Sunday, 2 December 2018

Joshua: genocide, or a tale of two time-streams? – Part 3 of 3

We are thinking about one of the Old Testament’s interesting conundrums: the violent, strange Book of Joshua, based on Dr Matthew Lynch’s series of blogs on it.
The book of Joshua is famous for violence of a degree that may  well seem problematic to the modern mind, but isn’t entirely as it seems. It starts out as the story of Joshua being the one to conquer the Canaanites but it splits into two tracks, like two alternative time-streams, as if two potential futures in Joshua’s mission start mysteriously to unfold side by side, producing two alternative realities. Dr Lynch calls them a ‘surface’ narrative and a ‘deeper’ narrative. It’s a mystery that is not asking to be left unexplained. These are the two ‘realities’ we’re looking at:
  • In one time-stream, ruthless total wipe-out of the enemy: “Thus Joshua conquered the whole country … he let none escape, but proscribed [destroyed] everything that breathed—as the LORD, the God of Israel, had commanded (Josh 10:40).”
  • In the other time-stream, merely a flawed and incomplete defeat of their enemy: “when the Israelites grew stronger, they subjected the Canaanites to forced labour but did not drive them out completely.” (Joshua 17:3)
It’s a riddle, and seems to be meant to be that way. But why would the Book of Joshua be written like two versions, in alternative time-streams, overlapping each other? Lynch: “I refer to these as ‘narratives’ though they’re at times juxtaposed to one another within the space of two verses. It’s probably most accurate to refer to these as two perspectives on the conquest within Joshua”.
Dr Lynch sets out to work out what the function of the text is, and what it is telling us. He suggests that each of the two time-streams “has its own function in the book, and each says things that couldn’t be said otherwise with just one narrative.”
We have seen that the second time-stream takes an ancient warfare story and tells it as if it were describing a pageant, structured like a church liturgy version of a story – like we might see in a Christmas nativity story. Joshua’s army is reduced almost to non-combatants watching God win a victory, while their main contribution is to have the priests leading worship on the battlefield. That is, godly struggle is more effective in singing songs to God, not in swinging swords at people. It’s warfare fought in unseen spiritual realms. But how does the book deal with Joshua’s army if that is the case?
In this third and final post on the Book of Joshua, I will look at Lynch’s argument for how the second time-stream
  • tones down the violence of the story
  • undermines the image of a holy army
  • undermines us-and-them stories
As we do so, we start to wonder how the story of conquest gets turned on its head in some surprising ways.
Toning down the violence
Let’s look closer at the problem of violence in the less violent second time-stream, as this gives clues to resolve some of the riddles here, and to expose some of the limiting realities of ancient warfare. The first thing is to recognise when we are looking at rhetoric.
Putting to the sword everything that breathes: this really only meant ‘winning a victory’
Without suggesting that there was no killing, a story can be told with exaggerated figures of speech that should not be taken literally:
“Like Chronicles, Joshua is hyperbolizing (not falsifying! Is Monet falsifying the water lilies?) its historical sources in order to make important theological points. This is a non-controversial claim. Lawson Younger detailed the many ways that Joshua’s conquest rhetoric participates in standard ancient Near Eastern warfare rhetoric, where ‘putting to the sword everything that breathes’ basically meant, ‘winning a victory,’ and everyone knew it.”
This manner of speech is not uncommon even today. For instance, in a sports match, it might be said that the winning team wiped-out the opposition, but this does not mean the same as it would on a battlefield. It just means one team won the match by an overwhelming margin. Even on the battlefield today, to say the enemy was wiped out does not necessarily mean they all enemy fighters were killed. In ancient times, this sort of hyperbole could be very strong. An example of hyperbolic, seemingly genocidal, language with a note from Lynch in () brackets:
“When the LORD your God brings you into the land that you are entering to take possession of it … and when the LORD your God gives them [the Canaanites] over to you, and you defeat them, then you must devote them to complete destruction (from Hebrew verb herem). You shall make no covenant with them and show no mercy to them”. (Deut 7:1-2)
This passage is immediately followed by the following words, showing that the intention above is actually not genocidal:
“Do not intermarry with them. Do not give your daughters to their sons or take their daughters for your sons, for they will turn your children away from following me to serve other gods, and the Lord’s anger will burn against you and will quickly destroy you. This is what you are to do to them: Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones, cut down their Asherah poles and burn their idols in the fire.” (Duet 7:3-5)
This is a good example of where the text almost seems to diverge into two time-streams, one genocidal, the other not genocidal, in adjacent verses. And the point of the book juxtaposing it like that seems to be that genocide does not mean genocide! That is, any genocidal impulses are sublimated into a different concept. Lynch argues that
“The reasons Joshua took up this radically hyperbolic language of herem and total destruction might’ve been similar to the reasons Jesus used radically violent language: ‘If your right eye … [or] right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away’ (5:29-30). Jesus didn’t stop to say, ‘Now I’m speaking metaphorically here, FYI.’ His audience knew it… the force of Jesus’ summons depended on him not stopping to qualify it.”
If the book of Joshua uses hyperbole in regard to violence, then what would a description without hyperbole look like? And what would be the extent of the violence? The second time-stream gives us some really important clues. The broader picture which emerges is that “the campaigns listed in Joshua were geographically limited and most likely strategically targeted at the Canaanite city-state strongholds.”
Even then, “the emphasis in Israel’s campaigns is upon the killing of the kings rather than the cities as such.” Lynch crucially observes that the book of Joshua “does not report the Israelites attacking any Canaanite peasant villages or settlements or any encampments of pastoralists, an odd omission if the text really sought to report annihilation of the entire population.”
Lynch adds more detail:
“The people engaged in conventional warfare against major urban centers and ousted some but not all of their inhabitants. From a historical perspective, the purpose of these wars was likely to dismantle the Canaanite city states, which were ruled by war lords from large(-ish) cities but facing collapse in the 13th century [BC].
This deep narrative provides a more nuanced picture of what might have actually happened when Israel fought with the inhabitants of Canaan. Israel couldn’t ‘drive out’ the Jebusites living in Jerusalem (15:63); they couldn’t ‘dislodge’ the Canaanites in Gezer (16:10); they couldn’t ‘occupy’ the towns in the Trans-Jordan (17:13); Judah took the hill country but couldn’t ‘drive out’ those living on the plains because of their iron chariots (Judg 1:19) … and so on. These are but a few examples of the way that Israel engaged in conventional warfare against major Canaanite (Late Bronze) sites, were often unsuccessful, and ended up settling in the hill country.
If you look at a map of the actual cities Israel captured, they were quite limited…”
Lynch clarifies that
“the places early Israel actually settled, according to the best archaeological guesses, are precisely between the neutralized zones. In other words, the aims of the campaigns were likely to ‘de-militarize’ the royal strongholds to the north and south of regions where Israel peaceably settled.”
This made it possible to settle in the countryside. And “according to Joshua, all of Israel’s campaigns after Jericho and Ai were defensive in nature.”
The surprises keep coming: “most of Israel’s battles were against Canaanites in defense of the Canaanites!” Thus, the second time-stream undermines the idea of total wipe-out, and it undermines the ideas that it was a simplistic us-and-them thing. But isn’t this still a holy war of a kind that makes us uncomfortable? Well, the second time-stream undermines that too, because for a holy war, you need a holy army, and the Israelites had some failings on that score…
Undermining the image of a holy army
Was Israel meant to be a holy super-army? Lynch notes that according to the book of Joshua:
“Israel’s army was never its source of strength. Its strength was ‘not with your sword or with your bow’ (Josh 24:12). Rather, it was the God enthroned in the praises of Israel who defeats the enemy.”
This is warfare conducted, to take a verse from elsewhere, “not by might, not by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord”. That is, the battle is waged by God rather more than by men. This partial transfer of warfare from earth to the spiritual realms is crucial to Lynch’s argument as we saw earlier. This was a war fought from heaven.
But it’s time to come to a different point, already touched upon. There is still an armed Israelite army. Yet the familiar impression of a total wipe-out holy super-army is subverted further, and here are a few pointers as to that:
  • At the book’s start, the Israelites don’t seem to be circumcised, which means they did not enter the land in a state of Israelite-style ritual holiness. Lynch: “Why was Israel uncircumcised in the first place? Weren’t they coming to displace the uncircumcised?” After all, “for Israel, the term ‘uncircumcised’ acted as a kind of slur for denigrating enemies. When confronted with Goliath, David asks, ‘Who is this uncircumcised Philistine that he should defy the armies of the living God?’ (1 Sam 17:26)”. The Israelite army in Joshua was not such a ritually pure army then.
  • Also, even at the book’s end, the Israelites don’t seem to be avoiding pagan idol-worship. The evidence, as Lynch picks it up: “Joshua implores the people to ‘put away the gods that your ancestors served beyond the River and in Egypt, and serve the LORD’ (Josh 24:14). Not always such a faithful people, then.
  • What about Joshua himself, was he a perfect model of faith? Lynch points out: “when Joshua appoints spies to go into the land, the reader has reason to furrow her brow. It looks like Joshua lacks faith. And that’s bad, right? Remember all the guarantees Joshua had (Josh 1)? Why would he even need to spy the land?” Joshua’s faith actually seems to waver there.
