Jesus and the Band of Rebels

This is just a very short follow up on my previous article, Jesus and the Band of Brothers. The book, that originally sparked my interest in Jesus as a historic figure, was a book by Danish journalist and author, Erik Nørgaard, called "Partisanen Jesus" (1975) or in English "Jesus, The Partisan" - not much difference there :-). The book was very interesting and portrays Jesus as a rebel against the Roman occupation more than a religious figure. But was that really the case? I will get back to the matter in future articles, but here I will just mention, that the way he was executed by cruxifiction was actually the way the Romas executed those who rebelled against the empire. But as a follow up to the articles about the disciples/apostles, are there anyone of those, that may havbe been rebels, and how would we know?

As I mentioned in my previous article, most obvious is the apostle Simon Zelotes (Simon the Zealot), who in the King James version of Mark and Matthew, is called Simon the Canaanite. Zelotes is Greek for one who is eager or zealous about something, while Canaanite is a Hebrew word with the same meaning. This could of course just mean, that he was zealous about following Jesus' teachings, but most scholars agree that it most likely indicates that he was a member of the Zealot movement. This was a religious and political movement that said about themselves that they were "zealous for God" or "zealous for the Law", and who therefore fought against the Roman occupation, and not just politically but more often than not with violent means. This movement was founded by a man called Judas of Gallilee (mentioned in Acts) in 6 AD as a reaction to the census that was ordered during the reign of Quirinius (in the New Testament known from Luke). The movement grew over the years, and in 66 AD it instigated the rebellion against the Romans, that lasted until 70 AD and resulted in the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem. The revolt in 66-70 was led by a man called Menahem ben Judah, who claimed to be a Messiah. Menahem may have been son of Judas of Gallilee or more likely his grandson. Menahems cousin, Eleazar ben Ya'ir was notably a Zealot. Eleazar led the Jewish group that between 73 and 74 AD was besieged by the Roman X Legion at the Masada fortress, and who in the end committed collective suicide. So if Simon was actually a member of this movement, he was definitely a rebel. Some may argue, that he could have been a Zealot until he met Jesus and began following him, but in that case there would be no reason for Mark and Matthew, who wrote in Greek, to try to hide his nickname by rendering it in a Hebrew disguise. So one up and more to follow.

"Apostle Peter strikes the High Priests' servant, Malchus, with a sword in Garden of Gethsemane" by Cavalier d'Arpino, 1597. Museumslandschaft Hessen Kassel.

All of the gospels know the name of Judas Iscariot, and John even mentions that his father was Simon Iscariot  (the same as Simon the Zealot). Some scholars belive that Iscariot is derived from "Κ-Qrîyôth" meaning "The Man from Kerioth", a town in south of Judea, which doesn't correspond very well with the same scholars claiming that Jesus disciples (apostles) were from Gallilee. Actually a lot of other scholars believe that Iscariot (Skaryota in Aramaic) is a corruption of the Latin word 'sicarius', which means "dagger man" or "knife man". The Sicariis were an ultraviolent faction within the Zealot movement, and most likely the above mentioned Menahem was a Sicarii and at least Eleazar definitely was. The Sicariis were assasins who killed Romans and their Jewish sympathizers whenever they could get away with it. At that time the Romans didn't allow Jewish men to carry any weapons, but razors were allowed, so the Sicariis used a razor*, then a short but very sharp blade, that they could hide in their wide sleeves. The Sicariis  committed there murders by participated in public gatherings and blending in with the crowd, they pulled out their razors and stabbed Romans and sympathizers, then quickly hid the knife again and disappeared into the crowd. It is uncertain of the Sicariis were always a part of the Zealot movement, or if the two factions joined forces at a later time, but at least at the time of the revolt in 66, they were considered part of the same rebel movement. So if Judas and maybe even his father were not only Zealots, but Sicariis, they were definitely rebels, and violent ones at that.

* Jewish law actually forbids men to shave their beard, or at least that's how the Mosaic Law is interpreted by some groups, but this rule originates from a 3rd century AD interpretation of Leviticus, that actually only mentions that priests should not shave and also the Book of Ezekiel mentions this, but even Ezekiel himself mentions that there are exceptions from this rule, and at the time of Jesus, the common fashion for men were to have short cut hair and clean shaven faces.

So let's turn to Simon, called Peter. His epithet is said to be Baryonah, which is normally interpreted as "Bar Joanam" ("Son af Jonah or John). Some scholars though, believe that the epithet should rather be interpreted as "baryonam" or "barjona" which is the Aramic word for "unrestrained", and thus meant that he might very well resort to violence. This indicates, according to these scholars, that also Simon Peter was a Zealot or maybe even a Sicarii. Later Talmud actually use the expression "barjonim" (the unrestrained) for the members of the Zealot movement. So maybe we have yet another rebel apostle, and if Simon Peter was a rebel, most likely his brother Andrew was as well. 

Then we have the brothers James and John, sons of Zebedee. Mark 3.1 has " them he gave the name Boanerges , which means “sons of thunder”. This "thunder" has absolutely nothing to do with the weather, but referred to their temper or behavior, and some versions of Mark actually translates it to "Sons of Anger". And according to Luke, the brothers could be a bit angry at times: "And he sent messengers on ahead, who went into a Samaritan village to get things ready for him; but the people there did not welcome him, because he was heading for Jerusalem. When the disciples James and John saw this, they asked, 'Lord, do you want us to call fire down from heaven to destroy them?'". (Luke 9.52-54)

So if more that half of the 12 apostles were members of or at least associated with violent rebel groups, why would Jesus recruit them, if all he wanted was to create peace and forgiveness?  There are actually a couple of more places in the gospels where Jesus let it slip, that he may not have been so peaceful after all. I will get back to these in future articles, but let me just mention a couple here without digging further into those.

“Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law" (Matt. 10.34-35)


"He said to them, “But now if you have a purse, take it, and also a bag; and if you don’t have a sword, sell your cloak and buy one." (Luke 22.36)

So these are just a few indications that Jesus may not have been so peaceful after all.

- Return to Jesus page -
- Return to English pages -