Zealotry in Jewish history

Zealots were a group of political adversaries to Roman rule in Judaea, who were determined to protect their religion from the imposition of Roman rituals and to end Gentile rule over the Jewish people. Britannica Online defines "zealot" as a "member of a Jewish sect noted for its uncompromising opposition to pagan Rome and the polytheism it professed";[1] and identifies zealots as revolutionaries against the Romans.[2]The word comes from zealous.


  • Josephus and the origins of the "Zealots" 1
  • Zealot Revolts in Roman Judea 2
  • Timeline 3
  • Sicarii 4
  • See also 5
  • References 6

Josephus and the origins of the "Zealots"

Brandon says "[s]ince Josephus is almost our sole informant of these events and their consequences, it is necessary to examine carefully both what he tells us about them and how he tells us of them".[3] Josephus names the activists "Zealots" to indicate to the readers that these people were "an unfortunate aberration from the main tradition of Jewish thought and practice".[3]"On analysis, his attitude is seen to be curiously ambivalent: the logic of events, as well as the needs of self-justification, caused him to regard the Zealots as dangerous fanatics and to denigrate them as ‘brigands’; yet, as a Jew, he could not fail to appreciate that such men had given themselves wholeheartedly to preserve the sovereignty of Yahweh over Israel".[3] Josephus provides an informed account of the activities of the Zealots in the Ancient worlds. His information has led to extensive knowledge concerning the political atmosphere of the time and the relevant information on zealots in the ancient world. Allen informs the audience that "Josephus refers to the Zealots as the "fourth Jewish philosophy," founded by Judas the Galilean (in 6 A.D.); he strongly contends that all succeeding troubles including the burning of the Temple can be traced to his teaching" [4]

There are many "beginning" leaders and the "original" zealots. Josephus characterizes names a few leaders of different zealot movements, but he also identifies "Zealots Proper". The New Encyclopedia of Judaism names the zealots of note, including "… the Sicarii (knife wielders) under Judah of Galilee, Judah’s son Menahem and descendent Eleazar ben Jair… (Who was the commander at Masada)" [5] The "Zealots Proper" occupied Jerusalem and consisted of Eleazar ben Simeon and other priests. Josephus also mentions John of Giscala and Simeon bar Giora.[5] The following is a history of the leaders that are rumored to have been the "original" zealot leaders.

The Maccabees

Andromeda Encyclopedia names the zealots as the heirs of the Maccabees and the revolt of the Second Century when Israel was under the direction of the Seleucids.[6] The Maccabees themselves became the Kings of Israel in late 140 BC. They were originally priests, but in 166 BC Judas Maccabeus started and led the revolt that usurped the Seleucid dynasty and freed Jerusalem. Judas rededicated the Temple in 164 and was killed in 161. The Maccabees and Jerusalem fell to civil war in 63 BC, which led to Roman intervention led by Pompey. Resistance continued until Hyrcanus II was put to death in 30 BC.[6] Farmer references the Maccabees when he discusses zealot action in the ancient Holy Land and the comparison it to the Maccabean/Pompey conflict.[7] The zealots fought against Rome, because the Romans had a religious view that differed from their own and the Romans were the pagans in the Holy Land. The zealots followed in the path of the Maccabees and decided to rise against their pagan oppressors.[7] The Maccabean impact on the zealot movement in Israel is fluid, and it can be said that the Maccabees were the original zealots in Israel.1D "The importance of the Maccabees for the zealots was simply this: the Maccabees had been obedient to the commandments of God- they had been zealous for his Law and his temple-and he had given them victory over the great hosts of the heathen".[7] "The success of the Maccabees was the most recent and glorious demonstration of what zeal for Yahweh could accomplish".[3]

Judas the Galilean

Josephus names Judas as the founder of the "Fourth Sect" (Zealots) exclusively.[3] Judas is mentioned in conjunction with the Census of Quirinus revolt in 6 CE. He is said to have partnered with a man named Zadok (or Saddok). Columbia Encyclopedia explains that Judas considered the census a plot to subjugate the Jews and prevent them from freedom.[8] The census was a sign that other Jews were compliant and comfortable being ruled by pagans.[1] Who’s Who in the New Testament considered Judas’s revolt against the Romans on par with the Maccabean resistance of the past.[9] Judas is also named "Judah" by Josephus and is said to have been the leader of the Sicarii.[5] Judas’s land of "…Galilee had a strong tradition of active opposition to governments deemed unfitted to rule in Israel…".[3] Josephus names Judas, son of an Ezekias and describes the man as a "brigand-chief", who had been suppressed by Herod.[3] Judas even has the posterity to carry out zealot activities. His descendant Eleazar led the zealot stand at Masada.[3] Josephus implies that Judas gained massive support and the fact that Josephus looks back to Judas seventy years later is a sign that Judas was a significant political figure.[3] Judas is seen as the originator for the school of thought that led to the uprisings and subsequent destruction of the temple. Judas was later killed.[4]


