The Zealots of Masada?

Troubles in defining a “Zealot”

Although the word “zealot” has been applied loosely to many fanatical rebels from Phineas, to Mattitiah the Maccabee, to Simon the “zealot” and to all of the insurgents of the First and Second Revolts, these are not to be confused with the political group known as the “Zealots” (note upper case “Z”), which defended the temple building in Jerusalem during the First Revolt. Josephus distinguishes at least five groups who were among the rebels (which he also called “robbers”):

1) The Sicarii (connected finally with the siege of Masada) commanded by Eleazar ben Yair.

2) The Zealots (protectors of the central Temple building), finally under the brothers Simon and Yehudah ben Yair.

3) John of Gischala and his followers (from Gush Halav, controlled mainly the outer Temple precinct and surrounding districts, and eventually the Temple building itself).

4) Simon bar Giora and followers (from Jerash; during 68, Simon and his followers were forced to take up refuge at Masada as guests of the Sicarii. They endeavored to control most of Judea and the remainder of Jerusalem.)

5) The Idumeans (a mercenary contingent that encamped outside the walls of Jerusalem).


6) The Jerusalem priestly aristocracy, not mentioned as such by Josephus, nevertheless controlled especially the country-wide extent of the Revolt. They minted their own coins and controlled the regional commanders of the Revolt at least until 68 CE.

Concerning Masada, the main paragraph in Josephus that identifies the group which controlled Masada:


War.7.8.1. (252) When Bassus was dead in Judea, Flavius Silva succeeded him as procurator there; who, when he saw that all the rest of the country was subdued in this war, and that there was but one only stronghold that was still in rebellion, he got all his army together that lay in different places, and made an expedition against it. This fortress was called Masada. (253)It was one Eleazar, a potent man, and the commander of these Sicarii, that had seized upon it. He was a descendant from that Judas who had persuaded abundance of the Jews, as we have formerly related, not to submit to the taxation when Cyrenius was sent into Judea to make one; (254) for then it was that the Sicarii got together against those that were willing to submit to the Romans, and treated them in all respects as if they had been their enemies, both by plundering them of what they had, by driving away their cattle, and by setting fire to their houses: (255) for they said that they differed not at all from foreigners, by betraying, in so cowardly a manner, that freedom which Jews thought worthy to be contended for to the utmost, and by owning that they preferred slavery under the Romans before such a contention. (256) Now this was in reality no better than a pretense and a cloak for the barbarity which was made use of by them, and to color over their own avarice, which they afterwards made evident by their own actions; (257) for those that were partners with them in their rebellion joined also with them in the war against the Romans, and went farther lengths with them in their impudent undertakings against them; (258) and when they were again convicted of dissembling in such their pretenses, they still more abused those that justly reproached them for their wickedness; (259) and indeed that was a time most fertile in all manner of wicked practices, insomuch that no kind of evil deeds were then left undone; nor could any one so much as devise any bad thing that was new, (260) so deeply were they all infected, and strove with one another in their single capacity, and in their communities, who should run the greatest lengths in impiety towards God, and in unjust actions towards towards their neighbors, the men of power oppressing the multitude and the multitude earnestly laboring to destroy the men of power. (261) The one part were desirous of tyrannizing over others; and the rest of offering violence to others, and of plundering such as were richer than themselves. (262) They were the Sicarii who first began these transgressions, and first became barbarous towards those allied to them, and left no words of reproach unsaid, and no works of perdition untried, in order to destroy those whom their contrivances affected. (263) Yet did John demonstrate by his actions that these Sicarii were more moderate than he was himself; for he not only slew such as gave him good counsel to do what was right, but treated them worst of all, as the most bitter enemies that he had among all the citizens: nay, he filled his entire country with ten thousand instances of wickedness, such as a man who was already hardened sufficiently in his impiety towards God would naturally do; (264) for the food was unlawful that was set upon this table, and he rejected those purifications that the law of his country had ordained; so that it was no longer a wonder if he, who was so mad in his impiety towards God, did not observe any rules of gentleness and common affection towards men. (265) Again, therefore, what mischief was there which Simon the son of Gioras did not do? Or what kind of abuses did he abstain from as to those very free men who had sent him up for a tyrant? (266) What friendship or kindred were there that did not make him more bold in his daily murders? For they looked upon the doing of mischief to strangers only as a work beneath their courage, but thought their barbarity towards their nearest relations would be a glorious demonstration thereof. (267) The Idumeans also strove with these men who should be guilty of the greatest madness! for they [all], vile wretches as they were, cut the throats of the high priests, that so no part of a religious regard to God might be preserved; they thence proceeded to destroy utterly the least remains of a political government, (268) and introduced the most complete scene of iniquity in all instances that were practicable; under which scene that sort of people that were called Zealots grew up, and who indeed corresponded to the name, (269) for they imitated every wicked work; nor, if their memory suggested any evil thing that had formerly been done, did they avoid zealously to pursue the same; (270) and although they gave themselves that name from their zeal for what was good, yet did it agree to them only by way of irony, on account of those they had unjustly treated by their wild and brutish disposition, or as thinking the greatest mischiefs to be the greatest good. (271) Accordingly, they all met with such ends as God deservedly brought upon them in way of punishment; (272) for all such miseries have been sent upon them as man’s nature is capable of undergoing, till the utmost period of their lives, and till death came upon them in various ways of torment: (273) yet might one say justly that they suffered less than they had done, because it was impossible they could be punished according to their deserving: (274) but to make a lamentation according to the deserts of those who fell under these men’s barbarity, this is not a proper place for it:—I therefore now return again to the remaining part of the present narration.

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