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The term Zealot, in Hebrew kanai means one who is jealous on behalf of God, meaning anyone who is overly zealous.
War with Rome
Although today it means anyone who is overly enthusiastic, the origin of the word is with a Jewish political movement in the 1st century AD that sought to incite the people of Judea to rebel against the Roman Empire and expel it from the country by force of arms during the Great Jewish Revolt (AD 66-70). When the Romans introduced the Imperial cult to Judaea, the Jews had rebelled and been put down. The Zealots continued to oppose the Romans, on the grounds that Israel belonged only to a Jewish king derived from David.
The Zealots had the leading role in the Jewish Revolt of 66. They succeeded in taking Jerusalem, and held it until 70, when the son of Roman emperor Vespasian, Titus Flavius, recaptured the city and destroyed the Second Temple during the destruction of Jerusalem.
The Zealots were opposed to Roman rule and sought to eliminate it by violent means. Their activities included raids on Jewish settlements and eliminating Jewish collaborators, as well as inciting the Jews to fight Rome and each other if necessary. Josephus paints a very bleak picture of their murderous activities as they instituted a "reign of terror" in the build-up to the Temple's destruction.
According to Josephus, the Zealots followed John of Gischala , who had fought the Romans in Galilee, escaped, come to Jerusalem, and then inspired the locals to a fanatical position that led to the destruction of the Temple. This figure has been identified by modern scholars as either Judas of Gamala, who led a revolt in AD 6, or the Sicarii. According to Josephus, the followers of Judas of Gamala agreed in all doctrinal points with the Pharisees, except in the matter of rule. The Sicarii, on the other hand, sought to gain their power by killing their opponents and ended up in the siege of Masada. Both of these identifications are troubled, however.
In the Talmud, the Zealots are also called the baryonim meaning "boorish" or "wild", and are condemned for their aggression, unwillingness to compromise to save the living survivors of Jerusalem besieged by the Romans, and blind-militarism and are blamed for having contributed to the demise of Jerusalem, the second Jewish Temple and of ensuring Rome's retributions and stranglehold on Judea.
The Zealots took the Roman fortress, Masada, and killed everyone inside. The Romans expended thousands of troops in an effort to re-take the stronghold, but even after inventing intricate new types of battering rams, some five stories high, the fortress remained in Zealot hands. The Romans eventually gave up and burned the walls down. When they stormed in, all they found were corpses. The Zealots had committed suicide rather than continue in servitude.
The Jewish Revolt was quickly suppressed and the Zealots lost all their influence and finally vanished.
One particularly extreme group of Zealots was also known in Latin as sicarii, "daggermen" (sing. sicarius), because of their policy of assassinating Jews opposed to their call for war against Rome. Probably many Zealots were sicarri simultaneously, and they may be the baryonim of the Talmud that were feared even by the Jewish sages of the Mishnah, such as Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai who feared assassination for suggesting a truce with the Roman forces besieging ancient Jerusalem, and had to feign death in a casket to escape being stabbed.
New Testament narrative
The New Testament was written much later but its narrative is set during those times. Some have speculated that the name of Jesus' disciple Judas Iscariot means that he was a sicarii, "daggermen" (sing. sicarius is a corruption of this term) - "Judas the Zealot". However, the Latin and Hebrew words for "zealot" sound very different, so it is hard to conclude definitively.
Tax collectors, like Matthew, were often collaborating with the Romans.
Among the Apostles of Jesus, there were two possible Zealots, Judas Iscariot and Simon the Canaanite, also known by Luke as "Simon the Zealot". The epithet for Simon is a Greek translation of an Aramaic word that corresponds to "zealot," and it is possible either that the Zealots were in existence at this time (earlier than the Sicarii identification) or simply that Simon was enthusiastic and like a Zealot.
Modern day use of the term "zealot" was developed by a group of Christian youth who wished to distinguish themselves from people they claimed did not follow Christian teachings but nethertheless claimed they were Christian.
These new Zealots use four distinguishing marks, or "pillars" to identify people as fellow Zealots. The four pillars are based on the four living creatures in the books of Ezekiel and Revelation, in the Bible.
- The ox represents submission to the authority of a local church.
- The eagle represents sexual purity before and during (heterosexual) marriage.
- The lion represents purity from drugs and getting drunk
- The man represents service to the community.
Zealots have a tendency to protest against abortion, prostitution, and homosexuality, among other things. However, since the Zealots see themselves as having a worldview based in love, they can often be found serving the poor and helpless. One such example is the Jesus People in Chicago.
There is also a community in India called the K'nanaites (K'nanaya Community) which traces its roots to the disciples of Jesus and were part of the original zealots who joined the Nazarene movement with Simon the Zealot. This community had migrated to Edessa from Jerusalem in the 1st century AD and from Edessa, they migrated to the Southern Port City of Muziris in South India in AD 345. They have maintained racial purity by practising endogamy and they number about 150000 in total.
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