Zealots-People of the Palm Branch


The history of impassioned defense of freedom and the right to serve God alone was vivid in the collective memory of the people of Jesus' day. Only 150 years earlier, the deeply religious supporters of the Hasmonaeans (Maccabees) called the Hasidim (meaning "pious ones") had gladly taken up swords against the pagan oppression of the Seleucid Greeks to defend their right to worship God. The Roman masters of Jesus' time were less oppressive, but the lack of status of a free nation and the frequent conflict over the pagan values of these foreigners led people to remember the heroes of the past whose trust in God and readiness with the sword had become God's instruments of deliverance.


The Pharisees, passionately devoted to God, were apparently content to condemn idolatry and strive to separate themselves from all religious contamination. Though on occasion they became the object of brutal repression for their stubborn refusal to accept any of the pagan practices of the emperor, they seem to have been reluctant to use violence to advance their cause (at least until after Jesus' time).

The Zealots had a different view of serving God (1). Occasionally the Romans conducted a census of their subject lands to determine the taxable resources of these peoples. To the Jews who believed they and their land belonged to Yahweh, a census reminded them that they were the "possession of Rome." The fact that Roman emperors (thought to be divine and worshiped in some of the Gentile towns of the land) ordered the censuses added to the bitterness of the Jews toward taxation. They belonged to God and were not to honor anyone else but him. How could they serve these pagans, even with their taxes?

In about 45 BC, a Jewish patriot named Ezekias (Hezekiah), from Trachonitis (east of Galilee), led a band of freedom fighters against the Romans and their supporters. Apparently, he was captured by Herod the Great and executed. In the intervening years, thousands of like-minded Jews were caught and crucified as examples to the population. Herod himself was so brutal in repressing these people that he was summoned to Jerusalem to answer to the religious council, the Sanhedrin, for his conduct. Under pressure, the Sanhedrin freed him, and many paid with their lives when Herod solidified his rule.

After Herod's death, many of the Galilean supporters of Hezekiah attempted to create resistance against Herod's sons. This too was brutally put down. In AD 6,Judea was officially incorporated into the Roman Empire. A census was ordered, and Quirinius, governor of Syria, carried out the order so that the new province could be appropriately taxed. The priests in Jerusalem urged restraint and cooperation with the Romans; but Hezekia's son Judah of Gamla (the isolated mountaintop city northeast of the Sea of Galilee) urged violent resistance. A popular Pharisee named Zadok, also from Galilee, supported Judah. The Zealot movement was founded. The well-known Pharisee Gamliel recorded the early history of Judah and his movement. Judas the Galilean appeared in the days of the census and led a band of people in revolt. He too was killed, and all his followers were scattered (see Acts 5:37). He was probably killed by Herod Antipas, who also murdered John the Baptist (Matt. 14:1-12).

Both Judas and Zadok were devoted to the Torah as the only guide for righteous living before God. They based their zeal for God on the action of Phinehas, Aaron's son, recorded in Numbers 25:7-13. Phinehas is praised for his zeal, which imitated the zeal of God (Num. 25:11,13). The fact that Phinehas, a priest of God, used a spear became the basis for what Zealots considered a divine command to use violent action to defend God's name and destroy unfaithfulness to Torah among the Jewish people. This interpretation would lead to a long history of violent acts against Rome and brutal conflict between the Zealots and the Jews they believed cooperated with the pagan empire.


The philosophy of the Zealot movement was simple: There was only one God, and Israel was to serve him alone; the Torah and other writings of the Bible were the only guide to righteous living; and serving the emperor in any way, whether in worship, slavery, or paying taxes, was apostasy against God.

Josephus, who knew the Zealots, described their passion for freedom as unconquerable because they would serve no one but God. Violent resistance was considered a God-ordained responsibility since they believed God was on their side, they knew that they would triumph in the end. This led to their reputation for incredible bravery and tolerance for suffering.

The Zealots lived by the strictest conformity to the Torah. In addition, they refused to acknowledge anyone as king, since "you shall have no other gods" (Ex. 20:3). These defenders of freedom influenced Galilee in particular. They were committed to the Scriptures' promise of a coming anointed one who would be a great military leader and king, like David of times past. They knew they would soon prevail over the detested Romans and their collaborators, the Herodions (Jews who supported the Herods) and the Sadducees.


