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Jesus: Rebel or Imperialist?

Based on λησγαις - Robber or Rebel?

Robbers in the Gospels

According to scholars, the gospels were first written just after Judea's armed insurgency was defeated in the bloody siege of Jerusalem. In stark contrast to the times, the life of Jesus depicts a bucolic pastoral setting with no mention of revolution. This makes it difficult to discern their position on the most pressing and controversial issue of the day – the right of national sovereignty or the divine right of the empire. But in this paper, we'll examine a clue about the gospel's view of the rebels - the Greek word λησγαι, which is commonly translated as robbers or thieves. First, we'll look at how robber is used in The War of the Jews by Josephus. Then we'll compare it to three examples from Jesus' life: a den of thieves, arrested like a robber with clubs and swords, and the good thief/bad thief. From the parables we'll look at thieves and robbers used by the Pharisee in the temple, the good Samaritan, and the good shepherd. Finally, we'll look at a passage in the gospel of Thomas that speaks about rebels and imperial resources.

The translations used for the gospels will be the Interlinear NASB-NIV, the Complete Gospels, and Willis Barnstone's New Covenant. The question we'll be asking is whether the word λησγαι should be translated "robber" or "rebel." To the Jesus Seminar, this is an old debate, judging from their use of the word "rebel" in three of the references in the Complete Gospels. However, I would like to apply the translation consistently to all the examples and to delve into the implications, particularly in discerning the gospels' position on the Judeans' right to revolt against Rome.

Robbers in The War of the Jews

Paul Maier writes, "...most historians write with some bias, and Josephus especially so... his principal prejudices, aside from a lofty appreciation of himself: 1) Jews have a proud and cultured history, as well as the highest form of religious belief; 2) Romans, however, now enjoy God's favor because of the apostasy and villainy of the Jewish Zealot leaders and their insurrectionary followers, whom Josephus regularly styles as bandits or brigands."1 This styling as bandits or brigands is translated in WOJ as robbers. From my count, Josephus uses the word translated as robber 76 times in WOJ. The word zealot is used 62 times, and Sicarii is used 20. Either sedition or seditious is used 176 times.

The contexts in which Josephus uses robber include:

WOJ Pref:4. For that it was a seditious temper of our own that destroyed [Jerusalem], and that they were the tyrants among the Jews who brought the Roman power upon us...when we speak so passionately about the tyrants, or the robbers, or sorely bewail the misfortunes of our country, let him indulge my affections herein, though it be contrary to the rules for writing history...

WOJ Bk 1:Ch 16:5. By this means Herod subdued these caves, and the robbers that were in them...when Herod was informed of this insurrection, he came to the assistance of the country immediately, and destroyed a great number of the seditions...

WOJ Bk 2:Ch 13:2. Felix took Eleazar the arch-robber, and many that were with him, alive, when they had ravaged the country for twenty years together, and sent them to Rome; but as to the number of the robbers whom he caused to be crucified, and of those who were caught among them, and whom he brought to punishment, they were a multitude not to be enumerated.

WOJ Bk 2:Ch 13:3. When the country was purged of these, there sprang up another sort of robbers in Jerusalem, which were called Sicarii...

WOJ Bk 2:Ch 13:6. ... a company of deceivers and robbers got together, and persuaded the Jews to revolt, and exhorted them to assert their liberty, inflicting death on those that continued in obedience to the Roman government,

Other examples consistently show that robber means rebel to Josephus. I'm uncertain if the word translated robber is ?????? because I haven't found an interlinear or side-by-side for Josephus and the concordance is, so far, only alpha to delta. For a complete list of the WOJ references to robbers, email the author for Appendix A.

When broken into the books of WOJ, some interesting patterns emerge:

Book RobbersZealotsSicariiSedition/ousTotal
Preface1 0 0 6 7
1 11 0 0 15 26
2 25 1 3 54 83
3 3 0 0 6 9
4 16 51 2 24 93
5 11 7 0 37 55
6 9 2 0 29 40
7 0 1 15 5 21
Total 76 62 20 176 334
The use of robbers reaches a peak in Book Two, and then drops off precipitously in Book 3 – when Josephus describes his own part in the war. Robber is then used admiringly and prefaced with "private" – "...for [the Jews] then made sallies out of the city, like private robbers" [WOJ Bk 3:Ch 7:9]. "And now Vespasian was plainly irritated at the great subtlety of this stratagem, and at the boldness of the citizens of Jotapata... they made fresh sallies upon the Romans... together with all such contrivances, as robbers make use of" [WOJ Bk 3:Ch 7:11]

Total references to the rebels also build to a peak of 83 in Book 2, drop to 9 in Book 3 when Josephus enters the scene, and bounce up to their new peak of 93 in Book 4, after he's declared God to be on the Roman side. Book 4 has 51 out of 62 references to the zealots. In the previous books, before Josephus joins the Romans, there's only one reference to zealot. The Sicarii don't come into their own until after the fall of Jerusalem, in the last book on Masada, with 15 mentions out of 20. It seems that Josephus uses euphemistic terms – robbers, tyrants, or "fond of innovations," while he's part of the insurgency. After he "turns cloak," he calls them by the names they call themselves, but with scathing regard – both for their mission and their tactical incompetency.

