When Paul was arrested in Jerusalem he was mistaken for an anarchist Egyptian:

Acts 21:37-38 ESV As Paul was about to be brought into the barracks, he said to the tribune, “May I say something to you?” And he said, “Do you know Greek? Are you not the Egyptian, then, who recently stirred up a revolt and led the four thousand men of the Assassins out into the wilderness?” Paul replied, “I am a Jew, from Tarsus in Cilicia, a citizen of no obscure city. I beg you, permit me to speak to the people.”

There is a snippet of info about what the Egyptian did here, but it's very little. Is there any more information about this Egyptian? Specifically his name, what he did, who the Assassins were, etc...?

  • No idea who the Egyptian was but posting something on the Sicarii. Aug 25, 2014 at 17:03

3 Answers 3


Here is a summary of what I found on this subject :

The Greek word for “dagger men”, used in the the quoted verse, is derived from the Latin sicarii, which means “users of the sica,” or dagger. First-century historian Flavius Josephus describes the Sicarii as a band of fanatic Jewish patriots, unrelenting enemies of Rome, who engaged in organized political killings.

Josephus adds that the Sicarii later played a leading role in the Jewish revolt against Rome in 66-70 C.E. Thus, the Roman commander would be anxious to detain the supposed leader of such a group.

The “Egyptian” seditionist with whom the military commander at Jerusalem confused Paul is possibly the same one mentioned by Josephus. (The Jewish War, II, 254-263 [xiii, 3-5]) His insurrection is stated to have taken place during the reign of Nero and the procuratorship of Felix in Judea, circumstances fitting the account at Acts 21:37-39; 23:23, 24.


"You speak Greek do you?" the commander asked. "Then you are not that Egyptian fellow who some time ago started a revolution and led four thousand armed terrorists out into the desert?" Acts 21: 38 (Good News Bible)

The important point brought to light by the Good News Bible translation is that Paul could speak Greek and that he was willing to speak Greek - he was not a Hebrew Zealot.

I believe my interpretation of Josephus on the Sicarii is better than that of other historians.

Towards the end of his writings, Josephus abandons the use of the word ‘Zealots’ for ‘Sicarii’ to make the Hebrews sound even worse villains and the proof of their being wrong and of their guilt was that God made them suffer at the hands of the Romans and die terrible deaths. The accusations made against the Zealots/ Sicarii/ bandits/robbers were as follows:  They opposed those that were willing to submit to Rome and robbed the rich among them as they robbed the Romans.  They showed impiety towards God by eating non-kosher food and not observing the laws of purification.  They made war against Rome, and reproached and damned those that would not fight with them.  They opposed those that reprimanded them and tried to destroy the men in power.  They were unjust in their actions against their neighbors and showed a lack of affection towards their fellow man.  They were attached to liberty acknowledging only God as their ruler.  They refused to confess Caesar as their lord even when ‘all sorts of torments and vexations of their bodies’ were made on them. Even the children refused. (But what was most astonishing to the beholders, was the courage of the children; for not one of these children was so far overcome by these torments, as to name Caesar as their lord.)

The Sicarii was according to Josephus a highly organized group of bandits closely linked to the Galilean freedom fighters, responsible for the most horrific murders and mayhem in Jerusalem and even in the Temple, and he believed that all the violence was the reason for God leaving the Temple and condemning Jerusalem. Much of what they were supposed to have done was clearly the work of ordinary robbers and militant brigands taking advantage of the turmoil. Other acts were so to the benefit of Rome that it must have been organized by the procurators.

There were however a series of inexplicable murders that took place. This was the work of the real Sicarii, and most curious they were indeed.

The first murder committed by the Sicarii was, according to Josephus, the murder of a 'retired' high priest called Jonathan. The procurator Felix Antonius (the one who married Drusilla) hired Doras, a friend of Jonathan, to hire the Sicarii to murder him because he had criticized the actions of Felix. The Sicarii approached Jonathan during a festival, managed to get close enough to stab him unseen and then disappeared never to be found.

Josephus formulated this theory based on rumor long after the event and there are weaknesses that make it implausible. Murdering Jonathan retrospectively after he had already spoken out makes no sense, as it would only serve to draw attention to what he had said. (If Felix were behind it, it would have been because Jonathan knew something that could put Felix in a bad light with Rome.) Felix would have had no reason to approach a third party to find an assassin, he had plenty on his payroll and knew and had contact with the bandits and he was also a friend of Jonathan’s and would have been able to get someone close to him. To risk exposure by approaching the best friend of the man he wanted to kill would have been silly, and Felix wasn’t silly. Josephus was obviously struggling to find a motive and a way that the killer could get close to Jonathan. Determined however to make the murder fit his theories of the Sicarii conspiracy, he invented motive and opportunity and these two factors remain vexing in explaining all the murders.

The murders that can exclusively be attributed to the Sicarii could all have been committed by one man. Jonathan was most certainly killed by one man - if it had happened unseen. (Not by between a hundred and a thousand as some historians would have it.) This would have been the safest as the risk of exposure in a venture like this increase dramatically with the number of people involved. Thinking in terms of one man makes all the explanations easier.

