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.
If you’ve read through the New Testament, you might be rather surprised at how often “King Herod” keeps popping up in the story.
The book of Matthew tells a story of how the evil King Herod killed all the babies in Bethlehem in an attempt to get rid of the infant Jesus. In the story, Joseph and Mary escape with their son to Egypt, and only return a few years later when they learn that Herod is dead.
Thirty years later, Jesus is an adult preaching in Galilee, but then he gets in trouble with … King Herod again! And this King Herod captures and kills John the Baptist and is on the lookout for Jesus. You may be wondering what’s going on here? Wasn’t King Herod already dead? Did somebody make a mistake?
Another dozen years pass, and King Herod pops up yet again, this time in the book of Acts, where he arrests one of the apostles (James) and has him beheaded. Then he arrests another apostle, Peter, who miraculously escapes. Then there’s a short story about him getting a bit conceited at a festival when the crowd acclaims him as a god. In this story, Herod is suddenly stricken with a strange illness and dies a few days later.
More than a decade later, the apostle Paul is arrested in Jerusalem and taken to the port city of Caesarea, where he meets the Roman governor. The governor talks to Paul for a bit, and then puts him in prison in … Herod’s palace. So which Herod is this?
How the devil does King Herod keep popping up for so many decades? Is he a zombie or what?
Four King Herods
Here’s what’s going on. The New Testament actually tells about four different king Herods, all part of the same dynasty. And it mentions a few other members of this family. Here’s a brief summary of the four main Herods:
- King Herod the Great was born about the year 73 or 74 BC and died about the year 4 BC. He’s the King Herod who appears in the Bethlehem Massacre story in the book of Matthew. He took ten different women as wives and had a lot of children. But he was a bit paranoid and executed his favorite wife and three of his sons. People joked that it was safer to be Herod’s pig than his son (since Herod kept kosher and therefore didn’t eat pigs). Herod was a prolific builder, and you can see his work today all over modern Israel—including the gigantic stone platform now known as the Temple Mount. He also created the city of Caesarea and built a palace there where Paul would be tried many decades later.
- Herod Antipas was one of the sons of Herod the Great and inherited a third of his kingdom. Herod Antipas was not actually a king. His official title was tetrarch, but people sometimes flattered him by calling him king. He was born before 20 BC and died sometime after AD 39. He’s the Herod who arrested and beheaded John the Baptist, and then went asking around for Jesus. Antipas divorced his first wife so he could marry his niece—who also happened to be his brother’s wife. His step-daughter later married another of his brothers. The Herod family tree was about as incestuous as you can get.
- Herod Agrippa I was a grandson of Herod the Great and nephew of Antipas. He was educated in Rome and eventually became king. He ruled over Judea for only a few years, from AD 41 to 44. He’s the Herod who beheaded the apostle James and arrested Peter and then died mysteriously at the festival. But he also played a central role in choosing one of the emperors, Claudius Caesar. In a very real sense, Agrippa played the role of king-maker. In doing so, he prevented the Roman Senate from destroying the position of emperor and returning the empire to a republic. This decision had repercussions for twenty centuries, right down to our own time.
- Herod Agrippa II was the son of Herod Agrippa I and ruled for some years over certain small territories north of Galilee. He presided over one of the trials of the apostle Paul, along with his sister Bernice. There were rumors that Agrippa and his sister were sleeping together. Bernice later became the mistress of the Roman general Titus, the one who captured Jerusalem in the year AD 70. I don’t believe Bernice was quite the terrible person that some of the historians want to make her. She did one thing that was undeniably heroic. So I made her a fairly major character in two of my novels, Premonition and Retribution, where I show her as the flawed hero I think she probably was.
The above summary only scratches the surface on the amazing Herod family. We know a lot more about them from the historical records. They were, in a word, a remarkable dynasty that had a major impact on the Roman empire. In a future blog post, I’ll give more details about each of the four Herods.
And why does this all matter? Because Jesus of Nazareth grew up in a real world, with real enemies. Some of his most powerful enemies were members of the Herod family. So you can bet that the Herods are going to come up in my Crown of Thorns series.
The more you know about the world of Jesus and the real historical people in that world, the better you’ll understand the mission and message of Jesus.