A Den of Thieves or a Cave of Crooks?

NIV Mark 11:17 And as he taught them, he said, "Is it not written: " 'My house will be called a house of prayer for all nations'? But you have made it 'a den of robbers.'" ληστων

New Covenant: "a cave of robbers."

NIV/NC Matthew 21:13 "It is written," he said to them, " 'My house will be called a house of prayer,' but you are making it a 'den of οπηλαιον robbers.'" αηοϒων

NIV Luke 19:46 "It is written," he said to them, " 'My house will be a house of prayer'; but you have made it 'a den of robbers.'" αηοτων

NC: you have made it into a cave of robbers.

The Complete Gospels (all): ...but you have turned it into 'a hideout for crooks'

In each example, οπηλαιον is den, cave, or hideout, and αηοϒων is robbers, thieves, or crooks. In Josephus, however, caves are a favorite hideout of the Jewish rebels:

WOJ Bk 1:Ch 16:2. But when Herod had reached Sepphoris... he hasted away to the robbers that were in the caves, who overran a great part of the country

WOJ Bk 1:Ch 16:4. In Now these caves were in the precipices of craggy mountains, and could not be come at from any side...he let down the most hardy of his men in chests, and set them at the mouths of the dens. Now these men slew the robbers and their families, and when they made resistance, they sent in fire upon them [and burnt them];

WOJ Bk 1:Ch 16:5. By this means Herod subdued these caves, and the robbers that were in them...

In Mark, Matthew, and Luke, the sellers who make the temple "a den of thieves" are not doing anything out of the ordinary that could be described as theft.2 It's more likely that this use of αηοϒων describes the rebels who occupied the temple during the recent siege. The NT mentions by name the two high priests killed by the rebels during this time between the altar and the sanctuary, which dates the gospels.

Swords and Clubs against the Robber or Rebel?

Int/NIV Mark 14:48 As against a robber αηοτην come ye forth with swords and clubs to arrest me?

NC: As against a thief...

Int/NIV/NC Matthew 26:55 Have you come out with swords and clubs to arrest Me as against a robber? αηοτην

Int/NC Luke 22:52 As against a robber αηοτην came ye out with swords and clubs?

NIV Luke 22:52 Am I leading a rebellion, that you have come with swords and clubs?

CG (all): Have you come out with swords and clubs as though you were apprehending a rebel?

In describing Jesus' arrest, all versions give the literal translation of αηοτην as robber in Mark and Matthew. Both the interlinear and Willis Barnstone's New Covenant, which is translated directly from the Greek, stick to robber in Luke's version. But the NIV and the Complete Gospels move to the interpretive translation with "leading a rebellion," and "apprehending a rebel." This interpretation makes logical sense. A common thief would be apprehended in the act, or at home where they're likely to have stored the goods, and would require no more than two soldiers. An insurgent would be met with an army, expecting a clash.

The Good Thief or the Repentant Rebel?

NIV Mark 15:27 They crucified two robbers αηοτας with him, one on his right and one on his left.

NIV Matthew 27:38 Two robbers αηοϒαι were crucified with him, one on his right and one on his left.

NIV Matthew 27:44 In the same way the robbers αηοϒαι who were crucified with him also heaped insults on him.

NC: They crucified two thieves with him.

CG: Then they crucified two rebels with him, one on his right and one on his left.

Int/NC/CG Luke 23:32 And were led also others - criminals κακονρϒοι, two with him, to be killed. 33 ...there they crucified him and the criminals κακονρϒονς... 39 And one of the hanged criminals κακουρϒων blasphemed him... 40 the other rebuking him said... "things worthy of what we did, we receive back; but this man nothing amiss ατοπον did. We are getting justice, since we are getting what we deserve. (it. added) But this man has done nothing improper."

The Complete Gospels break with the literal translation of ληοϒαι in Matthew and Mark, using "rebels" for those crucified with Jesus. Again, this makes sense. From Josephus we know that "the number of the robbers (rebels) whom he caused to be crucified... were a multitude not to be enumerated."

