Why Judas the Galilean belongs in my nativity scene

Why, exactly, did Mary and Joseph set out on such a dangerous journey in such a dangerous time. This is one aspect of the story that has never made much historic sense. The story seems to be saying that the Romans decided to conduct a census in a way that makes no practical sense – that they required that the people be registered, not in the places where they lived, but rather in the places where their ancestors came from. That, when you think about it, is a very silly way to hold a census. The whole point of taking a census, if you’re a Roman, is to find out where people live so that you can find them and tax them later. That is why the Romans always took censuses in the way that they are still taken to this very day - making sure that people were registered where they actually lived. There is no evidence that they ever took a census in a way that Luke seems to be describing.

But what if Luke isn't saying that the people all traveled to their ancestral homes because the Romans made them do it? What if they maybe even did it to spite the Romans? That might make more sense. Luke tells us that Caesar Augustus ordered that the people be counted, yes, but he doesn't say that Caesar ordered them to return to their ancestral homes – just that the people did that. What if it was someone else who told them to do that? And what if that person was Judas the Galilean?

Judas was a rebel against Rome (we know that from historical records) and Judas was particularly upset about the census that the Romans were holding and the heavy new taxes that came with it. But we also know that Judas was not the kind of rebel who actually employed violence or terror to achieve his goals. There are no accounts of Judas attacking anyone but there are plenty of accounts of Judas and his followers being attacked by the Romans. The evidence seems to indicate that his revolt was essentially nonviolent – a campaign similar to Ghandi's campaign against British rule in India or like Martin Luther King Jr's Civil Rights movement in the United States.

The histories also tell us what Judas’ goals were. He set out to oppose slavery and to allow the people "to regain prosperity and retain their own property." That is what the historian, Josephus, says in his book, the Antiquities of the Jews (18:4-8) But how could he accomplish such lofty goals without resorting to violence? One way may have been suggested to him in the pages of the Old Testament.
There was an ancient law in Israel that required that, every 50 years, a special festival should be called: the Festival of Jubilee. It was a festival to celebrate God’s gift of land to all the families of Israel. And the first thing that was supposed to happen during the Jubilee was that every family was to return to their ancestral home. And there they were to claim the land that God had said was rightfully theirs. And during the festival the land was to be returned to that family.

If we cannot find any basis in Roman law or practice for all the people of Galilee and Judea being required to return to their ancestral homes, perhaps we had better look to the Old Testament to find that basis. There is only one Old Testament law that required all of the people to return to their ancestral homes: the Jubilee law. So maybe the Romans ordered up a census but somebody else must have called for a Jubilee - called on all the people to travel all over the place and did it for the express purpose of messing with the Roman census.

I think that the person who called for that Jubilee was none other than Judas the Galilean. It was one of the few things that he could do, without resorting to violence, that would actually cause a great deal of trouble to the Romans and the process of their hated census. He must have set the entire countryside into chaos as the Romans prepared to count the people.

If that is the case, then Judas the Galilean is an essential part of the Christmas story. He set the whole thing in motion. Yes, Caesar Augustus may have ordered a census of all the people but Judas was the one who got the whole countryside in motion, who convinced Mary and Joseph to make that long and difficult journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem. And they weren't just doing it to be good citizens of the Roman Empire like we often assume. They were doing it because they really believed that it was God's will for them to return to Bethlehem and claim the land there that had once belonged to Joseph's family.

So maybe we ought to make some room in our nativity scenes for Judas – for someone who sets out to make the world to conform more closely to the will of God but who does it without violence – who inspires people to claim what God intends for them to possess for themselves: their freedom and the means to be the people that God always intended for them to be. And, after all, isn’t that what Christmas is about too – at least when we get rid of all the things that our modern world has tried to make Christmas about instead?

For more information on the place of Judas the Galilean in the Christmas story, read Caesar's Census, God's Jubilee.

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