One of Jesus' 12 disciples was known as Simon the Zealot (Matthew 10:4; Mark 3:18; Luke 6:15; Acts 1:13). Who were the Zealots?
The Zealots were a political movement among Jews who sought to overthrow the occupying Roman government. The term Zealots comes from the Greek word zelotes that means emulator or zealous follower.
The first century Jewish historian Josephus mentioned the Zealots as a Jewish political movement started by Judas of Galilee and Zadok the Pharisee in AD 6. In most respects, they were aligned with the Pharisees of the New Testament period, but further believed that God should be the leader of the nation rather than the Roman government. Since Josephus personally opposed these Zealots, his writing emphasized them in a very negative manner. Josephus also noted that Judas of Galilee called the Jews cowards if they continued to pay taxes to Rome.
This description of the Zealots made clear they held to the teachings of the Torah, yet believed they were to be enforced through activism and even acts of violence. This belief would later play an important role in the history of Israel that would influence the writers of the New Testament.
When imperial cult worship was introduced in Israel, the Zealots helped lead a military revolt against the Romans in AD 66. They were initially successful, yet the Romans later destroyed the city of Jerusalem and the temple in AD 70.
Some have looked at the attitudes and actions of the Zealots in this period and noted their similarities to modern-day terrorists. However, this label is only partly correct since not all Zealots were violent and the fact that the Zealots were fighting to defend their own homeland rather than another nation.
An understanding of the Zealots, however, helps to highlight the choice of Simon the Zealot as one of the first disciples of Jesus. Many think of the tax collector Matthew as the most unpopular choice Jesus made for a disciple. However, in the midst of teaching about being a peacemaker (Matthew 5:9) and speaking about a kingdom not of this world, Simon the Zealot found himself learning about a worldview that stood in contradiction with his likely desires to overthrow his occupying government. Instead, Jesus taught the important role of love, even loving one's enemies, as part of God's will for our lives.
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