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Zealots, also known as “Sicarii” OConnor, M. John-Patrick


The Zealots were a Jewish sect of the first-century CE that appeared after the Roman occupation of Palestine. They are often characterized by their active resistance to Roman rule. Our primary resource for data concerning the Zealots comes from the Jewish historian, Josephus (War 2.4; 2.13; 2.22; 4.3; Ant. 14.9; 14.15; 16.9; 20.9), who offers a biased presentation of certain radical sectarian movements during the First Jewish Revolt (66-73 CE). For this reason, historical descriptions of the Zealots within Josephus are to be evaluated with caution. Josephus makes reference to a "fourth philosophy" that he speaks of with great disdain. In addition to the Pharisees, Sadducees, and Essenes, this philosophy is founded by Judas the Galilean or "of Gaulanitis" (see also Acts 5:37) and a certain Pharisee named Saddok. This philosophy attracted a great many people, some of whom were young and "zealous" (Ant. 18.1). Other characteristics that Josephus ascribes to Judas' movement include a close affiliation with the philosophy of the Pharisees, an interest in freedom, and a belief that only God should be their ruler. Elsewhere, early Christian literature refers to a disciple of Jesus with the titular Simon "the Zealot" (Luke 6:15; Acts 1:13); however, it is unclear if this terms refers to a religious group, a character trait of Simon (e.g., one who possesses zeal), or a geographical references (Matt 10:4; Mark 3:18). The Sicarii are traditionally understood as a more radical and violent subset of the Zealots led by the descendent of Judas, Eleazar (Josephus calls them a "another sort of robbers" in War 2.13); however, our sources are not always clear and some have advocated that the two groups be viewed as distinct from each other. The Greek term sikarios is a Latin loan word, meaning assassin, originating in Josephus (War 7.8-11; Ant. 20.9) with a lone reference in the book of Acts (21:38). It appears that the term derives from their weapon of choice, short daggers (see scimitar or sica). According to Josephus, the Sicarii assassinate Jonathan the High Priest and continue on from there to preform "many" other "daily" murders. The Sicarii are traditionally associated with Masada because of our account in Josephus: they are described as holding the fortress at Masada against the Romans (7.8.2), eventually committing mass suicide at the behest of Eleazar ben Yair; an event that some have described as Josephus' own literary invention. A wealth of archaeological discoveries have been made at Masada, which has lead some to corroborate Josephus' stories with material data (Yadin, Masada [1966]); however, such literal connections have been rightly questioned (see Jodi Magness, Masada: From Jewish Revolt to Modern Myth [2019]). One of the challenges in differentiating these groups is the range of terms used in our sources including "robbers" (Greek: lēstai), "sicarii" (Latin: sicarius), "Galileans" (see Acts 5:37; Epictetus, Diss. 4.7.6), the "Barjone" in rabbinic texts, and the Zealots. Especially outside of Josephus in later rabbinic writings (e.g., Maksh 1.6), these terms appear to take on different meanings. For example, the term Zealot itself has come under scrutiny because the etymology of the semitic term "zeal" (qn') possesses a range of meaning outside of Josephus, including one who is zealous for God. With that said, some scholars insist that distinctions are necessary and important, especially considering the more violent descriptions of the Sicarii. Richard Horsley has characterized the Zealots as a group of "non-violent, if active, resistance" in stark contrast to the Sicarii (Bandits, Prophets, and Messiahs, 199). In one passage, Josephus appears to make a clear distinction between the Sicarii and Zealots (esp. War 7.8). Nonetheless, our source material is limited in that Josephus is both inconsistent and also shows contempt for both groups.

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