In Luke, a different word is used for those crucified - κακουρϒων - which is translated as criminal. The rebels, however, would only be criminal under Roman law. The use of this term is Rome-centric, since other Jews would not call them criminal. The Judeans and the Romans are armed enemy combatants whose actions both have lethal intent. The only difference is that one side is fighting for their right to self-rule, and the other is fighting for their right to rule the other: sovereignty vs. supremacy. Luke calls those fighting for sovereignty "criminals" and calls those fighting for supremacy "soldiers," even though they're killing other captive soldiers by torture rather than combat. Luke's viewpoint is pro-imperial.

Luke confirms this view when one of the crucified says, "We are getting justice, since we are getting what we deserve. But this man has done nothing improper." Jesus does not contradict him and say that crucifixion isn't just and no one deserves to be tortured. He doesn't say that the cause of Judean sovereignty is right. His answer is that today he'll be with him in a shaded garden – a Greek phrase meaning paradise.3 Jesus canonizes the rebel who says that Jesus was never one of them – Jesus never opposed Roman authority. Crucifixion isn't wrong per se, according to Jesus, but they have the wrong guy. Jesus also uses a Greek trope to promise the rebel who exonerates him that he'll be with him tonight in a Greek concept of heaven. Either Jesus was speaking in Greek while being crucified as a Judean rebel, or the author of Luke is driving home the point that Jesus was a Hellenist Jew, not a nationalist.

When Jesus dies, the Roman officer declares, "This man was completely innocent!" Innocent of what? In Josephus' use of the term αηοϒαι, he is innocent of rebellion against the Roman Empire. In the temple, in the garden, and on the cross, Jesus has denied three times that he's a rebel.

There is a curious note in Wikipedia under "The Penitent Thief:"4 "The apocryphal Arabic Infancy Gospel calls the two thieves Titus and Dumachus." Titus, of course, is the general who's just put down the Judean rebellion at the time of the Gospels' writing.

Separating Sheep from Goats and Thieves from Robbers

The three remaining references to thieves or robbers in the canonical gospels are: the Pharisee in the temple, the Good Samaritan, and the Good Shepherd.
CG Luke 18:11 The Pharisee stood up and prayed silently as follows: 'God, I thank you that I am not like everybody else —thieving, αρπαιες (rapacious, Int; grasping, NC) :18 Thou knowest the commandments... do not steal κλεψης

In Luke's account of the Pharisee, a different Greek word, αρπαϒες, is translated as thieving in the Complete Gospels. However, the Interlinear translates it as rapacious and the New Covenant as grasping, indicating a different meaning. The commandment on theft itself uses the word κλεψης. Neither of these words seems to indicate insurgency.

Int/CG/NC Luke 10:30 This fellow was on his way from Jerusalem to Jericho when he fell into the hands of robbers. ληοταις They stripped him, beat him up and went off, leaving him half dead... :36 "Which of these three, in your opinion, acted like a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?" ληοτας

The story of the Good Samaritan is like the search for a moderate Muslim – it implies that goodness or moderation is not the norm among that population. During the Judean revolt, there were Samaritans who joined in the cause, becoming ληοτας : robbers or rebels. Simultaneous to the 47-day siege of Jotapata, Samaritan rebels gathered on Mt. Gerizzim. Vespasian dispatched a Roman legion, which killed 11,600 under the assumption that they must be up to no good. In the prior decades, it was Pontius Pilate's excessive force that had him recalled to Rome, by persecuting a Samaritan movement and their leader, possibly messianic, who was to show them sacred vessels on Mt. Gerizzim. Although the Judeans and Samaritans differed in rituals and place of worship, independence from Rome seemed to be a common cause among some.

When the man falls into the hands of the rebels, they strip him. The Oxford Etymologist tells us that robber comes from the same root as robe. In "Strip Them Naked, or the Robber Disrobed5," Anatoly Liberman describes the custom: "a defeated enemy or a prisoner of war may be killed or stripped of everything he wears before (and sometimes instead of) being murdered. Reports gloat over the details. Marauders search for good clothes and valuables on the battlefield and care little for the indignity with which they are treating corpses, but it was the ability to humiliate the survivors that gave the greatest joy to the winning party." So rather than an innocent victim of robbers, the man may have been an informant to the Romans "exposed" by the rebels. The Samaritan may be another Hellenist who believes the 11,600 deserved their lot.