  • And not such a well-prepared army either - the book of Joshua “doesn’t even mention weapons until chapter 5.” And get ready to be surprised at the first two times weapons are mentioned:
    • Firstly, it’s to put right their lack of circumcision – ouch! Lynch: “the Israelites use the sword to render themselves—then uncircumcised (!)—vulnerable and submissive”. The first time that “the people use weapons (literally ‘flint swords’) it’s against themselves.” This is what it says: “Make yourselves flint swords and circumcise the Israelites again. So Joshua made flint swords and circumcised Israel at the ‘Hill of Foreskins.’” Lynch makes a telling point: “This would have been physically excruciating, and symbolically disempowering. As Mark Bucanan points out… ‘We know from earlier in the Bible that circumcision was a way of rendering yourself unfit for battle, vulnerable to attack.” So no, this army was not really well-prepared for battle. And it’s almost as if God deliberately allowed things to go this way.
    • Secondly, an army commander come to the scene from heaven – yes! – but seems ambiguous about taking sides, which would be unsettling for the Israelites’ preparations. Lynch: “Yahweh’s own army commander raises his sword in a profoundly mysterious expression of non-alignment.  He will not be paraded in to provide unqualified support for Israel’s army.” This is despite Joshua asking the heavenly commander explicitly, “Are you for us or for our enemies?” (5:13). Just look at the reply he got from Yahweh’s commander: “Neither! I have come as commander of the LORD’s army.’ Oh my – neither! There is a clear line drawn between God’s army and the Israelite army. So: “why doesn’t God re-affirm his earlier promises to guarantee victory for Joshua and the people? Why doesn’t the story resolve the encounter, instead of just leaving us with the image of Joshua bowed low before the non-aligned God?”
This is not the kind of preparation an army usually wants. The fact that Yahweh’s commander is neither for nor against Joshua really changes things, as Lynch explains:
“The storyteller wants to unsettle and dislodge the binary us-them categories implied by a surface reading of the book’s earlier chapters. One strand of the conquest story fosters nationalistic confidence, religious certainty, and a story of success. But Joshua (and later readers) needed to uncouple his perceptions of God from the narrow confines of his patriotic story.”
That is perhaps more appealing to modern sensibilities. And it means that the story can’t be just about cleansing pagan enemies from the land, also given the many other points above. Which brings us to…
How the book of Joshua undermines us-and-them stories
Cleansing the conduct of Israel
To summarise, if it’s about cleansing, then the second time-stream is making the cleansing of the conduct of Israelites a top priority, whereas total cleansing of pagans of the land is never a higher priority: “Israel needed to become the circumcised people, they needed to become non-idolaters.” Otherwise, as Lynch says, “If Israel did not cling to Yahweh, he would let the nations remain. They would become thorns in their sides until Israel was eventually ‘driven’ from the land (23:12-13).“ And that is more or less the direction in which the story that the Old Testament develops.
The issues with Israel’s conduct aren’t just to do with circumcision and idolatry. It’s also about the things that lead to idolatry. This brings us back to the fact that Israelites could become idolaters under the influence of pagan idolaters who were already in the land. I have spoken about the smashing up of pagan objects. But there’s also the problem of Israelites making treaties with the enemy. As Lynch says, “Moses’ words to the conquest…: ‘Make no covenant with them’ precedes the call to show the Canaanites no pity (Deut 7:2).” But the people do make treaties with the enemy in the book of Joshua. It takes shape with issues like intermarriage.
Lynch is referring to intermarriage of Israelites with non-Israelites: “God commanded the people to tear down the sacred altars and idols of the nations and avoid intermarriage (Deut 7, 20). Intermarriage would lead to idolatry, and vice-versa. On that basis, the people were specifically instructed to avoid making covenants with the Canaanites.‘
The threat of this happening was still around towards the end of the story, as Lynch explains,
“At the end of his life Joshua told the people that many lands remained unclaimed, but promised that God would eventually ‘push back’ and ‘drive out’ the nations that remained (Josh 23:5). Yet there’s a hint of contingency to this promise. Notably, the people were not to ‘mix’ with the remaining nations through marriage or worship, for that would lead them away from their God (23:7, 12). Instead, they were to cling to Yahweh (23:7-8).”
This is where the second-time-stream really is plainly different from the first. It adds to the evidence that there was obviously no total extermination. After all, how could the risk of intermarriage ever apply to those you’ve exterminated? It couldn’t.
Intermarriage is not the only kind of treaty in the picture. Because next we come to the fascinating story of Israel treating with the street-smart prostitute Rahab. This story, we shall see, strongly undermines ancient Israelite nationalism. It embarrasses Israel by portraying Rahab showing in certain ways how Israel should really conduct itself. Israel’s conduct should make it a shining light to the world, but it needs a prostitute called Rahab to show them how to be that. There something very deliberate in the book of Joshua telling the story this way.
How this story starts off embarrasses Israel again, showing us moral weakness. Lynch: “So Joshua sends the spies from Shittim. And what did his spies do? They went straight to the house of a prostitute! What were they thinking? Well, most English translations don’t fully capture all the innuendos. They ‘go into’ the house of Rahab ... This doesn’t look good.”
As one preacher I’ve heard puts it, Rahab knew how to hide men and lie for them, perhaps using the skills of her profession!
Well, although that doesn’t reflect well on the spies, actually Rahab proves to be the hero of the hour. Lynch argues rightly that the “surprise encounter with Rahab suggests that the author is purposefully lifting up the stereotypical Canaanite outsider—the embodiment of all that threatens Yahwism—and subverting that stereotype.” And Rahab’s bravery only highlights the failings and imperfections of the Israelites. Lynch, states that – setting aside the obvious -  
“Rahab proves to be the incarnation of everything Israel was supposed to be! She shows hospitality to the foreigners, protects them from harm through civil disobedience, extols the mighty deeds and character of Yahweh, and acknowledges his supremacy (‘for the LORD your God, he is God in the heavens above and on the earth beneath’ 2:11).”
So, the story of Rahab contributes mightily to the overall critique that we find in the second time-stream: “Joshua is not a straightforward tale of genocide… the book is designed to critique the ethnocentric and nationalistic assumptions on which a genocidal ideology depends.”
Obviously, we may still be uncomfortable with some of the violence, and perhaps the reasons for it. As Lynch admits, “weaving those critiques into a story that includes genocide might seem like a strange brew, but there may be reasons. Maybe the simple conquest story was a cultural given that needed to be re-examined, and one way to do that was to retell it in a way that foregrounded the story of Rahab.”
“challenges us to re-consider the question: Who’s in and who’s out? Rahab the archetypal Canaanite is included in the people of God. By contrast, we read in Joshua 6 that an Israelite named Achan dies the death of a Canaanite (in accordance with Deuteronomic law) because he sought to gain from the conquest. So Rahab’s family was spared but Achan’s family was destroyed. By highlighting these two specific cases, Joshua sends a signal that ‘not all Israel is Israel; not every Canaanite is a Canaanite.’ The narrative space devoted to this subject (2 entire chapters) suggests an intentional focus on disturbing the boundaries dividing insider and outsider identities.”
One of the ways in which the book of Joshua’s message was that from time to time shows the conduct of Israel had needed to be cleansed, but cleansed to wrongful attitudes and prejudices.
The Bible re-interprets
These might seem arcane and niche matters for Old Testament buffs. But they play a part in the story of Jesus, which must be of interest to many, if not all, Christians. His scriptures were what we call the Old Testament, and the book of Joshua would have been no exception to him. And Lynch picks up something very interesting in Matthew’s Gospel: 
“Yeshua or Joshua in Hebrew—met a ‘Canaanite’ woman (Matt 15:22). It’s highly anachronistic for Matthew to use the term ‘Canaanite,’ since it’s the only time that the term is used in the Gospels. The use must be deliberate. In fact, when Jesus encounters her, she asks for mercy, because her daughter was oppressed by a demon. Now, for Jesus/Joshua to meet a Canaanite asking for mercy (remember: ‘show them no mercy’) sounds like a re-enactment of the conquest. But rather than applying Deuteronomy 7 literally, Jesus engages in a battle of wits about who’s in and who’s out. In other words, Jesus negotiates with the enemy. Seeing the woman’s ‘great faith,’ he heals her daughter. By moving toward the one who his disciples wanted to ‘dismiss’ (Matt 15:23), he found a Canaanite ‘outsider’ with the faith of an Israelite ‘insider.’”
So what have we found? If we look at the book of Joshua as history, we have to understand what kind of history its author was writing – this is always part of the historian’s task, to understand what kind of thing a book was meant to be in its own time. If we don’t try to do that, we are apt to miss the original author’s intentions. And that is why a two time-stream understanding gets us well past the lazy assumption that it is a book of genocide. (I hope you found my analogy of two time-streams, culled from the language of science-fiction, helpful!) Perhaps I should leave this subject with this message from Lynch:
“I don’t think Joshua tells a story of straightforward genocide, its claims are nonetheless radical and reflective of reality. We need these texts to work on us like these shocking words from Jesus in the Gospel of Luke:
If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple. (Luke 14:26)”.
Hyperbole, rhetoric from a different age, to be understood, and not just read off the surface. It’s often said that the past is a foreign country, and we are mistaken to think that it always speaks to us on our own terms. We have to understand it on its terms. Religious scripture from antiquity, Judaeo/Christian Scripture included, is a case in point.
I’m grateful to Matthew Lynch for his support in my publishing these posts, based on his work, on the Book of Joshua. Here are links to the posts by Matthew, around which my mine have been drawn:

