Baker Academic

Monday, October 15, 2012

So you need a dissertation topic (Installment 2) – Was the ‘Anonymous Egyptian’ a Jesus copycat?

Well it seems that my first installment was such a good idea that it has already (very recently) been written. If you had already started writing a proposal upon the prompt of my post, count yourself lucky! Most people don’t realize that their PhD thesis has already been written until they are two years into it. Here is installment two:

Historical events always borrow interpretative categories from previously established interpretative frameworks. This is often seen in the actions of historical “copy cats”. It is not uncommon for a figure to choreograph symbolic demonstrations based on well-known precedents. Assuming that the symbolism employed by Jesus was memorable, do we find any copy cats in the history that immediately follows? Perhaps we find such evidence in the episode of the ‘Anonymous Egyptian’ [c. 56 CE] who (1) was a Jewish prophet, (2) was purported to have come from Egypt, (3) claimed to be able to perform a great ‘sign’ from heaven, (4) claimed to be able to destroy the Holy City, (5) seemed to be reenacting Exodus typology. Josephus writes:
At this time there came to Jerusalem from Egypt a man who said that he was a prophet and advised the masses of the common people to go out with him to the mountain called the Mount of Olives, which lies opposite the city . . . For he asserted that he wished to demonstrate from there that at his command Jerusalem’s walls would fall down, through which he promised to provide them an entrance into the city (Ant. 20.8.6 §169-170; cf. J.W. 2.13.5 §261-163; Acts 21:38).
Is it more likely or less likely that some of the followers of this prophet (several thousand of them by Josephus’ count) were also witnesses to Jesus’ preaching? If there was some overlap, could it be that this episode provides further (non-Christian) evidence of Jesus’ impact?

Go ahead, find a recently written, unpublished dissertation on this topic! I dare double-dog dare you.



  1. Not unpublished dissertations, but close:

    A few authors (Crossan, Kaylor, Horsley) suggest that label of 'the Egyptian' may suggest a Moses or Joshua motif (and hence an exodus reenactment).

    Another (Dr Ian Adamson OBE, in early 2011) mused on whether the references to 'the Egyptian' by Josephus were garbled references to Jesus (and the two mentions of Jesus elsewhere were interpolations).

  2. Thanks Mark, I am on record (with those you mention above and otehrs) as one who thinks that the Exodus typology in the Theudas and Egyptian episodes is too thick to ignore. Of course, this could just demonstrate that the concept of "new Exodus" was in the air rather than by way of Jesus' direct impact.

    I remember learning of the Egyptian and Theudas in the classroom of Craig Evans. I suggested to him that the Egyptian might be Josephus' only reference to Jesus (for whom Josephus had no other information). Evans, rightly, shot down this idea. I still think that the best explanation of the famous Jesus passage in Ant. 18 is of Christian interpolation rather than wholesale invention.

  3. Solomon Zeitlin explored the label "Galileans" as applied to zealots ostensibly from the Galilee whether they were ethnic Galileans or not. Perhaps "the Egyptian" was another labeling attempt? Perhaps "the Egyptian" simply *must have been* an "Egyptian"? Recall the large number of Jews, and Zealots among them, in northern Egypt and Cyrene.

    I await exploration of the Egyptian!

    Rick Carpenter
    Huntsville, East Texas

  4. This "copy cat" may be evidence of the impact that Jesus had. There has always been copy cats in society. The only ones that I have heard of are those associated with crimes and how preceding murderers are influenced by others in the past. Perhaps the tendency to be a copy cat is spurred on by the need to feel a part of that person one is trying to copy. This could explain how there were copy cats that seem to have tried similar things that Jesus had done.


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