There are numerous references to clothing, or lack thereof, in the NT: the wedding garment, the seamless garment, and the curious incident at Gethsemane of the youth who slips away naked because they grab his robe. Robes were the symbol of wealth, without which a person was just like anyone else. Robes were also the symbol of power for the priests, which the rebels usurped or reclaimed, depending on your point of view. From this history of the word, Josephus' euphemism is apt – the rebels were robbers in stripping the toparchies of their Roman-conferred authority and the spoils of collaboration.

Int/NIV/NC/CG John 10:1 "I tell you the truth, the man who does not enter the sheep pen by the gate, but climbs in by some other way, is a thief κλεπτης and a robber ληστης. :7 Therefore Jesus said again, "I tell you the truth, I am the gate for the sheep. :8 All who ever came before me were thieves κλεπται and robbers, λησται but the sheep did not listen to them. :10 The thief κλεπτης comes only to steal κλεψη and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have abundance.

Also from Liberman: "Another way of describing how victims are divested of their clothing is to liken them to sheep and to say that they are shorn, or fleeced... Parts of the New Testament, translated by Bishop Wulfila in the 4th century, have come down to us. It may be that Gothic wilwan "rob" is related to wulla "wool." If so, we have a good parallel to Engl. fleece. The etymon (that is, the ultimate source) of spoil, from which we have despoil and spoils, is Latin spolium "skin stripped from an animal; booty." He goes on to link the word flay to fleecing and robbing.6

The shepherd, of course, would have the right to shear, skin, or butcher the sheep that were his. He's not raising the sheep as pets. If the sheep refused to be fleeced, they would "deserve" to be killed and flayed.

The Arabic Infancy Gospel says that Titus, the "righteous thief" in the crucifixion story, kept Joseph and Mary from being robbed during their flight into Egypt,7 which would have been the year of the Roman census tax that sent them to Bethlehem. This same year, 6 C.E., is the tenth year of the rule of Archelaus when Josephus' father Matthias is born to his grandfather, Joseph. However, his family inherits their royal blood and alliance with the high priesthood through the maternal lineage.8

Because of this census tax, Judas the Galilean and Zadok the Pharisee founded the zealot's Fourth Philosophy. They said that it was the first step to slavery – in effect, branding the sheep to be fleeced. They also began the Sicarii, a word that spell-check wants to change to Iscariot. While the compliant Jews were returning to their birthplaces, the robber-rebels were using the displacement to way-lay the collaborators. Possibly, the residents of poor towns also refused hospitality to the wealthy, who were slumming reluctantly among them.

The gospels say that Joseph and Mary returned from Egypt when word came that "they" were dead. But Herod was dead before the census, and the other rulers were still alive and kicking. Who died? Judas and Zadok were executed with their students, but the deaths of "the two teachers" sparked six decades of insurgency. However, while the census marks the birth of their revolt and the birth of Jesus, the "birth" of the gospels is coincident with the death of their revolt.

While we have no record of the Fourth Philosophy, Josephus names the heresy they continued to spread in Alexandria, even after Jerusalem and Masada fell: "to assert their liberty, to esteem the Romans to be no better than themselves, and to look upon God as their only Lord and Master." When the Jews of reputation turn the rebels over to the Romans, Josephus writes that their "courage, or whether we ought to call it madness, or hardiness in their opinions, everybody was amazed at. For when all sorts of torments and vexations of their bodies that could be devised were made use of to them, they could not get any one of them to comply so far as to confess, or seem to confess, that Caesar was their lord; but they preserved their own opinion, in spite of all the distress they were brought to, as if they received these torments and the fire itself with bodies insensible of pain, and with a soul that in a manner rejoiced under them. But what was most of all astonishing to the beholders was the courage of the children; for not one of these children was so far overcome by these torments, as to name Caesar for their lord. So far does the strength of the courage [of the soul] prevail over the weakness of the body."9

In closing, I quote passage 103 of the Gospel of Didymous Judas Thomas, or Judas' double:

"Jesus said, 'Congratulations to those who know where the rebels are going to attack. [They] can get going, collect their imperial resources, and be prepared before the rebels arrive.'"

1 Maier, Paul L., Josephus: The Essential Writings. Kregel Publications: Grand Rapids, MI, 1988. p. 11.
2 Private conversation with John Dominic Crossan at GTU.
3 Miller, Robert Ed. , Complete Gospels, Polebridge Press, p. 171.
5 Liberman, Anatole. Strip Them Naked, or The Robber Disrobed. OUPblog: Oxford University Press
6 Ibid.
8 Josephus, Autobiography of Flavius Josephus
9 Josephus, War of the Jews, Book 7, Chapter 10:1.