Josephus associated Judas and Saddok in the zealot movement with the caveat that Pharisees usually had the corollary that action was deemed good if Providence provided.[3] There is little other information on Zadok’s involvement since Judas is said to have been the instigator in this fight. The very fact that Zadok/Saddok was involved shows that the zealots were not alone in their fight for independence from Roman rule.

Eleazar son of Ananias

Eleazar, the son of the High Priest Ananias, contributed to the beginning of the revolt in 66 CE by making the priests stop offering daily sacrifices for Caesar.[4] He is sometomes confused with Eleazar son of Jairus, because of the incomplete records of the time. Both were considered powerful nationalist leaders. Eleazar son of Ananias is said to have been a "Zealot Proper". He worked in Jerusalem with other priests.[5]

Eleazar son of Jairus

Eleazar son of Jairus, a relative of Menahem, fled to Masada and led the resistance of 70-73 CE. His stand at Masada led to the death of many Sicarii.[4]

Menahem, son of Judah of Galilee

Reed claims that Menahem is one of the worst False Messiahs.[10] Menahem was the son of Judas of Galilee according to some authors and historians. He followed the belief of his father that no man could rule, because God was the true ruler.[10] Menahem…obtained weapons from Masada and came to Jerusalem to try to establish some kind of reign.[4] Menahem had a band of devoted cutthroats with him and overpowered those who preferred peaceful Roman rule. Menahem marched into Jerusalem dressed in finery. He entered the temple, killed the high priest, committed all sorts of abominations and was killed by an angry mob.[10]

Simon bar Giora

Simon is mentioned briefly in the chronicles of history. He is mentioned in the siege of Jerusalem in 70 CE. He controlled the lower sections of Jerusalem.

John of Gischala

The second false messiah is John of Gischala.[10] The man was so violent that anyone who even considered peace with Rome was a traitor. He had thousands killed. He tried to take royal authority in Jerusalem and betrayed his own people in the process.[4] He too entered the temple and killed the high priest. 8,500 people died on the temple grounds the day John took the temple. He appointed a mockery of a high priest, was arrested by Romans in 70 CE and spent the remainder of his life in prison.[10]

Zealot Revolts in Roman Judea

During the Roman occupation of the Holy Land, the zealots staged several revolt actions, some more successful than others. The list and following explanation will give a detailed look into the zealot actions in Roman Judea.

Zealot revolt against the Roman census

In 6 CE, Cyrenius (also called Quirinius), the Roman governor of Syria, had to take the census of the Jews in Israel. Judas the Galilean and Zadok the Priest actively opposed this and convinced many others to join their cause.


"In the Revolt, in 66, Menahem, son of Judah the Galilean, seized Masada from the Roman garrison and then proceeded to Jerusalem, commanding rebel forces there until killed by a rival. Eleazar ben Jair now took command of Masada but in Jerusalem rival groups continued to contend for dominance.[5] Masada became the ensign of zealots. Masada survived until the spring of 73 CE. The ruins of Masada and the suicidal story of this last stronghold bear witness to all that was best and all that was worst in the character of the Zealots.[9]

In 73 CE, a group of Sicarii committed mass suicide rather than surrender the fortress to the Romans that waited outside.[1] "This willingness to take one’s own life rather than to fall into the hands of heathen enemies is carried to an incredible conclusion in the Roman period by those Jews besieged on top of the Maccabean mountain fortress Massada."[7] "According to Josephus’ account Eleazar’s proposal prevailed, and the Jews prayerfully and systematically carried through the mass act of self-destruction. So that when the Romans finally broke through the last barrier, they were met with but deathly silence and the incredible evidence that there was indeed no noble excess to which devoted Jews would not go out of zeal for their God and his Torah".[7]

Temple revolts

John of Gischala stormed the Temple and attempted to make himself the royalty of Jerusalem.

