Colloquially, there’s a big difference between having zeal and being a zealot. The former is generally considered a good thing, but the latter is not. While a zealous person is considered diligent, uncompromising, and enthusiastic, a zealot is seen as a dangerous fanatic.
Technically, though, a zealot is just a person who is unbending in their devotion to their religious, political, or other ideals. And that can be a good thing, right? Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr were zealots for their causes, weren’t they? As were all the Christian saints and martyrs. As, indeed, was Jesus himself. But referring to Jesus as a zealot doesn’t go down all that well with church folk. Ask Iranian-American scholar Reza Aslan. His book about Jesus, simply titled Zealot, ruffled quite a few feathers when it came out in 2013.
That might have been because Aslan presents Jesus as being highly influenced by, indeed enamored of, the 1st-century Jewish sect known as the Zealots. They were a political movement that sought to incite the people of Judea to rebel against the occupying Roman Empire and expel it from the region by force of arms. Aslan claims that Jesus and his followers were largely aligned with the goals and strategies of the Zealots. Similarly, Anglican theologian S.G.F. Brandon, writing way back in 1967 in his book Jesus and the Zealots, saw the early church if not actually a zealot movement then at least one heavy with zealotry tendencies.
A lot of Christians can’t imagine Jesus, the one who taught his followers to turn the other cheek, being in league with a cohort of violent revolutionaries.
But, let’s be honest. Some of the things that Jesus and the apostles said could lend one to feel they might have had a certain inclination toward zealotry. After all, the early Christians believed that Jesus as going to create kingdom imminently, raising up a renewed Israel to overthrow “Babylon.” And wasn’t one of Jesus’ closest followers named Simon the Zealot?
But there other reasons. The way Brandon describes them, the Zealots were often of the lower priestly classes, or even laymen, who believed that those who worked with Roman authorities (Pharisees, Herodians, tax collectors etc) were in fact causing God to turn his back on Israel. They saw the only way of winning back God’s favor was to repent of such collaboration with the Romans and return to God wholeheartedly. They figured, if one simply had the faith to live in strict adherence to God’s way and did not compromise by, say, paying taxes to Roman authorities, God would step up and throw off the oppressors for Judah. There’s no doubt that some elements of Christ’s teaching mesh with the Zealots’ vision. He also criticized the Pharisees and Sadducees and, indeed, Herod himself. And he called on people to repent and embrace the radical values he presented in his Sermon on the Mount. So, you can see where Reza Aslan might have got the idea that Jesus was himself a Zealot.
But both Brandon and Aslan have to conveniently overlook a lot of Jesus’ teaching (or dismiss it as a later addition by the gospel writers, in Brandon’s case) to present Jesus as a sword-wielding revolutionary, albeit a failed one. Actually, in Aslan’s telling, Jesus’ botched uprising was a mere precursor to the more successful, but still failed attempt by the Zealots during the First Jewish-Roman War (66–70). This led Boston University’s Stephen Prothero to suggest that Aslan’s perspective as a Muslim may have influenced the way he casts Jesus more like a failed version of the Prophet Mohammad than the figure depicted in the Bible.
So, calling Jesus a Zealot is problematic, if what you mean by that term is the band of violent radicals who carried sicae, or small daggers, concealed in their cloaks so that at public gatherings they could knife Romans and Roman sympathizers alike, and then blend into the crowd to escape detection.
But if by the term ‘zealot’ you mean someone who is full of zeal, who calls and quips his disciples to a radical form of unyielding devotion to God, then, yeah, I think that does describe Jesus. In his teaching, Jesus set forth a clear blueprint for what a God-honoring life looked like. And he patterned it in his own conduct. At its core, Jesus’ version of zealotry was rooted in a God-centered faith and love. And he taught that these two qualities can be expressed in various ways, such as purity of heart, sincerity, humility, forgiveness, love toward enemies, mercy, charity in judgment, honesty in speech and action, sexual purity, renunciation of worldly aims, preferencing spiritual to material treasure, and compassion toward those in need.
A zealous life is one of generous and self-giving service to all humankind, and unbroken, unworried trust in the goodness of God.
Jesus was no violent insurgent. His teaching against the use of force is clear. And when a detachment of soldiers and religious officials come to arrest him, Jesus condemns Peter’s use of arms, telling him, “Put your sword away! Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me?” And with that he submits to the punishment of the state.
What kind of zealot is this? One that dies, rather than kills, for his enemies. One who stretches out his arms, rather than taking up arms.
Actually, that line comes from the Episcopal Prayer Cycle. In one of the prayers, the church is invited to say that Jesus “stretched out his arms upon the cross, and offered himself, in obedience to [God’s] will, a perfect sacrifice for the whole world.” I think the reference to him stretching out his arms is meant to convey that he willingly offered himself as a sacrifice, that he wasn’t constrained against his will. A zealot might be called upon to die for his or her cause, but their life is taken from them by their oppressors, not given. On the contrary, Jesus gives his life, it is not taken. He stretched out his own arms of love upon the cross, no one else made him do it, so that everyone might come within the reach of his saving embrace.
Yes, I think Jesus is a zealot, but not a violent insurrectionist. He is a zealot of grace, a radical purveyor of mercy and kindness, a man obsessed with teaching his followers to serve rather than be served, an uncompromising example of truth and life to the full.