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Following the visit from the magi to the humble domicile of Mary and Joseph, God sent Joseph a dream warning him of Herod’s intentions: “Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt, and be thou there until I bring thee word: for Herod will seek the young child to destroy him” (Matthew 2:13).
As Matthew explained two verses later, this was a fulfillment of Hosea’s prophecy, “When Israel was a child, then I loved him, and called my son out of Egypt” (Hosea 11:1). Matthew 2:15 stated that Joseph “was there until the death of Herod [with Mary and Jesus]: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, ‘Out of Egypt have I called my son.’” (Some skeptics believe Hosea’s words in 11:1 were about Israel, and not specific to the Messiah. However, as the Messiah is a representation of all of Israel’s redemption and liberty, this interpretive use by Matthew is not incorrect.)
Five miles north of Jerusalem was another small village named Ramah, in the area where the descendants of Rachel (Hebrew Rahel) settled. Although Mary and Joseph escaped Herod’s order, it was carried out to the horror of those who remained, and every male baby in the area of Bethlehem was killed. This fulfilled the prophecy of Jeremiah 31:15: “A voice was heard in Ramah, lamentation, and bitter weeping; Rahel weeping for her children refused to be comforted for her children, because they were not.” The Gospel writer acknowledged this mirroring in Matthew 2:17–18.
After the threat of Herod was over, God arranged for Joseph to have another dream, instructing him to take Mary and Jesus back to Israel (Matthew 2:19–20). Joseph chose a quiet place in Galilee, in a city called Nazareth. The city of Nazareth was named after the Hebrew neser (“nay-tzar”), or, “branch.” The “Branch” as a messianic term was common wordplay for the prophets, as seen in repeated references earlier on (Isaiah 11:1–9; Jeremiah 23:5; 33:15; Zechariah 3:8; 6:12). Matthew 2:23 recognizes this: “And he came and dwelt in a city called Nazareth: that it might be fulfilled which was spoken by the prophets, ‘He shall be called a Nazarene.’” The shoot of Jesse, the holy men had prophesied, would produce a Branch, the Son of David, and He would hail from Nazareth. This was now fulfilled.
Other than the apocryphal or extrabiblical accounts, we know nothing of what Jesus was like when He grew up, other than His mind-boggling trip to the Temple at twelve years old when He met, spoke with, and amazed the most learned rabbis in all of Jerusalem. This account is sharpened with the words of Luke 2:40: “And the child grew, and waxed strong in spirit, filled with wisdom: and the grace of God was upon him,” and Luke 2:52: “And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man.”
When Jesus grew up, He was every bit the threat to worldly governments that the prophets had said and the Roman leaders were beginning to contemplate…while He was at the same time never a threat at all.
The governments of Jesus’ time wouldn’t get it.
But two thousand years later, we don’t really get it, either.
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There’s a popular bumper sticker here in the States: “No Jesus, no peace. Know Jesus, Know Peace.” This is nice and “Christian,” but how many of us really know Jesus? We may read Scripture, but do we truly comprehend what happened throughout this area of the world just before the Messiah was born?
Remember those Christmas cards and how little they convey about the truth? Well, the same is true of Easter. Our culture doesn’t frequently consider whether some of these events and characters represent an accurate portrayal of the Savior on that cross, and in the days leading up to His crucifixion.
It’s common scene in Easter plays: the actor portraying Jesus is whipped with a wimpy piece of linen cloth dipped in red food coloring, then he’s pulled up by the wrists and fastened to a cross. Scenes later, he emerges from behind a paper-mache rock in front of the tomb after someone has loudly announced it’s been three days. In such plays, the person playing Pontias Pilate shrugs and washes his hands of the matter of the execution while an angry mob shouts “crucify him!”…for seemingly no apparent reason other than the contagious nature of anger itself. A more thorough depiction of these events might include the Triumphal Entry event on Passover earlier the same week.
However, despite much scriptural documentation about the days before Christ was crucified, we often miss the significance of specific details due to our cultural disconnect from the world in Jesus’ day. There are many things we hear quoted or see in print that we don’t fully understand. The only remedy for such a disconnect is to dig into the culture of these matters and place them in their proper historical and cultural setting. In so doing, we gain a fuller understanding of the events that unfolded surrounding the crucifixion.
