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The term Zealot, Greek in its origin, (Hebrew kanai, plural kanaim), means one who is jealous on behalf of God.

The Zealots were a Jewish political movement in the 1st century AD which sought to incite the people of Judea Province to rebel against the Roman Empire and expel it from the country by force of arms during the Great Jewish Revolt (AD 66 - 70). When the Romans introduced the imperial cult, the Jews had rebelled and been put down. The Zealots continued to oppose the Romans, on the grounds that Israel belonged only to a Jewish king descended from David.

Josephus' Jewish Antiquities book states that there were three main Jewish sects at this time, the Pharisees, the Sadducees, and the Essenes. The Zealots were a "fourth sect", founded by Judas of Galilee (also called Judas of Gamala) and Zadok the Pharisee in the year 6 against Quirinius' tax reform, shortly after the Roman state declared what had most recently been the territory of the tribe of Judah a Roman Province. They also declared that they "agree in all other things with the Pharisaic notions; but they have an inviolable attachment to liberty, and say that God is to be their only Ruler and Lord".

The Zealots had the leading role in the Jewish Revolt of 66. They succeeded in taking over Jerusalem, and kept control of it until 70, when the son of Roman emperor Vespasian, Titus Flavius, retook the city and destroyed Herod's Temple during the destruction of Jerusalem.

The Zealots objected to Roman rulership and sought to violently eradicate it. They raided Jewish habitations and killed Jews they considered collaborators, they also urged Jews to fight Romans and other Jews for their religio-political cause.

Their provocations led to a mass suicide of the last holdouts at Masada in 73 to avoid being captured and enslaved by the Roman army.