ZEALOTS . The Zealots were Jewish revolutionaries in first-century Israel whose religious zeal led them to fight to the death against Roman domination and to attack or kill other Jews who collaborated with the Romans. Scholars disagree as to whether the name Zealots designated all revolutionary groups of the first century or only one of the factions active during the Roman-Jewish War of 66–70 ce. Josephus Flavius (37–c. 100 ce.), the Jewish general who surrendered to the Romans and whose official Roman history of the war furnishes the major source, is ambiguous in his use of terminology. References in the New Testament, the Pseudepigrapha, and the rabbinic literature add to the confusion.
In 6 ce, Judah (Yehudah) the Galilean showed zeal for God's law and land when he led a revolt against the Roman census in Judaea. He and his followers fought to cleanse the land by taking vengeance against Jews who cooperated with the Romans. Judah considered such cooperation to be idolatrous recognition of a lord (Caesar) other than God. By such vengeance, he and his followers sought to appease God, who would thereby honor their cause against the Romans. The revolt failed, but Judah had originated the so-called Fourth Philosophy ("No Lord but God") based on the first commandment. Judah's descendents emerged again after all of Judaea became a Roman province in 44 ce. Their subsequent revolutionary actions against the corrupt and incompetent Roman authorities contributed to the outbreak of war in 66 ce. Josephus usually refers to Judah's group as Sicarii, after the sikkah ("dagger") used in assassinations.
Although Josephus refers to Judah's faction as a Jewish sect, it is not clear that his group is to be identified with a revolutionary faction called the Zealots or indeed that there was such an organized group early in the first century. Many Jews venerated "zealous action" as a model of piety, using the biblical figure Phineas as a prototype (Num 25:1–15). Such persons endured persecution for the Law or sought to destroy those who violated the Law as a means to cleanse the land of defilement and thereby turn back God's wrath. Individuals, such as Simon the "zealot" (a disciple of Jesus: Luke 6:15; Acts 1:13), were zealous for God over a variety of legal issues. Sometimes, as was the case with the Maccabean revolt in 167–142 bce, zeal was a dominant motivation for revolution. However, not all zealots were revolutionaries, and not all revolutionaries were motivated by zeal. It is not until his account of the war period that Josephus refers to one of the wartime revolutionary groups formally as "the Zealots."
Amid the growing unrest in the decades leading up to the war, there was broad resistance to Roman occupation, including protests against provocative actions by the procurator Pilate (ruled 26–36 ce), a threatened strike against raising crops for the Romans when the emperor Gaius Caligula sought to put a statue of Zeus in the Temple (41 ce), riots at feast time in Jerusalem in reaction to offenses by Roman soldiers, official delegations to Rome protesting inept procurators, prophetic actions and oracular pronouncements by apocalyptic figures, banditry, kidnappings, and assassinations. Resistance to Roman rule was widespread and cut across all sectors of society. The war broke out in 66 ce when the procurator Florus tried to seize money from the Temple treasury, after which the populace drove Florus out of Jerusalem and successfully held off Cestius Gallus, the Legate of Syria, when he arrived to restore Roman order. The Jewish declaration of war came when the lower priests ceased the sacrifices to God on behalf of the emperor. Subsequently, the traditional high priests assumed control of the wartime government and prepared for the Romans to return.
For the war period, Josephus identifies (in addition to the wartime government) five revolutionary groups, each with its own social and geographic origins, motivations, methods, and goals (Jewish War 7:262–267). Not all the groups embraced a "zealous" mentality, and they were often in conflict with each other except when confronted with the common Roman enemy. Josephus mentions the Zealots last in order.
- The Sicarii fought for "No Lord but God" under the messianic leadership of Judah the Galilean's descendants. When other revolutionary groups forced them out of Jerusalem in 66 ce, they remained during the rest of the war on the fortress Masada, where in 74 ce they chose suicide rather than capture by the Romans.
- John of Giscala (Yoḥanan ben Levi), leader of a Galilean contingent, gained the confidence of the wartime government, which he then betrayed to the Zealots.
- Simeon bar Giora, from Gerasa in the Decapolis, raised an army of freed slaves and peasants, then overran Idumea. In 69 ce, he was joined by some nobles and seized most of Jerusalem. A messianic strongman, Simeon led the coalition of revolutionary groups in the defense of Jerusalem in 70 ce.
- The Idumeans, a local militia, helped the Zealots to overthrow the provisional government.
- The Zealots, primarily priests from Jerusalem and the Judaean peasantry, declared war by stopping the official sacrifices for Caesar. Later, under democratic leadership, they occupied the Temple, chose a high priest by lot, and, in 68 ce, overthrew the wartime government.
The war lasted four years. From 66 to 68 ce, the Roman general Vespasian overran the countryside of Galilee and Judaea, thereby isolating Jerusalem. When he became emperor in 69 ce, his son Titus assumed the siege of Jerusalem, eventually destroying the city in 70 ce, burning the Temple, executing Jewish warriors, and consigning many families to slavery after a triumphal procession in Rome. Flavius Sylva led Roman troops to overcome Jewish holdouts in a few fortresses, including Masada, by 74 ce.
