried with him.
The Gospel of Peter
In the Upper Nile River valley on the eastern bank is the town of Akhmimin in Egypt. Formerly Panopolis, in ancient times it was the district capital. In the local archaelogical ruins, pagan temples and ruined monasteries lie side by side, testifying to the polyglot nature of Egyptian society where Jew, Pagan, and later Christians lived side by side. The lost Gospel of Peter was found in a Monk's tomb 1884 and contains an account of disciples suspected of some very strange crimes: "And I and my companions were grieved; and being wounded in mind we hid ourselves: for we were being sought for by them as malefactors, and as wishing to set fire to the temple" (Lost Books, 282).
Interestingly enough, the unnamed messianic figure is crucified with two other "malefactors," as Jesus was in the canonical Gospels. Also identical with the canonical Gospels, we are not told anything about the malefactors. Crucifixion was a Roman punishment that was meted out only for crimes against the Roman State. Common crimes could be punished by death by local authorities only with Roman permission.
As portrayed by the Gospel writer, he and his companion were in the eyes of the Roman occupiers in the same class as the men who were crucified with the Messiah. Given the stridently anti-Jewish tone of the Gospel, this would seem at first out of place. In general, this Gospel absolves Pilate of guilt for the crucifixion, placing the blame squarely upon the Jews. However, the Freudian slip takes on new meaning when examined against the canonical Gospels and similar statements that they make about Jesus and his followers.
What is truly amazing is the reference to a plan to burn the temple in Jerusalem. It would seem difficult, even impossible to believe that any rational Jewish person would ever seriously contemplate burning the temple. Unfortunately, recent experiences such as in the Branch Davidian compound in Waco, Texas show that fanaticism can drive people to do savage things even to their coreligionists and sacred places. We will see how this fanaticism of Jesus and the Zealots eventually culminated in the destruction of the entire country and the holocaust of the temple complex itself in 70 CE.
The Zealots with Jesus
The militant nature of Jesus was carefully but not completely hidden by Church censors who redacted the New Testament in the early first century and afterwards. Several references are left that document conclusively that Jesus was not the meek Lamb of God portrayed in the Gospels, but a militant separatist dedicated to evicting the Romans and installing himself as the king of Israel. The most striking references are to those close followers of his whom were from Zealot factions. The "malefactors" of the Gospel of Peter have an interesting pedigree as reflected in the canonical gospels where this same term is used in translation.
Throughout many centuries, theologians and biblical scholars have been troubled by problems of mistranslation. By the time a word has been translated from Hebrew and Aramaic to Greek, Latin, or some other vernacular language, it has become completely divorced from its original meaning and context. For instance, the figure of Simon Zelotes, who appears in the Gospel of Luke and in Acts is obviously a translation of zealot, therefore, Simon the Zealot. Even attempts in later translations such as the King James reveal this individual as a militant where in Matthew and Mark he is referred to as Simon the "Canaanite." This is a corruption of the Aramaic qannai, rendered into the Greek as kananaios, meaning simply one who is zealous for God. Simon Bar Jonas referred to in Matthew and Luke is simply a Greek version of the Aramaic bar jonnei which means "empty ones" and refers to lawless revolutionaries who are condemned in Talmud Gittin 56A for opposing the Pharisees and causing the people to initiate their disastrous revolt against Rome.
The most famous of the many "Simons" populating the Bible is Simon Peter. Peter is another word for Petra or rock. Despite the peaceful "fisherman" image concocted in the Gospels, the reality portrayed in this story of Rocky is more militant. Peter's name that Jesus calls him is Bar Jonah in Matthew 16:17, another corruption of the bar jonnei of Gittin 56A. The fact that the "rock" upon which Jesus founded his church was a wanted terrorist makes the implications of the church's early history very different indeed, a problem that Church historians have been covering up ever since.
The attempt to distance Jesus from the Zealots was made by the Church during the redaction and censorship of the Christian Bible that came during the decades following the Jewish revolt against Rome. Church leaders found it necessary to make Jesus appear to be pro-Roman and to blame the Jews for the crucifixion. This ignored the clear fact that Judas and Simon Peter were both Zealots and that Jesus told his followers that he had come not to bring peace but the sword.
