Who were the Twelve?

Jesus attracted a wide range of Jewish followers, both men and women. Inasmuch as he was trying to get all Israel to turn away from foreign influences and back to the Mosaic Law, he was talking to all parts of Jewish society.

It would be reasonable, then, for his closest followers to include representatives of the various philosophies and social classes, and to be a cross-section of Jewish male society. When Jesus debated with “the Pharisees”, for example, there is no reason to think that they weren’t members of the Twelve.

Jesus and the Twelve

In “The Gospel According to the Romans” I identify the Twelve in this way:

    • The fishermen James and John, and Andrew and Simon Peter – illiterate, unaffiliated with a particular philosophy, but anti-Roman
    • Judas Iscariot (or “the Sicariot”) and Simon Zealotes (“the Zealot”) as Zealots – part of the armed resistance to the Romans
    • Little James and his brother Judas Thaddeus as Essenes who avoided Romans
    • Philip and Bartholomew, Pharisees who argued about correct attitudes regarding the Law and the Romans
    • Thomas, a Sadducee willing to make allowances for the Romans
    • Matthew, a foreign-born Greek-educated Jew who had worked for the Romans – a lost sheep who was returned to the flock

This covers the range of Jewish men. Jesus also had a diversity of  women among his followers, such as the three who lived in Tiberias at Herod Antipas’ court: Mary Magdalene; Joanna the wife of Herod’s steward Chuza; and Susanna. A couple more, Mary and Martha, were sisters of Lazarus, close associates of Jesus, and assistants at the resurrection of Lazarus.

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Jewish Uprisings against the Romans – after Jesus

Some time in the 30s CE, Jesus of Nazareth attempted to – at the very least – cleanse the Temple in advance of Passover, having entered Jerusalem as a Messianic claimant and would-be King. He was caught and crucified together with two Zealot leaders.

In 36 a Taheb, or Samaritan Messiah, and his followers were massacred by Pilate. Pilate was sent to Rome for trial for excessive brutality, but we don’t know the outcome.

About 45 CE, Theudas claimed to be the Messiah and raised an army of 400 men; they were slaughtered and Theudas was beheaded.

About 47 CE, Judas of Galilee’s sons Jacob and Simon were arrested and crucified by the Romans.

In the 50s, 400 followers of the Egyptian Prophet were massacred by the Romans though the Prophet himself escaped and disappeared.

The Great Revolt began in 67 with Menahem – another son of Judas of Galilee – breaking into the armory at Masada and arming the Zealots, then entering Jerusalem as King and executing the High Priest. Vespasian laid siege to Jerusalem in 68, and his son Titus captured it and looted and destroyed the Temple in 70.

All that has been left of the Temple since 70 CE: the foundations of the Western Wall

It took the Romans a further three years to mop up the province, culminating in the capture of Masada in 73.

The Kitos War of 117 began with a massacre – this time by the Jews, of Greeks and Romans in Libya – and spread to Egypt, Cyprus and Palestine.

In the culmination of 200 years of uprisings, the Bar Kokhba Revolt saw Simon bar-Kokhba and Rabbi Akiva take control of Judea in 132 CE, with 200,000 Zealots. The Romans sent 12 Legions to retake and sack Jerusalem. 580,000 Jews were killed. Jerusalem was plowed under, the new city of Aelia Capitolina built on the site, and Judea was renamed Syria Palestine. The remaining Jews were enslaved, dispersed, and barred from Jerusalem.

Jewish Uprisings against the Romans – before Jesus

During a Jewish civil war in 63 BCE, one side paid Romans under the command of Pompey eight tons of silver and nearly a ton of gold to intervene. The Romans gradually annexed Hellenized areas like Syria, Samaria and the Decapolis, leaving Judea and Galilee as a client kingdom. Galilee, being wild and hilly, was a natural center of Jewish religious and military resistance against the idolatrous, pig-eating Westerners. Its 25-year-old governor, Herod, captured and executed the leader of the resistance, Hezekiah.

Herod was created king of Judea by Mark Antony and Octavian (later Caesar Augustus), and he kept order through ruthless suppression of dissent, including the murder of his favorite wife and several other family members. When he died in 4 BCE, at least three Messianic uprisings broke out simultaneously, led by Judas the son of Hezekiah, and Simon of Perea, and Athronges the Shepherd. Judas captured the palace at Sepphoris and looted it of weapons and treasure; he was defeated by the Romans, but escaped. Simon burned down the palace at Jericho and looted what was left; he was defeated, caught and decapitated. Athronges had some success against the Romans, and it took two years to crush his forces; we don’t know what happened to him.

The Temple in Jerusalem. Romans used the Antonia Fortress at left

In 6 CE Judas of Galilee captured and looted Sepphoris; the Romans defeated his army of Zealots and crucified 2,000 of them. Judas was thrown into the sea with a millstone round his neck. It is not certain this Judas is the son of Hezekiah – in ‘The Gospel According to the Romans’ I assume it is.

