Easter without Hindsight: Zealots; What’s the difference between a terrorist and a freedom fighter?
On several occasions Jeshua warned that disaster would fall on Judea if things didn’t change. The political context is much less clear looking back from the 21st Century and that in turn often affects how we now read Jeshua’s words. In Luke (13:31ff) he declared he would die to protect Jerusalem, as a hen might save her chicks in a barn fire, but laments that the people of the city won’t change. Even more specifically he warned (Luke 21:20ff) of a Jerusalem surrounded by foreign armies. Jeshua was not the only person warning that Roman patience had limits.
Many in Judea opposed Roman rule. They were offended by Hellenic and Roman cultural influences and by what they saw as collaboration, especially by the Sadducee aristocracy, with a foreign tyranny. They also despised foreign military occupation of the ‘Holy Land’ that they believed God had given to them. A minority not only thought that the Romans should go home but were determined to take up arms to make it happen.
The gospels mention a man called Barabbas, captured by the Romans, who was to be crucified as a murderer. That he was to be crucified suggests a political element to his crimes. Today there is little hard evidence about Barabbas but much conjecture. Two other brigands mentioned in the gospels, who were eventually crucified with Jeshua, are unnamed. There definitely were, however, bands of violent opponents of Roman rule throughout Jeshua’s life and afterwards. These gospel characters may reflect two sorts of revolutionary zealots.
Perhaps Barabbas was a zealot guerrilla leader? That might explain why he was well-enough known for the crowds to call for his release if, as the gospels suggest, the Romans did release a prisoner as a good-will gesture at Passover. He might have been a siccari, one of the dagger-wielding (siccari derives from a word for dagger) assassins who, without warning, killed Jews who they deemed were collaborators with the Romans.
The other two may have been on the run. They might have been criminals or had just hit hard times. It was a world where debtors who couldn’t pay were imprisoned. Homes and possessions were sold to repay debt and one’s wife and children (and even oneself) could be sold into slavery too. Faced with slavery as an alternative, many found themselves with the zealots fighting Roman oppression. As these two clearly discovered, that could end badly.
Jeshua repeatedly taught (for example when he overturned the money-changers tables) that the Jewish people, and Jerusalem’s Temple, were part of God’s mission to draw foreigners back to God and restore the broken creation. God was not just about providing his favourites with a bit of land. By abandoning their part in God’s mission the Judeans were now part of God’s problem, along with the Romans. The Judeans were in danger of God allowing them to suffer the inevitable consequences of repeatedly attacking Rome.
In AD70, after a major uprising, Titus, the son of Emperor Vespasian, invaded Judea with regular Roman legions, surrounded Jerusalem with armies, destroyed the Temple and laid waste to the country. Jeshua’s prophecies were vindicated.