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 Fadus assumed the role of procurator in 44CE, skirmishes had recently broken out between Jews in Peraea and people in Philadelphia (to Peraea’s East). According to Josephus, Peraean Jews attacked Philadelphians in a village called Mia (perhaps read as Zia) – Josephus implies these attacks were concerted, coordinated armed robberies, and that they were led by four men: Hannibal, Areram, Tholomy, and Eleazar.
Hannibal was killed, and Areram and Eleazar were banished. Eleazar showed up again a few years later, after Fadus’ procuratorship ended. The Galileans recruited him from his home in the nearby mountains to fight back against Samaritans who had been attacking them during their regular pilgrimages to Jerusalem to attend festivals. The procurator at the time, Cumanus, waged an offensive against these Galileans, taking some as prisoners to Jerusalem (Josephus claimed the Samaritans bribed Cumanus, which is why he gave them a pass and punished the Galileans). According to Josephus, “the most eminent persons at Jerusalem”, after learning the extent to which the Galileans had taken their revenge, poured ashes upon their heads, and urged the Galileans to throw down their arms and return home, which they did (see Romans 12:20 for an interesting parallel regarding ashes). Despite the temporary decrease in tensions, Judea saw a return of those robberies which Fadus purged some years earlier.
The Syrian governor, Quadratus, eventually intervened, bringing Samaritans and Jews to trial. He ordered the crucifixion of several Jews for making “innovations” (rebellion). One possible crucifixion victim was a Galilean named Dortus, who Robert Eisenman in The New Testament Code thinks is a variant of Dorcas (Acts 9:36-43), as well as an anagram for Dositheus.
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.
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? No – not according to those defending Jesus’ historicity. After all, we have mountains of data supporting the historicity of Jesus (and John)…except of course, not really. Secular, contemporary mentions of both of them are sparse and suspect.
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!
If we entertain this speculation, what is the implication? One implication is that Theudas was indeed the person at the root of John the Baptist, and that Paul took up Theudas’ cross; the subsequent re-crafting of John the Baptist as a forerunner to Jesus who couldn’t get out of Jesus’ way fast enough, was fiction designed to create more obfuscation and shenanigans in the alter-world early Christians created.
This would explain why Simon Magus (another name for the Apostle Paul) and Dositheus battled for control of the John the Baptist group in the Pseudo-Clementines – perhaps Dositheus and Theudas were one-in-the-same, or as tradition holds, Dositheus and Simon were simply students of John the Baptist (AKA Theudas).
But Dositheus, when he perceived that Simon was depreciating him…moved with rage, when they met as usual at the school, seized a rod, and began to beat Simon; but suddenly the rod seemed to pass through his body, as if it had been smoke. On which Dositheus, being astonished, says to him, Tell me if thou art the Standing One, that I may adore thee.’ And when Simon answered that he was, then Dositheus, perceiving that he himself was not the Standing One, fell down and worshipped him…
In the above scene, Dositheus appears to have tapped into a tradition conveyed in the Gospel of Thomas, in terms of his immediate falling down on his face:
When you see one who was not born of woman, fall on your face (and) worship him. That one is your Father
Subsequently, this is why Simon Magus claimed to be born of a virgin:
For before my mother Rachel and he came together, she, still a virgin, conceived me
Concern for this tradition might explain why Paul claimed to have been born of a miscarriage (ektroma) in 1 Corin 15:8 – because he was not born of a woman, fulfilling the prophesy in the Gospel of Thomas:
And last of all He appeared to me also, as to one born of a miscarriage.
Epiphanius relays that Dositheus died of starvation in a cave, an interesting feature given the cave near Beth Ha-Karim, west of Jerusalem is often associated with John the Baptist by modern archaeologists.
In this light, it is interesting that Bultmann speculated that the Gospel of John’s original content was more John-the-Baptist-centric, specifically because the Valentinians were said to copiously use the Gospel of John (Ir. AH 3.11.7). My speculation is that the Valentinians, through their inheritance of Paul’s/Simon’s doctrines, actually saw Theudas/John the Baptist as the Christ, and after John’s/Theudas’/Dorca’s/Dositheus’ death by crucifixion, Simon Magus made claim to the Paraclete/Standing One; perhaps Theudas made the same claim some years earlier, before being beheaded for it.
This would explain why there was such contention between Dositheus and Simon Magus, in terms of who would inherit the title of “Standing One”. My speculation is that the Standing One was the Samaritan version of the Paraclete. That is why we see inklings of claims of the Paraclete in Paul’s letters, and likewise, it is why so many Jewish Christians were opposed to these claims.