"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.