Roots of the Rebellion: Zealots and Sicarii

The activity of the Zealots and Sicarii further destabilized the political situation. The name Sicarii comes from a short sword that could be concealed under clothing.  The Sicarri would mingle into a crowd and assassinate their enemies. They were not really a religious sect, but rather a group of nationalist who advocated revolt against the Romans. They were “urban assassins,” primarily attacking the Jewish aristocracy who were pro-Roman.  Eventually they took to burning estates and taking hostages.  Jonathan the High Priest was their first victim. [Note that the word is used in Acts 21:38 to describe the activities of “The Egyptian,” the NIV translates the word as “terrorist” to avoid confusion with the later sicarri movement.]

Josephus, JW 2.13.3 (cf. Ant 20.8.10) (254) When the country was purged of these, there sprang up another sort of robbers in Jerusalem, which were called Sicarii, who slew men in the daytime, and in the midst of the city; (255) this they did chiefly at the festivals, when they mingled themselves among the multitude, and concealed daggers under their garments, with which they stabbed those that were their enemies; and when any fell down dead, the murderers became a part of those that had indignation against them; by which means they appeared persons of such reputation, that they could by no means be discovered.  (256) The first man who was slain by them was Jonathan the high priest, after whose death many were slain every day, while the fear men were in of being so served, was more afflicting than the calamity itself; (257) and while everybody expected death every hour, as men do in war, so men were obliged to look before them, and to take notice of their enemies at a great distance; nor, if their friends were coming to them, durst they trust them any longer; but, in the midst of their suspicions and guarding of themselves, they were slain.  Such was the celebrity of the plotters against them, and so cunning was their contrivance.

Their terrorist activities helped to bring on the revolution.  The random assassinations lead to a distrust among the aristocracy and a general fear from the ruling class, leading to a breakdown of social order.

Image result for SicariiThe Zealots were a radical group that believed the Maccabean revolt was the “golden age” of Israel and struggled to start a revolution against the Romans. There may be no New Testament examples, although Simon, one of Jesus’ disciples, was called the “Zealot.”  Luke 6:15, Acts 1:13.  It is unlikely that this term means that Simon was a member of this party, which was not formally a party until A.D. 67-68.

A possible New Testament reference is the disciple of Jesus, Simon the Zealot.  Is this disciple a political zealot, a revolutionary?  Most New Testament scholars think not, preferring to take the word “zealot” in this context as spiritual zeal. Personally, I wonder about the word “zeal” having a modern sense of “spirituality” in the context of A.D. 30 Galilee, where only twenty years beforehand Judas led a revolt against Rome which might be described as “zeal.”  Notice also, there are two men named Judas out of the twelve disciples.  Judas was a patriotic name going back to Judas Maccabees, the last successful Jewish rebel against foreign power.  It is possible these men were born during the activities of Judas the Galilean.

The Jewish Christians living in Jerusalem were therefore in a dangerous place. If they appeared to be too open to Paul’s Gentile churches they ran the risk of real persecution from these more radical elements, yet they clearly preached Jesus was the Messiah, that he was crucified and raised from the dead, and that he was coming back soon to render judgment (on the temple officials, the Romans, etc.) and re-establish Messianic Kingdom expected by the prophets.

6 thoughts on “Roots of the Rebellion: Zealots and Sicarii

  1. Great and important NT background material. And thanks for quoting Josephus. For a whole lot of stuff, he’s all we’ve got!

    I know you may not like my recommending this book because he makes Jesus out as not exactly a “Zealot” but certainly politically radical, but I found “Zealot” by Reza Aslan an easy and entertaining read, depressing though much of the content is. Of course, his main source for much of the book is Josephus also. (I’ve reviewed it some time ago on my blog, but forgotten a lot of what I liked and didn’t… Overall I thought he was pretty accurate besides a couple things that were not major points, but again, my memory fades.)

    Your point about the “dangerous place” for Jesus-followers in Jerusalem is important. Sad that we don’t have more info on just how they handled things either in the early years or 30 or so later in the run up to the war of 66-70, which was absolutely horrendous.

    The mere fact that Acts seems to confirm their presence and general acceptance and prominence at least up to Paul’s final visit (around 59 or 60 if I recall projections) seems to confirm something else Luke affirms but does not elaborate on: that they continued to see the Temple and apparently its sacrificial system as legitimate and in harmony with Jesus-following. (Not the new apart-from-the-Temple access to God suggested in the Gospels written later, especially in the purported miraculous rending of the Temple veil, the raising of earlier “saints”, etc. They sure seem to me to have NOT been the kind of “supercessionists” that Paul was. Then soon after the war, more and more of Jewish and Gentile Christians took that theological route and exercised care not to connect TOO closely to Judaism and Jewish nationalist aspirations.

    They knew the Romans would now keep a tighter rein…. and history shows that the Romans, if they did keep up this posture, had some justification (not for violence or suppression but for concern) because within another 60+ years (132 AD), The Bar Kochba revolt took place, after which the Romans had completely HAD it with the rebellions, banning Jews from Jerusalem entirely. (Sorry if I’m giving a spoiler for later posts :).

  2. I have never really considered the fact of how Christian Jews would have found themselves in a difficult situation. I usually think of the two extremes of the Jews and the Gentiles. The traditional Jews who were opposing the views of Christianity, and the radical Gentiles who were accepting Christ but struggling to find their place in society. Jewish Christians would have found themselves somewhere in the middle I assume. As you mentioned, ‘If they appeared to be too open to Paul’s Gentile churches they ran the risk of real persecution from these more radical elements.’ However, they also believed in Christ and the method of salvation. It surely would have been hard to live in such a difficult environment!

  3. It sounds as if the Jerusalem Christians may have been a nonconcern of the Sicarii, since they preached that God had sent a Messiah to save them from their spiritual depravity. However, to politically focused groups, including these Sicarii, it would not have been enough. They probably did not care as much for spiritual freedom than for political freedom. Since Jesus Christs did not establish freedom from the intrusive Romans, of course they would not be interested in Him. Additionally, they may have treated the Jerusalem Christians with contempt, because their so-called savior did not make lasting social change to their immediate context.

  4. When I was going through one of my testament classes last year (New Testament Literature, I believe) we were quizzed on something similar to this topic, and I remember the sicarii being one of the answers to a quiz question. I thought the name was cool so I researched further into them. I do love a good undercover assassin story(I realize that’s a concerning comment), and in biblical context that’s about as close as I could get. We actually read a good section on the sicarii in Tomasino, who talks about their involvement with the unsettlement between the Jews and the Romans. Though they don’t seem like they’d have a huge impact, they do cause a degree of disruption and seem to dislike the Romans as much as the next not-Roman-guy. As you pointed out, not all Jews were against the Romans because as Tomasino points out, some of them actually benefited from them, so it’s interesting to see how they attacked Roman supporters rather than the Romans themselves. Though, the Romans being the kings of torture they once were, perhaps that wouldn’t have been a good idea to go right to the source.

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