In the first scene of my novel Transgression, my heroine Rivka finds herself at the back of a mysterious cave in Jerusalem. She doesn’t know it yet, but she’s traveled back in time through a wormhole to the year AD 57.
When she comes out of the cave, she looks up and sees the Temple Mount rising in front of her. But it’s not the Temple Mount she remembers from the tour she took in Jerusalem on a hot summer day in the twenty-first century.
The Temple Mount she’s looking at is clean. Spotless. New.
And she begins to realize that something very weird has happened.
Rivka goes on to have an adventure in first-century Jerusalem. She meets some new friends and makes some dangerous enemies. She finds some surprises that challenge what she thought she knew. And, oh yeah, she saves the life of the apostle Paul.
Late in the novel, she ventures back to the cave where it all began, because that’s her ticket back to the 21st century. And something happens there that changes everything for her and her new friend Ari. (If you’ve read Transgression, you know what I’m talking about.)
The Cave is Real
By the way, the cave is real. I’ve never mentioned this fact publicly before, but the cave in the novel is real.
You can visit the cave today. I went there myself in the summer of 2016.
But I already knew the cave existed way back in the summer of 1997, when I wrote that first scene of Transgression.
How did I know the cave existed?
Because I read about it in the July/August 1995 issue of Biblical Archaeology Review. Prof. Joan Taylor wrote an article about the cave that captured my imagination.
What’s special about this cave?
The cave may very well be the exact spot where Jesus was arrested on the night he was betrayed.
Why This Cave Might Be Where Jesus Was Arrested
The cave is at the base of the Mount of Olives, right next to the traditional Tomb of the Virgin, and less than a hundred yards from the traditional “Garden of Gethsemane.”
As Prof. Taylor points out in her article, the cave would be a perfect spot for Jesus and the Twelve to camp out during the Passover season. You could build a small fire inside and keep the whole place reasonably warm. You’d be protected from the elements. You’d be safe from the prying eyes of the authorities—unless one of your friends turned traitor on you.
And there’s a notch in the wall that used to hold the end of the beam of an olive press. That’s important, because the word “Gethsemane” is just a transliteration of the Aramaic word “Gat-Shemanin,” which means “oil-press.” The cave is right next to a grove of ancient olive trees. In the first century, the owner of the olive grove pressed his olives into oil in that cave. The olive harvest comes in the fall. In the spring, (at Passover time), the owner wasn’t using his cave. He may well have rented it out to visitors for the feast of Passover.
The cave is about 60 feet long and 36 feet wide and could easily have held a few dozen people.
The reason you can visit the cave today is because there’s a long tradition (going back to at least the fourth century) that this was the site of the arrest of Jesus. So they built a small chapel in the cave, and it’s been there ever since.
What The Gethsemane Cave Looks Like Today
If you visit the cave, you’ll see a small plaque at the entrance that says this might be the place where Jesus was arrested. Here’s a picture of the plaque:
The place is an actual chapel, so they hold religious services there to this day. When my wife and I visited in the summer of 2016, we sat down in the chapel, took out our phones, opened our electronic Bibles, and read the accounts of the arrest of Jesus in Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John.
If you ever visit Jerusalem, I recommend that you do that too. You’ll get an amazing sense of the reality of the story. Because that reality will be all around you.
Here’s a photo of the cave that I took:
As you can see, the cave today is an odd mix of ancient and modern. That’s typical in Jerusalem. I’ve been to a restaurant in the Old City where part of the wall was originally a stone in the city wall in the first century. I’ve been to another restaurant and sat at a table right next to a small monument to the Tenth Legion (the one that destroyed the city in AD 70). Wherever you go in Jerusalem, you’ll find the very old sitting cheek-by-jowl with the very new.
More On The Gethsemane Cave In My Next Novel
I’m working on a new series of novels about Jesus of Nazareth right now, with the working series title Crown of Thorns. You can bet the cave will show up in these books. Because I’m pretty sure Jesus knew the owner of this cave and spent time here when he needed a quiet place.
So when you read Crown of Thorns (the first book in the series will be coming out next year), watch for the cave!
Some interesting things will happen there.