Even more interesting is Judas who is portrayed as the son of Simon is. Identified as Judas Iscariot in the synoptic Gospels, the name is clearly a Greek corruption of the Aramaic sicari or "dagger men." These most extreme of the Zealots earned their sobriquets from their long, curved daggers that they would use to assassinate Romans or Roman sympathizers. In Luke 22:36, Jesus instructs his followers who do not have swords to buy them even if it means selling garments. This would indicate that they were not just Zealots, but Sicarii who relied on the curved Sica dagger for terrorist assassinations rather than the Spanish gladius sword used by the Roman Army and their Zealot enemies. They would need swords rather than daggers to combat Legionnaires and the Temple Police. This movement exercised considerable influence. This included the sending of embassies and recruiting missions outside of Judaea, organizing public riots and protests, and assassinations.
Jesus' family's well-documented connections with the Zealots could have developed over decades. Terrorism and political activity had not just revolutionary but also dynastic features. In the Near East in the past and in the present terrorism have usually been a family and a clan business. For instance Osama bin Laden's terrorism or Hamas or Hizbullah activities are facilitated being along clan, tribal or family lines. Judas of Galilee (Gamla) began a dynasty of Zealot leaders from his family who would lead most of the guerrilla revolts and full scale wars against the Romans for the better part of two centuries. The Romans who were not able to snuff out the rebellious spirit executed him in the year 6 C.E. His hometown of Gamla was the center of Zealot resistance during the first Jewish Revolt against Rome before it was crushed in 67 CE. His illustrious descendents included Menahem, the first Zealot commander who took Masada in the first Jewish Revolt in 66 C.E. as well as his successor Elazar ben Jair who commanded Zealot troops during the Roman siege of Masada was descended from Judas the Galilean. Josephus says that two of his sons, James and Simon were executed when then procurator Tiberius Alexander suppressed a revolt in 46 CE (Antiquities 20, chapter 5). Again, the similarity to Simon and James the son of Zebedee is striking. It is the author's contention that the similarity is more than coincidence.
The "Cleansing" of the Temple
All of the four canonical gospels tie the "cleansing" of the temple to Jesus' eventual crucifixion. This is the only thing that all the sources agree on regarding the man from Galilee. What we will here analyze is the hostility that he exhibited to the temple as expressed in the canonical gospels themselves:
And Jesus went out, and departed from the temple: and his disciples came to him for to shew him the buildings of the temple. And Jesus said unto them, See ye not all these things? Verily I say unto you, There shall not be left here one stone upon another, that shall not be thrown down. (Matthew 24:1-2)
Jesus' attitude is amazing enough, but his actions in the temple itself are even more so:
And they came to Jerusalem: and Jesus went into the temple, and began to cast out them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the money-changers, and the seats of them that sold doves... (Mark 11:15)
And Jesus went into the temple of God, and cast out all them that sold and bought in the temple, and overthrew the tables of the moneychangers, and the seats of them that sold doves... (Matthew 21:12)
And he went into the temple, and began to cast out them that sold therein, and them that bought... (Luke 19:45)
And (he) found in the temple those that sold oxen and sheep and doves, and the changers of money sitting: And when he had made a scourge of small cords, he drove them all out of the temple, and the sheep, and the oxen; and poured out the changers' money, and overthrew the tables... (John 2:14-15)
Thus we have, in all four gospels, a scattered account of an incident that occurred in the Temple precincts or courtyard, involving Jesus and his followers, in which he disrupts certain activities there and appears to "take over" before leaving the City a second time and returning to Bethany.
We are also later informed that a widespread insurrection (Mark 15:7) had taken place in the City which the "Cleansing of the Temple" was probably a part of. Then, of course, Jesus would not be the only one possessing a weapon (as we have seen a whip). Most of the crowd was probably armed. If so, the insurrection, and Jesus' action in the Temple as part of it, was not spontaneous but planned as a pre-Passover "act of freedom" against the pro-Roman establishment. This is possibly the reason that Jesus chose to come to Jerusalem this particular week, looking forward to the insurrection as the spark leading to the unfolding of the Kingdom of G-d, and to his own messianic role as its leader and inaugurate. Moreover, there can be no doubt but that the entire insurrection was planned and led by the Zealots with whose aims Jesus must have been in complete sympathy both as a Jew and as a fellow Gallilean, especially when we remember that several of his own disciples were Zealots.
