Writing about the Zealots, the rebels who, according to Jewish historian Josephus Flavius (who lived from about 37 to 100 C.E), fought to the death in Jerusalem against the Romans in the Great Revolt of 67–70 C.E., which ended with the destruction of the Second Temple, Jay P. Mayesh of New York City asks: “Zelotes is a Greek word used by Josephus that has made its way into English. Is there a Hebrew equivalent for it in the Talmud or Midrash?”
The ancient rabbis of Mishnaic and Talmudic times had several terms for the Zealots. The one Mr. Mayesh is looking for is kana’im (singular kana’i) — literally, “zealous ones”; the exact Hebrew equivalent of Zelotes, it was also the Zealots’ own term for themselves. This is made clear in Book IV of Josephus’s “The Jewish War,” written in Greek. There, Josephus, who despised the anti-Roman rebels, writes, “‘Zealots’ they called themselves, as if they were zealous for a good cause and not for all that was evil beyond belief.”
Since these Jewish religious nationalists never would have chosen a Greek name for themselves, kana’im clearly came first and Zelotes was the age’s Greek translation of it. Indeed, an amusing error in the Greek New Testament demonstrates this quite nicely. In the Gospels, one of Jesus’ 12 disciples is in several places referred to as Simon ho Zelotes, “Simon the Zealot”; yet in the third chapter of the Gospel of Mark, he is called Simon ho Kananaios — or, as the King James Version has it, “Simon the Canaanite.” On the face of it, this is absurd, since not only was Canaan no longer a term for Palestine in Jesus’ time, but all of Jesus’ other disciples were no less Palestinian Jews than Simon the Zealot. The epithet makes sense only if we assume that the original Greek text read Simon ho Kanaios, or “Simon the Kana’i,” and that a later Christian scribe who never had encountered the Hebrew word changed it to the more familiar though senseless Kananaios.
The word kana’im is heavy with biblical freight. It derives from the verb kinei, to be jealous or zealous, which occurs many times in the Bible in one of three basic meanings: 1) That of ordinary human jealousy in both its sexual and nonsexual forms; 2) That of God’s jealousy for His own exclusivity (as, for example, in the second of the Ten Commandments in the Book of Exodus, where we read: “Thou shalt not bow down to them [other gods] nor serve them, for I the Lord thy God am a jealous God [el kana]”), and 3) That of the jealousy of God’s followers on God’s behalf, as in the story in the Book of Numbers of the avenging Pinchas, who slew a dissolute Israelite and his Midianite consort because, as God puts it, “he was jealous [or zealous] for My sake [b’kan’o et kin’ati].”
Pinchas is often held up in rabbinic literature as a model of fierce religious devotion, a man ready to kill in order to maintain God’s authority. It is no wonder, therefore, that when, before and during the Great Revolt, Jewish militants took to arms in the hope of driving the Romans out of Palestine and restoring Jewish independence, they adopted a name that harked back to the story of Pinchas, and called themselves kana’im in an unmistakable allusion to him.
In translating the Hebrew verb kinei and its derivatives, the third- and second-century BCE Greek Septuagint — the world’s oldest Bible translation — regularly used the verb zelo, to be jealous or zealous, as well as such associated nouns as zelos, jealousy or zealotry, and zelotes, one who is jealous. (The God of the Second Commandment, for instance, is theos zelotes, a “jealous God.”) It was thus entirely natural for Greek-speaking Jews of Josephus’s age to translate kana’im as Zelotes, whence comes our English “Zealots.”
Nor is it surprising that the words “jealous” and “zealous,” which entered English via Latin, should have the same Greek root. Jealousy and zealotry are, after all, closely related emotions; to be zealous is, as we have said, to be jealous not for oneself, but for an idea or cause one believes in. In medieval English, in fact, little distinction was made between the two words, and as late as the 16th century, we find “jealous” being used where we would now say “zealous,” and vice versa. Thus, whereas the 1611 King James Bible tells us that Pinchas was “zealous for his God,” William Tyndale’s 1530 Bible says that he was “jealous for his God’s sake.”
This sometimes happens in the history of languages, in which, with the passage of time, variant spellings and pronunciations of the same word turn into two different words. Today, “zealous” and “jealous” mean different things, and while there are zealots, there are no jealots. In Hebrew, on the other hand, the word never split into two, and to this day, a kana’i can be a jealous husband just as well as a Zealot. He still cannot, however, be a Canaanite, the Hebrew word for which is k’na’ani, not kana’i.
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