Who were the Zealots?

The Zealots were the armed resistance to the Roman occupation of Israel, and caused uprisings throughout a 200 year period. They terrorized collaborators, assassinated leaders, robbed caravans and killed legionaries whenever they could, operating as urban and rural guerrillas with their trademark curved dagger, the sica. They were sicariots, dagger men.

Zealots - robbers, or freedom fighters?

The Romans called them sicariots, robbers, thieves and brigands. But they would hardly call them heroes, patriots and freedom fighters, would they?

Once a generation or so a Zealot leader would arise who would lead a full-scale revolt – capture a city, massacre gentiles, loot arms and treasure, and finally be crushed when the Romans sent in a couple of Legions.

In 6 CE when Jesus was about 12, Judas of Galilee captured Sepphoris (or Zippori), the capital of Galilee only four miles from Nazareth. The Romans defeated his ragtag forces and crucified 2,000 of them. (Jesus’ father Joseph is not heard of after that event.)

After Jesus led his unsuccessful uprising in the Temple at Jerusalem, he was caught and crucified between two “thieves”. Neither theft nor blasphemy was punished with crucifixion; only rebellion was. When the Romans labeled Jesus “King of the Jews” they were echoing his claim from his ride into Jerusalem on his donkey, and clarifying why they were crucifying him. The two “thieves” were also important enough to be crucified.

A fourth was arrested and released: Barabbas, identified as “a robber”. “Bar-abbas” is a strange name – it means “son of a father”, “son of his father”, or “Son of the Father”. He was a Zealot, anyway. In “The Gospel According to the Romans” I suggest a couple of different reasons for his release.

The Zealots were active for another 100 years, until the final destruction of Jerusalem in the Bar Kokhba Revolt.

Jewish Uprisings against the Romans – before Jesus

During a Jewish civil war in 63 BCE, one side paid Romans under the command of Pompey eight tons of silver and nearly a ton of gold to intervene. The Romans gradually annexed Hellenized areas like Syria, Samaria and the Decapolis, leaving Judea and Galilee as a client kingdom. Galilee, being wild and hilly, was a natural center of Jewish religious and military resistance against the idolatrous, pig-eating Westerners. Its 25-year-old governor, Herod, captured and executed the leader of the resistance, Hezekiah.

Herod was created king of Judea by Mark Antony and Octavian (later Caesar Augustus), and he kept order through ruthless suppression of dissent, including the murder of his favorite wife and several other family members. When he died in 4 BCE, at least three Messianic uprisings broke out simultaneously, led by Judas the son of Hezekiah, and Simon of Perea, and Athronges the Shepherd. Judas captured the palace at Sepphoris and looted it of weapons and treasure; he was defeated by the Romans, but escaped. Simon burned down the palace at Jericho and looted what was left; he was defeated, caught and decapitated. Athronges had some success against the Romans, and it took two years to crush his forces; we don’t know what happened to him.

The Temple in Jerusalem. Romans used the Antonia Fortress at left

In 6 CE Judas of Galilee captured and looted Sepphoris; the Romans defeated his army of Zealots and crucified 2,000 of them. Judas was thrown into the sea with a millstone round his neck. It is not certain this Judas is the son of Hezekiah – in ‘The Gospel According to the Romans’ I assume it is.

This disastrous failure of an uprising happened when Jesus of Nazareth was 12, and had been to the Temple in Jerusalem with Joseph and Mary. Nazareth is only 4 miles from Sepphoris. We don’t hear anything about Joseph after this, and we don’t know what Jesus did for the next couple of decades. Regardless of Jesus’ or Joseph’s involvement in the rebellion, these were major and catastrophic events in Jesus’ formative years.

The Dead Sea Scrolls

After the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered in the 1940s and 1950s, scholars hoarded them jealously while trying to carve out a little piece of immortality for themselves as translators and revealers. The dribs and drabs of selective translation allowed a pacifist, even hippie, interpretation of the community at Qumran, where Essenes were deemed to have been the owners of the texts.

It was only with the appearance of an almost complete translation, including the War Scroll and details of the authoritarian and militaristic aspects of daily life that comprise 30% of the manuscripts, that it became clear that the library was not Essene. What is thought to have happened is that Essenes indeed used to live at Qumran until a severe earthquake in 31 BCE damaged many of the buildings, triggered an extensive fire, and possibly led to poisonous fumes being released from the Dead Sea. The site was abandoned for several decades.

Some of Jesus' teaching echoes scrolls found in the caves at Qumran

I propose that the remnants of Judas of Galilee’s Zealot army, crushed by the Romans in response to his violent insurrection in 6 CE, took refuge in Qumran, and that the library is theirs. That was the uprising that ended with the Romans crucifying 2,000 Jews (and incidentally, Jesus’ father Joseph is never mentioned again after that time – make of it what you will – I personally make a lot).

Regarding translations and interpretations of the Dead Sea Scrolls, I recommend the translation by Wise, Abegg and Cook (HarperCollins, 1996). Avoid anything earlier than that as being too selective and biased to be worth reading.

Roughly 40% of the material is standard-Biblical, 30% is apocryphal-Biblical, and the remaining 30% is bizarre and fascinating, with everything from formidably tough social laws (“A man who draws out his left hand to gesture during conversation is to suffer ten days’ reduced rations”) to details of a future war with the Romans, both preparations (“On the trumpets of ambush they shall write, Mysteries of God to wipe out wickedness. On the trumpets of pursuit they shall write, God has struck all Sons of Darkness, He shall not abate His anger until they are annihilated“) and the prophesied outcomes of individual battles.

It is a strange and wonderful text, showing the daily lives and background mythology of a violent fundamentalist sect.