Here are links to my three posts in this short series on the Book of Joshua:
You are here - Part three

Saturday, 1 December 2018

Joshua: genocide, or a tale of two time-streams? – Part 2 of 3

We are thinking about one of the Old Testament’s interesting conundrums: the violent, strange Book of Joshua, based on Dr Matthew Lynch’s series of blogs on it.

The book of Joshua has violence of a degree that may well seem problematic to the modern mind, but isn’t entirely as it seems. It starts out as the story of Joshua being the one to conquer the Canaanites but it splits into two tracks, like two alternative time-streams. (“Two time-streams” is my analogy, if you’ll indulge me in using an analogy from science fiction, where two people can walk through the same door at separate moments and find themselves in alternative realities, as if alternative futures can be entered at the same time.) These are the two ‘realities’ we’re looking at:

  • In one time-stream, God sends his holy army to war, with ruthless total wipe-out of the enemy spoken of: “Thus Joshua conquered the whole country … he let none escape, but proscribed [destroyed] everything that breathed—as the LORD, the God of Israel, had commanded (Josh 10:40).”

  • In the other time-stream, there is merely a flawed and incomplete defeat of their enemy: “when the Israelites grew stronger, they subjected the Canaanites to forced labour but did not drive them out completely.” (Joshua 17:3)

It’s a riddle: why would Joshua be written like two versions, in alternative time-streams, overlapping each other? Lynch: “I refer to these as ‘narratives’ though they’re at times juxtaposed to one another within the space of two verses. It’s probably most accurate to refer to these as two perspectives on the conquest within Joshua”.

As I said previously, it would not make sense to presume that Joshua is just contradicting itself. These two time-streams run continually side-by-side. We need to work out what the function of the text is, and what it is telling us. Lynch suggests that each of the two time-streams “has its own function in the book, and each says things that couldn’t be said otherwise with just one narrative.”


How it’s done

The second time-stream

  • transforms a still dangerous story into a safer liturgy story
  • tones down the violence of the story
  • undermines the image of a holy army
  • undermines us-and-them stories


Transformation into a safer liturgy story

There are two aspects to making a safer liturgy story here. First, making the drama about the Israelites ridding themselves of Canaanite religion rather than genocide. And then turning the story into something that has use in a liturgical setting (like how church services are sometimes built around stories, such as at Christmas).

On the Israelites ridding themselves of Canaanite religion rather than genocide, Lynch puts it this way:

  • “Here’s what Deuteronomy and Joshua suggest: Whatever earlier practices of extermination through warfare these texts transmit have been reframed in terms of differentiation in worship” [i.e. worshipping different gods, and how to worship the true god.] And:
  • “the book [Joshua] is designed to critique the ethnocentric and nationalistic assumptions on which a genocidal ideology depends”

The second time-stream, the ‘deep narrative’ as Lynch calls it conveys this more developed Israelite thought, something forged through a history of Israel’s engagement with God. It interprets stories in a surprising way that would have been helpful for new eras that Israelites were living in when they were reading the book. Crucially, Old Testament authors knew that this deep narrative is there, and presented it to their readers: “Deuteronomy, Joshua, and Kings read the call to genocidal war as a metaphor for separation from idols.” Lynch cites the Old Testament book of Kings:

“we read how the High Priest Hilkiah found the long lost ‘Book of the Law’ in the Temple, which most think is the book of Deuteronomy. When Josiah heard the book read, he was horrified that he and the people were not in compliance. So, Josiah went on a rampage, tearing down every known place of illicit worship. The narrator of Kings makes a point of the fact that Josiah carried out all the commands of Deuteronomy 7:5 (the herem text), but not against Canaanite peoples. Instead, he carried out herem against (Israelite!) places of worship.”

Not against another people but against sacred spaces set up by Israelites themselves. The second-time stream in summary presents a social ideal that “Joshua envisions the people keeping true to the ‘Book of the Law of Moses’ by ‘not mixing’ and ‘not serving’” the gods of their enemies. It’s about taking responsibility for their own religious purity. And this is rather than total wipe-out of the enemy. Lynch lays out the evidence in a table to show that this is how the book of Kings regards the call to total wipe-out as fulfilled merely by demolishing sacred spaces. See the matches:


Deut 7:5                                                                               2 Kings 23

‘tear down’ (Heb. natats) altars                DONE    (Heb. natats; 23:7, 12, 15)

‘shatter’ (Heb. shabar) the pillars             DONE    (Heb. shabar; 23:14)

‘hew down’ (Heb. gd’) the Asherim          DONE    (Heb. gd’; 23:14)

‘burn’ (Heb. saraph) the images                DONE    (Heb. saraph; 23:4, 6, 11, 15)


So, this series of matches demonstrates that in this much later story “Josiah carried out the herem command of Deuteronomy 7:5, yet without exterminating entire people groups. He didn’t go hunt for Hivites and Girgashites, but instead, understood the true sense of the law by seeking radical differentiation from all forms of ‘Canaanite’ religion.” So that’s an eyeopener. That how Josiah – long after the time of Joshua – interpreted the holy requirements. Lynch asks whether this is how the herem texts in Joshua are meant to be understood.


To recap the second time-stream, going through those books in brief:

  • Joshua: in this book, as well as the ancient rhetoric of total wipe-out of the enemy, we find more modest claims too, and with a sting in the tail. Lynch notes: “The promise of God was that Israel would displace the inhabitants of Canaan little by little.” Thus: “Israel settled on only a portion of the land. Canaanites were still running around everywhere, and eventually, Israel would be exiled from the land it failed to fully settle (Josh 23:13).”
  • So next question: how do you live as a holy people in a land that isn’t wholly holy? Well, not simplistically through holy war, but particularly through holy worship, with the Israelites taking responsibility for their own failings: “Joshua twice asks the people of Israel (!) to rid themselves of idols (23:14, 23).” No point in pointing a finger at native idolaters when you are idolaters yourselves. So, part of the message is that the risk of Israelite idolatry is greater in a land where there are native idolators, but wipe-out of the enemy doesn’t make you yourself religiously pure – that comes from taking responsibility for yourself.
  • Thus, Deuteronomy and Kings: in these books, “the herem texts were read not as a call for genocide, but instead as a summons to remain loyal to Yahweh and get rid of all ‘Canaanite’ religious influences.”

  • With other people groups remaining in the land with their own gods, the book of Joshua could provide a subtle answer to their problem, as it could be read by Israelites as a call upon themselves to stay devoted to Yahweh alone, the God of Israel: “the stories of Jericho and Ai, and the herem texts in Joshua 10-11 are meant to be read metaphorically as calls for radical loyalty.”
  • Next question: how in practice do the Israelites avoid contact with their enemies’ gods, without going in for mass slaughter? Well, this meant something that we might be tempted to see as cultural vandalism, smashing the enemies’ religious objects, especially if they themselves were tempted to use them: “the enduring challenge of Joshua is to forsake all competing loyalties, in fact, to destroy idols and altars, to show them no mercy”. Lynch adds, “if you prefer more pious language, this is a ‘reform movement,’ not a genocidal campaign.” Recognising modern sensitivities, Lynch says, “While that intolerance might be unpalatable, it is of a different order than genocide.” So pagan altars were smashed up. 


In short, the ancient Israelite reader was led to interpret Joshua according to the second time-stream, the somewhat less violent one. It’s about keeping different groups of people differentiated, not about the other side being wiped out. And the Old Testament really does tee it up that way. Lynch: “Deuteronomy, Joshua and Kings ‘re-frame’ extermination commands in terms of differentiation. Interpretive shifts were already under way that dislodged the story of conquest from any essential association with genocide.”

Therefore, within Old Testament interpretation, “The story of herem warfare was understood to mean: Don’t cavort with idolatrous nations, and even more importantly, remain true to the Torah.”

That is all very well, but a possible problem - does it undermine the Torah, that which comes before the book of Joshua? After all, the terms of engagement with the Canaanites were written in the law (Deut 7:20). Were they in one sense not obeyed? Or is it a valid interpretation of the law? Lynch goes with the latter: “This suggests that the story may have been written as a conscious interpretation of the law—a law that seems uncompromising when read apart from the story. The book opens up the possibility of creative adaptation of the law to accommodate the enemy within Israel’s own community.”

This is leading towards Lynch arguing that the book of Joshua is leading towards another meaning: “liturgizing warfare”. This means “the reception of such stories in worship settings for a totally different purpose, namely, to celebrate the power of Yahweh effected in the praise of his people.” This is the crucial thing to keep in mind.

How does Lynch get to that conclusion, then?


Making the story work for liturgy

Lynch says that his Bible-reading journey here Is going with the text, rather than looking for a way out of it. He says that the purpose of warfare stories changes when, as calls it, “reading along the grain of the Old Testament as it reframes violence against enemies.” This is where it gets fun. He explains what he finds: “I’m calling it a priestly re-framing, from warfare to liturgy.” That is to say, “Joshua is ‘liturgizing’ an earlier story of conquest, with Yahweh’s lone military action in the foreground and Israel’s participation in worship as the accompaniment.” This is taking military glory away from the Israelites.

What are the signs of this reframing? Well, Joshua is

“participating in a broader biblical pattern of liturgizing warfare—i.e.,

(a.) heightening the drama of divine victory,

(b.) downplaying or completely eliminating any meaningful human contribution to the victory, and

(c.) heightening the significance of the worship system within the battle scene.”

(I’ve split Lynch’s sentence up into paragraphs again there.) Indeed, Lynch observes that “Joshua 3-6 reads like a liturgical procession. It takes two whole chapters for Israel to process across the Jordan, stopping at each significant site to mark it for later re-enactment.”

It looks like a religious pilgrimage, or a bit like a play acted out in a religious service.

In a telling observation, Lynch notes that “The 7 day pattern of walking around the city (Josh 6) recalls the 7-day Passover celebration in Joshua 3-4.”

Being able to read the book of Joshua this way would have meant a lot to Israelites in later eras:

“The effect of this liturgizing was to render an older story of conquest meaningful for a people whose land had been effectively taken away… a powerless and vulnerable people in the land. They had no standing army, no king, few defenses, and little political clout. But they did have a temple. They did have priests. So when they looked back on their history to ask, where is the powerful God of the past in our day? they answer, He’s present in our worship.”

In the ‘deeper’ narrative then, the second time-stream, “As in the story from 2 Chronicles 20, the people were accompanying Yahweh into the land, but were in essence standing back in worshipful reverence to watch him win a victory.”

See how this influences the story of Joshua at the crucial moment: “the army had no role, the Levitical Priests took center stage. Their special duty was to accompany Yahweh into battle and announce his arrival.”

And here is another difference from older stories of war: “In the past, the Levites would have carried Yahweh’s ark, or throne. Throne or standard-bearing was a common motif in ancient Near Eastern warfare.” However, as we read Joshua we find that, without the ark present – the throne-like box containing holy objects - the Levites act as singers at the crucial moment, and, “Their praises formed a veritable throne for Yahweh as he went forth to fight for his people. This concept is likely behind the psalmist’s claim that Yahweh is ‘enthroned on the praises of Israel’ (Ps 22:3). Rather than the ark, the priests bore Yahweh into battle, lifted up so to speak on the praises of Israel.” (The ark was kept safe in the sanctuary by now, not out in the battlefield.)

