Friday, 4 December 2009

Meet the Zealots

The Zealots, also known as 'Galileans' or 'patriots' were an extreme Jewish political group at the time of Jesus. They were, basically, terrorists of: living in a land to which they believed they had ancestral rights, they saw the Romans as oppressors. They hated the Jews who collaborated with the Romans (especially the Sadducees) and thought that the only way to win back freedom was through violence. One group, the Sicarrii or assassins, carried daggers around under their cloaks, and used them to murder collaborators, especially during religious festivals when crowds of people made it easy to murder individuals unnoticed. Sound familiar?

The Zealots originated about AD 6, when the Romans started ruling Judea and demanded that everyone register to pay taxes. A group of radical Pharisees refused to register, and, led by Judas the Galilean, began a series of revolts and acts of violence, culminating in the First Jewish Revolt in 66-70 AD, which was the trigger for the Romans' destruction of the temple. Because of the threat from the Zealots, the Romans ruled Judea all the more harshly and were particularly vigilant at festivals: it's possible that they were expecting a Zealot revolt on the passover festival during which Jesus was crucified.

The Zealots were eagerly awaiting the arrival of the Messiah, and thought that the Last Days, where God would come and kick the Romans' asses and re-establish Israel as a sovereign nation, were near. They weren't afraid to die, and many of them were killed by the Romans, often by crucifixion. Jesus' disciple, Simon, was a Zealot, and throughout the Gospels you can see Jesus engaging with the Zealot's ideas. Sometimes he challenges them: love your enemies he says; if a soldier forces you to carry something one mile; carry it two. My kingdom is not of this world. But there's a definite Zealot tinge in other places: Jesus comes not to bring peace but a sword, and his birth, not the Emperor's, is gospel good news; he is Lord, not Caesar.
Photo credit: Kaptain Kobold on Flickr