The goal of the Zealots, a party of uncompromising revolutionaries, was to free Judea from Roman rule. They took an active role in the uprising known as the First Jewish Revolt during the years 66–70 ce, which ended in the destruction of the Second Temple. The name Zealots probably served to link this group, which was connected to the priestly class, to the most famous zealot in Jewish biblical and post-biblical traditions, Phinehas the son of Eleazar, grandson of Aaron the High Priest (Nm. 25). The Jewish historian Josephus is the main source for information about the Zealots and their ideology. He mentions them in the context of the war, mainly from the fourth book of his The Jewish War onward, where he describes the stage in the war when the Romans had already overcome Galilee, Yavneh (Iamnia), and Ashdod, and their threat to Jerusalem had become more real. However, this does not mean that the Zealots had not been involved in events prior to the First Jewish Revolt. One of the disciples of Jesus, Simon, is called Zelotes in the New Testament (Lk. 6.15; Acts 1.13), and this is said of a man who lived, operated, and got his nickname decades before the outbreak of the First Jewish Revolt. A theory popular among historians is that there is a connection between the Zealots and the school of Shammai, the first-century sage. This theory is based, among other things, on a Talmudic tradition, which relates that the followers of Shammai forced the followers of his colleague Hillel to accept eighteen rulings that were laid down in the upper room of Ḥananiah ben Hezekiah ben Gorion (M. Shab. 1.4). These rulings display a tendency to distance Jews from non-Jews, and to impede contacts between them.

Josephus makes an explicit distinction between the Zealots and the Sicarii. He notes the Sicarii for the first time in The Jewish War, and connects their beginnings with Judah of Gamla at the time of Quirinius's census, when Judea was made into a province after the deposition of Archelaus. Following this, he lists the four elements on which the defense of besieged Jerusalem was based during the revolt: Yohanan of Gush Ḥalav [John of Gischala], Simon bar Giora, the Idumeans, and the Zealots. There is no explicit evidence of a connection between the Sicarii and the Zealots. The two parties were united in their basic concepts of freedom for the Jews, and war against the emperors of Rome, but the social principles of the Sicarii were more extreme than those of the Zealots. The Sicarii were consistently loyal to the family of Galilean leaders while the Zealots, whose leaders came from Jerusalem priestly circles, did not develop particular dependence on one or another ruling dynasty, and did not attach messianic hopes to any of their leaders.

There can be no doubt that the Zealots had some part in stopping the sacrifices and prayers for the welfare of the emperor. This demonstrative act expressed, more than any other, rebellion against the emperor and the desire to be freed from the Roman yoke. Talmudic tradition attributes this revolutionary step to Zechariah ben Euqolos, who can be identified with the Zacharias, son of Amphicalleus, whom Josephus notes as one of the outstanding leaders of the Zealots. This episode is recorded by Rabbi Yoḥanan bar Nafḥa, one of the leaders of the amoraic sages in the mid-third century in Palestine, who reports a number of historical traditions: “The forbearance of Rabbi Zakhariah ben Euqolos destroyed our Temple, burned our Sanctuary, and exiled us from our land.” (B.T., Git. 56a).

Josephus mentions the Zealots for the first time after the victory of the Jews over Cestius Gallus, the Roman governor of Syria, on the Beth-Horon ascent. The context of this citation is the appointment of Joseph ben Gorion and Hanan ben Hanan [Ananus] as leaders of the people, entrusted with making preparations for the revolt. During this account, Josephus explains why Eleazar ben Simon, one of the leading Zealots, did not receive any office even though he had control of the Roman spoil. According to Josephus, this was because of Ananus's despotic nature, and the behavior of the Zealots under Eleazar's command. Despite the fact that Eleazar was denied any official function in the Jewish leadership, he retained and even increased his influence as time went on. He became the leader of the Zealots during the siege of Jerusalem, with Zakhariah ben Euqolos the other outstanding figure at his side.

The party of the Zealots had two main components: the junior priests and the refugees who had fled to Jerusalem from the countryside of Judea. These two elements joined together after the defeats the Jews had suffered in different parts of the country and the general disappointment that followed, as a move against the moderate upper-class leadership of the Jews in Jerusalem.

