Created: Friday, 26 July 2013 Last Updated: Monday, 31 March 2014


1. At the tense and dramatic moment of his arrest, Jesus says to Simon Peter: Put your sword into the scabbard (Jn 18,10). One can be surprised to see a disciple (furthermore, so significant) grasping the sword. At least some of them carried it. In his messianic option, Jesus renounces to the violence, but he does not condemn the right to legitimate defence. In order to understand it better, it is precise to locate the disciple of Jesus in his time.
2. In Jesus’ time, there was a religious and political resistance movement called Zealot (in Greek zelos, zeal). They were jealous, even fanatical, of the law, waiting for the kingdom of God in a near future. Among them, the Zealots themselves have a radical reform of the cult and the priesthood as a programme. And the hitmen (hired assassins) have a rather political programme, directed to the expulsion of the Romans and the establishment of the kingdom of Israel. All of them want to provoke the change by the force. The Jewish agitation finished in the war against the Romans and the capture of Jerusalem (year 70 a. D.). The first Christians did not make war; they sought refuge on the other side of the Jordan.
3. From Galilee, the district (in Hebrew, galil) of the gentiles, arose the revolutionary movements that caused so much trouble to the Romans. The Galileans "had fought always any hostile invasion" and were "from childhood used to war" (F. Josefo, Jewish War, 3, 41). The Romans "saw" Zealots everywhere. Thus the tribune of Jerusalem discovered that Paul is not the Egyptian who has incited to riot and taken to the desert 4,000 hitmen (Acts 21,38). On the other hand, the rabbi Gamaliel (5,34 foll.) thinks that the case of the disciples of Jesus can be different from the case of the Zealot chiefs, Teudas and Judas the Galilean, whose revolt was drowned in blood.
4. In our time, groups linked to the social and political fight against the existing institutions make Jesus a Zealot, a revolutionary, a guerrilla. And also conservative groups make him a defender of the established order. Nevertheless, one can not simplify the question so easily. Reality is more complex. The gospels contain characteristics that approach and characteristics that separate Jesus from the Zealots. Whoever wants to interpret seriously the gospels must explain the presence of some characteristics and others, considering "the possibility that, without falling in contradiction, the attitude of Jesus with respect to the institutions of this world had to be complex" (O. Cullman).
5. The features that bring Jesus close to the Zealots are these: his announcement of the kingdom of God (Mk to 1,15; see Acts 1,1-11); his rejection of social injustice (Lk 6,24); his critical stance towards Herod (Lk 13.32) and in front of the kings of the world, who dominate as absolute masters and are call themselves benefactors (Lk 22,25); some declarations on taking up the sword (Lk 22,36); the life and the activity of Jesus, whom people want to make king (Jn 6,15); among the twelve, there is one (Simon) called "the Zealot" (Lk 6,15  and Acts1,13;in Mk3, 19 and Mt 10,4 he is called "Cananean", from the Hebrew root qana, zeal); another one, Judas Iscariot, has a nickname that seems a deformation of sicariote; and there is Simon Peter, who carries a sword; his zeal for the temple, which is stained and needs to be purified (Jn 2,17); that the Romans condemned Jesus as an exalted Zealot, according to the writings on the Cross (Jn 19,19).
6. The features that separate Jesus from the Zealots are: his conception of the kingdom, that comes from God: the seed of the kingdom that grows by itself (Mk 4,28); its words on non-violence and the invitation not to offer resistance to one who is evil (Mt 5,39 foll.); the love to the enemies (5,44); the blessing granted to the pacific ones (5,9); the praise to the faith of the centurion (8,10); the admission into his circle of Matthew "the publican" and that he ate with representatives of the established order (9,9-13); the call to conversion to avoid perishing like the Galileans, whose blood Pilate mixed with one of his sacrifices (Lk 13,1-5); the evasiveness about the question of Caesar’s tax (Mk 12,13-17); the rejection of a political conception of his mission, as a great temptation (Mt 4,9); the entrance into Jerusalem on a donkey (Za 9,9), symbolizing his pacific mission; the consideration of Jesus like a fresh log in contrast to a dry one (Lk 23,2 foll.); the declaration that his kingdom does not belong to this world (Jn 18,36).