In the “Intertestamental Period” section of this book, we covered the four hundred years of God’s silence. What we did not cover then, as it is more pertinent now, has to do with the ancient city of Sepphoris, known in historical materials as the “jewel [or ornament] of Galilee.”
Most of us tend to imaging Jesus’ childhood to be set in a rural area—in a primitive village setting wherein the archaic and ancient ways of the Old Testament were allowed to thrive and were embraced without question. To a large extent, this is true, but it is not the complete context. We hear Jesus was from Nazareth and picture a peaceful setting far from any real commerce. However, something many of us are unaware of is that Jesus grew up within walking distance (approximately four miles[i]) of a prominent city called Sepphoris, a location that, while not mentioned in the Bible at all, is discussed in the ancient Jewish record more often than any other city aside from Jerusalem.[ii] And, most importantly, this metropolis imposed great cultural influence on the worldview of the people Jesus walked among.
At first glance, Sepphoris appears in historical accounts to have been a Hellenistic town, but the bulk of this influence did not occur until after Jesus’ death and Resurrection. During His time on earth, Sepphoris was predominately Jewish.[iii] This fact is backed by archeological excavations wherein researchers uncovered elements that, for several reasons, confirmed the town’s Jewish status. First, the name “Sepphoris” itself is linked to the origin Hebrew Zippori, which some scholars state was a city “fortified by Joshua when the tribes of Israel first settled into the Promised Land.”[iv] While this has not yet been conclusively proven, it does point to Hebrew origin and initial claim of the territory. Additionally, a facility referred to as the “old fort” by rabbis in the Mishnah pointed to a time when the city was predominantly recognized as Jewish, when the ancestry of those rabbis held public office.[v] This segment of the city was constructed during the time of the Seleucid Empire (dated between 200–100 BC) and, when later excavated, held many mikva’ot, or Jewish ritual baths, confirming the facilitation of Jewish rituals. Additionally, faunal remains showed “so few pig bones from the Roman era that Grantham [the associate professor of anthropology at Troy State University] concluded that pork was a negligible component of the Sepphorians’ diet.”[vi] This rarity is documented as having been in contrast with the “thousands upon thousands of fragments of animal bones” excavated from the location and available for study. It is also in marked contrast to the 30 percent ratio found in sites dated after Sepphoris’ changeover to a Hellenistic setting.[vii]
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Another indication that the city was predominantly Jewish is its the large number of stone vessels, jars, and bathhouse seats. Because of standards of ritual purity, archeology from Jewish culture produces a larger ratio of stone vessels than pottery, metal, or glass. The residential district of this city yielded more than one hundred such findings. Conversely, what was not found speaks volumes as well: The parts of the city dated from before about AD 100 yield no typical Greco-Roman, Hellenistic features such as gymnasiums, pagan temples, cult paraphernalia, chariot-racing coliseums, amphitheaters or theaters; nor do they reveal the presence of pagan shrines, statues, fountains, or typical Roman-designed aqueducts and public bathhouses. Many scholars agree these findings confirm that Sepphoris, during Jesus’ childhood on earth, “was a home to a significant Jewish community.”[viii]
Then, after AD 100, new layers of the city built upon the old manifested many forms of evidence of Hellenistic influence, so we don’t say Sepphoris never was a Greco-Roman setting; we simply make the case as to when. The city was by no means a peacefully uncontested territory. While, before Jesus’ time, it was predominantly populated with Jews and their culture, it politically fell under the rule of Roman authority. For those in the city, the Jewish population and the outside Roman authorities were allowed to coexist, so long as the citizens of Sepphoris understood precisely who was in charge. This meant as long as the Jews remained peaceful, they were allowed to continue practicing their cultural traditions and religion. This dichotomy between Roman authority and Jewish traditional culture at the citizens’ level created a type of friction between the general population and anyone who might rise up to antagonize the Romans, thus rocking the boat on their tense but peaceable arrangement. (Consequently, by about AD 60, the Romans had had enough boat-rocking, which was why the city subsequently saw a shift toward increased Roman influence and Hellenistic culture.) As stated, the city has often been called the “ornament of Galilee.” However, it must be understood that the term “ornament” doesn’t indicate it was merely pretty: The Greek translation of that word, proschema, indicates military strategy and an impermeable locale, which was part of the reason opposing forces so often vied to conquer it. Even Josephus called it the “strongest city in Galilea.”[ix]