This disastrous failure of an uprising happened when Jesus of Nazareth was 12, and had been to the Temple in Jerusalem with Joseph and Mary. Nazareth is only 4 miles from Sepphoris. We don’t hear anything about Joseph after this, and we don’t know what Jesus did for the next couple of decades. Regardless of Jesus’ or Joseph’s involvement in the rebellion, these were major and catastrophic events in Jesus’ formative years.

The Dead Sea Scrolls

After the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in the 1940s and 1950s, scholars hoarded them jealously while trying to carve out a little piece of immortality for themselves as translators and revealers. The dribs and drabs of selective translation allowed a pacifist, even hippie, interpretation of the community at Qumran, where Essenes were deemed to have been the owners of the texts.

It was only with the appearance of an almost complete translation, including the War Scroll and details of the authoritarian and militaristic aspects of daily life that comprise 30% of the manuscripts, that it became clear that the library was not Essene. What is thought to have happened is that Essenes indeed used to live at Qumran until a severe earthquake in 31 BCE damaged many of the buildings, triggered an extensive fire, and possibly led to poisonous fumes being released from the Dead Sea. The site was abandoned for several decades.

Some of Jesus' teaching echoes scrolls found in the caves at Qumran

I propose that the remnants of Judas of Galilee’s Zealot army, crushed by the Romans in response to his violent insurrection in 6 CE, took refuge in Qumran, and that the library is theirs. That was the uprising that ended with the Romans crucifying 2,000 Jews (and incidentally, Jesus’ father Joseph is never mentioned again after that time – make of it what you will – I personally make a lot).

Regarding translations and interpretations of the Dead Sea Scrolls, I recommend the translation by Wise, Abegg and Cook (HarperCollins, 1996). Avoid anything earlier than that as being too selective and biased to be worth reading.

Roughly 40% of the material is standard-Biblical, 30% is apocryphal-Biblical, and the remaining 30% is bizarre and fascinating, with everything from formidably tough social laws (“A man who draws out his left hand to gesture during conversation is to suffer ten days’ reduced rations”) to details of a future war with the Romans, both preparations (“On the trumpets of ambush they shall write, Mysteries of God to wipe out wickedness. On the trumpets of pursuit they shall write, God has struck all Sons of Darkness, He shall not abate His anger until they are annihilated“) and the prophesied outcomes of individual battles.

It is a strange and wonderful text, showing the daily lives and background mythology of a violent fundamentalist sect.

The Four Philosophies

Judaism in the time of Jesus was monotheistic, but not monolithic. Josephus famously divided Jewish thought in four: Sadducees, Pharisees, Essenes and “the fourth philosophy”. They all awaited the Messiah, or Anointed One, a leader anointed by God who would reunite the Jewish tribes and, perhaps, rule them as King of Israel directly descended from David. How the Messiah would appear – born as a child, or descending from Heaven – was not certain. (But he would be a man, not a God or some Son of God.)

Sadducees - the pro-Roman philosophy under the Occupation

The Sadducees did not believe in a resurrection. With no real sense of an afterlife, let alone a Day of Judgment, they were inclined toward what was presently available. They were comfortable working with (or for) the Romans, and therefore were the religious and political ruling class among Jews.

The Pharisees believed that, God being just, all people would have to be resurrected so that they could be appropriately rewarded. This sentiment was more attractive to the lower classes than to the rulers, and the Pharisees were stricter than the Sadducees about social justice, adherence to the Law and not collaborating with the Romans.

The Essenes sought purity by withdrawing from everything to do with the Roman occupation – they didn’t like the idolatrous coins, let alone having to pay taxes, so they lived in isolated communities away from the cities.

And the Fourth Philosophy was that of the military resistance to the occupation: the Zealots. Heroes and patriots, or robbers and murderers, depending on your point of view, they led province-wide insurrections about once a generation for a period of 200 years – from the time the Romans occupied Palestine, until the Romans finally massacred, enslaved and deported almost the entire Jewish population.

The premise of the novel

The man we call Saint Matthew, being the tax collector “sitting at the receipt of custom” in Capernaum, is by definition a Roman agent appointed by Pontius Pilate. As such, he has the additional function of keeping an eye on the Zealots and other religious fanatics who head the insurgency against the Roman occupation. ‘Ragheads’, the Romans call them. After Jesus recruits Matthew to help purify Israel and overthrow the Romans – ‘Pigs’, the Jews call them –  Matthew continues to feed information to Pilate.

The local tax collector in Capernaum was - by definition - a Roman agent

Matthew himself tells the story. He is a Greek-speaking Jew, born and educated in Damascus, with a skeptical fascination for religion and politics. He is an irreligious opportunist and has friends on both sides in the conflict. He dines with the Roman military, spies for them, and wants Roman citizenship. But he also lives with Jesus, preaches for him, and falls in love with Mary of Bethany. Whichever way he turns he will cause the death of people he likes, and, in either camp, whoever suspects him will kill him.

By contextualizing the words and actions of Jesus within the Roman Occupation of Palestine and the repeated Jewish insurrections, a strangely modern picture emerges in ‘The Gospel According to the Romans’: a charismatic religious fundamentalist, opposing an occupying superpower.