Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Gamaliel’s ‘Theudas’ as John the Baptist

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Damien F. Mackey

‘For some time ago Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody, and about four hundred men joined him. He was killed, and all who followed him were dispersed and nothing came of it’.

Acts 5:36

How to fit in this “Theudas”?

Rabbi Gamaliel refers in quick succession, in Acts 5:36 and 5:37, to two people in the past who had risen up in Israel and had attracted a significant following, but each of whom were killed, and their followers dispersed.

The second mentioned of these two was “Judas the Galilean” - whom I have identified with the great Judas Maccabee, thus giving me cause to refer to what I considered to be “Gamaliel’s feeble account of Judas”.

The first mentioned by Gamaliel was one “Theudas”, who had emerged supposedly earlier than “Judas the Galilean”. The Greek of Acts 5:37 leads in with μετὰ τοῦτον, which is reasonably translated as “after him”, “after this man” (namely, after Theudas).

This would place Theudas historically before the “census” at the time of Judas.

The problem is that the only known Theudas who had caused a stir in Israel was located by the Jewish historian Flavius Josephus to a time significantly later than that of Judas the Galilean. Tim Claason describes what he calls:

Theudas And His Problem

According to the 1st century Jewish-Roman historian Josephus, Theudas was a messianic claimant who instructed his “deluded” followers to take all their possessions and follow him to the Jordan River, where he would divide the River, presumably to provide passage across it; one might speculate that there was a ritual attached to this process, particularly considering Josephus’ characterization of Theudas, namely that he was a magician and charlatan (Antiquities 20).

Theudas’ following must have been large enough, or his message poignant enough, to attract the attention of the governor at the time, Cuspius Fadus, because Fadus ordered a group of soldiers to attack and kill Theudas’ followers. As for Theudas, he was beheaded, and his remains were paraded around Jerusalem, further amplifying his significance – after all, the decapitated head of an insignificant nobody serves no purpose except to stink up the room, but the decapitated head of an important adversary would have more impact, especially in Jerusalem – the Jewish social, economic, and religious epicenter of the day.
When Theudas came on the scene, sometime within 2 years of Fadus’ crackdown in 44CE, it was in the aftermath, or at least the context, of this reform. It would have been clear to citizens that violent swindle would not be taken lightly under Fadus; perhaps it was in this context that Theudas’ scam was born. Instead of armed robbery, Theudas made promises to his followers, or employed sum magic trick to make it seem he was dividing the Jordan River (my personal speculation is that it was the dry season, and Theudas had an elaborate scheme to temporarily dam water flow). The prerequisite for Theudas’ followers was probably monetary, as he convinced them to bring their possessions with them.

Consider this detail in light of Matthew 19:21:

Jesus told him, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give
to the poor,and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come,follow Me.”

Josephus is vague about what explicit crime Theudas committed, except to say that he implied Theudas was scamming people. The religious undertones, notably the mention of dividing the river, coupled with his congregation of followers and the mystical associations must have concerned Fadus, given increasing tensions between Rome and the area Jews; a messiah would have been problematic for the Romans, because it would have given people a rallying point. Clearly, Theudas was a threat. ….
To Jesus defenders (which is to say, practically everyone), assuming they know anything at all about this Jordanian charlatan (they probably don’t), Theudas is an anomaly – a one-off parallel who means nothing to anyone except those combing through obscure Josephus passages looking for kinks in the impervious Jesus armor. Nothing to see here folks.
Yet, if one is so emboldened to pursue this insignificant, irrelevant anomaly, one finds much curiosity.  For example, Acts of the Apostles 5:36 resurrects Josephus’ anecdote in order to castigate Theudas, who post-dated the supposed narrator Gamaliel in Acts 5 (Acts 5 was supposedly based 7 years prior to Theudas).
Once Acts’ author, via his re-crafted version of Gamaliel, completed the polemic against Theudas, he turned his attention to the subsequent radical, Judas of Galilee, who in reality died nearly 40 years earlier than Theudas, thus creating the infamous Theudas Problem.

Some time ago Theudas appeared…After him, Judas the Galilean appeared in the days of the census and led a band of people in revolt.