The causes of the war were many and complex: incompetent and corrupt Roman governors, deteriorating Roman policies toward Jews, a determined Jewish opposition to foreign domination, economic exploitation of peasants (the war was also a peasant revolt against the Jewish elites), widespread banditry, apocalyptic expectations, the conviction that God would honor the Jewish cause, and a zealous commitment to cleanse the land of idolatry.
Major scholarly controversies, arising primarily from the biased and often unreliable accounts of Josephus (in The Jewish War, as well as his Jewish Antiquities and The Life ), have centered on the ancient usage of the term "Zealot," the extent of religious zeal among the revolutionaries and the populace, the nature and makeup of each revolutionary group, whether the wartime government was moderate or revolutionary, and the relative importance of social, economic, political, and religious factors as causes of the war.
Borg, Marcus. "The Currency of the Term 'Zealot.'" Journal of Theological Studies, n. s. 22 (October 1973): 504–512. Concludes that the term did not come into use as a title until the time of the war.
Goodman, Martin. The Ruling Class of Judea: The Origins of the Jewish Revolt against Rome, A. D. 66–70. Cambridge, 1987. Assesses the role the Jewish elite class, their successes and failures, and their involvement in the war effort.
Hengel, Martin. The Zealots: Investigations into the Jewish Freedom Movement in the Period from Herod I until 70 A. D. Translated by D. Smith. Leiden, 1976. The most thorough depiction, gleaned from many sources, of the mentality of "zeal." Argues that the Zealots were a unified and organized prewar sectarian minority that splintered at the time of the war.
Horsley, Richard, and John Hanson. Bandits, Prophets, and Messiahs: Popular Movements in the Time of Jesus. Minneapolis, Minn., 1985. Details the nature of the diverse expressions of resistance against Roman rule in first century Israel.
Rhoads, David M. Israel in Revolution, 6–74 C. E.: A Political History Based on the Writings of Josephus. Philadelphia, 1976. Thorough treatment of the positions that the revolutionary movement was disparate and that support for the war was widespread.
Rhoads, David M. "Zealots." In The Anchor Bible Dictionary, Vol. VI, pp. 1043–1054. New York, 1992. Identifies the variety of scholarly positions on diverse issues. Extensive bibliography appended.
Smith, Morton. "Zealots and Sicarii: Their Origins and Relation." Harvard Theological Review 64 (January 1971): 1–19. Seminal article arguing for a disparate and unorganized revolutionary movement.
Stern, Menachem. "Zealots." In Encyclopaedia Judaica Yearbook. Jerusalem, 1973. A balanced treatment claiming that the Sicarii had prewar connections with those who came to be called Zealots and that it is appropriate to speak about a Zealot movement and yet appreciate the uniqueness of each revolutionary group.
David M. Rhoads (1987 and 2005)
A Jewish nationalist faction (ζηλωταί) of a.d. 6–73, founded "in the name of Yahweh" to enforce strict observance of the Law and, like the Maccabees (1 Mc 2.50), to labor and, if necessary, to die for independence from Roman domination. The zealots contended that Yahweh was the sole ruler in Israel, that the descendants of Abraham had never been slaves to any man (Jn 8.33) and ought never to be (Dt 17.15), and consequently, that rebellion was the Jew's religious duty. Realizing that open insurrection would fail (Acts 5.37), these extremists worked in secret to foster a spirit of bitterness against the Roman yoke. Rebellion became more and more the creed of the masses. Emboldened by success, they suppressed every moderating influence. By fanatical violence and rabid propaganda they caused the fatal insurrection against Rome and the catastrophe of 66 to 70. Soon after the destruction of the Holy City, the zealots disappeared from history. St. simon the Apostle had once, apparently, belonged to the group (Mt 10.4; Mk 3.18; Lk 6.15; Acts1.13), although the designation may refer only to his religious zeal for the Law (cf. Acts 21.20; Gal 1.14).
Bibliography: w. r. farmer, Maccabees, Zealots and Josephus (New York 1956); g. a. buttrick, ed., The Interpreters' Dictionary of the Bible (Nashville 1962) 4:936–38. Encyclopedic Dictionary of the Bible, tr. and adap. by l. hartman (New York 1963) 2627–28.
[j. m. dougherty]
zeal·ot / ˈzelət/ • n. a person who is fanatical and uncompromising in pursuit of their religious, political, or other ideals. ∎ (Zeal·ot) hist. a member of an ancient Jewish sect aiming at a world Jewish theocracy and resisting the Romans until ad 70. DERIVATIVES: zeal·ot·ry / -ətrē/ n.
The extended sense of zealot as a person who is fanatical and uncompromising in pursuit of their religious, political, or other ideals is recorded from the mid 17th century.