Some scholars further point out this was the location Jesus referred to when He said, “A city set on a hill cannot be hidden.”[x] It was strategically located, in fact, on a hill overlooking the Bet Netofa Valley, planted in an intrusively managerial location over the major trade route that ran east to west between the Via Maris and the Mediterranean Sea. Because of its locale, it was a coveted site for opposing military forces to engage in battle. The city was within walking distance of Phoenicia, Samaria, Decapolis, Peraea, and other regions near the Sea of Galilee: all areas said in Scripture to have been traversed by Jesus.[xi] It was an accomplished metropolis, also one of the prominent Jewish learning centers by AD 100.[xii]
At its apex, the city featured upper and lower markets that operated via donkey caravans between the city gate and local and distant towns and villages. Commerce included such goods as grains, flax, breads, herbs, fish (fresh and pickled), all kinds of fresh produce, wine, ceramics, glassware, goods made of fine metals, jewelry, clothing made by skilled weavers and tailors, olives (an expensive ingredient for many uses back then), as well as “cattle…sheep…goat products…basketry, furniture…and perfumes.”[xiii] As such, the location was rich with a constant and unimaginably high number of visits made by experts in their fields of trade. Beyond this range of purchasable goods, a list of public amenities and facilities were also available here, including banks, treasuries, armories, court buildings, and tax processing facilities, to name only a few. The city supported a seemingly limitless list of professions, including masons, farmers, scribes, shopkeepers, teachers, money-changers, fishermen, metal workers, leatherworkers, physicians and medical workers, actors and entertainers, prison security guards, and even prostitutes. (We list these to illustrate the scope of Sepphoris’ influence on the nearby region, but recognize some of the amenities included came into play after the Hellenistic influence made its full-scale impact, after AD 63. When the city lost the revolt in AD 63–70, there was a change in the minting of coins, wherein Greek and Roman inscriptions became more prominent, moving away from symbolism that was previously Jewish.[xiv] However, understanding the potential of this metropolis shows its ability to shape its surrounding culture, which is pertinent when considering Jesus grew up a mere four miles away.)
In 4 BC (near the time of Jesus’ birth), Herod the Great passed away, after having ruled since 37 BC. Despite Sepphoris’ predominantly Jewish population, it still fell within the rule of Roman territory, and Herod used the location as his base of operations for the north. Upon his death, it appeared that a man called Judas, son of Ezekias (or “Hezekiah”) of the lingering Maccabean circle who made trouble for Rome earlier on, saw an opportunity for revolt. Gathering a great throng of warriors, he attempted to lead the city in an uprising. Though the Maccabeans of the past had seen some success that led to later peace treaties with Rome, this particular movement was quickly squelched by Roman forces sent on behalf of Roman Varus, governor of Syria. The Romans sacked and burned a large part of Sepphoris, crucifying two thousand rebels and selling thirty thousand others into slavery.[xv]
Did you catch that? This happened in (or just after) 4 BC! Scholars typically date Christ’s birth to 6–4 BC, so around the same time Gabriel was appearing to Mary and announcing the real Messiah’s arrival, men who claimed to be on a mission from God were starting—and failed to win—a revolution. Two thousand people died! Thirty thousand were sold! The expectations of the Jews were that these men may have been the Messiah, and each time another one fell, so, too, did the hopes of the Jews. Whether the rebels ever personally claimed to be the Messiah (and some of them did) is irrelevant. With every political intervention, the Jews’ (misplaced) hope in a Deliverer who would come like a super-soldier rose to an all-time high, just to come crashing down again when their prized “Messiah” died.
