ZEALOT (zĕl'ŭt, Gr. zēlōtēs, zealous one). A member of a Jewish patriotic party started in the time of Quirinius to resist Roman aggression. According to Josephus (War 4.3.9; 5.1; 7.8.1), the Zealots resorted to violence and assassination in their hatred of the Romans, their fanatical violence eventually provoking the Roman war. Simon the Zealot was distinguished from Simon Peter by this epithet (Luke.6.15; Acts.1.13).

ZEALOT (קַנָאַן; Gr. Ζηλώτης, meaning: zeal, rival, desire greatly, zealous one). A Jewish political party (somewhat comparable to the Chinese Boxers of the 20th cent.) with religious underpinnings which did not hesitate to use intrigue, violence, force and deception in achieving its liberating ends. The term Canaanean seems to have been used synonymously. One of the twelve disciples of Jesus, Simon by name, was a member of this party before his call to discipleship (Luke 6:15; Acts 1:13) and retained the designation after he joined the apostolic band.

There were several prototypes of this fanatical movement in Jewish tradition. They include Simeon and Levi, the sons of Jacob, who led a murderous expedition against the Shechemites after their sister Dinah had been violated (Gen 34:4ff.); Phinehas, the Aaronite, who drove his spear into an adulterous Israelitish man and Midianite woman when harlotry invaded Israel (Num 25:8); Elijah, who slew the priests of Baal at the brook Kishon when they had infiltrated the people of God (1 Kings 18:40); and the venerable and courageous Mattathias who, in his zeal for the covenantal God of Israel and in loyalty to His law, refused to offer a pagan sacrifice, killed the king’s commissioner and an apostate Jewish priest who complied with the order, and touched off the Maccabean Wars (1 Macc 2:15-28).

The Zealot movement in its technical aspect originated, according to Josephus, during the reign of Herod the Great (Jos. Wars II. 4. 1; IV. 4. 1). After the deposition of Archelaus in a.d. 6-7, Coponius was dispatched by the Romans to Judea to serve as its first procurator. He was accompanied by Quirinius (referred to in Luke 2:2), whose duty it was to compile a census of the Jews and to make a detailed notation of their property holdings. The irenically minded Jewish high priest Joazar sought to persuade the Jews to accept the order in good grace and comply with the demand (Jos Antiq. XVIII. i. 1; XVIII. ii. 1; XVII. vi. 4). A firebrand leader however, Judas the son of Ezekias, was not so disposed. Motivated by a deep hatred for the pagan overseers and by fierce loyalty to the Jewish traditions, he sought to countermand the persuasions of Joazar by spreading the propaganda that yielding to the foreign demands and agreeing to submit to a census spelled inevitable and ignominious slavery for God’s people. Successful, in a measure at least in stirring up opposition, he led an underground movement that engaged in brigandage and did not hesitate to go to excessive lengths to resist the authority of Rome.

The Pharisees were doubtless as intensively patriotic as were the Zealots, but they had a different philosophy of history and they took a different attitude toward their captors. They interpreted the domination of Herod and that of the Romans as a punishment of God for their sins and a summons to repentance. They had an optimistic outlook and they confidently expected that the end of foreign domination would come when their guilt would be expiated and the nation would be totally restored to walking in the way of the law. Then, according to their view, God would personally intervene. Their hope of ultimate redemption rested in the sovereignly intervening hand of God.

The new religiously based liberation movement, however, felt that its members must unequivocally reject any ruler over Israel except God Jehovah. They held the unshakable conviction that only if unconditional action were taken and if total obedience would be evident, God would intervene and establish the Messianic age. They refused to pay taxes, harried and murdered government officials, militated against the use of the Gr. language in Pal. (a symbol of pagan influence and domination), and by virtue of their patriotic fervor they felt entitled to prophesy the coming of the time of salvation. After Jerusalem fell (and the Zealots played a heroic role in its defense), they fled to Egypt and, continuing to exhibit their convictions there, refused even at the cost of maryrdom to call Caesar, Lord.


W. R. Farmer, Maccabees, Zealots, and Josephus (1956); L. Hartmann, “The Zealots,” EDB (1963), 2627; W. Foerster, From the Exile to Christ (1964), 88-91, 164; Y. Yadin, Masada, Herod’s Fortress and the Zealots’ Last Stand (1966).

International Standard Bible Encyclopedia (1915)

zel’-ut, zel’-uts: Simon, one of the apostles, was called "the Zealot" Zelotes from zeloo "to rival," "emulate," "be jealous," "admire," "desire greatly," Lu 6:15; Ac 1:13, the King James Version "Zelotes"). In Mt 10:4 and Mr 3:18 he is called "the Cananean" (so the Revised Version (British and American) correctly; not "the Canaanite," as the King James Version says, following inferior manuscripts), ho Kananaios. From the time of the Maccabees there existed among the Jews a party who professed great zeal for the observance of the "law." According to Josephus (BJ, IV, iii, 9; v, 1; VII, viii, 1) they resorted to violence and assassination in their hatred of the foreigner, being at many points similar to the Chinese Boxers. It is not improbable that the "Assassins" (see Assassins) of Ac 21:38 were identical, or at least closely associated, with this body of "Zealots," to which we must conclude that Simon had belonged before he became one of the Twelve.

See, further, SIMON THE ZEALOT.