The choice consumers have regarding this timeline dilemma is to either admit Acts copied Josephus’ Antiquities (Josephus mentioned Judas after Theudas in Antiquities 20, despite acknowledging Judas preceded Theudas), or to invent another lie, that Acts was referring to a different Theudas … or a different Judas. Considering the author locked himself into Judas being active around the time of the census (which he was), the more economical lie is that there must have been some other Theudas.
Honest traversal of this data compels one to admit the most self-evident conclusion is that Acts indeed copied Josephus, and this was simply a quality assurance failure on the part of Acts’ author(s).
Life would be simpler if, at this point, we could simply stick a fork in Theudas, and call the matter done; however, this Theudas shows up again, in the same timeframe, in Clement of Alexandria’s Stromateis 7.17:

Likewise they allege that Valentinus was a hearer of Theudas. And he was the pupil of Paul. For Marcion, who arose in the same age with them, lived as an old man with the younger [heretics]. And after him Simon heard for a little the preaching of Peter

I puzzled over this passage for some time, because it implied that Paul’s Theudas was nearly contemporary to Josephus’ Theudas. Of course, these two men could be completely different people, but given Acts’ need to specifically call out Theudas as some two-bit impostor, I don’t think so. The fact that Clement built an explicit bridge between Theudas and the heretics is also noteworthy.

My original point of curiosity here is that Clement places Simon Magus after Marcion.  No other tradition creates such a chronology.
There are many possibilities here for why (or whether) Clement believed this chronology, but the most economical solution is that Clement committed a simple error in his reconstruction of chronology.

But how incorrect was Clement?  My speculation is that Clement committed more than one error here.

Specifically, I believe Theudas was not a hearer of Paul; Paul was a hearer of Theudas! ….

What to make of all this?
Did the writer of Acts 5 get his history all wrong and upside down?
And who exactly was this enigmatic Theudas?


“The parallel between this story and the New Testament is obvious; Theudas resembles John the Baptist in consequential ways – not just in geography, prophesy, or the notable reference to dividing of the Jordan River (perhaps a reference to Joshua 3:15-17), but also in the celebration accompanying his beheading”.

Tim Claason

Whilst Flavius Josephus has made a mess of the subject of Theudas, in my opinion - (we read earlier: “Josephus is vague about what explicit crime Theudas committed …”) - I do not think that the author of Acts 5 has confused the issue.
But I do believe that Acts 5:37 needs an amended translation.
Instead of Judas the Galilean coming “after him [Theudas]”, the μετὰ in μετὰ τοῦτον can be amended to read the equally permissible (if perhaps less common), “besides”.
Thus, “besides him”, or, “as well as [Theudas]”, there was “Judas the Galilean”.
That way, Theudas does not have to have pre-dated “Judas the Galilean”.

There is nothing to indicate from Acts 5:36 that this Theudas was a revolutionary.
All that we know about Theudas from the taciturn (in the cases of vv. 36 and 37, at least) Gamaliel is that:

a while back;
a Theudas;
who claimed to be somebody;
drew 400 followers;
but was killed.

Now this description, overall, could apply to John the Baptist.

He was of recent memory.
He may have had, like other Jews, a Greek name as well - in this case, Theodotus (= Theudas).
Though John never big-noted himself, he did claim to be a one whom Isaiah had foretold (John 1:23): “John replied in the words of Isaiah the prophet, “I am the voice of one calling in the wilderness, 'Make straight the way for the Lord.'"”
Though we learn that (Matthew 3:5): “People went out to [John] from Jerusalem and all Judea and the whole region of the Jordan”, the Baptist would have had his own smaller band of disciples as well - 400 seems to be a reasonable figure for this.
He “was killed” (by beheading).

Josephus confirms that Theudas was a “prophet”, but also calls him a “magician”.

Tim Claason has made a connection between Theudas and the dubious (for him) Baptist:

The parallel between this story and the New Testament is obvious; Theudas resembles John the Baptist in consequential ways – not just in geography, prophesy, or the notable reference to dividing of the Jordan River (perhaps a reference to Joshua 3:15-17), but also in the celebration accompanying his beheading.
Could Theudas be part of the inspiration for a more fictionalized Gospel character? Or does he provide insight into a raw and unsanitized version of pre-Orthodox Christianity? ….  

Regarding the name, “Theudas”, we read at: http://christianthinktank.com/qtheudy.html

At the time there was a prevalence for having both a Greek AND a Hebrew name, with the Greek name having the same or very similar meaning as the Hebrew. This pattern shows up in the Jerusalem ossuaries and the 'Goliath' family in Jericho [e.g. 'Theodorus' (gk) for 'Nathanel' (hb)]. With this in mind, 'Theudas' could be Greek for a wide range of Hebrew names: Jonathan, Nathanael, Mattathias, Hananias, Jehohanan, etc. In one case, the synagogue ruler in Ophel was listed under his alternate Greek name "Theodotus". …. 

“'Theudas' could be Greek for a wide range of Hebrew names: … Jehohanan”.
Now Jehohanan (var. Johanan) is Hebrew for John.

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