That understanding of things will probably be popular with a lot of Christian worship leaders!

The singing of the Levite priests has a dramatic impact on the warfare zone, as God goes into action: “At the moment they began to sing and praise, the LORD set an ambush against the Ammonites, Moab, and Mount Seir, who had come against Judah, so that they were routed” (2 Chr 20:22). It’s not clear how the Lord set an ambush from how the story is told, but the important thing is that it was the Lord’s ambush, not the army’s ambush.

Thus, as part of liturgising, the story itself has an unexpected emphasis, as interpreted in the later Old Testament book of Chronicles. Lynch:

“Chronicles emphasizes the co-ordination between singing and Yahweh’s visitation. In the previous verse, Jehoshaphat appointed the Levites to literally ‘praise [God’s] holy theophany,’ or dramatic visitation. As they sang, Yahweh came in power (cf. 2 Chr 5:13). In sum, this post-exilic story paints the image of a God who achieves victory over the enemy, accompanied by the praise of the powerless.”

In my next, and final post, on this subject, I will look at Matthew Lynch’s argument for  how the violence is toned down (in the second-time stream), and how us-and-them violence is undermined.

Here are links to my three posts in this short series on the Book of Joshua:
You are here - Part two

Thursday, 29 November 2018

Joshua: genocide, or a tale of two time-streams? – Part 1 of 3

One of the Old Testament’s more interesting conundrums: the violent, strange Book of Joshua. This post is a precis of Dr Matthew Lynch’s series of blogs on it, in which he seeks to know what the Book of Joshua is telling us. (Links to Matthew’s articles are at the foot of this post.) Matthew teaches at Westminster Theological Centre. I’ve sat in some of his classes at a WTC event. I can only say he is an impressive academic who knows his onions and can “think outside of the box”.

By the way, bear in mind that the Book of Joshua makes no claims about who its author is or when it was written. So, it would not be necessary to put forward an idea that it was written at one particular time or another, or by whom. This should be of interest to all who want to follow the evidence wherever it leads.

Below the surface

Dr Lynch has taken on a difficult task. As he points out, the book of Joshua is disturbingly violent, but it isn’t entirely as it seems on the surface either. It starts out as the story of Joshua being the one to conquer the Canaanites but it splits into two tracks, like two alternative time-streams.

(“Two time-streams” being my analogy, not Matthew’s, and it’s not an analogy I will press too firmly – it’s just to give a frame of reference that I think works to advantage. It’s taken from science fiction where two people can walk through the same door at separate moments and find themselves in two alternative versions of the same reality, as if alternative futures can be entered at the same time. Like I say, I’m not pressing the analogy too firmly into service, but I will use it throughout this article so that it is easy to tell which reality I’m talking about at this or that moment.) So here are the two ‘realities’:

  • In one time-stream, God sends his holy army to war, with one set of expected results – ruthless total wipe-out of the enemy. There’s hyperbole in this, but the story gives the impression at some points that it’s for real: “Thus Joshua conquered the whole country … he let none escape, but proscribed [destroyed] everything that breathed—as the LORD, the God of Israel, had commanded (Josh 10:40).”

  • In the other time-stream, there is merely a flawed and incomplete defeat of their enemy: “when the Israelites grew stronger, they subjected the Canaanites to forced labour but did not drive them out completely.” (Joshua 17:3) In this time-stream, as we will see, the reputation and strength of Israel’s less than holy army is embarrassed, and God’s will is shown in surprising ways.

This is a riddle. Why would Joshua be written like two versions, in alternative time-streams, overlapping each other? It’s almost as if the warts and all time-stream doesn’t treat the ‘holy victory’ time-stream completely literally. The first time-stream is like a paradigm story. The second time-stream, as it develops, seems to have its own function – to call into question the supposed virtue of us-and-them violence.

Lynch: “I refer to these as ‘narratives’ though they’re at times juxtaposed to one another within the space of two verses. It’s probably most accurate to refer to these as two perspectives on the conquest within Joshua”.

That is, there is a paradigm version, and a realism version, all within the framework of an ancient Israelite worldview.

As we will see, other parts of the Old Testament give due recognition to the second version, so the total wipe-out version shouldn’t be taken for granted. And it’s the non-wipe-out version that Christians tend to prefer. But why two time-streams anyway, so to speak?

What is the book of Joshua doing?

Examining this conundrum benefits from a bit of academic know-how. Dr Lynch, on a proper method for getting to the bottom of it, says: “I’m convinced that navigating the challenging waters of violence in the Old Testament requires a multi-pronged interpretive approach.”

He asks, “What might the book of Joshua be doing?’ This is a question of its function: ‘function, not just content, determines meaning.” Lynch says that “there’s far more at work in Joshua than an attempt to provide Israel with an unambiguous founding story of destructive victory”.

We will need to keep in mind the fact that the book serves a function, and Lynch will argue that the function of its story-telling is liturgical – that is, it’s a story with a certain rhythm, one that is so similar to religious services that it almost mirrors the script for one (without violence in the service!). If its function suggests something liturgical, then we need to factor that in to what we think the book is saying. Function and message, they are the things.

Dr Lynch as a scholar is after an authentic Old Testament reading. He also wants it to be a fair and reasonable Christian reading. He is quick to establish that there is a need for a fresh look at the problem. Joshua’s violence seems contrary to Jesus’ command to love your enemies and can shock us today. Therefore, this is how Lynch sets out the task before him, to “read Joshua in a way that’s faithful to the story of Jesus”. He does so by asking these questions (converted into bullet points by myself, as I will frequently do in this post):

  • “(a) IF Jesus’ story is inextricable from the OT story of God and Israel, and in particular, Deuteronomy, where the command to commit genocide first takes shape (!); and
    (b) IF Jesus is to be the fulfilment of the OT narrative; and
    (c) IF his identity is that of an obedient Jewish Messiah,
    • THEN is there anything in the OT story as a whole that would engender the kind of life Jesus lived and the teachings he taught?” (emphasis added)

Yes, it’s not only about the book of Joshua, but also about Deuteronomy – this is actually the second most cited book by Jesus in the gospels, second only to the Psalms in Christ’s use of the Old Testament, so we can’t factor out books like Deuteronomy when we try to understand Jesus, or when we try to understand Joshua.

In terms of working out an authentic Old Testament reading, Lynch notes the shift between what I call the two time-streams, away from something we may find most unpalatable towards something that chimes a little bit better with Christian thought (although still quite shocking at times), the second time-stream, the liturgical reading: “while Joshua could be read in such a way that warfare is seen as a form of worship, I’m suggesting that the momentum of the book was in the other direction, toward the idea that worship was a form of warfare.” That is, godly struggle is more effective in singing songs to God, not in swinging swords at people. Warfare fought in unseen spiritual realms.

Bearing in mind those two time-streams, does either of them provide real grounds for a truly fair and reasonable Christian reading of Joshua? If so, it’s not the story of total wipe-out. Lynch: “The book ‘permits’ both readings, but only one leads toward the one who later took up the name Joshua/Jesus.” (NB Joshua and Jesus are different versions of the same Israelite name.)

After my writing this article, and prior to my posting it, Matthew shared with me the following point in addition. This is with reference to what theological scholars refer to as an “already but not yet” theology. This idea means that God’s Kingdom has already come into the world in part, but not yet in full, with a future day awaiting when God will “put the world to rights”, injustice and all. Matthew’s view is that:

“Joshua portrays an 'already' scenario, where the land was completely settled and the people entirely obedient, and a 'not yet' scenario, where the land was not settled and the people were not entirely obedient. Joshua thus gives us a picture of the already/not yet kingdom. That doesn't resolve the violence issue, but at least gives us a picture of what Joshua might be doing.”

What some apologists have said

It’s not possible to just pull a Christian meaning out of the hat, but Lynch seeks out one methodically. Whereas Christian apologists have suggested ways to see the violence in Joshua as less problematic, Lynch (not an apologist) sees shortcomings in traditional apologetic answers. “You can’t just quote ‘love your enemies’ when confronted with the challenge of violence in Joshua,“ Lynch says. Nor can we just look to Jesus’ self-sacrifice. He argues that “We run into trouble when we assume that the cross—or even Christ—reveals all God wants to say about himself and enemies.” Lynch points out how obvious it is that Jesus had a wider-view of dealing with evil than just self-sacrifice: “For instance, he tells his followers to ‘head for the hills’ rather than ‘submit to crucifixion’ when they saw Rome surround Jerusalem (Lk 21).”

Lynch finds further weaknesses in some traditional apologetic approaches, such as:

  • “Ignoring troublesome passages by quoting other verses more loudly and often.”
  • “Brushing aside concerns over violence with moralistic answers: [such as] ‘Of course the Canaanites were all sacrificing their children to Molech, so they had to be wiped out.’”
  • Or settling for a nice meaning, e.g., “Joshua can become a model for leadership in the face of challenges.” (It can be that, but that does not explain away the violence.)

Those approaches do not make the disturbing violence actually go away. So, that kind of approach “leaves problems unaddressed. It also leaves Christians unprepared for external critiques or their own faith crisis… we need to consider how to respond to questions about a God who apparently asked his people to kill every man, woman, child, infant, and animal in the land of Canaan.”

We need to do better than re-using those traditional apologetic arguments. Indeed, on the second bullet point above, Lynch observes that some apologists argue that the Canaanites were so evil that this explains why they should be entirely wiped off the map: “Yet the call to wipe out the Canaanites included children and animals, infants and the disabled. It is impossible—I humbly submit—to maintain any kind of moral argument (based on moral culpability) that includes such groups.” Lynch also clarifies the data in Scripture about this child sacrifice:

“apologists usually assume that the Canaanites were sacrificing their children on a regular basis. Yet, only one text associates child sacrifice with all the Canaanites (Deut 12:31). Every other text associates child sacrifice with the Moabites (to Molech). Yet the Moabites were not one of the 7 nations that Israel was to destroy (Deut 2:9). This leaves the question: Why would Deut 12:31 lump all the Canaanites together in this way? One possibility is that Deut 12:31 is written with a view to the potential behaviour of Canaanites, if left alive, and then influenced by neighbouring peoples like the Moabites. The NRSV captures this potential reading: ‘They would even burn their sons and their daughters in the fire to their gods’ (Deut 12:31).”

