In Acts 5:17 the High Priest is “filled with jealousy” and arrested the apostles. Luke points out that these men were Sadducees and would immediately oppose the preaching of resurrection on doctrinal grounds. Since they do not believe in the resurrection, any teaching that said that the resurrection anticipated in the prophets was beginning would be considered wrong.

But there is more to this than a doctrinal difference – these are the men that killed Jesus in the first place. To claim that a man was executed as a false teacher and revolutionary (as Jesus was) has been raised form the dead by God is to declare that the men behind that execution are not only wrong, but “fighting against God.” Gamaliel will make this connection later in the passage.

Zeal Burns

Most English translations describe the High priest as “jealous,” a negative characteristic. But this word is often translated “zeal,” a positive characteristic. Paul uses the same word to describe his own advancement in Judaism prior to his encounter with the resurrected Jesus (Phil 3:4-6; Polhill, Acts, 165). Paul does not merely claim to be a Pharisee. He modifies this claim with the words “according to zeal, a persecutor of the church.” Paul as “zealous” to keep the law to the point that he was willing to persecute those that did not conform to the Law.

“Zeal” is one of those words that Christians have turned into a commitment for the Lord.  (Or, sadly, a diet Christian product!)  To be “zealous” means one is serving God wholeheartedly. This is certainly part of the meaning of the first century, but the High Priest to be “zealous” packs a bit more punch than that.

For a Jew in the Second Temple period to say he was “a zealous keeper of the Law,” the Jewish listener in the first century may have thought of Judas Maccabees, the forefather of the Pharisees himself, and his zealous defense of things Jewish in the Revolt against Antiochus IV Epiphanes.

1 Maccabees 2:24-29 When Mattathias saw it, he burned with zeal and his heart was stirred. He gave vent to righteous anger; he ran and killed him on the altar.  At the same time he killed the king’s officer who was forcing them to sacrifice, and he tore down the altar.  Thus he burned with zeal for the law, just as Phinehas did against Zimri son of Salu. Then Mattathias cried out in the town with a loud voice, saying: “Let every one who is zealous for the law and supports the covenant come out with me!”  Then he and his sons fled to the hills and left all that they had in the town. 29 At that time many who were seeking righteousness and justice went down to the wilderness to live there.

Zeal in the first century was, in the words of N. T. Wright, something that you did with a knife (What Saint Paul Really Said, 27). Along with Judas, Phineas (Num 25:1-18) and Elijah (1 Kings 19) were examples of Old Testament characters that burned with a zealous commitment to the Lord that expressed itself in a willingness to challenge the evil head on, killing those that practiced idolatry themselves if need be.

The High Priest in Acts 5:17 is not jealous that the Apostles are gaining followers; he is not envious of the Apostles. He believes that the preaching of the Apostles is a dangerous idea which could destabilize the core institutions of Judaism in the first century. While no one is talking about dispensing with the Law (yet), the High Priest strongly objects to the idea of a suffering Messiah who dies and is raised from the dead. He is therefore willing to physically punish those who are preaching the Resurrection.

How does this understanding of “zeal” anticipate what happens in Acts 6-7?  Does this help understand Rabbi Saul’s passion in Acts 9?