Cahiers du Cercle Ernest Renan, no. 11 (1956)
Edited and translated from the French by R. Salm (April, 2012)
Note: Bracketed editorial additions are in green and signed “R.S.”
Further evidence identifying Theudas with John the Baptist
Are we able to find other allusions to the messianic role of our John-Dositheus-Theudas in the texts?
Flavius Josephus (Ant 20.5.1) writes of a Theudas whom he characterizes as a charlatan and for whom he offers details which arouse curiosity on several counts. This Theudas led the crowd to the Jordan. Its waters were supposed to part and let him pass through the river—proof of his stature as a baptist and a prophet analogous to Joshua. But Fadus intervened with the Roman cavalry, killed many of those assembled, and imprisoned others. Theudas was decapitated and his head sent to Jerusalem.
The name of this prophet, his death far from the capital, the sending of his head to Jerusalem, the presence of a crowd on the banks of the Jordan, the fact the the Roman troops intervened, killed some and imprisoned others (as was the case with the messiah on Mt. Gerizim) —all these are highly suggestive of John the Baptist.
The two different settings—one at the foot of the mount, the other on the bank of the Jordan—are not necessarily contradictory. The redactor (writing a half century after the fact) did not know the exact location of the scene and could have taken one of the streams which feed the Jordan River for the Jordan itself. He might have done this from error or may have treated the passage symbolically. [In fact, the ‘error’ of geography is no error at all, the Jordan being only a few miles from Mt. Gerizim. Accordingly, the Samaritan Pentateuch is able to finesse the location of the stones placed by Joshua after crossing the Jordan: while the OT has those stones placed at Gilgal “near Jericho” (Josh 4:19-20), the Samaritans insisted they were inscribed with the Torah and placed on Mt. Gerizim, “facing” Gilgal. See here.—R.S.]
Given the similarities between the two accounts, Josephus must have erred in his dating, for the mention of Cuspius Fadus requires a date between 44 and 46 CE. The situation becomes even more complicated when we consider Acts 5:36. There one reads that, about 35 CE, Gamaliel made the following pronouncement: “Recently there arose Theudas who claimed to be someone important.” We note that this ‘Simonian’ claim would not have been surprising in relation to Dositheus-John, with whom the date accords well.
This Theudas, accompanied by four hundred followers, was killed and his group subsequently quickly dispersed. It is not beyond suspicion that we are in the presence of a single person, for both Dositheus and Theudas bear the same name and experience similar situations.
Acts 5:37 continues: “Then there was Judas the Galilean, at the time of the census, who attracted crowds of supporters. ” This would place Theudas before 6 CE, the date of the census under Quirinus and also the date of the uprising of Judas the Galilean. In sum, we find ourselves in the presence of three different persons with the name Theudas: one died ca. 34-35 CE, one died between 44 and 46, and a third died before 6 CE.
The most straightforward solution, of course, is to suppose that we are simply dealing with three different individuals. After all, many people bore the name Theudas as also the name Dositheus. Not so easy to accept is the following concatenation of improbabilities: that two of these personages died in similar circumstances, that Luke and Josephus then confused them, and finally that the author of Acts ignored this identification. In fact, the root of all this difficulty lies solely in conflicting dates. Let us see if we can find some explanation for this.
(a) The error of Acts. In the book of Acts Gamaliel confirms what the author wishes the reader to believe. Acts 5:36 is tendentious and betrays a secondary Jewish Christian source, one which was drawn upon after the writing of Luke’s primitive account. Gamaliel probably never spoke the words attributed to him. Without going so far as to allege deceit, we can say that the second editor followed an oral tradition which at least had already erred regarding the facts.
Known for his wisdom and correctness, Gamaliel certainly would not have said that “recently” (pro toutwn twn hemerwn) Theudas arose and “after this” (meta touton, v. 37) Judas the Galilean arose who, as we know, actually died thirty years earlier. Gamaliel could have said only the former of these propositions, that is, the one which relates a contemporary event. The latter dating regarding Judas the Galilean must have been added by an editor. On the face of it, this error is ridiculous and defies all explanation.
A confusion in the oral tradition is patent. In late antiquity chronological precision was typically of little account and hardly as significant as the description of events. Even today few Christians can place the saints in correct chronological order. They can hardly do the same even for the most recent popes.
Eusebius (Hist. Eccl. 2:11) offers a good example of memory failure (or confusion of chronology) when he cites the Josephan passage on Theudas. While that passage mentions Fadus, Eusebius asserts that this is the same event recalled by Gamaliel.
The essential point is that the discourse of Gamaliel in Acts concerns his contemporary Theudas. This is not a secondary matter. It is neither faulty nor superfluous, nor is it intended to make us doubt that the incident actually occurred. Upon the arrest of the apostles, Gamaliel recalls this recent event and identifies the apostles with the companions of Theudas. He uses the expression “these men” (twn anthrwpwn toutwn, v. 38). Thus Gamaliel implies that they all belong to the same sect. Let us note as a solution: if Theudas were indeed John the Baptist there would be nothing at all surprising (nor false) in Gamaliel’s statement!
(b) The error of Josephus. We recall that this historian mentions a Samaritan messiah killed under Pontius Pilate without, however, naming him. Then Josephus’ account interprets John the Baptist’s execution as politically motivated and carried out in the confines of a prison. Could Josephus have confounded John with the Theudas of Cuspius Fadus?
We note first of all that Josephus omits the name “Theudas.” In Ant 18:4.1 he is frankly hostile to these Samaritains who “cause tumults” and allow themselves to be excited by an outrageous demagogue. He recounts the events: the petition of the Samaritans and the denial of Pilate, the gesture of Vitellius and—what the reader must find stupefying—a remission on all inhabitants of Jerusalem of taxes on fruits bought and sold! Thus, the victimized Samaritans who lodged the complaint are not appeased in the least, but rather their enemies in Jerusalem, enemies whose appearance in this story must come as a surprise! All this eventually leads to Herod himself being stripped of his power. This passage was certainly modified in opposition to the natural course of events.