7. Zealots do not find in Jesus promises of triumph, but (in a veiled form) critical words: they give his followers to be killed by the Romans, as happened to the Galileans (Lk 13,3); they see the wolf coming and they fly; they are wage-earners who have no concern for their folks; they do not enter by the door, they climb by another way; they are thieves and bandits, they rob, they kill and they destroy (Jn 10,1-21; see Is 11,6;65,25;Acts 20,29). Jesus, the Galilean prophet (Mt 21,11), does not want to be confused with those who have come before him (Jn 10,8).
8. Certainly, the purification of the temple annoys the defenders of the established order, but is not a zealot act. In the same way as the prophets, Christ announces the destruction of the temple (Mk 13,2) and he is watchman of the sword that comes (Ez 33,1-6). But the adversaries deformed his words: Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up... But he spoke about the temple of his body (Jn 2,19-21; see Mk 14,58). On the other hand, Jesus respects the frame of the temple (Mt 5,23), as he respects the tradition (Mt 23,3). However, he discards the elements that prevent fulfilling the will of God: You have heard that it was said... but I say to you. In the same way, Jesus respects the mission of Israel (Mt 10,6), but does not identify the kingdom of Israel and the kingdom of God. Before the Samaritans and the pagans he maintains an open position: Many will come from east and west (8,11).
9. Jesus denounces the social injustice of the established order, one of the preoccupations of zealots: But woe to you who are rich! (Lk 6,24). He proclaims the poor people as blessed, because the kingdom of heaven is theirs (6,20). The parable of the rich and the poor Lazarus (Lk 16,19 foll.) denounces the great social differences; also, the parable of those who accumulate wealth (Lk 12,16-21). But Jesus does not impose himself by force, but calls to conversion. The social question would be solved by itself if everyone would be converted. So it is the case of Zaqueus, boss of publicans, who gives half of his goods to the poor people (Lk 19,2 foll.). The first Christians share their goods not in a compulsory way, but freely decided (Acts 4,36+; 5,4).
10. The high priests and the Pharisees decided to denounce Jesus: "If we leave him alone, all will believe in him and the Romans will come and take away both our land and our nation" (Jn 11,48). For them, the popular movement in favour of Jesus took disquieting dimensions. Pilate condemns Jesus as a political rebel, as a zealot. Nevertheless he frees Barsabá who certainly was (Mk 15.7). Jesus suffers the Roman capital punishment, the crucifixion, and the signboard of the Cross indicated the reason for the sentence: the attempt of this zealot to become king of Israel. Nevertheless, Jesus avoided the strategy of the multitude to proclaim him king (Jn 6,15). In spite of a certain affection for some aspects (Mt 11,12), he never adhered himself to the zealot movement.
11. Before the end, Jesus prepares his followers for what is coming: One, who does not have a sword, should sell his cloak and buy a sword (Lk 22,36). The disciples say to him: Here there are two swords, Jesus responds to this in a way to end the conversation: That is enough. At the moment of the arrest, a group with swords and sticks arrives (Mk 14,43). The disciples ask him: Shall we strike them with the sword? And behold, when one (Peter) takes it out and hurts one of the servants of the chief priest, cutting his ear, Jesus says to him: Put back your sword, for all who take the sword will perish by the sword (Mt 26,52;Ex 29,20). Jesus cures the wounded (Lk 22,51) and saves the disciple (Jn 18,8). He also says: Shall I not drink the cup that the Father gave me? (18,11), or do you think that I cannot call upon my Father and he will not provide me at this moment with more than twelve legions of angels? (Mt 26,52), day after day I sat teaching in the temple area, yet you did not arrest me (26,55), but this is your hour, the time for the power of darkness (Lk 22,53). Jesus is arrested at night. While he walked in public (Jn 11,54), during the day, he was protected by the people (Mk 12,12). But Judas, the betrayer, knew well the movements of Jesus (Jn 18,2).
* Dialogue: About the rejection of violence and the right of legitimate defence.