There is a scene in Acts in which the disciples began healing people en masse and the Sadducees imprison the disciples. The disciples miraculously escape and begin preaching again. The elders of Israel are called together, and one individual argues that they should not kill these disciples. His argument is that the Romans crush false rebellions, and so if this one was from God, the Romans will crush it. In essence, he is saying to let the Romans do their work for them. As an example, he cites two rabble rousers who the Romans have already crushed:
Act 5:35 And he said to them: “Men of Israel, take heed to yourselves what you intend to do regarding these men.
Act 5:36 For some time ago Theudas rose up, claiming to be somebody. A number of men, about four hundred, joined him. He was slain, and all who obeyed him were scattered and came to nothing.
Act 5:37 After this man, Judas of Galilee rose up in the days of the census, and drew away many people after him. He also perished, and all who obeyed him were dispersed.
Act 5:38 And now I say to you, keep away from these men and let them alone; for if this plan or this work is of men, it will come to nothing;
Theudas is an interesting person. Josephus names another individual named Theudas who likewise led a Jewish rebellion and was slaughtered in Antiquities of the Jews::
1. NOW it came to pass, while Fadus was procurator of Judea, that a certain magician, whose name was Theudas, persuaded a great part of the people to take their effects with them, and follow him to the river Jordan; for he told them he was a prophet, and that he would, by his own command, divide the river, and afford them an easy passage over it; and many were deluded by his words. However, Fadus did not permit them to make any advantage of his wild attempt, but sent a troop of horsemen out against them; who, falling upon them unexpectedly, slew many of them, and took many of them alive. They also took Theudas alive, and cut off his head, and carried it to Jerusalem. This was what befell the Jews in the time of Cuspius Fadus’s government.
Josephus puts this individual in the time of Fadus 44-46 AD. Acts puts the dialogue about Theudas well before Paul’s conversion circa 30-32 AD. Some have suggested Josephus erred. Some have suggested two individuals named Theudas. Some have suggested alternative naming of Theudas (Simon or Matthias). Nonetheless, Theudas drew about four hundred followers and was slain by the Romans.
Josephus also tells us about Judas of Galilee in his Antiquities of the Jews:
Yet was there one Judas, a Gaulonite, of a city whose name was Gamala, who, taking with him Sadduc, a Pharisee, became zealous to draw them to a revolt, who both said that this taxation was no better than an introduction to slavery, and exhorted the nation to assert their liberty; as if they could procure them happiness and security for what they possessed, and an assured enjoyment of a still greater good, which was that of the honor and glory they would thereby acquire for magnanimity. They also said that God would not otherwise be assisting to them, than upon their joining with one another in such councils as might be successful, and for their own advantage; and this especially, if they would set about great exploits, and not grow weary in executing the same; so men received what they said with pleasure, and this bold attempt proceeded to a great height. All sorts of misfortunes also sprang from these men, and the nation was infected with this doctrine to an incredible degree; one violent war came upon us after another, and we lost our friends which used to alleviate our pains;
Judas was engaged in a tax revolt. Notice that Jesus is asked about taxes during his ministry (Mat_22:17). People were testing to see if Jesus was going to start a tax revolt just as Judas before him.
One illusive figure mentioned by reference in Acts, is an unnamed Egyptian. Paul is arrested in Jerusalem after rioters try to kill him. The commander of the garrison asks Paul:
Act 21:38 Are you not the Egyptian who some time ago stirred up a rebellion and led the four thousand assassins out into the wilderness?”
Josephus tells us about this Egyptian in his Antiquities of the Jews:
Moreover, there came out of Egypt about this time to Jerusalem one that said he was a prophet, and advised the multitude of the common people to go along with him to the Mount of Olives, as it was called, which lay over against the city, and at the distance of five furlongs. He said further, that he would show them from hence how, at his command, the walls of Jerusalem would fall down; and he promised them that he would procure them an entrance into the city through those walls, when they were fallen down. Now when Felix was informed of these things, he ordered his soldiers to take their weapons, and came against them with a great number of horsemen and footmen from Jerusalem, and attacked the Egyptian and the people that were with him. He also slew four hundred of them, and took two hundred alive. But the Egyptian himself escaped out of the fight, but did not appear any more.
And again in War of the Jews:
5. But there was an Egyptian false prophet that did the Jews more mischief than the former; for he was a cheat, and pretended to be a prophet also, and got together thirty thousand men that were deluded by him; these he led round about from the wilderness to the mount which was called the Mount of Olives, and was ready to break into Jerusalem by force from that place; and if he could but once conquer the Roman garrison and the people, he intended to domineer over them by the assistance of those guards of his that were to break into the city with him. But Felix prevented his attempt, and met him with his Roman soldiers, while all the people assisted him in his attack upon them, insomuch that when it came to a battle, the Egyptian ran away, with a few others, while the greatest part of those that were with him were either destroyed or taken alive; but the rest of the multitude were dispersed every one to their own homes, and there concealed themselves.
Four thousand (cited in Acts) seems more accurate than 30 thousand. Nevertheless, the Egyptian was crushed and Paul was mistaken for him.
Another popular rabble rouser, one not mentioned by Josephus, was Simon Magus:
Act 8:9 But there was a certain man, called Simon, which beforetime in the same city used sorcery, and bewitched the people of Samaria, giving out that himself was some great one:
Simon Magus did not seem to have been crushed by the Romans, or even mentioned in their histories. This was a local leader, one with a tenuous conversion to Christianity. In fact, of all the ramble rousers, Simon Magus developed the most mythology surrounding him. He was cited as the father of all heresies and sometimes used as a symbol of Paul’s ministry (being contrasted to Peter’s).
A few other rabble rousers around the time of Jesus but not mentioned in the Bible include: Menahem ben Judah, Simon of Peraea, and Athronges. Needless to say, the Romans did not have a good time governing the Jews.