Jesus chose Galilee for his ministry, using Capernaum as his home base. Though several miles from Gamla, the hotbed of Zealot fervor, Capernaum certainly was influenced by the Zealot passion for freedom and the anticipation of a Messiah. The presence of this fierce devotion to God in Galilee had both direct and indirect influences on Jesus' ministry (1) One of his disciples was Simon the Zealot (Mark 3:18). (2) Jesus often needed to correct his audience's interpretation of his message as political rather than spiritual (John 6:15; John 18:36; Acts 1:6), and on several occasions, he urged those who experienced his power not to report the miracles, possibly to prevent such misinterpretation (Matt. 12:16; Mark 1:44). (3) The Zealots expressed great interest in Jesus' answer to the query about paying taxes (Mark 12:13-17). (4) The Romans apparently considered Jesus to be part of the Zealot movement (John 18:36). Moreover, (5) Barabbas, probably a Zealot, was offered in exchange for Jesus (Mark 15:15), and Jesus was crucified with two who are described by a Greek word officially used for Zealots (Mark 15:27).

Jesus' message was made clearer by its contrast with the Zealot perspective so pervasive in Galilee. This may have been part of God's plan to confront people with a faith choice among radically different alternatives. Would they accept a suffering Messiah (Isa. 53:1-10) whose kingdom demanded a lifestyle of loving one's enemies, forgiving transgressors, (Matt. 5:21-24,38?47), and being peacemakers (Matt. 5:9)? Alternatively, would they seek a messiah who would violently overthrow their oppressors to establish a new political empire (John 18:36; Acts 1:16)? Would they recognize that true peace comes from forgiveness of sins rather than from military conquest?


Judah, the founder of the Zealot movement, was executed. His sons Jacob and Simeon were both crucified approximately AD 48. Another son, Menahem, seized the fortress Masada at the beginning of the Jewish revolt (AD 66) in the first true military action of that war. The Roman weapons found there equipped the Zealots who led the revolt. Menahem, probably thought to be the Messiah, commanded the rebel forces until he was murdered by another Zealot, bringing to mind the words of the true Messiah: "All who draw the sword will die by the sword" (Matt. 26:52). A descendant of Judah, Eleazar Ben Jair, fled to Masada and assumed command of the forces there.

John of Gischala, another Zealot, futilely defended Jerusalem and the Temple Mount against the Romans. Again the words of Jesus, who wept when people did not embrace the kind of peace he offered, came true (Luke 19:41-44). The Romans threw the Zealots and their children off the city wall to their deaths, and destroyed the Temple and the city.

In AD 73, the Romans, under the command of Titus, laid siege to Masada. Eleazar, a descendant of Judah of Gamla, and his Zealots held out until there was no hope. They chose to kill their families and each other rather than serve anyone but God. With that mass suicide, the Zealot movement ended.


1. In popular use, the term Zealot refers to all Jews who resisted Rome and Jewish collaborators. Technically, the name refers more narrowly to the party, or "philosophy" as Josephus calls it, rooted in the movement led by Judah and Zadok

2. Some suggest that the reference to Simon as a "Zealot" means only that he was zealous. Though that is possible, it is unlikely. The use of the term would have been most clearly understood in that time and place as a "member of the Zealot movement." For the sake of our study, this will be considered the most likely possibility.


Jewish people of Jesus' day had a passionate desire for freedom from the domination of the pagan Romans and the oppressive Herod dynasty that had ruled them for many years. Revolt seethed continuously, mostly underground, for more than 100 years, from the time Herod became king (37 BC) until the Romans destroyed Jerusalem and the Temple (AD 70).

It is helpful to realize that this underlying struggle is the backdrop for Jesus' ministry, and why so many hoped he would be a conquering king. This helps us understand why the adulation of the crowds during the triumphal entry reduced Jesus to tears, and probably why many rejected his message.


Ever since the Romans arrived on the scene in 64 BC, the Jewish people were divided over how to respond to the rule of their often corrupt governors or the Herod family who served them. The religious community, particularly the Pharisees, believed the Jewish people were to be God's instruments on earth, from whom the Messiah would come to institute that glorious age when Israel would be a great and free nation. Many others, especially the secular community and apparently some of the Sadducees, noted the present reality of the rule of Rome and determined that cooperation was the best policy. The tyrannical rule of Rome and the paganism of its religious and Hellenistic culture heightened the contrast between the situation at hand and the messianic hopes. This difference produced increasing frag-mentation of the people, and several movements developed in response.

