Just before the reign of Egypt’s most well-known Pharaoh, Tutankhamen, Egypt experienced an interesting hiccup in its world view. In 1352 B.C.E., his predecessor, Amenhotep IV (who preceded the reign of Smenkhare), adopted the name Akhenaten and an idea that, as far as we know, was competely new to the Middle East.
This is one they did not tell you about in Sunday School. Just over 100 years before Moses, Akhenaten not only introduced, but imposed monotheism on the Egyptian Empire. The creator of the world, Ra was to be known as Aten, the Great Disk that illuminated the universe. There was only one God and he had one son, Akhenaten. Indeed, an ancient inscription purported to have been written by him and addressed to Aten says, “there is no other who knows you except your son, Akhenaten.” The names of all other gods (and even references to the plural of the word “God”) were to be deleted from history.
But wouldn’t you know, his successors saw things differently. They ordered that Akhenaten’s capital of Akhetaten, as well as his name and religion were to be deleted from all historical records. The task was carried out with great efficiency. But a cache of clay tablets known as the Amarna Letters was uncovered in 1887. From them, scholars have learned all kinds of details about his fourteen year reign. Most of what we know about this period comes from those correspondences.
The original followers of Jesus (and by original I mean those who actually knew him personally long before Paul and Luke, who never met him, weighed in with what was to become the “official” story) suffered a similar fate at the hands of historians.
Some forty years after the crucifixion of Jesus – eight years after the murder of his brother James, the remnants of the movement to which Jesus had belonged were massacred. The city of Jerusalem was destroyed and the Temple was burned. Most of his family died with them.
The people who opposed Roman rule and fanatically insisted on the superiority of Jewish law are usually referred to as the “Zealots.” But that was a title conferred upon them by their enemies. The writers of the New Testament didn’t like them much either. So the New Testament accounts tell us almost nothing about them other than a few casual references to the fact that Jesus was associated with them. See Luke 6:15; Acts 1:13 and Acts 21:20.
To the Roman Government, the Zealots were treasonous thieves and murderers who refused to accept Roman sovereignty. Naturally, those who were perceived to be friends of these Zealots were not likely to last long in the Empire. So the Church did not spend a lot of time talking about them either.
After the first century Church succeeded in distancing itself from them enough to survive into the second century, there was no going back. Because the Church had absolute control over what was recorded as history from the end of the second century until modern times, their life stories have been all but forgotten.
The destruction of Jerusalem which concluded in 70 C.E. was carried out in several stages. The first siege in 66 C.E., ended abruptly when it reached the walls of the Temple complex. For some reason that is not completely clear to historians, the Roman Commander, Cestius Gallus ceased his attack and retreated to the North with the Zealots in hot pursuit. In preparation for Rome’s imminent return, the Zealots divided Judea into seven regions. The area believed to be the most strategic was the Galilee. Its defense was entrusted to a young gentleman named Yosef ben Matityahu.
In 67 C.E., Vespasian entered Judea with three legions to pick up where Gallus had left off. To get back to Jerusalem, he had to first overcome the strategically positioned fortified cites that now surrounded it. Among the first of these was Jotapata where our friend Yosef ben Matityahu had established his command center. The Romans took his city rather easily. They tracked down Matityahu and forty of his companions hiding in a hole.
Matityahu was almost persuaded by Vespasian to surrender. But his friends said they would kill him if he did. So he had a change of heart. Gathering up all of his “courage” he convinced them all to commit suicide rather than submit to the Romans. When the dust and confusion cleared, only Matityahu and one of his friends remained standing. They immediately came out praising the Romans and explaining that all of this must have been God’s will since God had clearly placed the Romans in charge of the whole world.
It turns out that Yosef ben Matityahu had a lot to give. He became the Romans’ spokesman and official Jewish historian of the region of Judea. His accounts written in the name of “Josephus” are the only surviving records of this period that were actually composed by an eyewitness to the events they describe.
In Part II we will take a look at Josephus’ description of what finally happened to the people Jesus clearly spent a lot of time with – the people the New Testament called the Zealots, and who Josephus called Zealots, Robbers and the “Sacarii.”
Copyright © 2012, Rick D. Massey, JD