One of the most surprising verses in the New Testament is Luke 6:15, where we read that one of the twelve disciples of Jesus was a Zealot. His name was Simon, and Luke refers to him as “Simon who was called the Zealot.”
The passage in Luke has two parallel passages in Mark 3:18 and Matthew 10:4. Newer translations of these passages typically also call this disciple “Simon the Zealot.” Older translations usually call him “Simon the Cananaean.” (“Cananaean” is just the Aramaic word “qanay” transliterated into the Greek word “kananiten” and then transliterated into the English word “Cananaean.” And the Aramaic word “qanay” means approximately“zealous one.”)
What was a Zealot doing in the band of Jesus? What did he think about Jesus’s command to “love your enemies?”
That’s a good question, and we don’t actually know the answer. If you ask Biblical scholars, you’ll get a wide range of suggestions, but we don’t really know which is right.
But we do know quite a lot about the Zealots.
Who Were the Zealots?
Back in the 1980s, when I began researching my first novel about first-century Jerusalem, I came across a book by David Rhoads, titled Israel in Revolution 6-74 CE. The book covers the years 6 through 74 of the first century and it’s about the events that led up to the Jewish Revolt, which began in the summer of 66 and ended at Masada in either 73 or 74 (opinions vary).
It’s a good book by a good scholar, and I read through it carefully. Several times.
One thing I learned is that there were several different factions of revolutionaries in first-century Israel.
I can’t cover them in huge detail in a blog post, but here’s a list of the five factions Dr. Rhoads identified:
- The Sicarii
- The Zealots
- John of Gischala
- The Idumeans
- Simon bar Giora
Most of these were active only during the Jewish Revolt, which began in the year 66. The Zealot party appears to have been created late—in the winter of 67-68. In naming themselves the “Zealots,” it looks like they were reusing a word that had been used for a long time before. (That is, there were probably zealous people, “zealots” with a lower-case, who were looking for revolt for many years before they got one. When the revolt finally began, some of them formed an organization and named themselves “Zealots” with an upper-case.)
The Zealot party came late to the game, but the Sicarii began working for revolution a good 60 years earlier. It’s worth saying a few words about them.
Who Were the Sicarii?
The Sicarii movement began about the year 6. A certain Galilean named Judas led an armed revolt against the Romans in Judea. The revolt didn’t get very far, and we don’t know what became of Judas. His revolt is mentioned by the Jewish historian Josephus and also by the New Testament, in Acts 5:37.
We do know that his movement lived on. Judas the Galilean had two sons, James and Simon, who were crucified by the Romans about the year 46.
In the 50s, men of this movement assassinated a number of chief priests in the Temple. Their tactic was very simple. They came into Jerusalem for one of the festivals, went into the Temple courts, found their intended victim, and stuck a knife in his back. Then they escaped in the confusion.
The knives they used were short sickles call “sica” and so they were called “Sicarii”—meaning approximately “knife-men.”
Judas had another son (or more likely grandson) named Menahem who played a major role in the Jewish Revolt in the year 66. He led the group who captured the Roman garrison at Masada by some sort of trick at the start of they war. They held it for 7 or 8 years, until the very end of the war, when they committed mass suicide to avoid being captured.
Menahem and his knife-men play a role in my novel Retribution, set in Jerusalem in the years 62 to 66.
What About Simon the Zealot?
So what was Simon the Zealot? If there was no Zealot party until the winter of 67-68, then how is it that Simon the Zealot was following Jesus in the early 30s?
Nobody knows for sure, because we just don’t have much info on Simon. But my best guess is that Simon identified with the revolutionary spirit of Judas the Galilean and his Sicarii. That is, he was a lower-case “zealot.”
Simon the Zealot was not necessarily a close friend of Judas the Galilean. He may never have met him.
But revolution was in the air, and I would guess that Simon the Zealot breathed deep from that air.
But that’s just a guess, because we’re very short on facts.
Here’s what we know. Simon the Zealot was not the only person breathing that revolutionary air. It’s reasonable to think that most Jews of the time would have longed for freedom.
Rome captured Jerusalem in the year 63 BC, and they never went home. So for the hundred years before Jesus came on the scene, Rome had been grinding its iron boot into the face of Israel.
And then Jesus of Nazareth came along, talking about a new “kingdom of God” that was right around the corner.
Anyone breathing that revolutionary air would have heard these words of Jesus as a call to revolt.
Which raises one more question.
Was Jesus a Zealot?
Some historians think so, although not very many. The problem is that the saying “love your enemies” doesn’t fit very well with the zealot idea of “drive the Romans into the sea.”
It’s true that Jesus used some words (“kingdom of God”) that a revolutionary would use. But many of his other words don’t fit with a revolutionary. And neither do his actions.
But here’s an important point. When you understand the revolutionary spirit that pervaded Galilee and Judea in the first century, you begin to read the story of Jesus in a new way. You begin to see connections you didn’t see before. Like why a man named “Simon the Zealot” might be attracted to Jesus.
And maybe, just maybe, you understand the story of Jesus a little better.
That’s why I’ve been interested in the zealots and the Jewish Revolt for many years.
I’m sure I’ll have more to say on this in many future blog posts.