The Zealots, an ultra-nationalistic group, proclaimed revolution to be God's solution (Acts 5:37). The Essenes withdrew, waiting anxiously for the Messiah to lead a violent overthrow of the Romans and their Jewish supporters. The Sadducees apparently practiced a form of cooperation since it was Rome who kept them securely in their position over the temple and therefore over the people (John 11:49-50). The Herodions appeared satisfied with the Herod dynasty (Matt. 22:16). The Pharisees, condemning Rome's pagan excesses, were removed from politics and viewed the foreign oppressors as God's hand punishing his people for their unfaithfulness to the Torah. The country was in turmoil, each faction longing in a different way for the freedom they desired. To this climate of confusion, hatred, and division, many so-called messiahs came, each preaching his own brand of salvation (Acts 21:38). Jesus presented his unique message of redemption. Some followed his lead, but many did not. During feast days, especially Passover, tensions reached fever pitch and the Romans increased their military presence to prevent open revolt. The climate existed, however, for revolution to begin.

Herod Agrippa l, grandson of Herod the Great, died in AD 44 (Acts 12:19-23). The Romans appointed a series of governors called procurators, each apparently more corrupt and cruel than the previous ruler. Groups of rebel sicarii (assassins) were everywhere, killing Romans and the Jews who cooperated with them. Jonathan the high priest was assassinated. During this time, Paul was arrested (Acts 21:27-37) and accused of being one of the rebels (Acts 21:38). Popular support for the Zealots grew. The priesthood became more dependent on the Romans for security and support, and in so doing, they grew increasingly corrupt. This drove the common people toward the radical approach of the Zealots.

Felix (Acts 24) was replaced by Festus (Acts 25) as governor. Both were brutal but ineffective in their attempts to quell the rising revolt. Festus died after a short time. The high priest, Ananus, took this opportunity to murder his opponents, including many in the Christian community and James, brother of Jesus. Ananus was deposed and replaced with a man named Jesus, and then another priest named Jesus. These two were in such opposition that their followers fought in the streets.

The Roman administration was in disorder, and the Zealots and sicarii flourished. Florus, another governor, attempted to stop the violence by flogging and crucifying hundreds of people. The time was ripe. The desperate hope of a messiah who would bring freedom from political oppression was ready to bear fruit.


While Christians and Jews were thrown to the wild animals by the emperor Nero in Rome, violence flared in Judea. In Caesarea, a conflict between Jews and Gentiles over activities next to the synagogue had been brewing for some time. In AD 66, on the Sabbath day, a Gentile offered a "pagan" sacrifice next to the entrance to the synagogue. There was an outcry from the citizens of Caesarea. The authorities in Jerusalem decided to end all foreign sacrifices, including the one for Caesar himself, in the temple. Florus the governor, who lived in Caesarea, came to Jerusalem with troops, entered the temple treasury, and took a large amount of gold. When people gathered to protest, Florus unleashed his legionnaires on innocent civilians of the city. Hundreds of women were raped, whipped, and crucified. More than 3,500 people were killed, including women and children.

The reaction was outrage. Mobs swarmed the streets, driving the outnumbered soldiers out of the city. The people stormed the Antonia (the Roman fort) and burned the archives, destroying records of debts. The revolt spread. The Zealots surprised the Roman garrison and occupied the fortress of Masada. From this fortress, huge supplies of weapons were distributed. Though there were voices urging calm, even the nonpolitical Pharisees joined the Zealot movement in droves.

The violence mounted within the rebel movement. Another Zealot leader, Eleazar, who then ordered the slaughter of the Roman prisoners remaining in the city, assassinated zealot leader Menahem. There was no turning back.


The Gentiles in Caesarea, hearing of the violence against fellow Romans in Jerusalem, rose against the Jews of that town. Within a day, 20,OOOJews were killed. This slaughter of men, women, and children, young and old, was repeated in many places in the country and throughout the empire, including Syria and Egypt. Fifty thousand were killed in Alexandria alone. The land ran with blood.