While the riot in the Temple is not portrayed in detail in the canonical Gospels logical deduction can fill in most of the vital details. It was less than a week before the Passover, which the Romans always considered a tinder dry period when anything could, and did, happen. The Jews flocked in their millions to attend this Holy Festival, for every healthy male over the age of 12 living within ninety miles of the Temple was compelled by the Law to attend his God and give an account of himself, which shows that the Jews packed a powerful 'punch' into a relatively small area.
It was at Passover then, when religious and nationalistic fervor ran high and hot, that trouble would start. What made the Roman apprehension all the greater was that the milling multitude included tens of thousands of the rough, tough Gallileans who were mostly Zealots and ardent Messianists. Expected to control the myriad's was a force consisting of the Jewish Temple Police—amounting to no more than a probable two hundred—and one cohort of Roman troops, normally five hundred men. When Pontius Pilate made his customary Passover visit from his palace in Caesarea, he brought another cohort of seasoned troops to stiffen the Temple Guard in the riot season, as would Herod Antipas, with an additional cohort.
A popular uprising would undoubtedly involve every last Galilean Zealot in and around Jerusalem. Against these formidable forces Rome could muster a mere five hundred troops while the Temple Police, responsible to the Sanhedrin, numbered only two hundred but as their job was only to protect the Temple, Rome couldn't expect their assistance in troubles elsewhere in the City. With the odds against them a minimum of eight to one, not even the valiant Legionaries could be expected to prevail. Likely, Pilate and Antipas, when they arrived in a few days time would be too late.
So why was the rebellion a dismal failure? The beginnings of the attempted coup are described in the gospels so that there is no great need of speculation. Certainly, his public entry into Jerusalem riding on an ass tipped off the Romans to the plans by becoming the living prophecy of Zechariah 9:9 which says: 'Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion; shout O daughter of Jerusalem: Behold thy King cometh unto thee... meek... and riding upon an ass...!' Shouting his name and imploring him to rise and save them from Rome—as their King and Messiah surely would—the crowd's acclamations became one mighty, thunderous roar. Undoubtedly, the Romans used this intelligence to concentrate their forces around the Temple Mount and subdue the rebellion, executing the leader in the process.
In Jerome's Vulgate version of the Bible in John 18:3, the term cohort is used to describe the size of the military unit that came to arrest Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemanie. Such units were quite large, being 500-600 men strong, usually accompanied by generous contingents of local auxiliaries. The gospels confirm that elements of the temple guard accompanied the Roman soldiers as the came to arrest Jesus. Certainly, Pontius Pilate expected a pitched battle and took no chances by responding with overwhelming force at that spot where Jesus was most vulnerable.
The Implications of the Gospel of Peter and the First Jewish Revolt
The Gospel of Peter is an incredibly anti-Jewish document. It squarely places the blame for the crucifixion upon the Priests and Rabbis and excusing Pontius Pilate of any culpability.
Again, what is so amazing about the passage we looked at earlier is the feature about disciples being charged with plotting to burn the temple. Even more amazing is how well it matches up with the accounts of the Roman historians who classify the early Chrisitians as lestai.
Tacitus in his Histories portrays the early Christians as a terrorist movement. In this work, he states that the Christians were killed for allegedly committing acts of arson starting the famous fire during the reign of Nero in 64 CE. The historian Sutonius in his history of the emperor Claudius mentions a group he termed impulsore chresto (messianic insurgents) who had caused rioting in Rome. Claudius redeployed thousands of Roman troops in several legions to guard facilities like the port at Ostia from arson and sabotage.
