The Zealots

The History of Israel

The Zealots were a political movement in 1st-century Second Temple Judaism that sought to incite the people of Judea Province to rebel against the Roman Empire; expel it from the Holy Land by force of arms; most notably during the First Jewish–Roman War (66 CE–70 CE). Zealotry was the term used by Josephus for a “fourth sect” or “fourth Jewish philosophy” during this period. 



The Zealots had the leading role in the First Jewish–Roman War (66–73 CE). The Zealots objected to Roman rule and violently sought to eradicate it by generally targeting Romans and Greeks. Another group, likely related, was the Sicarii, who raided Jewish habitations and killed Jews they considered apostate and collaborators, while also urging Jews to fight Romans and other Jews for the cause.

Josephus paints a very bleak picture of their activities as they instituted what he characterized as a murderous “reign of terror” prior to the Jewish Temple’s destruction. According to Josephus, the Zealots followed John of Gischala; who had fought the Romans in Galilee; escaped, came to Jerusalem, and then inspired the locals to a fanatical position that led to the Temple’s destruction. They succeeded in taking over Jerusalem and held it until 70 CE, when the son of Roman Emperor Vespasian; Titus, retook the city and destroyed Herod’s Temple during the destruction of Jerusalem.

The Zealots and the Sicarii

The Sicarii were a splinter group of the Jewish Zealots who; in the decades preceding Jerusalem’s destruction in 70 CE; strongly opposed the Roman occupation of Judea and attempted to expel them and their sympathizers from the area. The Sicarii carried sicae, or small daggers; concealed in their cloaks. At public gatherings, they pulled out these daggers to attack Romans and Roman sympathizers alike; blending into the crowd after the deed to escape detection.



Victims of the Sicarii are thought to have included Jonathan the High Priest, although it is possible that his murder was orchestrated by the Roman governor Antonius Felix. Some murders were met with severe retaliation by the Romans on the entire Hebrew population of the country. However, on some occasions, the Sicarii would release their intended victim if their terms were met. Much of what is known about the Sicarii comes from the Romano-Jewish by Josephus, who wrote that the Sicarii agreed to release the kidnapped secretary of Eleazar, governor of the Temple precincts, in exchange for the release of ten captured assassins.

At the beginning of the First Roman-Jewish War, the Sicarii, and (possibly) Zealot helpers (Josephus differentiated between the two but did not explain the main differences in depth); gained access to Jerusalem and committed a series of atrocities in an attempt to incite the population into war against Rome. In one account, given in the Talmud, they destroyed the city’s food supply, using starvation to force the people to fight against the Roman siege, instead of negotiating peace.



The Role of the Sicarii in the First Roman Jewish War 

Their leaders, including Menahem ben Yehuda and Eleazar ben Ya’ir; were notable figures in the war, and the group fought in many battles against the Romans as soldiers. Together with a small group of followers, Menahem made his way to the fortress of Masada, took over a Roman garrison and slaughtered all 700 soldiers there. They also took over another fortress called Antonia and overpowered the troops of Agrippa II. He also trained them to conduct various guerrilla operations on Roman convoys and legions stationed around Judea. Josephus also wrote that the Sicarii raided nearby Hebrew villages including Ein Gedi; where they massacred 700 women and children.

The Role of the Sicarii in the First Roman Jewish War 

The Zealots, Sicarii, and other prominent rebels finally joined forces to attack and temporarily take Jerusalem from Rome in 66 CE; where they took control of the Temple in Jerusalem; executing anyone who tried to oppose their power. The local populace resisted their control and launched a series of sieges and raids to remove the rebel factions. The rebels eventually silenced the uprising and Jerusalem stayed in their hands for the duration of the war.  The Romans finally came to take back the city, and they led counter-attacks and sieges to starve the rebels inside. The rebels held for some time, but the constant bickering and the lack of leadership led the groups to disintegrate. The leader of the Sicarii, Menahem, was killed by rival factions during an altercation. Soon, the Romans regained control and finally destroyed the whole city in 70 CE.

Eleazar and his followers returned to Masada and continued their rebellion against the Romans until 73 CE. The Romans eventually took the fortress and, according to Josephus, found that most of its defenders had committed suicide rather than surrender. In Josephus’ The Jewish War (vii), after the fall of the Temple in 70 CE, the Sicarii became the dominant revolutionary Hebrew faction; scattered abroad. Josephus particularly associates them with the mass suicide at Masada in 73 CE and to the subsequent refusal “to submit to the taxation census when Cyrenius was sent to Judea to make one” (Josephus) as part of their rebellion’s religious and political scheme.

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arik-about

Hi! My name is Arik Haglili, an Israeli native who decided to dedicate his life to share my knowledge about the Holy Land to those that are interested to know more about this amazing piece of land. My career as a private tour guide started at the International School For the Studying of the Holocaust and the rest is history. 

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