Gallus, the governor of Syria, advanced on Jerusalem with the twelfth legion. However, Zealots ambushed him in the mountain pass of Beth Horon and his force destroyed. The Romans had lost their advantage, and the Jews gained their national freedom (albeit temporarily) and the weapons of an imperial legion. Nero acted quickly. He ordered his leading general, Vespasian, to end the Jewish problem once and for all.

Vespasian began his campaign in AD 67 in Galilee, where a young priest, Joseph, was in command. His army numbered more than 50,000 men. Vespasian took Sepphoris, Jotapata (where Joseph surrendered to the general and became the Roman scribe Josephus), and several other towns with brutal force. He also destroyed Gamla, where the Zealot movement began, putting 10,000 people to the sword. Most of the towns of the region were left as smoking ruins. Many men were executed, often crucified, and the women and children were sold into slavery. A few were saved for the games in the arena. Galilee was again Roman.

Vespasian then conquered the coast, including Joppa, and the lands to the east of Judea. He took Jericho, which guarded the eastern approach to Jerusalem, and Emmaus, which guarded the western. Jerusalem was now isolated.

In AD 68, the campaign halted due to the suicide of Nero. As Josephus had predicted (a prediction that apparently spared his life), Vespasian became emperor. He left his son Titus to complete the campaign against Jerusalem.

The situation in Jerusalem was horrible. Several factions of Zealots converged on the city, having been defeated elsewhere. They blamed each other for their defeats. One group controlled the Temple Mount and appointed their own priest. When the Sadducee priests resisted, they were slaughtered along with 8,500 of their supporters. The sewers of the city ran with Jewish blood. Simon Bar Giora, another self-proclaimed messiah, entered the city and fought the Zealots. Confusion and terror reigned. Jerusalem was divided into three sections, each fighting the other as the Romans tightened the noose. Apparently, the Christian community, possibly remembering Jesus' words (Matt. 24:15-16), fled to the mountain regions east of the country, beginning the long separation of Jew and Christian that would bear horrible consequences later.

In the spring of AD 70, Titus arrived outside Jerusalem. His army now numbered 80,000 or more. Titus breached the third wall near the end of May and slaughtered the people of that part of the city. Five days later, the second wall fell. Half of the city belonged to the Romans. In July, the Romans built a siege wall around the city to prevent escape and to starve the citizenry.

Unbelievably, the killing between Jewish factions continued. People killed each other over scraps of food. Anyone suspected of contemplating surrender was killed. Because some Jews had swallowed gold coins before trying to escape, their fellow citizens began to disembowel those they caught, looking for money. In one night, 2,000 were ripped open. No one bothered to bury the dead. Many who did surrender were crucified just outside the walls so the hapless defenders could watch their agony. Josephus records that the Roman soldiers nailed people in various positions for their own amusement until they could not find enough crosses for the victims.

The famine took its toll as well. Josephus reports that 600,000 bodies were thrown out of the city. This may be an exaggeration, but gives a sense of the carnage.


The Antonia fortress fell in mid-July. On August 6, the sacrifices ceased in the Temple. The Temple itself was burned and destroyed on the ninth of the Jewish month of Ab (the end of August), the same day it had been destroyed by the Babylonians more than 600 years before. It has never been rebuilt.

On August 30, the lower city fell, and in September the upper. Titus ordered all buildings leveled, except for three towers in Herod's palace, which were left as evidence of his former strength. All the citizens of the city were executed, sold into slavery, or saved for the games in the arena. The slaughter was beyond description. Infants were thrown to their deaths from the top of the city walls, and people were burned alive; the alleys of the city were choked with corpses. Eleven thousand prisoners died of starvation waiting for their execution. Josephus records that more than 1 million perished and nearly 100,000 were sold into slavery. The Jews' holy city was gone and their Temple destroyed.

A few Zealots took refuge at Herod's fortress of Masada. Here they hoped to outlast the Romans. One can only imagine the state of mind of these people, some of whom had seen Jerusalem fall. Titus left their fate in the hands of Silva, the new governor. The tenth legion laid siege to Masada in AD 72. A wall was built by Jewish slaves around the base of the enormous mountain plateau, six feet high and more than two miles in length. However, there was little chance of starving out the defenders because Herod's extensive storehouses were still filled with food and weapons and his cisterns with water. The Zealots apparently felt safe here.

