My own contribution here won’t really be my own, as I’m simply resurrecting a long-forgotten contribution that I happened to chance across. It appears on p. 18 of R’ Hirshenson’s book ‘Motza’ei Mayim’, which is essentially a commentary on the Rabbah Bar Bar Chanah stories of Bava Batra 63ff, but which includes much tangential writing, including an expanded exposition of the political positions of Rbb”C, Resh Lakish, R’Yochanan, and R’ Yehuda, all of whom engage each other in political dialogue on the pages of the Talmud. Here is what he writes about Resh Lakish (the original will be appended to the end of this post). Although it doesn’t address the continuation of the story, there’s enough here to completely turn the aggadah and its meaning on its head. Also, from my own observation, it’s impossible to understand this Gemara without relating to the nearly-identical Rabban Gamliel/Rabbi Eliezer story in Bava Metzia 59b:
The opinion of my close friend, the wise, honorable, noble-spirited, humble Rabbi Chaim Brill, may his light continue to shine, from St. Petersburg, which appears is his book ‘The Story of Resh Lakish’, is not far-fetched. The aggadah records that Resh Lakish was a bandit who left his banditry because R’ Yochanan promised his sister. However, Resh Lakish was not an everyday bandit, rather, there were nationalist groups which formed military bands (?) to assist Rome in its war against the (Sassanid – AR) Persians with the promise that Rome would rebuild the Beit Hamikdash for Israel. Because of this, Resh Lakish says to R’ Yochanan, “They called me Rabbi there, and they call me Rabbi here”, because even those who the Rabbis called ‘bandits’ genuinely considered Resh Lakish to be their ‘Rabbi’ because they intended their actions for the betterment of all Israel. However, they displeased the Rabbis because they wasted to ‘rise like a wall’, or because the Rabbis feared that the magi would avenge Jewish alliance with
by pouring their wrath upon the Jews of Babylonia, Persia, and Medea. Thus, the Rabbis called them ‘bandits’. Rome
Even though we are lacking many details, leaving this as no more than a hypothesis, it seems that there’s much truth to it. What the Talmud reports, “Anyone with whom Resh Lakish would chatter on the street was trusted in business deals even without witnesses”, this, perforce, was even when he ‘was called Rabbi over there’, because the masses were with him and accepted his opinion, and Rabbinic opposition to them was regarded as contemporary opposition by extreme Charedim to Zionism.
In this debate, R’ Yochanan’s accusation of Resh Lakish as a ‘bandit’ is much less personal and much more political, and the value of the machloket between them takes on a much different character, and the inability of R’ Yochanan to find another suitable chavruta far more central to the story.