Socialist Worker

Judas of Galilee — who didn't betray the movement

The second column in our series looks at the Jewish revolt against Rome

Issue No. 1981

Two thousand years ago, a Jewish peasant rebellion stirred in the countryside in and around Judaea, an obscure Mediterannean province of the Roman empire.

The rebellion would change the face of history. Judas of Galilee was one of its early leaders.

Decades of discontent followed and Judaea became a fertile ground for religious and political dissident movements.

Some were explicitly messianic. There was a high expectation that god would appear in human form, and apocalyptic transformation would bring relief to all suffering.

The Jewish dissident faction, which we today know as Christianity, took root in this period.

The rebellion, which climaxed in open revolt in 66-70AD, was mercilessly crushed by Roman legions.The Jewish temple in Jerusalem was destroyed.

We know little about these events because our main religious sources, the rabbinical Talmudic Jewish tradition and New Testament Christianity, are deeply flawed.

They are outrageously propagandist, twisting and inventing history, and they were written long after the events themselves.

However the Jewish revolt did have its own historian, Josephus. He was not just involved in the revolt, he was its military commander in the Galilee.

He too was an appalling propagandist and self-publicist. A former member of the pro-Roman Jewish ruling class in Jerusalem, Josephus changed sides during the revolt, returning to the Roman fold.

Rome even sponsored his histories. Nevertheless, modern scholars agree that, with skilful use, Josephus is an indispensable source.

There is a consensus that his description of a remarkable family dynasty, like that of Judas of Galilee, provides a penetrating insight into the peasant movement, which, incidentally, he despised.

Judas led the opposition to co-operation with the Roman census, which was a means of avoiding taxation.

Forty years later, two of his sons, Jacob and Simon, were crucified for agitation. A surviving son, Menahem, became one of the revolutionary leaders in Jerusalem.

A nephew of Menahem, Eleazar, was the legendary captain at Masada, where a few hundred Jews, after holding out against the Romans following the fall of Jerusalem, committed mass suicide.

The political outlook of Judas has been the subject of much heated debate. This, partly, hinges on its “messianic” quality.

We know that the Qumran War Scroll, one of the most famous of the Dead Sea scrolls, helped shape the political culture.

This predicted the imminent arrival of the messianic age. Judas seems to have interpreted this as meaning that subjection to Rome was evil and that acceptance of any human master was wrong, since Jews should be ruled by god alone.

One scholar has recently concluded, “The effect of this ideology was anarchy and revolution.”

Other scholars, while doubting the intensity of messianic belief, have reinforced this interpretation with secular concepts like “banditry” and “brigandage”.

Eric Hobsbawm’s books Primitive Rebels and Bandits remind us of the long and honourable history of this form of peasant struggle.

Josephus said, “The religious charlatans and bandit chiefs joined forces and drove numbers to revolt, inciting them to strike a blow for freedom.”

The New Testament story of the destruction the money lenders’ debt bonds in the Jerusalem temple is highly pertinent, as is the peasant demand for the redistribution of land.

Curiously, Judas has never made it to the Zionist pantheon of ancient Jewish heroes, while Eleazar features regularly in Israeli tourist brochures for trips to the ancient site of Masada. 

Could it be that Judas’s healthy anarchist contempt for all state structures rather undermines Zionist claims that the peasant war against Rome was a Jewish national liberation struggle?

One of the most exciting features of this period was the plebean character of the agitator leaders.Jesus was said to be a carpenter, the apostle Paul, a tent maker. When the Zealot rebels seized the Jerusalem temple they chose a stonemason to be the high priest, deliberately avoiding a candidate from the upper class families.

This decision enraged Josephus who denounced the stonemason as a “boor and an ignoramous”. After Rome’s victory, the rabbis who fled Jerusalem to settle in the Galilee were mainly artisans.

Defeat was a catastrophe. Historian Neil Faulkner has summed it up: “Apocalypse” glimpsed but missed, “the revolutionary overthrow of Rome and a passage into the light of a possible sunrise”.


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