Over the next seven months, the Romans built a siege ramp against the western side of the mountain. When the ramp was finished, a battering ram was winched to the top, and Roman soldiers smashed a hole in the fortress wall. The Zealots fortified their wall with timbers, but these were set on fire. That night the Zealots met. Their leader, Eleazar from Gamla, argued forcefully that suicide was the only honorable action. They had seen what the Romans would do to them, their wives, and their children. They had lived their lives for freedom and the opportunity to serve God alone. Now they must remove all possibility of serving anyone else.

Every man killed his family. Ten men were chosen to kill the Jewish soldiers; one killed the other nine and then committed suicide. In so doing, the Zealots stole the final victory from the Romans. However, the revolt was ended. Two old women and five children survived to share the story with the world.


The Romans eventually built a temple to Jupiter on the Temple Mount. Emperor Hadrian (c. 117-138) desired to remake Jerusalem as a Roman city named Aelia Capitolina. The few Jews who remained held to their desire for freedom and their hopes of a conquering messiah. When Simon Bar Kochba, a descendant of David and apparently a charismatic leader, began a new resistance, the religious community declared him Messiah. Open rebellion (the Second Jewish Revolt) began in AD 131 and the Jews rallied around his leadership.

The Romans were surprised and initially defeated, but their followup was swift and devastating. The Roman commander Julius Severus, and even Hadrian himself, responded with overwhelming force. Nearly a thousand villages were destroyed, and Bar Kochba was killed. In AD 135, the Second Jewish Revolt ended. Any Jews who had not fled the land were killed or enslaved. Jerusalem became Hadrian's Roman city, the Jewish religion was outlawed, and Judea became Palestine. The Jews were a people without a land.

Out of this disaster came two new religious movements: Christianity and rabbinic Judaism. The revolt drove Christianity to the ends of the earth, and it soon became a largely Gentile faith. Only today are its Jewish roots being recognized. Rabbinic Judaism became the Orthodox faith of the Jewish people of today, the descendants of the Pharisees. The Sadducees, the Essenes, and the Zealots are no more.


The First and Second Jewish Revolts were a disaster for God's people. The agony suffered over two millennia can be traced to those events. The same Romans) crucified Jesus nearly 40 years before the first revolt. Understanding the climate that led to the revolt and his anticipation of that event makes his teaching clearer.

Often people saw in Jesus a Davidic king, a military conqueror who would rescue them from the Romans (John 6:15; Acts 1:6). However, his kingdom was not the kingdom of the Zealot or the sword (Matt. 26:51-52), though he had a Zealot disciple (Matt. 10:4). Jesus frequently commanded those he taught or healed not to tell anyone, possibly because they would misunderstand, given the political climate of the day (Mark 1:44, 7:36, 3:12, 5:43; Matt. 8:4, 9:30, 12:16; Luke 8:56). When we remember how many messiahs proclaimed their message during this time, we can understand the uniqueness of Christ's message and the reticence of his audience.

Clearly, Jesus predicted the destruction that would result from the revolt (Matt. 24:1-2). It led him to weep on one occasion as he described exactly what would happen (Luke 19:41-44). It seems that Jesus was saddened because his fellow Jews looked for military solutions to their problems rather than spiritual ones?to a political messiah rather than the Lamb of God. He warned his followers not to take part in that method of bringing in God's kingdom. The coming destruction was not God's judgment as much as it was the natural result of human beings seeking salvation through their own political and military might. Jesus' method was the opposite of such an approach.

While we cannot fully understand God's reasons for shaping history the way he has, we must be able to weep with Jesus because the destruction wrought by the two Jewish revolts resulted from people seeking God in the wrong places and ways. We must be devoted to Jesus the Messiah's message, for he truly is God's hope of peace (Luke 2:14).


1. Judah of Gamla apparently revolted against a census ordered by Quirinius, governor of Syria, and was executed by Herod Antipas (who also executed John the Baptist). Judah probably founded the Zealot party, though not the movement. His sons Jacob and Simon were executed by the Romans for resistance, and his son (possibly grandson) Menahem was a leader in the First Jewish Revolt.