Zealotry was originally a political movement in the 1st century Second Temple Judaism which sought to incite the people of Iudaea Province to rebel against the Roman Empire and expel it from the Holy land by force of arms, most notably during the Great Jewish Revolt (66-70). Zealotry was described by Josephus as one of the "four sects" at this time. The zealots have been described as one of the first example of the use of terrorism.
The term Zealot, in Hebrew kanai (קנאי, frequently used in plural form, קנאים (kana'im)), means one who is zealous on behalf of God. The term derives from Greek ζηλωτής (zelotes), "emulator, zealous admirer or follower".
Josephus' Jewish Antiquities states that there were three main Jewish sects at this time, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Essenes. The Zealots were a "fourth sect", founded by Judas of Galilee (also called Judas of Gamala) and Zadok the Pharisee in the year 6 against Quirinius' tax reform, shortly after the Roman state declared (what had most recently been the territory of Herod Archelaus) a Roman Province, and that they "agree in all other things with the Pharisaic notions; but they have an inviolable attachment to liberty, and say that God is to be their only Ruler and Lord." (18.1.6)
|“||Following Josephus ("B. J." ii. 8, § 1; "Ant." xviii. 1, §§ 1, 6), most writers consider that the Zealots were a so-called fourth party founded by Judas the Galilean (see Grätz, "Gesch." iii. 252, 259; Schürer, "Gesch." 1st ed., i. 3, 486). This view is contradicted, however, by the fact that Hezekiah, the father of Judas the Galilean, had an organized band of so-called "robbers" which made war against the Idumean Herod ("B. J." i. 10, § 5; "Ant." xiv. 9, § 2), and also during the reign of Herod, if not long before by the fact that the system of religious and political murders practised by the Zealots was in existence during the reign of Herod, if not long before.||”|
In either case, it has also been argued that the group was not so clearly marked out (before the first war of 66-70/3) as some have thought.
The Crisis under Caligula (37-41) has been proposed as the "first open break between Rome and the Jews", even though problems were already evident during the Census of Quirinius in 6 and under Sejanus (before 31). See also Anti-Judaism in the pre-Christian Roman Empire.
The Zealots had the leading role in the Jewish Revolt of 66. They succeeded in taking over Jerusalem, and held it until 70, when the son of Roman Emperor Vespasian, Titus, retook the city and destroyed Herod's Temple during the destruction of Jerusalem.
The Zealots objected to Roman rule and violently sought to eradicate it by generally targeting Romans and Greeks. Zealots engaged in violence against other Jews were called the Sicarii. They raided Jewish habitations and killed Jews they considered apostate and collaborators, while also urging Jews to fight Romans and other Jews for the cause. Josephus paints a very bleak picture of their activities as they instituted what he characterized as a murderous "reign of terror" prior to the Jewish Temple's destruction.
According to Josephus, the Zealots followed John of Gischala, who had fought the Romans in Galilee, escaped, came to Jerusalem, and then inspired the locals to a fanatical position that led to the Temple's destruction.
In the Talmud, the Zealots are also called the Biryonim (בריונים) meaning "boorish", "wild", or "ruffians", and are condemned for their aggression, their unwillingness to compromise to save the survivors of besieged Jerusalem, and their blind militarism. They are further blamed for having contributed to the demise of Jerusalem and the second Jewish Temple, and of ensuring Rome's retributions and stranglehold on Judea. According to the Babylonian Talmud, Gittin:56b, the Biryonim destroyed decades' worth of food and firewood in besieged Jerusalem to force the Jews to fight the Romans out of desperation. This event directly led to the escape of Yochanan ben Zakkai out of Jerusalem, who met Vespasian which led to the foundation of the Academy of Yavneh which produced the Mishnah.
The Zealots advocated violence against the Romans, their Jewish collaborators, and the Sadducees, by raiding for provisions and other activities to aid their cause.
After the destruction of Jerusalem and the Second Temple in AD 70, 960 Zealots under the lead of Elazar ben Yair took refuge by capturing the Roman fortress of Masada and taking no prisoners. Rome sent the Tenth Legion to retake the stronghold, but it failed for three years. It is estimated that they took over 1,000 casualties in the process. The Zealots held the fortress even after the Romans invented new types of siege engines. Finally, in the third year of the siege, 73, The Romans completed a massive earthwork siege ramp up one face of the mountain on which Masada sat. This allowed them to bring the full strength of their siege to bear and penetrate the walls, a feat impossible before due to the topography of the mountain itself. When the Romans stormed in to capture the Zealots, they found that the fighters and their families had all committed suicide.
One particularly extreme group of Zealots was also known in Latin as sicarii, meaning "violent men" or "dagger men"(sing. sicarius, possibly a morphological reanalysis), because of their policy of killing Jews opposed to their call for war against Rome. Probably many Zealots were sicarii simultaneously, and they may be the biryonim of the Talmud that were feared even by the Jewish sages of the Mishnah.
According to historian H.H. Ben-Sasson, the Sicarii, originally based in Galilee, "were fighting for a social revolution, while the Jerusalem Zealots placed less stress on the social aspect" and the Sicarii "never attached themselves to one particular family and never proclaimed any of their leaders king". Both groups objected to the way the priestly families were running the Temple.
The term sicariii also referred to a class of gladiators who fought with a long, curved knife.
A Simon who is referred to as "the Zealot" is found among the disciples of Jesus, see Simon the Zealot. It is unknown if this is also the same Simon the Zealot mentioned by Josephus, though the two Simons would be contemporaries.
Taking the Greek word zelotes in Acts 22:3 and Galatians 1:14 of the New Testament to mean a 'Zealot' with capital Z (the earliest Greek manuscripts are uncials or all capital letters), an article by Mark R. Fairchild suggests that Paul the Apostle may have been a Zealot, which might have been the driving force behind his persecution of the Christians (see stoning of Saint Stephen) before his conversion to Christianity, and his incident at Antioch even after his conversion.
While most English translations of the Bible render this Greek word as the adjective "zealous", the word is a noun meaning 'adherent, loyalist, enthusiast; patriot, zealot'. A 'Zealot' with capital Z, however, would suggest a member of the particular Zealots, the group that emerged in Jerusalem ca. AD 6 according to Josephus, see above. In the two cited verses Paul literally declares himself as one who is loyal to God, or an ardent observer of the Law, but see also Antinomianism in the NT. This does not necessarily prove Paul was revealing himself as a Zealot. A translation (the Modern King James Version of Jay P. Green) renders it as 'a zealous one'. Two modern translations (Jewish New Testament and Alternate Literal Translation) render it as 'a zealot'. The Unvarnished New Testament (1991) renders Galatians 1:14 as "...being an absolute zealot for the traditions...". These translations may not be inaccurate, but it is disputed by those who claim it gives the wrong association with the "Zealots".