Jewish religious-political faction of Judah, existing for a period of about 70 years or possible more, in the 1st century CE.
Masada fortress. Photo: A M.
The Zealots achieved fairly little, except to trigger heavy Roman control over the Jews and the closing off of Jerusalem to Jews. But they were the main actors in one of the central legends in Jewish history: the defence of Masada and the subsequent collective suicide.
In their theology, the Zealots were relatively close to the Pharisees, but their doctrines had a strong focus on the necessities of violent actions against the enemies of Judaism.
The Zealots could not accept any foreign rule or domination as they meant that the land of the Jews, Judah, only could be ruled according to the principles and the authority of God.
The Zealots were formed as a political party with a designated leadership and lay members. They had broken with the normal Jewish society, and hence also with Jewish authorities and leaders.
The Zealots consisted of factions, where a terrorist group, the Sicarii (from the Greek), assassinated both Romans and Jewish leaders with daggers. These actions were sometimes also directed towards normal citizens, and in public places.
It is possible that the Essenes and the Zealots formed an alliance, as there are many similarities especially in terms of opposition to the established society. It is even possible that the Essenes and Zealots were branches of the same organization. But for both these possibilities, there is no proof.
Was Jesus a Zealot?
According to Luke 6:15 Simon, one of Jesus' disciples, was a Zealot. It was also in a climate of tension that Jesus must have been executed, tensions brought forward much due to the Zealots and their actions.
Some scholars have pointed towards facts that indicate that Jesus may have been one of the Zealots. The clearest indicator was his execution on a cross, a punishment the Roman authorities used only for political rebels. Another indicator is the cleansing of the Temple in Mark 11, which expresses attitudes in accordance with the Zealot ideology. A third indicator is that at least a few of the disciples carried arms (Mark 14:47), all the time or under certain circumstances.
But other elements point even more clearly away from this theory: Jesus did not teach strict adherence to the Law, and he associated with sinners and people outside the Law, both reflecting the Zealots, both in their teaching and their social situation.
Within this theory, it may be alleged that Jesus emerged from within the ranks of the Zealots, but changed central parts of their ideology.
Around 0: The group of the Zealots emerge, much in opposition to the regime of Herod the Great.
6 CE: The Zealots, under the leadership of Judas of Galilee, call for rebellion as a protest against Judah being put under direct Roman rule. The rebellion, where especially the Sicarii are active, was quickly put down. Many of their leaders were killed.
Around 10- 60: The Zealots are still active in terrorist attacks, but only on a small scale.
66: The Zealots are central in organizing the uprising against the Romans.
70: The Jewish rebellion in Jerusalem is crushed, and with it most of the Zealots are killed.
73: A group of Zealots hiding in the fortress of Masada are in reality defeated by the Romans, and commit collective suicide. But this did not represent the end of the Zealots, as there were several small groups around Palestine that continued to be active.
2nd century: Last reports of Zealot activity.