That approach poses this question: was Canaanite life meant to be cut short before its full horror could unfold, like the sort of cutting short that some people wish God had done to the Nazi party in 1930s Germany? Maybe, but apologists should think twice before making an argument that Joshua doesn’t, as Lynch observes:

“the book of Joshua itself does not make a moral case for the conquest. In fact, as Ellen Davis points out, ‘[T]he only recorded sins in the Promised Land are those committed by Israelites.’ Instead, within Joshua itself, the rationale for the conquest is religious. Because the Canaanites worship other deities Israel was to wipe them out. Granted, their worship of other deities may have involved immoral practices, but Joshua focuses instead on the disloyalty [among Israelites] their worship would entail.”

That is, there was a risk down the line of Israel becoming disloyal to their God. Is that a right interpretation of the book’s justification of the violence?

Context: The Exodus

We need to take a fresh look at the context of the violence. As uncomfortable as it makes us feel, we need to get closer to its meaning. It should first be remembered that these stories are a continuation of the Exodus story. The Israelites have escaped the land of Egypt but not its far-reaching influence. In the Exodus story, it’s not just about what the Israelites do. It’s about what Egypt (especially Pharaoh) does too. The Egypt-Israel tension was not over: “so the Canaanite kings are judged on the basis of their response to Yahweh. In this way, the conquest was seen as a continuation of Israel’s liberation from the royal power of Egypt. This is not surprising, since the Canaanite city-states were themselves strongholds of Egyptian colonization, set up to drain all local resources.”

Context: following Deuteronomy

And context also brings us back to the two time-streams issue. The fact that Joshua reads like two time-streams doesn’t appear out of the blue. But you wouldn’t know that unless you read Deuteronomy first. That is, as well as Exodus, a wider context is found in Deuteronomy, one of the other books in the Torah. It is found after the Book of Exodus, and before the Book of Joshua, and in it you read divine orders for war. And here’s the thing. Deuteronomy first gives the impression that invasion will be slow progress and not a total wipe-out of the enemy in battle - but it later gives an impression that it will be a quick and total wipe-out. Both time-streams are already in the story, before we get to the book of Joshua. It seems to be a riddle that is meant to be there to make us think. So, first, a prediction of not being total wipe-out in battle– Deuteronomy chapter 7:

  • “The LORD your God will drive out those nations before you, little by little. You will not be allowed to eliminate them all at once, or the wild animals will multiply around you.” (Deut 7:22)

Lynch points out that “This passage, and those like it, expect a slow and gradual conquest whereby the Canaanites are displaced and not destroyed (‘drive out’).” Yet only two chapters later, Moses tells the people that invasion will mean a quick total wipe-out of the enemy:

  • “the LORD your God is the one who goes across ahead of you like a devouring fire. He will destroy them; he will subdue them before you. And you will drive them out and annihilate them quickly, as the LORD has promised you.” (Deut 9:3)

What a contrast! Lynch comments, “This text uses the language of driving out, but also envisions destruction and annihilation. Which were the people to expect? Surely slow and steady displacement and quick annihilation are incompatible!”

To be clear, in the total wipe-out narrative, which Lynch calls the “herem” narrative:

  • “the promise was that God would utterly destroy the inhabitants of the 7 ‘-ite’ (e.g., Hivite) nations singled out for destruction”
  • “the result of the herem wars was total settlement of the land and total military success“
  • “Thus Joshua conquered the whole country … he let none escape, but proscribed [destroyed] everything that breathed—as the LORD, the God of Israel, had commanded (Josh 10:40).”

The Hebrew word ‘herem’ signals that the destruction of the enemy is as complete as any ritual sacrifice. And that’s the total wipe-out ‘surface narrative’, as Lynch calls it.

So, it does read rather like Deuteronomy is expecting a two-time-stream story in Joshua, a riddle indeed. Thus, as Lynch says: “the Torah seems to envision two kinds of invasion.” And in Joshua, that’s what we get.

It would not make sense to presume that Deuteronomy is just contradicting itself, any more than in the case of Joshua. These two time-streams run continually side-by-side. That is why we need to work out what the function of the text is.

So what is Lynch on to? On the violence, he admits that “we are still not going to make the problem go away. Sometimes we have to simply admit that such texts are deeply disturbing”. However, there is a ray of light. He suggests that, for understanding the book of Joshua, each of the two time-streams “has its own function in the book, and each says things that couldn’t be said otherwise with just one narrative.”

How it’s done

There are a few things to look at here in a little more depth - how the second time-stream

  • transforms a still dangerous story into a safer liturgy story
  • tones down the violence of the story
  • undermines the image of a holy army
  • undermines us-and-them stories

In my following post, I will show how Lynch sets about doing this.

Here are links to those posts by Matthew Lynch, around which my article has been drawn:

Here are links to my three posts in this short series on the Book of Joshua:
You are here - Part one

Sunday, 26 August 2018

In Acts, did Luke incorrectly date Theudas? Had he misread Josephus?

Here is a hotly contested issue in some circles: the supposed clash between Luke and Josephus on the dating of Theudas. Let me explain.

Some sceptics and scholars claim that biblical author Luke had read a book called Antiquities by Jewish historian Josephus, and borrowed his material, in order to invent fake scenes in the book of Acts, only to get the real details wrong. Supposing this was true, then this would undermine Luke as a historian.  I don’t find that Luke had read Josephus at all. But what’s the case put forward by some sceptics, and how does it rate?

Well, take this for their case. Acts 5, where Jesus’ Galilean apostles are hauled before the Jewish authorities where Gamaliel speaks. This is set in the 30s of the first century. Luke’s story sees Gamaliel smearing the apostles by slyly comparing them with two troublesome characters, Judas the Galilean and Theudas. Here’s the thing. Historian Josephus too has something to say about characters of the same names. Both writers do so in a short passage of their books. Both have the names Theudas and Judas in the same order. Coincidence? Did Luke rip his material off Josephus? Or vice versa?

Taking material from other writers in general wouldn’t be a problem. After all, Luke openly declares up front that he researches what others have written before him (Luke 1:1-4). But that doesn’t mean he had read Josephus. Two issues:

1) dating: if Luke took material from the published text of Josephus’ Antiquities (published c. 93AD), then Luke wrote Acts after 92AD. For those such as myself who date Acts to around 62AD, my position would be seriously in doubt. It wouldn’t mean that the author Luke didn’t do what he says in the book, such as meeting Paul and James in the 50s of the first century. But it means extra work for the historian in working out just how much after 93AD, and that becomes another contest.

2) confidence: if Luke and Josephus contradict each other, which one should we trust? Is there a smoking gun that suggests that Luke was indeed copying off Josephus and making errors? Is the Judas and Theudas issue such a smoking gun? It has to be said that Luke’s details are not a perfect match for Josephus’ details, whether he had read Josephus or not. Why? Accident or design? Could both of them be right in some way or other? Are we even reading the evidence the right way?

See how a can of worms can be opened? Those are the issues. Many fair-minded people err towards doubting Luke. But there are also people on two 'sides' who are heavily invested in wanting the Bible to be either right or wrong, making it easy to take sides. This blog is not about taking pre-scripted sides. It’s about getting to the truth of things, which sometimes takes us on unexpected journeys and down little known alleyways. 

As an aside, lots of factors can be taken into account in telling the date when Luke wrote Acts. Likewise, there are a lot of factors we take account of to say whether Luke was a good historian, such as his remarkable command of details of people and places (data often not found in Josephus).

This post, however, is just about this one test case: the mentions of Judas the Galilean and Theudas (we don’t know where he was from). And, as is my wont, I will do in depth evidence analysis, as you find less of that elsewhere on this subject. Here is what Luke wrote. In this scene, set in the 30s of the first century, Jewish leader Gamaliel unexpectedly equates Peter and the apostles with the reputations of trouble-makers Judas the Galilean and Theudas:

‘Peter and the apostles answered, “We must obey God rather than men…”

Then [Gamaliel] addressed the Sanhedrin:

“Men of Israel, consider carefully what you intend to do to these men.

Some time ago Theudas appeared, claiming to be somebody, and about four hundred men rallied to him. He was killed, all his followers were dispersed, and it all came to nothing.

After him, Judas the Galilean appeared in the days of the census and led a band of people in revolt. He too was killed, and all his followers were scattered.

So… if this plan or this undertaking is of man, it will fail”’ (Acts 5:29, 35-39)

Notice that Luke says that Judas the G came on the scene after Theudas did, and regards both their efforts as failures. I will take the case of ‘Judas the Galilean’ first for reasons that will become clear. Our task starts by working out whether Luke took his material about Judas the G from Josephus.

Judas the Galilean, 6AD: Josephus was not Luke's source

Here is the passage in Luke and one in Josephus which supposedly are one part of the smoking gun of Luke’s dependence on the other. It’s a story set long before Josephus was born and very possibly before Luke was born. Therefore, both were dependent on unidentified sources for their information about Judas the Galilean. The sheer lack of a smoking gun here should be immediately obvious in the differences between the passages:

Josephus’ Antiquities Book 20.5.1: Then came Tiberius Alexander, as successor to Fadus… the sons of Judas of Galilee were now slain: I mean of that Judas, who caused the people to revolt, when Cyrenius came to take an account of the estates of the Jews; as we have shewed in a foregoing book. The names of those sons were James and Simon: whom Alexander commanded to be crucified.

Luke’s Acts 5:37: ‘… Judas the Galilean appeared in the days of the registration and led a band of people in revolt. He too was killed, and all his followers were scattered.’

