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Who Were The Zealots Pt 1

by | Wed, Aug 3 2022

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Who were the Zealots? The Bible doesn’t give much of a definition of them, only that they existed and were noted as using violent resistance against Rome. We know that one of the disciples was a Zealot.

Matthew 10:2-4, ‘Now the names of the twelve apostles are these: The first, Simon, who is called Peter, and Andrew his brother; and James the son of Zebedee and John his brother; Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax collector; James the son of Alphaeus, and Thaddeus; Simon the Zealot, and Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed Him.’

From what I’ve read, the Zealots were a political movement of Jews within Judea whose sole purpose was to overthrow the Roman occupation. The name or title Zealot means to be someone burning with zeal; to be used of God as jealous of any rival and sternly vindicating His control; to defend and uphold a thing, vehemently contending for something. So the goal of the zealots was to vindicate God’s control over His people, their land, and their independence from Roman governance and paganism. So the Zealots were both religious and political patriots all rolled into one.

Josephus wrote that the Zealots were founded by Judas of Galilee and Zadok the Pharisee, he said the Zealots, “Agree in all things with the Pharisaic notions; but they have an inviolable attachment to liberty, and say that God is to be their only Ruler and Lord.” (Antiquities 18.1.6)

In many respects, the Zealots could be considered to be religious terrorists, using God as a justification to kill and destroy unbelievers in order to liberate themselves and their land. We could name plenty of modern day examples from various religious groups who do the same thing and have done for millennia.

So the Zealots basically held to the same theology as the Pharisees in that they were conservative and held the Scripture to be sacred and the Law sacrosanct. They believed in the after-life, the resurrection, a coming Mashiach as well as a future Messianic kingdom where all men would be redeemed and liberated. So all good on that front…however their methodology of reaching that point is more than a little questionable.

It’s also true to say that there were other patriotic groups as well who might have joined or been associated with the Zealots, groups such as the Sicarii who were more accurately a splinter group of Zealots, who were more patriot than religious. The point is, these groups were more than willing to use violence and take life, if it meant achieving their political and national goals.

The Sicarii probably leaned more toward being assassins, while the Zealots were more a political resistance movement who’d use violence to achieve their goals. The Sicarii simply targeted people for assassination, approaching their victim while hiding daggers in their clothing and murdering them quickly and silently before disappearing again. While they may have had patriotic beginnings, they were basically just robbers, they robbed and killed people for personal gain.

The Jewish Encyclopedia describes the Zealots this way: “Zealous defenders of the Law and of the national life of the Jewish people; name of a party of a party opposing with relentless rigor any attempt to bring Judea under the dominion of idolatrous Rome, and especially of the aggressive and fanatical war party from the time of Herod until the fall of Jerusalem and Masada.”

So in historical terms, the Zealots originated when Rome arrived and introduced the cult of Emperor Worship, and they continued until the capture of Masada. Rome had a policy that it tolerated and even embraced the religions of all the nations they conquered and occupied, as long as their religions were also accepted and one they insisted upon, was the acknowledgement that the Roman Emperor was a god and allegiance given to him. The Jews couldn’t stop Roman’s worshiping their own gods in Judea, but when they were expected to declare the Emperor a god and give obeisance to him…that was the straw that broke the camel’s back. The Zealots were born and they set to work opposing Rome at every turn. They were secret, cunning and tricky and they were very hard to deal with. Dealing with them mostly fell to Herod the Great, whom the Zealots also hated and opposed and he proved to be quite inept.

One of the greatest examples of the Zealots in action was when they took the fortress at Masada. This is a plateau mountain fortress in the Judean wilderness in Israel, it was the winter Palace of Herod the Great and it’s the most amazing archaeological site to see. It’s breathtaking. The mountain is 1,300 feet above the Dead Sea, it was heavily fortified with water and food stores that could last years. There’s a zig-zag path up to the top – the only way to the top – and it was easily defended. When the rebels – the Zealots, all 960 of them – fled Jerusalem in 66AD they made Masada their home. The Roman’s besieged the fortress for three years and only took the mountain after they built a huge ramp on the rear side of the mountain and burned down the gates.

The morning after this event, the thought they would capture all the rebels, but overnight, they all committed suicide. The men killed their wives and children, then each other with the last man standing killing himself. They piled all their weapons and food and stores in a big pile to show the Romans that they weren’t conquered because they were starved out, rather, they chose death over slavery and abuse at the hands of Rome.