From subsequent murders, we learn the following:  He murdered with a specific trademark dagger that he carried under his cloak.  He murdered during the festivals mingling freely with the multitudes.  He murdered his own enemies and for money.  He operated in the middle of the city, in the suburbs of Jerusalem and in the Temple.
 He murdered in daytime, remained with the corpse and still appeared above suspicion (persons of such reputation, that they could by no means be discovered).  Victims were distrustful of both friends and enemies and still they were slain.

The dagger/knife/sword is an important piece of evidence. With no one having ever seen an actual murder but with the great forensic experience of knife wounds it was child’s play to work out what it looked like. Today this kind of knife would be called a jambiya and it is found throughout the Arabic world, and importantly it has little function outside of killing humans – for that it has little competition. It would not have been an often seen knife at that time as it was, and still is, an incredibly difficult job to make a quality jambiya blade. It was most likely imported from India and would have been prohibitively expensive. Because it was such a rarity, it had no specific name at that time and was called sicae (sickle), as it resembled in shape the small Roman knife, even though it had a blade 35 to 50 centimeters long and a very sharp double-edged point. The knife used was so unusual it would have condemned anyone found in possession of such a weapon immediately. The most efficient way to kill with this knife is to push the blade in under the ribcage on the left hand side from the front or back and then push upwards to the heart or main arteries. This will give an instant kill with the minimum amount of spraying blood (as would slashing the throat) and protect the tip from breaking when hitting bone. Doing this successfully over a long period of time indicate a high level of skill that most people, even soldiers, would not have. This was a professional. To use such a weapon means the killer wanted it to be known that he had committed the murders.

After any stabbing, there is blood, even if it is only on the knife. A person wearing a white coat or cloak would have a problem to stay clean and hide a knife, and most people could not afford colored outfits. Deep red or purple material was very expensive and only the very rich, higher ranks in government and royalty would have been able to afford it and would have gotten away with wearing it. A thief in a red coat would immediately have been noticed. The murderer could stay with the corpse and not be questioned or searched and he could get close to the victims even when they were on alert. Only person of high social and moral standing would get that kind of respect and it means that his manner of dress matched his accent and his deportment. These things could not have been imitated in a society that was acutely aware of social status.

He had a good knowledge of the layout of Jerusalem and of the Temple (the Temple was a confusing place and the public weren’t allowed to wander about freely) if he operated freely in all areas. No foreigner or casual visitor from the country would have such knowledge and his operating during festivals must have meant that his victims were visitors to the city who had no reason to be suspicious of him. During festivals, security was substantially beefed up and to get around and past the guards that were placed all over without raising suspicion by looking out of place meant the murderer fitted in. The idea that a large number of men carrying huge big knifes could sneak into the city undetected during Passover is ludicrous. The visitors during the festivals would also be the easiest people to attack – tourists do make for softer targets.

There is a contradiction in the motives given by Josephus that the Sicarii attacked both their enemies and for money. Without ever being caught how could he know who was killed for money and who, because they were an enemy? The motives he gives would cover all possibilities and that means the victims came from across the religious, financial and political spectrums. The killer murdered at random. The possibility that Josephus inadvertently gave the first account in history of a serial killer at work has to be considered.

  • 1
    This is a lot of great and interesting info. You cite Josephus, but are you able to cite exactly where in Josephus' writings you get your information? This is sort of looking like you pasted the info from a website...
    – LCIII
    Aug 25, 2014 at 17:13
  • From a book I wrote. Aug 25, 2014 at 20:01
  • 1
    @gideonmarx If you wrote the book, you should be able to tell us about your references, am I right ?
    – user14508
    Aug 26, 2014 at 6:08
  • Wars: ib, iv, iii,9, 13, 14; c. iv, 5; c. v, 5; vii, viii,1, x, 1 are a few. Best read the whole book - everybody should read Josephus at least once in their lives. I would also recommend you read Graetz. Quite a bit in volume 2. Aug 26, 2014 at 8:59
  • 1
    @gideonmarx This answer would be significantly improved if it cited the sources mentioned in the comment.
    – Bit Chaser
    Feb 18, 2017 at 8:32

In Acts 21:38, the Egyptian is described as leading an army of sicarii ('the assassins')' out into the desert.

Richard Carrier, in his paper on Luke and Josephus explains that the Egyptian was first mentioned by Josephus in both Jewish Wars (75 CE) and Antiquities of the Jews (93 CE). Josephus mentions three specific rebels, and Acts of the Apostles mentions the same three - Judas the Galilean, Theudas and the Egyptian. As Theudas is not mentioned in Wars, the author of Acts was probably relying on Antiuities for his information.

Acts has the Egyptian leading the sicarii into the desert, but Carrier points out that the sicarii operated by assassination under the concealment of urban crowds, and would have been out of their element and vulnerable in the open. Moreover, Josephus does not link the Egyptian with them, though he does mention both in exactly the same place (cf. JW 2.258-61, JA 20.167-9), and in fact also mentions there other figures who led people into the desert, even though the Egyptian led them to the Mount of Olives.

The Egyptian was a rebel leader whom Josephus chose to mention, out of the many now-forgotten rebel leaders he could have mentioned. The author of Acts confused his role, by portraying him as a leader of the sicarii, a feared group of assassins.

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