Zealot is a term that has been associated with a movement of revolutionaries active throughout the first century CE in Roman Palestine and thus during the time of Jesus' ministry. These Zealots supposedly played the major role in the social unrest which ultimately erupted in the First Jewish Revolt against Rome in 66 CE. Jesus' teaching, and in particular speeches such as the Sermon on the Mount, have been read against the Zealots' advocacy of armed resistance against and the overthrow of the Roman occupational forces and administrators. In fact, one of Jesus' followers, Simon, was called “zealot” (Luke 6.15; Acts 1.13), but this may simply be a descriptive epithet rather than meaning a member of an organized group.
However, this older and disturbingly tidy scholarly reconstruction concerning the Zealots has recently been overturned. The Jewish revolt in 66–70 is not now viewed as the work of a longstanding group called the Zealots. A much closer reading of Josephus reveals that such an organized group did not exist for the six decades before the revolt. The Zealots only emerge at the outset of the revolt, and then only as a coalition of popular groups seeking the overthrow of Rome, including numerous bandit groups (Grk. lastai), Sicarii or dagger people (urban terrorists), as well as groups lead by messianic figures and popular kings. The pioneering work of Richard A. Horsley, particularly in his work, Bandits, Prophets, and Messiahs: Popular Movements at the Time of Jesus (New York, 1985) has demonstrated this with great clarity. During the first century the colonial situation brought on by Roman domination and exacerbated by the ruling Herodian dynasty escalated into a socioeconomic malaise characterized by great debt, unemployment, social division, crime, banditry, and finally revolt; the Jesus movement developed in this context, and many of Jesus' sayings are only understandable when placed in it. Josephus describes these social ills and the movements which arose in Galilee and Judea with disdain. “Zealot” became one term to describe the brief coalition of such movements. As the coalition fragmented, some groups went to Masada in the south to await the outcome of the struggle, some killed each other, and others fought the Romans to the death. There was thus no single, monolithic group called the Zealots against whom other perspectives can be easily measured.
J. Andrew Overman