Zealots, Fourth Philosophy and Sicarii
The so-called Fourth Philosophy (Josephus’s term) began with Judas of Galilee in A.D. 6. The Zealots are mentioned by Josephus in connection with their activities in A.D. 67–70. We will describe each of these movements below and then determine if they were related to each other in any way.
The Fourth Philosophy, by which Josephus meant the fourth Jewish sect (after the Essenes, Pharisees, and Sadducees), began with Judas the Galilean or Gaulanite. In A.D. 6 when Quirinius, proconsul of Syria, assessed Judea for taxation, Judas incited many Jews to rebel. He took a hard line in his devotion to Yahweh alone as Master and Lord. If Jews paid this tax, he maintained, it would be cowardice and apostasy from their commitment to God.
Judas is called a sophist (sage, teacher or scholar) by Josephus. Thus he was no poor man from the masses but a well-educated teacher of the Torah. He was aided by a man named Saddok, a Pharisee, and Josephus writes that this sect agrees with Pharisaism in other respects but adds to these teachings a passion for liberty and serving God alone as master. The adherents of the Fourth Philosophy thought nothing of submitting to death themselves or seeing their relatives and friends die in the service of their cause.
Judas’s armed uprising was apparently defeated and he was killed by Quirinius (Acts 5:37) but his Fourth Philosophy continued its influence. His sons, James and Simon, were executed later by the procurator, Alexander, for their seditious activities. Another relative (called a “son” by Josephus) of Judas, Menahem, was one of the leaders of the Jewish revolt in A.D. 66. Still another kinsman, Eleazar, led the sicarii that held Masada until A.D. 73 (74). Furthermore, Josephus says that Judas and his sect sowed the seeds of rebellion which led eventually to the disaster in A.D. 66–73 (74). Finally, the fact that Josephus called Judas’s movement a philosophy and sect indicates it lasted beyond Judas’s lifetime as an organized group.
The sicarii were especially troublesome. They were named because of the dagger (called sica in Latin) which they concealed under their garments in order to carry out assassinations. They later participated as regular soldiers in the Jewish war and remained bitter enemies of Rome to the very end. The resistance fighters on Masada were mainly sicarii.
The Zealots were first mentioned by name in connection with the Jewish war. We meet them initially in Josephus when the High Priest, Ananus, a moderate (i.e., neither pro-Roman nor fanatically in favor of war), hopes to delay in prosecuting the war and thus possibly turn the fanatical Zealots to a wiser course. The Zealots are always represented as bent on slaughter and killing, unyielding in their lust for war with Rome and feared by any of the Jews that might wish to surrender to Rome. Although we should not necessarily see a continuous Zealot movement and underground resistance in the first century A.D., surely they did not spring up suddenly as the war began. An organized group with a name for itself surely argues for a history prior to A.D. 67.
The three groups were probably not the same sect or movement. There may have been many such movements beginning and ending throughout first century Palestine, a place infested with varying degrees of fanaticism and violence. Jesus may not have had the actual Zealots in mind in any of his teachings or debates, but he almost certainly encountered those who resembled them.