Statue of Simon the Zealot

In 63 BC the Roman general Pompey took Jerusalem. Roman occupation of the   Holy City had begun. A little more than 130 years later Jerusalem and its most   sacred building, the temple, lay in ruins. It is amazing the Jews and the Romans   were able to coexist for that long. The Romans were pagans occupying the   promised land. They brought with them strange gods and strange ways of thinking   and living. Rome did allow the Jews to practice their religion, but Roman   paganism and Caesar worship were constantly encroaching upon Jewish beliefs.   Herod once had a huge golden eagle, the symbol of Rome, placed atop the great   gate to the temple and the priesthood enacted a daily sacrifice for Caesar. The   Romans also placed an unbearable tax burden upon the Jews. All this combined   with Roman brutality made Jewish rebellion inevitable.

The New Testament   speaks little of the friction between Rome in the Jews. We do know that one of   Jesus’ disciples was a zealot. The zealots favored armed rebellion against Rome.   They believed that God would deliver Israel with the sword. Their reasoning went   back to the days of David. When there was a gentile problem, what did David do?   He got out his sword and dealt with it, and God was on his side. Surely, God   would raise up a new Son of David who would do the same.

It is interesting that one of Jesus’ disciples, Simon, was a zealot (Luke   6:15, Acts 1:13). Considering the fact that Jesus opposed violent rebellion   against Rome, many probably wondered why Jesus would choose such a fellow. The   irony increases when we add the fact that Matthew was a tax collector. Tax   collectors were very much in league with Rome. There were probably no two groups   of Jews in Palestine who hated each other more than the tax collectors and the   zealots. Yet, Jesus chose one of each. Most people probably would have been   afraid that these two fellows would kill each other. The Lord wasn’t. He knew   the kingdom of God was more powerful than the hatred of men. The very fact Jesus   chose two men so opposite in their worldviews was a demonstration of its power.

There was not a unified movement against Rome in first century Palestine.   Rebels rose up in many different forms, and at times they ended up fighting each   other.

We might have the idea that Jesus was the only one in that day that declared   he was the Messiah. On the contrary, there were a great many who thought they   were Israel’s deliverer. That number only grew after the death and resurrection   of Christ. Most people did not believe that the Messiah would be divine. They   believed their savior would be like the deliverers of old. It was thought that   the true Messiah would do at least three things. He would build the true temple   of God, he would deal with the gentile problem, and he would establish the   kingdom of God. However, most understood these things from an old covenant   perspective. They expected their savior/king to build a temple made of stone. He   would bring a violent end to the gentiles and other sinners occupying the   promised land, and he would establish a revitalized old covenant Israel.

The people had one test to determine who was a real or false Messiah. If they   ended up on a Roman cross, that settled the issue. Rome crucified Israel’s would   be messiahs as traitors. The cross meant failure. If you died there, it meant   you were a fake, and you were only getting what you deserved. This begs the   question of how Jesus could ever be called the Christ after dying at the hands   of the Romans. There can be only one explanation. The resurrection. In fact,   scholars believe that the fact that Jesus’ following grew so rapidly after the   cross is one of the greatest proofs that Jesus rose from the dead.

The book of Acts lists a number people who clamed messiahship. Gamaliel who   was a Pharisee spoke of “Theudas who claimed to be somebody, and about 400 men   rallied to him.” There was also “Judas the Galilean, …who led a band of people   in revolt ” (Acts 5:36-37). Acts also talks of an Egyptian who led four thousand   men into the wilderness to be murdered (Acts 21:38).                        Then there was   Simon:

“Now there was a certain man named Simon, who formerly was practicing magic   in the city, and astonishing the people of Samaria, claiming to be someone   great; and they all, from smallest to greatest, were giving attention to him,   saying ‘This man is what is called the Great Power of God. And they were giving   him attention because he had for a long time astonished them with his magic   arts” (Acts 8:9-11).

Non-biblical sources have quoted Simon as saying, “I am the Word of God, I am   the Comforter, I am Almighty, I am all there is of God.”

Later in the first century two of the most terrible false messiahs came on   the scene.