The emphasis in bold is mine to draw your attention to differences. The problems are multiple, if we seek to make a case that Luke was merely going from Book 20. It’s difficult to argue that what Josephus wrote changed into what Luke wrote:

  • Why would the death of Judas’s sons (Josephus) change to being about the death of Judas himself (in Luke)? That’s not what borrowing looks like.
  • Why does Luke give the impression that Judas was a failure and his influence ended sharply during the era of Cyrenius? Whereas Josephus spreads Judas’ influence, through his sons, into the much later era of Fadus.
  • What is Luke’s source for Judas being killed? Not Josephus, who never even indicates that Judas ever got caught!
  • What is Luke’s source for the people being scattered? Not Josephus.
  • Why would “caused the people” (in Josephus) become merely “led a band“ (in Luke)?
    • That’s a big shift down, from “the people” to just “a band”. We know that Josephus had an agenda to exaggerate this, which has apparently had no influence on Luke’s more modest report.
  • Why would “account of the estates of the Jews” (Josephus) become vaguely “the registration” (Luke)?
    • A ‘registration’ could be any of a number of things, a census, a tax, an oath to Caesar, whatever. Luke leaves it a loose end.

Luke seems to have no interest in Josephus’ content, and a simple explanation for that would be that it had never been before his eyes. It scarcely bears the faintest resemblance to Josephus. So why leap to the conclusion that Luke’s material here is from Josephus’ Antiquities Book 20? And where did Luke get his unique material from?

And note how Luke gets chronology right here. If he was borrowing off Antiquities 20, then it would be Luke showing himself to be smart. It would then be notable that Luke: intelligently spotted that the story of Judas was old enough for Gamaliel to speak of it; and intelligently left Judas’ sons out, as they were in the future of Gamaliel. I will talk about the significance of that when I come to Theudas.

So, I would conclude that sceptics don’t have a case for Luke borrowing here, but can the sceptics’ case be salvaged?

Josephus directs the reader to his “foregoing book”, which is Antiquities Book 18. So perhaps we should look here for Luke’s source material. But if we try that, the sceptics’ own problems only multiply. The arguments I will set out here are as follows:

  • Luke still has the above unique details about the outcome of the story, which are again proven not to be not from Josephus.
  • Luke seems oblivious to key information that Josephus reveals: that Judas the G had a Pharisee ally.
  • Josephus positions Judas the G as a violent extremist and radically distances himself from Judas as a matter of absolute necessity. Whereas Luke innocently allows comparison between Jesus’ Galilean apostles and Judas the Galilean. and lets it go without comment. It is inconceivable that Luke would hook the church up to such a dangerous comparison if he knew it was so reputation-harming, as Luke would know if he had actually read Josephus’ highly polarised and toxic account of Judas. It indicates that Luke had a different relatively harmless source about Judas.
  • I will also explain in a footnote why scholars recognise Josephus’ account to be untrustworthy, an issue that undermines any case for giving too much weight to Josephus’ reliability in this whole passage, affecting our confidence in his coverage of Judas and Theudas.

Now, Luke’s heroes, the apostles, were commoners from backwater Galilee. So was this Judas. Before we see what Josephus wrote about him in Book 18, for ease of reference, here is Luke’s Acts 5:37 again:

“Judas the Galilean appeared in the days of the registration and led a band of people in revolt. He too was killed, and all his followers were scattered.”

It’s unadorned simplicity. As said, it mainly invites an unflattering comparison between the Galilean apostles and this rebel Galilean Judas, but Luke doesn’t seem to regard it as overly problematic to include this equation. He doesn’t even bother to issue a rebuttal. He just lets it go. It’s no big deal. It’s just a mean comparison delivered by Gamaliel’s silver tongue. Did Luke rip any of that brief material off Josephus’ Book 18? Surely not. The case for this is just as weak as it was for Josephus’ Book 20. Why say so?

Well, what a much more alarming picture of Judas the G, and different picture overall, we get when we read Josephus’ Antiquities Book 18:

Judas the Galilean…

Yet was there one Judas, a Gaulonite; of a city whose name was Gamala; who, taking with him Saddouk, a Pharisee, became zealous to draw them to a revolt: who both said that this taxation was no better than an introduction to slavery: and exhorted the nation to assert their liberty... All sorts of misfortunes also sprang from these men; and the nation was infected with this doctrine to an incredible degree. One violent war came upon us after another: and we lost our friends, which used to alleviate our pains: there were also very great robberies, and murders of our principal men... Nay the sedition at last increased so high, that the very temple of God was burnt down by the enemies’ fire... Which these men occasioned by their thus conspiring together. For Judas and Sadducus, who excited a fourth philosophick sect among us, and had a great many followers therein, filled our civil government with tumults at present, and laid the foundations of our future miseries, by this system of philosophy, which we before were unacquainted withal... These men agree in all other things with the Pharisaick notions… (emphasis added)

This is ridiculously over the top from Josephus, and I’ll break down why that is. But firstly, let’s check Luke again:

Acts 5:37: ‘… Judas the Galilean appeared in the days of the registration and led a band of people in revolt. He too was killed, and all his followers were scattered.’

Again, it’s difficult to argue that what Josephus wrote changed into what Luke wrote, Here’s what I mean:

  • Why would “the nation was infected with this doctrine to an incredible degree” (in Josephus) become merely “led a band“ (in Luke)? This is a radically different version of events.
  • How can Luke produce merely ‘revolt’ from “One violent war came upon us after another… very great robberies, and murders of our principal men… the very temple of God was burnt down... Judas and Sadducus, who excited a fourth philosophick sect among us, and had a great many followers therein, filled our civil government with tumults at present…” It’s nonsense to suppose that so much toxicity could be so glossed over as to produce Luke’s tame text: “led a band of people in revolt. He too was killed, and all his followers were scattered.”
  • Why would the argument that Judas the G was a precursor to the war with Rome, indirectly the cause that ‘the very temple of God was burnt down’ (in Josephus) become an ephemeral event that was a ‘fail’ (in Luke)?

What else is worthy of note? Well…

1. Luke is oblivious to key information that Josephus is forced to reveal:

  • Luke does not have Sadduc in his story of Judas the G. But if Luke had read Antiquities Book 18, then there is no obvious reason why he wouldn’t have written something like “Judas the Galilean and Sadduc appeared”. Book 18 is therefore even less likely to be Luke’s source.
  • Although you would never know it from Luke, Josephus mentions that Judas the G and Sadduc spread a new ‘philosophy’, and that the dispute was to a degree about paying a tax. It all reads like they had different sources.

2. Luke has unique details about the outcome of the story

Luke has important details that Josephus doesn’t, and vice versa. Whereas Luke mentions that Judas perished and his army was scattered, you would never know that from Josephus, and could easily imagine from reading Josephus that Judas never got caught.

To Luke, Judas the G was nothing more than a here-today gone-tomorrow revolutionary of no lasting significance, who perished, his army scattered. Luke didn’t think that Gamaliel’s smear was a problematic thing to include, because he didn’t know that Judas the G could become such a problematic figure of such lasting influence. But in Josephus’ hands, writing decades after the Jewish War, Judas the G becomes the start of the end for Judea, the co-founder of a sinister philosophy that sowed the seeds of the Jewish War. So, if Judas was not such a bogeyman when Luke was writing, then how could Judas become so toxic when Josephus writes?

The reason why Luke did not know that Judas the G was someone to radically distance yourself from was because Josephus hadn’t made that up yet, and Luke finished writing his book before Josephus started rewriting history.

3. Distancing yourselves from a hate figure

So, Josephus makes Judas the G (6AD) a scapegoat, a man of lasting influence, the co-founder of anti-Roman sentiment with devastating consequences, a primary cause of Judea’s catastrophic war with Rome (66-70AD), who co-founded a new ‘philosophy’ fermenting the long struggle (albeit 60 years before the Jewish War finally started!).

If Luke had read this toxic passage in Josephus Book 18, he would have an interest in distancing his heroes from any such comparison too, not have the apostles all tarred with the same brush. It is incomprehensible that Luke would blithely include (or even invent) a scene unnecessarily and guilelessly equating his Christian heroes with the founder of a devastating trend of violence. It could damage his heroes, something the church would want to avoid.

If there’s one thing about Luke, he doesn’t come across as a madman who stirs up trouble for believers. Luke characteristically smooths troubled waters and portrays Christians as people whom the Romans can trust. Luke seems to have no inkling either that Judas the G was a precursor to the Jewish War.

Summary regarding Judas the Galilean

In summary, we have seen how it is that Judas was not such a bogeyman when Luke was writing, but is painted as very toxic when Josephus writes.

Luke wouldn’t have got from Josephus Book 20 that Judas the G was killed, that he was a ‘fail’ of no present concern, that he had merely a band and they were scattered. Josephus Books 18 and 20 have failed to communicate to Luke that Judas the G had a Pharisee ally and a lasting and major influence through his sons and a philosophy that infected the nation (!), a cause of the war, and that Judas was a figure to radically distance yourself from right up to the time of Josephus writing in the 90s. 

A reasonable conclusion is that when Luke was writing, Judas’ reputation was not as toxic as nuclear fallout – because Josephus had not yet made it so. Luke was writing without knowledge of Josephus’ work. It’s the same Judas the G, but radically different versions that can hardly be the same story from one source.

Now, if Luke and Josephus had different sources for Judas the Galilean, and Luke did not get his material from Josephus, then it drastically reduces the likelihood that Luke got Theudas from Josephus. Indeed, the next question – Theudas - becomes a moot point. The sceptics’ case about Luke borrowing the two stories together collapses. Remember, the charge is that Luke got information about both Judas and Theudas from a single section of Antiquities 20 and muddled the order of the two. But as we have established that surely one of these stories was not taken from Antiquities anyway, then the charge falls away. But let’s look at Theudas anyway.

Theudas: Josephus was not Luke's source

Luke has a story which he sets prior to 6AD. Josephus has a story set in the 40s of the first century. Both feature a trouble-maker called Theudas. These are the only rebel Theudases known to history. Neither of the two accounts are corroborated by other sources. Luke would be relating a story from before he was born. Josephus in his 50s would be recalling events from when he was about 7 years old, supplemented from any other sources he may have had.  