The priestly orientation of the Zealots meant that they were careful to maintain control of the running of the Temple after they took it over in 67–68 ce. This situation continued until the Temple was finally destroyed in 70 ce. The most important achievement of the Zealots was deposing the dynasties of the priestly oligarchy, and instituting the election of a high priest by lot. This was a revolutionary step, both politically and socially, and was intended to democratize the institution of the high priesthood. Josephus, who was himself a priest, was sensitive to what he saw as an attack on the honor of the high priesthood. Thus he finds fault with all the actions of the Zealots and despises the high priest Phineas (Phanni), who was a simple priest from the village of Habta (Aphthia) and was chosen in this new way. Josephus describes Pinhas as a man who not only did not come from the dynasty of the high priests, but knew nothing at all of the significance of the office of high priest (The Jewish War 4.151–157). In this way the Zealots expressed their aversion to the priestly establishment, and stressed their tendency toward a kind of democratic process of the sort that typified the structure of their party.

The rural element among the Zealots poured into Jerusalem from the areas of the country that had been taken over by the Romans. Upset by the Roman success, and angry at what was, in their eyes, the total ineffectiveness of the Jewish institutions, they determined to take over Jerusalem and reorganize the city to meet the expected Roman attack. One of the first steps taken by Eleazar ben Simon, who relied on the support of this rural element, was the arrest of a number of people connected to the Herodian royal family and their execution without trial. The first of these was Antipas, who was in charge of the city treasury. To justify these killings, the Zealots claimed that these people were to be considered traitors, because they had been involved in negotiations with the Romans about surrendering the city. The heads of the high priesthood of the time, Joshua (Jesus) ben Gamla and Ananus, convened meetings where they accused the people of apathy and incited them against the Zealots. It is in describing this episode that Josephus deals with the name of the Zealots: “[They] incited them [sic. the people] against the Zealots; for so these miscreants called themselves, as though they were zealous in the cause of virtue and not for vice in its basest and most extravagant form” (The Jewish War 4.160–161, trans. Thackeray).

The position of the Zealots in the power struggle for Jerusalem was poor at first, but a decisive turn in their favor came when the Idumeans arrived in the city and when John of Gischala joined their side. As a result, the Zealots became the virtual rulers of Jerusalem, at least for a time, and wiped out their opponents. Among those they killed were the two former high priests, Joshua ben Gamla and Ananus. Another of their victims was one of the important commanders from the beginning of the war, Niger of Perea.

When Simon bar Giora reached Jerusalem and took over the upper city, the situation changed. The power of the Zealots was reduced, and the city was divided into different areas of influence. Even though the Zealots were numerically fewer than the other parties, they managed to hold on to the topographical advantage they had obtained by their occupation of the Temple. Eleazar ben Simon continued to be their general. Under his leadership, they succeeded in barricading themselves within the walls of the Temple mount. However, soon after the Roman army under Titus began its operations against Jerusalem, John of Gischala changed the situation drastically. He took advantage of the Passover festival to introduce armed men into the Temple precincts on the pretext of coming to offer their Passover sacrifices. Thus he was able to overcome the Zealots (The Jewish War 5.98–105). In spite of this reversal, it is clear that the Zealots continued to preserve their separate identity even after this and stayed under the command of their own generals. They are mentioned by Josephus as a separate unit during later events (The Jewish War 5.250), and some of their fighters were outstanding in the battles against the Romans (The Jewish War 6.92, 148).

By the end of the revolt, Jerusalem was torn to pieces between the warring factions of revolutionaries, for even though they all wanted to fight the Romans, they were deeply divided among themselves for social, religious, and personal reasons. Here it must be noted, however, that a large number of people still belonged to the peace parties, including the school of Hillel among the Pharisees, who consistently supported a moderate position. At the very end, some degree of unity was achieved among the revolutionary factions, although by then it was too late. But even if Jerusalem had been united throughout the war, it would probably still have fallen in the end before the forces of Rome. The internal dissent merely hastened the final fall.

It is important to note the differences between the various groups involved in the war with Rome (66–74 ce) and to distinguish them carefully from one another. Josephus does not mention the existence of a Zealot group before the war, so it is virtually impossible to identify them with the community at Qumran. The most exhaustive attempts to link the Qumranites and the Zealots have been provided by G. R. Driver and R. H. Eisenman, but their ideas have received little support because they depend largely on the problematic interpretation of Pesher Habakkuk (1QpHab) as referring to events in the early stages of the war. Furthermore, although the Qumran community's members clearly recognized the rightful place of zeal (cf. Rule of the Community [1QS] ii.15, iv.4, 10, 17, ix.23, x.18), like other Jews before them (cf. 1 Mc. 2.49–64), the term does not seem to have been part of a self-designation as it was for the Zealot movement. While it is just possible that during the war some of the Qumran community or the wider movement of which it was a part found themselves fighting alongside fellow Jews against the Romans, either in Jerusalem or even on Masada, they were not Zealots as described by Josephus. Further, Masada was occupied by the Sicarii, not by the Zealots. [See also Sicarii.]


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Aharon Oppenheimer