Menahem: In AD 66 Menahem was the son of a rebel named Judas   the Galilean. Judas believed the Jews should have no ruler but God, and of   course murder was the way to accomplish this. Menahem took his father’s   philosophy to new heights by raising a powerful band of cutthroats. He   overpowered his opponents who preferred peace with the Romans and made a   triumphant entry into Jerusalem dressed as a king. Menahem then took control of   the temple and had the high priest Ananias put to death. He committed all sorts   of abominations. Finally, when he was entering the temple dressed in royal   robes, an angry mob seized and killed him.

John of Gischala: Late in AD 67 John of Gishala rose to power. He was even   more brutal than Menahem. He had tens of thousands of people put to death.   Anyone who supported the Romans or desired peace was worthy of death in John’s   eyes. The priesthood supported peace with the Romans, so they became his   enemies. At one point he seized the temple with the help of the Idumeans and   killed the high priest. So fierce was the fighting that 8,500 died on the temple   grounds. John then appointed a high priest that was a mockery. John of Gischala   continued his murderous rampage until Jerusalem fell in 70 A.D. He was captured   by the Romans and lived the rest of his life in prison.

Jesus was the only one that fulfilled the Messianic expectations, only He did   it in a way many misunderstood. He did establish the true temple of God on the   earth. His temple was not build by hands but made by God with living stones.   That temple or dwelling place of God on the earth is His church. He did deal   with the gentiles and the sinners. However, he did in a way so unexpected that   Paul called it a mystery. He did not come to destroy folks like the Romans. He   came to forgive them. He came to make the Jew and the gentile into one new man.   And Jesus did bring the kingdom of God, only it was not an temporal kingdom one   could find on a map. It would dwell in the hearts of His people.

Rebellion against Rome took many forms. There were certain folks that were   known as bandits or robbers. These were not ordinary thieves. They were   insurrectionists who robbed from the wealthy who supported Rome. These folks   were often Robin Hood type figures who gained popularity with the people.   Another group of rebels were the Sicarii or dagger men. They carried short   curved knives that could easily be concealed. At opportune times the Sicarii   would assassinate Roman sympathizers.

Ever since Pompey entered Jerusalem in 63 BC, there were pockets of armed   resistance against Rome. However, rebellion reached a fever pitch in AD 60 to AD   70. In AD 60 the Jews ceased the daily sacrifice to Caesar in the temple. This   was the final offence that brought the wrath of Rome upon all of Israel.

Here is a summery of the conflicts that led to the   destruction of Jerusalem and the temple:

In AD 60 skirmishes between the Romans and the Jews began to break   out.

In AD 66 Cestius led Roman armies against Jerusalem. However, for   no apparent reason he broke off his attack and retreated. The Jews pursued and   killed many Romans thus humiliating the Roman army. This created confidence in   the rebels that God would lead them to victory over Rome.

In AD 67   Vespasian led armies in siege against Jerusalem. However, at Nero’s death   Vespasian withdrew his armies and returned to Rome to become emperor.

In  AD 70 Titus, the son of Vespasian, began the final siege of Jerusalem.   Josephus in his work called “The Wars of the Jews” gives a detailed account of   the destruction of Jerusalem. It was one of the most horrific sieges in history.   Titus surrounded the city during the Passover feast, thus the number of people   in the city was double the normal amount.

Various factions inside the city began to fight one another. In one skirmish   the combatants accidentally set fire to the city’s grain reserves. Normally,   Jerusalem had enough in reserve to endure a lengthy siege. However, the loss of   these reserves led to a devastating famine. Josephus records that bands of   cutthroats roamed the streets murdering entire families for even a morsel of   food. Many resorted to cannibalism.

In time Titus breached Jerusalem’s   defenses and surrounded the temple. A ferocious battle ensued. Titus ordered his   soldiers not to harm the temple itself. It is not clear who set fire to the   temple structures. Some say it was overzealous Roman soldiers. Others say it was   the Jews themselves in a final act of defiance. After the fire had run its   course, the Romans tore the stone structures of the temple apart in order to   recover the vast quantities of gold that the fire melted. They left not one   stone on top of another. Some believe this was a fulfillment of Jesus’ words in   Matthew 24.

We often hear Jesus words quoted, “… for all who take the   sword will perish by the sword (Matt. 26:52).” Some say He was condemning all   military action throughout time. If this was the case, Jesus words simply were   not true. Everyone who has taken the sword in conflict has not died violently. I   believe Jesus’ words were most likely a warning to His own people. He was saying   if you try to bring the kingdom of God by violence, you will all die. He was   right. Those who rebelled against Rome died often in a very cruel   manner.