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Citizens around Sepphoris quickly learned insurgence against Rome came with a hefty price tag…
Since this occurred near the time of Jesus’ birth, and in a city near His childhood, His culture would have been saturated with stories of this and other failed rebellions against Rome. Surely individuals He knew could relay personal stories of loss regarding friends and/or loved ones who had perished or disappeared during these terrible events.
And, there were other isolated, sporadic uprisings against Rome that during this time that were near and partially related to Sepphoris. For instance, Judas the Galilean—who is identified by Jewish historians as the same Judas who had led the Sepphoris uprising ten years earlier, in 4 BC[xvi]—led a revolt in AD 6 against Publius Quirinus of Syria in response to newly imposed taxation laws. The movement was met with brutal force; Judas the Galilean perished along with most of his followers, the remnant of whom was scattered throughout the land.[xvii]
It would seem to the Jewish populace there were only two survivable options: 1) submit peaceably to Roman rule, or 2) pray for a Messiah who, based on their interpretations of prophecy (Isaiah 42, 61), they were certain would physically, literally, and politically deliver them. Under the mounting pressure of such oppression, they continued to elevate the idea of a super-hero- or super-soldier-type Messiah-Deliverer within their culture. (Eventually, in AD 66, the city rallied an attempt at revolt—the “Great Revolt”—which was overturned in AD 70 and was sealed with the destruction of the Temple and Jerusalem. It was largely after this period that the transition into a Hellenistic city occurred in Sepphoris. Until then, the Jewish population of this contested, though predominantly Jewish city, had lived peaceably traditional lives, albeit under the opposing rule of outsiders such as Herod the Great and his descendants.)
Recalling so vividly—and so recently—the images of two thousand comrades crucified, thirty thousand sold into slavery, and their great city Sepphoris in ashes, these Jews would have been prompted to watch for a Messiah whose promised deliverance of God’s people would render them finally free from the very real death threats they lived beneath daily.
It’s not surprising, then, to see that there would be mass conflict between Yahwism and the worship of Greco-Roman gods.
Culturally, there were deviations between citizens of surrounding cultures and the Jewish populace for many reasons, but one of the more glaring sources of dissimilarity was found in the differences in religious practices. First, the Greco-Roman pantheon consisted of many gods—each with a designated territory under its control (as hinted at in our study of the word logos). For example, there was Zeus/Jupiter, ruler over other gods who manifested through thunder and lightning. Demeter/Ceres was the goddess of agriculture, Apollo was the god of the sun, Diana was the goddess of childbirth, and so on. Finding these gods was never hard for their followers; they were seen in their physical manifestations (such as the sun, moon, thunder, etc.) or were believed to be in their temple. Their appearance was no mystery, as they were visible via statues, carvings, and other likenesses their followers worshipped. Each time a person crossed into a new territory (such as mountains, streams, or agricultural fields), it was understood that he or she had crossed into the domain of a different reigning god. As such, it was also a common belief one person aggravating a regional god would provoke punishment for the entire region. Because of this, religion and worship carried high political importance. Having one’s own personal beliefs that disputed the beliefs of the population of a region was a rare privilege…and it was only sustained so long as the territorial gods’ needs and demands were met.
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The God of the Old Testament, however, had, for non-Jews, a mystical quality people at times struggled to understand. There are several reasons for this. For example, He is unrestrained—there is no limit to where His followers can claim to find Him. He is not labeled by any one natural element (such as the sun, moon, or ocean), nor is he related to a certain occurring phenomenon (such as growth of crops, wind, thunder). To outsiders, the Jews worshipped a transcendent and mysterious God who was credited with Creation (Genesis 1:1–5) and could go anywhere He wanted (Jeremiah 23:23–24), interacting with mankind (Genesis 3:9), animals (Numbers 22:28–30), and nature (2 Kings 1:14–15) on any level He saw fit.
