There was one Judas, a Galilean, of a city whose name was Gamala, … (Antiquities 18.4)
Judas the Galilean was the author of the fourth branch of Jewish philosophy. These men agree in all other things with the Pharisaic notions; but they have an inviolable attachment to liberty, and say that God is to be their only Ruler and Lord. They also do not value dying any kinds of death, nor indeed do they heed the deaths of their relations and friends, nor can any such fear make them call any man lord. (Antiquities 18.23)
Josephus calls it a fourth branch that arose later than the sects of Sadducees, Essenes, and Pharisees. Some have noted that the appearance of self-identified “Zealots” occurs during the first Jewish revolt, indicating that the Zealots may have formed their identity in the 60s AD in the events leading up to the revolt, though Josephus cites prior rebels as founders of their movement.
The author of Acts mentions this Galilean:
Some time ago, Theudas appeared, claiming to be somebody, and about four hundred men rallied to him. He was killed, all his followers were dispersed, and it all came to nothing. After him, Judas the Galilean appeared in the days of the census and led a band of people in revolt. He too was killed, and all his followers were scattered. (Acts 5:36-37)
The references in Josephus and Acts do not prove the connection, but they certainly raise the question whether the consistent reference to “Judas the Galilean” may have been taken by others to denote his cause as “Galilean,” even if only by misunderstanding. The question then is whether the term Galilean ever functioned as another name for Zealot, even if it does not so function in Josephus or the New Testament.
The same writer also records the ancient heresies which arose among the Jews, in the following words: “There were, moreover, various opinions in the circumcision, among the children of Israel. The following were those that were opposed to the tribe of Judah and the Christ: Essenes, Galileans, Hemerobaptists, Masbothæans, Samaritans, Sadducees, Pharisees.” (E.H. 4.22.6)
Historically speaking, there are two groups that could be called Galileans apart from the primary meaning of people from Galilee. Julian attempts to mandate that the Christians be called Galileans, by which he means to underline the provincial character of the religion. That this is the reference here is counter-indicated by the apparent novelty of Julian, by the fact that Hegesippus had just previously given an account of Christian heretics, and by the fact that these are a heretical sect in the first place (while Christians were the “tribe … of Christ” itself). The novelty is suggested by Gregory Nazianzen, First Invective Against Julian 76 (115), with the words “he named the Christians Galileans and passed laws that they be so called.”
Zealots are the other group, who trace their lineage to Judas the Galilean and who first met Vespasian in battle in the region of Galilee. When we consider that Hegesippus had already mentioned the three other philosophies according to Josephus (Essenes, Sadducees, Pharisees), it is not hard at all to see that the fourth (Zealots) has been mentioned under the name of Galileans by the author quoted by Eusebius.
Ben C. Smith places Epictetus among the dubious “testimonia” to Christians:
the Stoic philosopher Epictetus, early century II, Dissertations 4.7.5-6 (Greek text from Daniel J. Theron, Evidence of Tradition, page 18; English translation slightly formatted from the same):
Αν τις… ουτως δε και ουτος τας μεν υλας παρ ουδεν η πεποιημενας, την παιδιαν δε την περι αυτας και αναστροφην ασπαζηται· ποιος ετι τουτω τυραννος φοβερος η ποιοι δορυφυροι η ποιαι μαχαιραι αυτων;
If a man… has reckoned the material things of life as nothing, but is glad to play with them and handle them, what kind of tyrant, or guards, or swords in the hands of guards can any more instill fear in the breast of such a man?
Ειτα υπο μανιας μεν δυναται τις ουτως διατεθηναι προς ταυτα και υπο εθους οι Γαλιλαιοι, υπο λογου δε και αποδειξεως ουδεις δυναται μαθειν, οτι ο θεος παντα πεποιηκεν τα εν τω κοσμω και αυτον τον κοσμον ολον μεν ακωλυτον και αυτοτελη, τα εν μερει δ αυτου προς χρειαν των ολων;
Therefore, if madness can produce this attitude of mind toward the things which have just been mentioned, and also habit, as with the Galileans, cannot reason and demonstration teach a man that God has made all things in the universe, and the universe itself, to be free from hindrance and to contain its end in itself, and the parts of it to serve the needs of the whole?
Smith asks, “were the Christians known as Galileans as early as Epictetus? Or was Epictetus referring to different Galileans, perhaps of the sort who had instigated revolts against Rome?”
That we can be sure of the latter comes from the fact, often adduced from statements by Origen and other Christian writers about the relative peace that the church enjoyed in the first two centuries, that Epictetus assumes that his audience is familiar with the Galileans who are known for spiting death. The Christians had received only sporadic assaults by Nero and by Domitian (although some dispute even this) at this time and could not be assumed to be famous for their acts of martyrdom before the third century AD. Nor could a reference to the Christians as Galileans be commonly understood, as elsewhere in the second century references from and to Christians (the name always used otherwise by outsiders), the term appears primarily in connection to the Gospels, books that we may suppose were not widely read in early second century pagan circles.
Both difficulties are resolved when we identify these Galileans as the Zealots of the first Jewish revolt. That they did not respect the threat of death is both inherently evident from their attempt to oust Rome and explicitly stated by Josephus to be their chief distinguishing characteristic (“do not value dying any kinds of death, nor indeed do they heed the deaths of their relations and friends, nor can any such fear make them call any man lord” of Ant. 18.23). That they were famous is clear from the events that led to the establishment of the Flavian dynasty starting from Vespasian and to the destruction of Jerusalem, the sack of which brought great wealth to Rome, which was celebrated there triumphantly.
It’s not known whether the attribution of the name of “Galileans” to the Zealots derives from a sloppy reading of the Antiquities or if it were another name used in the period of the late first century and second century that Josephus may have suppressed. There is nothing, however, to substantiate the former opinion, as we cannot prove any kind of dependence between Hegesippus and Epictetus nor the literary dependence of them both on Josephus. Because of the two incidental references found in both a Christian and a pagan writer, we can suppose that Zealots were sometimes called instead by the name “Galileans” in the second century.