Why do sceptics think that Luke ripped these stories off Josephus? Well they hang the whole theory off the following:

  • the fact that both writers mention the same two rebel names, Judas and Theudas – coincidence?
  • that both writers mention the names in the same order, first Theudas, then Judas – coincidence?

Assuming an awful lot off that, the sceptical claim is that they are the same story, and Luke found Josephus telling the stories, the story of Theudas first and the more ancient story of Judas the G next. Sceptics claim that this left Luke’s memory confused, and Luke, keeping the names in the same order, erred into imagining that Josephus’ Theudas appeared before Judas the G, pre-6AD.

The argument I will make here is as follows: Luke and Josephus are telling two completely different stories about different troublemakers. The coincidence of the name is the only mystery to solve. I am not taking a new position, but am analysing the evidence in more depth than you find in general.

Chronology in Luke’s Acts

Luke’s Acts reports Gamaliel in the 30s of the first century saying this:

“Men of Israel, consider carefully what you intend to do to these men. Some time ago Theudas appeared, claiming to be somebody, and about four hundred men rallied to him. He was killed, all his followers were dispersed, and it all came to nothing.

After him, Judas the Galilean appeared in the days of the registration [6AD] and led a band of people in revolt. He too was killed, and all his followers were scattered.”’ (Acts 5:29, 35-37)

To clarify the supposed smoking gun: on the one hand Josephus has effectively dated his Theudas in the 40s of the first century during Claudius reign, after Judas the Galilean (and in effect after Luke’s Gamaliel scene). But Luke effectively dates his Theudas before his Gamaliel scene, and before Judas, before 6AD. This would be embarrassing if Luke reports someone in the 30s looking back to events that had not occurred yet, and wouldn’t until the 40s. The doubters’ and sceptics’ argument is that Luke did not keep correct the chronology here. Rather he simply kept them in the same order in which he read them in Josephus, but forgot a crucial detail from Josephus: that chronologically it’s the other way round, and Theudas (40s AD) came after Judas (6AD) chronologically. If Luke’s only source was Josephus, then Josephus is the one to trust and Luke “got them in the wrong order” is the argument.

Names and chronology

But it’s misleading to pick out from Josephus two names as if Josephus was just talking about two. Whereas, Luke names only two people in Gamaliel’s speech, Josephus (In Antiquities Book 20.5.1-2:) is actually giving us a swirling myriad of names of which these are just two. If Luke had a different two from the swirl, would we still say it was a strange coincidence? Just in 20:5:1-2, there are these names in this order: the procurator Fadus, Theudas, the procurator Tiberius Alexander, his son Alexander, Queen Helena, the sons of Judas of Galilee (James and Simon), Judas, Herod King of Chalcis, Joseph the son of Camydus, Ananias the son of Nebedus, Cumanus, Herod brother of Agrippa dying in the reign of Claudius Caesar (by far the most mighty name in this list), Aristobulus, Bernicianus, Hyrcanus, Bernice, Agrippa junior. Claudius Caesar is mentioned many times before and after this. Of course, our attention is centred on the two Jewish rebels in the list, Theudas and Judas the G. (I’ll show the passage a bit further down.)

But what is generally overlooked is that Luke’s story does not have any other name from that list, only Theudas and Judas the G. Again, it’s not a clear borrowing.

The sceptics’ theory, that Luke has got his chronology wrong by carelessly borrowing two out of that heap of names, also depends on Luke overlooking all of that context which generally hovers around the 40s of the first century, including overlooking the biggest name in the list, Claudius Caesar, which is an unlikely assumption for at least three reasons:

  • given that Claudius’ name appears in Josephus’ Book 20 much more frequently, both before and after the two mentions of Theudas’ name.
  • given that Luke more than once names Claudius in Acts without getting the chronology wrong there, so we know he could be sensitive to this sort of detail.

And given a third reason: that is, how coherent is the case of Luke muddling the details, given that the general context here is the 40s? If he had read Josephus, then it would be notable that Luke smartly and successfully moves Judas the G out correctly and into the pre-Gamaliel era, taking the mention of a ‘registration’ under Cyrenius as a signal to do so. That adjustment would be commendable given that, in Josephus, Judas is not in chronological sequence in relation to the whole passage (not merely in relation to Theudas). This unchronological moment occurs in Josephus simply because Josephus is really talking about Judas’ sons etc., making Judas’ name appear after Theudas (but centred around the 40s era). If Luke had read Josephus, we would have to congratulate Luke on spotting that and shipping Judas the G out and into the correct era.

In Luke had read Josephus and picked up that little dating clue, would the entire 40s context of this part of Book 20 with its more numerous dating clues be erased from Luke’s mind when it comes to Theudas? Would he really happen to recall only a fairly random thing: that Josephus tells the story about Theudas before the one about Judas? Did a dog eat Luke’s homework? The sceptics' case that Luke took Theudas and Judas as a piece from Book 20 is not compelling. It is decidedly iffy, making Luke smart when they want him to be, and stupid when they want him to be, even when dealing with the same passage. This is not methodologically sound.

In any case, given that Josephus’ Theudas and Judas stories are embedded in a huge chunk of data set in the 40s of the first century in Claudius’ reign, if a ‘stupid’ Luke (supposing he read Josephus) was going to make an error, it would be to leave Judas the G untouched, accidentally assuming it to belong in the 40s. And he would find something else for Gamaliel to talk about. But he doesn’t – Luke correctly places Judas the G earlier, which means (supposing he borrowed from Josephus) he knew how to rearrange the dating to put Judas the G in an earlier era. It’s questionable to try to make Luke smart and stupid at the same time. To argue such would need better evidence than afforded by these passages.

As an aside, if Luke were writing before Josephus, or perhaps even afterwards, it is realistic to think that the events of the 40s were contemporary with Luke’s life just as they were for Josephus. If that were the case, Luke would be even more unlikely to overlook Josephus’ words “while Fadus was procurator of Judea”, or much of the rest of it, which makes this contemporary to Luke himself. From that, it is even more difficult to see how Luke would then place a 40s Theudas story before the time of Gamaliel.

So arguing for a chronological mistake is a stretch to start with. But let’s commence evidence analysis of the stories.

Same name, different stories?

The whole sceptical theory hangs off this: both authors mention the same rebel names, Judas and Theudas. On the second name there is a problem only if they both mean the same Theudas. If it’s the same man, then it means one of the authors has got their chronology wrong about this Theudas, and lost brownie points as a historian. It doesn’t follow that one copied from the other – which seems most unlikely, as we will see further.

What if they are not the same story? That is indeed how it seems. Here are the passages on the Theudases. Luke’s Acts 5:36 has these succint details, again spoken by Gamaliel in the 30s of the first century:

“Some time ago Theudas appeared, saying he was something, and about four hundred men rallied to him. He was killed, all his followers were dispersed, and it all came to nothing.”

Josephus’ Antiquities 20:5.1, has these details, set in the 40s. I’ve emphasised passages in bold which illustrate key differences:

Now it came to pass, while Fadus was procurator of Judea, that a certain magician, whose name was Theudas, persuaded a great part of the people to take their effects with them, and follow him to the river Jordan. For he told them he was a prophet: and that he would, by his own command, divide the river, and afford them an easy passage over it. And many were deluded by his words. However, Fadus did not permit them to make any advantage of his wild attempt: but sent a troop of horsemen out against them. Who falling upon them unexpectedly, slew many of them, and took many of them alive. They also took Theudas alive, and cut off his head, and carried it to Jerusalem”.

(NB, it says that Theudas was taken to be a magician and a prophet, not as you sometimes find claimed a ‘messiah’.)

Once again, it’s difficult to argue that what Josephus wrote changed into what Luke wrote. The first one is a plain contradiction that is so fatal that the further points are secondary:

  • Why would “slew many of them, and took many of them alive” become “all his followers were dispersed”? Slew/captured is the opposite of ‘all were dispersed’.
  • Why would a story that Theudas was beheaded and the head taken to Jerusalem become merely that he was killed?
    • And look at the two halves of the above. Slew/captured cannot reasonably become ‘all were dispersed’ and therefore we have to doubt that Josephus was the source for the first half either, Luke’s mere ‘killed’.
  • Why would Josephus specifying that it was the Romans who killed his Theudas become the anonymous killers found in Luke?
  • Why would the attention-grabbing “magician… prophet” merely become a vague “something”?
    • According to Luke, Theudas was “saying he was something” (λέγων εἶναί τινα ἑαυτόν). Luke seems indifferent or unsure what that was, and this is not a problem if he was writing about events before 6AD, probably before he was born.  
  • Why would people carrying their effects (in Josephus) become ‘men rallied’ (in Luke)?
  • Why would “a great part of the people” be reduced to the more specific “about four hundred men”?
    • The Christian Thinktank website helpfully points out that ‘The following paragraph in Josephus recounts a massacre of over 20,000 people, so a band of only 400 would probably not be 'newsworthy' enough for Josephus to even mention.’ It makes sense that Josephus was juxtaposing two major episodes. Luke was speaking from a different source, and it seems about a more minor story.
If Luke had read Josephus, he seems uninterested in Josephus’ content. It’s difficult to see that Josephus was Luke’s source. It’s difficult to say that they are even telling the same story.

Being different stories, as seems to be the case, makes sense of the chronological difference (where Josephus has his Theudas in the era of the 40s of the first century, long after Judas the G; whereas Luke has his Theudas in the era before 6AD, before his Gamaliel scene, and before Judas the G).

If the name Theudas were not there, nobody would be imagining that they could be the same story. It’s only because the name Theudas occurs in both stories that anyone would hold onto a belief that they are the same story, or that anyone would try to explain away a string of significant differences.

As an aside, if these were two gospels, form critics would have a field day, if they were told that these were two versions of the same story, they would probably say that Acts’ simpler story was written first, and over time, the stories have been elaborated, and embellishments added, leading up to the more lavish detail written up later by Josephus, resulting in obvious contradictions. That’s just an aside. I don’t believe that they are the same story. Hence the contradictions!

