A detectable detail within the Theudas problem is that it becomes clear that Acts of the Apostles was relying on Josephus’ Antiquities to construct its own narrative. Yet, there is a remarkable detail about this messianic claimant in Acts of the Apostles 5:36 that is missing from Antiquities. Acts makes reference to Theudas’ four hundred followers. That detail is not found in Josephus.
Some time ago Theudas appeared, claiming to be somebody, and about four hundred men rallied to him. He was killed, all his followers were dispersed, and it all came to nothing.
There is, however, a corollary to these “four hundred” in Antiquities book XX:
Now when Felix was informed of these things, he ordered his soldiers to take their weapons…and attacked the Egyptian and the people that were with him. He also slew four hundred of them, and took two hundred alive. But the Egyptian himself escaped out of the fight
Josephus describes the Egyptian as a messianic insurgent who took his followers to the Mount of Olives, and who claimed “at his command, the walls of Jerusalem would fall down”. After the Roman procurator Felix ordered the attack on the Egyptian and his followers, the Egyptian disappeared, and was not heard from again.
In the earliest Gospel, Mark, we get Jesus discussing the destruction of the temple (Mk 13:1-2):
As Jesus was leaving the temple, one of his disciples said to him, “Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!”
“Do you see all these great buildings?” replied Jesus. “Not one stone here will be left on another; every one will be thrown down.”
We see Jesus referencing the temple’s destruction in each of the 4 Gospels. To scholars, this gives strong evidence the Gospels were written after the temple’s destruction, but in this context, we have a clear parallel between the Egyptian and Jesus.
This reference to the temple’s destruction is also in John 2:19, when Jesus said “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up”.
Consider this subset of Judean chronology:
44-46CE: Procurator Cuspius Fadus orders his men to attack Theudas’ followers near the Jordan River. Beheads Theudas and parades his remains around Jerusalem
48-52: Procurator Ventidius Cumanus quells a Galilean attack against Samaritans (the Samaritans bribed Cumanus) after the Samaritans had attacked Galileans on their trips to Jerusalem to celebrate the festivals. Several Galileans were crucified, while others were publicly shamed in front of the most eminent citizens of Jerusalem, who poured ashes on their heads
52-58: Procurator Antonius Felix quells the Egyptian’s uprising
Judean procurators were contending with uprisings and revolts that were led by charismatic messianic insurgents. Acts 5:36 either confuses or equates Theudas with the Egyptian when it says “[Theudas] was killed, all his followers were dispersed, and it all came to nothing.”. Of the Egyptian, Josephus writes “…but the rest of the multitude were dispersed every one to their own homes, and there concealed themselves.”
Consider what Acts does later in Acts 21, when a Roman commander makes an accusation against Paul
As the soldiers were about to take Paul into the barracks, he asked the commander, “May I say something to you?”
“Do you speak Greek?” he replied. “Aren’t you the Egyptian who started a revolt and led four thousand terrorists out into the wilderness some time ago?”
In Acts, Paul does not explicitly deny the commander’s accusation; rather, Paul simply says he is a Jew from Tarsus. This rings as an intentional swipe against Paul by an author who was begrudgingly admitting Paul into the Orthodoxy. Indeed there are other instances where Paul or his ensemble is treated poorly in Acts, including equating Paul to the Saulus described by Josephus in Acts 9, as well as having Peter compel Ananias’s death because of his concealment of money (Ananias was also tasked with helping remove Paul’s eye scales after his epiphany).
The fact that both were treated with veiled hostility in Acts is not inconsequential; my speculation is that Christianity’s Jesus-on-Earth story was a reformulation of these two characters (along with others) and their resistance against the day’s status quo; it might have even been the case that these two messianic claimants were proto-Christian (Nasaraene) leaders.
In a previous post (Theudas and His Problem), I made reference to a claim made by Clement of Alexandria
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
The proposal I made in Theudas and His Problem was that Clement made multiple errors in his above chronology. The most glaring error was that Marcion preceded Simon Magus – a detail which seems unlikely given other characterizations of Christian chronology, including Irenaeus, who put Marcion in the mid-2nd century.
The other error I speculate is that Clement erred about Paul’s relationship to Theudas; specifically, Paul was a hearer of Theudas, rather than Theudas being a hearer of Paul. I have also argued that Theudas was the actual historical character underlying John the Baptist; the core of this argument is that Theudas was a messianic type who had a multitude of followers, brought his followers to the Jordan River, seemed to have performed some sort of water ritual, claimed he could part the river, and asked his followers to bring their possessions in order to surrender them.
It is in this context that I derive that the Egyptian was the historical character underlying Jesus (and perhaps Paul). Theudas, who is an inspiration for John the Baptist, had a disciple relationship with Paul; the fact that Theudas’s career preceded the Egyptian’s is in parallel with Jesus succeeding John the Baptist.
If this is true, this provides a compelling explanation for where Paul came from, and the religious and political atmosphere which gave rise to his ministry, specifically that Judea, under increasingly brutal Roman procuratorships, featured violent pushback and social shaming against vigilantism. Theudas’s ministry preceded an increase in state-sanctioned crucifixions and sanctimonious finger-wagging by the elders and well-offs, which culminated in an uprising which featured the temple-busting Egyptian at the Mount of Olives.
This solution also provides some explanation for why later Paulinists, including the Marcionites and Valentinians were so staunchly deviant of the Orthodoxy, and had such Gnostic underpinnings. The intriguing subtext is that both the Marcionites and Valentinians were staunch followers of Paul – the Marcionites even rejected the theology of the so-called Apostles – either because those quasi-Jewish teachings were in conflict with Paul, or perhaps in this context, because they knew the Apostles were con-artists, inventing stories they knew not to be true.
Last Updated: 20190421