While Christian historians have taken issue with the veracity of the charges, Roman fears were on target. Even a cursory glance at Josephus will reveal how accurately he outlined the general details of the Zealot movement. The Jewish historian identified them as a fourth "philosophy" in competition with the Pharisees, the Saducees, and the Essenes. The Chrisitian individuals in the canonical gospels are closely associated with zealots and the individuals in the Gospel of Peter are suspected of zealot-like activities. Using our "Josephus Test," these individuals should be considered zealots because of the many reputable reports of their close association with and activities like those of zealots and the sicarii.
In a very interesting passage, the Roman Christian historian Severus quotes Pliny at length whe he quotes from volume five of Tacitus' Histories. This volume was lost, so only quotations from other extant authors who preserve sections of it exist. In his description of the siege of the temple in Jerusalem in 70CE, the Roman general and later emperor Titus calls a meeting of his general staff. He throws open the question of whether or not to destroy the Temple. Titus favored doing it and advocated this because the Tem;e was the ultimate source of inspiration for both the Jews and the christiani. Eric Laupot of the University of Alabama Tuscaloosa identifies this term with the Hebrew term notzrim (branches), the term that early Hebrew Christians called themselves.
Whether Titus set the fire first or the Zealots did is not completely clear. Like the Branch Davidian siege 2000 years later, the results were transparent. The Gospel of Peter would indicate that such an idea existed in their theology. It would certainly fit into the frame of mind of apocalyptic messianists acting on earth to bring about the coming of the messiah. Unfortunately for them, the destruction of the Temple severed the link between Christianity and Judaism forever, completely transforming what had been a heretical sect of Judaism into a completely new religion.
Previously, we examined militant statements made by Jesus to his disciples, the violence launched in the Passover Week intifada, and the official crackdown that followed. Josephus records that toward the end of Pontius Pilate's reign as procurator, civil unrest became so pronounced that it precipitated his recall to Rome by Tiberius. It is only logical to connect Jesus' militant activities with the events surrounding Pilate's ouster. The passage of time since the burial of the Gospel of Peter at Akmim has not changed this. While likely not the only factor causing Pilate's removal by the emperor, the revolutionary activities of Jesus and his Zealot followers would have provided the final, decisive chain of events that brought about the procurator's fall.
Zealot actions were not only disruptive to the Roman civil authority, but also to Jews themselves. The hostility of the Zealots to established Jewish authority exhibited during the First Jewish Revolt against Rome was reflected in earlier Zealot and Sicarii actions, in this case, Jesus' riot in the Temple. What is agreed on by all authorities alike was that at the time of Jesus' entry into Jerusalem and the "cleansing" of the temple is that his followers considered him their messiah. Jesus used this to his advantage.
Amazingly, Jesus' relationship with Zealot/Sicarii followers is not enough evidence to connect him definitively with a terrorist movement in the eyes of the majority of Christian Biblical scholars. They charge guilt by association and try to expunge Jesus' culpability by citing other instances of his meeting with other untouchables, including Roman tax collectors, prostitutes and Samaritans. Whaterver the case may be, movements and people are fluid, not static. They change and develop with time. Jesus' relationship with other groups and people may also have changed over time. Such is the character of charismatic leadership. The connection between Jesus and the Zealots is obvious and natural. The passage of time since the burial of the Gospel of Peter at Akmimin has not changed this. Rather, by carefully and critically examining its details, we can resurrect the historical Jesus to life again.
Christianity in Talmud and Midrash, Herford, R. Travers. Ktav Publishing House, New York, 1975, reprint of 1903 edition.
Jesus and the Zealots, SGF Brandon. Scribners, New York, 1967.
The Jewish Time Line Encyclopedia, Kantor, Mattis. Jason Aronson, Inc., Northvale, NJ, 1992.
Josephus, the Jewish War, Trans. G. A. Williamson, Penguin, 1959.
The Illustrated History of the Jewish People, ed. Nicholas Lange. Key Porter Books, 1997. "The Making of the Diaspora, Oded Irshai.
The Bible translation used is the King James.
Laupot, Eric. Tacitus' Fragment 2: The Anti-Roman Movement of the Christiani and the Nazoreans. Vigiliae Christianae 54, no. 3 (2000) 233-47
The Lost Books of the Bible, Crown Publishers, New York, 1979 ed.