July 28, 2008

"Zealots" from 29 to 61 AD

Yeah right I'm not gonna post everyday! (Sigh.) Seriously, I could not escape this fascinating set of observations by Chris Spinks on the greek word "Zealotes" in Luke-Acts. I had no idea that was the Greek, and it got me to thinking. My reply turned into a whole post, so here it is.


First of all, Chris, thanks for telling me the Jews in Pisidia and Thessalonica were not "jealous"! I guess the NASB guys figured rhyming words get bonus points for translation. ;)

I've been puzzling over Simon the Zealot for a while. First of all, there's no evidence of an organized "Zealot Party" until the 60's - until the revolution, really - but then again, we have Judas' two sons from Gamala getting crucified 14 years after Jesus. The best I can guess, Simon was personally interested in philosophies that were trickling downstream to Bethsaida, but he was one of the first/only ones. (Judas' sons were at least 25 years old when Simon began following Jesus but they obviously weren't being outspoken enough to get into trouble yet.)

Point 1: It looks like the "no lord but god" philosophy was being whispered about by a few as early as 29 AD, based on Luke's naming of Simon.

What puzzles me more is that James and Paul each use the word "zealot". (Again, thanks for pointing that out!) Notice, however, that Luke's portrayal of James' entreaty is dubious if not tacitly negative. In turn, Paul's claim to 'zealotry' is clearly, strictly and explicitly given in the past tense.

Point two: Whatever "zealot" means to Luke, it is something that Simon and Paul abandoned or at least moved beyond, and the fact that James vouches for it is not much commendation, coming from Luke.

It could be that Luke was going out of his way to show Paul was not a "zealot". That may be his basic purpose in these lines.

But - again - what puzzles me is that the word is actually "zealot". We know there was a dramatic increase in brigandage under Felix, including the rise of the Sicarii, but the sicarii were not necessarily "the Sicarii" yet just like the zealots were not actually "the Zealots" yet. Check out David M. Rhoads, Israel in Revolution: 6-74 CE, for a thorough examination of the evidence on the preliminary stages of these movements during the 50's and 60's.

I'm still inclined to take Rhoads' overall view, but Luke's language may suggest that the term 'zealot' was known to his audience as a political epithet for individuals and unorganized demographic subsets (at least). It may also tell us that by 57 AD that term was common as far as Jerusalem, and that by 61 AD it was known terminology as far away as Rome.

I do not, however, see any reason to believe Luke was painting Paul as a "zealot" in a deliberate or positive way. I think the whole purpose in including that term must have been another subtle tack to help exonerate Paul before Caesar. In other words, the word "zealot" must have come up in Rome and Luke had to work in a quick bit to show Paul was NOT associated with that budding phenomenon.

Of course if this is true then Luke really wasn't doing James any favors either, was he? Although I don't think for a second that James' words here mean the church in Jerusalem was taking any strong political stand against Rome. They might have been legalists and some of them may have been false believers who denied the resurrection - but this one word would be the only indication that they were considering political insurrection.

It was probably just Luke adding in a word to show Rome Paul wasn't attached to the growing revolutionary whispers. And since Rome didn't bother James until the Sanhedrin killed him, I'm guessing Luke's risk on James' behalf was calculatedly minor.

Hope that's not too speculative for you, Chris. Check out Rhoads and let me know what you think!

Same goes for anyone else! :)

UPDATE: Rhoads addresses just these topics on pages 86-7. Looks like I internalized without memorizing - so good for me! But Rhoads didn't try reconstructing from the NT's pov. And also, I'd never caught the word "zealot" in Acts 21. Dang NASB. ;) But footnote 89 could have cited the Acts verse. Ah, well.


Anonymous said...

according to Josephus' Jewish Antiquities, zealots existed around 6 CE. Just thought I'd let you know.

Bill Heroman said...

Kevin, thanks for the feedback, but that's not entirely accurate. What Josephus says in his Antiquities is that Judas of Gamala ("Judas the Galilean") was the founder of a philosophy which took root many years later. Judas himself accomplished very little in his own day and his public profile itself was an extreme flash in the pan. But he planted a seed...

It may help to understand that one of Josephus' goals was to explain the rebellion of Israel in the 60's AD. The passage I believe you're referring to is one of many instances in which he flashes back or forward significantly in time to cover a related topic.

Sorry if that's info overload. If you still think I'm missing something, please quote the passage you're looking at. If not, then thanks again for stopping by.

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