Siege of Jerusalem


60 CE

Skirmishes between the Romans and Judeans break out.[10]

66 CE

Open hostility broke out in the year 66, when Gessius Florus, the governor, demanded funds from the Temple treasury. The Jews refused and suspended the daily sacrifice for the emperor; from then onwards the Zealots led the people in open revolt.[9] Cestius leads the Romans to attack Jerusalem and for some reason breaks off and begins to retreat. The Jews begin attacking and killed many Romans in the process. This gave the Jews courage that God would protect them in their struggle.[10] Menahem and Eleazar took Masada at this time. In Jerusalem John of Gischala and Simon ben Giora held Jerusalem. They combined their forces and waited for the Roman onslaught with their 25,000 fellow zealots.[5]

67 CE

Vespasian leads armies against Jerusalem, but Nero died and Vespasian left Jerusalem to be crowned emperor in Rome.[10] Vespasian took control of Galilee, the Jordan Valley, and the Coastal Plain.[5]

68 CE

Vespasian lays waste to Judea.[5]

70 CE

Titus, Vespasian’s son comes to Jerusalem and starts the last siege. It was one of the most horrific sieges in history, according to Josephus.[10] Titus surrounded the city during Passover (which meant more people were in the city to celebrate the feast). While Titus was in the city, there were three zealot groups in Jerusalem. Eleazar and the Zealots held the Temple. John of Gischala had the upper city. Simon bar Giora controlled the lower city.[4] Titus took his four legions, breached the walls and captured the Herodian Towers and the Antonia Fortress.[5]

73 CE

By this point, the zealots had lost everything. Masada was destroyed that spring and the Temple was destroyed. When the Romans attacked, the Jews fought with ferocity, but when news reached them that the temple was burning, the fighting ended abruptly.[7] With the Temple burnt and the city sacked, Herodium (near Bethlehem) and Machaerus (beyond Jordan) fell soon after.[9] The overall failure of the revolt led to the weakening of the Zealot faction.[11]


Actions against the Romans took the form of revolt, both organized and unorganized. There was a faction of the zealots known as the Sicarii, who had a preference for killing with knives in the marketplace. Hengel quotes Josephus who named them Sicarii,[12] which has many different meanings. Josephus is the first to call the zealots who practice religio-political public stabbings the Sicarii. It is believed to have derived from the Latin ‘sicarius’ meaning one who murdered with a ‘sica’ or dagger.[3]

Josephus describes these men as a new kind of brigand.[3] "Rebellion against Rome took many forms. There were certain people that were known as bandits or robbers. These were not ordinary thieves. They were insurrectionists who robbed from the wealthy who supported Rome. These folks were often Robin Hood type figures who gained popularity with the people.

"Another group of rebels were the Sicarii or dagger men. They carried short curved knives that could easily be concealed. At opportune times the Sicarii would assassinate Roman sympathizers."[10] The Sicarii (from the Latin sicarius, a short sword or dagger) were a group of rebels who fought in the time of Felix; they killed the High Priest Jonathan, fled to the desert and held Masada until 73.[4] The zealots earned the name Sicarri when they became more violent. In Greek, it means "dagger men" and these zealots would assassinate Romans and Roman compatriots in public as a signal of their abhorrence for the Romans.[1]

See also


  1. ^ a b c d "Zealot." Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica, 2010. Web. 4 September 2010
  2. ^ “Biblical Literature." Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica, 2010. Web. 4 September 2010
  3. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l Brandon, S. G. F. Jesus and the Zealots. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1967.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h Ross, Allen. "The Zealots". Found 8 September 2010. Sponsored by Bible.org. Written unknown. .
  5. ^ a b c d e f g h i "Zealots". The New Encyclopedia of Judaism. New York: New York University Press, 2002. Credo Reference. Web. 4 September 2010.
  6. ^ a b "Maccabees." Andromeda Encyclopedic Dictionary of World History. London: Andromeda, 2001. Credo Reference. Web. 4 September 2010.
  7. ^ a b c d e f Farmer, William R. Maccabees, Zealots, and Josephus: an Inquiry into Jewish Nationalism in the Greco-roman Period. New York: Columbia Press, 1956.
  8. ^ "Zealots." The Columbia Encyclopedia. New York: Columbia University Press, 2008. Credo Reference. Web. 4 September 2010.
  9. ^ a b c d "Zealots." Who's Who in the New Testament, Routledge. London: Routledge, 2002. Credo Reference. Web. 4 September 2010.
  10. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Reed, Doug. Who were the Zealots? Found 8 September 2010. Thorncrown Journal. Written 2009.
  11. ^ "Zealots." Andromeda Encyclopedic Dictionary of World History. London: Andromeda, 2001. Credo Reference. Web. 4 September 2010.
  12. ^ Hengel, Martin. The Zealots: Investigations into the Jewish Freedom Movement in the Period from Herod I until 70 A.D. Edinburgh: T&T Clark Ltd., 1989
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