The Zealots

Information concerning the thoughts and activities of the Zealots comes primarily from the Jewish historian, Josephus Flavius. As a Jew living in the center of the Roman Empire, Josephus tended to record the events of the Jewish Revolt against Rome in such a way that the Jewish people as a nation would not be blamed for the insurrection 66-73 A.D. Instead, the Jewish historian places responsibility for the insurrection primarily on the shoulders of the Zealots. It was the seeds of sedition sown by these brigands which deluded the Jewish nation into following the Zealots into war against Rome. Josephus attitude towards the Zealots is reflected in his frequent reference to them by the terms lestai (brigand) and sicarii (daggermen) rather than the less pejorative terms zelotes.

Josephus relates that the name “zealot” was self-ascribed by this Jewish sect, “for Zealots they called themselves, as if they were devoted to good works, not zealous for all that was vile, vile beyond belief” (Wars IV.161). Josephus’ record implies that those who called themselves by this name understood their political resistance in religious terms. To their mind, only the Lord should rule the Jewish nation. In fact, Josephus records that the inception of the Zealot movement coincided with the termination of Jewish rule in Judea. In 6 A/D/ Rome deposed Archeleus, Herod the Great’s son, and placed Judea under the governship of Quirinius of Syria. Direct control of the population was under the Roman procurators, seated in the provisional capital of Caesarea. One of Quirinius’ first acts (Passover 6 A.D.) was to demand a census of Judea for the purpose of taxing the new acquisition. A Galilean by the name of Simon, with the help of a Pharisee, Zadok, called the people to rebel. Josephus notes that Simon “incited his countrymen to revolt, upbraiding them as cowards for consenting to pay tribute to the Romans and tolerating mortal masters, after having God for their lord. This man was a sophist who founded a sect of his own, having nothing in common with the others (i.e. Sadducees, Pharisees, Essenes): (War II.118).

Josephus does not recount Simon’s outcome, but the rebellion should be understood to be the seeds of the later insurrection which erupted in 66 A.D. Interestingly, the New Testament gives a hint to Simon’s demise. In a statement attributed to the famous Jewish Rabbi, Gamliel, it records “After him Judas the Galilean arose in the days of the census and drew away some of the people after him; he also perished and all who followed him were scattered” (Acts 5.37).

Other references to “zealots” occur in the New Testament leading some New Testament scholars to the opinion that Jesus himself shared the views of the zealots. Indeed, even Simon, one of Jesus’ 12 apostles is called a “zealot” (Lk. 6.15; Acts 1.13; Mark 3.18: kanna’im: Heb. Zealots). Jesus is crucified by the Romans primarily on political charges of claiming to be a king (Messiah) and encouraging others not to pay tribute to Caesar (Lk. 23.2). He is hung on a cross between to lestai (Mk. 15.27; Mt. 27.38), the official Greek designation for the Zealots. Do these facts reflect Jesus’ attitude towards the Zealots or political resistance in his day?

A full examination of the teachings and actions of Jesus reveals that there are many differences between him and the views of the Zealots. He commanded his followers to love their enemies (Mt. 6.44) and to pay their tributes to Caesar (Lk. 20.20-26). The reference to Simon being a zealot should be qualified somewhat by the fact that Paul calls himself “zealot” (Acts 22.3) with no political implication. It is possible that the reference to Simon refers to his zeal for the Lord. In any event, it appears clear that Jesus had no intentions of establishing an earthly kingdom (Acts 1.3,6) or viewed his movements in political terms.

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