The Violent Childhood of Jesus

When Jesus was about ten years old, his homeland was trembling from rebellion. He grew up among people traumatized by war.

We don’t know much about the childhood of Jesus, but we often imagine his upbringing in the lush Galilean countryside as peaceful, growing up under the loving care of his mum and learning the trade of his foster-father Joseph. Within an extended family of relatives he would have been protected as well as pressured by the village community of Nazareth. Indeed, though many farmers were sliding down monetary debts due to heavy taxation, everyday life in the rural hinterland of the Roman Empire was probably far from dramatic.

Civil War after Jesus‘ Birth

However, just around the time of Jesus’ birth, there had been war. The death of king Herod the Great in 4 BCE caused a power vacuum and thousands perished in the chaos that followed. After a revolt started in Jerusalem, bandit groups and Arab robbers raided Judea, and in Galilee, a certain man called Judas got control of Sepphoris, a city next to Nazareth. Roman blood had been spilled. The Syrian governor Varus put an end to this insurgency, during which Sepphoris was burnt down, its inhabitants sold off into slavery and 2000 rebels were crucified…
Growing up, young Jesus would have heard of this. How his village had been invaded by Roman troops searching for rebels. Stories of folks nearby who had been killed and raped. He was raised by adults who carried the trauma of what today might be labeled a “peacekeeping operation.”
And when he was about ten years old, it happened again.

The Rebellion of Judas of Gamala

After his father Herod’s death, king Archelaus proved to be an incompetent ruler. Emperor Augustus got rid of him in the year 6 CE. He turned Judea into a minor province under Syria and its new governor Publius Quirinius. The first thing on Quirinius’ agenda was to organize a large-scale census. The census and its land survey would serve as basis for taxation of people in the region.
While the priests and noblemen in Jerusalem teeth-gnashingly accepted this policy, it provoked opposition. Again, a Galilean man called Judas stood up.

It’s not clear if this “Judas the Galilean” was the same Judas who had looted Sepphoris ten years before. Historian Josephus says the following about him.

Yet was there one Judas, a Gaulonitem of a city whose name was Gamala, who, taking with him Sadduc, 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. (“Antiquities of the Jews” XVIII, I, 1)

And in “The Jewish War” II,VIII,1 he writes,

Under [prefect Coponius’s] administration it was, that a certain Galilean, whose name was Judas, prevailed with his countrymen to revolt, and said they were cowards, if they would endure to pay a tax to the Romans, and would, after God, submit to mortal men as their lords.

Taxation, slavery, liberty… these words were sure to trigger the sentiments of Galilean Jews. Judas and Zadduk would probably appeal to a wide audience (“the nation”) with prophetic authority, just as other 1st century popular leaders. They had enough persuasive power to lead a multitude not just to boycott the census but to claim their freedom against Rome by force.
Even though this “revolt” sometime between August 6 and September 7 CE was not as severe as the civil strife ten years earlier, it was significant enough to be recorded. Josephus stresses that Judas’s fanatic followers didn’t fear death. He connects the “infection” of his movement with robberies, murder and seduced youth.

[F]or Judas and Sadduc, who […] had a great many followers therein, filled our civil government with tumults at present, and laid the foundations of our future miseries.

Quirinius had already brought his soldiers to Judea, ready for resistance. We don’t know how Judas ended. He might have lost his life in battle or crucified as it was common for insurgents. Luke writes in Acts 5:37:

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

What did Jesus see as a Child?

What of this revolt did 10-year-old Jesus see? How would his childhood memory influence him years later?
It is impossible to tell how this incident affected him and his village community. It’s easy to imagine the fear that the unrest brought into their lives and that some of the young men felt drawn to join Judas. But did Quirinius’s anti-terror campaign reach Nazareth? With legionaries in the hills? Did some enter the village, brutalizing or plundering the people? Or was Nazareth with its cave dwellings too insignificant a place for Rome or Judas to bother with?
All of this is impossible to tell. What is sure though is that Jesus grew up in a scarred society. Where there were things that couldn‘t be said. Where instead, stories would be told. Judas of Gamala, the hero. The seed of his zeal would sprout among the Galileans and bloom into a new religious philosophy: No Lord but God and Freedom or Death. Later messianic populists would echo these slogans. Judas’s sons James/Jacob and Simon would later be crucified by procurator Alexander. And Menahem and Eleazar —also called “sons of Judas”—would some day take up the sword, lead their armies and proclaim a “Kingdom of God” in Israel.

Peter Connolly: The Holy Land
Martin Hengel: Die Zeloten
Flavius Josephus: The Jewish War
Reza Aslan: Zealot—The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth, Appendix A

Do You Like What You Read?

What do you think?