New Testament scholar Tom Wright in the excerpts below from his book Jesus and the Victory of God (SPCK, 1996), looks at some passages from the Jewish historian Josephus, who wrote at the time the gospels were being written, that give us crucial insights into what Jesus actually meant when he proclaimed “Repent!” (Mark 1:15; Matthew 4:17.)
Josephus is describing an incident which took place in Galilee in around AD 66—that is, roughly when some of the synoptic traditions may have been achieving a settled shape. Josephus has gone to Galilee to sort out the turbulent factionalism there. A brigand chief called Jesus (there are twenty-one people by that name in the index to Josephus’ works; originality in naming children was evidently not prized highly among first-century Jews) makes a plot against Josephus’ life. Josephus manages to foil it. Then, he tells us, he called Jesus aside and told him
that I was not ignorant of the plot which he had contrived against me …; I would, nevertheless, condone his actions if he would show repentance and prove his loyalty to me. All this he promised …
‘If he would show repentance and prove his loyalty to me.’ The translation is accurate enough, but could just as well have been rendered ‘if he would repent and believe in me’. Josephus is requiring of this Jesus that he give up his brigandage, and trust him (Josephus) for a better way forward. ‘Repentance’, in this sense of abandoning revolutionary inclinations, is found elsewhere in the same narrative; so, for that matter, is ‘belief’, in the sense of trust in and loyalty to a leader. I find it somewhat remarkable that, in all the literature I have read about Jesus of Nazareth, only one writer even mentions the incident involving Josephus and the brigand Jesus, and even he makes no comment about the meaning of ‘repentance’ and ‘belief’ in the light of it. It is, I suggest, of considerable significance. This is what those words meant in Galilee in the 60s; by what logic do we insist that they meant something rather different, something perhaps more ‘personal’, ‘inward’ or ‘religious’, in Galilee in the 20s and 30s? Why should we use that ‘religious’ sense as the criterion for assessing whether Jesus of Nazareth could have said such a thing? He may well have meant more than Josephus; that must be seen by further historical investigation. He is highly unlikely to have meant less.
The most plausible historical reconstruction of Jesus’ call to repent brings together, I suggest, the two emphases we have now sketched (returning to YHWH so that the exile may come to an end; renunciation of nationalist violence). It was an eschatological call, not the summons of a moralistic reformer. And it was a political call, summoning Israel as a nation to abandon one set of agendas and embrace another. [Italics mine] ‘Repentance’ in Jesus’ first-century context is not to be conceived simply as one feature within the timeless landscape of a non-historical religion. That is the mistake of many Christian writers, who, ignoring the perfectly clear place of that sort of repentance within day-to-day Jewish life and teaching, have imagined that Jesus invented the idea and so became unpopular. But it would be equally wrong to imagine that Jesus—still understood as a preacher of timeless truths—did not make repentance thematic, because, as a preacher of ‘timeless truths’, he had no need to. Rather, precisely as a would-be prophet, and a prophet of the eschaton at that, he summoned Israel to a once-for-all national repentance, such as would be necessary for the exile to end at last. This was not simply the ‘repentance’ that any human being, any Jew, might use if, aware of sin, they decided to say sorry and make amends. It is the single great repentance which would characterize the true people of YHWH at the moment when their god became king. What is more, this repentance seems to have little to do with the official structures of the Jewish system. True repentance, it seems, consisted rather in adherence and allegiance to Jesus himself. (pp. 250-251)
In a nutshell Wright says,
I suggest, therefore, that Jesus was heard to be saying more or less exactly what Josephus would have been heard to be saying: give up your way of being Israel, your following of particular national and political aims and goals, and trust me for mine instead. And he was heard to be investing that call for repentance with a significance way beyond anything Josephus intended, a significance which had Deuteronomy, Jeremiah and other classic texts resonating in the background: this is the repentance which will constitute you as the returned-from-exile people, the renewed and reconstituted Israel. (p. 254)