The instrument that would overcome Rome was not the sword but   the cross. It was not an act of violence but an act of love. It was not   vengeance but forgiveness that eventually conquered the Roman empire.

Sources used in this series on first century history:

Holman Bible Dictionary. Holman Bible Publishers, 1991.

Horsley, Richard. Bandits Prophets, and Messiahs. Harrisburg:   Trinity Press International, 1999.

The Message and the   Kingdom. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002.

Maier, Paul. Josephus The Essential Works. Grand Rapids: Kregel   Publications, 1988.

Martin, Ernest. The Temples that Jerusalem Forgot. Portland: ASK   Publications.

Stegemann, Ekkehard and Wolfgang Stegemann. The Jesus Movement.   Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1999.

The Archaeological Study Bible. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2005.

The Christians Their First Two Thousand Years, Vol. 1. Canada:   Christian Millennial History Project, Inc., 2002.

Wright, N.T. Jesus and the Victory of God. Minneapolis: Fortress   Press, 1996.            ____. The New Testament and the People of God.   Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1992.


Essenes, Zealots, and Trouble with Rome

In a recent post, we discussed how Judaism has never had a uniform view of the law or its interpretation. Different groups interpret the Torah differently. It is true today, with the Orthodox, Conservative, Reform, and Reconstructionist branches of Judaism. It was true during Jesus’ time, too.

During first century, Judaism saw four main schools develop. The Sadducees, we saw, were the priestly class who made the Temple the center of their Judaism. They did not subscribe to an Oral Torah. This was different from the Pharisees, who made the synagogue and home their spiritual center; they believed in a divinely given Oral Torah (the Mishnah), in addition to the Written Torah. We also saw how the Pharisees and their rabbinic Judaism became the ancestor of all the branches modern day Judaism. In this post, we now spend some time on two offshoots of the Pharisaic school: the Essenes and the Zealots.

The Essenes were Pharisees who emphasized a communal life and ritual purity, including full-body immersion for spiritual cleansing. Perhaps the best-known Essene is John the Baptist. See 7 Jewish Encyclopedia 218-19.

The Zealots were yet another offshoot of the Pharisees. The Zealots believed that they could hasten the beginning of the Messianic era (which included an end to foreign domination of Judea) by starting a rebellion against Rome. Josephus, the ancient Jewish historian, wrote of the Zealots. See Wars of the Jews, 4:3:9 and 7:8:1. The Zealots, in essence, were Pharisees with swords.

In trying to explain what happened to Jesus from a historical perspective, it is important to understand why he may have incurred the wrath of Pontius Pilate—the one who ultimately decided that Jesus should die.

Pilate’s job was to keep the public order. He did this be executing insurrectionists, who were a threat to the public order. I have no doubt that Pilate believed that Jesus was one of these insurrectionists. There are three reasons for this.

First, Jesus associated with insurrectionists. There was Simon, one of his disciples, and referred to as, “the Zealot.” See Luke 6:15. Another disciple was Judas Iscariot. Some scholars believe that the name, “Iscariot,” was not a surname per se, but a descriptive title, derived from the Greek word, Sicarii (“Assassins”). The Sicarii was yet another offshoot of the Zealots, who also advocated armed rebellion against Rome. There is the saying, people know us by the company we keep. That Jesus associated with known insurrectionists put him in danger.

Second, Jesus’ end was by crucifixion. Rome reserved this ghastly death for those who created a threat to the public order. Insurrectionists, of course, came under this category. Blasphemy (a capital crime in the Torah, and the subject of future post) was not such a Roman offense. Indeed, the Romans did not care at all about the internal religious squabbles among their subjects.

Third, the sign on Jesus’ cross, “King of the Jews,” states his crime and makes clear that Pilate perceived Jesus to be a revolutionary. Recall from an early post that the Messiah would be the one chosen by God to lead the Jews and the world into a golden age. Jews of Jesus’ time believed the Messiah would be not just a teacher, but a great warrior, too.

Whether or not Jesus was a Zealot is not material. Pilate believed he was—and that sealed his fate.


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