Part 1–Popular Bandits in the Time of Jesus

This book is a captivating history of popular movements that sprang up in the time of Jesus. There were many messiah figures and many prophets. We will study the prophets and messiahs in parts two and three of this book review. In this part, part one, we are reviewing a completely new (to me) kind of popular uprising, bands of outlaws who were active in first century Israel.

We may wonder how the first part, a history of first century banditry, has any effect on our understanding of the Gospels. This book suggests that most references to “thieves” or “robbers” in our English language Bible should be translated “members of a band of outlaws, or bandits.” For example, the crucifixion of our Lord between two bandits. The Greek word in the Bible for bandits is λῃστὴν (laystayn). It should be translated “bandits” in all these places:

References to Bandits in the New Testament

  • “My father’s house shall be a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of bandits” (Matthew 21:13, Mark 11:17, Luke 19:46).
  • ”Have you come out as you would against a bandit, with swords and clubs to capture me?” (Matthew 26:55, Mark 14:48, Luke 22:52).
  • Following his trial, Jesus was crucified between two bandits (Matthew 27:38, Mark 15:27).
  • “A certain man went down to Jericho when he was set upon by bandits” (Luke 10:30).
  • They shouted, “No, not him! Give us Barabbas!” Now Barabbas had taken part in an uprising of bandits (John 18:40).
  • Paul wrote, “I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits . . .” (2 Corinthians 11:26).

The Bible word for “thief” is κλέπτης (kleptays). It is always used in the singular, thief.

  • The thief comes by night (Matthew 24:43).
  • The thief comes to steal and kill and destroy (John 10:10).
  • He said, not that he cared for the poor but because he was a thief, and as he had the money box he used to take what was put into it (John 12:6).
  • The day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night (1 Thessalonians 5:2,4; 2 Peter 3:10).
  • Let none of you suffer as a murderer, or as a thief, or as an evildoer, or as a busybody in other men’s matters (1 Peter 4:15).
  • If you do not wake up, I will come like a thief, and you will not know at what hour I will come to you (Revelation 3:3)
  • “See, I am coming like a thief! Blessed is the one who stays awake” (Revelation 16:15).

Bandits as Rebels with a Cause. Banditry arose in the countryside where outlaws could escape into the wilderness. Banditry increases in time of famine or high taxation. Eric Hobsbawm finds historical credibility in the popular legends that bandits right wrongs, often functioning as champions of justice for the common people, and usually enjoying the support of local peasants.[1] A Jewish peasant family, forced to render 40 percent or more of its harvest to Herod and the “tax collectors,” would have to borrow grain to survive until the next harvest. Some would sink into the ranks of landless day laborers. Judging from Jesus’ parables referring to day laborers (Mt 20:1-16) this was happening to the peasantry. By contrast Mosaic law provided a merciful release from debts every seventh year (Deuteronomy 15:1-2). Moreover, there was (supposedly) the Jubilee Year, in which each person should return to the original family inheritance. It was clearly an ideal in people’s minds.[2]

Banditry increased in the mid-first century. This was almost certainly due to the severe famine that occurred in 46-48 A.D. An outlaw leader and his followers could operate for a considerable period of time without being caught, as illustrated by the twenty-year career of one Eleazar and his band of outlaws.[3] Josephus writes, “On the public road going from Beth-horon some brigands swooped down on a certain Stephen, a servant of Caesar, and robbed him of his baggage.” Peasants would aid bandits who robbed a servant of Caesar. Josephus writes, “A huge band of 800 brigands was under the command of a chief named Jesus, son of Sapphias.”[4] Josephus had contact with this Jesus and his militia, as it was active in Galilee where he was a leader in the Jewish revolt, before Josephus was able to desert to the enemy and write his memoirs.[5] Another brigand, Hezekiah by name, was killed by Herod’s troops, only for his relatives to pray in the temple for three days that his blood might be avenged.[6] Many more examples persuade the reader that bandits carried out a form of justice in a time when hope for deliverance meant little victories now, the Day of the Lord soon.

Next: Prophets and Popular Movements in the Time of Jesus.

[1] Richard A. Horsley and John S. Hanson, Bandits, Prophets, and Messiahs : Popular Movements in the Time of Jesus, 1st Harper & Row paperback ed., New Voices in Biblical Studies (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1988). 49

[2] Ibid. 59

[3] Ibid. 67 J.W. 2.253

[4] Ibid. 79

[5] Ibid. 80

[6] Ibid. 71