In short, Josephus has a story without external corroboration, and Luke has a different story without external corroboration. Josephus has a character called Theudas without external corroboration, and Luke has a different character called Theudas without external corroboration. Playing one off against the other doesn’t really work. The match of the name (coupled with the fact that it accompanies a story of Judas the G) does not carry enough weight to overcome the significant and numerous differences and problems. It’s very difficult to make these two stories literally the same story from one source. Stories of rebellions can easily have common elements, but these two stories distinctly lack them.

The name

If they are not the same story, then the real question is not whether one was copied from the other. The real question is just how did the same name, Theudas, come to be attached to both stories?

Here are some of the suggested possibilities that one finds to explain this:

1) We reflect on the fact that the man’s name ‘Theudas’ was a cognomen of a large group of names including Theodotus, Matthias and Jonathan, a popular name because of the influence of the Maccabean warrior king Jonathan (161-43BC). If Luke wrote about 62AD as I take the case to be, then Theudas is a name he could easily know, just as Josephus would, and could substitute it as a contemporary cognomen for a Jewish name.

So, what we might imagine is that there was, say, some ‘Jonathan’ or ‘Matthias’, who could fit the bill of Luke’s description of Theudas. A weakness of this argument is that we don’t have another history to corroborate Luke on whether there was a rebel who fits in this group of names in the right era. (See Paul Barnett, The Birth of Christianity, 199-200.) But then we don’t have external corroboration for Josephus’ Theudas either (unless you count Luke!). To be fair, Josephus says that in the era effectively before 6AD (in the days of Herod) there were was a huge number of rebellions led by people he doesn’t name. Luke may be filling in one of those blanks. This is the passage in Josephus Antiquities Book 17.10.4:

‘Now at this time there were ten thousand other disorders in Judea, which were like tumults: because a great number put themselves into a warlike posture, either out of hopes of gain to themselves, or out of enmity to the Jews. In particular two thousand of Herod’s old soldiers, who had been already disbanded, got together in Judea itself, and fought against the King’s troops: although Achiabus, Herod’s first cousin, opposed them. But as he was driven out of the plains into the mountainous parts, by the military skill of those men, he kept himself in the fastnesses that were there, and saved what he could.’

And Josephus reports that multiple Simons and multiple Judases led rebellions in the era Luke is referring to, so the possibility of more than one Theudas can’t rationally be dismissed out of hand. Acts would be the only thing in the historical record that gives us this Theudas, but at least we have circumstantial corroboration in terms of an era where he fits perfectly.

2) Here we will come to the next paragraph in the same book, Antiquities 17. Someone may suppose theat the original name in Acts has got scrambled somewhere along the line in the copying of Acts. In Acts, Gamaliel was originally telling the story of two Galileans, both called Judas, to shame the apostles. The explanation would be a hypothetical manuscript error in the copying of the Bible. This is argued as follows:

Acts 5:37 is corrupted: ‘Theudas’ should actually read ‘Judas”. Why is this probable?
Josephus mentions an insurrection of a Judas, son of Hezekiah, and another one by Judas the Galilean.

These two were ‘real’ revolts’, which upset the Roman authorities quite a bit. In contrast, Theudas [in Josephus] was not a revolutionary, he was a charismatic prophet.

In Gamaliel’s speech in Acts, it makes sense if he refers to violent revolts, not to Jewish prophets.

An overzealous scribe could have easily switched Theudas for Judah: it would look like a (scribal) error for Gamaliel to mention Judas twice…’

(Source: a reader’s comment on You find the same point in a number of commentators but I choose this version for its succinctness.)

To evidence this, this is Josephus on the story of the other Judas, son of Hezekiah in Antiquities 17.10.5:

‘There was also Judas, the son of that Ezekias who had been head of the robbers... This Judas having gotten together a multitude of men of a profligate character about Sepphoris in Galilee, made an assault upon the palace [there]; and seized upon all the weapons that were laid up in it, and with them armed every one of those that were with him; and carried away what money was left there: and he became terrible to all men, by tearing and rending those that came near him...’

This is an interesting argument, but the stories again bear little resemblance. And a key weakness is that we have no textual variant in the manuscript traditions to the effect of ‘Judas’ changing to ‘Theudas’ in Acts 5.

3) Or it’s a manuscript error in Josephus’ Book 20 (the name occurs only in this passage in Book 20, and only twice). It’s easier to imagine a later Christian scribe clumsily reconciling Book 20 with Acts 5 than it is to overcome all of the problems inherent in trying to make these two stories literally the same story from one source. But we have so little by way of manuscripts for Josephus that we can’t expect to be able to trace hypothetical variants in Antiquities like this.

4) Or… either Luke or Josephus simply got the name itself wrong in their story.

5) Or… if you think you can overcome the seemingly insurmountable problems, Luke ripped it off from Josephus.

Take your pick. The truth is that we shall probably never know which, if any, of these is the correct explanation for why Luke and Josephus use the same name, Theudas. That’s a bit unsatisfactory but loose ends like this are the bugbear of the historian’s trade. There are almost always loose ends when we write the history of anything. 

A control: what does Luke do where we can trace his use of source material? 

It would be amiss not to mention that an important control is available to this study. We can actually test Luke's behaviour where the relationship between Luke and prior written sources is irrefutably present. We can then compare this with evidence of how Luke handles material that he has in common with Josephus. And the difference could not be more stark: Luke is almost slavish in relying on Q material and Mark's Gospel by comparison; whereas when Luke and Josephus have common interest in an episode, there is barely more than the odd word occurring in both, and hardly the sort of words showing evidence of copying one from the other. This is demonstrated adequately elsewhere (link),and I may add more later. No claim that Luke copied from Josephus is robust unless it can overcome this hurdle.

As a final note, I’d like to quote Emil Schurer (from back in 1876!): “Either Luke had not read Josephus, or he had forgotten all about what he had read.” (Schurer, “Lucas und Josephus,” Zeitschrift für wissenschaftliche Theologie 19, 582-83).

Footnote: Why Josephus is untrustworthy on Judas the Galilean

Josephus was an accomplished spin doctor. He sneakily shifts the blame for the War (66-70AD) away from Jerusalem aristocrats such as himself (the likely suspects) to convenient scapegoats from the past (6AD). Of course, it’s far-fetched for Josephus to shift the blame back 60 years, but he had to keep the noose away from his own neck somehow. The Romans would have suspected his potential role in the outbreak of the war.

So, the blame conveniently falls on long ago commoners from far away backwater Galilee, and in particular this Judas the Galilean, cleansing Josephus and his chums of any trace of blame. Pure spin.

Here again is part of it in Josephus’ Antiquities 18:

Judas and Sadduc, who excited a fourth philosophic sect among us… which we were before unacquainted withal…

See how Josephus distances himself from his scapegoat, by saying that people like himself had never previously heard of this new philosophy that caused Jerusalem’s downfall. But…

Josephus can’t be trusted in these accounts. From one book to another, he rewrites this history to suit himself, contradicting himself. In another earlier work of his, called War, Josephus similarly tried to get away with blackening the reputation of Judas the Galilean alone as chief trouble-maker. Writing subsequently in Antiquities, he has to subtly change his story. First, this from War 2:4:1-2 (no one suggests that this was Luke’s source):

a certain Galilean, whose name was Judas,

prevailed with his countrymen to revolt

This man was a teacher of a peculiar sect of his own,

and was not at all like the rest…

For there are three philosophical sects among the Jews. . . . [and Judas started a fourth]

So that was the earliest of Josephus’ versions of this story. But later, writing in Antiquities 18, Josephus changes his story. Although he manages to keep his main trouble-maker as a backwater Galilean – distant from the Jerusalem elite – something has pressed Josephus to concede some key details that mean trouble was closer to home than he first wanted to admit. This is serious. Josephus is rewriting his own spin. Something has dragged this out of Josephus. Perhaps the earlier version just didn’t wash with people.

In his revised version in Antiquities 18, Josephus still tries hard to distance himself from his scapegoat. But now it turns out that the trouble wasn’t just down to Judas. The story changes from the former “This man was a teacher of a peculiar sect [philosophy] of his own” to this new version: “Judas and Sadduc, who excited a fourth philosophic sect among us”. Two ringleaders, then.

It gets worse, as said. The earlier version gave the impression that the root of all the troubles was far away from the Jerusalem elite, a Galilean. Now it turns out that it’s not so clean-cut. More than just backwater hicks of the distant past had been calling for the land of Judea to be freed from the power of Rome, for now it turns out that this co-conspirator Sadduc was actually a Pharisee: “taking with him Saddouk, a Pharisee”. Yes, a Pharisee is now in the frame too – part of the upper part of society. So, you can’t just pass this off merely as a backwater revolt. Something has forced this out of Josephus.

In Antiquities 18, the story has changed from the safe “Judas was not at all like the rest” to the less safe “These men agree in all other things with the Pharisaick notions”. Sounds like the rebels weren’t quite so different from the upper part of society after all. And that reveals a further issue, because Josephus had claimed in War that Judas the G invented a philosophy previously unknown to the great and the good. Now it turns out that a Pharisee was a part of it from early on. So it wasn’t quite so unknown.

It’s also curious how Josephus switches locations with which he wants to chiefly identify Judas: Galilee? Gamala?

When you change your story, your motivations come into question, and indeed your version of events.

Another thing. Josephus in general can go skimpy on his details when it suits his agenda. That is characteristic of him. But given how crucial Josephus makes this story out to be, it’s a bit funny that Josephus never gets round to saying where Judas was actually active, what his revolt actually was meant to look like, what was the military response and by whom was it undertaken (Herod? the Romans?), or whether Judas was ever caught. Strange for a story that Josephus places great weight on. It looks like a card trick. Josephus wants us convinced that he’s dealt us the cards fairly, but he is keeping the rest of the deck hidden. It suggests Judas didn’t do as much as he claimed.

The point of all this is to say that one cannot just assume that we can trust Josephus over Luke in telling these stories. Luke’s basic material, which is not used to explain the history of a century, is simple to accept. Josephus, however, makes out that this is crucial history and then becomes strangely hazy and inconsistent on the details.


Also see