Lesson #300: Simon the Zealot

Simon appears in all four of the synoptic gospels (because he’s an apostle and even the ones you’re hard pressed to name offhand get a bunch of love in the gospels) and to distinguish him from Simon Peter is called “Simon the Zealot.” But that’s all fine and good in English. In English, that’s just something we all learned in church (or, if you’re me, a combination of the church I grew up in — which was not Roman Catholic — and the Catholic grammar school I attended).

Anyway, the Zealots* as a group have a very interesting history. And I love me some subversive histories. So what I find most interesting about this is that, according to Catholicism, Simon the Zealot is a saint, considered to be a man who was a strict follower of Jewish law. 

Originally, the Zealots were the leaders of a political movement bent on removing Roman rule from the Judaic territories by force in the first century CE. (See? My kind of history!) The Jewish revolt of 66 CE was lead by the Zealots. The ancient historian Josephus wrote a whole slew of things about the Zealots, whom he considered to be a distant fourth sect of Judaism at the time. 

Etymologically, the lineage is so far from useful. The word we use comes from the late Latin/Greek words zelotes, from c. 1300, which just means “one who is a zealous follower.” Even the etymological roots of the word zeal are both relatively new and of unknown origin. So basically, our usage of the word zealot to describe Simon is a modern addition, not something that was translated from the ancient texts into the Greek. It was some guy at a table going, “oi! There are two Simons…what do I do?!?” and someone else solving the problem by making up a word. Or something not-so-different.

I find it disappointing when my research ends poorly, but sometimes it can’t be helped. Facts are facts. And sometimes, they’re not very interesting. I started more-or-less wanting to know about Simon the Zealot (because sometimes random things like lesser known apostles pop into my head for no reason), but it turns out that once you threw in a revolution, I was far less interested in the person,** and more interested in the revolution and the etymology.

*Interestingly, religiously speaking, the Zealots were not backed by the Rabbinate; They were considered to be non-religious in the strict sense of the word and were condemned for their use of violence.

**As with Jesus himself, there is absolutely no definitive evidence outside of the gospels that Simon existed. There’s been some question as to whether the Simon of the synoptic gospels and the Simon of whom Josephus wrote in his history of the revolt, The Jewish War, are the same person.

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