Zealots zĕlˈəts [key], Jewish faction traced back to the revolt of the Maccabees (2d cent. b.c.). The name was first recorded by the Jewish historian Josephus as a designation for the Jewish resistance fighters of the war of a.d. 66–73. This term applied to them because of their fervent veneration of the Torah and detestation of non-Jews and Jews lacking in religious fervor. The Zealots were organized as a party during the reign (37 b.c.–4 b.c.) of Herod the Great, whose idolatrous practices they resisted. Later (c.a.d. 6), when Cyrenius, the Roman governor of Syria, attempted to take a census, the Zealots, under Judas of Galilee and the priest Zadok, arose in revolt against what they considered a plot to subjugate the Jews. Thereafter the Zealots expressed their opposition by sporadic revolts and by violence against Jews who conformed to Roman ways. The Zealots played a role in the unsuccessful revolt in which the Temple was destroyed (a.d. 70) by the Romans. The Zealot garrison at Masada, a mountaintop fortress near the Dead Sea, was captured by the Romans only after its 900 defenders had committed mass suicide (a.d. 73) rather than be captured.

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