In addition, Yahweh is invisible. The Jewish worshippers remained devout without having the benefit of a tangible, visible likeness that could be accredited for His miracles. Conversely, Roman religion (and many others) worshipped their reigning king alongside gods who were revered. In many ancient cultures, the king was a god (the pharaohs of Egypt were viewed this way, as well as many Roman leaders after the development of the Imperial Cult). The contrast between this practice and Jews—who refused to worship even the most elevated human political figure in preference of an intangible and invisible god—was often off-putting to those in Roman power who sought admiration.
In addition to this friction between Rome and the Jewish community was the continuing watch for a Messiah. And, the last time the Israelites had seen a real deliverer who was successful in his mission, he had come in the form of Moses. This man had stood in the face of governmental authorities (Pharaoh) and refused to stand down, conveying the words of Yahweh, who delivered His wrath in the form of the plagues. Then, Moses eventually led the freedom event of God’s people in a show so miraculous that generations to come would talk of the parting sea, the smoke by day and the fire by night, the Ten Commandments written by God’s own hand, God’s provision for His people via sending them manna, and the travels that eventually became their entry to the Promised Land. If history were to repeat itself, then, for Rome, a Messiah’s appearance meant certain doom! For Jews, it meant certain political revolution and rescue.
The Messiah had certainly been prophesied centuries earlier. Devout Jews had been anxiously awaiting the Man. So, why didn’t they embrace Jesus as the answer to all of their problems?
Ahh… Therein we find a major key to understanding much of the opposition to Christ in the New Testament: It is because the first several false messiahs had been executed. Jesus, before He had the chance to prove Himself—and even in the face of numerous rumors of signs and wonders like the appearance of the star and the magi and the witness of Anna and the shepherds—was discounted because He was seen as just another person claiming to be the Messiah. The anxiously awaiting populace had placed their hopes upon other men before Jesus, only to have those hopes dashed completely. Each had been executed as a symbol of what happens to those who challenged the existing Roman authority.
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These men were dead and gone, but not forgotten, as their reputation continued to probe the world at the time of Christ with a message: “beware, beware, beware.” Even in the face of this, more affronts to Roman authority outside of those in Sepphoris appeared to make matters more hostile.
For example, there was Simon of Peraea in 4 BC, a slave of King Herod who stood with great physical stature, a meticulous nature, and bold manner. Upon Herod’s death, Simon crowned himself and, with a small entourage, declared himself king. He quickly went about burning the king’s palace at Jericho and several royal houses, plundering along the way. He was met by a league of Roman soldiers led by Valerius Gratus—Pontias Pilate’s predecessor—who fought with Simon and his followers, scattering the throng and beheading Simon.
That same year, a shepherd named Athronges had the same idea, attempting to claim Judean kingship and leading an insurrection against Archelaus of Rome with his four brothers because the king wouldn’t agree to prioritize the reforms demanded by Athronges and his fellow revolutionary leaders. Gratus and Ptolemy captured three of Athronges’ brothers, killing and scattering their followers, and the final fate of the would-be messiah himself is unknown. Though Athronges and his brethren were men of strength and fairly organized in their military tactics, they, too, fell…and at a time when the message of Rome would be received the loudest. Scholars acknowledge it was “during the Passover” that the ultimatums of the rebels “reached a feverish pitch,” and Archelaus’ response was to invade Jerusalem during the holiest week of the year and massacre “thousands of worshiping pilgrims”![xviii] This bloody and horrendous event was the catalyst for “revolt in every major area of Herod’s kingdom.”[xix]
The aforementioned Judas the Galilean became yet another messianic figure. Besides being a philosopher, he led the rebellion against Rome in AD 6, citing the new taxation akin to slavery. Judas recruited a massive following, including Zadok the Pharisee (who is often brought up in historic literature of this day). Accounts are limited, but Luke recalls a small part of the event in Acts 5:36–39: “After this man rose up Judas of Galilee in the days of the taxing, and drew away much people after him: he also perished; and all, even as many as obeyed him, were dispersed.”
A brief overview of Jewish revolutionary movements around this time also shows almost uncountable mutinies developing among a group scholars refer to as “social bandits” (like Robin Hood). These sprang up everywhere, constantly, before and during Christ’s life. These and numerous other uprisings consistently plagued the land, resulting in repeated executions of fathers, husbands, and sons whose families were often put to the sword as well to make an example of those who dared to oppose Rome. But no matter how strong and able-bodied these Jewish rebels were, Rome was always stronger, and one revolt after another only led to thicker rivers of blood running through the cities and towns of the oppressed.
