Legal and Social Perspectives on Robbers in First-Century Judea

Legal and Social Perspectives on Robbers in First-Century Judea
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Legal and Social Perspectives on Robbers in First-Century Judea

Author John W. Welch

Robbers, bandits, zealots, Sicarii, and other groups operating outside of normal legal channels were prominent features on the political landscape in and around the Roman province of Judea in the first century. To an extent, the Jewish insurgents who died at Masada can be viewed as robbers or bandits within the ancient meaning of those terms. Knowing something about the prevailing laws concerning robbery and the typical characteristics of social banditry helps modern people to understand these "outlaws" and to imagine how typical Roman rulers or average Jewish citizens in that day probably viewed both the group of dissidents who died at Masada and others like them mentioned in the New Testament.

There are two viewpoints concerning such rebels. As robbers or bandits, they appear very different from one perspective than from the other. Government officials, who generally favor law and order, see robbers as an extremely negative element in society. Legally, they perceive robbers as violent, destructive criminals, whose very existence threatens the public order. Not surprisingly, Josephus, who wrote his histories to please his Roman patrons, presents a very negative view of antiestablishment operators. The average citizen in the city or village however, probably viewed these bands of fighters much more favorably. To the oppressed or disempowered, social bandits like Robin Hood can become sympathetic folk heroes who set out at all cost to right what they and many of their fellow citizens perceive to be fundamental wrongs. Without understanding both sides of this explosive social and political phenomenon, observers will never come to grips with the essence of the dynamics behind Masada and its world.