Founded6 CE
Dissolved73 CE
ReligionSecond Temple Judaism

The Zealots were a political movement in 1st-century Second Temple Judaism which sought to incite the people of Judea Province to rebel against the Roman Empire and expel it from the Holy Land by force of arms, most notably during the First Jewish–Roman War (66–70). Zealotry was the term used by Josephus for a "fourth sect" or "fourth Jewish philosophy" during this period.



The term zealot, the common translation of the Hebrew kanai (קנאי‎, frequently used in plural form, קנאים‎, kana'im), means one who is zealous on behalf of God. The term derives from Greek ζηλωτής (zelotes), "emulator, zealous admirer or follower".[1][2]


Statue of Simon the Zealot by Hermann Schievelbein at the roof of the Helsinki Cathedral.

Josephus' Jewish Antiquities[3] states that there were three main Jewish sects at this time, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Essenes. The Zealots were a "fourth sect", founded by Judas of Galilee (also called Judas of Gamala) in the year 6 CE against the Census of Quirinius, shortly after the Roman Empire declared what had most recently been the tetrarchy of Herod Archelaus to be a Roman province. According to Josephus, they "agree in all other 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." (18.1.6)

According to the Jewish Encyclopedia article on Zealots:[4]

Judah of Gaulanitis is regarded as the founder of the Zealots, who are identified as the proponents of the Fourth Philosophy. In the original sources, however, no such identification is anywhere clearly made, and the question is hardly raised of the relationship between the Sicarii, the upholders of the Fourth Philosophy, and the Zealots. Josephus himself in his general survey of the various groups of freedom fighters (War 7:268–70) enumerates the Sicarii first, whereas he mentions the Zealots last.

Others have also argued that the group was not so clearly marked out (before the first war of 66–70/3) as some have thought.[5]

Simon the Zealot was listed among the apostles selected by Jesus in the Gospel of Luke[6] and in the Acts of the Apostles.[7] He is called Cananaean in Mark and Matthew (Matthew 10, Matthew 10:4, Mark 3,Mark 3:18)

Two of Judas of Galilee's sons, Jacob and Simon, were involved in a revolt and were executed by Tiberius Alexander, the procurator of Iudaea province from 46 to 48.[8]

The Zealots took a leading role in the First Jewish–Roman War (66–73 CE), as they objected to Roman rule and violently sought to eradicate it by indiscriminately attacking Romans and Greeks. Another group, likely related, were the Sicarii, who raided Jewish settlements and killed Jews they considered apostates and collaborators, while also urging Jews to fight the Romans and other Jews for the cause. Josephus paints a very bleak picture of their activities as they instituted what he characterized as a murderous "reign of terror" prior to the Jewish Temple's destruction. According to Josephus, the Zealots followed John of Gischala, who had fought the Romans in Galilee, escaped, came to Jerusalem, and then inspired the locals to a fanatical position that led to the Temple's destruction. They succeeded in taking over Jerusalem, and held it until 70, when the son of Roman Emperor Vespasian, Titus, retook the city and destroyed Herod's Temple during the destruction of Jerusalem.[citation needed]

In the Talmud


In the Talmud, the Zealots are characterized as non-religious i.e. not following the contemporary religious leadership. They are also called the Biryonim (בריונים) meaning "boorish", "wild", or "ruffians", and are condemned for their aggression, their unwillingness to compromise to save the survivors of besieged Jerusalem, and their blind militarism in opposition to the rabbis' desire to seek a peace treaty with Rome. However, according to one body of tradition, the rabbis initially supported the revolt until the Zealots instigated a civil war, at which point all hope of resisting the Romans was deemed impossible.[9] The Zealots are further blamed for having contributed to the demise of Jerusalem and the Second Temple, and of ensuring Rome's retribution and stranglehold on Judea. According to the Babylonian Talmud, Gittin:56b, the Biryonim destroyed decades' worth of food and firewood in besieged Jerusalem to force the Jews to fight the Romans out of desperation. This event precipitated the escape of Johanan ben Zakai, and his meeting with Vespasian, which led to the foundation of the Academy of Jamnia and the composition of the Mishnah, ensuring the survival of rabbinical Judaism.[10][11]



The Sicarii were a splinter group of the Jewish Zealots who, in the decades preceding Jerusalem's destruction in 70 CE, strongly opposed the Roman occupation of Judea and attempted to expel them and their sympathizers from the area.[12] The Sicarii carried sicae, or small daggers, concealed in their cloaks.[13] At public gatherings, they pulled out these daggers to attack Romans and alleged Roman sympathizers alike, blending into the crowd after the deed to escape detection.

According to historian Hayim Hillel Ben-Sasson, the Sicarii, originally based in Galilee, "were fighting for a social revolution, while the Jerusalem Zealots placed less stress on the social aspect" and the Sicarii "never attached themselves to one particular family and never proclaimed any of their leaders king". Both groups objected to the way the priestly families were running the Temple.[8]

Paul the Apostle

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While most English translations of the Bible render the Greek word zelotes in Acts 22:3 and Galatians 1:14 of the New Testament as the adjective "zealous", an article by Mark R. Fairchild[14] takes it to mean a Zealot and suggests that Paul the Apostle may have been a Zealot, which might have been the driving force behind his persecution of the Christians (see the stoning of Saint Stephen) before his conversion to Christianity, and the incident at Antioch, even after his conversion.[citation needed] In the two cited verses Paul literally declares himself as one who is loyal to God, or an ardent observer of the Law according to the Douay-Rheims of Acts 22:3, but the relationship of Paul the Apostle and Jewish Christianity is still debated. This does not necessarily prove Paul was revealing himself as a Zealot. The Modern King James Version of Jay P. Green) renders it as 'a zealous one'. Two modern translations (the Jewish New Testament and Alternate Literal Translation) render it as 'a zealot'. The Unvarnished New Testament (1991) renders Galatians 1:14 as "being an absolute zealot for the traditions". These translations may not be inaccurate, but it is disputed by those who claim it gives the wrong association with the "Zealots".

See also



  1. ^ Zealot, Online Etymology Dictionary
  2. ^ Zelotes, Henry George Liddell, Robert Scott, "A Greek-English Lexicon", at Perseus
  3. ^ "Josephus, Antiquities Book XVIII". earlyjewishwritings.com.
  4. ^ Jewish Encyclopedia, 2nd ed., vol. 21, p. 472
  5. ^ Richard Horsley's "Bandits, Prophets, and Messiahs" and Tom Wright's "The New Testament and the People of God"
  6. ^ Luke 6:15
  7. ^ Acts 1:13
  8. ^ a b H.H. Ben-Sasson, A History of the Jewish People, Harvard University Press, 1976, ISBN 0-674-39731-2, p. 275
  9. ^ Neusner, Jacob (1962). "6". A Life of Rabban Yohanan Ben Zakkai: Ca. I–80 C.E. E.J. Brill. ISBN 978-9004021389.
  10. ^ Solomon Schechter, Wilhelm Bacher. "Johanan B. Zakkai". Jewish Encyclopedia.
  11. ^ Bavli Gittin 56b
  12. ^ Goodman, Martin (2008). Rome and Jerusalem: The Clash of Ancient Civilizations. New York City: Vintage Books. p. 407. ISBN 978-0375726132.
  13. ^ Paul Christian Who were the Sicarii?, Meridian Magazine, June 7, 2004
  14. ^ Fairchild, M. R., "Paul's Pre-Christian Zealot Associations: A Re-examination of Gal. 1:14 and Acts 22:3". New Testament Studies 45(4), pp. 514–532