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We often bemoan the Jews’ lack of faith during Jesus’ life and ministry years, but we need to understood that seeing a series of would-be messiahs had taught them one lesson well: Stand against Rome—claim to be a “messiah,” or even follow one—and the penalty for both you and your comrades will be a brutal death. It also cemented another position in the minds of citizens of the time: If you are the Messiah, then you must overturn Rome and get on with it, but whatever you do, don’t just make Rome mad without following through, or the price tag will be a brutal one indeed. As Christians, we have the benefit of Scripture and hindsight to illustrate to us the truth of Jesus’ Messiahship. We can look back and understand perfectly how it came to be that a world that had watched so devotedly for a Messiah completely missed the mark by not recognizing who Jesus really was. But for those who watched the story unfold on a personal level, the many failed attempts at overthrowing Rome remained too fresh; too many comrades had certainly been killed and scattered or enslaved. Unless they saw a political leader commence in sure-fire acts of war, they remained reserved about placing their hopes upon another would-be.
This was the world Jesus grew up in between His birth and adulthood. He knew very well on a personal level what He was getting into. But to those around Him, it was unclear. By the time He eventually explained who He really was, most would have viewed Him as just another Galilean making claims.
Would He end up like Judas of the Maccabean line?
“Certainly,” the Jews’ of Jesus’ time would have said, “because the death of His so-called forerunner proves it!”
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[i] Chancey, Mark A., Hanan Eshel, Eric M. Meyers, and Tsvika Tsuk, “How Jewish was Sepphoris in Jesus’ Time?” The Biblical Archaeology Review: Volume 26 (No. 4; July/August 2000), 18–33, 61.
[ii] Batey, Richard A., “Sepphoris and the Jesus Movement” New Testament Studies: Volume 47 (No. 3; July 2001). 402–409, 408.
[iii] Chancey, Mark A. et al., “How Jewish was Sepphoris in Jesus’ Time?”, 18–33, 61.
[v] Strange, James F., “Sepphoris: Sepphoris was the ‘Ornament of All Galilee,’” The Bible and Interpretation (University of South Florida, September, 2001); last accessed March 7, 2022, https://bibleinterp.arizona.edu/articles/sepphoris.
[vi] Chancey, Mark A. et al., “How Jewish was Sepphoris in Jesus’ Time?”, 18–33, 61.
[x] Strange, James F., “Sepphoris…” last accessed March 7, 2022, https://bibleinterp.arizona.edu/articles/sepphoris.
[xi] Batey, Richard A., “Sepphoris…”, 402–409.
[xii] Schuster, Angela M. H., “Archeology,” Ancient Sepphoris: Volume 50 (Archaeological Institute of America; No. 2; March/April, 1997), 64.
[xiii] Strange, James F., “Sepphoris…” last accessed March 7, 2022, https://bibleinterp.arizona.edu/articles/sepphoris.
[xiv] Chancey, Mark A. et al., “How Jewish was Sepphoris in Jesus’ Time?”, 18–33, 61.
[xv] Fujishima, Issey, “The Violent Childhood of Jesus,” Reign of God, January 24, 2018; last accessed March 7, 2022, https://www.thereignofgod.com/2018/01/24/violent-childhood-of-jesus/.
[xvi] Kaufmann Kohler, M. Seligsohn, “Judas the Galilean,” Jewish Encyclopedia, last accessed March 7, 2022, https://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/9032-judas-the-galilean.
[xvii] Fujishima, Issey, “The Violent Childhood of Jesus”; last accessed March 7, 2022, https://www.thereignofgod.com/2018/01/24/violent-childhood-of-jesus/.
[xviii] Heard, W. J. J., & Evans, C. A., “Revolutionary Movements, Jewish,” as quoted in: Dictionary of New Testament Background: A Compendium of Contemporary Biblical Scholarship (electronic ed., Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press; 2000), 938.